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Google - the new Microsoft?

The March of Progress (pt.94)

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Pattern recognition

The technology market is booming in one sector today. It's the dark side of ubiquitous computer networks: fuelled by spending on law enforcement. Writing in Open Democracy, Will Davies describes the boom as a surveilance dot.com era, and Davies quotes the British Home Secretary Charles Clarke as saying "the more we can survey the way in which people operate, the way in which they make their phone calls, the better your chance of identifying patterns of behaviour which are a threat."

Which results in "less faith on human judgement and more on spotting patterns in complex systems" - a favorite activity of Googleserfs and their fanatical supporters outside the Googleplex.

It's an article of faith amongst many of the company's employees, and certainly its fans, that cybernetic patterns can teach us something we don't already know, and that some deep epistemological truth will be revealed.

It's no surprise ordinary people find this creepy. Information isn't some special kind of stuff, and cybernetic patterns lead to disastrous consequences. (See Emergent cheese-sandwich detector enlisted in War on Terror for several examples).

The consequences of technology - such as an inability to find a call center operator "empowered" to help you, or having a loan turned down because of an algorithm - often leave people feeling helpless. Can't we use technology too, to level the playing field, some ask? Wouldn't it be great if it was a short cut to the messy political process? Once it was Microsoft's role to play the part of liberation technology, and now it's Google's. These are odd straws to clutch at. Technology has helped power shift away from the little guy over thirty years.

The days, not so distant, when Google's fanatical supporters claimed the search engine would save us from a surveillance society, seem very strange today. This, and many more examples of 2003-era nuttiness can be found here [RTF, 14kb].

Davies cites one delicious example where the public's collaboration with the great Web Truth machine can't be taken for granted.

"As one blogger, Lee Maguire, jokes grimly on his website: 'Homepages, eh? I've always suspected there was a huge "Big Brother" database containing everyone's private details ... and now I'm responsible for writing my own entry.”

Trust is a precious commodity and almost impossible to regain once lost. Google's instinctive reactions to several controversies to date have been marked by naïvety and evasiveness. It often gives the impression that it's blissfully unaware of the responsibilities it carries. And while the company no longer responds to controvery by dispatching pictures of its goofy founders riding around on colored beach balls or tooling about on their Segways, it hasn't worked out a more mature approach, either. This deficiency is exemplified by company's most famous hostage to fortune - its corporate mission statement, "Do No Evil".

But that's for us to judge, not Google.

Rational analysis of Google will be increasingly difficult as it grapples with these and other issues. Not all of Google's "embrace and extend" tactics need necessarily be "evil". Consensus is emerging that a new technical infrastructure is needed for public IP networks, and Google's Web Accelerator is simply one example where slinging the old ideologies overboard (like "end to end") could bring huge benefits to users. We'll see many examples of this, and MSPs like Mashboxx and PlayLouder, which attempt to create a new hybrid between public and private networks are almost here.

But as these are deployed, we'll do well to remember whose interests are being served. The Times, Gary Rivlin gives the last word to the founders' Stanford friend and VC Brian Lent.

"I like and respect the Google guys," says Lent, "but let's just say that their ultimate aim seems to me to be, 'One Google under Google, for which it stands.'" ®

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