This chapter opens with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency-based philosophy of productivity. Taylor observed factories and wanted to make a change. His new method, called Taylorism, achieved maximum speed and efficiency by favoring the system as a whole over the individual.
Taylorism is a perfect example of the social pull away from individuality that Carr has been hinting at in the book so far.
Taylorism finds its modern day incarnation in Google, a company founded, in the words of CEO Eric Schmidt, “around the science of measurement.” Studying everything from user eye-movements to their affinity for clicking on one shade of blue over another, Google’s righteous aim is to eliminate the obstacle of subjectivity and guide Internet users with all-knowing databases and algorithms.
Google has taken Taylorism to a new level. Even the colors Google users click have been selected for their agreeableness, which is a way of eliminating personal choice. Carr implies that the degree to which Google controls user experience is disturbing.
Larry Page, Google’s founder, was obsessed with efficiency. His search engine was born from a simple analogy. Just as a scholastic paper’s prominence relies on how many other works cite it as a reference, a web page’s importance could be measured in how many pages directed a user there via links. From this seedling idea, Page created a database called BackRub that ranked and categorized sites. BackRub eventually became Google, and their mission statement was to organize the “seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.”
The takeaway from this segment is that Google and other tech companies place priority on efficiency and ease-of-use. By putting all known information into a single database, Google makes the user experience easier. The consequence, however, is that the value of any one piece of information is judged not by the user but rather by the algorithm.
Google also needed to monetize their project. In order to make a profit and keep search results relevant, Google’s ad placement was determined by the frequency with which links were actually clicked. The company’s success is a direct result of this user-reliant formula. Knowing what links were popular helped their algorithms separate the wheat from the chaff. Web pages soon became rated for importance on the basis of both their connectivity and publication date so that the search engine always generated the most relevant results in order to beat competitors. Carr identifies Google’s “intellectual ethic”––or the privileging of efficiency––as the prevailing ethic of the Internet.
In this segment, Carr explains that Google’s focus on efficiency and categorization may not be a purely righteous mission. The more we surf the web, the more links we click; and the more links we click, the more ads we see. Google’s intellectual ethic may be efficiency, but that is because efficiency pays off. We use the web more and more because it is increasingly user friendly, and Google rakes in the profits.
Carr argues that competition between Google and other web publishers has encouraged user appetite for rapid and easily consumed bits of information. Because each company aims to be fastest and most efficient in order to get revenue, a cycle is created in which users come to expect an ever-increasing amount of information at lightning speeds. In 1999 blog users realized they had to post multiple times a day to keep traffic on the uptick. Soon after, RSS readers came onto the web as a way of sorting and “pushing,” or highlighting, news headlines. Most notable was the rise of social media sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter––all dedicated to providing endless updates for the user about what is happening, in the news and in their social groups, and providing these updates in as close to real time as possible.
Competition, Carr points out, has only amped up the focus on efficiency as the be-all end-all of Internet companies. Users have a role to play in this process as well, of course. The more efficient a social media service is the more we use it, creating an environment of constant one-upmanship. Users come to expect updates in real time, placing an unforeseen emphasis on speed as the marker of quality in a web publisher.
Google has also been playing the game as ferociously as ever. For Google, page importance is no longer judged solely on links coming into a site anymore but monitors at least two hundred different “signals,” or indicators of importance, at all times. The signal with greatest priority of late is page “freshness.” Google checks popular sites every few seconds to place priority on how recently updated and thus relevant the page is, the goal being to eventually fulfill the dream of a real-time and total Internet index.
Carr again emphasizes the importance of speed for a web publisher. Google is at the forefront because they check for updates in as close to real-time as possible. Their criteria for judging what sites they prioritize in results is worrisome because, again, agency is given to the search engine rather than the user.
