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The gospel according to Google

Their motto used to be “Don’t be evil”. But as The Big G celebrates its 20th birthday, questions are being raised about the tech giant’s growing influence

Back in the days when the internet was young and we still used pen and paper, a small, friendly start-up was born. With just a handful of employees, it would pitch itself against organisations many times its size in what would become the bloodiest battle of our time, the battle to rule the World Wide Web. Its gospel message “don’t be evil” indicated the importance it placed on offering the finest products, without exploiting its customers.

Twenty years later, Google no longer tell us they are not evil. Instead they say they “organise the world’s information”. This more corporate line reflects the changing times, in which the Silicon Valley superpower finds itself one of the most dominant and profitable corporations in the world.

Google has an enormous influence on our everyday lives. We consult it when we are purchasing items, seeking employment, considering holidays or finding a church. We use it when we’re on the move (the tech giant owns Android, the software that powers 80 per cent of the world’s smartphones), and we search for cat videos on the world’s largest video platform, YouTube (also owned by Google).

And the Google universe keeps growing. There’s Docs, Gmail (arguably the world’s largest email provider) and they’re now investing in plans to put silicon brains into the humblest of household appliances to create connected homes and connected cars in the future. It’s all part of ‘The Internet of Things’, and Google’s acquisition of the company Nest is a prime example. Nest enables thermostats to warm your house just before you get home, and puts cameras inside your doorbell, so you can see the eager salesman on your phone and dismiss him with a swipe of your finger. 

Give and take

There is much to praise Google for. CEO Sundar Pichai recently announced the company will give away $1bn over five years, much of this going to educational and inclusivity projects in developing countries. 

By all accounts, Google is also a great place to work. Employees are offered free transport, laundry services massages and fitness facilities. There’s even gourmet restaurants preparing staff free meals three times a day (although my own experience is that free food at work can serve as an excuse to not go out and not go home, just keep working).

On the opposite side to all this, Google has regularly incurred huge fines from the EU for misusing its monopolies. They’ve been fined for promoting their own companion websites to the top of search results (a judgement they are appealing), and for forcing phone manufacturers to pre-install Google apps on Android phones, including Google browser and search. And just like Amazon and Starbucks, they’re also regularly accused of tax avoidance (often by attributing revenues made in one country to a headquarters in a second country with a lenient tax regime). 

But bizarrely, Google are at their most worrying when they give us exactly what we want.

Think about Google’s YouTube. It employs an ‘auto-play’ feature that automatically plays the next video which the software has determined is most likely to keep us sitting there while they run ads past you. Sounds harmless – even entertaining – except that it results in countless hours wasted watching things we never set out to watch.

It’s the same with apps. They are the technological equivalent of sugar, leaving us wanting more. Google’s Play Store offers well over 3 million apps for Android phones for every situation, entertainment whim or life improvement you might fancy. Again, there is much good here, but apps by their nature constantly interrupt us during our day with notifications to keep us infatuated and distracted.

Google, Facebook, Apple and co all strongly assert that they are simply “giving users what they want”. But it’s not what we want, not long-term. Their technology prioritises impulse over intention, chipping away at whatever we had set out to do. 

Could it be that Google are tapping into the fallen nature that we struggle to get away from – the lazy part that sits there watching junk? Like the other Big G, Google sees us as we really are, but, unlike God, who gradually makes us more like himself, Google simply feeds us with more and more content, more and more ads. Google does not guide us into better patterns of behaviour. 

Writing recently in the Financial Times, Roger McNamee (an early investor in Google but now less convinced) says: “Internet platforms apply the techniques of propaganda or gambling to trigger emotional responses over which users have little or no control...Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want. The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

The dark side of search

In the late 1990s everyone discovered the internet. It was a brave new world and to help navigate it you needed a search engine. Twenty years ago you may remember ‘dialling up’ patiently, and then quaintly typing a lengthy question into Ask Jeeves, Altavista, WebCrawler, Excite or Lycos. For better or worse, most of these search engines have been forced to give up or consigned to a niche user-group. Now, well over three-quarters of web searches worldwide use Google.

So what? Well the information that a search brings back can sway your mind and your decisions. Consider the way search engines offer us autocompletion. That’s when, as soon as you start typing into the search box, Google starts suggesting (autocompleting) what you might be looking for. 

