And so it happens that I have spent half of the past week in Dublin, that fair city by the Liffey which spawned the likes of James Joyce, W.B.Yeats and Oscar Wilde, and thus birthed modern literature. But I wasn't on a literary pilgrimage – quite the opposite – I was there as a corporate client paying a visit to the largest internet company in the world.
It is God’s own sweet practical joke that, having been employed as a copywriter I should find myself being sucked down the plughole into the shady realms of SEM (search engine marketing). The logic is impeccable. Copywriters working in the travel business are supposed to go to places and write about them. But it becomes too expensive to send copywriters to places just so they can write about things which, in all honesty, can be legally gleaned from the internet from the comfort of an office chair. The next logical step is to do away with the writing bit altogether (apart from some skeleton text to accompany the rich media content) and focus instead on targeted searches – in any case the average attention span of a browsing customer has fallen to something like a matter of seconds. Google can help.
If you’re wondering how a guy who normally writes about scavenging dumps, eating leftover food and guerilla composting could also live a dual life embedded at the cutting edge end of the ultra high tech new vaporwear religion I’d have to reply: with some difficulty. Having a foot in both boats as we sail down the river to a lower net energy future is a trick that many of us need to master in these difficult times, and warrants a future post.
I should probably say right from the outset that I'm not allowed to mention anything that went on inside their offices. If I did I’d quickly find myself without a job and, furthermore, I’d be hauled up before a magistrate for breaching the confidentiality agreement that all people who have set foot in a Google office have to sign (electronically, of course). Nevertheless, take it from me that it was a head swivelling experience, and I felt like I’d stepped into some kind of alternate universe. More on that towards the end of this post.
Dublin is a city undergoing collapse. It’s quite clear from all the boarded up shops, the acres of empty office space and the pitiful beggars one can see roaming the streets asking for change. Our taxi driver said that it was relatively easy to get around the city these days because traffic levels had been cut in half from only a few years ago. “Economic collapse has its bright side, you know,” he told us cheerily.
As we rolled along in the drizzle through the morning traffic the radio was announcing a big international jobs fair that was shortly to take place in the city. There would be 160 exhibitors, it intoned, offering a new life in places such as New Zealand, Canada and Brazil. The taxi driver, on hearing it said that young people wanted to get out of the country while they could. Two centuries of emigration he said, had been followed by two decades of immigration. “Now we've gone back to the emigration thing again.”
Google’s European headquarters are set in a part of the city that could probably be described as ‘arrested development’. Huge gleaming new office blocks stand shoulder to shoulder, empty and dusty and forlorn looking. In this setting, Google’s tower blocks (there are two) stand out like gleaming beacons of light. Inside them some three and half thousand employees, or Googlers as they are known. Each zone within the office has its own unique environment, with everything from a 1970s zone (complete with pinball machines and horrible wallpaper), a blue sky thinking zone (where everything is white), a rural zone (where people sit on artificial grass bales that come with all kinds of connectors for laptops and screen projectors) and much, much more. There’s even an authentic Irish pub for the Googlers to hang out in, although I doubt it would have been the kind of haunt that James Joyce would have approved of since it doesn't serve alcohol.
age of a Googler, I would say, is probably late-twenties. As a 41 year-old I
felt like a ‘grey head’, in the parlance. All of them are extremely, extremely
clever, and God only knows how many tests they have had to sit through to get
them into their positions. Also, because this was the European HQ, there was a
constant babble of different languages in use, like some kind of mini United
Nations for under-thirties.
|New office space lies empty in the Docklands area of Dublin|
On the day I arrived it was on the front page of the Financial Times that Google had finally overtaken Microsoft in terms of value. This is in line with Google’s mantra, which is basically that there are no limits, and there are motivational slogans written on the office walls to that end. These are heady times for the company that started out as a search engine but is now in a position to challenge governments. Indeed, the only thing that can challenge Google’s meteoric growth, it seems, is the power of national governments. Especially China.
Google, increasingly, controls everything we do on the internet. It’s a sweet irony that I'm writing this using Google Docs and will then upload it onto Blogger, which is also owned by the company. YouTube, which is the world’s second largest search engine, now shows around 4 billion videos a day, and every second an hour of new material is uploaded to it. Google+ is growing exponentially as a challenger to Facebook (and with current share price projections Google could buy up Facebook in a year or two for peanuts) and a database is being developed to profile every internet user who uses one of its services. None of this is a secret – you are given open access to your own profile.
