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Facebook, Google and Gogol

February 1, 2010

It’s probably a little too early for me to declare myself a visionary, but I had a ‘moment’ this past week. 

A few months ago, in response to a number of scares about privacy on the internet, particularly with respect to Facebook and Google, I wrote a little story about what at the time seemed to be the logical extension of what I was reading in the news. 

I’d sort of forgotten about it until two days ago when an older nephew of mine in Australia sent me a link from YouTube with the note:  “I thought this might be something thought-provoking for your next blog.” 

As you may know, some of my blog ideas come from interacting with my younger nephews here in Auckland, but Cyrus in Sydney is 29 and is my finger on the Gen Y pulse.  So I pay attention when he suggests I have a look at something.

I watched the clip and my first reaction was “Hey, someone read my story!”

You can check out the YouTube link here:

And you can read my story, entitled “What Goes Up Must Come Down”.  It belongs to a unique genre of stories inspired by Google and Gogol!

I don’t know about you, but I think that the YouTube clip is wonderful social commentary.  It’s outrageous but at the same time frighteningly plausible.  I can picture someone actually wanting to sign up for Google Xistence.  And the line:  “Because life is too short for social interaction” is classic. 

Come to think of it, over the years I’ve run into a few people who would have benefited by Google Xistence.  Or at least the people around them may have.

Although Google Xistence is a funny concept, it does raise a worrisome issue, at least when you look at it in the context I raise in the story.

Historically, we’ve been willing (more or less) to risk our physical lives with technologies such as the automobile, airplane, X-ray machine and microwave oven.  The implied social contract with the companies providing those products and services is that they will try to limit the number of people their products hurt or kill in order to ensure continued corporate existence.  No one will buy a product that is inherently dangerous.  Just ask the shareholders of Dow Corning (or the company that made lawn darts).

We have become used to putting ourselves into other peoples’ hands and trusting airlines, car companies, drug companies, etc.  But now we seem to be equally as willing to put our trust in others when it comes to giving away our personal data. Unfortunately those people may not necessarily be willing or able to meet our expectations of privacy.

When we provide personal information to an organization, we are entrusting more than our physical lives to technology.  The internet and corporate and government computers are now a repository of our essence—who we are, what we own, who we know, where we go, what we eat, drink, buy and even think. 

 One of the big questions in the privacy debate is whether the right to privacy is a fundamental human right.  I guess first you have to define what you mean by privacy.   Bruce Schneider, a computer security consultant, has made the point that without privacy, “we lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.”

At one level that all sounds rather Orwellian.  But the point of Google Xistence (and my story) is that it doesn’t take Big Brother (Orwell’s one) and a lot of security cameras and secret agents to destroy our individuality.

We can’t be sure where that information we willingly give away will end up.  Last month, the CEO of Google was interviewed on the subject of privacy.  When asked about sharing information he made the comment:  “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

That might be true of some sorts of activities, but I don’t think it’s what the people who posted their photos of their wild graduation party on Facebook had in mind when they were asked about that party during a job interview.

And I am sure that the unsuspecting parents who posted the photos of their cute kids online did not expect them to show up on some pervert’s desktop as one news report recently noted.  We wouldn’t hang pictures of our kids randomly at a shopping mall, but we seem willing to post them on-line and the internet is accessible to a lot more people than the local mall.

Airlines and car companies expect you to fasten your seatbelt in order to take some responsibility for your own physical safety.  Unfortunately, there aren’t that many simple safety mechanisms in the electronic world.  Except maybe for common sense.

In the early days of the internet, futurists speculated on how people would deal with each other in cyberspace.  They theorized that geographical distance and a low likelihood of meeting the people we are interacting with would lead people to say and do things on the internet that they would never do in real life.  They were right, and daily proof of that can be found on any political blog where more insults than ideas are traded. 

I guess the bottom line is that sharing information is a little like driving.  Pay attention to what’s going on, fasten your seat belt, and just because you can do something (e.g., donuts on black ice or share your bank details with the Nigerian scammers) doesn’t mean you should do it.

Because while life may not be “too short for social interaction,” it is certainly too short to live it inside a machine.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 6:18 am

    Wait a minute: Google Xistence is a spoof, right? I cannot believe that it’s serious, that Google would actually produce this without irony.

  2. February 2, 2010 10:15 am

    I like it. The guy captured the zeitgeist.

    And the Google guys have clearly lost their sense of humor since I covered them. What a pity. Perhaps this signals that they have peaked.

  3. February 2, 2010 11:20 am

    Thomas, I love your story. So many good bits. “Parabolus” is brilliant, esp the line, “.. wisely renamed by the venture capitalists”. Had a laugh at the “theoretical ceiling on revenues and profits” and “But if something goes wrong it could hurt our brand.”

    And the “war room” … priceless (just like their brand). And the denouement is perfect.

    Thank you. Was a very enjoyable read. SG x

    • February 2, 2010 1:21 pm

      Thanks very much for reading the story and for your comments. So glad you appreciated the little touches!

  4. February 14, 2010 11:18 am

    My vision is that at some point posting stuff online will be the best place to hide it, because it’ll just get drowned out be the sheer wealth of information available online.

    I remember reading an article sometime in the early 1990s that discussed how the number of websites had exploded from dozens into the thousands (or something like that). How many websites are there today? Five-hundred trillion?

    In theory, everything we post online is out there “for the world to see.” Sure. But we all know how difficult it is to get people to view information that we WANT everyone to see.

    Posing pictures online isn’t like posting them in a shopping mall. It’s more like posting them in our closet.

  5. jenny permalink
    June 4, 2010 3:05 am

    Ha! Dead souls! I read your story, and, yes, appreciated the parallel.

    And ‘Google and Gogol’ is a Gogol-worthy play with words!

    Yes, indeed, the facebooking, the tweeting, the blog-commenting all lead me to Gogol’s squirm-inducing question at the end of the Inspector-General:

    What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourself!

    Thanks. This was fun to read.

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