I enrolled for Coursera MOOC Understanding Media by Understanding Google. Unfortunately I will not be able to complete it due to sudden surge in my other work and personal commitments. But I am thankful for this course for introducing me to wonderful pieces of writing on Google and the immense “Orwellian” (cliched term I know) power it exercises over us. I have earlier written about it here, here, here, and here. Most of those pieces are inspired by two books The Filter Bubble and The Googlization of Everything which I highly recommend. Former is a real eye opening book in terms of amount of knowledge Google has about us and probably knows more about us than we would even admit to ourselves.
Another book that I came across is the dated The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business andTransformed Our Culture. I haven’t yet read it completely but it talked about a powerful concept “Database of Intentions”. As much as I study Google and more importantly social media trends, this should have been blindly obvious to me but it wasn’t. In The Filter Bubble it is covered that how much Google knows about individually, this book talks about how much Google knows about us collectively.
One analytic site reports, 88% of world used Google as their primary search engine.
This gives Google immense insight about what the world (at least the world that is online or has access to internet) is thinking. Are they searching for any particular news, interested in buying any particular brand of clothing or accessories, researching any particular listed financial instrument such currencies, stocks, bonds or commodities (sorry I am a financial guy so this is of my particular interest), checking symptoms to see what diseases have we contracted etc.
Google does release its annual zeitgest report
“Zeitgeist” means “the spirit of the times,” and this spirit can be seen through the aggregation of millions of search queries Google receives every day. The annual Zeitgeist report reveals what captured the world’s attention in the past year—our passions, interests and defining moments as seen through search.
but it is released periodically. Based on this there was this hoopla in 2010 about Pakistan No. 1 Nation in Sexy Web Searches? Call it Pornistan | Fox News. Pakistanis claim to be amongst the righteous people of world but Google search shows their hypocrisy i.e., in the privacy of their rooms, they are largest consumers of porn. Later Google raised doubts on the accuracy of the report but fact remains that Google is sitting on this huge pile of information. Its their PR strategy that they chose to share it with us. They can very chose not to share this information with us.
The real power resides in having real time information about us collectively. A hypothetical example: Google notices a sudden increase in search for special kind of symptoms in a particular locality. Whenever we feel unusual pain or symptoms, our first instinct is to search online and not approach the doctor. If its related to a contagious disease, Google will know days before anybody else that a contagious disease is spreading in that area.
If people start searching for Gold as an investment say in India or similar such country (with significant purchasing power and penchant for gold buying), Google may know that demand for Gold is about to increase. It can either sell this information or use it to make more money for itself at the expense of ordinary investors.
Above are just hypothetical example and come with lot of caveats for example assumes that people are net-savvy, affluent, and research such diseases/terms on internet. Seeing that gold prices are low, an Indian may not research and just go and buy it from a local shop and this whole sentiment-to-action process may not even register on Google. But as people become more affluent, their access to internet increases, the power due to the knowledge that Google has about us will increase.
I am not saying it is easy. People tried earlier to tap into this. Derwent Capital’s Twitter Hedge Fund tried just this:
London-based hedge fund Derwent Capital Markets said it had successfully marketed a new venture to a series of high-net worth clients that makes investment choices using information gathered from over 100 million daily tweets.
Simply put: the fund mines the Twitter-verse to gauge market sentiment, and that information—which the firm futuristically brands as “The 4th Dimension” is used to drive the portfolio’s holdings.
not because its analysis of Twitter wasn’t working. During the one month that the $40 million Derwent Capital Markets fund was operation, it reportedly returned 1.86 percent, beating the overall market as well as the average hedge fund. The fund’s founder says that its analysis worked so well that one of the fund’s principal investors suggested making a mass-market product out of it, so as to reach a larger market instead of the handful able to invest in a hedge fund.
It might not have worked for the company but the potential is there. One reason could be that other hedge funds would also have developed such data mining software. And since markets are efficient, probably reduced any advantage the Twitter fund had to zero.
My point is that with the amount of data rather real-time data Google holds about us, it has too much information about us. It may know more about a police-state’s nation than the government of that nation. A lot has been written about recent Arab Springs and earlier revolutions and how social media has been helpful in organizing them. However, in social media we are public or at least broadcasting our intentions. When we discreetly search for anything on Google, after God only two people know about it: us and Google. That is a pretty God like power to have.
- Musings on Pakistani social media – Part II – Liberal edition (2paisa.wordpress.com)
- Musings on Pakistani social media – Twitter edition (2paisa.wordpress.com)