Why aren’t Google and Facebook enriching our lives?

Apple, Facebook, and Google have soaked up a huge percentage of humanity’s wealth. Why aren’t they enriching our lives more?

Since I’m a Gmail user, let’s take Google as an example. Google knew that I was going to Moscow (itinerary emailed to my Gmail address). Google knew my schedule (Calendar). Google should know my various interests by now, from reading my Gmail messages and Docs content. Due to me being of such an advanced age that I still use email rather than text, Google definitely knows my real social network (the people with whom I correspond via email).

Why didn’t Google suggest to me a whole bunch of cultural events? People to meet? Groups to join? The stuff that Google tries to help with is stuff that was already pretty easy to do in the pre-Internet days, e.g., book a hotel or airline ticket. Even in those areas, Google is simply following the mid-1990s leaders such as Expedia.

I don’t think that one can argue that enriching lives is unprofitable and therefore these profit-seeking companies aren’t interested. Selling tickets to events should lead to commissions. Connecting people to meet in public places, such as restaurants or bars, should also lead to commissions. These could be a lot more lucrative than what Google gets from selling mouse clicks.

Readers: if we assume that human boredom leads to a lot of purchases, e.g., of movies and games, why aren’t companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google chasing this market through actual social connections?

21 thoughts on “Why aren’t Google and Facebook enriching our lives?

  1. Social media cannot enrich our lives. Only other people can enrich our lives. Social media can help to communicate the informational and cultural resources that other people create but there’s a rub … and the fault lies in our selves:

    Information Resistance • Ω

  2. Enriching lives is hard, even for people themselves, but google does help clear up some bottlenecks – by helping to organize your info (try Google Trips app https://get.google.com/trips/). It’s not magic and it doesn’t tap into your social network I think, but it does bring together your reservations, itenerary and some useful “Need to Know” “Day Plans”, etc. I find it very useful compared with hunting in my email, or saving places I want to visit somewhere else. Of course they’ll probably serve up a bunch of ads for concerts and whatnot based on your email if that’s what you look for.

    My guess is they work on hard fundamental problems (AI in Google Photos is pretty neat) and don’t devote resources to some things except as hobbies without some serious cost benefit analysis. The various platforms that Google, MSFT, Amazon will build, will make it easier for someone else to build other life-enriching stuff. Until they do, try some more apps (Culture Trip is another nice ‘travel’ app – mostly just goings on based on filters, where you are, but still nice for life-enrichment)

  3. What’s being sold as artificial intelligence is the same switch statement logic which existed 20 years ago. They can’t really infer meaning from emails. A staff has to create one off prompts for various holidays & weather conditions. At least modern artificial intelligence employs a lot more people than 20 years ago. The ultimate program would compare all the information for everyone to reveal who your soulmate was. There are private efforts, but it’ll never be made public.

  4. Expanding on what @Ivan says, if Google gets commissions on activities you actually purchase tickets for, they only profit when you make a purchase. But selling ads, they profit regardless.

    There’s a fine line between based on your interests vs. based on the advertisers’ interests. Do you really want your travel itinerary determined by the highest bidder?

  5. It’s the lack of anonymity and immediacy. When the net was mostly anonymous, people took risks. Now if just a bunch of cagey posturing and sanitized false identities. When people could take risks, they did. Now they can’t (too much personal risk), so they don’t. That’s why Facebook and Google feel so dead. The lack of immediacy too. Think back to #IRC, it’s anonymity and immediacy and how it allowed you to establish real relationships with anonymous people who could take risks, put themselves out there, and do it with real-time immediacy. That’s when the internet was engaging. We’ve lost that. And it’s not coming back. The Wild West is now gentrified. And everyone is afraid to rock the boat, so all the waters are calm, shallow, and dead.

  6. > Apple, Facebook, and Google have soaked up a huge percentage of humanity’s wealth.

    But none of that came from their users. You, as a user, aren’t paying them for their services, so they have no way of knowing how much those services are worth to you, much less how much services they don’t currently provide, but could if they devoted resources to them, would be worth to you. Standard economic arguments imply that such a situation will be inefficient.

    (If your response is that those services aren’t worth enough to you to pay for them, then how much would they really “enrich” your life?)

    I expanded on this idea a while back on my own blog:


  7. In 2013, Credit Suisse estimated the sum total of human wealth to be 241 trillion dollars, estimated to grow by 40% to 334 trillion dollars by 2018. Google’s share of that 241 trillion dollars was 0.14%. Approximately 70% of that 0.14% is owned by mutual funds, pensions funds, etc., and is part of folks retirements savings and is otherwise enriching folks who invest in things like mutual funds.

    Let’s suppose that Google didn’t exist and that there was no search engine to take its place and suck up an equivalent amount of society’s wealth, that the 70% of ordinary investors who invested some small amount of money in Google had some equivalently performing stock and were made whole, and that the remaining 0.04% of societies wealth owned by individuals with very large stakes in Google were distributed equally back to humanity. We’d all get $25. That might be a good trade for the 15% of the population of the world for whom $25 is two weeks pay. (And that 15% of the population certainly wouldn’t be helped by intelligent software helping them to manage their lives, which seems to be what you mean by enriching people’s lives.)