Carr pauses to reinforce that Google’s seemingly ever-changing business model is in fact very simple: The more time we spend on the internet, the more money Google makes. This is because, Carr explains, Google’s model for revenue is based around complements, or in business terms, two things that are consumed together. Everything you do on the Internet is, for Google, a complement. This is also why Google provides services like email. The more time users spend using Google’s free information services and staring at computer screens, the more money Google rakes in from ad revenue. YouTube, for example, is not profitable in itself, but Google bought the company because it enabled them to gather more user information. As Carr writes: “Google wants information to be free because, as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens and the company’s profits go up.” It makes sense, then, that Google’s overarching goal is to digitize every conceivable sort of information, transfer it to the web, catalogue it in their search engine, and dispense it to users in small, easily-digested bits with ads in tow.
Carr returns to the important insight that Google is monetizing our logged Net time. Services provided for free are only free because they further enmesh us in the web, which gives Google profits in the long run. Carr emphasizes the monetization of efficiency to show how the proclaimed desires of Silicon Valley types to “make all information accessible” in fact may contain ulterior motives and unforeseen consequences.
The hunger to categorize all information can be seen in Google’s “moon shot,” or their aim to digitize all the books ever printed. Google’s book project caused controversy, however, because they failed to pay authors for rights. The real notable significance of the project, Carr argues, is how Google measured the value of a book not as a work of art but as “another pile of data to be mined.” The Google library represents, for Carr, the irony of the digital age’s definition of efficiency. The technology of the book was more efficient than scriptura continua, freeing reader’s minds for deeper thinking. Google’s efficiency, however, frees the reader’s mind to consume an increasing amount of shallower, bite-sized content.
Google’s book project serves as an excellent microcosm for Carr to lay out what he believes to be the general intellectual ethic of the Internet. For Google and others, what one era used to see as a work of art is simply a pile of mineable (and thus, monetizable) data. While there are benefits to the book digitization project, Carr wants us to pick up on the trend towards categorization and compiling rather than thoughtful and meditative consumption.
To better explain Google’s role, Carr turns his attention to the difference between two different philosophies about knowledge and enlightenment. Transcendentalism, as represented by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, proclaims that enlightenment is the result of introspection, solitude, and meditation. Transcendentalism was in conflict with the ethic of the Industrial Revolution, which placed a prevailing emphasis on efficiency. To put it another way, Transcendentalism opposed the idea that access to information, rather than contemplation, was the key to human development. A modern incarnation of the Industrial ethic opposed by the Transcendentalists can be found in Google.
Carr uses the Transcendental attitude to go deeper into what is at risk when we privilege efficiency over everything else. Transcendentalism, for Carr, is another way to access the meditative and subjective type of learning that is the hallmark of the literary mind. Saying that Google is an embodiment of the Industrial ethic is, similarly, another angle to look at the company’s devotion to efficiency.
Carr makes clear that his issue is not with the accessibility to information provided by the Internet but with the lack of balance between meditative and efficiency-based modes of learning. Forced to adapt to Internet speeds and live in perpetual motion, we no longer know how to strike a balance that incorporates quiet, calm learning. Though more information is available to us than ever before, we don’t have the Transcendentalist’s skills––the knack for reflective depth––to make use of it.
Carr is careful to emphasize that he is not arguing for the elimination of all models of efficiency. What he calls for is a balance. The problem, however, is that the Net has already rid us of the skills necessary to strike that balance.
What this boils down to, for Carr, is a new definition of intelligence. It is telling that the prevalent metaphor today for brain function is a machine. If the brain is like a machine, then it makes sense to measure intelligence in terms of productivity––but this leads to a warped conception of the mind. A perfect example of this conception lies in the foundation of Google’s desire to create AI: “What’s disturbing about the company’s founders is not their boyish desire to create an amazingly cool machine that will be able to outthink its creators, but the pinched conception of the human mind that gives rise to such a desire.” Google and its executives hold fast to the Taylorist belief that intelligence is the result of a process that can be pinpointed and optimized just like the workings of a factory.
The type of intelligence promoted by Google is warped, Carr argues, because it measures itself by the signposts that make a good machine: Efficiency, productivity, and speed. Carr wants the reader to think about what it is, exactly, about computers that cause us to conflate human intelligence and machine intelligence––and whether we really asked for, or want, this new definition of a keen mind.