Google’s Selfish Ledger Is An Unsettling Vision Of Social Engineering

Google's multibillion-dollar business was built by collecting all the information available to its users. Selfish Ledger is a video produced by Google that offers a stunningly ambitious and unsettling perception of how some people at the company envision to use that information in the future. The video was made by Nick Foster back in late 2016, who is the head of design at X (formerly Google X) and a co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory. The video that was shared internally within Google imagines a future of complete data collection, where Google helps push users in check with their goals, custom-made personal devices to gather more data, and guides the entire population's behavior to solve global problems like disease and poverty.

A spokesperson told The Verge: “We understand if this is disturbing, it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment done by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts to arouse discussion. It’s not interlinked with any products present currently or that are intended to be made in the future.

The Selfish Ledger, a 9-minute video starts off with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which on a broader view are concerned with the passing on of traits attained during an organism’s lifetime. Foster narrating the video does acknowledge that the theory may have compromised regarding genetics but says it offers an essential metaphor for user data. (The title is a tribute to the work of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.) The manner we use our phones creates “a continuously evolving representation of who we are,” which Foster terms as a “ledger,” stating that these data profiles could be built up, used in modifying behaviors, and transferring from one user to another. “User-focused design principles have taken the upper hand in this computing world for many decades, but what if we saw things a little more differently? What if our focus shifts to creating an enriching ledger by introducing more sources of information? What if the ledger could be given a purpose rather than simply acting as a historical reference? What if we considered ourselves not as someone who owns this information, but as caretakers, custodians, or transient carriers?”

Foster says that the ledger containing the details of our device's usage includes the data on our “decisions, actions, relationships, preferences, and movement” is something that could imaginably be passed on to other users just like genetic information is passed on through the generations.

Foster envisions a future where “the idea of a goal-driven ledger becomes more acceptable where suggestions may be transmuted by the ledger itself.” This is where the Black Mirror hints come afloat, with the ledger actively pursuing to fill in the gaps in its knowledge and picking products to purchase for data-harvesting which it thinks may seem attractive to the user. This puts Google in a position as the ultimate solver of the world’s most unmanageable problems, powered by a distressingly extreme degree of personal information from each user and ease with guiding the entire population's behavior. There’s nothing to comprehend here other than this being just a thought exercise inside Google, started by an influential executive. But it does provide an illustrating insight into the types of conversations going on within the company that is already the world’s most lush personal data collector.

Source: The Verge