I don’t know. – There are two sides to this company which wants to be nice, which likes to be seen as one of the good enterprises in this world. Their mission statement is: “Don’t be evil!” One side of Google is that it has been a provider and pioneer of technology, which otherwise would not not be available to the general public. Even more impressive, many technologies provided by Google are free. Free like free beer. Free like freedom.
Just download a piece of software, sign-up for a service, that’s it. No cost. Even more, these services and technologies are very useful, addictively useful. Look-up anything, really anything, on the internet? Google (yes, there are others, Yahoo, Yandex, but…). Need a map, find an address, want to know how to get there? Google-Maps! Street View, wow, I can see even the bicycle outside my garden fence! Want to translate something? G-Translate. Need software for spreadsheets, texting, whatever? G-Documents! Speech-to-text? Old books which are no longer copyrighted? Read an eBook, buy another one? Need a good calendar or storage space that is everywhere with you? Free email? Want to know who was on your website? Ask auntie Google.
Why are they doing this? Why are they so nice to us? Yes, they want to know a bit about us. For advertising, they say. So they check which websites we look at. If you have “googled” (see, we use this even as a verb) for a Fender Stratocaster guitar or a hotel in Malibu, you will get advertisements for guitars and hotels in Malibu for the next weeks (but why do I get ads for maternity clothing? I am male and the days of assembling a family are long behind me). We know that they read our email. So what? Does it matter if they read my shopping list or the boring weekly report to my boss that even my boss doesn’t read? Does it matter if they know where I want to go for movies or for dinner with my wife? Hm, probably irrelevant. What do they do with the data they have collected? Advertising. Business.
How about this: Let’s say you have been looking-up information about a disease, not a STD, only a common one like Malaria or Hepatitis – Do you think your insurance or your employer should know this? Right, they better don’t get to know, because they might draw the wrong conclusions. Would you like to know if your girlfriend or daughter has been reading up about Herpes or abortion? Maybe. Would you pay for such information. Some people might. How about information about professional secret-keepers such as there are doctors, journalists, lawyers, clergymen and so forth? Does it feel right that someone else should know their secrets?
I have recently learned a lot about “big data”, how to analyze huge volumes, heaps of seemingly unstructured data and how to draw conclusions from them. Without going into the details and algorithms, I can report that it is surprisingly easy and prolific. The results are typically trends, better information about the average and the mainstream but not necessarily the individual. For example, Google can figure out from analyzing their search data, where there is a wave of influenza developing, weeks before the health service have any clue of what is going to happen. This was years ago and much progress has been made since then. Google – “Don’t be evil!” – does not make a secret about this. Much the opposite, they let you see these data and their interpretation of it (– again another free and useful service). You can look up what are the trending searches in a given geographical area or about a given field of interest. Do the Mexicans or Texans google about the wall that Trump wants to build? How important is it to them? Do people in Sweden worry about the Zika virus? Just ask Google. Which party will win the election? Well, there are statistics based on interviews, right? But where did those people get their information from? Who knows which blogs have been reading? Right, Big-”G”. Who could manage that some political news is on the first pages of the search results, and other news further down, where it gets less attention? – Aha! Google swear that they do not manipulate the search results. Maybe so. But alone the fact that searches could be manipulated scares me. Every search algorithm is – by the sheer nature of it – a choice. How are spellings corrected? What alternate topics are offered? This is a matter of choices and preferences.
In a way, such a search engine with its operators, has the potential to change the public opinion and influence the behavior of the masses. And the individual would be trapped in the “mainstream”, interpreted by algorithms which have been build for the typical situation, not the exception.
Maybe, that’s why I am getting these advertisements for maternity clothes. Because I am not typical. I am different.