The Philosophy of Google Desktop

by Mike Shea on 19 June 2006

Every so often I get sucked in to new gadgets and widgets. I find my mind spins and whirrs like a little wind-up robot as I fiddle with tiny floating windows. What are these things? How do they improve my life? How will they make me happier or better? Sure, such things are cool, but I have a window in my basement office, why do I need a little bit of code to tell me what the weather is?

I joke that the internet has given me attention deficit disorder but I don't think that's far from the truth. No one needs to suck in news as fast as it hits your desktop. There is no action I will take based on the fact that a University Opens a School for Hackers and that Air Pollution is turning China Dry. Such things might be interesting once a day but who needs to see these factoids constantly? What will it do to the human mind to suck in so many little tidbits of unactionable information?

Computer widgits seem to be counterproductive to the purpose of a personal computer. They aren't items upon which to focus, they are items that steal our attention away from the focus of our activities. I don't need a constant streaming snippit of my photo collection, it just steals my mind from that upon which I should concentrate.

How ironic is it that we have a widget taking up processing power to tell us what our processing power is currently at?

Google Desktop offers one clear feature of importance, one that will give me back time and make my computer do what I want it to do. Google desktop searches all of my stuff and lets me find things. That's useful. Humans don't do well with hierarchical lists of crap, we work well with little bits of thought captured into words. Google has trained us to throw words into a box and expect results - now we can get that from our own machine.

What are machines for? How should networks work? Where are the vulnerabilities? How do our lives improve by these little machines and cables? I don't think we've fully explored these questions. Sure we get pompously named applications like iLife, but do we really know what something like that should contain?

Computers go way beyond their name; they no longer just compute, they connect us. There used to be a technophilosophic idea that "the network is the computer" but in our new Web 2.0 age, the people are the computers and the machines just connect us and process our behavior and thoughts.

Computers do a lot for us. They help us meet people in a strange overcrowded city of isolation. They help us buy houses. They help us learn about the world around us, behind us, and in front of us. They help us speak. They help us hear.

They also waste a lot of our time. I spent a good few nights over the past month dorking around with Ubuntu and a broken installation of Windows XP. It shouldn't take two nights to get iTunes to run - of course the problem was my own. I should never tinker, optimize, or customize - the result is never worth the effort.

Mike's Rules for Computer Use:

Use computers, programs and applications that directly benefit my life.

Don't customize, optimize, or tinker - the result is never worth the effort.

Use only what you need and use the simplest tool for the job - Notepad2 is better than Microsoft Word.

Avoid widgets and on-screen gadgets. They steal time instead of save it.

Continually ask how a current tool or action will benefit the rest of my life.

Get away from electronics regularly. Go read a book and write a story.