The Google App’s “Grand Canyon”: the Current State of Extended Knowledges and Voice+AI

I honestly don’t get exposed to as much advertising as most folks. Between AdBlock on my web browsers, no viewing of broadcast/cable television, a residence in a rural location with few billboards, and a life that is (generously stated) that of a “home body,” I just don’t see a lot of advertisements. Generally, that’s a positive thing — beyond not knowing anything about which movies are currently in the cinema, I don’t miss it AT ALL, and when I stay with someone or sleep in a hotel, I wonder how people can stand TV programming that’s 30% promotional. But, what this relative dearth of advertising in my life, I tend to more notice those pieces that sneak through the firewall.

One weakness in my somewhat unintentional defense against such marketing is my subscription to HuluPlus. For a small subscriber fee, viewers get streaming access to newly released television programs, plus a fairly extensive library of older series and films. HuluPlus, unlike its competitors Netflix and Amazon Prime (both of which I subscribe to as well) typically peppers the episodes with ads, partially because it’s a venture started by several networks to be their streaming “arm.”

One of the ads that’s been getting heavy play on Hulu has really irked me. It’s this short piece from Google, touting the advantages of its smartphone app:

Clever enough ad, isn’t it? That’s one of the best features of smartphones, the ability to instantaneously acquire nearly any piece of information, great for settling anything from barroom arguments to spontaneous curiosity. This is, overwhelmingly, the reason that I have used such a phone since 2009. The appeal of this is nothing new: psycho-philosophers have talked about the ubiquity of information provided by the World Wide Web producing an “extended knowledge” in users for a decade-plus.

Of course, the ad touts the Google App’s supposedly killer feature: the ability of the software to recognize a voice command, understand it, and present relevant information from the prompt. And that’s the current frontier for tech, isn’t it? New technologies minimizing the barriers preventing our brains from more directly interfacing with this technology, and hence, taking the most possible advantage of the extended knowledge that the internet presents. Yep, a great big step into the world of the cyborg — and if you think that’s a crazy proposition, look at the biggest buzz right now: wearable tech like smartwatches and Google Glass, plus the so-called “Internet of Things” that promises to connect everything from your refrigerator to your toilet to the Internet, all to improve…. something!

But alas, this brief 15-second advertisement betrays the real barrier to the full realization of that extended knowledge and cyborg-driven future: neither voice recognition AI nor the internet-as-extended-knowledge paradigm is ready for prime time. Take a look at the script for this piece, because the dialogue reveals the very problem endemic to such tech at the moment:

Young, trendy, sufficiently outdoorsy-looking gentleman: “Whoa! OK Google, how big *is* the Grand Canyon?”
Google app, in a soothing robotic tone: “Grand Canyon National Park has an area of one-thousand nine hundred and two square miles.”

Where’s that sad trombone sound effect app when we need it?

How big is the Grand Canyon? It’s a question that, on the surface, seems simpler than it actually is. As a three-dimensional feature on the earth’s surface, with a geographic extent that is somewhat subjective, there are a lot of ways to answer. Google could have mentioned its length (the path along the Colorado River from narrows to narrows), its width (either average or widest) or its depth (average or deepest). Given its extensive geospatial database — used to power its Maps, Earth and other platforms — presumably it could have fairly easily produced a surface area for the canyon itself, or perhaps even a volume for the void.

However, Google does none of these things. Based on a tremendously opaque (“trade secrets”) series of algorithms that almost certainly combines its Big Data about the desires of the pseudo-democratic internet “mob,” your personal data profile and search history, and perhaps location geocoding derived from the GPS chip in your phone, Google determines that this is the answer you want.

The information presented is accurate, but largely irrelevant. Yes, Grand Canyon National Park covered an area of 1902 sq mi., but much of the canyon itself falls outside the borders of National Park Service property. There’s no chance that the gentleman in the ad was seeking such information about the park itself — that possibility doesn’t work in language, and it doesn’t work in context. Could it just be a “brain fart” by Google’s marketing team? I doubt it; I would find it difficult to believe that any aspect of this advertisement is unintentional, given that it’s still airing and that marketing types thing about EVERYTHING before putting out a campaign.

Is the national park land the *only* Grand Canyon that Google recognizes as a potential destination or feature of curiosity? What are the motivations behind the exclusion of information about the physical feature itself, and the apparent stance of willful ignorance on other points of access for tourists, such as the Hualapai Tribe’s West Rim attractions?

Indeed, this speaks to a growing concern in our society. Yes, our move toward the cyborg — while currently slowed by technology limitations — has its own existential and humanist issues. But, I worry more about the adoption of this limited extended knowledge paradigm and its implications. Already, too many teachers and college professors notice that younger students who have grown into this world of information overload have problems critically sorting through sources, often trusting the first result on Google or a poorly edited Wikipedia entry as authoritative documentation of whatever information is sought. As JB Harley noted with maps nearly three decades ago, the internet — and more specifically, in this case, Google — has a certain level of inherent authority for many that makes its contents difficult to question, its knowledge difficult to criticize. When the information is sorted and presented by an increasingly secretive gatekeeper, emboldened with that inherent authority of the internet, understanding that gatekeeper’s motivations become even more important.

But again, these issues are nothing new. What’s new is Google’s brazen marketing of a demonstrably imperfect technology that further clouds the interface between humans and tech, which is obviously about the bottom line. By promoting the acceptance of this tremendous barrier between critical thought and extended knowledge, and using such advertising to promote this disconnect as an acceptable feature for a tech product, Google is telling consumers that the flawed extended knowledge it offers is “good enough”… Good enough for consumers to continue trusting it enough to use Android, Drive, Gmail and, of course, Search, to provide the company with its bread and butter: personal data.

And that is the most important message of all.


Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

2 thoughts on “The Google App’s “Grand Canyon”: the Current State of Extended Knowledges and Voice+AI”

  1. I run into the "good enough" answer argument daily. "I googled……..and it said…." and it more often than not, the "googler" didn't know what to ask, or didn't know how to read the information or how to ascertain whether it was a credible source. And even if the information is on mark, there is no effort to retain it, or to understand the importance. Frustrating to me as an educator. This is supposed to be the most technological advanced generation, and I am finding that many are so poorly prepared to be students — but they ARE good test takers! (not mine, though…)

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