So what next for Google? Well, I've been in a state of some indecision about whether to write about the next thing or not, but I've done a bit of, yes, Googling and I can see that it is already out there in the public domain, so I'm going to go ahead and write about it in broad terms.
Augmented Humanity sounds like something out of a science fiction movie – but it’s already out there and is being developed right now. It was two years ago when Googler-in-chief Eric Schmidt first mentioned the term at a tech conference in Berlin. What he predicted was that we are now entering into an era when processing power, combined with artificial intelligence, could be further combined with the near omnipresence of mobile smart devices and ultra fast broadband, meaning that the tools are in place to ‘augment’ the human race.
Smart phones have now become so powerful that they can process everything they 'see' in real time, recognizing physical objects, as well as faces. If the user is wearing goggles, it’s possible to make a screen overlay that looks something like this:
|A crude augmented reality shot|
It’s not just objects and faces that can be decoded, however, but voices and other data streams. These things already exist, and are often used in things like apps for city tours (don’t forget that mobile devices are also able to track you to within a foot or two via GPS) and this is commonly called augmented reality. But their next stage of development – the shift from augmented reality to augmented humanity - will be a quantum leap, we are told.
Based on the profile being built up of its users, augmented humanity means that you will be plugged into the network 24/7. Look at the face of your friend and Google will remind you that it’s their birthday in a week and make gift suggestions based on their browsing history, and even order the gift for you with a blink of your eye. Tweets will hover mid-air in front of you and apartment blocks will be shaded pink to indicate a party, advertised on social media, is being planned by a friend of a friend of a friend. Google, in effect, will know what we are thinking before we have thought it, based on the digital profile model that it holds on us. In effect we will never need to think about anything again.
The person delivering this hopeful vision to us was clearly convinced of its benefits. To him the future was bright – very bright indeed – although I deemed it impolite to ask him what he thought about any technical limitations of achieving his dream might be like, say, running out of oil and rare earth minerals. I knew what his answer would be in any case. Somebody else raised the ethical dimension issue, saying it might be okay for some people but she wouldn't be happy about her own daughter’s reality being augmented. The reply was that, like it or not, we live in a capitalist world and basically we should be thankful that a benign company like Google is driving these developments rather than someone else. Furthermore, we should embrace change rather than being afraid of it, otherwise we’ll be left behind.
This, we are told, is an augmented version of what it means to be a human. Plenty of people have ethical concerns about this kind of thing, but Google insists that regulations will be in place to prevent abuses. What is interesting, however, is not the technical possibilities, but the metaphysical. It can only be a coincidence that I am currently reading the sci-fi epic Dune at the moment, which is set in the far future and warns – in the book’s most quoted line - that the fall of humanity occurred because:“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
There is a further irony that the word augment, which when applied to psychiatry is the term that doctors use when they are talking about using more than one type of psychoactive drug to achieve a desired effect.
So is Google becoming a religion? If it is moving beyond simply engineering the internet to suit human minds and onto engineering human minds to suit the internet then that suggests to me that some kind of paradigm shift is occurring. It can’t be called a cult, like Apple, because Google has no central personality to latch onto – although that doesn't mean that one won’t appear in the near future.
But augmented humanity, with its sole concern of pumping individual egos with products and experiences and information, couldn't really be considered a very effective religion. It’s somewhat different from Joyce’s ideas about what it means to be a human, as expressed through the daily humdrum wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. But then I doubt anyone from the Google generation has any time to struggle through one of his books, which do actually require an attention span of considerably more than thirty seconds. In any case traditional media, as it is disparagingly called, is so 20th century. I mean, who reads books these days?
Stepping outside the Google office and back into the chilly post industrial decrepicity of modern Dublin we were reminded of the dangers of being in an unaugmented state of reality. A binman had accidentally fallen into the back of his truck and a passer-by heard his strangled screams as the hydraulic equipment reduced his thickness to the approximate dimensions of a MacBook Air.
“I’d say there’s a fair few of us thinking about following him in there,” quipped the taxi driver as we drove past the cordoned off truck. “It’s a great way to provide new jobs,” he added, proving that gallows humour, indeed, is probably the only resource that really isn't in short supply.
And we’re going to need plenty of that on the road ahead.
There's more on Augmented Humanity, digital souls and eVangelism here.
There's more on Augmented Humanity, digital souls and eVangelism here.