January 24, 2015
How Google Is Wrong About the Internet
Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, said this week that the Internet will disappear — “There will be so many IP addresses, so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with, that you won’t even sense it,” he said. Now, Eric is a very smart fellow; he’s worth several billion dollars more than I am (the score is Schmidt, $8.3 billion, me, $0 billion); and he even has a better hairline than I do despite being two years older. He made his comments in Davos at the World Economic Forum, known as the gathering spot for very serious people. So his remarks have been getting quite a bit of attention and consideration.
But he’s wrong.
He’s wrong for the same reason that people have been wrong since I started covering technology for the Wall Street Journal going on 30 years ago. That suggests to me that people will keep being wrong for the same reasons for some time to come, including in the world of insurance, where we are all having to try to figure out how the Internet of Things will play out. So let me point out the two issues that mean that even very smart people in very serious settings can’t just assume the sort of technological utopia that Schmidt is describing.
- Decision rights
- Transaction costs
Let’s look at those issues in the context of an article in the New York Times many years ago that got me mad enough to start thinking about the blind spot in the first place. A very bright reporter, and something of a friend, began by painting an idyllic vision of an automated future: A person hopping out of bed would step on a sensing device that would let the house know he was up. The house would then turn on CNN in the family room, start the coffee and probably do some other things that I no longer remember at this remove.
Nice image, right?
But what if I don’t want to watch CNN? What if I’m more interested in watching ESPN that morning? Or my kids were already awake and watching cartoons — would my stepping on the pad change the channel despite the screams that would surely result? What if I’m heading off to meet someone for breakfast and will have coffee there, not at home that day?
A key question with any sort of automation is: Who owns the decision rights? In the case of CNN and the coffee, do I want the house to have the decision rights, or do I want to retain them?
How much effort do I have to put into the automation? Is it really worth it to put a sensor under my carpet or even to lay something on top of the carpet? What does that cost? How long does it take me to configure the TV and other systems in the house so that they react appropriately?
Those transaction costs then have to be compared against the benefits, which, in the case of CNN and the coffee, are trivial. It’s just not that hard to pick up the remote and click the TV on or to fix the coffee in the morning (which you would have had to do before going to bed in the automated scenario.)
People tend to get so excited about the George Jetson-like possibilities that they ignore decision rights and transaction costs and paint visions that simply won’t occur in any reasonable timeframe.
That’s how we ended up with:
— The talk back in the early ’90s about “agents” that would pull together what some called “The Daily Me,” a personalized newspaper that would gather all the news that it knew you were interested in and mix it in with your schedule and other things to lay out your day for you. The problem was that these personalized papers took a huge amount of effort and were so inaccurate that no one would turn all the decision rights over to an agent. What if you didn’t have time to read the news that day? What if you had become interested in some topic that you’d never read about before — how would your agent know?
(I took the talk of agents somewhat personally because the three pieces I wrote for the Wall Street Journal that easily got the most response from readers in my 17 years there were about: a time I sailed across the Atlantic in a small boat, having never sailed before, in what turned out to be some monster storms; my two-week career as a professional wrestler; and my mother (a piece written with my younger brother). I guarantee you that no one who picked up the Wall Street Journal the day those pieces appeared was looking for anything about sailing, professional wrestling, my mother or me, so no one would have ever seen them in a world of agents.)
This talk of agents is cropping up again, by the way, and is surely part of the reason that Schmidt wants to talk about having the Internet disappear. Google wants to make search so efficient that its engine knows what you want to find even before you think to look. The company has made impressive strides — if you type in Elm Street while looking for directions on your Android phone, Google Maps usually guesses quickly and correctly which Elm Street you want — but that’s a long way from the world that Google is describing, and the transaction-cost and decision-rights issues will still get in the way.
— The fuss over the “Internet refrigerator” that still crops up from time to time. The idea is that your refrigerator would sense when, say, you were low on milk and reorder it for you. But that requires an awful lot of engineering, both in the refrigerator and in whatever system of grocery delivery would be used, and only makes sense if you’re turning just about all your shopping over to your refrigerator — if you have to go to store anyway, it’s simple to grab some milk.
And there is always the issue of decision rights. What if a family goes on vacation? How long will the refrigerator keep ordering? I have a friend whose 21-year-old son drinks a gallon of whole milk a day. When the son — who is 6’5″, weighs 285 pounds and looks like he could bench press a cow — is home, they can’t buy milk fast enough, but when he’s gone at school they don’t need any. Do they have to let a few gallons of milk sour before the refrigerator figures out the son is gone?
— The excitement about home controls: remote-controlled lighting, the Internet thermostat that will sense who’s in a room and adjust lighting levels and temperature to personal preferences and so on. Those are just an awful lot of work for not much benefit — you can always flip a light switch or adjust a rheostat — and doesn’t resolve the issues that come up when one person likes a room cooler than the other.
Technology will make plenty of tasks disappear, but let’s not be too hasty. We need to think through the costs, the benefits and the potential for errors and conflicts in automated systems, to make sure we don’t fall victim to the seductive tendency to ignore transaction costs and decision rights.
The Internet won’t disappear in my lifetime, which I’m assuming will be at least 30 more years. I won’t even have sensors that turn on CNN and start my coffee when I get out of bed.