Pluralistic: Google's chatbot panic (16 Feb 2023)

Today's links

Tweedledee and Tweedledum, standing at the bottom of Humpty Dumpty's wall. Dee and Dum have the logos for Google and Bing on their chests. Humpty is about to fall and is being held up by a motley collection of panicking businessmen.

Google's chatbot panic (permalink)

The really remarkable thing isn't just that Microsoft has decided that the future of search isn't links to relevant materials, but instead lengthy, florid paragraphs written by a chatbot who happens to be a habitual liar – even more remarkable is that Google agrees.

Microsoft has nothing to lose. It's spent billions on Bing, a search-engine no one voluntarily uses. Might as well try something so stupid it might just work. But why is Google, a monopolist who has a 90+% share of search worldwide, jumping off the same bridge as Microsoft?

There's a delightful Mastodon thread about this, written by Dan Hon, where he compares the chatbot-enshittified front ends to Bing and Google to Tweedledee and Tweedledum:

"At the front of the house, Alice found two curious characters, both search engines.

"'I am Googl-E,' said the one plastered in advertisements.

"'And I am Bingle-Dum,' said the other, who was the smaller of the two, and sported a pout, as to having fewer visitors and opportunity for conversation than the other.

"'I know you,' said Alice. 'Are you to present me with a puzzle? Perhaps one of you tells the truth and the other lies?'

"'Oh no,' said Bingle-Dum.

"'We both lie,' added Googl-E."

It just keeps getting better:

"'This is truly an intolerable situation. If you both lie,'

"– 'And lie convincingly,' added Bingle-Dum —

"'Yes, thank you. If that is so, then how am I to ever trust either of you?'

"Googl-E and Bingle-Dum turned to face each other and shrugged."

Chatbot search is a terrible idea, especially in an era in which the web is likely to fill up with vast mountains of AI bullshit, the frozen gabble of stochastic parrots:

Google's chatbot strategy shouldn't be adding more madlibs to the internet – rather, they should be figuring out how to exclude (or, at a minimum, fact-check) the confident nonsense of the spammers and SEO creeps.

And yet, Google is going all-in on chatbots, with the company CEO ordering an all-hands scramble to cram chatbots into every part of the googleverse. Why on earth is the company racing Microsoft to see who can be first to leap off the peak of inflated expectations?

I just published a theory in The Atlantic, under the title "How Google Ran Out of Ideas," where I turn to competition theory to explain Google's sweaty insecurity, an anxiety complex that the company has been plagued by nearly since its inception:

The core theory: a quarter of a century, the Google founders had one amazing idea – a better way to do search. The capital markets showered the company in money, and it hired the very best, brightest, most creative people it could find, but then it created a corporate culture that was incapable of capitalizing on their ideas.

Every single product Google made internally – except for its Hotmail clone – died. Some of those products were good, some were terrible, but it didn't matter. Google – a company that cultivated the ballpit-in-the-lobby whimsy of a Willy Wonka factory – couldn't "innovate" at all.

Every successful Google product except search and gmail is an acquisition: mobile, ad-tech, videos, server management, docs, calendaring, maps, you name it. The company desperately wants to be a "making things" company, but it's actually a "buying things" company. Sure, it's good at operationalizing and scaling products, but that's table-stakes for any monopolist:

The cognitive dissonance of a self-styled "creative genius" whose true genius is spending other people's money to buy other people's products and take credit for them drives people to do truly bonkers thing (as any Twitter user can attest).

Google has long exhibited this pathology. In the mid-2000s – after Google chased Yahoo into China and started censoring its search-results and collaborating on state surveillance – we used to say that the way to get Google to do something stupid and self-destructive was to get Yahoo to do it first.

This was quite a time. Yahoo was desperate and failing, a graveyard of promising acquisitions that were gutshot and left to bleed out right there on the public internet as the dueling princelings of Yahoo senior management performed a backstabbing Medici LARP that had them competing to see who could sabotage the others. Going into China was an act of desperation after the company was humiliated by Google's vastly superior search. Watching Google copy Yahoo's idiotic gambits was baffling.

Baffling at the time, that is. As time went by and Google slavishly copied other rivals, its pathology of insecurity revealed itself. Google repeatedly failed to make a popular "social" product, and as Facebook commanded an ever-larger share of the ad-market, Google made a full-court press to compete with it. The company made Google Plus integration a "key performance indicator" for every division, and the result was a bizarre morass of ill-starred "social" features in every Google product – products that billions of users relied on for high-stakes operations, which were suddenly festooned with "social" buttons that made no sense.

