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BLOG: Go on, Google me

Anna Funder (via SMH) | Aug. 13, 2013
We are victims of our own fascination with technological wizardry, writes Anna Funder.

Q: What kind of company has to remind itself of this?

A: A company whose power is virtually limitless.

The tacit agreement that was made to keep the internet "free" (free access and largely free content) meant that the fortunes made online - vaster fortunes than in any other time in history - have been from harvesting and onselling data about us, not from paying for content created by us (just ask any musician who used to be able to sell a CD and now receives 0.47 of a cent per play on Spotify).

The death of personal privacy is a by-product of Google, Facebook and others selling our data to advertisers. It is as if we have (again tacitly, and on undefined terms) decided that the convenience of predictive text on a Google search and tailored advertising in our email inbox is worth giving away our privacy for, for free. (As I type, an email from Amazon arrives offering me items spookily attuned to my age and stage: eye exams, food discounts, local bootcamps, house cleaning, dental cleaning - it feels like psychological short-sheeting, or some kind of sorry consumerist reality check.)

What can we do to reclaim control of our online selves? American tech genius Jaron Lanier, originator of the term "virtual reality", says we could claim back our personal information by charging for it, and so democratise the internet at the same time. One imagines a cookie, an app or a setting on our machines that could allow or disallow our information to be used, track the user and charge a few cents each time.

But in the meantime we need to know how to read the net. I am as addicted as anyone to having the apparent answers to all questions of the universe and local navigation in my pocket. But it is also a world of spinning, unattributed facts and factoids, and unseen, controlling algorithms. This was brought home to me when I tried to correct the inaccurate Wikipedia entry on me. Each time I amended it, the wrong information was put back up. After three attempts I was "barred", by persons or algorithms unknown, from fact-checking my own life.

It is easy to get the impression that a Google search is a neutral sifting of the most relevant sites for our search terms. Not so: it is skewed by an algorithm that seeks out what it "thinks" I want. So when I do a Google search, and when you do one, our results will be different. At the same time as we think our world expanded, we actually have tailored, little worlds, on millions of individual screens, and we are hounded by advertising from the ghosts of sites past.


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