The Societal Ills of Googlenomics

Last year three researchers at the University of Michigan published this paper. The abstract explains the study quite well. Anyway, in their experiment they asked students inside a well-stocked university library to answer a series of questions using only the physical reference materials in the library. On average it took 22 minutes, which is 15 minutes longer that the 7 minutes it took to answer the same question, on average, using Google. What can be interpreted from their findings? Google makes answers cheaper and thus allows us to ask more questions.

Equipped with this information, Hal Varian (the chief economist at Google) talks about the economic impact of Google in the video below. Using some back of the envelope calculations, Varian suggests that Google adds $65 billion of value a year through time savings using search. I think that is a bit presumptuous.  However, it would seem to me that if were going to start quantifying things, we need to quantify everything. How do we quantify all the lost output from the people who are creating things for “free” that turn up in search engines? They could certainly be adding to the GDP if they got off the web and did “real” productive things. Also, how do we quantify the productive uses of Google vs. the non-productive? Surely not all answers from a search query return a similar amount of economic value to the world.

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Imagine a world where search engines are no longer free. I know this is hard to fathom, but this may become a reality some day. On his blog, Kevin Kelly asked the question: Would you pay for search?

My answer to Kelly’s question is “yes”. I would pay to use a service like Google if the people who created the content were also getting paid. Nothing a search engine does is valuable unless there is content for it to deliver. The people who make search engines valuable, however, don’t see any financial reward for their efforts (with the rare exception of course). Companies like Google make oodles of money at the expense of the unpaid creative class. This, in my opinion, is the real problem.

Within the current system there is no online middle class, which is a key to having a healthy democracy. The root of the issue is that we neglect the costs associated with the free culture movement. What happens when the machines get really good and it becomes increasingly harder and harder to find a job that pays? Anyone who makes a living doing something that could be replaced by a machine is likely to lose their job as technology continues to improve. As a society we don’t seem willingly to pay for the things that are uniquely human anymore: music, art, writing, and film (it’s only a matter of time until the film industry is radically changed).

Sadly, the culture of free is starving out the creative middle class. In future societies it appears that you’ll either be fabulously wealthy or broke. More and more people will fall into the latter category as the machines get better and better. Although I despise his solution, I’ll acknowledge that Karl Marx once warned us about something to this effect.