Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Big Bad Google

David Smith in the Guardian gives pause to Google-philes by inviting us to think of what our favorite corporate behemoth with look like in 10 years. As an avowed Google devotee, even I have to pause at the company's reach:

Google's tentacles are everywhere. It runs services for blogging, email, instant messaging, shopping and social networking. It offers a suite of word processing, spreadsheet and other tools to rival Microsoft's products in the workplace. It is building a software platform for mobile phones that may challenge Apple's iPhone and others. It has just launched Knol, a peer-reviewed encyclopedia to take on Wikipedia. In America, Google Health enables users to maintain their own medical records. The company is also working on language translation, speech recognition and video search.

The bulk of the article covers familiar ground: is Google a friendly giant helping us manage our lives or is it a gathering dark force poised to hurl us into a police state of our own creation? I remain strangely untroubled by Google's data sweep, despite the dangers of Google's uber-data collection and the warnings of Internet critics, like this one by Andrew Keen:

They have amassed more information about people in 10 years than all the governments of the world put together. They make the Stasi and the KGB look like the innocent old granny next door. This is of immense significance. If someone evil took them over, they could easily become Big Brother.

What explains my calm? Our YouTube culture provides numerous examples of people in public live who's impressions of them have been forever shaped by a snippet of their lives posted on-line. Poor David Hasselhoff will think twice about getting drunk in front of his kids.

Perhaps it is the element of consent involved in the surrender of data. As someone who blogs, e-mails, writes, and reads using google's products, I've willingly entered into an agreement to place parts of my life into the cloud in exchange for convenience. This consent either justifies their collection of data or is an example of my inability to properly assess risk. Google's narrative, perpetuated by the media, probably reinforces a sense of security. Undoubtedly, the broad swath of cyberdata that Google collects, in the wrong hands, could be uses as a tool of repression.

But despite these looming fears, hundreds of millions willingly submit information. At the end of the day, we have to conclude that for most people, convenience trumps privacy. I don't agree with this characterization:

It is true that Google doesn't force anyone to reveal anything. But to quote a book currently popular among politicians, its users are 'nudged' towards entering more and more information about themselves in exchange for personalised services. Google can save you time and money, find a restaurant to your taste or a chemist to cure your illness, but only if it knows you well enough. Help it to help you; that is the siren song... The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as "What shall I do tomorrow?" and "What job should I take?" This is the most important aspect of Google's expansion.'

"Nudging" suggests a form of coercion rather than a consensual exchange. The idea that any surrender of information to an entity is heresy and only done is the person is somehow coerced into giving it, strikes me as overly individualistic. Ultimately, we are social beings and we want the opportunities for sociality the web provides. It does, of course, come laden with a political ideology that promotes connection over individualism, but that's for another post :-)

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