Algorithms and self-fulfilling prophesies

Google Now, the app that does your search before you realize you need it, added a new term to its service recently. It now has the ability to use the mic and camera without your permission, i.e. without notifying you before or after. Ostensibly this enables you to give voice commands or scan images or barcodes to search for info while you’re in a store or museum.

Some people worry about a camera that might record their face unknowingly while they search the web or a mic permitted to record their conversation during a phone call. Other people call this paranoid or naive. Google cares about demographics, they believe, not you individually.

Demographics are a tool of the twentieth century. Google and the Obama Campaign team are perfecting the art of direct engagment based on big pools of data on you specifically.

Google cares about the mundane conversations in our email to target you specifically with ads and search results. This leads to at least two problems:

1) As a corporation, Google has a legal responsibility to make money for shareholders. No law says they have to keep or even uphold their motto of don’t be evil. Your terms of service can outlive their currently stated priorities and values.

2) As they tailor service and results to you specifically, you lose the serendipity and free access of the internet that made it so revolutionary. The more that each of us sees what google believes fits our opinions and likes, the less opportunity we have to grow and evolve freely in unexpected ways. Imagine the impact on children. Early searches become predictive, prescriptive, and constrictive. The algorithms become self-fulfilling prophecies.

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