Stephen Baker

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AlJazeera: Google as Big Brother

June 28, 2013Hop Skip Go

Yesterday I learned about Dataium. It's a company that aggregates Web surfing data and provides it to auto dealers so that they can predict the preferences of customers, and perhaps even set the appropriate price for each one. I heard about this from Ashkan Soltani, an independent data researcher who was discussing data with me on an AlJezeera show, The Stream.

Maybe I'm jaded, but I'm not too bothered that an auto dealer would seek out information about customers and tailor pitches and prices for them. Dealers have always discriminated. That's what they do. They focus on a customer's clothes and jewelry. They note which people are impressed by sound systems or leather upholstery, and they figure that they'll pay more for such things. Good car dealers read humans. They observe and they deal. And now they use data. Doesn't surprise me too much.

That was the pattern during our half-hour show. Ashkan and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a Pirate Party MP from Iceland, objected to the datamining that big companies like Google and Facebook carry out. I was less bothered.

Birgitta, for example, complains that Google customizes results for what a specific user is most likely to be interested in. A cook who looks for dressing, for example, might see salad dressings among the top results, while a deer hunter might see a link about skinning a carcass. That doesn't bother me. But Birgitta and Ashkan fear that the big data companies are putting blinders on us, giving us little perspective outside of our own spheres. 

I agree that we find ourselves in self-reinforcing information ghettos. But most of the responsibility is ours. We choose our Facebook friends, and they tend to link to a bunch of stories we agree with. Many of us avoid blogs and channels that challenge our views. If we wanted to broaden our horizons, we could change. It's not Google's fault.

Ashkan says that instead of tracking our behavior, companies might simply ask us for our preferences. But I'd actually rather have Amazon figure me out than answer a survey. There might be people with similar tastes who enjoy a book in a category I wouldn't know in advance. Amazon, for example, lined me up with John Vaillant's The Tiger, one of the best books I've read in recent years. But I wouldn't have clicked Tigers or Siberia in a list of preferences.

My other point is that information workers, including journalists, need a vibrant advertising industry to support them (us). The datamining advertisers blunder in many ways. They hide what they're doing, they cross lines, they raise suspicions and fears. But I want them to figure out how to do it right, and to succeed. 

Incidentally, a tip from Ashkan. For privacy and security online, he suggests eliminating flash from your computer.

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