    But would having an extra $25 in your pocket be a good trade off for going back to 1997 search tech? Or not having free unlimited e-mail? Or free maps and driving directions to wherever you might want to go? Or developing countries having a smartphone equivalent of the iPhone at a fraction of its cost? Or any of the other tools and services that Google has provided to humanity mostly for free. Not to mention all of the businesses that exist because AdWords gives them a relatively cost-effective way to reach customers all over the world.

    I’d love to have smarter software. But I don’t think that trying to guilt them into giving us more because they have some preposterous share of society’s wealth is really fair. IMO, the companies that you mention are already enriching lives quite a bit, which is why they have the market cap that they do.

  8. Really? Not just you are deeply wrong as you are also unfair. Wrong because once you get to your desired location, if you search for things, Google will take your location into consideration and will present you with better results. It does not proactively suggest you groups of people to join, wine tasting houses, there is just too many things but it will enrich the results you are looking for.

    Could it go further and try to figure out what you like based on all the knowledge you have indirectly shared with it to then make suggestions for you? Maybe, but they already get enough backlash over privacy concerns but I much prefer being the master of myself as opposed to submit myself to a machine that will tell me what to do.

    In any case, whether one wants to enrich that debate, it’s very unfair to claim that Google does not enrich your life. Sometimes people forget… they forget some of the most valuable services on earth that helps saving lives, enables businesses, finds paths and brings the so much wanted information to people. if you think Google does not enrich your life, please stop using its search engine and its maps oh and your email. Do you at least have any idea of the kind of technology that is keeping your mailbox clean of phishing everyday? https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/31/google-says-its-machine-learning-tech-now-blocks-99-9-of-gmail-spam-and-phishing-messages/

  9. I work for Google. Views are my own.

    Have you tried Google Now? It does know about your travel itinerary and can make personalized recommendations.

    But in general, this is a hard problem for privacy reasons. We engineers can’t actually look at your emails, since that would be creepy and illegal. So it’s hard to develop automated systems for analyzing emails.

  10. It seems that Google and its kind not just ‘soaked’ wealth but also created some value that did not exist before. Of course, it does not look like an end of the journey and can be improved upon.

  11. > Why didn’t Google suggest to me a whole bunch of cultural events? People to meet? Groups to join?

    Many companies tried that, but the technology is far from perfect and the experience suggests that emailing users out of the blue leads to high rates of unsatisfaction. Even more importantly, the unsatisfied customers will be the visible ones on the social media (“yes, I did drink a bit too much last Friday, but how dare Google suggest an AA meeting!”).

    Much better to just get paid by displaying the ads.

  12. Alex: Thanks for commenting. I have tried Google Now on Android phones. I do like it, but it seems to handle the shallow stuff best. It figures out that my parents are coming in on a JetBlue flight and gives me the status. But I already know my parents and I was already planning to pick them up at the airport. So Google Now saves me from some typing, but it doesn’t change my life (or even my plan for a single day).

    I want Google to tell me that there is a conference happening in San Francisco next month and that it would also be a good time to visit my cousins, whom I haven’t seen in a while. The message should come with a prepackaged analysis of when it would make sense to fly out there (airfare research) and where it would make sense to stay. It shouldn’t propose a casual trip if the cost is going to be way more than I have historically spent (e.g., if airfare BOS-SFO-BOS is more than $800 round trip the idea would be aborted).

  13. Phil, when the robot overlords figure out how to completely enslave you, Google will be doing that. For now, you need the illusion of making those choices yourself.

  14. Enriching a life means different things to different people. How would they know you want recommendations if you don’t ask (if they snooped every email and send me unsolicited spam email about it I would be furious). When you use a a service like the wishlist site https://DreamList.com, you can share privately what you want to do next, and if you are interested in recommendations for anything from trips, to purchases, to services, with you can ask for it with just a click. If it’s not initiated by you however, it is spam.

  15. momo: Trying now. Facebook thinks that I need to become morbidly obese at the Boston Pizza Festival (conflicts with my MIT reunion, which I did mention on Facebook). They want me to skip the reunion and go the Boston Pride Parade (but I don’t fall into any of the categories of people for whom pride is listed as a justified emotion). They want me to take the kids to a Black Lives Matter symposium on a Saturday morning. And… Oh no! Facebook thinks I should go to the “All White Escape” day cruise on August 20. That does not sound like a celebration of diversity! (Fortunately they are also inviting me to Feminist Fiber Art Fairy Festival in Cambridge.)

    Based on my postings about opera and symphony, Facebook recommends “Florida Georgia Line: The Smooth Stadium Tour featuring Backstreet Boys”.

    Based on my occasional postings about red wine (and never one about beer), Facebook suggests a “rum & brew tasting”.

    Based on the athletic physique that I present in photos, Facebook thinks I should run in a 10K on June 25.

    Okay, now I found something awesome: Boston Tennis Classic 2017, July 7 at Harvard.

  16. The question is, “Why are Google and Facebook not enriching our lives?”
    The short answer is, “Google and Facebook are both far Left, just this side of Leftist terrorist organizations.”

  17. . facebook, apple, etc are networks, effectvely jut tools to get some task done.

    under these metrics, dont you think they’ve succeeded? why should these tools enrich your life any more than a car would, or a house. the benefit for the cost are way higher for google, the time you save and unlimited information organized for everyone to search.

    facebook helps you reach out to virtually anyone in the planet instantaneously. This by itself is enriching humanity.

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