We spend so much of our lives online, and so much of our private (especially the embarrassing bits) are available for everyone to see, that in the future we may have to change our names and identities if we are to get anywhere.
It’s a lot of fun being a teenager and 20-year old on Facebook. Getting photographed in your underwear at wild parties and sharing it on social networks, making very, very smartass comments/tweets, bitching about your bosses or teachers on blogs, or visiting pornographic sites while still logged into your Google account. Life is one, long irreverent party, damn the consequences.
The trouble starts when you are thirty plus, no longer your old energetic self. You think all that you said, did and showed up in was in the puerile past, behind you. Now you’re looking for a ‘respectable’ job with a big pay or a prospective father-in-law looks up your past. Someone just has to Google your name, and that picture of you in your underwear which looked so cool when you were sixteen, comes right up in the search result. Today everything you do is recorded online. No job, no bride?
Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has an answer. The law should allow every young person to change their name, and thus escape their past – so James Bond becomes Gotabhaya Shankara Masilamani Rao. In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, he said, “I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time“.
I will agree in part. When he says ‘society’, I’m hoping he means the young and the restless. Those who were born after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. He cannot mean those parts of humanity that live in China, or those who remember the times of the Soviets. When the KGB, ISI, CIA or RAW knew everything you were doing, everywhere you were going. But anyway, that’s an old man’s reminiscence.
But that’s the harmless part. In the rest of the interview, the 55-year old boss of Google went on to describe the rosy future. Rosy for the big G that is.
He says “We’re trying to figure out what the future of search is. I mean that in a positive way. We’re still happy to be in search, believe me. But one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type.”
What does he mean by this?
“I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”
Did you shudder on reading this? I did. I do think people want Google, other search engines, scientists, artists, politicians, experts and other know-alls to give them answers when they ask questions. I don’t think they like to be told what they should be doing next. I want Google to tell me the latest fashion trends around the world. I don’t want it to tell me what shirt to wear. That’s why we have the Fundamental Rights in our constitution. But that’s me. I cannot say what you are thinking.
I’m citing the next bit verbatim because I cannot do better than that:
Let’s say you’re walking down the street. Because of the info Google has collected about you, “we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.” Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are. Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there’s a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you’ve been reading about took place on the next block.
You might shudder again. You do have a spouse at home who nags you about the milk and groceries. Would you like an invisible Bot sitting in the GooglePlex in Mountain View, CA, USA telling you that? I’d like Google and the internet to tell me which shop to get milk in at a good price, and what the reviews for the shop and the brand of milk are. But I don’t want it to tell me to buy milk in the first place. That job is my mother’s.
Do you want to know that a murder took place six feet away from where you’re standing? I may read about it in a book, but I’m not keen on visiting that place. Murder tourism with a guide describing all the gory details and kiosks selling souvenir mugs with the picture of the victim, lying in a pool of blood? Thanks, but no thanks.
He goes on.
The power of individual targeting — the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”
WSJ gets it right when it says,
That’s a bit scary when you think about it. But for investors and executives the big question, of course, is which companies will control these opportunities.
So is this the trend? A day when Google (and other internet companies like Facebook) know everything about you, and can by means covert and overt, direct your life?
Perhaps not. As an earlier blogpost described, Google Wave is waving goodbye. Google Buzz might follow. Its Orkut empire is receding, with only India and Brazil holding out (though a report suggests the India fortress might fall). The internet is poised for a new phase, dominated by iPhone-like ‘apps’ rather than browsers and search (that’s in the same WSJ interview). And that great arbiter – the market – that everyone believes in, doesn’t seem to believe. The stock price has fallen $150 since the start of the year.