Periscope Depth

swift-sure bringer of death to beggar and king

I was drinking with Fraley and Hawver, two of my closest friends, on the back patio at the Field in Central Square. “Guys,” I asked, “should we be worried about Google?”

Both of them burst out laughing. I don’t know if they thought I meant worried as in worried-about-Uncle-Paulie worried (I don’t know if he’s gonna make it through another Christmas) or worried as in worried-about-home-invasion worried (call ADT today). Either way, though, their answer would have been the same.

I meant the latter. As the repository of the world’s data, Google can exert tremendous control over anyone who uses their services. Or they could, if they got their act together. At the moment, the only profitable thing Google can do is show us ads and license Android well, I guess just the one thing. In theory, Google could take your behavior from GMail, Google Docs, YouTube and searching and construct a single comprehensive profile that could model your thoughts with uncanny accuracy. In practice (and I have this from Google people), the departments don’t talk to each other that much.

There’s only so big a company can grow and still remain limber, and Google passed that point a while ago. Size conveys institutional effects, and institutions have interests beyond those of their constituent members. Google’s no longer as innovative as it once was. Its big ideas now are to move into spaces already occupied by other companies (iOS, Facebook, MS Office) and offer a free alternative that’s kind of good. That’s not a bad business strategy as such. It applies a lot of price pressure downward. But if you’re hemorrhaging money every day (see: YouTube), winning can be fatal.

The worst thing Google could do with my personal information would be to sell it to an advertiser, who already has it from my supermarket loyalty card and from Visa anyway. They could also turn it over to the feds and get me arrested, but we’ve passed the decade where that’s news. So it’s nothing worth losing sleep over. Yes, Google owns the world’s data, but we weren’t doing anything with it anyway.

Once Fraley and Hawver reassured me of the above, conversation turned to our usual get-rich-quick scheme: warlordism in sub-Saharan Africa. “We need to join the French Foreign Legion,” I said.

“What will that get us?” Fraley asked.

“Networking, training, access to a ready supply of arms and mercenaries. Plus, if we have experience as soldiers, we look better on paper.”

“Because that’s what it takes to become a warlord,” Hawver said. “A good resume.”

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