NICK DOUGLAS — If I could kill one tech story forever, it'd be "Google is taking over the world." Every week it's "Google's in our computers" or "Google's watching our rooftops" or "Google's in our pants," with some octopus-snake-matrix graphic and quotes from bloggers. The piece includes some "Google takes over" scenario that makes the reader heady with vicarious ambition and memories of futurist films. All the predictions I've seen boil down to the following four conspiracy theories.
1. The Ghost in the Machine
The theory: Guided by programmers and self-teaching programs, the massive database of the Internet built by Google becomes self-aware. With all the knowledge of the Internet in the mind of one entity, Google's machine becomes the most powerful entity to ever exist.
The problem: "Becomes self-aware?" A bunch of algorithms lying around are like broken strands of RNA. Some brain, human or electronic, needs to understand and relate all this information to make it more than a big sloppy database.
Why it could work: A computer doesn't have to be conscious to be powerful. Just teach it relationships, feed it data, and tell it to make connections. Users are already trying to sort the sloppy database of the Internet with tagging and linking. Meanwhile, Google is building the more machine-readable Google Base. The artificial intelligence needed to handle this scale of data may be far off, but it's not theoretically impossible.
2. Minority Report Ad Invasion
The theory: Google uses its recently filed patent on a method to analyze games for clues about players, then delivering contextual ads. The company also rolls out digital billboards that can count views, adding microphones that track ambient noise to deliver ads related to the activity around them. Add image recognition (developed by a company Google bought last year) and Google brings you a storefront avatar: "Welcome to the Gap, Mr. Jones! Looks like you've lost weight, why not try our 34 waist?"
The problem: Sounds like a lot of gadget work; Google isn't Sony. Besides, won't people balk long before things get to this point?
Why it could work: Yeah, and won't people balk long before getting ads related to their searches, their e-mail, and their browsing habits? Long before Google offers ad-supported city-wide wifi with the blessings of local governments? Long before ads appear in taxis, on city buildings, above urinals, in gyms, and before movies? There can always be more — and more invasive — ads. And imagine the profits! Google's already branching into radio, TV and print ads; its massive network could easily expand to location ads.
3. Government Informant
The theory: Google finally capitulates to federal demands for data (whether by choice or by Attorney General Gonzales) and all our private information is in the hands of the government.
The problem: In this case, the "problem" is that Gonzales only has a year and a half before someone presumably more reasonable than him takes his job. And Google knows how sensitive this data is; they may give up some of their own catalog but they won't back down on user data without one hell of a fight.
Why it could work: Hey, there are other companies with our data! AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft rolled over when the government asked for their user records. All that needs to happen is for one of them to *snicker* usurp Google. And, of course, there's that accusation that Google's in bed with the CIA.
4. Big Brother
The theory: As predicted in the film EPIC 2014, Google merges with Amazon and churns out customized media by sampling facts from a protesting old media. Internet users play into the system, using blogging and location-broadcasting tools to let others (and the Google system) know everything they do, everywhere they are. Think "Minority Report Ad Invasion" using facts: "Hello, Mr. Jones, here's what we know you need to know today." Think "Government Informant" without the government. Think of an information kingpin that can sell the aggregate data of searches, e-mails, and ad clicks to insurance companies, ad agencies, and politicians.
As Ask.com said, over half of all Internet visits pass through Google. This company has history's finest catalog of human wants, habits, and inquiries. And more and more, it has them cataloged by user. The company has access to the earth's satellite imagery and users are adding building information; it owns image-recognition technology, ambient-audio tech, and a catalog of the contents of broadcast TV. It could soon start cataloging the audio and visual content of the Internet. Where will it find you?
The problem: Yes yes, it's all quite scary-sounding, and yes, your search data is linked to your shopping data, which is linked to your e-mail. But Google has promised that only machines are reading it, and everyone in charge at the company has firmly declared they wouldn't sell it.
Why it could work: Companies change hands, don't they? Bah, even then, Google may be powerful, but it's ultimately replaceable. It's not like Yahoo doesn't have a rich wealth of data from the users posting photos, playing games, reading news and sending e-mail on its site. It's quite possible to live online without using Google.