When reports surfaced last week of Google’s plans to launch a search app tailored for the Chinese market, critics were quick to denounce the Mountain View giant for kowtowing to Beijing’s strict censorship rules. From Google’s point of view, however, gaining access to the world’s largest online market represents a huge business opportunity. Word has it that Google not only wants to offer its entire Cloud services in China, but also further develop its AI program.
But that’s still not the whole story. Beyond the obvious economic aspect, there’s also a more sinister side to having companies like Google or Facebook collecting ever growing mountains of data from an ever growing number of users around the world. Writing in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung about the emergence of a so-called “metadata society,” Adrian Lobe explains how data collection and algorithms can not only become familiar with a user’s behaviour, but also predict and ultimately control it:
Every day, Google processes 3.5 billion search queries. Users google everything: resumes, diseases, sexual preferences, criminal plans. And in doing so, they reveal a lot about themselves; more so, probably, than they would like.
“From the aggregated data, conclusions can be drawn in real time about the emotional balance of society. What’s the general mood like? How’s the buying mood? Which product is in demand in which region at this second? Where is credit often sought? Search queries are an economic indicator. Little wonder, then, that central banks have been relying on Google data to feed their macroeconomic models and thus predict consumer behaviour”.
The search engine is not only a seismograph that records the twitches and movements of the digital society, but also a tool that generates preferences. And if you change your route based on a Google Maps traffic jam forecast, for example, you change not only your own behaviour but also that of other road users by changing the parameters of the simulation with your own data.
“Using the accelerometers built into smartphones, Google can tell if someone is cycling, driving or walking. If you click on the algorithmically-generated search prediction Google proposes when you type ‘Merkel,’ for instance, the probability increases that the autocomplete mechanism will also display this for other users. The mathematical models produce a new reality. The behaviour of millions of users is conditioned in a continuous feedback loop. Continuous, and controlled.”