Theory of mind is that thing that a two-year-old lacks, which makes her think that covering her eyes means you can’t see her. It’s the thing a chimpanzee has, which makes him hide a banana behind his back, only taking bites when the other chimps aren’t looking.
Theory of mind is the awareness that others are aware, and its absence is the weakness that Google doesn’t know it has. This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.
With fundamental technologies like PageRank and AdWords, with key initiatives like Google News and their content publishing tools, and with today’s announcement of Knol, Google has to develop a Theory of Mind as an organization, or face increasingly difficult challenges to the adoption and success of their new efforts.
1. Google’s famous slogan isn’t “do no evil” — it’s “don’t be evil”. That’s setting the bar damnably low, but moreover it’s forgetting how a flawed person might take that instruction. One could well justify making some seriously wrong choices rather frequently without feeling that the line of being evil had been crossed. A morally challenged person could argue that being 51% righteous and 49% evil with one’s actions could clear the bar.
The predicate here is not that Google intends to be evil. Rather, the reality is that any organization consisting of 16,000 people, all of whom are privileged and believe themselves to be of above-average intelligence, is going to face ethical and moral concerns. If even 0.1% of employees ever reckon with such issues in a year, that’s an average of more than one evil person per month. In an organization with so much power, information and control, that’s more than enough to do serious damage, especially since the mere appearance of misbehavior could cause serious problems.
An awareness of how others might see this slogan, and its intent, would make obvious the fact that almost no one considers himself evil, thus making this goal meaningless.
2. Connecting PageRank to economic systems such as AdWords and AdSense corrupted the meaning and value of links by turning them into an economic exchange. Through the turn of the millennium, hyperlinking on the web was a social, aesthetic, and expressive editorial action. When Google introduced its advertising systems at the same time as it began to dominate the economy around search on the web, it transformed a basic form of online communication, without the permission of the web’s users, and without explaining that choice or offering an option to those users.
Worse, the transformation was retroactive and the eventual mechanisms for opting out were incomplete in that the economic value could not be decoupled from the informational value. Inevitably, spammers arose to take advantage of the ability to create high-economic-value links at very low cost, causing vast damage to the ability to use links as a purely informational exchange. In addition, this forced Google to become more and more opaque about the refinements and adjustments it makes to its indexing algorithms, making a key part of their business less and less transparent over time. The eventual result has been the virtual decimation of communications systems like TrackBack, and absurdities like blogs linking to their own tag search results for key words in lieu of useful links, in an attempt to appease a search algorithm that they will never be allowed to fully understand.
An awareness of how a transformation in the fundamental value of links from informational to economic could have led Google to develop a system that separated editorial and aesthetic choices from economic ones, preventing the eventual link-spam arms race.
3. Adding features like comments from sources in a news story to Google News is an admirable attempt to bring unique value to aggregated news stories. But tasking a technology team with the duty to solicit and manage these comments ignores the fact that verifying, recording, and reporting a source is fundamentally an act of journalism. By trying to shoehorn a work of research into a primarily technological process, the news team faces the chance of fraud, abuse, error, or most likely, low participation and eventual abandonment.
An awareness that some types of information gathering require judgment and reasoning that’s not well-handled by even the most clever algorithms would help Google make its transition into being a company that creates original content.
4. Google’s announcement of Knol shows that they understand some of their key business drivers very well; With as much as 5% of the search result links for popular terms going to Wikipedia pages, a solution to capturing some of that traffic in an environment that Google can control and display ads on makes good business sense. The idea of sharing the earnings from that content with authors is also good business sense. But as with Google Pages (Page Creator), Blogger, Google Notebook, JotSpot, Google Docs/Writely and other tools, Google has not proven that it understands content creation and publishing as well as it understands its core businesses of search and advertising, or even its ancillary tools for communication and collaboration.
Worse, Knol shares with Google Book Search the problem of being both indexed by Google and hosted by Google. This presents inherent conflicts in the ranking of content, as well as disincentives for content creators to control the environment in which their content is published. This necessarily disadvantages competing search engines, but more importantly eliminates the ability for content creators to innovate in the area of content presentation or enhancement. Anything that is written in Knol cannot be presented any better than the best thing in Knol.
An awareness of the fact that Google has never displayed an ability to create the best tools for sharing knowledge would reveal that it is hubris for Google to think they should be a definitive source for hosting that knowledge. If the desire is to increase knowledge sharing, and the methods of compensation that Google controls include traffic/attention and money/advertising, then a more effective system than Knol would be to algorithmically determine the most valuable and well-presented sources of knowledge, identify the identity of authorites using the same journalistic techniques that the Google News team will have to learn, and then reward those sources with increased traffic, attention and/or monetary compensation.
A Footnote: There are many, often similar but sometimes conflicting, definitions of the idea of “Theory of Mind”. Though imperfect, an explanation closest to the one I’m referring to here can be found in this essay. I’m very open to criticism that I’m being inaccurate or overly broad here, but I’m more interested in opinions, analysis, or experiences with Google as an organization.