What Google knows and wants to know
Daniel Soar has a fascinating article in the London Review of Books on Google and what it already knows and wants to know about the universe–and about you. Google has described its goal as “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Any scholar will tell you that the data-retrieving power of the internet, and of Google not least of all, is undeniable. It doesn’t substitute for asking the right questions, but it transforms the possibilities of access to information that it might have taken years or decades even to identify in the not so distant past. But here is how Soar describes what Google regards as “the world’s information”:
It means – or would mean, if lawyers let Google have its way – the complete contents of every one of the more than 33 million books in the Library of Congress or, if you include slightly varying editions and pamphlets and other ephemera, the contents of the approximately 129,864,880 books published in every recorded language since printing was invented. It means every video uploaded to the public internet, a quantity – if you take the Google-owned YouTube alone – that is increasing at the rate of nearly an hour of video every second.
It means the location of businesses, religious institutions, schools, libraries, community centres and hospitals worldwide – a global Yellow Pages. It means the inventories of shops, the archives of newspapers, the minute by minute performance of the stock market. It means, or will mean, if Google keeps going, the exact look of every street corner and roadside on the planet, photographed in high resolution and kept as up to date as possible: the logic, if not yet the practice, of Google Street View, means that city streets should be under ever more regular photographic surveillance, since the fresher and more complete the imagery the more useful people will find it, and the more they will therefore use it. If it doesn’t already have a piece of data, you can be sure that Google is pursuing a way of getting it, of gathering and sorting every kind of public information there is.
But all this is just the stuff that Google makes publicly searchable, or ‘universally accessible’….. It knows where I was, as it knows where I am now, because like many millions of others I have an Android-powered smartphone with Google’s location service turned on. If you use the full range of its products, Google knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging and phone, with a master list – accessible only by you, and by Google – of the people you contact most. If you use its products, Google knows the content of your emails and voicemail messages (a feature of Google Voice is that it transcribes messages and emails them to you, storing the text on Google servers indefinitely). If you find Google products compelling – and their promise of access-anywhere, conflagration and laptop-theft-proof document creation makes them quite compelling – Google knows the content of every document you write or spreadsheet you fiddle or presentation you construct….
Google knows or has sought to know, and may increasingly seek to know, your credit card numbers, your purchasing history, your date of birth, your medical history, your reading habits, your taste in music, your interest or otherwise (thanks to your searching habits) in the First Intifada or the career of Audrey Hepburn or flights to Mexico or interest-free loans, or whatever you idly speculate about at 3.45 on a Wednesday afternoon.
And there seems to be no end to Google’s growth: it is always learning:
The more data it gathers, the more it knows, the better it gets at what it does. Of course, the better it gets at what it does the more money it makes, and the more money it makes the more data it gathers and the better it gets at what it does – an example of the kind of win-win feedback loop Google specialises in – but what’s surprising is that there is no obvious end to the process.
Here is how Soar’s essay ends:
Google isn’t invincible. Eric Schmidt likes to say that its competitors are only one click away: if you don’t like Google’s search results, or its business practices, you can always use Bing. But Google is currently facing anti-trust scrutiny by Senate subcommittees, and the bigger it gets the less answerable the regulatory threat will become. Google is getting cleverer precisely because it is so big. If it’s cut down to size then what will happen to everything it knows? That’s the conundrum. It’s clearly wrong for all the information in all the world’s books to be in the sole possession of a single company. It’s clearly not ideal that only one company in the world can, with increasing accuracy, translate text between 506 different pairs of languages. On the other hand, if Google doesn’t do these things, who will?