Et Tu, Google?

Posted: May 25, 2018 by Brian Johnston

I can barely remember life before Google. Sure, I survived some 25 years before the site had launched, but while I survived, I am not certain that I truly LIVED. For me, the prospect of knowing just about anything, anytime is more than just alluring, it’s positively addictive.
While Google has surely increased my ability to be informed, I am fairly confident it has made me weaker as a human. I frequently default to Google Maps without even pondering whether I know the route I am taking or not. The pinpoint nature of Google searches is also problematic, as I find just what I want to know and not much more than that, picking up far less ancillary information than I would have in the process of looking it up analog-style in books.
Probably the biggest indictment of Google for me is the fact that I retain very little of what I look up, a point clearly illustrated by my search history which shows I look up the same facts repeatedly. While this may be a side effect of the trivial nature of the information I am seeking, it seems to me that at some point I should remember that Paul McCartney is 75 years old. As a kid I’d never bother to ask my mom how to spell a word because I already knew her answer: Look it up. Those dictionary searches stuck with me, and eventually I became a fairly strong speller. What hope exists for kids in the day of, ‘OK, Google?’
Here’s a simple test if you think that you are somehow exempt from this phenomenon: How many phone numbers do you know anymore? Maybe that of your partner? Your parents? Your workplace? Fifteen years ago I had countless dozens of numbers relegated to memory—in some cases relegated to muscle memory to the extent that I could dial all seven digits on a standard telephone keypad in under two seconds’ time without even thinking about it. I know that I can’t pull off that trick now.
While I may bemoan my personal deterioration at the hands of Google, none of that comes even close to my concerns about how much of my personal information is retained on the internet. While it hasn’t become enough of a concern to stop me from searching to my heart’s content on any topic that might cross my mind, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned about someone digging into my search history. Whenever a mass shooting takes place and the gunman is killed, the first thing they do in trying to unravel a motive is examine his internet search history. Consider a cursory glance at the sort of topics I’ve researched for The Proversation and it becomes clear how one could spin them in my absence: nuclear weapons, North Korea, assault rifles, mass shootings, terrorism, racial unrest, economic inequality, third parties, Russia, espionage—shoot, the FBI could come calling at any time and I might be straining to do some explaining, warranted or not.
Breaches of trust are rampant in the digital world, so much so that we don’t even think about them. We install the app du jour and click on Allow Access to Contacts, Photos, Phone, Microphone, and so on with about as much thought about the end user agreement that follows. When we get bent out of shape because Facebook has way more information about us than we’re comfortable with and has sold this information to the highest bidder, we are misplacing our anger because they told us what they were going to do and we gave our approval.
None of this even takes into account the companies who are supposed to be protecting us and fail. When Equifax reveals that the information has been compromised for 147.9 million of their customers, what recourse do consumers really have? Who is really in their corner and to what end?
Considering the fact that there are about 2.2 billion Facebook users today, the vast amount of personal data that is available to the highest bidder becomes staggering. The backlash from this failure of due diligence has been powerful, taking down Cambridge Analytics, the company at the heart of this particular controversy. It has also spawned protective legislation, as today the General Data Protection Regulation goes into effect in Europe, requiring transparency from companies that collect personal data and giving people recourse to obtain or delete their personal data upon request.
Since 2004, an internal motto for Google has been a simple one: Don’t be evil. In October 2015, they dropped that motto for a different one: Do the right thing. A subtle change, to be sure, but a conscious one nevertheless, as it requires an active role. I’d like to believe that it’s a motto they’ve taken to heart in the wake of this Facebook scandal. After all, the FBI seems to be watching EVERYONE these days, don’t they?


References

  1. GDPR
  2. Don't Be Evil
  3. Do the Right Thing
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