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William Gibson: "Google's Earth" (nytimes.com)
124 points by michael_dorfman on Sept 1, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

"Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth"

After a preamble that compares Google to the artificial intelligence described in science fiction books, this was what I will take away from that article.

Kids are growing up with public persona's and as anyone 30 or over will tell you, those persona's change drastically over the course of our lives.

Building on this, I want to be known as a different person to different people. In the current Facebook and Google Indexing style of amassing information, there is no way for me to do this. I want to be known as a trustworthy, reliable father; a fun-loving, somewhat reckless friend; and a knowledgeable leader to my colleagues. However, I have no way to separate my past, present and future or the different people that I want to be known as right now.

I want to be known as a trustworthy, reliable father; a fun-loving, somewhat reckless friend, and a knowledgeable leader to my colleagues. However, I have no way to separate not only my past, present and future as Gibson suggests but also the different people that I want to be known as right now.

Guess what: there never was such a way, in real life, either.

Your friends may hang out at the same bar as your colleagues. Your colleagues' children may be in the same school class as your kids. Your "reckless friend" may start telling stories about you.

Controlling your reputation is hard. Keeping different segments of your life from coming into contact with each other is hard. Keeping secrets is hard.

Google and Facebook change the medium, but they don't fundamentally change the rules.

What should (hopefully) happen is that after a period of adjustment, people will respect your right to be different in different walks of life. They'll understand that it's possible, and indeed desirable, to be reliable and professional at work while still being immature with your kids and occasionally irresponsible with your friends.

What really needs to change is the need to maintain the appearance of being different people (because you're always you, unless you have severe psychological issues you aren't really different people). People need to understand that what I do at home and what I do at work needn't overlap.

It's just an extension of the adjustment that started with dress down - an understanding that wearing jeans didn't make me any less smart than wearing a suit. People will understand that playing Mario Kart while drunk with my friends doesn't make me less able than if I spent that time reading Dickens.

I agree with this (optimistic) opinion a whole lot. I'd like to see that world come about.

The interesting part is when it comes to people who are already public figures. How do political, religious, or any other charisma-derived leaders cope with the fact that their public images can be ruthlessly criticized?

Even more optimistically, I hope for acceptance and a greater understanding of the narrative of the changing personality throughout life. I hope for a public realization that some politicians even under total transparency are good enough to be leaders. I also hope that this transparency actually becomes a valuable filter on good leaders.

So it's in those hopes that I sort of am happy to hear that our online personas are slowly eclipsing our generative, "real" personas.

I suspect that people will have no choice but to be more tolerant as there won't be people who are entirely blemish free when faced with the increased level of scrutiny.

David Brin's "The Transparent Society" has some interesting things to say about this sort of transparency. While I'm not 100% sold on his conclusions the analysis is well worth reading and thinking about.

I hope that is the case, but I'm not convinced it will be. It really seems like most people are using the internet to connect with more people like themselves, which seems to be leading to an overall reduction in the amount of tolerance people have for differences.

There are certainly pockets of increased respect and caring, but I'm afraid those are the exception and not the rule.

(I fully admit to being cynical and pessimistic, so it may just be my muddled worldview showing through.)

People need to understand that what I do at home and what I do at work needn't overlap.

The problem is they often do unavoidably, at least for certain specific professions.

Imagine a Preacher/priest/etc involved in a major moral scandal regarding his major. He would lose moral authority in his congregation. Even just being known to get wildly drunk and play Mario Kart on Saturday is likely to affect his ability to provide the leadership he must. The same applies, in slightly different ways, to senior military officers.

On the other hand, if I find out that one of my programmers is doing substantial hobby programming, I would certainly see that as a positive. Not because it directly affects what he does at work now, but because it will almost certainly make him a superior programmer in the long run.

You can, and should, separate them to a degree, but especially for public facting positions you cannot and should not try to create an absolute separation.

In the first instance though the events you list are not unrelated to the profession - they are linked and reasonably so. If someone stands up in the pulpet on Sunday and tells me about the evils of drink and adultery and then promptly disappears to get wasted and have sex with a married woman then that absolutely should impact his moral authority.

