News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Google+ Zero


When Google Wave was announced, I immediately took to a platform that seemed to combine all of the productivity tools I used. It was an exciting time and my brain was full of ideas about how Wave would fit into work and the other projects I was interested in starting. When Wave was cancelled, I was disappointed, but I had not been using it much. The reason? No one else was using it either.

In the past few weeks Google has been steadily releasing components of the Google+ Project, a ground-up reimagining of everything they do infused with an individual’s social and interest graphs.

Image credit: 06/29/2011 screenshot of Google+ overview page.

The overview videos depict your exciting life with friends, whether you are categorizing them into groups, making arrangements for lunch, or getting together for a shared video chat. With Google+, the world’s knowledge, the people you know, and your interests all come together into an uncertain whole. Google stated that the project will continue to expand over the coming months, with new tools and relationships being added over time, until Google+ becomes a true competitor to Facebook that takes advantage of Google’s strengths in search and advertising.

This is the latest in a long line of developments in the social networking revolution. Proponents argue that as social animals humans, online or off, are looking for new ways to interact. For some of us, however, this focus on human-to-human interactions, while often useful, was never the point of the Information Age. While Web 2.0 and social networking has taken the web by storm, the promise of human-to-machine interactions has taken a backseat. These interactions are there, but they are not the source of excitement, not the center of hype. The animal masses decided that this technology would be an extension of their social lives, rather than the addition of a new relationship between humanity and its technological creations.

I am not criticizing this direction. In retrospect, it now appears obvious that social networking would be the logical outcome of a public web. People are indeed social animals, and the most introverted of people have found a measure of social interaction online. For some introverts, the net has allowed them to take on extraverted personas, with ramifications for their offline personas.

For me personally, the result was complex. Textual updates (say through Twitter, Facebook, or blogging) became one of my most frequent activities. This was probably to be expected; pre-Internet, I was always writing and was active in the school paper. With the arrival of the web, I almost immediately began keeping a public online diary and jumped into blogging soon after its arrival.

When it comes to real-time chatting, VoIP, and video conferencing, however, I am as reticent as I am offline. I feel exactly the same social anxiety when talking to people in real time as I do when meeting with (new) people face-to-face. A call on Skype from an acquaintance is nerve-wracking. An unexpected Google or Facebook chat fills me with dread. Even a friend request can give me the jitters. As a carefully planned, business transaction, none of these phase me. As tools for engaging other people and making friends, I’m at a loss.

That is why Google+ suggests to me a godsend to extraverts and a horror to introverts. Introverts are not people who lack social interactions; they are just people who find solitude comforting and productive. They interact, but require some alone time to recover. Introverts embrace the web, but the social networking aspects are often sources of dismay.

Is being introverted a disease? There are drugs on the market that ease social anxiety, therapies to help overcome these fears. However, being introverted is the result of a complex biology modulated by experience. And so is being extraverted. Rather than thinking of personalities as diseases, I prefer to think of them as aspects of the self that can be ignored or changed, depending on the desires of the individual. We have the technology (and are rapidly gaining even better technologies) to allow us to modulate ourselves.

When thinking about Google+ and the online social interactions that are the focus of development, I wonder if we are actually seeing the beginning of the end for this focus. The easiest thing to do to improve the web was to hook humans into the Machine, generating, collating, analyzing data and finding relationships because the Machine was not intelligent enough to do so itself. As machine technology improved, however, some of this could be automated. Google+ represents the coming together of algorithms and human activity to churn through information and create something much more complex and nuanced, something that is, potentially, useful.

A turn of events will occur, however, when the Machine begins to take on more and more capabilities currently handled by humans. IBM’s Watson in supercomputer size already rivals humans in determining the question to trivia answers, and it is quickly making a name for itself in the medical community by making diagnoses based on information from multiple sources, at a speed to rival the best doctors. We do not need truly thinking machines of human-level intelligence to replace humans in online social activity. We just need machines of particular capabilities, working at a speed well beyond that of humans, to begin creating new knowledge from the vast store of data on the Web.

In Google+, Google has retained its algorithmic roots while embracing the social graph of Faceback and the interest graph of Twitter. Social networking will continue to shape the web, but it will soon be dwarfed by human-to-machine interactions (both of which will remain dwarfed by machine-to-machine interactions.) For those of us who were less than happy by the 2.0 turn of the web toward social earlier this century, the mid-2010s will be a return to form after a long detour. The interactions with machines we have longed for will finally arrive in the form of increasingly sophisticated intelligent agents, beginning with the integration of Siri into Apple’s consumer electronics that began this year. Google will also embrace intelligent agents, and will push it out, through Google+ and through mobile. The human-to-human interactions will remain, but our conversations with machines will soon become the center of development, fundraising, news, and hype.

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