The Automated Web & Us

Isn’t technology great? It lets us do all these magical things that we couldn’t do five, ten, fifteen years ago. It not only brings convenience but new possibilities into our lives. How else would we connect with our friend from high school who now lives 3,000 miles away? How else could I actually see the person I’m talking to on the phone? Technology represent new experiences that we didn’t have yesterday.

The flip side of technology is that it can get in its own way. More accurately, we – the humans that use technology – tend to let it 06twinkies01-650get in our own way. We tend to become intoxicated with the possibilities of it such that we forget what we lose as a result.

If you peek back into the 1950’s, you’ll see a world that promises salvation through automation and mass production. The Anything-o-Matics of the world would free us from the mundane, allowing us to reach new levels of enlightenment. We didn’t have to worry about cupcakes going stale because they would never go stale.

As we look back today, things didn’t exactly turn out that way. The past fifteen years has seen a backlash against mass production and a migration towards personal, artisanal, hand-crafted anything. We’re pushing technology out of the picture. You can spend $75 for a generic laptop bag or you can spend $250 for a hand-crafted, made-to-order laptop bag. The message is clear: give me less automation and more humanity.

It’s no wonder. We don’t want item #349853 off the assembly line. We want the limited run. We want to feel special. We want to pick up the scent of another human being that poured their care and attention into this thing that I just acquired or purchased.

The Automated Web

The web’s march is in many ways is a march towards optimization. You can publish in seconds. Others can find it within minutes. Google will index it soon after. The web, as its own entity, can’t help but optimize itself. And we, as pedestrians, can’t help but lock into its speed. And as we lock into that speed, we lose our way.

As I stare at my Twitter stream, I don’t feel like I’m staring at anything more substantial than data. Yes, it’s humans creating bits of information, but it’s humans behaving more like individual APIs than humans behaving like humans. By imposing constraints and reducing the overhead to post to near zero, Twitter tempted us with a whole new way of communicating – and many of us embraced it. As a consumer of Twitter, I find myself staring at that assembly line as product whizzes by. It’s nearly hypnotic and rarely impactful.

When someone puts hundreds or thousands of words into a blog post, we get more than just a blog post. We get a bit of that person. Their tone, their intent, their mood, a glimpse into their intellect and the things that shape their thinking. We get something hand-crafted. It’s becoming more significant for someone to pause the web and write something of meaningful length.

The Human Search Algorithm

Google has been under fire of late. The effectiveness of search has undoubtedly gone down. I’ve noticed this for a few months. The first page of results is often cluttered with results that don’t serve to inform but rather treat content as a sort of Trojan horse, carrying a mountain full of ads in its belly.

In the race to make money on the web, the intent and thoughtfulness behind content creation has been hijacked. A blogger’s intent to share an experience with her new digital camera has been replaced with the need to produce something, anything to match up to search terms for the purpose of serving ads. The result is higher velocity production of content to keep up with the flow of queries trending on Google. The outcome: hastily produced, low quality pages that are driven by the wrong motives.

When people say “Google is broken,” they’re really saying that Google has been fooled. We expect Google to sift through and separate content that is produced with “pure” motives and content that isn’t. Put differently: we want Google to prioritize and bump us up if we’re behaving like humans. If we’re behaving like machines, we should be punished for it.

Google, the governor of the web’s information, is being asked to get the house in order. We, its constituents, are demanding this icon of technological progress  be less technological and more respectful of our own humanity.

“So which is it young fella?”

Of course, this isn’t Google’s fault. Just as it isn’t the fault of Hostess Cakes to sell highly processed snack foods. When technological advances are introduced, we become enamored with them. Eventually, we awake from the trance and seek out authenticity and purity. We’re growing sick of highly processed, artificially flavored stuff. We want the real deal.

We want more human and less machine.

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