Nicolas Carr’s article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, considers the impact new media technologies are having on human cognition. Although he recognizes the reciprocal nature of the human-technology relationship, he focuses primarily in that article on what technology is doing to our abilities to read, concentrate and comprehend.
But the human relationship with technology is fluid, reciprocal and dynamic, and the boundaries between human-beings and our technologies are porous, as Freud already recognized in speaking about humans as “prothetic gods.”
Technology does things to us as we do things with it, but we also do things to it as it does things with us.
Issues related to the dynamic interaction between us and our technologies have been rendered poignant for me again as I begin to play with Google+. What strikes me most at this point, however, is how the Google culture of engineering has taken a decidedly humanistic turn, and in a potentially powerful way.
The rhetoric Google used to introduce Google+ reflects this humanistic approach. Vic Gundotra, Senior VP of Social at Google, told TechCrunch that Google+ was created to respond to the “basic human need” to connect with other people in a way that is less “awkward.”
There are a number of features and design decisions that recognize that human insight and understanding enrich the technology. Circles, to take the central example, is beautifully designed in a way that makes it fun and aesthetically pleasing to create different audiences of people with whom one might want to communicate. The design, however, is important because it invites us to teach our Google profile about the sorts of communities about which we care. In so doing, our profiles become more flexible in communicating diverse ideas to diverse groups. Facebook groups offers this possibility as well, though in a less compelling and playful way. By making circles central to Google+ and by making it fun, Google has recognized that it will get smarter only if it invites humans to teach it.
This recognition seems also to be at the heart of the +1 button which adds a social component to search in a way that is designed to take your personal views and ideas into consideration. There are, of course, dangers in this insofar as it can serve to reinforce existing prejudices and positions; but used effectively, it can also serve to open new horizons of insight.
The Hangout feature of Google+ is rooted in a metaphor taken from the world of concrete human interactivity. The Hangout is set up like a kind of front porch on which one can sit and wait for others to join. The conversation is inherently dynamic, because the Hangout need not be “about” something specific nor is it even owned by the person who began it: it is simply an invitation to a circle of people saying I am here if you would like to talk and it can continue long after the initiator has left.
It is striking, however, that Bradely Horowitz, Google VP for Product Management, has been using Hangouts to open discussions with anyone following him on Google+ as a way to receive feedback on the product or, presumably, to participate diverse conversations, the direction of which remains open. This in and of itself is testimony to the fact that Google has recognized that the only way it will get smarter is by attending and responding to human insight and experience in a dynamic and reciprocal way.