Google might be a very successful business and it might have a cool search technology but think about what a search giant like Google means in cultural terms. Google knows what the world wants. It holds a mirror up and we see our reflections -- our obsessions, our impatience, our tics. Google has become a database of our desires.
John Battelle, who figured all this out years ago, blogs about Google on Searchblog. He describes it as part of a "database of intentions", and says, with Wired-era grandiloquence, that for the first time in human history we now have a unique artefact: something which provides a record of what people wanted at a particular time. A search giant like Google can look into its database and see if we were intending to fly to Paris for the weekend, looking for a new flat in Battersea or trying to sell our motorbike.
But there's something a bit flat about a database of intentions. Google and its data can seem the sad echo of everything everyone was intending to do, but never quite got round to ("Buy shelves for spare room"). Google isn't about intentions. It's about desire.
I prefer another phrase Battelle uses, "a massive database of desires", because it's our hungers -- the things we want to own, the people we want to be with -- that so often define us. Google knows all about our desires, which is why it has become a gateway to the world's pornography. It knows if we're looking for a new job. It knows if we're looking for a new lover. It knows if we're looking for images associated with a particular fetish or kink. It knows our foibles, our pretensions, our dreams: that we want to appear well-informed about Italian cinema, that we want to meet professional people in North London, that we want to make a million bucks before we're 30, get a face-lift and buy a private island.
AOL learned all about the database of desires last August when it released 21 million search queries tagged with unique IDs. That made it possible to see what users of a single AOL account typed in while using AOL search. As News.com wrote at the time, "it's possible to guess that AOL user 710974 is an overweight golfer, owner of a 1986 Porsche 944 and 1988 Cadillac SLS and a fan of the University of Tennesse Volunteer Men's Basketball team…" That user also regularly searches for "lolitas". The searches made by another user, a certain 311045, make particularly interesting reading:
"how to get revenge on a ex
how to get revenge on an ex girlfriend
how to get revenge on a friend who f***** you over"
How's that for a database of desire? AOL and Google's databases derive their power from the ubiquitous role that computer platforms now play in our lives. When I was 20, the personal computer had almost no role in my life. By the time I was 30, I used PCs at work but not at home. When I was 35, I began to use a PC at home, with no networked connection, for word processing and PC games. Now my work and home PCs are indispensable. They help me find property, pay bills, book holidays and communicate with colleagues, family and friends on the other side of the world. They help me find and buy my music and tickets to live events and figure out what's on TV and at the movies. They're my newspaper, my magazine rack and, when I'm in Second Life, my virtual home (my office in Second Life is much nicer than my office at home). Like a Pac-Man character, my PC continues to eat more and more of my life. It's even become my virtual radio: I now get a lot of my audio content via the PC and listen to it on an MP3 player, which is nothing more than another little database of portable musical desire.
In other words, my computer is becoming a rich, full expression of who I am and what I care about (and yes, I hope God does have mercy upon my soul for writing that last sentence). Of course, that means there is a record out there about who I am. And the PC is only one device. When I travel to work on the Tube, there's my iPod, my , the mag-striped plastic of my credit cards and the security card I use to get into the office. Then there's my Oyster card (London Transport's cute little digital travel card) which records all my movements on the Underground on to a database.
Yesterday my brother was on Oxford Street buying a pair of shoes. The shoes had a cardboard label on them that said 'security tagged'. The assistant, however, didn't actually remove any electronic security tags from the shoes. When my brother asked why, he was told that there were chips embedded in the shoes. He decided not to buy them, which I think was the right decision. I don't know what my shoes say about me, but I'd prefer they spoke the language of fashion, not that of Radio Frequency Identification tagging.
Do you want other people getting access to a database of your desires? Do you know who's protecting your privacy for you? It's important to understand the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. It's not a question of us deciding whether it's a good idea to build a database that records all of our desires. We've already built one. It's here, staring at us every day when we log on and see that friendly Google logo. The question is, who owns it, who controls it and what are we as individuals going to do about it? If you're interested in this topic, you'll find loads of relevant information online…