The PJ Tatler

Google in Retreat: Cuts Google Toolbar, Directory, Labs and More


Google, the octopus-like empire that not only reminds you of who starred in obscure movies from your childhood, but also shows live footage of your street and lets others peek inside your house through your skylights, is cutting back, according to a news story in today’s The Independent, in order to focus instead on its most lucrative ventures:

Contentions‘ Omri Ceren has more, this morning:

The company announced on Wednesday that it was shutting down Google Labs, a service used to offer and refine product ideas. On the Lab site, users get an early look at some of Google’s newest and most experimental ideas and are encouraged to play with and add to them, in an effort to fine-tune products before a full launch.

Instead, Google will now concentrate resources on “core products”, including its search tools, smartphone technology and web browsing. This plan is said by insiders to be at the heart of the vision that Larry Page, the co-founder and newly appointed CEO, has for the company.

Ceren adds:

Mountain View may finally be tiring of the Montessori preschool model on which the company built its geek playground ethos. The search giant just announced it’s shutting down not only Google Directory, not only Google Toolbar, but all of Google Labs, part of a “spring cleaning” meant to streamline the company and help it focus on “making money from its greatest hits.”

Even more fundamentally, the company is being criticized for the concept and implementation of its informal Do No Evil motto. On the implementation side, and just as a small example, Google has begun putting up banners when it thinks users’ computers are infected with malware. That’s a very noble gesture, except it’s also the precise tactic actual malware uses to trick users into downloading – wait for it – more malware. Security experts have reacted predictably.

But even as a matter of theory, Google’s combination of naive techno-utopianism and corporate exceptionalism is taking a public beating. Evgeny Morozov just published a 7,000+ word book review in The New Republic that is, frankly, brutal.

Quoting from The New Republic, Omri Ceren cites this: “Even Levy, for all his hagiographical celebration of Google’s prowess, acknowledges that the company has a “blind spot regarding the consequences” of its actions. That blind spot is entirely self-inflicted. It is very nice that Google employs someone whose job title is “in-house philosopher,” but in the absence of any real desire to practice philosophy such a position seems superfluous and vainglorious.”  Ceren concludes:

The point about “in-house” philosophy – and academia more generally – can’t be emphasized enough. In just the last few years, scholars have gone through generic techno-utopianism (“the Internet will create a world without boundaries”) through democratic techno-utopianism (“the blogosphere will flatten hierarchies and give everyone a voice”) through whatever was going on with virtual worlds like Second Life (“people will be able to put on and take off their racial and sexual identities”) and now back to democratic techno-utopianism (“social media will change everything”). It’s a particularly stubborn version of academic Mad Libs, where you just have to pencil in whatever new technology is in the popular press.

Some of that faddishness is just academia’s “reinventing the wheel” problem, which itself is a result of specialization and the pressure young scholars feel to publish before they can get a sense for their fields. But techno-utopianism seems to have unique attraction, maybe because it thinly justifies reinventing the wheel by bracketing decades of empirical and theoretical work. Because this time everything will be different!

Though how that explains Google’s current direction doesn’t seem totally straightforward.