Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sword of Data

My Dad was intrigued by the phrase "the sword of data" in Douglas Bowman's essay about leaving Google for Twitter. It's a much-remarked essay and quite interesting.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword" is a Biblical metaphor, from the Book of Matthew, where Jesus tells the Apostle Peter not to take arms against the Roman soldiers. In its broadest sense, which is how Bowman is using it, it describes the concept that the manner in which you choose to live your daily life affects the outcome of your actions.

It would seem that Bowman is being broadly critical of Google for being too analytical, too concrete, too scientific, too focused on hard facts, computer algorithms, and experimentally-verified data, and insufficiently accepting of style, creativity, intuition, subjectivity, aesthetics, instinct, and design. The heart of Bowman's critique is as follows:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data.

Is it a fair criticism? Certainly it's not a new one; Google has been championing this approach from day one, from the search engine, to the ad engine, to the news aggregator, even in the IPO pricing scheme used when Google when public.

And, most famously, there's Google's approach to their home page.

However, minimalism is not the inverse of design. I think that Google does have a design approach; being Google, they even state their design approach as they see it:

A minimalist aesthetic makes sense for most Google products because a clean, clutter-free design loads quickly and doesn't distract users from their goals. Visually appealing images, color, and fonts are balanced against the needs for speed, scannable text, and easy navigation.

I'm not sure I have a clear stand on this. I prefer Yahoo news to Google news, at least partly because I think that the human in the loop improves the quality of the information that is presented. And I am deeply fond of all the various iPods that have cluttered my life over the last 5 years. But I also find Google search amazingly effective, and I think that the auction engine's core algorithms are among the most fascinating ideas I've seen.

So put me down as an interested observer of a great debate!

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