NYT: Planet Google Wants You

The New York Times is running an article (in their “Fashion & Style” section??) on the increasing ubiquity of Google in people’s everyday lives: Planet Google Wants You. It starts with a choice quote from an NYU law student:

“I find myself getting sucked down the Google wormhole,” Mr. Firger said with equal parts resentment and admiration. “It’s all part of Google’s benign dictatorship of your life.”

Indeed. Google has amassed a tantilizing suite of products to, as they say, “organize the worlds information and make it universally accessible.” With Google, you can search the web, search for products, search for books, search for academic articles, look up maps, read e-mail, chat, read blog feeds, read the news, create a spreadsheet, check a website’s PageRank, speed up your browsing, and much, much more. These tools are cool, they’re simple, and they work. No wonder people like to use them. Indeed, many users see Google as indispensible – as a very extension of their own brain:

Donna L. Hoffman, a founder of eLab 2.0, a research center at the University of California, Riverside, that studies online consumer behavior, said that Google has in the minds of many users “become one with the Internet,” achieving a meta-status because as the most-used search engine, “it literally augments your brain. I don’t have to remember quite a few things now because Google can remember them for me. Google is an additional
memory chip.”

Or a reflection of oneself:

Toni Carreiro, a Web designer in San Rafael, Calif., and a self-described Google addict, said that the elegant simplicity of Google’s design is a blank slate upon which she can impose her own personality: It’s not there to sell you on anything, just to help you, while other sites, she said, are full of blinking ads and clutter.

“They have all this animation going,” she said. “I just want my stuff. That’s what Google gives you — ‘me.’ ”

Google can give you “me” – an accurate reflection of yourself – becuase they know a lot about you. Underlyling all these cool products, Google has built itself an infrastructure of dataveillance, arming Google with the ability to collect and aggregate a wide array of personal and intellectual information about its users, extending beyond just what website they search for, but also including what news they read, what interests they have, the blogs they follow, the books they enjoy, the stocks in their portfolio, and perhaps even every website they visit. As noted in the aritlce:

The expansion of Google’s reach into so many areas of people’s lives has some worried. Other than the National Security Agency, said Kevin Bankston, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “I don’t think any entity has ever been in a position to collect so much private data about people.

“This kind of profile-building, if it was being done by authorities in a Communist regime, people would immediately object.”

(I should also point out that Google has built a large data center just down to the road from the NSA in rural Washington state… :))

But, in the end, the multitude of Google users seem to embrace “planet Google,” even in the face of Google’s “dictatorship of your life.” Again, our NYU Law friend:

“I don’t know if I want all my personal information saved on this massive server in Mountain View, but it is so much of an improvement on how life was before, I can’t help it,” he said.

So, we have some themes here: Convenience wins over concern over the aggregation of personal information. Captivation by Google’s simplicity ignores the complex infrastructure underneath its interface. Ubiquity is rising, and the Google lifestyle is now part of “Fasion & Style.”

Damn…need to get this dissertation finished.


  1. America Online was synonymous with the Internet several years ago, for many people. As the service provider as well as the service, they were (at least theoretically) able collect even more information than Google can now. It’s my guess that they threw a lot of this data out, whereas Google realizes the power of compiling it.

  2. Jordan – You’re right. I think a good project would be to look historically at the earlier ISPs and their data-retention policies. One key difference, though, is that much more of your daily activities are done online now that in the 80s and 90s. So the breadth of data being collected is much greater.

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