Selfish Ledger: Google’s mass sociology experiment

Check out the internal Google film, “The Selfish Ledger”. This probably wasn’t meant to slip onto a public web server, and so I have embedded a backup copy below. Ping me if it disappears. I will locate a permanent URL.

This 8½ minute video is a lot deeper—and possibly more insipid—than it appears. Nick Foster may be the Anti-Christ, or perhaps the most brilliant sociologist of modern times. It depends on your vantage point, and your belief in the potential of user controls and cat-in-bag containment.

He talks of a species propelling itself toward “desirable goals” by cataloging, data mining, and analyzing the past behavior of peers and ancestors—and then using that data to improve the experience of each user’s future and perhaps even their future generations. But, is he referring to shared goals across cultures, sexes and incomes? Who controls the algorithms and the goal filters?! Is Google the judge, arbiter and God?

Consider these quotes from the video. Do they disturb you? The last one sends a chill down my spine. But, I may be overreacting to what is simply an unexplored frontier. The next generation in AI. I cannot readily determine if it ushers in an era of good or bad:

  • Behavioral sequencing « a phrase used throughout the video
  • Viewing human behavior through a Lemarkian lens
  • An individual is just a carrier for the gene. The gene seeks to improve itself and not its host
  • And [at 7:25]: “The mass multigenerational examination of actions and results could introduce a model of behavioral sequencing.”

There’s that odd term again: behavioral sequencing. It suggests that we are mice and that Google can help us to act in unison toward society’s ideal goals.

Today, Fortune Magazine described it this way: “Total and absolute data collection could be used to shape the decisions you make … The ledger would essentially collect everything there is to know about you, your friends, your family, and everything else. It would then try to move you in one direction or another for your or society’s apparent benefit.”

The statements could apply just as easily to the NSA as it does to Google. At least we are entering into a bargain with Google. We hand them data and they had us numerous benefits (the same benefits that many users often overlook). Yet, clearly, this is heavy duty stuff—especially for the company that knows everything about everyone. Watch it a second time. Think carefully about the power that Google wields.

Don’t get me wrong. I may be in the minority, but I generally trust Google. I recognize that I am raw material and not a client. I accept the tradeoff that I make when I use Gmail, web search, navigate to a destination or share documents. I benefit from this bargain as Google matches my behavior with improved filtering of marketing directed at me.

But, in the back of my mind, I hope for the day that Google implements Blind Signaling and Response, so that my data can only be used in ways that were disclosed to me—and that strengthen and defend that bargain, without subjecting my behavior, relationships and predilections to hacking, misuse, or accidental disclosure.

Credit for snagging this video: Vlad Savov @ TheVerge

3 thoughts on “Selfish Ledger: Google’s mass sociology experiment

  1. This is fascinating and as you pointed out terrifying. Not sure if you an Isaac Asimov fan, but this behavioral sequencing and the possibility of using mass amounts of data of large groups to predict social changes and events (and in turn adjust it to serve the greater good) reminds me of his theory, albeit fictional, of psychohistory. In fact, his Foundation series, in part, built on this very notion of behavioral sequencing. The science fiction nerd in me is just giddy with excitement to think Asimov was onto something.

    • Thank you for reminding us of a great example of fiction foretelling sociology and applied technology, Monika!…

      Not only am I an Asimov fan, but I covered him as photogrpaher for my college paper (not sure if it was Cornell Daily Sun or Ithaca Times). I have great pics of him on stage and back stage. I’ll have to scan them someday.

      ~Ellery

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