Life After Google

From the Slope of Hope:

About a week ago, a good friend suggested I check out a book by well-known economist and technology author George Gilder named Life After Google. Based on the strength of this recommendation, I purchased it right away, and I spent the entire weekend reading it. I wanted to share my thoughts about it with you. Before I do, I'm going to be lazy and provide the summary of the book from the Amazon site:

The Age of Google, built on big data and machine intelligence, has been an awesome era. But it’s coming to an end. In Life after Google, George Gilder—the peerless visionary of technology and culture—explains why Silicon Valley is suffering a nervous breakdown and what to expect as the post-Google age dawns.

Google’s astonishing ability to “search and sort” attracts the entire world to its search engine and countless other goodies—videos, maps, email, calendars….And everything it offers is free, or so it seems. Instead of paying directly, users submit to advertising. The system of “aggregate and advertise” works—for a while—if you control an empire of data centers, but a market without prices strangles entrepreneurship and turns the Internet into a wasteland of ads.

The crisis is not just economic. Even as advances in artificial intelligence induce delusions of omnipotence and transcendence, Silicon Valley has pretty much given up on security. The Internet firewalls supposedly protecting all those passwords and personal information have proved hopelessly permeable.

The crisis cannot be solved within the current computer and network architecture. The future lies with the “cryptocosm”—the new architecture of the blockchain and its derivatives. Enabling cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether, NEO and Hashgraph, it will provide the Internet a secure global payments system, ending the aggregate-and-advertise Age of Google.

Silicon Valley, long dominated by a few giants, faces a “great unbundling,” which will disperse computer power and commerce and transform the economy and the Internet.

Let me state here and now that my record for having a clear-eyed vision into an unknown future has been spotty. At one extreme, at the tender age of sixteen, I wrote The World Connection, which foretold with astonishing accuracy the changes that computers connected to one another would have on all our lives. On the other extreme, when I was first shown a new thing called a "web browser", I shrugged my shoulders and went back to what I was doing.

Thus, the fact that I remain completely unimpressed with how blockchain is going to change all our lives and save the world shouldn't mean too much. But it's still true. I doubt myself so deeply that I just keep reading volume after volume, trying to get through my thick skull what the big deal is. Yet I remain wholly unswayed.

Let's turn our attention to Gilder's book. Since I don't have any one sweeping point to work up toward, I'll just share scattered thoughts in bullet point form:

  • Overall, the book is very well written and a pleasure to read. I have not read Gilder's work before, but it's clear that he's brilliant, well-connected, and well-read. The book is also just challenging enough to require me to reach for a dictionary every few pages. It's intellectually challenging, but not impenetrable.
  • Having said that, I must confess that it becomes clear that Gilder wants to, among other things, be recognized as a facile and creative writer. The incessant use of alliteration, paragraphs packed with lists, and unnecessarily-complicated words gets tedious after a while, if not aggravating. Allow me to offer a specific example from page 219: "Ivy institutions are pursuing the fancies of a declining intellectual and business elite, full of chemophobic nags and luddite lame-ducks quacking away at their miasmic pools of old money as the world whirls past them." Ohhhhh-kay.
  • There are some large portions of the book dedicated to stuff I couldn't care less about. For example, there's an entire chapter about nothing but the real identity of blockchain creator Satoshi. Honestly, I could not care less whether he lives next door to me or whether he's a fictional nom de plume of a group of seventy-three ponytailed hackers who self-identify as beavers. I. Don't. Care.
  • The biggest problem I have with this entire topic is that "blockchain" seems to be the answer to everything. How do we combat climate change? Blockchain. How can we track ownership of digital content, no matter how trivial? Blockchain. How do we maximize the best distribution of limited resources? Blockchain. I could be stone-cold wrong, but I sincerely think blockchain is a fringe technology that has garnered vastly more attention than it deserves, even though there is surely SOMETHING to it (it's not clear what, though).
  • Putting it a different way, what problem does this solve? The foundational premise of this book seems to be what a terrible thing it is that people like you and me use Google Maps, Google Docs, Gmail, Google Drive, etc., all for free, which surely means that we are being "used" to get private information for their own advertising-oriented purposes. My answer to this is: so what? I don't care who knows what I'm searching for, nor do I care if Google has an awareness of where I'm online. As long as they're not live-streaming me sitting on the toilet, I'm a happy guy (to which I would add I'm sure this would be everyone else's preference as well). So.......there isn't a problem in my life of which I am aware that blockchain is going to heroically solve, and I don't mind having a few ads on my screen which I can ignore in exchange for some great online tools that I need.
  • My biggest argument of all is one I've brought up before: technology is really, really, really imperfect. In fact, it's pretty damned broken. I've been waist-deep in tech virtually my whole life. I find it perverse that my TRS-80 went from "off" to "ready to use" in the span of one second back in 1979, whereas now my Windows-based laptop goes from "off" to "ready-to-use" in........what.........three minutes? Five? More? Yes, it's vastly more powerful, but all technology, whether it's hardware, software, or somewhere in between, has always had flaws, bugs, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. It brings to mind one of my favorite television clips of all time:

In spite of all this, I'd still recommend the book. It is rich with information and ideas, and as I said early on, I don't trust myself to foresee the future with complete clarity. I find cryptocurrencies to be fascinating as financial instruments - - and, I might add, terrifically chart-friendly - - but that doesn't mean that blockchain is going to make a damned bit of difference to anyone except the microscopic portion of the population that bought cryptos when they were cheap.