November 13, 2005

Whither Goes Google?


Google currently represents virtually a textbook example of the complex interplay between innovative, socially positive inventions and developments on one hand, vs. oppressively dangerous technological arrogance on the other. Or as the fictional David St. Hubbins of the film This is Spinal Tap put it more simply around twenty years ago: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."

We can look to history for other examples, though the analogies will of course never be perfect. Microsoft is one recent case where an attitude that many considered to be arrogant appears to have been somewhat tempered by financial, legal, and political realities. Microsoft will survive.

Not so AT&T's "Mother Knows Best" Ma Bell. While the name AT&T will live on as the new moniker of another generally arrogant firm -- SBC Communications -- AT&T for most practical purposes has imploded.

History teaches us much. The controversies over Google Print for Libraries share some aspects with ill-fated attempts to essentially abolish copyrights after the French Revolution -- for the presumed betterment of society.

Attributes such as technological brilliance and visionary thinking can be used not only to describe many at Google, but also the phalanx of individuals who created the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. Like those at Google, the minds behind the first nuclear weapons were convinced that they were working for the good of mankind, and -- I believe it's fair to say -- were in many cases blinded by sheer technological enthusiasm to the more ominous aspects of their creations. While Google isn't building physical weapons of mass destruction, a very real mix of extremely potent positive and negative impacts on society, and a range of complex risks that need to be fully understood, are increasingly coming into focus relating to Google's operations.

Such powerful forces can sometimes be managed successfully to truly exclude evil, but only when those in charge recognize that their own intellects and even good will are insufficient to prevent the "great machines" from being used in ways that can seriously damage individuals and society. It's all too easy not only to be blinded by science, but also to create mechanisms that can be horrendously abused by entities who don't necessarily share the benevolent philosophies of their creators.

There are things that Google could do immediately to potentially ameliorate this situation, but only if their powers-that-be recognize that there are intelligent folks outside of the current Google circle who understand these issues in ways that could avoid a lot of problems for Google -- and for the rest of us.

One relatively simple step would be for Google to create a permanent advisory panel or committee of respected outside individuals well versed on policy and risk issues associated with technology and its impacts on and interactions with society. Such a committee would likely make both public and private reports (the latter protecting proprietary information and plans as appropriate). If such a committee had appropriate access within Google, and if Google were genuinely willing to pay serious attention to the ongoing recommendations of such a group, it is likely not only that future risks to society, but also future risks to Google's own business, could be greatly reduced, and Google's own prospects enhanced as a result.

I can squeeze in one more movie reference. In the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956), we learn of a world where a magnificent and supremely benevolent race of advanced beings built a gigantic, fantastic machine to provide for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual advancement of their society. But the Krell, these marvelous creatures, were so enmeshed in the project, and so close to the problems that they were trying to solve, that they failed to fully understand the implications of their creation's power. When they activated their great machine, its interactions with the long-suppressed dark side of their minds resulted in their entire civilization being destroyed in a single night -- by their own "monsters from the Id" -- empowered by the machine itself despite its noble purpose.

Good intentions don't always equal good results, and forewarned is forearmed. Let's do better than the Krell.


Posted by Lauren at November 13, 2005 12:25 PM | Permalink
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