Schmidt warns that were the E.U. to oppose Google’s practices, Europe risks becoming „an innovation desert.” Just the opposite is more likely true. Thanks in part to Google’s exquisite genius in the science of surveillance, the audacity with which it has expropriated users’ rights to privacy, and the aggressive tactics of the NSA, people are losing trust in the entire digital medium. It is this loss of trust that stands to kill innovation. To make some sense of our predicament, let’s take a fresh look at how we got here, the nature of the threats we face, and the stakes for the future.
Google Colonizes a Blank Area and the NSA Follows
In his extended essay, „The Loneliness of the Dying“, the sociologist Norbert Elias observes that „dying is at present a largely unformed situation, a blank area on the social map.” Such „blanks” occur when earlier meanings and practices no longer apply, but new ones have yet to be created. Google’s rapid rise to power was possible because it ventured into this kind of blank area. It colonized the blank space at high speed without challenge or impediment. Google did not ask permission, seek consensus, elicit opinion, or even make visible its rules and ramparts. How did this occur?
Breaking the Rules of the „Old World“
The first key ingredient was demand. During the second half of the twentieth century, more education and complex social experience produced a new kind of individual. No longer content to conform to the mass, more people sought their own unique paths to self-determination. It was a period of growing frustration with existing institutions that were still oriented toward the mass society of an earlier time. People wanted to reinvent social experiences in ways that expressed their new sensibilities. They wanted information on their own terms, not controlled by the old norms, professional fortresses, and business models.
The arrival of the Internet provided a new way forward. As web browsers and search tools became available, the new individuals rushed onto the Web with their pent up demands for genuine voice and connection. Information access and communication could bypass old boundaries and be reconfigured to suit any need. Here finally was experience how I want it, where I want it, when I want it. There was a presumption that the adversarial rules from the „old world” of 20th century commerce did not apply. This was a new „networked public sphere,” as legal scholar Yochai Benkler called it. There was no looking back.
Google and other companies rushed into the new space too, and for a while it seemed that they were aligned with the popular expectations of trust and collaboration. But as pressures for profit increased, Google, Facebook, and others shifted to an advertising model that required the covert capture of user data as the currency for ad sales. Profits rapidly materialized and motivated ever more ruthless and determined data collection. The new science of data mining exploded, driven in part by Google’s spectacular success.