Hey Google, get a load of my boring life

I bought a new smartphone the other day, replacing my ancient Nokia.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...
You can track my phone, but you don’t know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do… unless I smile or put a paper bag over my head.

Cool tech, apart from the funny teal colour distortion on the camera (check out the previous post on Katherine Mansfield). But hey… Brings me into the second decade of the twenty-first century, at last.

And it also means Google knows exactly where I am at all times. Well, it  knows where the phone is, but that usually amounts to the same thing. After a while, they’ll have a database built up of my movements.

What will they learn?

Well, they’ll learn that I spend about 98% of my time in front of a computer monitor.

They’ll learn that I don’t go shopping, much.

And they’ll learn that, from their perspective, my life is pretty boring

What piques me is the irony. Back in 1947, George Orwell envisioned a “future” (1948, wisely reversed by his publishers to 1984) in which every move by every citizen was watched.

The purpose, in his satirical tale, was social control – and it was framed by contemporary trends. His future Britain was very much a representation of the contemporary Soviet Union, which under Stalin was a totalitarian dictatorship.

The data gathering today is very different, for very different purpose – in very different context. But it is, nonetheless, direct monitoring of what we are doing, every minute of the day.

Does it bother me? The purpose is stated, it’s genuinely intended, and I don’t think it’s inimical.  Google already read my emails. Yeah, it’s an intrusion into what we traditionally think of as privacy. But I’m not too worried. If they think anything they collect about me is useful – well, good luck to them.

My only problem is that, historically, it’s not the people who collect the data who end up misusing it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

19 thoughts on “Hey Google, get a load of my boring life

  1. So long as it’s general information concerning my habits that’s utilized for marketing purposes I’m not too worried. After all, business people have been trying to figure-out their customers for as long as there have been business people. These days we’re compounded the issue because we’ve grown louder with our demands for greater responsiveness from the companies seeking to fulfill our needs. It’s likely that someone will step over some invisible line eventually, but until then I worry about other things…like when I’ll finally get a smart phone.


    1. It took me years to get a smartphone, partly because I am surrounded by tech anyway as part of life and didn’t want any more. Finally did it ten days ago. The phone I had, a “dumb” Nokia, I’d picked up effectively free (buy pre-pay minutes, get a dollar discount for every dollar pre-pay you buy, I bought enough pre-pay to pay for the phone). But it was on the way out and I figured I’d better get on the band-wagon. Still not sure if it’s wise, not least because if I dropped the Nokia, it didn’t matter. Whereas if I drop this one it’s $200 down the drain.


  2. I can almost handle my devices tracking me – to some extent one can limit that by deactivating location tags, setting your browser not to track your IP and making sure that wherever you are online your privacy settings are maxed out. What bothers me more is when others tag me in photos and at locations, as in that case I have no way to control what information is shared. I’ve also long held that location tagging is just a good way to show would-be burglars when you’re not home.


    1. Deactivation is the answer – insofar as it is possible. Burglars are certainly a worry – and I think people inadvertently do this when they announce on social media that they’re going away on holiday. The same social media they’ve published their address on. Oops. It happens.


      1. You can’t even see my birthday on my FB page, never mind my address and contact details. My wife is a “friend”, but our relationship is not indicated. And the e-mail I use for WordPress is different from the one I use for business. As mentioned before, I’m a bit paranoid in this regard.


  3. You are right that the ones doing the gathering are not the ones who will misuse the information. It is disconcerting that so much information is available. I guess it is the price we pay for technology. My biggest concern is that Google will publish where my favorite fishing holes are! Maybe I’ll have to just turn off my phone when I go fishing in the future?


    1. Definitely! I can recount a curious experience a few years ago. My brother in law (who’s Dutch) had a GPS plotter with him – accurate enough to plot absolutely every movement he made, even down to walking down to a riverbed in New Zealand to scrape dirt off his shoes. And then display it on Google Earth as an overlay. Cool tech, but one wonders how the data might get used.

      My classic case study – again, Dutch – relates to an early twentieth century census in which all Dutch people stated their ethnic origins, including whether they were Jewish. All collected with due good-will and no evil intent. And no problem until 1940 when the Nazis arrived and found a ready-made database.


  4. I don’t really mind if Google or whoever collects data about where I go and what websites I look at — the data is anonymous and relatively harmless (aside from the fact that Amazon sends me all these stalkerish personalized recommendations).


    1. Ditto. Reality is that everyday people are – well, everyday. Even writers, almost always, though I often wonder whether what we search for when researching might light up flags somewhere.

      Might cause the tag “harmless” to be adjusted to “mostly harmless”… 🙂


  5. I sometimes worry about it. But then I think that the amount of completely pointless data we are amassing is so enormous that even if skynet does rear its electronic head, it will get such a migraine from having to sort the good stuff from the dross, it will retire to a darkened room with cucumbers on its electronic eye stalks and never be heard from again.


    1. Yes, it’s the anonymity of being (a) pretty ordinary, and (b) the mass of pretty ordinary data about us that essentially loses what ordinary people do amidst the data streams.

      Love the metaphor! I’m afraid all I can think of is Futurama’s Bender now… 🙂


  6. Excellent post Matthew. Btw.. I too lead a boring life, but what I look up on the Internet researching my book series must have someone puzzled. 🙂


    1. Thanks. Yes – and this is the thing. What we search for (as writers) can be completely uncharacteristic of us (as people). I actually saw a case study about how someone had used Google’s apparently “anonymised” IP data (missing the last digits), matched with search strings, to pinpoint a single person who’d searched persistently for particular things and consequently, revealed her medical conditions. But no!. Turned out the woman was doing favours for her neighbours. What is it – 1 + 1 = 3… 🙂


  7. My life may not be all that exciting, but it’s still MY LIFE. If someone wants to be me, they may have a hard time living up to the high expectations I have! I’m not able to, and I’ve been trying for years! 🙂


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