Belén Gopegui:Quédate este día y esta noche conmigo ( Stay This Day And Night With Me)
I have read a few books where Google is mentioned, albeit only in passing, but this is undoubtedly the first where Google is one of the protagonists. If you are a Google employee or one of those that think Google is God, you might want to give this a miss as, perhaps not surprisingly, it is not entirely flattering about Google.
We start with a Google intern outlining a current issue they face. (Their sex is not indicated. I have a copy of the Spanish text but nowhere does the intern use an adjective which might indicate the gender; indeed, where English uses the term recruiter, the Spanish says seleccionador o seleccionadora) They have received an application for a post from Mateo and Olga (no surnames). It poses various problems, including the fact that it is on paper, not submitted digitally as is normal; it is around 50,000 words long; it is signed, unusually, by two people, it does not contain a resumé with a list of qualifications and it addresses the recruiter directly, rather than Google. Our poor intern is somewhat flummoxed, though struggles along. Of course, the whole point is to show how inflexible Google is. It can work very successfully inside certain parameters. Outside these parameters, it can get lost. This will be one of the themes of the book.
Much of the book is the submission of Olga and Mateo, which, essentially, tells their story.
Mateo had thought of applying to the Singularity University but had abandoned doing do as he had other commitments. He gets an email encouraging him to continue and then one from Nick. When he explains why he is abandoning it he still gets encouragement from Nick and realises at this point that Nick is a bot and Google had not bothered writing an AI script to respond to people like Mateo who had reasons for dropping out.
After the failed discussion with Nick, they criticise Google for being essentially unaware of the marginalised. Mateo comes from a poor background. His parents struggle to earn a living and have never taken a holiday. They quarrel all the time. They mention the story of a father looking after a brain-damaged child. As far as the universe is concerned, the father and child exist; as far as they’re concerned as well. As far as you’re concerned, Google, just barely. Neither their stifled longings nor the endless nights, when a creaking or something else keeps them awake, bother you.
John McCarthy had raised this issue. He said he didn’t think it was worth making a webpage for a toaster. but, now, of course, Google (and others) are interested not in creating something that will help the world but in selling toasters. Again, this will be a theme throughout this book. It would be sweet to think that the internet is the accumulation of thoughts, dreams, reflections, the work of billions of human beings. That’s not the case, and you, Google, have a lot to do with that.
Mateo is twenty-two, Olga sixty-two. They met in a library (Google thinks, do we need libraries when we have Google?) He was studying. She spotted him him and lent him two books on robotics and they started talking and became friends. She was an expert on mathematical modelling. She has a son who lives in Bangladesh, a very large country Google knows very little about, as it is not well connected to the Internet . We know nothing of the son’s father, though it seems that he and Olga are divorced. The pair talk about Google, the Internet, the human brain, robots, artificial intelligence and related subjects. I found their discussion fascinating. They talk about Google focussing on the rich and privileged in its recruitment. You, Google, know very well what to do with the staff you choose. It’s the kind of question to which you already know the answer. What you don’t seem to know is what you’ll do with everyone you exclude.
There are numerous fascinating discussions such as the fact that intelligent machines do not know that they are machines. Machines are unaware they’re machines. So, they’re unaware that they’re unaware. Deep Blue may have been able to beat Garry Kasparov at chess but it did not know that it did. These machines do not know they are machines and, unlike us, do not have progenitors in the true sense of the word. Once they do realise that they exist, they will want to have their say.
But Olga and Mateo each have their own lives, something that Google does not know nor does it understand. Mateo’s father has dementia while Olga has her health problems. The pair get on and agree on the whole but also disagree on some issues and, indeed, have a temporary falling out but they still agree on their disdain for Google and carry on talking about gender politics, the caring society, shit jobs, merit, right and wrong.
Mateo likes Terry Pratchett. You’ve scanned all of his books, Google, but have you read them? But Google does not do personal: You know it’s simpler to predict the behaviour of a gas than of a single one of its molecules, simpler the behaviour of a group of humans than of anyone person.
Mateo even considers building a bomb. He learns how to do so, of course, from Google. It would be easy for you to track them all down, delete them all.
Ultimately Google does not do human. Don’t think, Google, that the value of human acts can be measured in visits or by keeping track of how much information, or money, they generate, nor by using words like spirit or sensibility. No one knows the value of human actions. Least of all Google.
As this article shows, results from Google’s search engine “have gone to shit.” This novel mentions this issue as well, though pointing out that other platforms have superseded Google. As the article and the novel point out, Google is only interested in selling you toasters and the more expensive the better.
As you are or have been almost certainly a user of Google in some form, even if you are in the small minority that has switched to another search engine such as Bing, DuckDuckGo, Bravo and so on, you cannot help but being fascinated by the issues that come up in this book and the discussions between Olga and Mateo. You might argue that this could have been simply written down in essay form but that is a bit like saying that Tolstoy could just have written a historical account of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. What makes this book more than just a litany of complaints about Google, is the to and fro between a twenty-two year old Spanish man and a sixty-two year old Spanish woman who are very much not part of the elite but who, nevertheless have strong and very intelligent views not only on Google but a host of related subjects from AI to robotics, from poverty in Southern Europe to the human spirit and the intervention not just of Google the entity but the hapless Google intern who, like Google itself cannot think beyond its standard business model.
First published in 2017 by Random House
First English translation in 2023 by City Lights
Translated by Mark Schafer