A response to Google Really Wants to Take You There
If you ask anyone working in tech what technology’s role is in 2018, chances are they’ll tell you it’s something along the lines of “to make the world a better place.” The phrase has basically become the tech industry’s unofficial slogan, famous to the point that it was even parodied on an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, in which Gavin Belson un-ironically proclaims, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place better than I am!” Though it’s hardly a modest goal, it’s certainly not a bad one. Indeed, if every product produced in the valley was actually born out of an honest round table discussion on how to make the world a better place, it might be easier to overlook the arrogance, sexism, and tone deafness that goes into producing those products. Unfortunately though, this is not our reality.
When computers first started to make an appearance in our lives, software wasn’t nearly as capable as it is today. In fact, just about all it was good for was automating and rapidly completing predetermined tasks. As it turns out, that wasn’t a bad thing–our pre-tech lives were crammed full of menial obligations like filling out tax forms, managing schedules, accounting, typing and copying documents, and all kinds of other drudgery that had the potential to be massively improved through increased efficiency. If it takes me an hour of clicking through TurboTax to file my taxes vs ten hours of manually filling out and mailing IRS forms, my life has unequivocally been made better. But over the last several decades, two major changes have taken place in tech. First, the technology itself has advanced significantly, to the point that automation is no longer the only tool in the toolbox. And second, most of the problems that can be solved simply by introducing an element of efficiency have been solved. This means that in order to truly make the world a better place, today’s solutions should look quite different from the solutions of the 90’s.
And yet they don’t. And it’s not necessarily because tech doesn’t care about improving the world, but rather, because after decades of conflating “making things more efficient” with “making the world a better place”, tech has lost the ability to tell the difference between the two, and has mistakenly adopted a near-religious ideology in which those two ideas are one and the same. Consequently, faith in the power of efficiency to solve all our problems is becoming increasingly blind.
For an industry that prides itself on its ability to test and make data-driven decisions, one would expect that tech would make studying whether its products actually accomplish its primary goal–making the world a better place–its number one priority. But somehow in tech, efficiency is exempt from scrutiny, and products that are more efficient are indisputably better than those that aren’t.
The New York Times recently ran an article in its travel section entitled, Google Really Wants to Take You There. On the surface, it wasn’t much more than a thinly veiled advertisement for Google’s suite of travel tools, covering such purportedly innovative features as “the ability to book flights directly through Google instead of going through a third party like Expedia” and the new “blue navigation bar that lets users easily move between flight and hotel options”. But reading deeper into the article, a bigger issue emerged.
Peppered with phrases like “one-stop” and ”on-the-go” a theme starts to develop: vacation is too inefficient. And just as you’re beginning to wonder where exactly these Google engineers are traveling such that they think the problem with vacation in 2018 is that it takes too long, they hit you with the pièce de résistance: the Google Pixel Buds. The pitch for these things reads like another excerpt from an episode of Silicon Valley:
Let’s say you’re in a cafe in Provence. You begin by gently pressing the right earbud touch pad and saying, “Google, help me speak French.”
“Sure,” the Google assistant virtual helper will say, “opening Google Translate” (the app must be installed on a Google Pixel phone for this to work). When the waiter comes by, you can touch the right earbud again and say: “May I have a coffee with milk and a glass of water, please?” Google Assistant will then speak aloud on the phone in French what you just said in English. When the waiter replies in French, you’ll hear his words translated into English in your ear. Throughout the exchange, the phone will transcribe the conversation in English and French, enabling both parties to read on the screen the words being spoken.
Even if that entire experience goes according to plan and miraculously does not devolve into a cringe-worthy mess of “errr…uhh… hang on a sec”, it’s a sad state of affairs when one of the largest and most successful companies in the world believes such a product is not only necessary, but a superior alternative to simply communicating with one’s fellow human beings via universally human signals like hand gestures. The idea here is that communicating across a language barrier is fundamentally inefficient, and therefore can be improved. But that idea is wrong, because culture doesn’t suffer as a result of its inefficiency–it benefits from it. Even if hand gestures were more challenging and less efficient (they aren’t), it’s hard to imagine a world in which using them is somehow an inferior experience to this technological, anti-humanist mess. Does one not travel to France to experience the French? If speaking English is a priority, are there not plenty of places to get delicious French food right here at home? An experience this embarrassing could only have been designed by someone who was so caught up in the quest for efficiency, they never even stopped to question where the value in travel actually comes from.
Culture is fundamentally inefficient. It is what happens when one chooses to intentionally do something the less efficient way. Because efficiency is absolute, there can be only one most efficient way to make food, one most efficient way to dress, one most efficient way to travel. But whenever someone chooses to eat something that’s not Soylent, wear something that’s not a tshirt and jeans, or walk somewhere instead of drive, they are accepting that there’s value in inefficiency itself. Consequently, it makes no sense to try to improve the experience of appreciating culture by eliminating the very thing that created it. If tech actually wants to improve travel, it’s going to have to exit this ideological box and focus on problems that are actually problems.
As a founder of a tech company myself, I recognize that efficiency as a solution has its place; I would never argue that it’s not useful as a problem solving tool. But not everything benefits from efficiency, and it’s important we learn to make the distinction. Thanks to tech, we now have more free time to enjoy ourselves than ever before. But if we’re not careful, we might accidentally automate away the best parts of life–including the ones we wanted the free time for in the first place.