Should We Let Google Aggregate Our Lives?

3 10 2010

In a September 28th piece by Venture Beat, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made bold claims about the future of Google and its applications in our everyday lives. He believes that modern technology will force us to reconcile with the sheer vast amounts of information we must handle on a daily basis, and that the best way to do so would be through Google products and services. He said, “Computers will clearly handle the things we aren’t good at, and we will handle the things computers clearly aren’t good at.” While that leaves open an immensely gray area of definition, he mentions, “It’s amazing that people drive cars, computers should be the ones driving cars.”

The most recent life “augmentation” Google has implemented is the Instant search feature, which updates results in realtime as the user adjusts his or her search query. This, among other time and energy-saving facets such as Google Alerts, Maps, Shopping, and News are the kind of tweaks that make life just a bit easier (especially for a Chrome user, such as myself).

Still, one grievance I’d like to air is the disappearance of discovery. Google News’ ability to customize users’ content aggregation lets them read exactly what they want, determined by preferences for topics, tags, even sources. This is fantastic when we have about fifteen minutes to catch up on the daily news, and more specifically, what kind of news might be relevant to the user (I myself am partial to New York City local, business, and technology). Still, this eliminates other content we might potentially find interesting; I’ve been prone to wander into the business or arts section of a physical newspaper, but online it’s difficult for me to come across that kind of information unless I specify that I want it.

It doesn’t stop at Google News; Facebook sets up banner advertisements based on user interests, links, and other types of activity. Google has recently come under fire for allowing Android apps share user information with third-party advertisers. While this is not a breach of contract (every Android user accepts Google’s terms and conditions before installing a phone app), it’s so far buried under the fine print of the terms and conditions that users don’t realize what they’re agreeing to. This kind of “deceptive marketing” brings up the possibility that Android might be handled in the same fashion as All potential illegalities aside, this method of customizing advertisements is yet another way that Google (among other web giants, including Yahoo!, Facebook and Amazon) is discreetly customizing our lives.

Schmidt said that while Google’s ultimate goal was to begin indexing most personal information in our lives (granted, of course, with clear and reaffirmed permission of the user), the next “logical step” is mobile phones. The idea of “indexing” has already been implemented; the iPhone has for some time offered a search bar that brings up every piece of data on the user’s iPhone that is relevant to the search query. While this might scare some, especially those that incorporate damn near all of their personal information into their smart phones, I’ll admit (as an iPhone user) that it makes searching for obscure pieces of data easier.

Is letting Google take over personal information management crazy? Yes. But is it helpful? Absolutely. Considering the wonderful things Chrome and Android allow us to do in terms of discovering, sharing, and managing information from all walks of life, it’s not absurd to think that letting Google handling EVERYTHING is the worst idea ever. Still, sharing our lives online has made the public sector scary enough. I don’t know if we’re ready to share with the private sector.