Have we moved past the personal touch?

Henry Blodget kicked off this month with a manifesto against the New York City restaurant bathroom attendant, arguing that he should not have to share a cramped bathroom with an attendant helping him with his hygiene routine. He got his wish, and the hip restaurant in question restored their patrons’ restroom privacy. Neil Irwin noted, however, that “The fact that Blodget (and all right-thinking people) are a little unnerved by bathroom attendants is a testament to the age we’re living in: one where attentive personal service can be actually a disadvantage for a business.”

Irwin’s own preferences are for booking trains and hotels online, rather than calling a person; for pumping his own gas rather than relying on a New Jersey-imposed attendant; for carrying his own bags at a nice hotel, rather than having a bell hop lug them up. This is, he continues, the result of a century’s worth of progress. In turn-of-the-century Britain, as depicted in Downton Abbey, the wealthy have teams of servants to provide personal service in every facet of their lives, and even the middle-class had household help. Agatha Christie “recalled that she couldn’t have imagined being so rich as to afford an automobile, nor so poor that she would not have servants.”

Over the last century, however, the rise in per-capita incomes combined with enormous advancements in home appliance technologies to render the valet uneconomical and obsolete. Yet we have not given up everyday servants altogether. Just as the dishwasher and the microwave replaced the cook, and the washing machine and vacuum cleaner replaced the maid, and just as all those machines extended their services down the economic ladder even to those who never dreamed of having servants, so we are in the process of adopting a new servant for everyday life.

Or so Google hopes.

As Megan Garber discussed in detail this spring, Google has been endeavoring to transform the basic relationship of search from being human-initiated to machine-initiated. While Apple’s “Siri” aspired to be a personal assistant, “an assistant, ideally, knows your desires even better, and even sooner, than you do.” That intuitive, personally-attuned servant is what Google Now aspires to be. Google Now is a system that learns your habits, your favorite locations, your appointments, everything that you have put into Google’s disparate services and quite a bit more from what it can guess. It takes that information and tries to present it to you when you need it. Pick up your phone when you’re leaving work, and it will tell you if there is traffic on your usual route. Wake up in the morning and get the day’s forecast. Wander down the city sidewalk on your visit to New York City and get alerted to a neat museum you’d like, right around the corner.

As Garber said in April, “The capabilities here are still very much in their early stages.” That certainly corresponds to my experience experimenting with Google Now through the summer, which was, in a word, terrible.

Yet with as much information as we freely give our friends in Mountain View, it is hard to see them failing for long. When they do work out the worst of the kinks, we will presumably be presented with a service that will usually give us much of the information we want when we want it. Open the phone and get the score if your favorite team is playing (perhaps it will be wise enough to hide the score if your team is getting blown out), or see showtimes when it gets to be Saturday night. Google Now doesn’t have to live up to Larry Page’s highest prophecies to start to be relied upon. And reliance is the most important short-term goal for Google.

Early in John Steinbeck’s epic novel East of Eden, the intelligent, wise, and humane Chinese manservant Lee explains the servant’s potential power:

“A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence. … He’ll keep a bad servant rather than change. But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce, reduce him to terror as a discipline, or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped, and beaten anyone I’ve worked for and come away with thanks. … I don’t know any profession where the field is so cluttered with incompetents and where excellence is so rare.”

The important thing to remember about Google is that its users are the product, and its advertisers the customers. The ideology of organizing the world’s information and making it accessible does matter to them, and does guide their endeavors. But Lee’s lesson should not be neglected. As we outsource the mundane and seemingly insignificant aspects of our lives to algorithmic assistants, we empower Google to subtly shape the contours of our everyday existence. That nudging power would be very valuable to advertisers and other commercial interests.

A manservant is not fitting with the spirit of our age, as Irwin indicates, seeming uncomfortably intimate as well as undemocratic. Yet with a personal aide, there was an immediate human relationship to be navigated and developed, for better or for worse. Impersonal assistants may be more comfortable in their sterility, but the implications of dependence remain.