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Google heals the sick

Don't dial an ambulance, visit a search engine

A fine essay in this month's Harper's blames our problems on the public education system. Writer and former teacher John Taylor Gatto notes that the rise of formalised education in the US coincided with the discovery of marketing. Choices suddenly abounded. But rules were then established that ensured that children remain in a bored, and infantile state for the rest of their lives.

"Genius abounds," Gatto concludes, "Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at [age 12] and then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today... don't let your own children have their childhoods extended, not even for a day."

But hasn't the idolatry of Google - there is no more appropriate word - by bloggers and pundits alike has been one of the strangest outbursts of childishness we've seen in the past year? Strange because Google is simply a private company representing a window onto the world, and strange because bloggers and pundits are assumed to have reached the age of maturity and act like adults, and not starry eyed 14-year old children.

Google Is God - but to prove it, Google can now heal the sick. God must show (s)he can perform miracles, after all.

At an analyst conference hosted by Jupiter Research, co-founder Sergey Brin was warmed up with a little gentle foreplay - the recent reference to "Google as God" - by an executive from a Wi-Fi start-up (inevitably) who then asked, uh, a tough question: "when he did realise just how iconic Google had become?"

"Brin told the story of a user who turned to the popular search engine to determine whether a family member was having a serious heart attack and what actions to take," we learn from Information Week.

With that information in hand, the family got the victim quick medical attention, and a subsequent triple-bypass procedure saved his life. "That was a pretty significant moment," said Brin.

Indeed it was. Because who would you trust to save the life of a loved one, a call to 911 or a trip over to the computer. Let's wander over, shall we? We hope it's turned on, and it's awoken from sleep. OK, start Internet Explorer... hmmm this seems a wait. No, here it is. Punch in some symptoms to the healing search engine.

"Right. Click on the first result. What's this? No, I didn't want an HMO. Oh, I see. The first result is an advertisement. I didn't recognise the subtle color coding. An advertisement is at number one, it looks like an advertisement only it's not numbered. Or perhaps it's numbered from zero, like a proper programming language, only the zero is invisible. Let's not let that hold us up."

While most people would be trying very hard to stay calm, dial, and be brave and not scream - old clever clogs has got just the answer. Now let's continue our life-saving search.

"Number two, Viagra? I don't think that's going to help us here... What's this? A Windows Update Notification? It says it's "critical". It had better be good, brother. OK, I now just have to download this update... Now there's that pop-up window left by the HMO. How do I get back to Google? Someone's IM-ing me."

"Not now please."

Paper Jam

Well, perhaps Sergey is making a subtle joke, because the first thing that really does come up in Google is which advises us: "Heart attack and stroke are life-and-death emergencies - every second counts. If you see or have any of the listed symptoms, immediately call 9-1-1."

Or as we're reminded: "Anyone showing heart attack warning signs needs to receive medical treatment right away. Don't wait more than a few minutes - five minutes at most - to call 9-1-1."

The audience, which Information Week reminds us "who after Wednesday's chat crowded Brin like groupies circling a rock star" was told by Brin that "with that information in hand, the family got the victim quick medical attention, and a subsequent triple-bypass procedure saved his life".

Wouldn't it have been a darn sight quicker if the family had just rung 911?

(And we hope that "Information in hand" of Brin's wasn't intended to be interpreted literally: and that doesn't mean that the family member waited to print off a stone tablet copy of "Ring 911" ... because we all know how long that can take.)

Now we must note that the icy Brin concedes that the fellow's heart was actually saved by a surgeon. But he wants to link this miracle to Google, or else why even bother tell us this anecdote?

Why would Brin say this? We must at least entertain the possibility that Sergey has gone mad, but since the rest of his comments appear to be quite rational, this doesn't appear likely. More possibly his handlers - and Brin hates public appearances because, as he has said, "he doesn't like public scrutiny" and its attendant obligations - fed him a schmaltzy line. And they did, literally a heart-stopper that could bring an Oprah audience to a deathly hush - or a Liberace concert to a candle-flickering halt.

Why is Google now in the business of saving lives? The answer to that is simple. A good search engine can build up brand recognition within a month and pose a serious challenge within six months, assuming it can successfully scale its technical capacity. Now that rivals have cottoned onto PageRank™ and all the nuisances that entails (Google has downgraded PageRank significantly), a rival search can be eating into Google's lunch in no time. It might even want to try Google's early tactic of not serving up annoying ads for the first couple of years...

A halo of innocence also helps combat increasing regulatory scrutiny. And every commercial search engine company is going to be under pressure from gamers. Divinity helps there, too.

So Google needs to be something much more metaphysical. It must be the oracle, "uniquely democratic" and now, we learn, a savior of lives. Google is now marketing itself as The Healer, Inc. Who could fall for this but children?

Well, childishness appears to be rampant within Google and among its most devoted followers, if we are to believe the PR. The colored bouncy balls are a major part of the brand of course, and we're told that the founders whizz around on that most iconic child's toy, the $5000 Segway scooter. It sounds a lot like Michael Jackson's Neverland, but the new God on the Block has worshippers outside the company too, who oblige us with childishness. Google-fans such as Joi Ito, the blogging VC, who sees the mission goal for his company, Neoteny, as "the retention of childlike attributes into adulthood. We believe having these childlike attributes are essential to identifying and creating value because they enable people and organizations to embrace the intense change caused by the dynamic effects of technology on our society".

Surely only childishness can induce you to putter around with a computer at a time-critical moment of family crisis, rather than dialing emergency services? A suggestion that not only is in very poor taste - as in, not very classy - but it's also one that can cost lives.

Google has been pretty good most of the time so far, and I have no more idea than you do whether it survives five months, five years or 50. But maybe it will be remembered for making most explicit the connection between marketing and infantilism. This kind of marketing can only be swallowed by children.

As for me? I know that when I see the symptoms of a heart attack among kin - I'm going to call a doctor. Fast. ®

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