The definition of being “good” has splintered. Blame technology.
Our culture shifted from flapping mouths to clicking keys; our deeds—horns or halos—have been made anonymous by avatars.
But even in this circuit board wasteland, there’s still hope: truth. And by my estimation, no one is more truthful than Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt does the foot-in-mouth dance on a regular basis, riffing one-liners meant as jokes but interpreted by the terrified public as grim omens of a world without safeguards.
However, hidden in those nightmarish predictions of the future, and in his tongue-in-cheek estimations of Google’s impact on humanity, lies a modicum of legitimacy: an honest assessment of where we want to go—and how much we’ll surrender to get there.
“There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
I won’t even detail Google’s history of flagrant abuse (let’s just say that lately they’ve been stealing your e-mail addresses and passwords). What I will say is that at least Schmidt knows his position and place, and recognizes boundaries without altogether respecting them. In effect, Schmidt and Google are being the fucking assholes we’ve come to expect of our geniuses. It’s what we ultimately love and admire, isn’t it?
Our cracked-out love of Internet overshare sidles us right up to the creepy line as well: tweeting about dissatisfaction with your job (or sex life); bragging about your crimes on Facebook (and getting arrested); or killing the world, one adorable kitten-sleeping-in-a-bookshelf at a time.
So should we trust companies like Google, who document our comings and goings? Schmidt doesn’t think so. Instead, you should learn self-censorship.
“I think judgment matters. If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.”
After all the hoarse-throated railing we did against Bush’s Patriot Act, you would’ve thought we’d stumble upon that realization sooner. Guess not. Tweet on!
But there may be some defense. Schmidt concocted an ingenious plan to protect our children from the scourge of their blabbermouth pasts: allow them to change their names upon turning 18. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt said:
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.” [Schmidt] predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.
I say why the hell not? We give computers to our children, fail to warn them that history has a nasty habit of haunting, and then blame them for failing countless job interviews by being far too naked on Facebook. Let ‘em change their names—give them the life they should’ve had.
Human beings are creatures of habit, and as any anthropologist will tell you, habits can be traced. Same goes for our mouse-clicks. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re being watched. Schmidt turns our assumptions of independence into the truth: we’re far too easy to predict.
If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use Artificial Intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go. Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You’ve got Facebook photos! People will find it’s very useful to have devices that remember what you want to do, because you forgot … But society isn’t ready for questions that will be raised as result of user-generated content.
Schmidt is craning over a crystal ball here. One day we will want devices to remind us of our routines, our inherent behaviors, our children’s names. But to admit as much is also to admit a dependence on external, unfeeling entities—a slaughter of free will. And as Schmidt says, society isn’t ready to slip into that confessional. Yet.
So who can we trust? In an uncharacteristic political jab, Schmidt says, well, maybe we’re the better of two evils.
“All this information that you have about us: where does it go? Who has access to that?” (Google servers and Google employees, under careful rules, Schmidt said.) “Does that scare everyone in this room?” the questioner asked, to applause. “Would you prefer someone else? Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?”
Amen, brother. Amen.
In my next segment of Ones and Zeroes’ Man of the Decade, I’ll explore Schmidt’s views on the future of technology. Put on your space helmets, kiddos!