Some positions come with expectations that are entirely reasonable - medicine, most religious posts, teaching and so on.

The point is that minor, cosmetic and irrelevant indiscretions will come to be accepted, not just any behaviour.

> Your friends may hang out at the same bar as your colleagues. Your colleagues' children may be in the same school class as your kids. Your "reckless friend" may start telling stories about you.

There is a difference between what your reckless friend might spill out when he is drunk and having a permanent record which anyone can have access to at will (with little effort).

There is a big difference between acting accordingly to the social group you're into and eventually see the different segments collide, and exposing a publicly available book of all your diverse personalities in the various stages of your life.

What I foresee isn't a clamp down on privacy policies, rather a general people's flattening of behavioral characteristics, in order to keep the acceptable boundaries between all the different, inevitably public, social situations.

You're right - there is no black-and-white way for me to say "I am this person" in real life. However, when I attend a conference and introduce myself as tktktk and then continually project myself as that person throughout my relationship with that person, I become that person.

This isn't to say that there isn't a personality "bleed", only that if over the course of time, I reliably show someone one side of my personality, they come to identify me primarily as that person.

Google will slurp up all available information about me and there are no mechanisms on any one social network that allow me to present different sides of myself to different individuals or groups.

My work colleagues aren't even in the same country as my friends and family. The chances of them meeting by random chance is miniscule.

People in small towns never had this luxury. Everyone knows everything about you. It sounds like in the future, the whole world will be a small town.

I have a couple of very long running web sites and the #1 request I get is from people to pretty please remove any and all traces of what they were up to a decade ago.

There's probably money in that. Imagine a service that would allow me to eradicate bits of my past. Could be handy.

There are services that purport to do that, at least on the web. I think the term is 'reputation management'.

The extreme version is known as digital suicide: http://www.google.com/search?q=digital+suicide

Any service that offered to carry out 'digital suicide' would have to be damn sure they had authorization from the person in question. Otherwise it would become digital homocide.

What scares me is sites looking at this as easy money. By that I mean they purposely go out and collect as much info as possible so that you will want to pay to "remove it". Even worse multiple sites doing it so that there is a never ending trail of sites to remove your information. It only takes one to get your info indexed on the major search engines.

Doesn't the Wayback Machine (archive.org) defeat such efforts?

They will also honor take-down requests.

I wonder if we'll ever see the mafia holding such an archive, and asking for payment in exchange for a clean record.

And do you?

Of course. Why wouldn't I?

One possible justification would be it distorts the reality of what actually happened in the past. It alters conversations by removing a speaker, creating a hole.

I'm not judging you one bit. I don't know which sites you were referring to, and you're clearly taking the nice-guy approach. But there are arguable reasons to not remove content just because someone is embarrassed of their past self.

If someone asks for their account to be removed from a website there are places where you are obliged by law to comply. I live in such a place. But I don't remove their data because I'm obliged by law, but simply because I think that people should own their own creations, and should have the ultimate say over what happens to them, unless they explicitly created something as work for hire and got compensated.

Let's take two different examples: facebook vs HN.

If we're looking at facebook then someone would have a really good case to have their account and all data associated with it removed if they asked for it. In some places that would be legally enforceable.

In the case of HN I think the contributions are woven in to the site so strongly that other peoples stuff would be negatively affected. In such a case I would propose to anonymize the writer.

This avoids the embarrassment but leaves the fabric largely in tact.

Yes, I am not judging you either, but it could very well be too expensive, technically difficult or perhaps even damaging to your business (for example by reducing the other users' benefit) to remove data. I was just curious.

Also I wonder if in the future lawmakers will put mechanisms into place that regulate information and give individuals the right to have their records deleted.

> Also I wonder if in the future lawmakers will put mechanisms into place that regulate information and give individuals the right to have their records deleted.

That's already happened in some places.



The hard part is how do we verify that the records were actually deleted. Is the info still sitting on random backups somewhere. It seems that once it is out there, it will be very hard to put back in the box again. Personally that concerns me.

Yes, that's a real problem. I'd wager that many companies have no idea whatsoever where all the copies of your data have gone.

