MOOCS: Cool/scary things I learned about Google and others

October 27, 2013

This is the last week of my MOOC.  I thought I would share a few things I learned in the course.  In the next post I will wrap up the experience of the MOOC itself.

One of the most surprising things I learned was how little we as a society know about the control that search engines and companies really have over our lives.  On the one hand, I love Google. Google makes our lives easier in so many ways.  I believe that when Google began (and even now), there is a utopian idea of “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible and useful.”

However, as Vaidyanathan states, Google gives us a “comforting illusion of objectivity.” We think our search results have no subjectivity, when in reality, each document we put on Google Drive, each post we make on Google+ or Facebook, each keystroke is documented and used in the algorithm that shapes our search results and hence our lives.  This is the trade-off for how Google improves our lives.

Cool things:

  • Google Street View: cool way to see places around the world.
  • Localization is different: it used to be that local was within the geographical area; now, local is whatever you can ACCESS and find out more about easily. Easy access to information, truth and knowledge has opened up the world to everyone and hopefully made it a better place.
  • Connections: Because the Internet, Google, and social networking allows us to connect easier with others who have similar interests, the niche is now as important as mainstream. See the Long Tail…
  • Google Books: This is both cool AND scary–cool because the opportunity to access all this vast knowledge is wonderful for society, but scary because all this information in the hands of one corporation provides an easy way for a monopoly on information.

Scary things:

  • The Filter Bubble: my search results may differ from yours, as Google will shape your results based on every search you do. And, you have little control over it.
  • Reduced IQs: our IQ scores diminish because we have a “crisis of attention”: our constant checking of social media and filling every gap of our time causes our creative and problem-solving parts of the brain to atrophy. (Joe Kraus-Slow Tech). Additionally, Nicolas Carr sees that all this media tends to “scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”
  • Face recognition has come a LONG way in 10 years: experiments done using Facebook and Match.com with face recognition software was able to: within 4 attempts, 27% of all subjects had the first 5 numbers of their social security number identified merely through their faces. It is predicted by 2021 that it will take fewer than 5 minutes to find a match using just a face.

As I wrote in my final written assignment, I believe that the decrease in our anonymity and the increase in data collection improves our lives, with this caveat:

Does this convenience mean we trade in our privacy and the control of our reputations, as Vaidyanathan suggests?  I don’t think so.  However, we should be vigilant, and understand that privacy and secrecy are different, with different rules. We should hold institutions accountable for how they use our information, and insist on transparency.  The more open we are with each other, the easier it will be to see and mitigate violations of this trust.

This is the part that concerns me: that not enough people realize how little control they have over the information they have provided to these companies.  Although the companies provide their “privacy policies”, people have freely given away information that serves the company and not necessarily themselves. Knowledge is power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  What will happen when different people are in charge of these companies, and perhaps their ideas are not as altruistic as the founders?  Of this we need to be aware.

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