Saturday, November 10, 2007

"It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot..."

While procrastinating writing the papers that I really should be working on this week, I started going through old articles on The Onion and came across an article titled Google Announces Plan to Destroy All Information It Can't Index from August 31, 2005. The article, an obvious satire (even more obvious given the source), describes Google's plans to burn any books that they cannot archive on Google Books due to copyright restrictions, delete the hard drives of any user who will not allow their desktop to be indexed on Google Desktop Search, and liquefy the brain of anyone who does not submit to having their DNA cataloged by Google.

The article, written two years ago, is clearly parodying the massive data collection efforts that Google has been undertaking for the past several years. And though the article is clearly written as a parody, it does reflect a particular sense of unease at the increasing loss of privacy for those who choose to use particular online services. The article goes a step further in the debate: in their satire, Google has taken the element of choice from their users. In an "interview", a "Google representative" states, "It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot. But in the event people resist, the robots are programmed to liquify the brain."

I found this satire to be remarkably reminiscent of comments that I've heard in Bill Turkel's Digital History class this week. A number of people have expressed horror at the idea that many of the websites that they regularly visit are tracking their visits through "cookies" and that intelligent programs are building up a collection of information about their users. This is not new. How many of us voluntarily carry around an Airmiles (or similar) card and pull it out at any opportunity to earn some gift in exchange for providing market research groups with information about exactly where we buy our gas and what our favorite brand of beer is? These are benevolent systems: we get something we would not normally get for free, in exchange for information. Google works the same way. I choose to use the Google search engine, Gmail, Google Earth, Google Books, Google Maps, Blogger, Google Documents, etc., because they are free, well-built, useful services. And in exchange for this, I agree to allow Google's system to look at my email, my Word documents, and data on what I'm looking for and using, and to display ads that correspond with my email topics and searches.

I might be in the minority, but I see Google as an overall benevolent company, looking to make information available to their users in useful ways, while furthering their own technological development. However, they also have become extremely wealthy while doing so, and I think that is where the root of all of the suspicion lies.

1 comment:

pstewart said...

When that article came out, there were quite a few people who seemed not to get that the Onion is a parody newspaper. There were a few weeks in some corners of the net (and elsewhere) that were filled with some real, genuine fear and outrage over it. The Onion tends to get that reaction a few times a year, which tells me they're doing something right.

(One could - and probably should - go off on a tear about the decline of ability to adequately parse written material, but people were claiming "A Modest Proposal" was dead serious when I was a freshman and long before, so I dunno.)

I've been familiar with the breadcrumb trails left on the net since I started using it in the early nineties, though, so I do pretty much take the privacy concerns (and my own ways of protecting myself) for granted. I think there'd be a lot less horror at this kind of thing if it was understood even a little better than it was. There's too much ignorance, both passive and very deliberate, about how these sorts of things work right now; it's counterproductive at the absolute best, and not that difficult to grasp once the mental blocks are addressed.