Google Envisions Total Data Collection - Selfish Ledger is an Unsettling Vision of How Google could Reshape Society
GOOGLE’S SELFISH LEDGER IS AN UNSETTLING VISION OF SILICON
VALLEY SOCIAL ENGINEERING
internal video from 2016 shows a Google concept for how total data collection
could reshape society
Titled The Selfish Ledger, the 9-minute film starts off with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which are broadly concerned with the passing on of traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime. Narrating the video, Foster acknowledges that the theory may have been discredited when it comes to genetics but says it provides a useful metaphor for user data. (The title is an homage to Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene.) The way we use our phones creates “a constantly evolving representation of who we are,” which Foster terms a “ledger,” positing that these data profiles could be built up, used to modify behaviors, and transferred from one user to another:
Building on the ledger idea, the middle section of the video presents a conceptual Resolutions by Google system, in which Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone. The examples, which would “reflect Google’s values as an organization,” include urging you to try a more environmentally friendly option when hailing an Uber or directing you to buy locally grown produce from Safeway. An example of a Google Resolution superimposing itself atop a grocery store’s shopping app, suggesting a choice that aligns with the user’s expressed goal.
Of course, the concept is premised on Google having access to a huge amount of user data and decisions. Privacy concerns or potential negative externalities are never mentioned in the video. The ledger’s demand for ever more data might be the most unnerving aspect of the presentation.
Foster’s vision of the ledger goes beyond a tool for self-improvement. The system would be able to “plug gaps in its knowledge and refine its model of human behavior” — not just your particular behavior or mine, but that of the entire human species. “By thinking of user data as multigenerational,” explains Foster, “it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generation’s behaviors and decisions.” Foster imagines mining the database of human behavior for patterns, “sequencing” it like the human genome, and making “increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviours.”
Granted, Foster’s job is to lead design at X, Google’s “moonshot factory” with inherently futuristic goals, and the ledger concept borders on science fiction — but it aligns almost perfectly with attitudes expressed in Google’s existing products. Google Photos already presumes to know what you’ll consider life highlights, proposing entire albums on the basis of its AI interpretations. Google Maps and the Google Assistant both make suggestions based on information they have about your usual location and habits. The trend with all of these services has been toward greater inquisitiveness and assertiveness on Google’s part. Even email compositions are being automated in Gmail.
There’s nothing to suggest that this is anything more than a thought exercise inside Google, initiated by an influential executive. But it does provide an illuminating insight into the types of conversations going on within the company that is already the world’s most prolific personal data collector.
Update: Nick Foster’s title has been updated to include the Near Future Laboratory and X’s response has been moved.