Mummy Google knows best…

18 Sep

By Robert Shrimsley (from Financial Times Weekend Magazine)

It is good to know that there is someone there looking out for us, even if it is only software

Google would like to use my locational data. It wants to know where I am, and to help me organise all my personal information. Google is always thinking of new things it can do for me. Google is my mother.

This thought occurred as I batted away yet another request from the search giant to allow it to use my location data so that it could improve the services it offered me. It’s well meant and it’s handy knowing where the nearest station or coffee shop is. If I mention in passing in a Gmail that I’m feeling under the weather, Google will instantly recommend some vitamins or offer me the details of the Wellman clinic. Only a mother thinks about this kind of thing. There’s more. Why did it create Google+ to rival Facebook? Because, obviously, it worries about some of the people I’ve been hanging out with. Naturally it gets upset if I don’t want to share the information. I can sense it thinking: “Is it too much to ask that you let me know where you are once in a while, so that I know you are safe and within a 200-metre radius of a Carluccio’s?”

For a while, this degree of intrusion was disconcerting, but then I realised … Google was just worried about me. Back at the Googleplex in Mountain View, I now realise, Larry Page is fretting: “What’s with Robert, he never calls; he’s eating terribly.” Frankly it was thoughtless of me not to realise before. I’ve resolved to be a better son and so now, for example, I always ping him an e-mail after long flights so he knows I’ve landed safely. Larry’s like that; he just cares.

Sometimes, of course, it can be annoying – and this from someone with a Jewish mother and, therefore, a high tolerance level for parental intervention. I really don’t see why it had to send a car round to photograph my house for its Street View project; perhaps, if I’d called more often…

Illustration of a Google mum and an Apple dad

To be fair to my biological mother, she has never used my personal information for commercial purposes; although, now I think about it, she did connect me with someone who sold me an endowment mortgage. But I’m sure she didn’t get any commission on it.

It’s all rather comforting in a way. In our increasingly atomised society, it is good to know that there is someone there looking out for us, even if it is only software. We have a whole family in the web ecosystem, all in the guise of what is called “personalisation”, offering recommendations about where you should go, what you might buy, what you might read. And the more information you give it the more personal the care you’ll receive in return.

If Google is mum, then Apple is dad. It’s a bit stricter, a little less consensual. Apple has rules and it expects you to heed them. “Sure you can take the iPhone out for a spin, son, but I’m gonna want to know your precise location while you are out and don’t go trying to open any Flash applications. You don’t like the interface; well then don’t use it; there’s plenty of people out there who’d be glad to have it in your place. Perhaps your sister would like it instead.”

Apple gets peeved if you don’t take its advice. “Did I see you trying to turn off the Genius feature? I put that together for you so I expect you to use it.” Of course the Genius recommendations in iTunes also resemble your father in that they’re not quite keeping pace with your taste. “I see you like Marilyn Manson, you might care to listen to John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’.”

Facebook, of course, is your friends, cheerfully telling you what to do and where to go. “Hey, Robert, don’t forget John’s birthday. Lots of your friends are buying the Twilight saga.” This explains its success, because, let’s face it, you put up with this kind of nannying from your mates. Or Amazon – a man you see in the pub telling you what you really ought to read.

This is our new extended support network. We may not talk to our blood relatives from one week to the next, but our virtual family is a constant presence, caring, suggesting, attending to our every need; there for us at any hour of the day, arms open just waiting for us to embrace them.

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