Google's Utilitarianism

As Stephen Baker argues in The Numerati, his new book about the centrality of mathematical data in the epistomology of knowledge, the company that is most shaping this new numerical age is Google. But the science of numbers, Baker reminds us, is not new:

The science that developed over the centuries, and we now have experts who are comfortable working with ridiculously large numbers, the billions and trillions that the rest of us find either unimaginable or irrelevant. They are heirs to the science that turns our everyday realties into symbols. As the data we produce continues to explode and computers grow relentlessly stronger, these maestros gain in power. Two of them made a big splash in the large 1990s by founding Google. For the age we're entering, Google is the marquee company. It's built almost entirely upon math, and its very purpose is to help us hunt down data. Google's breakthrough, which transformed a simple search engine into a media giant, was the discovery that our queries -- the words we type when we hunt for Web pages -- are of immense value to advertisers. The company figured out how to turn our data into money.

While Baker is thoughtful on the business and marketing aspects of the Google age, he is less successful on the moral front. I was disappointed, for example, not to find Jeremy Bentham -- the ethical godfather of Numeratistas like Larry Page and Sergei Brin  --anywhere in the book. It was Bentham, of course, who is the best-known proponent of utilitarianism -- the numeratist philosophy that quantifies morality on the mathematicatical principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." 

In his excellent book The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton reminds us that most new technological thinking is actually quite old. That is certainly true of Google's utilitarian outlook on the world. Their Do No Evil credo is indebted to Bentham -- as best seen in their Project 10 to the 100th announced earlier this week. This project is using the utilitarian language of quantifying happiness to introduce a $10 million project to improve the lot of mankind:

Never in history have so many people had so much information, so many tools at their disposal, so many ways of making good ideas come to life. Yet at the same time, so many people, of all walks of life, could use so much help, in both little ways and big. In the midst of this, new studies are reinforcing the simple wisdom that beyond a certain very basic level of material wealth, the only thing that increases individual happiness over time is helping other people.

230pxjeremy_bentham_autoicon And it's not just in the moral realm that Brin and Page are indebted to Jeremy Bentham. The Google search engine which, as Stephen Baker explains, allows the numerati to quantify the habits of its users, is simply a higher tech version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, the all-seeing prison Bentham designed to enable moral reformers like himself to observe and thus improve the behaviour of criminals. When, I wonder, will the utilitarian numeristas at the Googleplex add two and two together and realize that they have in their hands the greatest engine for reforming the human condition in the history of mankind. Since their digital panopticon sees everything we do, why doesn't Google award that $10 million to itself and use the money to numerically improve all of our well-being by directing us to websites that will maximize our happiness (those sites would, of course, be determined by the wise crowd).

Now that would be progress. Even the everlasting Jeremy Bentham would be nodding sympathetically in his "Auto-icon" resting-place at University College, London (Benham -- that dude over there in the hat -- is still watching us) at such an utilitarian use of technology.