Somehow I’ve always imagined google as a supercilious, snickering Peter Pan-like young person sitting cross-legged in there, in the box-shaped computer I had twenty years back, rolling his eyes at my ignorance. From the beginning, this unconscious conceptualization of google automatically restricted what I typed in the search bar. Asking the internet to connect me to a site felt a lot like asking the operator of a landline phone to connect me to another landline number in the old days; the operator could listen in if she wanted to.
There is one more thing: I have had young patients proudly tell me that they are hackers, and good at it too! And I have no reason to doubt them as they are smart graduates from the IITs. The first time someone told me this was some fifteen years ago. It destroyed my faith in passwords and encryption for good. Decoding these security measures is obviously child’s play to some.
If I need to look up a word I use a dictionary out of sheer habit, though I’ve started using google more without realizing it. I think that’s how google creeps into people’s lives and makes itself indispensable. Speaking of words, I’m fascinated by cognates, and finding them is a zigzagging path. Does chasing after me through this help google? I still rely entirely on google for things like how to pronounce Czicksentmihalee, though, and I’m willing to do that. But if google wants to know why I need this, well, it’s just curiosity, nothing more.
I often use google to look up random factoids that have puzzled me through the day, things I’ve come across in conversations or on TV. So the things I investigate using google are completely irrelevant to my life, and can’t be the basis for ads. And most of the things I look up are from a check-list of unrelated topics. I am just browsing, not doing serious research. Like browsing in a mall. Incidentally, why do mall-owners count footfalls to gauge how the businesses that operate from them are doing? What exactly does it tell them? That people browsed, or people shopped? Or do they subtract browsers from the total and decide that these are prospective buyers that they can lie in wait for and eventually entrap into buying? In how many ways are we being watched?!
Back to google. I often look up the same article many times on different days because I might need to confirm only one particular bit of information from it. When I’ve gone into ‘show full history’ to trace some lost thread of thought I’ve seen how ridiculous it looks that I’ve opened the same page a million times. What does google make of it? And if I’ve been using google on my touchscreen cellphone, don’t even ask! Every clumsy finger movement opens a site that means nothing to me, but might mean something to google if it is snooping. I also wonder, does the time lapse mean anything to google if I leave a page open for a long time while I go into the kitchen to make some coffee?
I read a lot about religion because I can’t get over how much violence it has unleashed over the millennia, when it is actually supposed to bring peace. So I’m not religious, but google might think I am.
I am a news junkie and follow politics, especially Indian politics, but I’m not interested in raising a ruckus about anything. I already know that I don’t count and what I think doesn’t make a whit of difference to the political scene. I don’t think much of politicians (except Shashi Tharoor’s speeches on Indian history), but I read about their antics anyway. So what does google think is my political affiliation? A friend of mine talks about politicians referencing the astrology site carta natal es, so I’ve been visiting that site, but that doesn’t mean an astro-reading ad will grab my eyeballs. I might search for information about weapons in relation to a novel I’m reading, and google might misunderstand my intentions. So too with suicide, a topic that I need to visit now and then for professional reasons.
So, I have no idea how the data generated by my haphazard browsing helps google.
Apparently google needs to know me well so that it can pitch appropriate ads to me. I live in Bangalore, a city whose skyline is made up entirely of ads, monstrously large billboards that I never look at, or even notice anymore. So advertisements are wasted on me. I just peep around them or scroll down reflexly and never really see them. If an ad stubbornly refuses to disappear I close the page and find the information elsewhere. I’ve also become adept at clicking on the X mark using peripheral vision to close any nonsense that pops up.
I don’t use google to look for things to buy, places to eat at, places to visit, books to read, or movies to watch. I get these from newspapers and friends. I prefer to ask friends about these things over a cup of coffee at Hatti Kaapi or A2B in Bangalore, rather than turn to google for everything. It’s much nicer. Same way, I shop at small stores because they’re more interesting, plus the idea of these hardworking, cheerful people losing their livelihood to Amazon and BigBasket makes me feel bad. Variety, rather than the sameness of chain stores, is what I’d like to preserve. A little searching and serendipitous discovery is more fun, like finding a wonderful book while browsing in a bookshop. Google and the rest are taking this away.
On top of all this, I now have the troubling knowledge that my browsing patterns are being parsed by google to understand my thought processes and influence me through its advertisements to generate revenue for itself.
Google assures us of security:
‘Encryption brings a higher level of security and privacy to our services. When you do things like send an email, share a video, visit a website, or store your photos, the data you create moves between your device, Google services, and our data centers. We protect this data with multiple layers of security, including leading encryption technology like HTTPS and Transport Layer Security.’
That’s why it feels like a case of the fence eating the crop, or my own security guard robbing my house. That’s why it feels like a betrayal, though google openly admits that it uses the advertising model for revenue. To me that translates into “Okay, so some ads will appear when I’m reading something? Cool.” It doesn’t convey that I’ll be watched so closely, like a hunter following his prey.