What search engine do you use primarily? Bing? Yahoo? Lycos? Probably not, like most people you probably use Google search. Google processes several hundred million queries per day through its various services. Google is really the front-runner of search engines as well as a huge player in various other free services like email, blogging, translating services, document sharing, etc. Since Google is such a big player in the internet game, it is crucial that we ask, where does our data go? It’s easy to think that once you enter your search terms and click “Google Search” that’s it, but Google wouldn’t pass up on all your data! What you search for, what website you choose from the search results, and your IP address is all stored and analyzed to learn how to best serve its users. Though don’t become too paranoid, because after a period of around nine months your data is “anonymized” by deleting the last eight numbers of your IP address.
Google keeps track of what you search for, no big deal right? Well maybe, Google keeps your search terms in conjunction with your IP address and your Google account. For Google, this means that they can keep track of trends in interest and how best to advertise to you. Have you ever noticed that after using Google for a period the ads you see around the internet seem to be specifically tailored to your interests? That is because they are! Google uses the things that you have previously searched for to create a profile for you so that they can target the things you are interested in and advertise accordingly.
Then what does all this mean for us? Is Google some kind of “big brother” out there keeping track of the digital moves we make? Maybe (again), Google has made it a priority to be transparent in the use of this collected data, which is why all of the information stated above can be found easily on the internet. In addition, Google has made it a point to be as secure as possible with this data.
Now for the philosophy portion of philosophy Friday.
The French philosopher Michel Foucault dedicated a large amount of time to describing the relationship between power and knowledge. Up until Foucault, the English philosopher Francis Bacon best described the relationship between power and knowledge as “Knowledge is Power,” which has been perpetuated by programs like “School House Rock.” Foucault mixes things up a bit by explaining a much more complicated and fluid view of power and knowledge. Foucault explains that Knowledge and power are more closely related than that of Francis Bacon and “School House Rock” states.
Rather than looking at power as a hierarchy with knowledge being an instrument of that power, power is more of a liquid concept that has an ebb and flow between agents. This understanding of power/knowledge means that knowledge is not a tool of power, but rather power/knowledge is inseparable. In knowing we use power and in using power we know and produce knowledge.
How does all of this weird theory apply? Under the Baconian assumptions about power and knowledge, the “big brother” image of Google’s data collection and data mining completely fits. Google collects our data, analyzes it, and then uses it to be a successful search engine. Our privacy is compromised, is in constant danger of being used in ways to harm us, and there is nothing we can do about other than some kind of complete revolution. This understanding is normative of our society and is perpetuated by popular movies and books, like “1984” or “The Matrix.”
Foucault may not be in complete opposition with Bacon and the “big brother” image, but he does give a more nuanced and responsible view of the user’s relationship to Google. Rather than being the victims with their privacy infringed on, there is a give and take between the user and Google. The user produces knowledge and simultaneously controls Google and in the wake of this knowledge/power exercise by the user, Google collects the knowledge/power produced by the user and exercises the knowledge/power on their end by collecting data to better their service. Neither has a monopoly on knowledge/power, rather both parties have each other by the throat. Everyone could decide that they didn’t want to use Google anymore and therefore stop producing knowledge/power for Google to use reciprocally. On the other hand, Google could be more lax with their security, be less transparent in their collection of data, and try to use knowledge/power to their advantage more.
Over all, it seems that the conspiracy and sensationalism that surrounds Google’s collection of data is a bit unfounded and unrealistic in that the relationship between Google and it’s users (or vice versa) is a reciprocal one, that could easily be upset by either party that is involved.