Washington Post Death Spiral Watch: Alec MacGillis Edition
The Regulation of the Mixed Economy in Action

Tom Slee: Mr. Google's Guidebook

Tom Slee writes:

Whimsley: Mr. Google's Guidebook: Mr. Google is lying! (I wrote) His Guidebook no longer reflects the paths set out by travellers as they navigate their lives. It is no longer an outside observer of people's wanderings. Google's success has changed the way people find their routes. Here is the way it happens. When a new cluster of destinations is built there may be a flurry of interest, with new signposts being erected pointing towards one or another of those competing locations. And those signposts have their own dynamics, perhaps forming a power law as set out by Mr. Shirky or perhaps something different, as Mr. Shalizi has explained.

But that's not the end of the story. After some initial burst, no one makes new signposts to this cluster of destinations any more. And no one uses the old signposts to select which particular destination to visit. Instead everyone uses Mr. Google's Guidebook. It becomes the major determinant of the way people travel; no longer a guide to an existing geography it now shapes the geography itself, becoming the most powerful force of all in many parts of the land.

So my Netflix Prize essay got selected by Mr. Google's machines as one of the more interesting and insightful commentaries - the machines are perceptive, we must grant them that - and it soon appeared as number 3 on the list of recommended destinations for anyone looking for "Netflix Prize", right after the official site itself. And now no one is guided here by those few original links - the relevance of their effect is as vestigial as the effect of the Vikings' property rules. Mr. Google's Guidebook has cemented the verdict in place long after the early discussion has lost its relevance, like the edges of the Chinese take-away and like Mr. Wainwright's guides fixed the routes of the paths he charted. With little new being written about the Netflix Prize the Guidebook is the major source of new journeys. And so the Guidebook changes the pattern of the landscape from a rich, linked one with its power law shape (or other shape). Instead, there is a two stage process in the evolution of much of the landscape. The first stage is a brief discussion, from which Mr. Google picks a few winners. In the second stage, after that discussion has faded away, the continuing popularity of the winners is assured simply by their positioning in the Guidebook. Mr. Google has singlehandedly changed the way people travel, changing the selection of destinations from an ongoing referendum to a brief discussion from which he anoints a few winners.

Mr. Google no longer gives you what you want, he selects a winner from the crowd and then tells you it's what you wanted.

I was just about to put down the pen, exhausted now, when I heard a creak and the door to the library opened. I lurched around to see coming through the door --- Mr. Google himself! His face was no longer subservient as befits a butler. Instead it was smirking. And his teeth - surely they had not been so pointed before. I shrank.

But Mr. Google did not attack me with a knife, or bite me in the neck. Nothing so dramatic. He simply looked over at my scribbled notes and sighed a world-weary sigh.

You don't understand do you sir?

What do you mean Google? I understand everything now.

Really? This document here? And what does that matter if no one reads it? And who decides whether anyone can come here to view it? Exactly how do you propose to publicize your absurd opinions if not through me?

My shoulders sagged. Defeat. Of course, there was nothing I could do. "So you'll silence it then. Keep people away. My revelations will moulder, along with that masterpiece about the toilets".

No (said Google). That's what I mean - you really don't understand. You see, I don't care if people come and look at these hen scratches or not. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. As long as I can sell a few advertisements on that page of my guidebook I really don't care. After all, what better praise for a Guidebook than to help people find out what's wrong with it? Just leave your manuscript with me. I'll look after it.

He held out his hand, imperious now. I felt disheveled after my long night. My brain was spinning. I could see no alternative. In a vain attempt to maintain some self-respect I drew myself up to my full height and pulled back my shoulders, adopting a bearing appropriate for my class. "All right Google. Here you go. Don't lose it now."

"Thank you sir. You can be sure I won't lose it. I never do lose anything you know."

I turned away from him and stumbled down the stairs. I had ended up giving him an order, and he had accepted it. Yet I could not shake the impression, even as he brought me a glass of sherry that evening in my sitting room, placing the silver tray beside me with deference, that Mr. Google - far from being a butler and travel guide - was more a master than a servant.