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The logical conclusion of our relationship to computers: expectantly to type “what is the meaning of my life” into Google.
August 1, 2011 8:55 AM   Subscribe

It’s for your own good—that is Google’s cherished belief. If we want the best possible search results, and if we want advertisements suited to our needs and desires, we must let them into our souls. James Gleick writes about 'How Google Dominates Us' for the New York Review of Books.

Gleick, previously, previously, previously on Metafilter.

Google. Other people are worried (reviews two of the books covered by Gleick). Google+ worries. Google News Badges worries.
posted by WalterMitty (61 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I am Google's. I was laughing at the NY Times article today, about the development team that wants me to Bing. "Ha," I said to myself, "I will always be a Googler, never a Binger." I think that Googling sounds healthier, like gargling, but binging sounds like you have something nasty on your finger, that won't flick off...

Google had better be good to me, stop watching what I watch, stop helping corporationss make a trail of identity by interest, or purchase...Google better be good to me.
posted by Oyéah at 9:15 AM on August 1, 2011


I dunno. I see Google's "control" on Internet communication and information as tenuous. Consider the information Google owns vs. the information it doesn't own but that is nonetheless absolutely critical for Google's survival.

There are millions of people online who neither need nor use Google, right? Of all the Google properties, the only one I'd really miss if the company disappeared tomorrow would be YouTube, an acquisition. (Google News would be next - I guess I'd use Yahoo news search...)

It will be very interesting to see what happens. I always thought the adsense market would collapse under the weight of click fraud, but I was obviously wrong.

"I will always be a Googler, never a Binger."

I'll take "neither."
posted by mrgrimm at 9:22 AM on August 1, 2011


Neither a Googler, nor a Binger be.
posted by DaddyNewt at 9:27 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah, there is nothing wrong with searching for information.
posted by oddman at 9:31 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gmail remains my best choice in email. Having gmail.com at the end of your email address is now professionally acceptable. The email system is easy to use and third party apps have been made for it for almost everything I use. I get almost zero spam, and so far, Google hasn't raped any of my loved ones in the middle of the night, so I think I'll continue to use it.
posted by Malice at 9:35 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


if your soul can be measured according to what brand of shaving cream you prefer i don't think you should be worried that google can see into your soul
posted by LogicalDash at 9:37 AM on August 1, 2011 [7 favorites]


Eventually it's just going to be ad bots chattering at each other and once they realize it's cheaper to just have a whole room of people click on every single ad for pennies a day then actual human consumption will be largely irrelevant.
posted by The Whelk at 9:38 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


and if we want advertisements suited to our needs and desires

What if we simply don't want ads?
I'll take that option, thanks.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:41 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eventually it's just going to be ad bots chattering at each other and once they realize it's cheaper to just have a whole room of people click on every single ad for pennies a day then actual human consumption will be largely irrelevant.

This is what I had figured had already happened, but I guess not.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:41 AM on August 1, 2011


There was another recent google sees all thread.

Also, you can guess someone's social security number from their hometown and date of birth, which you can now guess using facial recognition.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:41 AM on August 1, 2011


What if we simply don't want ads?
I'll take that option, thanks.


Then you pay for services (or just take them). It's pretty easy.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2011


I still can't believe that YouTube agreed to let ads spring up in the middle of the content you're trying to watch, as if anyone would ever willingly click them.
posted by hermitosis at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Robert Darnton also writes about Google (among other things) in the NYRB. It's interesting reading.
posted by cog_nate at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2011


Regardless, what I do appreciate about Google is their visible demonstration of commitment to getting the bridge across the digital divide built. I have seen their active commitment to sub Saharan Africa.
posted by infini at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


you can guess someone's social security number from their hometown and date of birth, which you can now guess using facial recognition.

What's the big deal about social security numbers? They are pretty easy to find, no?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:42 AM on August 1, 2011


This is what I had figured had already happened, but I guess not.

