TED: There was a time when I thought a Goo-ocracy sounded delicious, some heretofore unknown form of government entirely based on Twinkie filling. But in 2009, I know better. The coming Goo-ocracy will not be nearly so sweet or creamy, though it may be just as bad for us. Soon, the world will be run by Google. They’ll start with information control; check out the Google Books project, for example. Put every book up online, and all of a sudden we don’t need print copies anymore. Then, once the print copies are gone, Google can rock some Fahrenheit 451 shit. You only get the books Google deems appropriate. And that’s just the beginning. Jill, try to convince me that putting so much power and so mucn information in the hands of a private company can be a good thing.
JILLIAN: Clearly, Google is benevolent, Ted. Are you scared of Amazon.com suggesting other books you might dig, based on previous purchases? Are you skeptical of your TiVo helpfully recording shows that it so considerately chose for you? Google is not to be feared, they’re just making life easier for us. Need a quick answer? Google. Want a free email account with a ginormous inbox? Gmail. Are you older than 17 and totally over AOL Instant Messenger? Gmail Chat. In fact, how are we corresponding? Via the aforementioned Google services. Google is not to be feared. Stop your conspiracy theories, take a sip of this Kool Aid and join me in Goo-topia.
TED: Here’s the thing, though: Amazon.com is just recommending some books and TiVo is just monitoring my TV-watching habits. Both are reasonably ominous, to be sure, but Google is ubiquitous. Yeah, they give me a free email account with a ginormous inbox. And what price do I pay for that? The cost of giving Google the right to read my emails for targeted advertising. But who’s to say it stops there? If Google can monitor my emails and my search habits and what I’m chatting about, Google can pretty easily know just about all there is to know about me. Yeah, maybe it’s not happening right now, but as our society becomes more and more of a panopticon — with all of us plugged into our cells — Google will increasingly represent the central overseer, peering out at our behavior whenever it sees fit. Color me creeped out.
JILLIAN: You might be right, but I simply cannot believe that Google actually cares what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinating — but I can’t imagine that the Google Gods care about my chats or the content of my email. And, besides, what does it matter if they do know everything about me? I’m a narcissist; I love having people interested in my musings, comings and goings. I suppose, when you really think about it, it’s a little intrusive. But where do you draw the line? Are any search engines/email providers safe? Will you renounce your cell phone, because your location can be tracked? Will you not purchase your Metro Card (or your city’s equivalent of a public transportation pass) with anything but cash for the same reason? And think about how many people use Google. Do you really think they’ve got their eye on you?
TED: Well of course I don’t. Not yet. But what about once our government inevitably crumbles, and has no option but to contract out its police force to the highest bidder, and the highest bidder just happens to be the company with the most money and the one that just so happens to be best set up for policework — your friendly e-mail provider? It sounds absurd, I know, but think of how efficient they’d be: This guy just searched Google for tips on hackey sack tricks, then Gchatted with his friend about how great Pink Floyd is, then Google-mapped his nearest Taco Bell. Book ‘em! I kid, but do you know how many people probably Google the illegal shit they’re about to undertake? Give it ten years, the term “G-Men” will have a whole new connotation.
JILLIAN: But isn’t that a kind of internet Darwinism? If you’re dumb enough to Google illegal shit from your home computer, you kind of deserve to be caught. Isn’t that what the computers at public libraries are for?
TED: Well of course, but I don’t know what public library you rely on for planning your heists — mine makes me swipe my card first.
We’re joking around, and rightfully so: It’s a bit ridiculous, as it currently stands, to assume sweet-and-happy Google has any nefarious intentions. But as we become more and more reliant on computers for everything, and as Google becomes more and more dominant in just about every electronic realm, I wonder how long it will remain funny. Information control isn’t exactly a laughing matter, nor is the way Google can — and to some extent already does — exert its will on the various aspects of our economy that now solely rely on the Internet.
A brilliant former professor of mine, Siva Vaidhyanathan, has focused his recent efforts on the notion, and for a much more in-depth and better thought-out study of the subject, I recommend his blog at www.googlizationofeverything.com. But before you head there, consider this: Google’s corporate motto is Don’t Be Evil. Just a little bit ominous, don’t you think? Yeah, they’re saying they’re not out to be evil, but just the fact that they’ve made it their mission means they’ve at least considered being evil. Slogans should be things like, “What can Brown do for you?” and “The quicker picker-upper.” Don’t Be Evil? I’ll give it 20 years before someone down at Google is reaching for a jar of white-out to rid the company of that inconvenient conjunction.