06.03.09

How Google Trained Your Brain

With Bing, Microsoft has created a faster search engine, says Douglas Rushkoff. But also a greedier one. Why Google’s information-based ethos will trump Microsoft’s commerce-driven approach.

In a few ways—just a few, but real enough—Bing represents more than Microsoft's ability to purchase a memorable but (necessarily) meaningless one-syllable name for the latest version of its search-engine competitor to Google. Bing is a genuinely alternative and, dare I say, "intuitive" approach to bringing people and information together. The real question is who is being rendered unto whom.

Google pays us for running its partners' ads on our blogs and podcast sites; Microsoft pays us to buy stuff from its partners.

First off, after a week of test-driving it, I can report that Bing is fast and friendly. Faster than Google at assembling what amounts to a more usefully arranged assortment of links, images, and media associated with your search. The speed probably has as much to do with the fact that the entire world is not banging on Bing's servers the way they are on Google's, but it nonetheless feels uncommonly nimble. Do a video search and you instantly get a giant page of thumbnails—roll the cursor over one and it starts playing right there. Do a search for "Boston to New York" and you get a page of airfares, the direction prices are trending, and which travel days are cheapest.

But while it’s clear that Bing brings a more prepared and digested Web to users, it’s equally clear to me that Microsoft is preparing and digesting data in a particular way, hoping to promote commerce-driven behaviors in a way information-centric Google does not. The video demo for Bing exposes Microsoft's bias. Rather than look up an old girlfriend or figure out who won the 1956 Olympic decathalon, the first two searches the narrator launches are for "Home Depot" and an airplane ticket.

That's why the search engine's most touted "feature" is the opportunity to get cash back from Microsoft on purchases made from its partner merchants. Sometimes, not always, the 3% or 4% rebate Microsoft promises makes its endorsed merchant the cheapest on the list. While there are no user ratings for various retailers, we presumably assume that if Microsoft has entered into an arrangement with a particular seller, someone in a high place is watching out for us.

And that's the way it's ultimately always been with Microsoft, the plantation master of the digital world. Surrender to the Microsoft mother ship, and she—or at least her big crew in Redmond—promises to make you the most productive worker and, now, the most satisfied customer. Instead of relating to users as content creators, evaluators, and meaning makers, Microsoft takes on that role for itself. Microsoft is the parent, taking care of all that critical thinking in the background, so we can get on with the business of life: producing and consuming.

To be sure, Google's current shopping portal, Froogle, is a mess. It throws up an almost random assortment of products from an equally random assortment of merchants. PriceGrabber and nearly every other price-comparing shopping aggregator does the job a lot better. But Google has never really been about the Web as mall, or the user as consumer. And that's where the Google model and outlook (however they may have evolved) are markedly superior and more 'Net-native than Microsoft's.

While Microsoft engages with us as consumers, Google treats us as producers. Even their business models expose their differing biases. Google pays us for running its partners' ads on our blogs and podcast sites; Microsoft pays us to buy stuff from its partners.

Microsoft has now created a portal dedicated to the needs of those whom the company sees as the end user: the shopper buying products from all those companies, and the Internet surfer looking for content. But neither is the Internet user of the 21st century. We are as likely to be creating content as consuming it, selling something online as buying it, and sharing our way of evaluating or contextualizing information as having it contextualized for us. (As this very site encourages, "read this, skip that.")

The user-friendliness we get in return for surrendering our agency isn't even worth anything, anyway. We no longer need syntax programs to translate our sentences into computer-friendly searches because we know how to construct Boolean search terms ourselves, fairly effortlessly—without even knowing what the word Boolean means. We already know how to speak Google, which is a language much closer to that of the indigenous creatures of the Internet, computers. Now that know how to talk to our machines directly, the services of an interpreter with agendas of its own is step backward.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia , ScreenAgers , Media Virus and, most recently, Life Inc.