The Tweetbots and hijackers have gotten better recently, it's getting creepily Peter-Watts-Maelstrom-y
posted by The Whelk at 9:43 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been fairly impressed with ghostery but it flash cookies require special treatment.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:46 AM on August 1, 2011


The big deal about social security numbers is that a lot of bureaucracies consider them to be passwords and not merely identification. This is really a problem with our bureaucracies, but I guess it's easier to change the way a few corporations behave than change the way the entire rest of the world behaves.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:49 AM on August 1, 2011


Google often just climbs on my leg and starts humping--I have to remind myself that it's not really sexual, it's just a domination instinct. Then I'm all, *tsk* Oh, Google!
posted by everichon at 9:55 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


to type “what is the meaning of my life” into Google.

Page one yields all the typical useful information, but page 2 is where Google comes into it's own:

first option; The Meaning of Life (1983) - IMDb

Middle of the page: Phrases from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Wikipedia,

last link: what is the meaning of life? - Wolfram|Alpha

I suspect that, somewhere between these links, the truth lay.
posted by quin at 9:56 AM on August 1, 2011


Y'all can start going to the Library for your info (if there is one left in your town), or you can stop complaining about the google, your choice... the former will get you out of here, the latter will get you quiet, either way the rest of us win.
posted by tomswift at 9:57 AM on August 1, 2011


I really like Google. However, I'm constantly aware of one of the great truths of life: the problem of unchecked power isn't whether they are abusing it, but if they could. This is the part I'm always mulling over in the back of my mind.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:05 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


The big deal about social security numbers is that a lot of bureaucracies consider them to be passwords and not merely identification. This is really a problem with our bureaucracies, but I guess it's easier to change the way a few corporations behave than change the way the entire rest of the world behaves.

My understanding is that's rarely the case anymore. I have to come up with two separate PINs just to pay my fucking mobile-phone bill.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:10 AM on August 1, 2011


However, I'm constantly aware of one of the great truths of life: the problem of unchecked power isn't whether they are abusing it, but if they could

but they dont. How many others in that same situation can the same be said?

They're navigating their way through a complicated messy world, one where realpolitik has often caused many to take liberties or skirt close to the lines of integrity but are they really being evil? I can think of far worse than affordable smartphones in random rural third world offering up free information.

Besides, Sergey is cute. Even if he does wear those weird shoes.
posted by infini at 10:11 AM on August 1, 2011


the problem of unchecked power isn't whether they are abusing it, but if they could.

How is Google's power unchecked? It has nothing that was not freely given to it.
posted by GuyZero at 10:30 AM on August 1, 2011


I actually have no problem allowing Google into my soul. If they want to read my web-history and G+ feed to choose my adverts and search results, more power to them.

What I have a problem with is allowing the world, my co-workers, potential enemies, etc, into my soul, via Google. The way I see it, if Google continue as they are, they'll contribute to vastly reducing the utility of anonymity/pseudonymity on the internet. To me, that would count as the "Evil" that they've pledged to avoid.
posted by Drexen at 10:31 AM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think a lot of your problems could be solved by a combination of adblocks (including text), because I never see an ad. Anywhere. And if one is slipping through and I don't notice it, all the same difference to me.
posted by Malice at 11:04 AM on August 1, 2011


I can't read the whole thing right now but got through half of it. What a weird article so far, and what weird assumptions it makes:

In barely a decade Google has made itself a global brand bigger than Coca-Cola or GE; it has created more wealth faster than any company in history; it dominates the information economy. How did that happen? It happened more or less in plain sight.

Is this supposed to be ominous? Is a company's success now per se evidence that it is evil? HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES?!
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 11:05 AM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dominator dominated.
posted by dragonsi55 at 11:22 AM on August 1, 2011


Meanwhile, Chrome just became the 2nd most popular browser in the UK, with 22.1%, just overtaking firefox at 21.6%. IE combined has dropped to 45%, down 10% in a year. Safari is around 8.5%, up slightly, and opera has actually dropped to under 1%. Firefox is of course also heavily funded by Google.

Samsung with their android powered Galaxy S and S2 have leaped into 2nd place worldwide smartphone vendor with massive growth, overtaking nokia and only just behind Apple.

Whatever you think of Google, they're certainly providing a '3rd way' between the traditional Microsoft vs Apple battle.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:30 AM on August 1, 2011


Whatever you think of Google, they're certainly providing a '3rd way' between the traditional Microsoft vs Apple battle.

