Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Sky is Falling (again)

Matt Honan's recent article The Case Against Google tells us that Google is Evil, people are abandoning the Open Web in favour of Closed Ecosystems and it's impossible to search the web without surrendering enough privacy to make a gynaecologist blush. So far, so 2012.

Here's the ├╝ber-challenge that Google has set itself in delivering relevant search results:
You are about to leave San Francisco to drive to Lake Tahoe for a weekend of skiing, so you fire up your Android handset and ask it "what's the best restaurant between here and Lake Tahoe?" It's an incredibly complex and subjective query. But Google wants to be able to answer it anyway. (This was an actual example given to me by Google.) To provide one, it needs to know things about you. A lot of things. A staggering number of things.
To start with, it needs to know where you are. Then there is the question of your route—are you taking 80 up to the north side of the lake, or will you take 50 and the southern route? It needs to know what you like. So it will look to the restaurants you've frequented in the past and what you've thought of them. It may want to know who is in the car with you—your vegan roommates?—and see their dining and review history as well. It would be helpful to see what kind of restaurants you've sought out before. It may look at your Web browsing habits to see what kind of sites you frequent. It wants to know which places your wider circle of friends have recommended. But of course, similar tastes may not mean similar budgets, so it could need to take a look at your spending history. It may look to the types of instructional cooking videos you've viewed or the recipes found in your browsing history.
It wants to look at every possible signal it can find, and deliver a highly relevant answer: You want to eat at Ikeda's in Auburn, California
In looking at the corner into which this search company has painted itself in its attempts to stay relevant, I can't help but compare it with the lengths to which the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation went with its Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser:

When the 'Drink' button is pressed it makes an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject's metabolism, and then sends tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject's brain to see what is likely to be well received. However, no-one knows quite why it does this because it then invariably delivers a cupful of liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams 
You see, I'm fairly sure that after all that effort that Google puts into finding me a restaurant, it will end up sending me to a so-so kind of establishment - the kind of restaurant I 'normally' end up in on business trips. The kind of restaurant that averages out the likes and dislikes of all my companions. And after all that invasive knowledge elicitation, I'll end up somewhere which has put in more effort on search engine optimisation than culinary optimisation.

What I really want from Google in these circumstances is an answer to the question "are there any Michelin starred restaurants between here and there?" It's a good old fashioned objective question, with a written down answer. One that can be looked up on the Web, not divined from my cerebellum.