I purchased my first cell phone a few months ago. I'm not a technological Luddite, being very involved with computing technology over the past two decades, but I saw how my students were possessed by their cell phones and never wanted to get that addicted to a piece of technology.
That changed when my wife told me that I needed to get a cell phone so I could keep in touch with her.
Fine. I got an LG G3 and a 64GB microSDHC card, put all my music on it, and declared it to be my MP3 player, too. I had never used Android before, but it worked, I was happy with the camera and audio quality, and was generally happy to have a smaller iPad Mini in the house.
And then, a few weeks after I got it, my phone politely asked me if it could turn on my Google search history. I had turned it off years ago in a quest for online privacy, and hadn't thought about it until the phone asked. I decided to launch the grand experiment of losing my privacy to Google, just to see what would happen.
All of a sudden, this new notification started to pop up: the weather where I live. Okay, cool, I could deal with that. But when I clicked on the notification, the Google Now app would pop up--replete with directions to work (which I've never Googled in my life, nor the address of where I work), a list of search topics based on recent Google searches, and a few news articles that were somehow linked with Google News articles I had read.
There's this scene in Gibson's Neuromancer where the protagonist, Case, asks his Hosaka computer to create a five-minute precis on a youth movement called the Panther Moderns. The computer works for a few seconds, then comes back with a five-minute YouTube mashup on this movement. To me, Google Now is the first baby step on this path: I turn on my phone, load up Google Now, and find that it's already crawling the net for news articles that are interesting to me, based on the sites I visit, articles I read, and key words I search.
I lose privacy in the process. Google is now keeping a record of stuff that I search, and that, combined with my real name attached to my Gmail account, gives advertisers a bevvy of information about me: that I'm building a computer and looking up the differences between a GTX 970 and R9 380, that I'm interested in Fallout 4, that I'm also interested in the FIrst Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. If there are any tracking numbers in any email for stuff I've bought online, it also gives me real-time updates without having to put in the tracking numbers on USPS or Canada Post.
It's scary, but it's also incredibly accurate and incredibly useful to have access to these stories at my fingertips without needing to specifically search for them. If Google had access to my RSS feed...
So, I've decided to keep Google search on. For now. I'm apparently willing to give up a bit of privacy for the added convenience that this particular web application gives me. My younger self, the one who deleted his Facebook account in disdain, would be horrified, but getting older and having less time to spend trawling the corners of the net for interesting and topical articles to read, it's a compromise I'm willing to make. Neal Stephenson recently asked science fiction writers to start creating futures that are hopeful instead of the dreary dystopic downers that have pervaded the market as of late. Perhaps it's a bit of that hope that leads me to believe that companies like Google are really interested in making our lives better, rather than milking us dry for advertising dollars.