Only rich can afford PAs, but anyone can have Google now

Internet access is growing at a blistering pace in India, thanks to the rising presence of smartphones, even in rural areas. What does all this mean for the economy, and specific industries such as news and the media? How about…

Internet access is growing at a blistering pace in India, thanks to the rising presence of smartphones, even in rural areas. What does all this mean for the economy, and specific industries such as news and the media? How about the tendency of a few companies to rise to scary levels of market dominance in their segments? And, what of the potential for conflict as the modern world, complete with individual rights, abhorrence of censorship and general mad exuberance, rushes at the speed of light through fibre optic cable into the entrenched fortresses of tradition in the hinterland? One person uniquely positioned to offer some insight into these questions is Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist and emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley. How realistic are current attempts to estimate the impact of the internet on the economy? These are partial, agrees Varian. You add up the revenues of all pure internet businesses, and that’s just a beginning. Varian once conducted an experiment, asking two sets of students to find answers to 1,000 questions. One set had to find them from the University library, the other using the internet. The second team won by a large margin. The time saved multiplied by the average hourly wage gives you another measure of the value created by the internet. But this, too, is limited, as it only measures the utility to those conducting searches. When people use Zomato to identify the restaurant they should visit, the additional customer the restaurant gets is not captured in any measure of the internet economy. “To do that, you need what I call nano-economics,” said Varian. You have to go case-by-case, industry-toindustry, and add up the impact in each case. Varian, author of well-regarded textbooks in microeconomics, has coined other terms as well: computer-mediated transactions, for one. The internet allows people not only to gather information but to conduct experiments based on data, enter into contracts and carry out other transactions. We, in India, are no strangers to computer-mediated transactions, of course. That’s what people do at BPOs. What does a profusion of computer-mediated transactions mean for jobs and income inequality? When access to information and the ability to analyse are ubiquitous, layers of middle management turn redundant, don’t they? Varian chooses to say that they now are liberated to look at additional work that calls for human intervention: experimentation and judgement. But that still means more work is being done by less people, hollowing out jobs. This has led to rising inequality, for example, in the US since 1980, we point out. But, counters Varian, it has led to greater equality of incomes across the world, even if accompanied by greater inequality within economies. Who in India or China, whose per capita incomes have been rising to catch up with those of developed countries, can disagree? What about the disruption of tradition that exposure to the outside world can bring about? How can this be calibrated? Is it fair for Google to use the sensibilities of American culture to display or reject content on its sites that are visited by people with vastly different values? If someone who is considered a kook on the margins burns a copy of the Quran in the US and riots break out in the subcontinent when that information is relayed, what is Google’s responsibility? Google localises domains: for India, it is youtube.in. Google follows local laws, diligently. “A reasonable compromise is that local domains are governed by local laws.” But, Varian admits, it is true that people can see stuff on other domains as well. How to handle this is a question for which the answer is still evolving. But, it will, just as newspapers have learned how to report sensitive news, what pictures to carry, etc. What is the big new idea from Google? Varian recalls founder Larry Page’s observation, made some time ago, that Google should change from being an efficient provider of search to a provider of answers even before people begin to search. Google Now is an attempt to do that. The service collates information from multiple sources to alert you, for example, that your wife’s plane is landing 12 minutes behind schedule, even though you had not asked Google for that information. It just garnered that information from your profile, emails, real-time flight tracking and put it all together. The experience can be slightly creepy. To you, it could be creepy, said Varian. It could make someone else say, “Wow!” But are we moving towards Skynet, with machines turning sentient? It used to be a standing joke in Google, laughed Varian, that if this happened, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would come to the rescue of mankind. But that option isn’t available now — the Terminator is no more the governor.Income Tax department puts HRA exemption under scannerWill China and India destroy the world?After vote drought, Congress faces a Muslim famine