If you were to take a poll today of approval ratings for Barack Obama, I can guarantee that the number of supporters in this country of our President is far surpassed by the number of people who use Google services on a daily basis.
How did this happen? How did we become so complacent? How is it that more people trust a huge corporate conglomerate more than their President?
Google and Verizon’s legislative proposal, if adopted, would give them more regulatory control over access and the future of the Internet than the FCC, the government organization tasked to protect corporations from having too much control over communications technology (i.e. precisely what Google/Verizon propose to do). Besides dictating to the FCC what the FCC can and cannot do with regards to internet access, the proposal allows access providers to prioritize traffic however they see fit, without that pesky FCC being able to get in the way and defend users’ rights. But it’s not just about users. It’s about Google maintaining its dominance of the market. By creating a tiered structure with some prioritized traffic and other, slow-lane traffic, Google/Verizon are making it so new, upstart, garage companies and providers will never be able to compete with the big guys without significant financial investment. Which is just how they’d like it. And if there were any little guys who had something of interest? You can bet Google will swallow them up like they’ve done in the past, all under the guise of providing users with a more complete and useful experience on the web.
The thing is, Google didn’t hide their growth. We all watched and applauded as the little search engine that could rumbled up the mountain, “I think I can”‘ing their way past Apple and Microsoft not just in search but in technology in general. The whole time, they released these little test projects that we gobbled up — they were so useful! It seems foreboding now, more than liberating, that there was once a bid for their CEO to be Obama’s Chief Technology Officer. Rather than being a reflection of new ideas, it’s easy to see it, instead, as being just one more way the corporation has tried to bind themselves with the American government.
Possibly what irks me the most is that I feel like I, personally, should have seen this coming. Google played out a particular trick that I’ve seen once before in internet con artists.
Step 1: Establish your credibility
Google was able to earn points by building a technically superior search engine. While it can be argued (and is currently being argued by “social search” engines like Glue and Hunch) that an algorithm isn’t as good at knowing what a human wants as much as a human (and therefore a more human approach to search results based on preferences rather than rankings), the more humanistic engines to date include Amazon, Netflix, and the aforementioned Glue and Hunch can often still be wrong. And the other alternatives that try to out-algorithm the algorithm — I’m thinking of Wolfram|Alpha and search engines that use Wolfram|Alpha to enhance their results — leave much to be desired in terms of understanding what you’re asking. The fact is that Google has become so ubiquitous over the last 10 years that the word is synonymous for “search” and no matter how catchy the next upstart search engine’s name is (Bing!), there’s very little hope of anything overtaking it. Ever. (At least in this country.)
Step 2: Build Trust
If I asked you to give me your name, picture, address, credit card number, date of birth, a list of all your friends with their email addresses and phone numbers, and another list of every topic you’ve ever been interested in, ever, you wouldn’t just think I was a crazy stalker; you would know it. Yet, this is precisely the same information we give to Google by using their services. Even if we haven’t directly given Google all of that information, Google (as well as other online services) is able to pull that information together based on your public profiles on social networking sites. We hand over an astounding amount of information to Google and other corporations all in the name of “making our lives easier.” Has your life gotten easier since using Google?
Google builds trust by speaking publicly about open standards (although they’re not always in favor of open software — it’s been rumored for a few years that internally they’re using a modified version of Linux that they are not privy to sharing with the rest of the world) and by giving stuff away for free (although not always under open source licenses). But like a skilled magician (or a skilled con artist), while we’re all staring at the shiny free goodies, their other hand is reaching around for our wallet.
Google deals in information. They deal in wants and desires. Specifically, they deal with terabytes of information every day about what we want, what we think, what we’re looking for, what we need. Their ad system is based on selling shares in concepts against a hypothesized value for said idea. They take a keyword, say “licorice”, and determine a price based on how much they think people are going to be wanting licorice on any given day. And these prices aren’t static — they’re constantly in flux. In Wired interviews past, they’ve told journalists that things like seasons, weather, economic and social conditions color what we search for. With that level of insight into the American psyche, it’s unsurprising that they could be able to anticipate just what we needed to hear to trust them with all our personal information.
Step Three: Go for the kill
Once a person or organization has gotten this far, gotten you to trust them, you will follow them to the end of the world and back without much thought. After all, they’ve established themselves in the past, they’ve proven their worth, why doubt now? You may trust them even while you notice, out of the corner of your eye, the hand reaching for your wallet — it couldn’t possibly be what you think it is, you must be imagining it. This is the crucial point we are at as Americans, as citizens of the autonomous sovereignty of the Internet, in our relationship with Google. We trust them. We believe they have our best interests at heart and we are willing to give up our own individual voices and allow them to speak for us.
Isn’t this what governments were for? Isn’t this what politicians were for? And aren’t governments and politicians supposed to protect us from businesses that grow so large as to threaten their own regulating authority?
The con I’ve seen using the same tactics (and possibly these steps are common to all forms of advertising or marketing) was a cheap ploy to sell copies of an overpriced ebook that over-promised (make hundreds of dollars a day, gain thousands of followers a week, a huge network pushing floods of traffic to your site) and under-delivered. I wasn’t alone when I found myself not being able to match the phenomenal success I should have had and wondering what I was doing wrong. I didn’t buy into the scam because I believed the hype (I didn’t), rather, because the author had made good on steps one and two; he established credibility by keeping a popular, high ranking blog about making money blogging that, while never revealing any actual useful advice on how to make money blogging, always carried with it the promise that the secret was just around the corner; and he built trust by exposing several scams related to his own ebook (in fact, it could be argued that his ebook was a rewrite of the scams he had exposed). Surely his method was different than the ones he exposed as obvious scams. What this particular con has in common with Google is good copy: both are very good at weaving their way around the truth, telling a believable lie — one laced with truth — and taking full advantage of the successes won from established credibility and trust. Once you’ve scored on those two counts, you can do almost anything.