Psychologist Robert Epstein, presenting at a US psychologists’ conference in 2018, talks of “the Search Suggestion Effect” that search engines have. His report includes experiments carried out during the US election of 2016. When the words “Hillary Clinton is” were typed into Google Search, the autocomplete function offered phrases such as “Hillary Clinton is winning”. Yet, on the search engines from Yahoo and Bing, the autocomplete function suggested “Hillary Clinton is a liar” and “Hillary Clinton is a criminal”. These suggestions seed ideas in our mind. The potential to manage the information given to billions of people every day represents a remarkable level of influence.

What’s next?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the form of conversational computing is taking off in the UK with OK Google, Hey Siri, Alexa and other disembodied personalities all performing similar tasks. These can entertain, disappoint and surprise all on the same day, depending on what they happen to overhear. We are left wondering where they got that information from, and like a precocious child we can feel disappointed when they fail to follow the most obvious instruction. 

Earlier this year it emerged OK Google would give a full and adequate description of Mohammed or the Buddha if asked about them. But it couldn’t tell you who Jesus is. As the news spread online, the company were forced to make the assistant fall silent on all religious questions until the fault was fixed. This is just one example of the need to consider very carefully who is deciding what information consumers access via these assistants. A recent BBC study discovered that children commonly ask these assistants questions such as: “Who are you?” and “Have you got a phone inside you?” But it won’t be long before they’re asking deeper questions: who is God? What am I worth? Will I be happy? 

What would we like the answers to be? Perhaps the Church should be interested in developing these answers. The Church of England has made a start on this. You can now ask an Amazon device: “Alexa, ask the Christian” or “Alexa, ask the Church of England to read the prayer of the day”. 

We are close to a world driven by conversational AI. In May this year Google demonstrated Duplex, their new assistant. Duplex engaged in human conversation, making restaurant bookings by phone, while the humans on the end of the line were unaware they were dealing with a machine. Duplex even inserted the occasional hesitation “umm...”, and ended one booking with “OK, awesome!”

But all of this pales into insignificance when we consider Google’s biotech research. The challenge of finding a cure for cancer is not hard enough for Google. As their CEO stated: “Curing cancer will only add an average of three years onto life expectancy. Why not go straight to the heart of the matter and solve the problem of death?” I guess distinguishing the visionary from the wacky isn’t always easy.

Disappearing tech 

Technology has become embedded in almost everything we do. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In our work and our churches, it’s important to master the skills of internet research, to learn to hold a complex conversation over WhatsApp, to keep in touch with social media, or be interviewed over Skype. Today there is no distinction between real-world and online world, it’s all real. The irony, and the thing we must be aware of, is that while technology is saturating our daily lives, it is also disappearing. 

Technology is disappearing in the sense that we no longer view it as something distinct. We access our smartphones like we used to access a pen. And we Google things we want to know as our first recourse. These tools have become a natural extension of ourselves, an outsourcing of our brain.

This is partly the reason we fail to notice the increasing creep that an organisation like Google has in our lives. Did you know, for example, that Google holds more information on you than Facebook? Google doesn’t sell it on to third parties. Instead they use it to keep you watching ads. The ad-funded model of the internet is largely responsible for its toxic effects, but until we accept the idea of change. Welcome to the ‘attention economy’ where business depends on keeping you besotted so you watch ads. That’s why Google wants more and more hooks into your life; you are the product being sold to advertisers.

The (other) Big G

Google remains a remarkable organisation that has made astonishing leaps forward in technology in just 20 years. They employ talented and dedicated people, they push the boundaries of innovation, they constantly ask: “Why not?” 

Google now influences every home in the land. Google is present on almost every laptop, phone and, increasingly, our home appliances, making them somewhat omnipresent.

Their stated company mission is to store all the world’s knowledge, which starts to sound like omniscience. And if we consider that in today’s personal-information economy, knowledge is power, we could add omnipotence to our list. Such words are usually reserved for the other Big G.

Does that make them an idol? Well, of course nobody worshipsGoogle, but you don’t need to. Isn’t an idol simply the authority we turn to most often, the central one we depend on to answer all our questions? In our daily decisions, great and small, I wonder if we genuinely seek God’s input on matters as much as we do Google’s? 

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