The G+ debacle was truly incredible: some G+ features and integrations were great and developed loyal followings, but these were overshadowed by the incoherent, top-down insistence of making Google a "social-first" company. When G+ collapsed, it totally imploded, and the useful parts of G+ that people had come to rely upon disappeared along with the stupid parts.

For anyone who lived through the G+ tragicomedy, Google's pivot to Bard – a chatbot front-end for search results – is grimly familiar. It's a real "die a hero or live long enough to become a villain moment." Microsoft – the monopolist that was only stayed from strangling Google in its cradle by the trauma of its antitrust dragging – has transformed from a product-creation company to an acquisitions and operations company, and Google is right behind it.

Just last year, Google laid off 12,000 staffers to please a private-equity "activist investor" – in the same year, it declared a $70b stock buyback, extracting enough capital to pay those 12,000 Googlers' salaries for the next 27 years. Google is a financial company with a sideline in adtech. It has to be: when your only successful path to growth requires access to the capital markets to fund anticompetitive acquisitions, you can't afford to piss off the money-gods, even if you have a "dual share" structure that lets the founders outvote every other shareholder:

ChatGPT and its imitators have all the hallmarks of a tech fad, and are truly the successor to last season's web3 and cryptocurrency pump-and-dumps. One of the clearest and most inspiring critiques of chatbots comes from science fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose instant-classic critique was called "ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web":

Chiang points out a key difference between the output of ChatGPT and human authors: a human author's first draft is often an original idea, badly expressed, while the best ChatGPT can hope for is a competently expressed, unoriginal idea. ChatGPT is perfectly poised to improve on the SEO copypasta that legions of low-paid workers pump out in a bid to climb the Google search results.

Speaking of Chiang's essay in this week's episode of the This Machine Kills podcast, Jathan Sadowski expertly punctures the ChatGPT4 hype bubble, which holds that the next version of the chatbot will be so amazing that any critiques of the current technology will be rendered obsolete:

Sadowski notes that OpenAI's engineers are going to enormous lengths to ensure that the next version won't be trained on any of the output from ChatGPT3. This is a tell: if a large language model can produce materials that are as good as human-produced text, then why can't the output of ChatGPT3 be used to create ChatGPT4?

Sadowski has a great term to describe this problem: "Habsburg AI." Just as royal inbreeding produced a generation of supposed supermen who were incapable of reproducing themselves, so too will feeding a new model on the exhaust stream of the last one produce an ever-worsening gyre of tightly spiraling nonsense that eventually disappears up its own asshole.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Google buy Pyra

#20yrsago Altrustic routers would optimize the Internet*/

#10yrsago Economic recovery in the US actually made 99% of Americans poorer, top 1% captured 121% of gains

#10yrsago BBC betrays the public, demands DRM for HTML5

#10yrsago Holmes scholar files suit to put Sherlock unambiguously into the public domain

#10yrsago Memoir of raising an autistic boy who found himself with Disney World’s help

#5yrsago FDAAA Trials Tracker: leaderboard for pharma companies that break FDA clinical trial rules

#5yrsago A public-key cryptography primer in the form of Ikea instructions

#5yrsago Once again, a stalkerware company’s had its servers pwned and wiped by a hacker who thinks they’re selling an immoral product

#5yrsago Surge-taxing Uber as a way relieve urban congestion

#5yrsago Debullshitifying Uber’s financial statement reveals a hemorrhaging fountain of red ink with no path to profitability

#5yrsago The DHS’s “Active Shooter” printable wallet card, for when “thoughts and prayers” fail

#5yrsago New York Federal judge rules that embedding tweets can violate copyright law

#5yrsago The independent experts who favorably evaluated Facebook’s “Messenger Kids” were funded by Facebook

#5yrsago Judge slams ICE for targeting migrants based on their political opposition to ICE

#5yrsago The pharma billionaires whose family company created the opioid epidemic are disintegrating into a bickering mess

#5yrsago London demonstrates the stupid, janky future of Smart Cities

#5yesago Seattle spends five years failing to come up with a privacy policy for its $3.6m surveillance network, then spends $150k ripping it out

#5yrsago The West Virginia Democrat candidate who was dragged away for calling out gas-money-dependent lawmakers has raised record-breaking sums

#1yrago McKinsey For Kids (no, really)

#1yrago Oh great, there's DRM in printer PAPER now

#1yrago The extremely shady "educational integrity" industry

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 507 words (106390 words total)

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. ON SUBMISSION

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. ON SUBMISSION

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Social Quitting

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

  • The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Of Course Mastodon Lost Users"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla