In the end he succeeded in forcing her memory back until she did dimly recall that at one time Eastasia and not Eurasia had been the enemy. But the issue still struck her as unimportant. “Who cares?” she said impatiently. “It’s always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.”
The big tech news of the last couple weeks isn’t Apple’s iBooks Author or their huge sales or Amazon’s continued push into traditional publishing, but rather Google finally showing its true colors by turning itself into the all-seeing, all-knowing God of the tech world. This has been a long time coming, obviously, and none of us should be surprised. Still, it’s disappointing to be suddenly so hyper-aware that Google does not have, and never did have, your interests at heart. And now they’re going to be watching every move you make and tracking you for the benefit of their advertisers.
The worst part about this is that, though Google has become inextricably woven into our daily lives, you have probably never given them a cent. The other major tech players of the early part of this decade (i.e., Apple and Amazon) still require you to buy stuff (including actual, physical consumer goods) in order to get their hooks into you. Google, like Facebook, has always lived strictly on the internet and has always been free. But Google’s even more subtle than Facebook. When you approach the House of Zuckerberg you approach with the knowledge that there’s going to be some kind of active involvement, even if it’s little more than looking at a friend’s photos. Facebook, in other words, is a destination, a place you purposely seek out.
Google has always been a conduit, a way to get you to other places on the web. Eventually Google added some features you did interact with, but even these were mostly tools designed to help you do other things: Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs. Even an RSS service like Google Reader or (in a grand vision which has never panned out) Google Books was not about spending time with Google per se, but with other content which Google has helped distribute. The purchase of YouTube in 2006 was the first sign of things to come, since it’s business model is the same as every other social networking site. You go to YouTube to watch videos and to watch the advertising accompanying the videos. There is no other purpose for it.
What is Google now, in 2012? It’s not just Facebook, though it’s trying to be that, too. Mostly it’s trying to be the only place on the internet worth being, the place you go to get information, read the news, talk to people, write emails, watch videos, work on a presentation, find a restaurant to order in from. Because they’ve become more and more focused on keeping your internet usage within the Google ecosystem, it’s also a company with no interest in providing the service you originally came to it for: search. The last few years we’ve seen Google Search deteriorate to a point where the thing it’s now best at is pointing you back to Google itself.
There was never one day when I suddenly thought, “Hmm, I really just can’t trust Google on this one.” I think my confidence has eroded slowly, has more and more individually and socially focused features have crept into its algorithms. Since “Search Plus your World” was introduced I’ve had to step back and evaluate what it is searching using Google is actually helping me do. Hint: not find things very easily. For the past few days, I’ve been telling people to ditch Google and use a search engine like DuckDuckGo instead. Anything that’s about helping you find stuff and not about creating a constant, unavoidable social experience.
But it doesn’t matter, because even if I never search for another term on Google again, I’m forever stuck using its services. Gmail is the big one, since I have something in the range of 4 years and 15,000 messages on there. Google Docs is tied into projects at work. I could stop using Google Maps, though my phone runs on Android and I can’t stop using that very easily. I could migrate my RSS feeds and I can always sign out before watching a YouTube video, but that’s easier said than done. (Google+ is not something I use very much, and am more than willing to toss overboard.)
Point is, even if I manage to extricate myself somewhat from Google, it’s still there. I’ll still use it. We’re stuck with it. We are at a stage in computing and technological development where the small start-up companies and the hippie-inspired culture of early innovators is at an end. Those start-ups became Microsoft. Those hippie-inspired innovators became Steve Jobs. There’s maybe a half dozen giant tech companies competing for our attention and our dollars now, and in at least two of them (Google and Facebook) we aren’t, never have, and never will be the customer. Innovation is dead. We’re living in the technological dystopia.
This sounds all very depressing. The tech world these days feels very small. I’m writing this on a Mac, after which I’ll probably check Gmail and Facebook and then read on my Kindle. This is my technological universe. I read a lot of different things from a lot of different sources, but they’re often filtered through Reader, Twitter, and Facebook. If I watch a video, it’s usually on YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. (Books are a bit more diverse, as I alternate between local indie booksellers for print and ebooks I buy from outside Amazon and convert to mobi…but that’s my trade, so I’m not typical.) What does the future look like if it’s a future dominated by tech giants who are all interested in our private data for market analysis?
That’s a rhetorical question. I honestly don’t know. But I’m going to try to think through these things a little bit more, maybe try to draw in some digital humanities conversations on the web. There’s reason to be optimistic, I believe. Most of the printing presses may be controlled by the Church, but you can always set up a small shop and produce something yourself.
I’m going to start by reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed in an attempt to work on these questions. Check back for updates.