Monday

Can Google Control Your Life?

This sounds a silly thing to say, but there are many web companies who really do have quite a lot of impact on your life especially if you use the internet a lot.  Let's take Google for example, whose 'raison d'etre' is as follows
Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful
Which sounds a perfectly reasonable and responsible aim for a search engine company to have  don't you think. A big electronic librarian creating some sense and order out of all the information on the internet.  You certainly couldn't see any way that statement could in any way control your life or even a small aspect of it.  Unfortunately the reality of our digital lives is that all these companies can have much more influence on your life than you would expect,

In 2010 the Google Vice President Marissa Mayer said that someday soon the company wants to make the search box obsolete.  Their goal is to search out what you want or need automatically, your smart phone busily working in the background looking for information you might need before you know you need it.  Of course they haven't a hope of doing this without knowing an awful lot about you and your preferences.

For those of us who like to restrict access to our details and surf anonymously then it's obviously going to be much more difficult.  But those who dutifully fill in their Google profiles, click +1 on their favorite web sites then Google will have way more information on you and what sort of person you are.

Companies attempt to create this digital version of you in different ways - Google relies heavily on profiles, web history and click signals.   A click signal is simply analysing what you actually click on.
For instance if in your search results you are shown advertisements for a remedy for male baldness, then the algorithm can make some assumptions based on this.  If you frequently click on such advertisements or search for related information there are some pretty heavy signals that you are not a twenty one year old female student.   Gradually and often subtly the search engine is building up a picture of who you are and what you like.

Of course this is one of the reasons that some of us who would rather prefer a little more privacy are concerned about this.  Most people I would imagine would not be aware that they are slowly being profiled by others based on what they search for on the web.  But this data is of primary importance to Google  - who use it to base what you see in Google News, advertisements it displays etc.

Another worry is that this digital version of you - is being compiled by computer algorithms created by search engine programmers, so it's not necessarily accurate.  Worse still the expectation of privacy can be dangerous if you're not aware of the issues.  For example if you share a computer and a profile with your family - the results being displayed on Google News for all of you are personalised based on what you do on the internet.  Imagine the implications for some one with a difficult problem that they were not ready to share.

But although there are many privacy implications with the creation of this digital identity, it doesn't really mean than Google can control your life.  But just think if we expand the question to include a social networking site like Facebook which also heavily profiles it's users.   Then a user might have a huge part of their life tailored to this digital identity.   Facebook bases your environment on what you share, like and interact with - here's some of the adverts I get at the moment.


Boring huh, these are based on me being a thirty plus man, with an interest in environmental issue and often interacting with investment and money sites.  I could soon alter those advertisements by changing my age and interests in my Facebook profile or by liking a few different things.  Try it, change your profile and watch your adverts change!

So two environments Google and Facebook which I would guess some people spend many hours a week in. It's not hard to imagine how this might slowly have an impact on someone's life.   Here's a just a couple of 'made up scenarios' off the top of my head but I'm sure you could think of more.

  • A young girl concerned about her weight would be constantly shown adverts, web sites and products relating to weight loss and weight issues - sublimally reinforcing her concerns and perhaps in extreme cases causing a health issue like anorexia.
  • A recovering alcoholic may be constantly served up lots of adverts or web pages based on drinking and drinking culture based on their previous web history.  
  • A young student who is interested in Greek history get's served up advertisements for colleges and universities specialising in Ancient history.   They click on an advertisement and several years later complete their degree at that college.

I put the last one in to highlight of course that there are positive aspects to this sort of digital personalisation.  But it certainly illustrates well the sort of effect that your web experience can have on your real life.  Lots of us spend many hours a day in an online environment - one which is being heavily customised based on our digitial  profile - they could certainly affect if not directly control your life.

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