It’s a Google World

Interesting excerpt and perspective from recent posting on

Google raises our expectations about things both deep and shallow. Unhappiness and anxiety dwell in that space between reality and expectations. When our expectations about significant things – justice, peace, health, and knowledge – exceed reality by significant margins, the difference can motivate us to achieve marvelous things both collectively and individually. But when that tension is constant and loud about things trivial – the speed of delivery, access to services, and acquisition of the latest and coolest goods — we indulge in decisions and actions that merely satiate us rather than enrich us.

The comedian Louis CK tells a story that illustrates the constant ratcheting-up of expectations for newness, “nowness,” speed, and convenience. He was traveling on an airplane in early 2009, CK told television host Conan O’Brien, when the flight attendant announced that his flight offered a new feature that airlines had been working to install for some years now: wireless access to the Internet while in flight. “It’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips,” CK said. “It’s amazing. I’m on an airplane! Then it breaks down and they apologize that the Internet is not working. The guy next to me goes ‘pphhhhhh. This is bull*”.  Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.” CK’s point is that when we become immune to the amazing achievements that have flowered around us in recent years, we forget to be thrilled and amazed. We miss the wonder. We take brilliance for granted.

The dynamic of consumer expectations has been running on such high speeds for 20 years now that we become needlessly frustrated with devices and services (creaky computer processors, slow Internet service, delayed intercontinental flights) that did not even exist a few years ago. The cult of innovation enables this constant, insatiable hunger. The pressure on firms to expand markets and swell revenue beyond reasonable expectations fuels it. So does a widespread lack of historical perspective on technological change. But more than anything, the “black box” of technological design creates this problem. While consumers and citizens are invited to be dazzled by the interface, the results, and the convenience of a technology, they are rarely invited in to view what’s “under the hood” or “in the box.” Because the box is black and sealed, it’s difficult to appreciate the craft, skill, risk, and brilliance of something as common as an Ipod or a “continuously variable transmission” in an automobile .

Google is just as guilty of hyping expectations as any mobile phone, personal computer, or airplane manufacturer is. As Google Vice President Marissa Mayer explained during her 2008 keynote speech to software developers, one of the most significant things that Google discovered in its early user studies was that speed mattered more than anything to generate a “positive user experience.” Mayer told the developers that this fact has driven Google to push for faster broadband service, faster-running Web applications, and an expensive, complicated, and powerful infrastructure to conduct Google’s core activity: copying and searching the World Wide Web. “Users really care about speed,” Mayer told developers. “They respond to speed. As the web gets faster, as Google gets faster, people search more.”

More searching yields more advertising links displayed, more advertising links clicked, and more revenue for Google’s advertising clients and for Google itself. Users clearly reward the speed and the quality of search results. Under the hood, however, Google runs an astounding set of machines and brilliant code. In that speech, Mayer explained that every time someone types a simple query into the empty search box on the blank Google home page, that query fires up between 700 and 1000 separate computers among several huge data centers scattered around the United States. These computers somehow generate 5 million search results by scanning indexes and previous search queries in a mere .16 seconds, Mayer said.

Google users never get to see this amazing process. Hipping users to the power of Google is not a priority of the company. In fact, it runs against Google’s ideology. “It’s very, very complicated technology, but behind a very simple interface,” Mayer said. “We think that that’s the best way to do things. Our users don’t need to understand how complicated the technology and the development work that happens behind this is. What they do need to understand is that they can just go to a box, type what they want, and get answers.”

But if Google users did understand or appreciate the enormity and complexity of Google’s operation, they might be so impressed with it all that their expectations for results would be tempered and mellowed. This would not benefit Google right now, as it has bet the future of the company on being bigger, faster, better, and more embedded in the constant collective consciousness of human beings than any commercial firm in history

Posted by Siva Vaidhyanathan