Sunday, 22 January 2012

Google knows more about me than I do

I'd read a couple of articles about how Google have developed a new SEO function where, when you search for something, it will return content that it 'knows' is most relevant to you. I can't remember where this article was, but the example it used was, if you google 'golf' and in the past you'd uploaded pictures of you and your buddies playing golf to Picasa or Google+, that picture might be returned at the top of the list. Twitter have been outspoken about how this will 'warp' search results. For the time being it only crawls Google-owned services, but the obvious extrapolation is that it will expand to include all social tools as soon as companies like twitter relent.

I thought it was fascinating and promptly forgot about it. Today, I googled 'blogger' and was shocked to see that two of the top returned images were these:

This one's a nativity display outside a church near where I live. The other is a picture of my desk at work (I have no idea why I took it).

It's a little odd, for a couple of reasons:

  • I took them with my phone, and hadn't emailed either to myself
  • My guess is they made their way to Picasa when I connected my phone to my PC. But there are lots of pictures on my phone and I can't find any of the others on Google
  • It may be because I'm not using the right search terms - but why would these two random shots be returned by a search for 'blogger'?!
  • And if the search terms are seemingly arbitrary in their correlation to the images returned, who knows what else is out there?

For me, the main concern is that I've inadvertently uploaded information that I had no intention of uploading. I'm not sure whether it's like being duped into signing a contract, or agreeing to sign a contract without understanding the small print. The way things are going, probably the latter. But, for all the good intentions of the (rather heavy-handed) protests against SOPA and PIPA and the school of thought that says 'yes' to freedom of information we could, by association, be siding with companies who know far too much about us and, what's more, who in the future may be legally allowed to profit from this information without the individual being able to do anything about it.

Google, facebook, twitter, all seem so benign now with their cute logos and fresh-faced CEOs. But for the first time, I can imagine a future where someone like, say, Mark Zuckerberg is to our children what Rupert Murdoch, today, is to many people.

The difference may simply be in the mediums and agents used - Murdoch sells traditional print media whose journalists stick their pens and noses into peoples' lives and write about them for entertainment. Social tools use the intoxicating allure of 'free' to collate and dissect data, which is made available for commercial use, so that advertisements can be tailored to us as individuals whenever we use these social tools that are now essential to our personal and professional lives. In a sense (and certainly, for the most part, in innocence), we are willingly giving away our stories - our interests and thoughts, captured in photos taken on our phones, or status updates written in a spare moment - to a global audience. Salaried agents of information - the journalists - are not needed. We expose ourselves voluntarily, for nothing, in exchange for access to these 'free' social tools.

I sound conspiratorial and paranoid. I'm not, I assure you. These incredible technologies, and the economies of innovation that go with them, are, I'm convinced, the future of a capitalism that has been strongly discredited by the 2008 financial crisis. There were sound ideological reasons for deregulation in the 80s and 90s - it was about making peoples' lives better, keeping up with the pace of change. And it happened so dramatically, announced in press conferences and reported on by television and print news. Of course, it all went too far, and you think, much better if it could have faded away, rather than burn out as it did. If only good ideas gone bad could slip away unnoticed to die quietly, rather than self-destruct in so devastating a fashion. The irony about the progress of the online transparency of information trend is that it's happening by stealth. Our information is used in ways that we find out about only by accident. And you have to ask why this is. Hold onto your privacy, because I suspect we'll miss it when it's finally gone for good.

No comments:

Post a Comment