Posted by Danny Dover
As people in relationships spend time with each other they start to leverage each others natural strengths to efficiently store information about the world around them. "Honey, what is the name of my Aunt’s employer?" "Babe, what do you call that thing that heats bread?" They rely on each other to store information that is mutually beneficial. Some believe this process is one of the reasons breakups are so hard. “I feel like when s/he left, s/he took a part of me.” It is common to hear statements similar to this because when it comes to memory, it is more true than many may realize.
While this phenomenon has historically happened between two people offline, it is now happening online between people and technology. How many times have you checked Google for a fact that you once knew? How many times have you Googled for a resource that you have already read? Like it or not, Google is quickly becoming a second brain in much the same way loved ones have done in the past. While this search engine has benefits that humans don’t (ubiquity), it does have some severe limitations that should be examined.
The self declared mission of the people who run Google is to “organize the world’s information…”. While they have done a remarkable job of this online, they have failed to do this offline in the tangible world. To understand these unspoken failures, all you need to do is examine the five major senses humans use to organize the world’s information.
“Who is that guy?” “I recognize that place, where was that scene filmed?” “What is the name of that color?” For most people, sight is the primary sense for experiencing the world. While technology does exist for identifying objects within images (facial recognition algorithms, OCR, color detection, etc…) you can’t utilize these tools directly through Google. This may possibly be the biggest limitation of Google. Be it remembering the name of a person after a date or an entire government agency trying to identify a suspect, identifying someone or something by sight is critical for organizing the world’s information.
Smell is the closest sense tied to memory. Have you ever walked by a stranger and instantly been flooded with memories of a significant other who happened to wear the same perfume or cologne? It can be a jarring experience. Want to identify that scent? Google can’t help you. While the technology exists for detecting smells and there are databases for identifying smells, a method to easily cross reference and identify a smell online is not available.
You are watching How I Met Your Mother and you recognize the voice in the opening sequence. Whose voice is that? You hear an obscure tune as a car blaring loud music drives by your home. What is the name of that song? Like the situation with sight, the technology for identifying sounds exists (Shazam, SoundHound, etc…) but it is not available through Google. While you can search via verticals for text, video and images, you can’t search for sounds. This is almost certainly a legal limitation rather than a technology one. (After all, Google can identify audio clips in YouTube videos.)
You are traveling in Greece and you order the most interesting looking item on the menu. When it arrives, it looks like nothing you have ever seen. You bite into it and instantly recognize the flavors but can’t remember the name of the meal as it is hidden by an “unique” texture. Again, Google won’t help you (although a napkin might). The same problem happens more frequently with allergies. Want to make sure a meal a friend made for you doesn’t have an ingredient you are allergic to? Some technology can help but Google isn’t one of them.
BEEP BEEP BEEP! It is 6:00 AM and your alarm clock is screaming. Eyes still closed and crusty, you reach across your bed and use touch to identify the snooze button on your alarm clock. Later that same day, you reach into your bag and navigate its contents by touch to pull out your cell phone. Although more subtlely tied to memory than the other senses, touch can also help you identify objects.
But why would you need to search for something by touch if the object is already at arms length? Good question… unless you are blind. Many blind people use their sense of touch to catalogue the world. Imagine you are not able to see and you find something new and want to know what it is. A friend might be able to help but Google won’t.
In the United States, the most common text message is “where are you”. While other websites (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare) have been getting better at answering this question, Google has largely remained stagnant.
You are getting ready for work but can’t for the life of you remember where you put your favorite shirt. This type of situation happens daily. Be it car keys, shoes or your little sister, countless man hours have been spent looking for things. When it comes to finding the location of personal items, again Google can’t help.
These limits are worth writing a blog post about for two reasons; context and awareness.
The great thing about being alive is that everyone is constantly at the forefront of human progress. Right now we are the most evolved we have ever been. And right now, we are even more evolved than when you read that last sentence. It is very likely that while you have read this post, someone, somewhere has invented something that will make your life better moving forward. Google is a great example of that. The limitations I listed above could be fixed with the creation of new features. That is not the point. The point is that while we are currently living in the most technologically advanced time that has ever existed, we still have a long way to go. The Google of today is not the end-all-be-all, it is only a milepost on a much longer stretch of highway.
The second reason I am writing this post is to promote awareness. Whether you like it or not, Google is becoming an important factor in how you experience the world. Just like a person wearing glasses literally sees the world through predefined frames, humans are seeing the Internet through the limits of Google.
Think about that.
If you were a fish living in a fish bowl, would you know the bowl existed? You would certainly know there was an edge to your environment (the glass) but having been enclosed in a bowl throughout your entire existence, you wouldn’t be able to “organize your world’s information” beyond what you could sense. Google is not sensing the world like we do. It can’t see, smell, hear, taste or touch. Yet at the same time, it is largely defining how we experience the Internet. As the Internet becomes an increasingly essential part of our world, the search engine’s limitations become our limitations. These limitations whether noticed or not are limiting your potential to experience the world.
If you have any other related limitations that you think are worth sharing, feel free to post it in the comments. This post is very much a work in progress. As always, feel free to e-mail me if you have any suggestions on how I can make my posts more useful. All of my contact information is available on my profile: Danny Thanks!