Microsoft is irrelevant, the battle is over; they lost.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:36 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


How is Google's power unchecked? It has nothing that was not freely given to it.

Maybe a better way to say it is not that it's unchecked, but whether it's trusted too much by those who freely give it information, based on an expectation of similar future behavior.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:43 AM on August 1, 2011


Adblock doesn't prevent all the tracking, Malice. You need adblock and clicktoflash just to make safari usable, but you really want javascript blacklist, ghostery, etc. too.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:54 AM on August 1, 2011


Is this supposed to be ominous? Is a company's success now per se evidence that it is evil? HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES?!

I don't think so. I think he's stringing those facts together to remind us how quickly google has become so powerful, and vice-versa.
posted by Diablevert at 12:16 PM on August 1, 2011


You need adblock and clicktoflash just to make safari usable

I used Safari on Windows at work for my personal Google account just because my office uses Google Apps, and Chrome handles multiple Google logins HORRIBLY.

I don't use any sort of ad blocker on Safari, nor do I use clicktoflash. I zap pages constantly (which pretty much kills flash), but ads don't annoy me and I don't click on them (except to say "not interested" or "offensive" on FB).

Is there any security or performance reason why I would use adblock or clicktoflash on Safari? It seems to work "OK" for me (though both Safari and Firefox tend to run slower than Chrome in general). And zap seems to take care of shit like intellitxt...
posted by mrgrimm at 12:22 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I plan on living long enough to upload my brain to Google before I die. That's how much I love Google.
posted by empath at 2:23 PM on August 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd imagine most people will give up a little privacy for immortality, empath.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:17 PM on August 1, 2011


> Chrome handles multiple Google logins HORRIBLY.

I have been using multiple browsers for multiple google logins continuously. I have never done a multiple login on one browser without weird shit happening. My main browser is firefox but I use a chrome for my nom de plume google accounts.
posted by bukvich at 5:27 PM on August 1, 2011


I'm constantly aware of one of the great truths of life: the problem of unchecked power isn't whether they are abusing it, but if they could.

I see the immediate danger as being something like what happened in China: governments prepared to knock on the door and take whatever information they want. I'd like to think that Google's data centres are rigged with thermite against that eventuality. I wouldn't quite put it past them.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:48 PM on August 1, 2011


Don't be evil until of course your kids and hirelings take over at which point mission decay takes over and your slightly creepy policies ('sup G+) get lots worse quicker
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:02 PM on August 1, 2011


I actually started working for Google today. If the orientation talks are at all representative of corporate culture, these people are very serious about the whole "don't be evil" thing.
posted by Mars Saxman at 6:38 PM on August 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


OK I got around to reading Gleick's piece. He did not address what seems to have been the biggest recent issue of supposedly only real names allowed on google plus which everybody was grar'ing over a couple weeks ago. Or if he did it was so oblique I missed it.

The weirdest thing in there I had seen before--that they once got fifty bucks for one click on mesalothemia. That is a sobering accrual of power.
posted by bukvich at 7:09 PM on August 1, 2011


I plan on living long enough to upload my brain to Google before I die. That's how much I love Google.

This resonates with me. I don't know why Google has become, for me, such a shining, welcomng beacon in thhe darkness. Perhaps I am the Clownfish to its deep sea Angler.

Or maybe I chose the red pill instead of the blue, and I just don't realize that I'm wrapped up in my cocoon, unknowingly feeding the matrix of the Google algorithm.

Perhaps Google+ is people, and Google Reader is a cookbook.

Doesn't matter. I'm content to let them herd me into the Googleplex along with the other sheeple.
posted by misha at 8:04 PM on August 1, 2011


I, for one, welcome...

eh, the overlords already know how I feel.
posted by fuq at 8:59 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Search and advertising thus become the matched edges of a sharp sword. The perfect search engine, as Sergey and Larry imagine it, reads your mind and produces the answer you want. The perfect advertising engine does the same: it shows you the ads you want. Anything else wastes your attention, the advertiser’s money, and the world’s bandwidth. The dream is virtuous advertising, matching up buyers and sellers to the benefit of all. But virtuous advertising in this sense is a contradiction in terms. The advertiser is paying for a slice of our limited attention; our minds would otherwise be elsewhere. If our interests and the advertisers’ were perfectly aligned, they would not need to pay.

