There’s a fantastic short story about Google in the new Radar that has the following (only semi-unlikely) premise:
Google kind of takes over the world. It’s being used to help the US Department of Homeland Security try and catch potential terrorists (searching anything and everything with which you’ve ever been associated online) and determining who’s a high risk by examining suspicious emails and performed searches. Like with racial profiling, if you met certain statistical criteria for something (such as, in this case, possible terrorist leanings), you’re thus subject to being Googlestalked. The only way around this is to get Googlecleaned, a process that “normalizes” your data.
It’s a story that amuses me and kind of scares the bejaysus out of me at the same time, because it’s not all that far-fetched.
Think about it this way…if every move you made online was triggering related information to be stored in a database and associated with you, what would the total picture say about you? And what if information obtained 5 years ago was still considered to be an accurate assessment of your exact beliefs and interests today? How would knowing what could happen change your online behavior? With all of us changing our online behavior, the statistics would become more and more skewed, thus leading to bigger discrepancies in who could indeed be a potential ANYTHING. Do you see the problem with this?
Let’s say that we are the sum total of our web searches and recorded online conversations. That would make me a Brian Dennehy stalker (not that I am denying it or anything–can you seriously tell me he isn’t good looking?) and maybe he’d have me arrested. George Bush would personally come down here to NC and kick my ass for all the things I say about him in my IM conversations. I refuse to link to anything associated with him though.
I’d probably get into serious trouble just for the leftist people that I routinely email (they’re my friends!) and you’d think that I wouldn’t listen to anything other than late 70s and early 80s punk rock. Ok that last part is kind of true but anyway, it doesn’t accurately reflect me enough to form a stereotype from which I’d never deviate. I wouldn’t want to be judged by any of it. But I WOULD be…and let’s say that, since I have emailed a friend who belongs to the Communist Workers Party here, I am now associated with that group even though I have nothing to do with them and no plans to ever join them. I’m now flagged as a threat. While I like the thought of being able to intimidate people, this isn’t cool at all.
What about the sites you accidentally click on? I’m not talking about the ones you PRETEND to have accidentally reached, I mean the ones where your computer is running slowly and you’ve spazzed out and are randomly clicking your mouse around and cursing like Father Jack. Hard to believe anyone is that stupid (ahem) but it happens, I imagine. What about the whole issue of semantics? Misspellings? God help us all if I am ever associated with a group of poor spellers. I already have one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel.
What about the emails where you’re referencing a joke to someone who knows exactly what you mean, but the content could very easily be taken completely out of context and miscontrued as something malicious? My emails to a friend that read things like “Dear Eric, DIE DIE DIE. Don’t be surprised when your brakes fail! Love, Julie” would seem to suggest that I have a violent streak upon which I am about to act. Google is an intelligent entity, there’s no doubt about it, but can it detect the humor that most humans can’t understand?
What would normalizing your information mean anyway? Do you want to be normalized? Considering the average person in the country, I wouldn’t. I don’t want my profile to say that I listen to country music, vote Republican, never pick up a novel unless it’s fallen and blocked my path on the way to the Golden Corral buffet, and eat gummy worms at least twice a week. I’d almost rather be considered a threat to national security. I can also say, from experience, that the government doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, and unfortunately mine is so highly inappropriate that I would get into quite a bit of trouble while the real bad apples rolled away, unnoticed.
So pick up Radar or go online and read the story if you can. It’s really pretty scary when you start seriously thinking about it. If you do, in fact, get scared, just think of dancing cats and you’ll be fine.