Is Google Too Smart for Us?

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Is Google Too Smart for Us?
Google's debut of its Instant "predictive search" product last week rubbed some people the wrong way. Not the product itself, which fills in search results as you type queries and is both cool and just a bit scary -- but the attitude behind it.

In a blog post titled "Why is Google so condescending?" ITworld's Mike Elgan spanks Google for talking down to us mere mortals.

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Google's Gabriel Stricker, director of Global Communications and Public Affairs, opened the Google Instant launch this week. And he was incredibly condescending to the audience.

He said that the reason Google holds events like this one was that "we hear from a lot of you that with the kind of breakneck pace of innovation that we go through at Google, it's nice for us to kind of let you catch your breath." He went on to tell the audience that they would "hear from our Search rocket scientists in a second who will hold your hand through the latest and greatest of what we're up to."

So Google is so awesome that the company has to pause so the rest of the world can catch its breath? And we're all so stupid that Google geniuses have to "hold our hands" as they explain things?

For some reason, possibly his unabashed love of all things Google, TechCrunch's Michael Arrington can't quite take Elgan's complaints at face value:

Mike Elgan criticizes Google for being condescending in a recent column on one of the dead tree IT rags...

...this looks to me like an example of media mass manipulation I wrote about recently. At first blush, knowing how the whole press game works, Elgan is pissed off at Google for something or other and wrote this post.

But even if it really is something that's been nagging him for some time, I just don't see it. Google is far less arrogant than they were even a few years ago. And even I, possibly the most sensitive and defensive person you'll ever meet, don't see Elgan's examples as condescending in any way.

First, for someone who believes he knows "how the whole press game works," Arrington should probably know that ITworld is not a "dead tree IT rag." It's a Web-only publication, and Elgan is a prolific blogger. Of course, that would have required at least 15 seconds of research, something that -- judging by the many fictional news stories that have appeared on TechCrunch over the years -- doesn't appear to be part of Arrington's "press game." Maybe he should try Googling it next time.

Second, Arrington believes Elgan's blog post must be motivated by some personal grudge against Google -- like maybe he ate a bad shrimp at a Google press party. Because, as Arrington wrote last week, he knows "the truth about how the press and journalism really works." Well, maybe that's how TechCrunch operates (it would explain a lot) but it isn't how reputable publications work.

Arrington adds that he's never seen Google more humble, despite the fact he probably wouldn't recognize "humility" if it bit him in his sensitive and defensive hindquarters.

It's true Google has suffered several setbacks this year that ought to make the search giant more humble -- the failure of the Nexus One, the Buzz privacy debacle, the WiFi spying scandal, the defiant challenge to China that turned meek pretty quickly, and the fact that Facebook has started to surpass it as the Web's top destination are just some examples that come immediately to mind.

That doesn't mean the Googlers don't still believe they're smarter than everyone else. And they may well be. If the world were one big game of Jeopardy, Google would probably be the reigning champion, while the rest of us would be leaving with empty pockets and some lovely parting gifts.

But it's a geeky, engineering kind of smart that doesn't always translate well to the real world, as those bonehead comments by Stricker (and others by Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin) demonstrate.

Anyone who's spent any time around serious computer geeks knows this is exactly how many of them act. It's a dangerous mix of intelligence, arrogance, and cluelessness that can turn people against you.

For what it's worth, Google is trying much harder to communicate directly with journalists and bloggers these days, instead of merely issuing pronouncements from on high via one of its official blogs. It does seem to be trying to change, at least on the surface.

Then again, there are quotes like the one reported by The Register's Cade Metz:

On Wednesday, Google cofounder Sergey Brin was asked for his opinion on the ever-evolving "human-machine relationship." He responded by recounting a conversation he'd had just a few days before. "I'm embarrassed to admit that one of the phrases I was toying with is: 'We want to make Google the third half of your brain.'"

At least he was embarrassed. That's a start.

Google would do well to listen to the Mike Elgans of the world and ignore the Michael Arringtons. Frankly, so would everyone else.

Got a grudge against Google (or TechCrunch)? Don't hold back, e-mail me:

This story, "Is Google Too Smart for Us?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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