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Google as a Fortune Teller : The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism

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Specifically, Google is the mothership and ideal type of a new economic logic based on fortune telling and selling, an ancient and eternally lucrative craft that has exploited the human confrontation with uncertainty from the beginning of the human story. Paradoxically, the certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding, and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what we call “free will.” When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.

Only incidentally related to advertising

Most people credit Google’s success to its advertising model. But the discoveries that led to Google’s rapid rise in revenue and market capitalization are only incidentally related to advertising.  Google’s success derives from its ability to predict the future – specifically the future of behavior. Here is what I mean:

From the start, Google had collected data on users’ search-related behavior as a byproduct of query activity.  Back then, these data logs were treated as waste, not even safely or methodically stored.  Eventually, the young company came to understand that these logs could be used to teach and continuously improve its search engine.

The problem was this:  Serving users with amazing search results “used up” all the value that users created when they inadvertently provided behavioral data. It’s a complete and self-contained process in which users are ends-in-themselves. All the value that users create is reinvested in the user experience in the form of improved search.  In this cycle, there was nothing left over for Google to turn into capital. As long as the effectiveness of the search engine needed users’ behavioral data about as much as users needed search, charging a fee for service was too risky. Google was cool, but it wasn’t yet capitalism –– just one of many Internet startups that boasted “eyeballs” but no revenue.

Shift in the use of behavioral data

The year 2001 brought the dot.com bust and mounting investor pressures at Google. Back then advertisers selected the search term pages for their displays.  Google decided to try and boost ad revenue by applying its already substantial analytical capabilities to the challenge of increasing an ad’s relevance to users –– and thus its value to advertisers. Operationally this meant that Google would finally repurpose its growing cache of behavioral data. Now the data would also be used to match ads with keywords, exploiting subtleties that only its access to behavioral data, combined with its analytical capabilities, could reveal.

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