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Why Schmidt should tone down tech utopia talk

Google's CEO often preaches of a future in which computers have made our lives even better, but alienates those who like tech but fear some ramifications.

SAN FRANCISCO--Google CEO Eric Schmidt illustrated very neatly today why people have polarized opinions of his company.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt
Google CEO Eric Schmidt (file photo) James Martin/CNET

Schmidt, a keynote speaker at TechCrunch Disrupt 2010, spent about 20 minutes outlining his vision of the future before taking questions from the audience here. None of it was particularly new to those who track Schmidt's public statements closely: mobile devices are becoming more important than desktop PCs, software delivered through cloud computing offers a lot of advantages, and computers can improve the quality of life.

But it's often not what you say, it's how you say it. Schmidt described a technology utopia that's likely to thrill those who truly believe computers will make us better people and horrify those who fear that computers will rob us of our humanity and create a entirely new set of problems for the world.

For example, take driving. "Your car should drive itself," Schmidt said. "It's amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It's a bug that cars were invented before computers."

It's hard to argue that, theoretically, a computer couldn't do a better job keeping a metal box between two lines at 55 miles per hour than a tired, distracted, drunk, or myopic human being. But such a scenario fails to account for computer-driven cars running software made by humans, which will inevitably contain flaws that could have all kinds of consequences, not to mention disappointing people who actually get pleasure out of driving a car.

Likewise, in Schmidt's future world, "you're never out of ideas" because the computer can suggest things to do when you're bored or keep you entertained. This coming from a man who earlier this year expressed concerns over the effect that instant information has on the process of cognition or "deep reading."

It's not that Schmidt is wrong or misguided in making these predictions: the seeds for such a future were sown long ago. But Schmidt and Google never seem to understand how much they freak some people out when they evangelize a future that de-emphasizes the role of people in their day-to-day lives.

And so you get two different opinions of Google: those who think the company is changing the world for the better with its focus on organizing information, and those who think Google really wants to run people's lives for them with computers; specifically, Google's computers.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. Google's view of the future has the potential to unlock human potential in a way we've never seen by giving us fast accurate information with which to make decisions. It also has the potential to turn us (further) into sedentary simpletons who can't muster the energy to truly understand new things in the world around us, because we're so used to letting Google tell us what we usually do.

Schmidt would do well to occasionally acknowledge those fears the way he did in January at Davos (see link above), even if he and his engineers think them unfounded. It might humanize Google in a way that preaching techno-utopia simply won't.