George sat in a white lab room, next to an MRI machine that was vibrating softly to a U2 song. No, that was his iPhone. George twitched and slapped at his pocket to silence it. The blonde woman in the dark blue suit turned and frowned at him.
“Um, yeah, hang on.” George pulled a wad of papers out of his back jeans pocket. The woman frowned even more deeply as she took and unfolded the wad onto her clipboard in small, precise motions.
“Well,” she said, “I see you’ve signed everything properly, at least.” Her pen tapped the wrinkled papers. “You understand you’re voluntarily granting Google full permission and rights to use the functional MRI data we gather from your brain today, and that you agree to not provide your brain – or scans thereof – to any other research project for the next 12 months?
George shrugged. “Sure. No biggie. Mi cerebro es su cerebro.” He grinned and looked over at the machine. “That’s where you’ll scan me, huh? I’ve seen these babies, but never gotten in one. It looks new.”
The woman turned to follow his gaze, and her expression softened. “Yes, it’s one of the very latest models. It connects to the computer over there, where the images are processed and run through analysis. We can practically see what you’re thinking. It’s quite fascinating.” She pivoted and held out a hand with a small smile. “I’m Dierdre, by the way. Dierdre Martin. Research assistant for the Neuro Google project.”
“George. But you knew that from my papers.” He took her hand, found it small and strong. Her eyes were a deep blue. “So, uh, Dierdre, I’ve read about fMRI before, in my psych classes – like that fMRI study of people watching SuperBowl ads – and it seems really sick and all that, but what does Google hope to learn from a Stanford sophomore’s brain?
Dierdre was silent for a moment as she tried to further flatten George’s papers with the heel of her hand. “You want to know what we hope to learn, George? You really want to know?” She looked up with a frown.
George leaned back, nearly tipped. “Uh… ”
“The truth!” Dierdre slapped her hand on the clipboard. “We want to know the truth about what internet users really like. Why they click on some search results and not others. Why they end up engaging with some sites and not others.”
“But, I’ve heard Google already has tons of user data…”
“Lies! All lies.” Dierdre stalked over to a side table and tossed her clipboard onto it. “Sure, we gather masses of data on what users do; clickthrough data, Website Optimizer test data, Analytics traffic data, how they respond to 41 different shades of blue.” She tucked a stiff wisp of hair behind her ear. “But users don’t know why they do anything. Not really. Oh, sure, they give us reasons: ‘I liked the web site’s colors.’ ‘I saw the price I wanted.’ ‘I’ve shopped there before.’ Some of their answers are even useful. But most are lying, even if they don’t mean to. Our fMRI results prove it.”
George pursed his lips. “You mean like the fMRI study that showed when people were lying about how much they were willing to pay for shared public resources? Or the one about why we have room to eat dessert even when we say we’re full?
“Exactly!” said Dierdre, looking over at George. “With brain scans we can see true, unedited responses. We can tell what frightens someone even if they don’t scream. What web pages they like, even if they don’t smile. No more waiting for people to fill out silly little post-purchase surveys, or merely observing their actions in clickstream data or usability testing. After all, what people say and do is hopelessly muddied by social inhibition and external environmental factors. fMRI shows us the core, the real root of motivation.”
George looked back at Dierdre. Her eyes were really quite an extraordinary blue, he decided. The exact color of an unclicked link.
“Aren’t you concerned about how valid this technique is, I mean, for non-medical research? I think it’s a little creepy myself, and from what little I read there’s been a lot of criticism about various studies. Like the SuperBowl studies didn’t have very many test participants. And the study they did on undecided voters in the 2008 election – pretty iffy. There was even – ” George grinned and scratched his thin chest ” – this scan they did on a dead fish that showed brain activity! In a dead fish! Did you see that one? You can’t tell me that was legitimate.”
Dierdre frowned. “I’m glad you’re so amused, but we’re conducting serious research here, not some fluffed-up publicity stunt. Over the next six months we’re running 3,000 participants through fMRI tests; most of the studies you mentioned had only 10 or 15.”
“Don’t forget the one fish,” George grinned.
Dierdre ignored him. “Our tests will provide reliable, statistically significant data about internet user reactions, with high confidence levels. And the insights we extract will improve our services in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.” She picked up a pair of white goggles, walked over to where George sat by the MRI machine.
“Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of businesses depend on us to reach their customers?” she asked. “How many millions, even billions of people rely on our algorithms to find the very best, most relevant information for them – information about their health, their communities, their safety? How can we say we’re doing the best job possible unless everything we do is based on precise data?” She paused, and sighed.
“We’re on a mission, George,” she said, handing him the goggles. “A mission to locate, index, and correlate every piece of information in the known universe. And that includes your thoughts and emotions. We need them, George.”
“Ah…” George fumbled. “You know, all this sounds like a lot more than I signed up for. I’m here for the $50, you know? I thought this was marketing research, not a quest to change the world.”
Dierdre lifted her shoulder, and smiled at him. “OK, sure. Call it marketing research, if you like. Just marketing research.”
The moment stretched, elongated, snapped. Dierdre turned and strode to the computer.
“We should get started. Please lie down on the platform and put on the goggles. Yes, that’s it. Now, I’m going to run through a warmup sequence, so try to stay very still. Can you hear me OK?”
“Sure, I hear you fine,” George said, shifting his weight from one butt cheek to another. He could see a beach scene in the goggles. “So, Dierdre?”
“Do you like how my brain looks?”
“Be quiet. I don’t want the image to blur.”
Author’s note: Dierdre and George first appeared in “Google Interiors – the Day My House Became Searchable“
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.