Let’s talk about the future.

As a kid (ok, a nerdy kid), I had dreams of an incredible future that my VIC-20 couldn’t even begin to predict. I watched science fiction films and fantasized about all of the amazing ways that technology would transform the landscape of our lives. As I grew older, and some of those dreams took shape, my excitement and passion for tech increased as I watched developments come to pass that previously only lived inside my fevered geek-kid dreams. It goes without saying that if you showed a current generation mobile phone to yourself as a 12-year old, your head probably would have just exploded on the spot.

Which is why I’m a little troubled by the way Google is positioning itself and its products as the future of our technology. Not for the reasons the internet would ordinarily attribute to a proclamation like this (cult member status of a competing platform’s movement), but rather because at its core, I’m not sure that Google is being honest with itself, and with us.

Take Google Glass, a piece of wearable technology that looks like it was left behind by a time traveler. The geek kid inside me looks at that and says ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m going to be able to have an always-on HUD for my actual life!’ because that’s just the way I’m conditioned to respond to products like this. The pragmatic adult inside me looks and says ‘Ok, good, but let’s see how the platform around this develops before we get excited’ because that’s how my grown-up brain thinks. But the fact remains that it’s a cool and interesting piece of tech, and I remain curious about it.

Look at Google Now, a recent addition to the Android OS with Jelly Bean. The main idea behind Google Now is that by plugging into Google services with your phone, your location, your likes and dislikes, your habits, patterns, and intentions will slowly be absorbed and presented back to you in a meaningful context, with relevance. Amazing, right? Imagine most of the friction involved in gathering in-the-moment information on your smartphone removed – you look at it, and it seemingly already knows what you want. Sports, weather, restaurants around you, everything that matters to you right now as you’re looking at the phone. It’s a very cool idea and one that paints a better picture of our machines working for us, as opposed to with us, or in some cases against us (let’s just say it took a while for Siri to actually grow into her promises of information at my fingertips the way I wanted it).

Great ideas, executed and advanced by what was and is one of the greatest engineering companies on the planet. No one would assert that Google can’t bring the future to us, given how it’s shaped the web and redefined how we interact with it. My problem is this:

Google is bringing the future to us so it can monetize every single thing we do in our lives, online or offline.

Google is not a pure engineering company, rather, Google is a company that engineers great products (and they are great) in order to advance a larger, singular objective: the collection of user-provided data to better serve advertising interests. It’s not a company that sells products to people; were that the case, this entire thing would look and feel very different to me. We know how Google makes money. It’s not a secret. As I watch Google release more impressive and robust mobile products with comments like “there’s no margin, it just basically gets (sold) through” the picture only gets clearer. It’s not making money on hardware. It’s not making money on software, as it’s traditionally kept software products free to most if not all users. The money comes from us, and all the information we give it. The money comes from tailoring ads to match what it thinks we want. Which at its core is itself a great idea, but leads to a lot of other questions.

But before this gets tin-foily, let me refocus: if you’re cool with Google knowing a lot about you, that’s fine. For the most part, I don’t even care myself. I’m not super paranoid about this kind of stuff, although I do tend to approach it with a more skeptical eye. What I don’t like and can’t agree with is the notion, as presented by the company, that it’s changing the landscape of consumer technology and the way we interact with one another for any noble reason. It’s not doing this to join all the peoples of the world together in blissful online harmony. It’s not doing this so that we can experience amazing new things and drive humanity to new heights. It’s doing this because (first and foremost) it’s made of geeks and geeks like to build cool things (and other geeks want to use them), but those things take money to build and sustain, and the way it makes its money always seems to take a backseat to the wow factor. And that’s what troubles me. It’s not the advancement of technology for the love of the art and science of human discovery – it’s cool technology, but it leaves a lot of questions in my mind about motivation and method.

And listen – all of this could just be fired-up rhetoric in a few years anyway, when Google announces complete data transparency and personal information is regarded with the sanctity some of us feel it should be. I’m not holding my breath for that particular outcome, but to be fair, Google’s always been first to say that we should be able to get our data in and out of a system when we want it, and its guiding corporate goal is to stay away from the Dark Side of the Force. All I’m saying is, think about the subtext of all the things you see coming to market and the messages you’re receiving along with them. Ask yourself: is this the future you’ve always dreamed about or is it the future brought to you by [ADVERTISER NAME HERE™]?

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.