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Aug. 25, 2010, 9:30 a.m.

Googling serendipity: How does journalism fare in a world where algorithms trump messy chance?

Twelve years ago, when I was reporting on the pending Microsoft antitrust case, I learned that what was really at stake wasn’t immediately apparent in the legal briefs. It wasn’t the browser market (remember Netscape?) or whether Windows should be able to run somebody else’s word-processing program. Rather, it was how control was exercised over the places where we learned, created, and engaged in critical thought.

One of the best thinkers on the topic was Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. He told me at the time that the critical question for Microsoft was not whether the company encouraged innovation — it did — but rather how financial pressures dictated which innovations it adopted and which it let wither. The Microsoft software suite, he noted, wasn’t very accessible to people with learning disabilities or those with low incomes.

Fast forward to 2010, and now we hear from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, another powerful technology company that controls the tools of creativity and expression. Schmidt recently talked to The Wall Street Journal about the potential for applying artificial intelligence to search, suggesting that the search engine of the future would figure out what we meant rather than find what we actually typed.

Schmidt seems to be pushing the idea that the future — or, more accurately, each of our individual futures, interests, and passions — all can be plotted by algorithm from now until our dying day. The role of serendipity in our lives, he said, “can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically.”

Really?

According to Webster’s, serendipity is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” So if the essence of serendipity is chance or fortune or chaos, then by definition, anything that a search engine brings to you, even on spec, isn’t serendipitous.

I don’t know whether Schmidt’s comments should be chalked up to blind ambition or to quant-nerd naivete. But it’s troubling that Schmidt seems to discount the role that human nature plays in our everyday lives and, ultimately, in guiding our relationships with technology.

It might be that Schmidt’s vision for the search engine of the future would serve us well in finding a new restaurant, movie or book. But if Google really wants to take the guesswork out of our lives, we should be asking the same question that Shneiderman put to Microsoft. How might financial pressures shape Google’s “serendipity algorithm”? What content — journalism and otherwise — will it push our way that will shape our worldview? And, to Shneiderman’s point, what limits does it impose?

I think it’s safe to say that some good ideas don’t lend themselves to being monetized online — witness the rise of nonprofit startups in bringing us investigative, public affairs, and explanatory journalism. How might they fare in Schmidt’s world order?

I caught up with Shneiderman on Monday, and he agreed that this is one of the key questions that should be debated as we depend more and more on a “recommender system” in which companies like Google or Amazon use massive databases to anticipate our needs and wants. Public interest groups and other nonprofits that can’t afford the right keywords could be most vulnerable in these systems, Shneiderman said. “How far down the list do the concerns of civic groups get pushed?” he asked.

It’s fair to ask companies what considerations and factors might be weighted in their search formulas, Shneiderman said, but it isn’t clear what level of transparency should be expected. “What is a reasonable a request to make without exposing their algorithm and their business practices?” he said.

I can’t say either. But I do think there are some lessons that Google can take from the history that Microsoft has helped write.

One lesson is that what’s good for the bottom line doesn’t always jibe with what’s best for consumers. A dozen years ago, the Netscape browser was regarded by many as more as more functional, but Microsoft saw it as a threat. So it bundled its own Internet Explorer browser in its operating system and effectively pushed Netscape out of existence.

Another lesson is that it isn’t always possible to divine what people will want in the future based on a profile of what they (or people like them) have wanted it the past. Indeed, some of the most successful technology companies — Google included — have succeeded precisely because their vision for the future was radical, new and compelling. Microsoft once played that role to a monolithic IBM. But today, as Microsoft’s market valuation has been eclipsed by that of Apple, it has become debatable whether Microsoft remains a consumer-driven company.

None of this should be interpreted as an anti-capitalistic rant. We’re all better off for Google’s search box, and it’ll be interesting to see where Schmidt’s vision takes the company.

Rather, it is a suggestion that even the most elaborate algorithms and high-touch e-marketing can’t address every human need.

One of the best vacations I ever took was when I pulled out of my driveway in Raleigh in late August 1991 with no particular destination. Two days later, I found myself in North Dakota, discovering places I never would have appreciated based on my past interests or those of my friends and peers. The experience was so compelling to me precisely because it was serendipitous.

That trip has served as an important reminder to me ever since. When we don’t know what we want, sometimes what we really need is to figure it out for ourselves.

POSTED     Aug. 25, 2010, 9:30 a.m.
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