I was recently told a very funny story about a guy who works at the C-level for F500 corps. Paying the guy a visit, the usual chit chat, oh what are you doing?

"I'm Google Blasting myself!"

Huh? What the hell is that?

"Well you see, I need to stop having all my online activity appear on page one on Google when people type in my name. So I paid this company to clog Google with a bunch of fake, generated content about me. Hopefully the real information about me which I want to hide from casual searchers will be drowned out in the fake information."

I had never heard of Google Blasting for the common end-user before this, but it's a brilliant idea. And I bet as all of our lives end up being more public through Google, Facebook, Foursquare, etc, the demand for services like Google Blasting will grow. It sounds like a great business idea, though the timing is still wrong, since we're at least a few years from reaching a mass-market demand.

Ultimately, I disagree slightly with Gibson saying We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies. Simply because it will be far too easy to spam and blast this form of AI.

True AI in the sense of Wintermute/Neuromancer will happen, inevitably, just not yet. And the day it arrives, Google is instantly dead, a relic of a past era, an antiquated technology we'll all smirk at in history books.

What you really want is to have a very common name.

googleblasting.com is free

in case anybody is interested...

"Kids are growing up with public persona's and as anyone 30 or over will tell you, those persona's change drastically over the course of our lives."

This is the ray of hope, I think. As more and more people grow up with the embarrassing details of our adolescence online and public forever, having those embarrassing details public will be less of a big deal than it was in the past.

I don't know the psychology behind this, but it seems to me...

I've certainly changed over my 43 years. But I think that's only to a certain depth. I think that through my life (since I was a teen, at least) I've had a pretty consist underlying philosophy. What has changed is through a process of learning better ways to implement that philosophy. So to the degree that the outward projection reveals that core philosophy, I think that an ongoing record is fair.

That said, I share the same dismay that I have to entirely avoid some behaviors for fear of "leakage". And I'm not necessarily talking about drunken Mario playing, but even simple conversations. There are certain topics that I feel I need to avoid publicly because my opinions might either disappoint or somehow bother others.

huh. since my teens my very basic philosophy has changed quite a lot. especially if you were raised with a philosophy that was unsuitable for who you are and what you want to do, I think it's pretty unreasonable to expect you to have something as complex as your personal philosophy and values figured out before the age of 20.

In my early and mid teens I was reading (and mostly agreeing with) skinner and marx. I actually felt considerable angst as it became clear I was going to spend my life building and/or maintaining computer systems- systems that automate away human jobs. I spent my late teens and early 20s on Rand and the like. Picking up (and even partially living by) some radical ideology is pretty common for teens, I think, and most of us grow out of it. Personally, I can't imagine holding some ridiculous rant one posted as a teenager against an adult; Me, I'd even tend to forgive (some) actual hurtful actions undertaken by those same teens, assuming that it appears that they grew out of it. I mean, testing your own limits and figuring out what sort of person you want to be is what being a teenager is all about.

Or those that didn't participate in placing their lives online will hold the pasts of others against them (i.e. the new 'power elite').

yeah, that would be the worry. Of course, if social networks produce real value, then those who choose to opt-out would be at a disadvantage.

Who's to say that people won't opt-in but be very selective of what they inject into the system?

I find it... unlikely that the average teen will be selective about what they inject into the system. The average teen goes out of his way, sometimes way out of his way to shock parents and society.

Sure, there are a few teens who will try to appear normal and responsible, but I don't think that will matter. the average decides what is acceptable.

The problem is, there are people who especially want to connect the different fronts you have right now, and are potentially willing to pay a large amount for it (for example, employers and possible mates), while your teenage exploits are not really interesting.

* In the current Facebook and Google Indexing style of amassing information, there is no way for me to do this.*

This isn't really true. If you want to be known as a different person, be that different person. Whether your online 'persona' catches up is not the same thing. Your online persona is not you. People who mistake one for the other were probably not worth knowing to begin with.

Okay, maybe the last sentence was a little melodramatic, but the point stands.

> However, I have no way to separate my past, present and future or the different people that I want to be known as right now.

Yes there is. I wrote about it a year ago -finally demand is catching up with that :)


Spectacular! Love the subtle reference to The Second Coming in the last graph. Mr Gibson you continue to capture, distill and serve up the essence of cyberspace.

