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Google I/O

Google Is Proposing Pretty Solutions for the Monsters It Helped Create

Google's 'Digital Wellbeing' app and Google News updates are peak Silicon Valley: Too addicted to your apps? Here’s an app to help you.

Sophie Kleeman

Sophie Kleeman

Image: Google

Sundar Pichai, Google’s slickly outfitted CEO, opened the company’s annual developer conference today with a joke.

“Towards the end of last year, it came to my attention that we had a major bug in one of our core products,” Pichai said. “It turns out we got the cheese wrong in our burger emoji.” He then poked fun at the half-full beer emoji, which was later fixed, along with the burger, after an apparent uproar.

If this were any other I/O conference, Pichai’s dad joke would have remained just that: a lame but harmless attempt at diffusing the pressure of a big event. But the past year represents the closest thing to a reckoning Silicon Valley has experienced in a decade. Jokes like that don’t land when your biggest bug—or, as some might argue, feature—was an employee who wrote a 10-page diatribe lashing out against diversity at the company.

Yet this blithe approach bled into the rest of the keynote. Google announced a slew of new things today, but there were two in particular that caught my eye: its “digital wellbeing” initiative, and a shiny new version of Google News.

The former encourages us to unplug: “We know that people feel tethered to their devices,” Pichai said. “We think there’s a chance for us to do better.” The effort includes something called Dashboard, which will show users exactly how they’re spending their technological time. Apps like YouTube will take part, too, notifying people when it’s time to take a break. There’s even something for the kids: “Be internet awesome,” which will “help kids become safe explorers of the digital world.” (It is not, as one would be forgiven for surmising, part of Melania Trump’s latest online bullying foray.)

The revamped Google News, for its part, will use AI “to bring forward the best of what journalism has to offer.” It involves a technique called “temporal co-locality,” which I will let Google’s head of news product Trystan Upstill describe:

“[It] enables us to map relationships between entities and understand the people, places, and things in a story right as it evolves. We apply this to the deluge of information published to the web at any given moment, and organize it around storylines, all in real time. This is by far the most powerful feature of the app, and provides a whole new way to dig into the news.”

Intentionally opaque technobabble aside, this means features like “Full Coverage,” which will provide an “unfiltered view of events from a range of trusted news sources.” As Google tells it, the updated news platform will provide users with a sophisticated and personalized catalog of what’s happening in the world.

What Pichai and Upstill neglect to mention is that these pretty, enticing products are cynical and cannily devised solutions to problems that metastasized under Google’s Sauron-esqe eye. It’s Silicon Valley at its purest: Here, why don’t you use our products to help you navigate the problems we helped create?

Google built its empire on the back of technology’s more addictive elements. And why wouldn’t it? It’s good business, baby. The more time we spend Googling our worrisome health symptoms or watching YouTube, the more cash the company brings in. The gut-punch comes when it tries to claim piousness in the face of such a ruthless pursuit of profit. It’s laughable: One of the world’s most powerful technology companies is perturbed because we’re all using our phones too much.

Its role in the slow poisoning of our news landscape is perhaps less obvious—and slightly harder to remember when companies like Facebook are hogging most of the spotlight—but it’s there. Google News has propped up utter bullshit, conspiracy theories and propaganda. YouTube has helped blathering snake oil salesmen spew their toxic garbage to millions. An entire encyclopedia could be written about Google’s staggering influence over the business of media.

And yet here it is, offering up a nice tool to help us wade through the news sludge. Never mind that it proposes to provide an “unfiltered view” by using “trusted” sources, with no transparency about how those sources are weighed against each other. Never mind that it will use artificial intelligence to do this, because there’s nothing like a robot to fix a deeply complex and constantly evolving ecosystem. Never mind that, according to Upstill, “the more I use it, the better it gets,” which is remarkably out of step with that whole unplugging thing.

One could make the argument that, well, at least Google is trying. I’m sure someone will. But Google is worth billions and billions of dollars. It is one of the most powerful entities on the planet. The time has long passed for “trying,” particularly when it amounts to producing a few morsels that will likely help the bottom line of the company over the collective.

But it evidently has more important things to think about. It’s busy looking out for ways to prevent the next burger emoji fiasco.