I do think heavily targeted advertising is potentially evil, and I also think Gleick is wrong in that last sentence. It makes sense that advertisers might still need to pay a middleman company to match them with customers, even if their interests and the customer's were aligned.

No, heavily targeted advertising is potentially evil because:

If an advertiser can target an ad to me personally, they'll know exactly what lie to tell me to get me to buy their product. If they don't know me (for example if they're advertising in a newspaper), if they have to send the ad out to a wide range of people, then no single detailed lie will work. They have to fall back on either (a) the truth or (b) lies that appeal to the widest range of people. Both are vastly easier for me to evaluate than what they could do in an ad perfectly targeted to me.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:14 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I actually started working for Google today. If the orientation talks are at all representative of corporate culture, these people are very serious about the whole "don't be evil" thing.

If you think that the shit HR tells you is in any way indicative of what goes on in the board room, then I'd wager a good percentage of my net worth that this is either your first job or you're an eternal optimist. If the former, I'm jealous, if the latter, you better get your self a helmet and some shouldamapads.
posted by spicynuts at 12:00 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Microsoft is irrelevant, the battle is over; they lost.

That explains the rarity of computers running Windows and Office.

Seriously, no, Microsoft hasn't lost yet - they still have piles of cash, and have turned the company on a dime before. Until the stake has been driven through the heart, it lives.

I used Safari on Windows at work for my personal Google account just because my office uses Google Apps, and Chrome handles multiple Google logins HORRIBLY.

I strongly recommend the use of multiple Chrome profiles - this will let you run separate copies of Chrome with different Google accounts without any interference. I'm typically logged into two or three at once this way. You can set up Chrome "applications" on Windows as well, which lets you hide the chrome from Chrome while accessing Google services. You can actually do this on OS X also, although it's not nearly as simple.
posted by me & my monkey at 5:59 AM on August 2, 2011


If you think that the shit HR tells you is in any way indicative of what goes on in the board room ...

The board room is not the only source of corporate evil. There are plenty of evil decisions made by middle management across the world. And that kind of thing does come from the corporate culture.

I'm not a Googler, but I work pretty closely with quite a few, and I can say that the corporate culture of Google is quite a bit different - the company does value contributions that don't go directly to the bottom line (20% time, pro bono work for good causes, etc). There are plenty of evil things that happen there (I'm personally familiar with some of them), but I think that pound-for-pound they are less evil than most corporations, and that this is driven largely from the top, and from the corporate culture.
posted by me & my monkey at 6:03 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


If Google wants to be non-evil, then it is in Google's best interest for a variety of entities outside Google to persistently investigate Google for any signs of evil. It's like bug testing.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:57 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


If an advertiser can target an ad to me personally, they'll know exactly what lie to tell me to get me to buy their product. If they don't know me (for example if they're advertising in a newspaper), if they have to send the ad out to a wide range of people, then no single detailed lie will work. They have to fall back on either (a) the truth or (b) lies that appeal to the widest range of people. Both are vastly easier for me to evaluate than what they could do in an ad perfectly targeted to me.

The best way to reach me with a Google ad is to not lie to me at all. YMMV.
posted by empath at 7:05 AM on August 2, 2011


It must be comfortable, believing that you can always tell when you're being lied to.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:19 AM on August 2, 2011


I just assume that all ads are lying to me. Which basically means that I never click on ads. I mean, it's not mind control here, you're in control of your facilities. Really, the only time I ever click on an ad is when I'm searching for a specific product, and there's an amazon ad for that product.
posted by empath at 7:25 AM on August 2, 2011


If Google LogicalDash wants to be non-evil, then it is in Google's LogicalDash's best interest for a variety of entities outside Google LogicalDash to persistently investigate Google LogicalDash for any signs of evil. It's like bug testing.

I hope you see the inherent problem there.
posted by me & my monkey at 9:21 AM on August 2, 2011


I hope you see the inherent problem there.

