[ Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images ]
Last Wednesday I went to Googleworld at the ICA, featuring
Randall Stross – author of Planet Google: How One Company is Transforming Our Lives: How One Company Is Transforming Our Lives ( or if you buy the US version, Planet Google: One Company’s Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know) – and Andrew Keen – author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy.
Whilst most of us are probably slightly uneasy about the sheer volume of data held by Google, and might occasionally ponder the rapidity of their growth, I think many of us are just as guilty of accepting the onslaught of Google as a certainty, turning a blind eye to any uneasiness because – let’s face it – apps like Gmail and Google Docs are just too bloody useful.
However it’s astonishing to think that Google’s original mission statement was simply to “make it easier to find high-quality information on the Web” – and has quickly evolved into the all-encompassing ambition to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. At the heart of which is a radically expanded definition of ‘information’ – no longer simply indexing the web, Google wants to digitally capture all and any information its algorithms might potentially one day be able to parse: coming up with increasingly creative methods of collecting data (e.g. the launch of free telephone DQ in the US to harvest voice data, in preparation for future voice-activated search).
Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt reckons that c. 2-3% of today’s information has been converted to searchable form – and estimates that in 300 years time, Google will have sorted and indexed 100% of the world’s information. By which time Sergey Brin hopes Google will have achieved HAL-like artifical intelligence.
As Stross put it; “the ultimate goal is to provide Google’s software with enough personal detail about each of its visitors that it could provide customised answers to the questions ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’”. In effect, Google wants to index and capture the inner workings of our minds. Pretty scary when you consider that via much of our behaviour in Googleworld, we tell Google things we don’t tell anyone else.
Both speakers touched on some really interesting issues, such as the inherent conflict of interest between Google as an indexer of the web vs. as a provider of information (and the shift from trying to get you to wherever you wanted to go as quickly as possible, to trying to keep you in Googleworld as long as possible); the heart of the algorithm as the ultimate expression of the wisdom of crowds; whether in fact Google is just a scapegoat for our more general nervousness about the evolution of the net?
For me the most thought-provoking part of the discussion focused on the role of a carefully-built brand in shaping our perceptions of Google, and the extent to which we’ve permitted it unprecedented access to our lives.
It’s pretty striking when you compare the sinister overtones of the company’s mission to “organise the world’s information” with the brand credo of “don’t be evil”. Why aren’t we more uncomfortable with Google holding the level of information they do?
Obviously one factor is that people simply aren’t aware of the scope of data Google hold on us. But another, posed by Stross, is that the benign and friendly brand image that Google have created helps to distract us from their rather more ominous business practices. A brand image that’s been built without advertising – from the lighthearted daily logo change, to the widespread promotion of their relaxed working culture. US college students rated Google as the #1 company they’d like to work for – Microsoft didn’t rate nearly as highly, because the Microsoft brand didn’t engender the same feelings of warmth or admiration.
Which is fascinating, when you consider that Microsoft’s abortive Hailstorm project was shelved due to concerns about one company holding too much sensitive personal data. Microsoft was – and is – felt to be a corporate behemoth who had to prove they could be trusted to hold that much consumer data (they couldn’t). Yet Google, Stross argues, have gone far beyond what Microsoft sought to achieve with Hailstorm, largely unchallenged – in no small part because they’re simply perceived to be a more benign, trusted organisation than Microsoft.
Whether or not the numerati – the data geeks – will eventually rule the world remains to be seen, but Google are certainly giving it a damn good go…