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Google News and the Arrogance of Cyber-Power

By       Message R.H. Smith     Permalink
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Every morning, for years, my first Internet destination after booting up has been Google News.

Not because it has up-to-the-minute breaking stories, a la CNN. Rather, I've chosen to read Google News with my AM coffee because I've been able to customize the page exactly as I want it - with the exact topics and easily-digested format that I prefer.

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Until this week - when Google News rolled out what detractors have called its "New Coke", which, to my mind, presents a technical nightmare and an aesthetic atrocity.

I have no doubt that a team of diligent techies, somewhere in the bowels of the Google Giant, worked hard to turn out what they were certain was a farsighted innovation, with an array of bells and whistles, unfortunately intelligible only to the proud sires of this mishmash.

I won't go so far as to echo the cynical suggestion of one critic that this so-called innovation represents the curse of all large bureaucracies, public and private - insular group-think and an unconscious need to justify superfluous existence.

No, I will give the Google-ites credit for trying very hard to do something new and exciting.

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What I cannot excuse is the blind refusal to admit error.

Hundreds of Google users bothered to take the time to register complaints on a Google Forum page. This was not the usual Internet vitriol, but thoughtful and reasoned explanations of why many people, such as myself, preferred our own way of customization, rather than having the Google Giant "suggesting" it's far superior understanding of what we really want.

Some Google minions generously responded. Be assured, they said, that we would all come to love their New Coke. But, we pleaded, couldn't we at least have the option of reverting to our ancien regime? No way, said the Giant. And frankly, my dear, we don't give a damn.

This is not an issue of war, famine and global warming. It's not even on a par with Google's brave, if wavering, effort to stand up to Chinese censorship.

But it is symbolic in its own way, because Google is the great test case of whether all corporate colossus must inevitably go the the way of arrogant and insouciant insensitivity to the Common User.

I've always had high regard for Google and I very much hope that they can still recover from this blunder.

All it takes is a simple admission - "Sorry, we made a mistake" - and a rollback to the popular and fully functional wheel that didn't need to be re-invented.

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Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.

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