For the last few years, Google has not only taken over the Internet and become synonymous the search for information, but also the company has become a not-insignificant obsession for The Atlantic, and the subject of binary feature pieces -- "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and "Is Google Making Us Smart?" In an interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, James Fallows didn't ask him to choose between the headlines, but rather to elaborate on how Google was changing our lives.
And elaborate Schmidt did. In the calm and fluent tone of a philosophy professor delivering a well-recited lecture, Schmidt explained how the Internet and computer revolution had only just begun.
According to Moore's Law, Schmidt began, "in 10 years every computer device you use will be 100 times cheaper or 100 times faster." That means, he said, that even more than today, computers will be able to do things they're very good at (like remembering things) and people will be able to do things they're very good at (like communicating and making decisions). "And so eventually we'll all sort of settle down to a new world where all these people have mobile devices. You have all of the world's information ... in your hands."
Fallows suggested that Schmidt was being too optimistic. He said the availability of all the world's information online wasn't sufficient to produce a utopian society because people can live in their own fact universes with the fragmentation of information. But Schmidt insisted that the nature of humans was that groups were wiser than individuals, and fundamentally the basis of our religions and governments rested on the potential for good in groups of people. To prevent the spread of misinformation, Schmidt said "Google wants to detect that" by emphasizing "openness and lack of anonymity" online.
But would the future be as utopian for Fallows' employer and other media organizations? Schmidt admitted that many companies will likely fold shop. But once again, he imagined a brilliant future illuminated by the Internet. "Imagine a magazine online that knew everything about you, knew what you had read, allowed you to go deep into a subject and also showed you things that are serendipity. Such products are beginning to be popular. those products are highly targetable. And highly targetable means highly advertisable. Ultimately money will be made. But I don't see another solution involving subsidies or non-profit."
What would a broadband change do for America? Schmidt: "It's a change on the scale of television, air conditioning. We are not in the top 10 in any broadband ranking. If you want to talk about global competition, this is somewhere we're behind by a lot. Is there any way to get to a gigabit? What would it be like to have a one gigabit connection? [It could provide] everything that you use today. HD, no problem. DVDs, no problem. Pay for TV. No problem. All the things we see as separate markets are collapsed into one market [online]."
And what about China, which has been blocking swaths of information online? Schmidt: "The Chinese, being very clever, have implemented censorship on a very small amount, numerically, of information. For the average Chinese citizen, this has not inhibited them. We don't want this model to succeed, because it violates the fundamental principle of the Internet. You saw this in Iran, the phenomenal success of an online movement."
Fallows turned to how American education should adapt to this brave new world, and Schmidt suggested that some teachers structure their lessons around, well, Google.
"I was required to memorize the counties of Virginia," Schmidt said of his childhood education. "Why did I have to do that? Why didn't I just use Google? A lot of education seems to repeat. Let's imagine a class where the professor says there's no textbook. For every class I'm going to give you a set of subjects to research, and then we're going to have a conversation ... Some would succeed. Some in the class would ask their friends. Some would be asleep at the wheel. Learning how to learn, how to ask questions when you have [all the world's information] in your purse or on your belt, is the next great task."
In the question and answer session, one student asked whether technology was actually making us happier. "I have an iPhone. When I think about life three years ago, I'm not sure that I'm appreciably better off." Schmidt had an elegant reply: "There is evidence that humans as a group are less happy with more information because of ambiguity." He said it's possible that "society will be much better, but individuals will be less happy because they'll feel more behind. My own advice to you is that there is an off button and it's important." The audience laughed.
To another professor who accused Google of giving his students easy access to subpar information when they should be hitting up the college libraries, Schmidt said of primary sources, "We want that kind of information too. Google should be smart enough to take your students to those sources. The scenario you're describing is like Cliffs Notes. I read Cliffs Notes and did fine. And that distinction is one that will be with us forever. People should understand ... good researching."
Another audience member asked when Google technology would be importable to our brains. Schmidt advised the man to not hold his breath.
Finally, asked about his recent decision to step down from Apple's board, Schmidt said repeatedly that he saw Apple as a partner first, rather than a competitor. "We love the iPhone," he said.
Watch the full video of this session: