Google's biggest problem: It's too rational

When engineers are driving the bus, the rest of us are likely to get run over -- that's the real problem with Google, Facebook, and Microsoft

This morning I read an interview with former Googler Douglas Edwards on the Wall Street Journal site about his new book, "I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59." Edwards said something about his former employer that hit the bull's-eye about what's wrong with Google (and many other companies).

Google's problem? It's too damned rational.

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In a response to a question about whether the G-twins Sergey Brin and Larry Page really take privacy seriously or just pay lip service to it, Edwards's reply really struck me:

Google doesn't have enough irrational people working there, and the rest of the world doesn't have enough rational people occupying it. So, Google needs more irrational people, I think, so that they'll better understand how people react to things like targeting ads in Gmail.

In the minds of Sergey and Larry, there was no privacy issue with Gmail because all the messages were scanned by machines, not humans -- case closed, end of story, let's move on to even geekier topics. Only it wasn't:

I talk in the book about this moment I had with Sergey, where I was handling customer service and I said, "We need to talk about the privacy issue around Gmail," and he just stood right in front of me and he looked at me and he said, "There is no privacy issue." Because in his mind, there was no privacy issue. The facts were that Google was not reading email, Google was not targeting email. So the facts said there was no privacy issue. He didn't understand that people's perception was reality. Reality was reality.

This short passage speaks volumes about what always seems to go wrong at big companies like Google (Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Facebook -- take your pick), which I've mentioned a few times before in this space. They live inside their own realities, separate from the rest of ours. They lose all perspective. They become like cults with their own language, culture, and moral precepts; sometimes they even have their own food.

Last week I wrote about Google's painful attempts to explain to mere mortals the complex machinations of how Google+ works. You can tell Google is really trying to make it simple enough for us single-celled irrational non-Googlers to grok. But the Googlers can't do it; they don't know how. Even Google Translate can't make the leap between Googlespeak and human.

Facebook is no better, as anyone who's ever tried to parse its endless online FAQs can verify. If I hear one more Facebooker talk about "the social graph," I may commit seppuku. Do you know anyone who isn't a) a Facebook employee or b) trying to be a social media guru who uses phrases like "the social graph"? Normal humans don't talk like that. But Facebookers do, and that's a problem.

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