April 21, 2012

Google and Others: Evil, Weird, or Something Else?

An interesting article appeared today in The New York Times, titled Donít Be Evil, but Donít Miss the Train.

While I don't agree with everything in that piece, it does take an unusually nuanced view of complex situations involving Web giants like Google and others, topics that all too often are reduced to simplistic (and inaccurate) platitudes in the media.

I would assert that there's an important, implicit lesson that comes from the article's discussion as well: Communication is Critical.

For example, the article notes the (once again in the news) story of Google's collection of unencrypted Wi-Fi "payload" data from their Street View vehicles, which has triggered complaints both in the U.S. and other countries. The article says about this:

"Evil? Hard to know. But certainly weird..."

This is a particularly interesting assessment. Why is it "hard to know?"

I've long been on the record as believing that way too much has been made of Google's Wi-Fi lapse, which I do believe was entirely accidental.

But we're wrong to assume that everyone will automatically make the same assumption or even believe it.

After all, what percentage of politicians, or Internet users in general, have done packet level debugging, or know what "tcpdump -w" does -- or have even heard of "tcpdump" for that matter? And what proportion of typical Internet users have experienced how easy it can be to accidentally leave debugging code enabled in deployed and distributed software?

In the absence of relevant communications and information, it's an unfortunate aspect of human nature to assume the worse, to start believing the conspiracy theories, and in fact to play into the hands of those forces who purposely spread misinformation about their competitors or other "designated enemies."

When users can't get substantive answers to their questions or meaningful responses and explanations for their problems, they're not going to be concerned with issues of scale, they're only going to know that they feel like they're being ignored. And especially for folks with relatively serious issues, this is a recipe for damaging rumors and bad relations all around, especially when such cases, even when based on misinformation or misunderstandings, go viral and break through into mainstream media. Problems that could have been easily solved early on can quickly evolve from annoyances to public relations nightmares, and worse.

It's all too easy for we technologists to assume, even if only subconsciously, that "most people" will be of a similar mind as ours, and will react in much the same way that we and our colleagues would be expected to behave in any given situation.

Much or even most of the time, this assumption is simply not in conformance with reality.

None of this is usually a question of good or evil per se -- like the rest of the world, technology doesn't actually work that way.

But it is very definitely true that communications with users is key, and in the long run will usually be worth whatever it costs to provide, both in terms of people and funding, for Web services of every size, from the very smallest right on up.

In this way, we all stand a good chance of avoiding having our well-meaning actions (and our innocent mistakes) being misinterpreted as confusing, or arrogant, or weird, or worst of all of course -- as evil.


Posted by Lauren at April 21, 2012 07:50 PM | Permalink
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