"Still, we need to continue to work hard to ensure that our contributions are decidedly beneficial -- helping people to lead easier, richer and more fulfilling lives," wrote Brin.
Brin's attitude is, I think, the right one. It's difficult to deny that technological advancements have improved the quality of life for many people. Transformational technologies abound: vaccines, antibiotics, medical imaging, anesthesia, air travel, agricultural science, sanitation, computers, communications and other relatively recent advances have truly made life easier and less precarious for huge numbers of people.
At the same time, there's something profoundly troubling in the way the Brin makes his case. He observes that when Page and he started Google 15 years ago, they indulged in the luxury of what was then an exotic item: a cellphone, a device that has since transformed people's lives.
"In 1998, meetings had to be prearranged, travel had to be carefully planned, a paper map was in order to get to a new place, and knowledge was contained in your mind," Brin explained. "Today, it takes a minute on a street corner to catch up with a friend, book a holiday, find your way in almost any corner of the world and find out almost anything about almost anything."
Imagine having knowledge in your mind. And if you're drawing a blank, just ask Google to imagine it for you. I doubt that Brin really means to celebrate the mind as temporary cache for data fetched from Google. But it's worth examining the ease with which we can now outsource our capacity to think.
I don't think there's a yes or no answer to this rather reactionary question, but there's something to it. In an age of ubiquitous network connectivity and mobile devices, search skill can serve as a substitute for knowledge. But it's a poor substitute, like saccharine for sugar.
It's often said you are what you eat. It's no less true that you are what you know. George Santayana famously wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The tl;dr version ought to be "Those who cannot remember are condemned."
Google is most dangerous when we surrender to it. And though the company means well (most of the time, if you're not a competitor), we owe it to our dignity and autonomy to question the future of convenience and fulfillment that Google, or any technology company, paints for us.
Consider the cloud. Google for years has promoted a paradigm where data lives remotely, where it can be accessed at any time by any network-connected device. This is the value proposition of Chrome OS. And it's appropriate for certain scenarios, like traveling in a region where one's computer or phone could be stolen.
But it should not be the only option. A world where there's little or no local data storage on devices is a world of tethered dependence. It has the same disadvantage as a world where cash doesn't exist, where all money is electronic: It's a place of disempowerment and vulnerability, wrapped in a gloss of accommodation.
Google's automated cars have obvious benefits, in terms of safety, traffic management and convenience. At the same time, they suggest a profoundly different world, where travel is tracked, where private property and freedom of movement and action have been surrendered, where access to the hardware is restricted for your protection. You have the right to purchase, but not to modify, experiment or exploit.
And self-driving cars may not even be the best option for solving modern transit problems: We already have automated cars of a sort, in the form of subway trains. From a business perspective, Google may like the idea of selling hardware and services for millions of autonomous cars. But a better way to reduce the number of cars on the road might be to invest in autonomous buses and trains, to invest in public infrastructure.
Or reflect upon Google Glass: Google is selling its networked eyewear for $1,500, and for that developers get restrictions: "[Y]ou may not resell, loan, transfer or give your [Google Glass] to any other person," the company's terms of service state. Early adopters must accept any Google software update, but they cannot modify the device or software themselves. Closed is the new open.
Google clearly has work to do if it truly wishes to help people "lead easier, richer and more fulfilling lives." And so do we all: We must make sure we possess the knowledge and ability to function, online and offline, without Google. Only then, when we're free to abandon it, can we appreciate when Google is improving our lives and when it isn't.
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