Clutching our crystals

(This post may only demonstrate that I have no sense of humor.)

Browsing on Gmail recently, I noticed a little Easter Egg describing how Google 1 classified an email message:

Google Magic Screenshot

Yes, it’s a fun comment. Cute. If you get it. Which most people will. But Google services operate at scale:

If even one tenth of one percent of Gmail users see that message and genuinely believe Google has magic—if they fail to get the joke—then Google has done real harm.

Perhaps I am a stick in the mud. But I believe more care needs to be taken with such remarks. Google does not have magic. They have algorithms and data. Even the most complicated, black box neural network is not “magic.” Their systems are knowable and they have a responsibility to portray this fact accurately.

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

Carl Sagan

Emphasis mine.

  1. Disclosure: I run a project at the University of Vermont that is supported by a gift from Google Open Source. ↩︎

Jim Bagrow
Jim Bagrow
Associate Professor of Mathematics & Statistics

My research interests include complex networks, computational social science, and data science.