There’s a brief, but kind of stunning, interview in The Economist with what I can only assume is a Turing machine pretending to be Google economist (and former UC Berkeley Information School dean) Hal Varian. It’s hard to fit so much stupidity into three paragraphs, but this interview manages to do it.
There’s a recent study out of the University of Michigan, where they had a team of students find answers to a set of questions using materials in the campus library. Then another team had to answer the same set of questions using Google. It took them 7 minutes to answer the questions on Google and 22 minutes to answer them in the library. Think about all the time saved! Thirty years ago, getting answers was really expensive, so we asked very few questions. Now getting answers is cheap, so we ask billions of questions a day, like “what is Jennifer Aniston having for breakfast?” We would have never asked that 30 years ago.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case, but the idea that this is really significant matters if you’re in a trivia contest, but this assumption that intelligence is equivalent to search– that, effectively, all the answers to all our questions have been answered somewhere– is just wrong.
And the claim that “Thirty years ago, getting answers was really expensive, so we asked very few questions.” This raises a few questions, most notably, what the fuck does this mean?? Thirty years ago was 1981– that is, my senior year of high school, and eight years after Varian had received his Ph.D. Ronald Reagan was starting his first term as President. Granted, Reagan was not known to be the most inquisitive fellow, but I don’t recall feeling like the ability to answer questions was significantly limited by costs, economic or temporal or otherwise. You can claim that the quality of answers improves with the volume of information available (a claim that is highly problematic outside a few technical, numbers-friendly fields), but did we not ask many questions thirty years ago? Huh?
Then there’s this:
If you look at the history of the world, up until 1700 nothing much happened–GDP growth per capita was essentially flat. Then the wonderful Industrial Revolution happened and things took off. And now it’s easy to make predictions about the future. What rich people have now, middle class people will have in twenty years.
Notice the conflation of economic growth with “stuff happening,” the mix of Galtian trickle-down economics and early Fukuyama-like teleology. Nothing happened before 1700, and prediction is easy. My life as an historian and futurist as clearly been wasted. But at least I can find out what Jennifer Aniston is having for breakfast.