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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, November 14, 2011

What would Google Do?


In fact, What Would Google Do? proved to be an engrossing and thought-provoking read – although the early stuff about turning customer complaints on their head (as it were) and using them as an intelligence tool to help improve design and/or maintenance is the stuff of common sense which I used forty years ago when I was a young politician trying to reshape municipal services. Except that, now, Blogs, Twitter and Facebook clearly give “the crowd” (that’s us) much more power – and not only negative (complaint) but positive – “your customers are your ad agency”. Later in the book, indeed, he explores the likelihood that various “middlemen” organizations such as advertising agencies may indeed become redundant. One review put it well
The principles he unearths from close observation of Google’s practices range from the obvious, like the importance of enabling customers to collaborate with you, to the apparently mystical mantra “focus on the user and all else will follow”.
In the second part of the book Jarvis offers ideas and suggestions for how various industry sectors can become more “Googley”, and although many of the proposals are more imaginative and speculative than realisable, by the end you get a real sense of the transformative power of applying the principles he has outlined. The core assumptions of transparency, connectedness and openness really do make a difference, and business models in the media, the car industry, venture capital and even the benighted banking sector would be transformed if they were taken seriously.
Sitting at the core is the desire to do more with data, to take the details of our daily lives, aggregate them with the information that companies inevitably gather and then – and this is the Googley bit – give us access so we can make our own choices eg a restaurant that open sources its menu and lets customers rate the wines as well as the service, Jarvis’s goal is to help us all to think differently.
It doesn’t always work, and the attempt to contrast Al Gore’s approach to solving the problems of global warming through regulation and control with that of Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who want to invest in finding ways to reduce the cost of renewable energy, ends up as an unconvincing paean to the free-market worldview that now seems rather dated in the midst of a banking-induced recession. But the overall tone is of infectious optimism in the power of innovation that is remarkably convincing
.
I wasn’t quite so convinced. At one stage I started to wonder about the profile of these energetic and restless complainers who rush to put their experiences online and use comparative data to make their purchase decisions. It sounds suspiciously much like an idealisation of the rational (wo)man which is the basis of the economics doctrine which has just been blown away and is being replaced by behavioural economics. However, his section on the future of the book is provocative –
books are frozen in time without the means to be updated or corrected, except via new editions. They aren’t searchable in print. They create a one-way relationship. They tend not to teach authors. They cannot link directly to related knowledge, debate and sources as the internet can. They are expensive to produce. They depend on shelf space. They kill trees. There are only a few winners (20%) and the rest are losers.
Except that browsing a remaindered book section is an exercise in discovery. As the first review puts it -
deep down this is not really a book about Google as much as an extended meditation on the benefits of innovation, openness and the imaginative use of new technologies of networking and information processing. Jarvis uses Google’s undoubted success and continued development as a fulcrum for his rhetorical lever, attempting to move corporations, governments, educational institutions and the medical establishment away from their settled practices and into a space where innovation can flourish and where creative destruction leads to progress.
A critical review is here. The author uses his website to compose his books and there is an interesting assessment of some of the reviews of his latest here.
Two years ago I blogged about the Zhukoff book Support Capitalism which has a more measured (if more inaccessible) assessment

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