Googling Social Discourse: the CEO of Google

“Technology can increase the quantity of discourse, but can it increase the quality?” asked Ed Felten, “Think carefully about the way you design social software to get conversations that are more likely to be fruitful. There is a tremendous amount of science to be done to make any progress on this issue. If we make any progress at all it can have tremendous benefit.”

Felten (above, right), a professor at Princeton University, moderated a discussion on how technology will transform the global landscape, part of the April 17, 2009 Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs. His guest, the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt (Princeton, Class of ’76, above left),  responded to a wide-ranging discussion, including comments on the latest products, Street View and Latitude. For my more complete notes, click here. Some highlights of Schmidt’s comments: 

On international differences: “The key insight is that people are the same everywhere. They want to talk to each other. And people really do care about Britney Spears. It is really very disheartening. The only difference is language.”

Cell phone revolution: “People are carrying phenomenal computing resources. I like history so when I walk down the street, my cell phone could tell me the history of each of the buildings as I walk by. Why not? Google has the information, and the phone has GPS. Now you can have the Encyclopedia Britannica streaming to you. History is the mildest example I can think of.” (They discussed less benign examples.) 

“Now feature phones for $50 to $70 can be subsidized in developing countries for the poor, just living in their huts. If you are a farmer, your wealth is determined by the temperature, weather, agriculture prices, the need to know whether you have to sell the cow to get through a bad month. We think it is fundamental to get that kind of information.” 

International affairs: “I worry that we are locked in the old zeitgeist. The citizens of Cuba would benefit from fax and communication. If you were a dictator, the first thing you would do is shut off all communication and make sure that no one could see what you were doing. The internet works against that. The way you invade these countries is with information.” 

Media: “We use newspaper content with their permission. They have chosen to give that info in return for sending traffic to their sites, which they can monetize. But it does not make up for loss in print revenue, and that’s not a problem we know how to solve.” 

Healthcare: “Why is there not a wikipedia for doctors. Imagine in medicine the collective wisdom on outcomes.” 

Blogs: “There are 100,000 blogs created per day, and the average number of readers is one.”

Personal note about attending a celebrity event at Princeton University: I watched the morning events “live,” managing to get a seat by arriving well in advance of the Google talk. For the 3 p.m. Paul Krugman talk (see below), I was not so lucky. I could have watched from a different room, but since it was to be streamed live from the website, I went home and it worked pretty well. It was hard to read the small print on the PowerPoint slides. And before Krugman had finished (how long before I don’t know, he was answering questions), the website went down and on came some really bad music and a series of announcements about events that had already taken place. There must have been an automatic cut-off at 4 p.m.  So it’s worth it to get there early. 


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