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Teaching Tech To Get Out of Its Own Way

on Tuesday, May. 6th

Sometimes it seems like the entire focus of the tech sector—makers and press—is to turn tech into fashion. Mad is thrown on Google Glass not just because of privacy concerns, but because it looks so freaking dorky.

Yet technology, at its heart, isn’t about fashion. Technology is about tools. Great tools are intuitive. Think about how Apple has long chased the ideal of “it just works” and how hideous it feels when an Apple product falls short of that goal.

The greatest tools are invisible. Power steering, linked traffic signals, integrated headphone amplifiers. We only notice them when they are gone. This is the higher standard, and it is one that Google is aiming for. Which is a bit of a surprise given how the company is the poster child for clunky tech these days (see: Glass).

The head of the Google X innovation lab, the aptly named Astro Teller, shared with the TechCrunch sponsored Disrupt NY conference the following gems:

“We’re excited about how technology can be used to get technology out of the way,” Teller said. “Most of us have to spend a lot of energy to learn how to drive a car. Then we have to spend the rest of our lives over-concentrating as we drive, and text, and eat a burrito, and put on makeup. As a result, 30,000 people die every year in a car accident in the U.S.”

We can see this philosophy in some of Google’s new products today.

The latest upgrade of Google Maps not only features Uber integration (more on that in a moment) it offers up lane suggestions while driving. That little detail shows the kind of work that is going into Google’s self-driving car project.

There’s a danger, of course, of trading off too much of our thinking to the machines. The question becomes what happens with all of the personal “processor cycles” we’ll gain by not thinking about when we need to change lanes or bother to drive a car at all. Will more of those over the aggregate get used to dream up a better world—you know, fix climate change and stuff—or will it just be spent consuming gossip?

Google throws a lot of darts at the wall, and occasionally gets a bullseye. What matters more, to extend the metaphor, is the clustering. That’s where the Uber integration raises a red flag.

Uber has become the poster child for tech industry arrogance. The “disrupt at all costs” ethos of the company is a classic example of the sociopathology of corporate thinking—from $1 user fees to insure that drivers aren’t rapists all the way down to price gouging—Uber’s persona is that of a Nietzschean jerk. Maybe it’s the name.

Google has a stake in Uber, which is surely one reason that they are integrating the car service into the Maps app. That move, however, also reminds us that when it comes to smartphones and other consumer technology that the tech industry is both product and creator of the growing class divide of the 21st century.

Sufficiently magical technology fills the pockets of some, and the industry often appears to have the goal of making its wares ubiquitous. Yet the shiniest fruits of their labors are reserved for those who can pay through the nose. Perhaps that’s “just the way it is.” I can’t help but feel, however, that some of the promise of the Internet revolution is being unfulfilled.

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