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June 17, 2010

NRK media day – Michael T. Jones of Google

I am at the Norwegian national broadcasting company’s meeting. 1,500 people from all sides of the company. The day opens with someone who seems to be fulfilling the role of jester — a woman dressed in a flamboyantly orange dress, eliciting laughs and applause, including by lifting her skirts and sticking Michael T. Jones’ head into her bosom. (Jones, Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, is there as the morning keynoter). The comedian introduced a woman who seemed to deliver a poem — the morning has been in Norwegian so far — and now, after offering Jones another head boob, the morning begins. In other words, so far just another boring American-style conference.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Jones begins by saying that he only has questions, not answers. Publishers seem uncomfortable with the Net, he says, even though they’ve always dreamed of enabling everyone in the world to see their content. He points to from Pew. (Joseph Pew said, when asked what he would do as president, ” Tell the truth and trust the people,” which Jones recommends as an approach to most of life.) The site shows that since 1980, the viewership of the evening news in the US has halved. Broadcasters ask where the audience went and how to get them back, which is the wrong question, he says; they went away by choice and you can’t force them back.

Jeffrey Cole at Annenberg surveys what people are doing online, over time, across multiple countries. Only a third of the people would strongly care if their daily offline newspaper went away. 30% of Americans read the news everyday online. Things have changed, and that they changed so quickly means that people didn’t like how things were. It’s like opening up the door of a prison, he says.

Rupert Murdoch is very concerned that the Net is destroying the news and publishing business. His solution is to charge for it, but it puts him in awkward position: He has to show it to you so you’ll want to buy it, but take it away from you so you’ll pay for it. That’s up to him. But it’s hard to do because so much of the news comes from wire services and is available in multiple papers. Jones says he’s glad Murdoch is charging because it’s an experiment, but is skeptical that if people aren’t reading newspapers, they will once they have to pay for it.

Thomas Jefferson thought information was the best way to improve life. “The information of the people at large can along make them safe…” [I need to look this up because I suspect “info” doesn’t mean in that quote what it sounds like today. Later: I looked it up. It seems that “the information of the people” meant education, not information in our current sense.] Everyday there are 1B Google searches. There are 1.3B email users worldwide. There are 1.4B people online. 2B youtube videos are watched daily. [Wow, twice as many as searches.] 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute. More people are watching YouTubes than broadcast television. Even so, only 22% of the world uses the Internet. “Everything you think is good about the Internet hasn’t happened to most people yet. But it will.” Probably through mobile phones.”What is the Internet? It’s a thing you see on a mobile phone.” Or so it will be for most people.

“Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Eric Schmidt told Michael that that’s the company’s reason for existence, and it makes money just so it’s able to acccomplish it. That’s why they translate, do text to speech, “I think it’s a very noble thing. I think Jefferson would be proud.”

Michael talks about the quest to organize info. He was on a yacht with 6 bedrooms. In each room, the books were color coordinated with the decor. “I thought a person from Google should never be exposed to that, because that’s organizing information stupidly.” Then he shows a Google Earth view of all the ships in the world. (Michael came out of Google Earth.) You can zoom in and get info about each. Or, all the airplanes in flight. Or 100M stars. They have a feature now that lets you place the oil spill anywhere on Earth so you can get a sense of its size. Another feature maps the home towns of the allied soldiers who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; click and you can see their story. Michael’s point is that these sort of tools do something that traditional media doesn’t, contextualizing and providing impact. “Info can be used to shape society.” It’s not Google’s job to do the shaping, he quickly adds. They are just the toolmaker.

He says he was asked to predict 50 yrs ahead, so he looked to 50 yrs ago for a hint. What he saw were Cessnas and Mini-Coopers. Fifty yrs later, they’re the same. That’s because people don’t change that much. But every component part is different. Everything is always changing: growing or dying.

Some change is like a pendulum swinging back and forth; that’s not real change. Instead he points to the drunken walk algorithm: If you walk with a steady sized pace but make random turns, the distance you’ll walk to get from here to there is the length of your stride times the square root of the number of steps. A lot of nature does random walks. It takes 30,000 yrs for a helium atom to get from the center of the Sun to the edge, but then only 9 mins to get to earth in a straight line. When things change wildly, it means the things that are changing are not the important part of the thing (like collars changing on shirts). When you make plans, you want to look for the things that are not changing. [I think I missed part of this. I’m jetlagged.]

Four rules of innovation Michael gives when talking within Google. 1. Info is only useful when it can be understood. (He credits Muriel Cooper.) 2. Things can get better by being simpler. (Bruno Munari) E.g., iPod doesn’t have a speaker or a way to add or delete music. And 40% of the users of Google Earth have never tilted it. 3. “To create, one must first question everything.” (Eileen Gray) 4. “Success can only be achieved with a kind of pioneer spirit and the repeated use of three tools: failure, introspection and courage.” (Soichiro Honda.) People interpret failure incorrectly. Embrace failure as an experiment that gives you data to try the next experiment. As an example, Google’s speech recognition isn’t all that good, but because of the feedback, it gets better. Likewise, you can train their translation software.

How to solve the great problems of the publishing industry? 1. Please users. 2. Please customers. (Advertisers are the customers.) 3. Ask the right questions. 4. Accept change. 5. Embrace failure. 6. See the essence. Be sure you’re solving the right problem.