I cannot imagine why this legitimate comment would be voted down.

Without this comment, I wouldn't have given the parent a second glance. And without that, I wouldn't have realized that "slouching towards" is a phrase I easily recognized without being able to recognize the source. So some googling (hah!) later, I found the text of The Second Coming by Yeats here: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html

And it turns out, as the GP says, that Gibson is making a wonderful and highly relevant reference to the poem.

It's not obvious now, but when I came across the parent comment, it was at -2. Don't understand the hate.

The funny thing about all this is that since the beginning of the internet, no data privacy issues were ever raised, and that at some point (i may be wrong, but symbolically i would say it started when facebook became really huge) it became a real topic. Coincidentally, facebook becoming huge marked the moment when everybody started to use their real names instead of nicknames. Maybe it's time to do the math, and start wondering if using your real name for every post, every comment, every little lolcat action you take online is really worth signing it with your real name. Returning to nicknames for most of your online appearances would probably render Mr Schmidt's point moot

Not really. Most people use the same username or a slight variation thereof for everything they do online. If I read a LiveJournal post you write, I can probably Google your username and discover 90% of your contributions to the web instantly. From all that data I can probably learn enough about you to be scary (where you live, who you hang out with, hobbies, past relationships...), and Google itself could learn basically anything.

Of course all of this varies person to person, but it's already known to be an effective heuristic by the password-stealing community. Point being: we live in a time of powerful data mining algorithms, and they're only going to get better. Anonymity does not come easy.

Sure (i just googled my favourite username, and found indeed some pretty old stuff that i'd rather keep forgotten). But listing all the appearances of your online persona is one thing, being able to search for your real-life name and retrieve all the embarrassing info attached to it is another. I'm not saying privacy-conscious persons should obfuscate absolutely everything they publish, but considering how things work, the least anyone should do is to make the retrieval of such information a bit more difficult.

I would mark your 'at some point' as pretty early on in the life of the WWW. When web bugs were first introduced (1995? 1997?), there was a huge hew & cry, much along the lines of what we see on HN every time Facebook does something stupid with their privacy settings. The difference is that web bugs was one of the first times some of the implications of the connectedness of the web started to break through the initial excitement/confusion about this (then) brand new thing. Now nobody blinks about web bugs (excepting that big report a while back - Wash Post? - about just how many of the things many sites use - but I don't think that report was new info to anyone involved in the tech side of the web).

When I first appeared on the Internet (with my Geocities account!) I created an alias very close to the one I'm using now. My alias and my real name never appeared in the same place for years, and I don't think my now-self could have penetrated my then-self's anonymity.

Eventually I stopped caring, but my decision to drop the cloak was a conscious one. I think it may have coincided with the creation of my Google (then just GMail) account, where it became obvious that my alias and my True Name would be appearing together on (at the very least) mailing list posts.

It became more useful to me to have one reputation, rather than two (or more). The methods I employed then would not work for me now; I've become accustomed to a certain level of service and community, and creating a new identity for every site would break some of what makes the modern Internet interesting.

I think it's much more useful if people just get used to the idea that we change over time. Checking the date stamp needs to become automatic behavior. Permanent data storage is a new thing for humans, but we can learn to adapt.

Is the first quote totally out of context, or does Eric Schmidt seem more stupid, creepy and horrible every day?

I've always liked Google a good bit, but I'd be prepared to put them in the 'as bad as microsoft or worse' category, based on their CEO, if he doesn't go away or stop talking soon.

The Top down transparency imposed by Google, facebook etc (as well as the increased surveillance by other entities) seems to be tempered by a bottom up demand for State and corporate secrets being leaked in increased frequency (WikiLeaks etc..)

It will be interesting to see how transparency (by design or not) will effect corporate governance and state behavior.

Yeah, nice how there's a double standard at work. The government wants to have free access to all of our phone calls, emails, stored digital files and heck, even houses, as well as store images, fingerprints and even DNA of each citizen, but on the other hand, they insist that their own privacy is paramount and even filming a police officer can be a crime.

In case you didn't get it, he really wants a genie.

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