Life After Google: The Great Social Experiment

Google is fascinating. And not because of an algorithm, or technology, or it’s balance sheet.

Google is fascinating at a human level. It is perhaps the greatest corporate-based social experiment conducted so far this century.

If we are talking about the Silicon Valley ethos, Google is the iconic example. There were other companies that started down the road of turning their corporate culture into a secular religion before Google, but it was this company that crystallized it. It is the company caricaturized in pop culture, whether it be the thinly disguised Hooli of the series Silicon Valley, a dystopian The Circle in the forgettable movie of the same name, or even straight up Google besieged by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in The Internship.

By now, Facebook has arguably picked up the mantle of the iconic Silicon Valley culture but that’s also what makes Google interesting. Google – and it’s carefully crafted hyper-drive working culture – has now been around for two decades. Many have passed through the crucible of all that is Google and have emerged on the other side.  Today I offer three interesting examples of Life after Google – with three people who are making their social statements in three very different ways. Let’s call them the Evangelist, the Novelist and the Algorithmist.

The Evangelist – Tristan Harris

Harris_Tristan_AIF2018_0I’ve talked about Tristan before in this column. He is the driving force behind Time Well Spent and The Center for Humane Technology. Harris has been called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” by The Atlantic Magazine. He was sucked into the Google vortex when Google acquired his company – Apture – in 2011. Harris then spent some time as Google’s Design Ethicist before leaving Google in 2016 to work full-time on “reforming the attention economy.”

Tristan shares my fear that technology may be playing nasty tricks with our minds below the waterline of consciousness. He focuses on the nexus of that influence, the handful of companies that steer our thoughts without us even being aware of it. In Tristan’s crusade, the prime suspect is Facebook but Google also shares the blame. And the crime is the theft of our attention. This asset, which we believe is in our control, is actually being consciously diverted into areas by someone other than ourselves. Design engineers are all too aware of our psychological hot buttons and push them mercilessly because, in this new economy, attention equals profitability. For that reason, Harris’s message would risk being disingenuous coming from the Googleplex. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to believe that Google or Facebook would lead the “Time Well Spent” charge when doing so would directly impact their bottom line.

The Novelist – Jessica Powell

JessicaPowell_057_hires.0Jessica Powell was the head of communications at Google. And while she says her new novel – “The Big Disruption” –  is not a Google tell-all, the subject matter is definitely targeted right at her former employer. The name of the company in the novel has been changed to Anahata, but anyone who has ever visited the Google campus would recognize her descriptions instantly. The Big Disruption is satire and as such it’s been exaggerated for effect.  But hidden amongst the wild caricatures are spot-on revelations about Silicon Valley. The Novel – available at Medium.com – is billed as a “totally fictional but essentially true Silicon Valley Story.  And a review in the New York Times states, “while the events in her satire are purposefully and hilariously over the top, her diagnosis of Silicon Valley’s cultural stagnancy is so spot on that it’s barely contestable.”

The Algorithmist – Max Hawkins

maxhawkinsSo, if we’re talking about surrendering control of our lives to technology, we have to talk about Max Hawkins. His life is determined by an algorithm. Actually, his life is determined by a few algorithms.

Hawkins was profiled in the NPR podcast Invisibilia. He left his job as a Google software engineer three years ago. Max has created a number of programs that randomly direct his life. For example, he created a program that scraped Facebook’s events API and sent him to them at random. Suggestions about where and what he eats are also randomly generated by an algorithm. Even his new tattoo was determined by an algorithm that scraped Google Images for line art suggestions. Accordingly to an interview on Medium, his latest project involves a machine that scans books for verb-object pairs – such as “hire a babysitter” or even “kill a deer”  – randomly presenting them to him to act on.

The interesting thing about Hawkins’ experiment is the authority he gives to his algorithms. He feels comfortable doing this because of the randomness of the process. He speculates what this might mean for the world at large, “It’d be interesting to imagine what would happen if all power was distributed randomly. A randomized socialism where the computer decides that you’re rich for a couple of months and you get to see what it’s like to wield power and after that you’re poor for a while. There’s a certain fairness to that.”

For these three – life at Google must have shaped what came after.

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