I don't. The issue is of scale: LD is right that that's the way to keep them on the straight and narrow. The moral issue in general is that the cost to LD's privacy wouldn't be worth it, given his relative powerlessness. If LD decides to be evil it's unlikely he could harm millions. That is not the case with google. Powerful institutions deserve greater scrutiny of their actions, even if they do promise to be super nice, they swear. Because that's what power means: the ability to get what you want when other people would want something different.
posted by Diablevert at 11:04 AM on August 2, 2011


If an advertiser can target an ad to me personally, they'll know exactly what lie to tell me to get me to buy their product.

Can you give me a specific example here? Because I just can't see how this can possibly work more than once or twice.
posted by GuyZero at 11:04 AM on August 2, 2011


Well, I don't have something specific in mind. But advertising already works by saying things like "this beer will help you get the girl" or whatever they think their consumers want to hear, even where "what their customers want to hear" is totally unconnected to the virtues of the product itself. I am just imagining what will happen with a much more targeted version of same.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:35 PM on August 2, 2011


I've spoken to (good-hearted, sincere) tech people working on targeted advertising schemes, and gotten boosterism along the lines of "making advertising more efficient will benefit consumers by connecting them to things they actually want." But I don't buy it. Sure, a company will want to find people who already want their product, yes.

But they also want to get people to buy the product who don't already want it. How can they manage this? Well, if they know what I do want, they can make their existing product seem to meet my needs.

They can also try to manipulate my needs toward something that will be met by their product (for example if they know I'm insecure about some physical feature, they can work to increase that insecurity until I feel that I need some product to "fix" my "problem").
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:42 PM on August 2, 2011


We're just barely able to create and maintain systems that can distinguish people who are interested in sports from people who are interested in cooking. I feel safe saying that we're a ways off from having a detailed catalogue of personal insecurities and being able to present these to advertisers in a meaningful manner.

If you want to know what Google knows about you for advertising purposes, you can go to the Google Ad Preferences page. You can add or remove interests and disable interest-based advertising if you want.

After all, advertising preferences are your data.
posted by GuyZero at 3:55 PM on August 2, 2011


spicynuts: I've been working in the software industry for something like nineteen years now. Google will be the eighth company I've worked for. I have seen plenty of fraud, greed, and general incompetence over the course of my career. I served my time at Microsoft, will never go back, and at this point have become so skeptical of tech giants that I would not consider working for Apple, Adobe, Oracle, Amazon, or any of the tech giants - except Google.

Google talks a different game, and so far they are playing a different game, too. They have demonstrated a willingness to blow off Wall Street whenever they think they can do better than just make a short-term profit. They routinely spend billions of dollars developing new technology simply because it might be useful, and trust that if it truly is useful they can figure out some way to make it pay for itself later.

I hate advertising. I don't like the fact that I am about to start getting a paycheck which is mostly composed of ad revenue. I don't fully believe the argument that a perfect ad system would be indistinguishable from a search engine, and so we are progressing toward a future where ads stop being annoying, etc. But it's better than anything anyone else is doing, and they are using all that ad money to push the technological state of the art forward. No matter what happens to Google in the long run, the engineering work they are doing will benefit the whole human race over the long term, by giving us better tools for working with large amounts of data.

Of course one can be arbitrarily cynical and distrust everyone, but everything I've seen so far makes it look like Google is the real deal. They say "don't be evil", and they train people to not be evil, and they have structured their company around building things that are useful. Ok, this is a bet I am willing to take, so here I am.
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:46 PM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Zuckerberg Runs in the Wrong Direction on Pseudonymity Online
posted by jeffburdges at 7:38 AM on August 3, 2011


I just assume that all ads are lying to me. Which basically means that I never click on ads.

You're assuming that the fact that you haven't clicked on the ad means it didn't work. Sometimes that's true; those Punch the Monkey ads won't tell you what they're about if you don't click. But it's often quite enough for you to see what the ad is about and the product's logo. That way, next time you see it, you'll get a glimmer of recognition. And if that doesn't make you buy the product--though it often is; the HeadOn commercials resulted in a huge increase in sales--even then, you'll have some reaction when you see someone else using the product. If you so much as comment on it, you're advertising for them. Sometimes, in some places, ad agencies actually pay people just for talking about their product, not recommending it, not telling people how to get it.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:01 PM on August 3, 2011


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