Google: a nerds-eye view of the world

The engineers who design Google's services see humans as little more than nodes between which information passes.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Science & Tech

Our privacy is constantly being invaded online. Along with Facebook, Google is constantly pushing the envelope to see what it can get away with. Google is almost doing a live experiment in terms of public attitudes to privacy, constantly introducing something then drawing back.

This does not make privacy – an already difficult issue – any easier to grasp. A lot of the concerns around privacy are theoretical. The question we need to ask is what do we find acceptable? What would be the level of disclosure and information-sharing we would feel comfortable with?

The actual collection of the data packets by the Street View vehicles was simply careless on Google’s part. Other people, other companies have done something similar. But when Google does it, because it aggregates so many different silos of information, it makes people feel uneasy. It did not help Google’s cause that its explanations were not very convincing at all. At the beginning Google said it had not done it, then it said it had done it by accident. And yet Google had actually filed patents on this data-collecting technology two or three years ago. The response, then, has been very disjointed and hard to take seriously.

But where Google concerns me more in relation to privacy – and it’s in the same place as Yahoo! or Facebook here – is that information only shared in one context is then used in another. The big online service providers do this all the time. For example, Google’s social-networking service Buzz allowed users to see who was in a user’s Gmail address book. Or with Yahoo!, everything people were selling and doing on the Gumtree classified and community site – ostensibly anonymously or pseudonymously – was suddenly revealed to all their Yahoo! contacts.

It’s these types of things that make me feel uneasy because users should be in control of where they disclose information and to whom they disclose it. But when it’s all mixed up in this great big information soup, it violates our sense of sovereignty over what we disclose and to whom.

As a caveat, some people, with seemingly no sense of privacy, do seem to share everything online anyway. However, most of us feel that something is wrong when information that was intended to be shared only with one group is shared with another. Or indeed, shared with everybody. There are researchers at Google and other companies who are beginning to realise this.

The paradox here is that the engineers who are designing and implementing these social networks are actually imposing very simplistic and rigid structures based on what their idea of norms of behaviour are. It’s a very reductive world in which they think we’re going to move around like mice.

These engineers are actually the worst people on the planet to make these design decisions because they have, essentially, a cybernetic view of the world. To them, the world is little more than a system. And in that system, human autonomy plays a very small part, if it plays any part at all. They just don’t get it; they don’t get that people are making choices all the time and that different information has different values. Google think they are pioneering a brave new world because they have a very limited conception of what a human being is. They are contemptuous of the idea of a human being as a sovereign, an individual making their own decisions and choices. In a cybernetic view of the world there is just information flowing between nodes. It’s not really a human-centric view of the world at all and that’s the big problem with privacy at the moment: the people who are designing the services are nerds.

There are sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists – with many decades of experience in how people relate to each other – who are better suited to designing these services. They will often make much better decisions than those who are new to the field.

The problem is that among those designing the social networks, there is this fashionable belief that by staring at our online exchanges, by aggregating them, some sort of new knowledge will emerge which will reveal more about us than we knew before. You speak to these web designers and they will tell you that anthropology is junk, that psychology is junk, and that they are pioneering new human sciences just by staring at this information. We’re now seeing the results of that view of the world.

Underpinning this conviction is the awareness that the web is not a goldmine. That’s why the imperative of companies like Google or Facebook is to trap more and more information, and to do these privacy violations. Hence you get this type of privacy-violating activity much more online than you would offline. For example, Shell don’t need to know anything about you when you fill up your car.

At the moment, I can’t see how this will go away unless we start giving the service providers money. Once they have reliable revenue streams, they won’t need to constantly provide and extract this information for advertisers. In a very real sense, these companies are desperate, and they wouldn’t be desperate if they had a reliable revenue stream. So I think the idea of people paying for services is a really good one, and a really healthy one. They would no longer need to breach privacy or push the envelope; it would encourage competition; and we as users would demand better service rather than just shrugging and saying ‘we’ve got what we (have not) paid for here’.

Andrew Orlowski is executive editor of The Register. He was talking to Tim Black.

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Topics Science & Tech


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