I am a huge fan of Google in general. I feel that they’ve done incredible things software side that has really changed the way that we look at computing. That said, it always surprises me when people compute without knowing much about … well, the consequences of computing. I suppose it actually shouldn’t surprise me, considering how the point of modern software development is to increase accessibility and ease of use in general– but I’m not necessarily talking about the programming bits. I mean things that are equally important on a social and security level.
Things like how Google tracks your usage habits, or, if you turn it on, your location. A few years ago when Latitude came out, I turned on the location tracking for a whole year or two. Google just kept on logging my location, something like every 15-30 minutes. It was a bit of a nerd experiment to me– and sometimes, I find it fun to show people the results. I was at work yesterday. One of the projects I’m working on has to do with a layman’s translation of the Terms of Service (that thing you agree to whenever you make a new online account) for Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. I pretty much know those agreements inside out now. The subject came up with my coworkers: “Things we agree to without knowing.” That lead to “things that can be done with your data after you agree.”
While the Latitude location tracking features of Google are mostly opt in, I showed them the results of a year of location data just for the fun of it. Latitude offers a “Dashboard History” API… what this basically does is use algorithms to analyze your location data. Then it makes a series of pretty educated guesses based on extrapolation of this data– it figured out where I like to eat, where I live, where I work, and it also guessed what kind of stuff I like to do on my vacation.
When i showed this to my coworker, she was absolutely horrified. The Latitude thing was probably a bit much, but in general, she had a hard time believing that Google used information like that. Things like how the ads served to her were based on her search preferences, because Google was watching, and that she’d get different results even if she entered the same terms that I did.
The Google example is just one of many though. This disconnection from the nature of the tools we use isn’t limited to the internet and legal issues regarding terms of service. There are a lot of things that we don’t know, or don’t take the time to find out more about. Our daily routines have become, in large part, a series of “I Agrees” by acquiesence.
Think of things environmentally– we buy electronic products that are extremely toxic. We don’t really think about where they go after the lifecycle we’ve paid for them– we that because we’ve paid for them, we’re entitled to whatever it is that we bought. But normally, what if you built something yourself?
If you built yourself a house from scratch– what would you do with all the dirty your dug up? All the scraps of odds and ends that you didn’t use? Pay someone to get rid of that too? And where would that go?
Money has really given us a unit– not just of credit and trade– but really, it’s almost like a unit of energy. Money represents work. And somehow, the markets have evolved in such a way that people who manage money can make money from money– trading virtual units of work/energy in such a way that they don’t have to do much of it.
This practice isn’t limited to the rich investment bankers– you do it to. You do it every day. You get added value whenever you buy something because a lot of the costs of what you’re doing are offset on the world. For instance– I’ve often heard people say that it’s okay to leave the lights on. After all– you pay the electric bills: so as long as you’re willing to pay, it’s fair, isn’t it? You’re not getting anything for “free.”
But you are, actually. Because companies who provide you with that electricity are offsetting the costs on the environment. Rivers are used as giant heat sinks for nuclear plants. Forests are run down do run mining operations. You could make a whole list of the incredible costs it takes to set up an energy company– but who pays for the environmental damage?
Similarly, buying a product– probably any product— probably gets you good value because of some race-to-the-bottom competition of Asian manufacturers who shoulder the costs in human blood, just because they don’t have the employment protection that we do in the West.
So what can be done? It’s virtually impossible to live without taking more than we’re entitled to– the very fabric of western civilization is built on the dream of getting more for less. We can’t reverse that easily. And I’m part of it. But perhaps the first step towards working towards sustainability of the human race might be to consider what’s in our toolboxes.