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The Future of Peer Review

We went to see The Artist last night. I didn’t want to go; if God wanted silent movies he wouldn’t have invented sound, etc. And black and white to boot. Making a black and white 3D movie, maybe. But inexorably the Oscars loom, and the last thing I want is to endure the withering gaze of my long-suffering wife when it wins Best Picture without us having seen it.

Of course it turned out to be great. And in the process, it showed some leg about today’s movies that could be useful to the technology community. Namely, that purpose trumps moral ambiguity. Take Google’s trampling of our so-called digital rights, or more precisely our sensibilities, with a callous land grab of its search monopoly. The outrage is appropriate: by inserting Google + results into search they’re shoving the social network down our throat in direct contradiction to previous promises about doing no evil.

The Artist parades its conceit at every turn of its familiar romance. We’re doing this no sound thing for you because it’s good for you. Things will work out fine. The dog needs no dialogue. The music tells you what to feel. It’s already half over, and besides, it’s already better than the last five movies you’ve seen.

Google Search + parades its conceit at every turn. It’s free, so we can improve it any way we want. We’re already reading everything you write in Gmail, so now we’re blurring the metadata into one big data pool so we can better read your mind and sell the results back to marketers. It’s OK because Facebook already does this. We’d add all the other networks if they would just let us have their data too. And besides, we’re doing this.

It’s really quite brilliant. Here’s all this noise about user rights to data. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg, for blazing the trail with rolling updates, partial rollbacks, and commandeering of key language elements. “The kids of today are not worried about privacy. They want to share.” And thanks, Twitter, for dangling global realtime alerts and then locking the door. With competitors like these guys, who needs friends? We can do anything we want and we are.

Why now? Is it another version of Microsoft embedding the browser in Windows to have something to give up while protecting Office and a breakup of the company? What is Google’s real motive in jettisoning the illusion of openness and what’s good for the user? I think it’s less Orwellian and more mundane: they think they can get away with it. I think they can, too.

Part of the reason is they are heading off a Google Spring by creating their own filter of social signals. Search is giving way to predictive caching of answers to questions you haven’t yet thought of, a business process layer whose signature is becoming visible via @mentions and private messages. Remember Gmail and Gchat the next time you look for someone. What Google has done is to decouple content from metadata. They may not use the messages, but the signature of relationships will do just fine, thank you.

Very early in The Artist, in a very funny series of takes in a movie within the movie, the protagonist meets his match on the dance floor. The camera work is precise, waiting for the slate (minus the clapboard – no sound), then this odd moment where you see the Actor steel himself for the role, then almost zen like turn and swim into the scene with the resolute look of the professional. After three or four of these takes, you begin to be transformed into the craft and art of it. Like the bridge in a Beatles song that never returns, you crave for it until the next take. From that point on you realize the Actor and Director are in perfect sync, that each scene and each element of each scene is staged for maximum precision of effect.

Once this realization takes hold, the technology is no longer evident. What was established as silent becomes a tableau where we fill in the colors, the sounds, the dialogue, and the effect it has on us. We are no longer the audience, but now empowered as the director, the actors, the stagehands, the writers, the musicians, all conducted by us as the arbiters of meaning. Silently, invisibly, we change places with the people on the screen.

Whether Google has performed the same magic is to be seen. The power play of erasing the old rules seems arbitrary and calculating, but if somehow the move invigorates Google + conversations and drags Facebook and Twitter into the game, the result will indeed serve users. A good track service and @mention alert mechanism would make the hostage service from Twitter irrelevant, and the realtime conversations more than an adequate replacement for the all-but-shuttered FriendFeed.

In a way those orphaned services are social media’s silent movies, superseded in the rush to determine monetization and protect business models yet to be thought of. It’s easy to see the Google moves as clumsy and sinister, but the problem then is replacing them with some new white hat. Just because we got sound and color and digital effects doesn’t mean that stories are better, studios are braver, or good small shows find audiences.

And whether Jack or Ev or Biz or Doc or Dave runs Twitter won’t change things all that much. Whether Google games their own system won’t determine whether we love it or not. What will make a difference is how we perceive the reality of these back lots, how we flesh out the scenes with wit and rhythm, the precision that defines a calculated leap into the unknown or a pratfall. In this ballet of imbeciles and grifters, we still have to choose our friends and protect our families. It’s not up to Google to not be evil. It’s up to us.