Oct 1, 2011

What Google knows about you

I know that Google knows, because I’ve looked it up, that on 30 April 2011 at 4.33 p.m. I was at Willesden Junction station, travelling west. 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. If as many Google-enabled robotic devices get installed as Google hopes, Google may soon know the contents of your fridge, your heart rate when you’re exercising, the weather outside your front door, the pattern of electricity use in your home. 
Indeed, it sounds like the beginning of a Science Fiction novel, where the future is closer to us than ever before . . . 
So why doesn’t Google market its personal information, when it has so much of it? One answer might be that to do so would be ‘evil’.  
But another answer might be that the information Google has is too valuable to give away, that it has another reason for collecting every piece of data it possibly can, that the stuff it’s amassing is worth more than just money. 
And then, talking about increasing economies of scale . . .
The reason is that Google is 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. 
Due to the current common name: "disruptive technology" . . .
PageRank, the algorithm that assigns to every page on the web a value indicating how authoritative it is, based on the number and the authoritativeness of the pages linking to it. 
And the ability to think about the internet economy in terms of the "academia economy" . . .
Those at the bottom of the ladder (the junior academics, the lowly website owners) seek recognition from those above them (the celebrated professors, the global internet portals) and use citations in the hope that some of the gold dust will rub off on them if they get cited back. Rankings based on citations aren’t necessarily a measure of excellence – if they were, we wouldn’t hear so much about Steven Pinker – but they do reflect where humans have decided that authority lies. 
But then the question is how do they improve their products . . . again the analogy with Science Fiction is useful . . . remember those estrange creatures found in far away galaxies that feed themselves with energy:
Google’s brain was like a baby’s, an omnivorous sponge that was always getting smarter from the information it soaked up.
But you need to read the full article to get a reasonable picture. By the way, I agree with its conclusion in the last paragraph.  

Thanks to Joseph Cole for sharing this article. 

No comments:

Post a Comment