Since Google became a verb, it has been no secret that they rely heavily on capturing user data, both to serve you better content and to serve their clients better. The clients that purchase ad space, and thus want their ads to go to the appropriate people online. So in order to do this, they have to capture non-personal (sometimes personal) behavioral data and geological data. And most of the time, the people are okay with it, because we get to use cool things like global Maps, real time navigation and a database of content so large that it would take lifetimes to sort out.
And technically, without that ad revenue coming in, they wouldn't be able to function as a software company building cool tools. And you can see that in the fact that most of Google's products are essentially free to use. However, they have thousands of software developers and pay fantastic wages. So it's difficult for me as a software engineer to pull out the blame card when I hear about privacy and data capturing. I get it. It's a careful balance and sometimes the lines get blurred.
Many other companies run on this same model. Facebook for example, who is at the heart of this current data privacy incident, captures user data more than any other company in the world perhaps. They have to, otherwise they couldn't show you anything. It would just be a giant blank textbox where you typed in text and it went nowhere. And again, Facebook for the most part is free to use.
Can we work without capturing data?
Go into your browser settings and check the box that will clear all private data every time you launch the browser. No more history, no more cookies, etc. Now you have to type in every single URL that you want to go to without the browsers help. Now you have to log in every single time to every single site. Google will probably give you less relevant search results, leaving you confused and bewildered. And Google Maps might not give you the best results on traffic, since it uses your driving data to determine if that little line on the map is red or yellow. Less data being stored, sure. But time is being spent.
And this is a very interesting experiment that you should try. I once stumbled upon a totally random and non-custom browser and almost nothing made sense. The YouTube homepage showed me random music videos with people that I've never heard of. Google search results didn't give me the immediate answer like it normally did. And pretty much any other application that normally was so useful, kind of became confusing and bland.
And the same is true for many other websites online. Amazon for example. They show you products that you are more likely to buy. In order to do that, they have to know what you have been looking at. They probably know how many times you checked out the same item, and can measure how close you are to buying it. But that totally makes sense from an online shopping store perspective. That's how they increase sales and continue to function as a company.
And now Facebook. Can it function without it capturing so much data, is the question. And the answer is, probably. Depending on how we used Facebook in our day to day lives. Many people use it to communicate with family members around the world. Does any form of tracking need to be done for this? Just as none is required for your phone to work, then the answer is probably no. But Facebook has transformed itself over the years. It's gone from a more social gathering environment, to a content serving service. And for that, data is needed to function.
When it blurs certain lines
The data capturing itself isn't at the heart of the current issues in the news. But more what that data is being used for. Data is definitely powerful and we've never had more circulating the world as we do now. Whether that data can be accurately used to influence people, or groups of people, is still in debate in the news outlets. But of course data influences people. That's how we function in daily life. We see an ad, we learn about a product, we buy it. The marketing departments exaggerate the product and make it sound like it can do fantastical things, when in the end, it just makes phone calls. We go to the grocery store and the item with the healthy labels and amazing health claims ends up looking pretty appetizing. We talk to our friends, they tell us a story, and we change our perception and belief system on life. This is how we evolved to work and to live.
We see presidential debates every four years where 60-80% of all quoted facts are wrong, yet those debates are used to steer votes in one of 2 directions. But none of that would matter if people didn't rely on it to make their own choices. But they do. Again, it's how we function. If all of our friends were choosing item A and we really wanted B, we would probably choose A just to save face.
We can't really outrun human psychology. I once spotted a bird-shaped object on the street and seconds later a crowd had gathered to pay homage to this avian creature. Pictures were taken and smiles were being generated before my eyes. Well, it wasn't a bird. It was a rock. And it didn't really resemble a bird at all once you really got a good look. But that didn't matter. People saw a bird because I told them that was a bird. That's how we function. Our reality today is just a grouped set of words, events and emotions that we experience. Some of those are accurate and many others are not. But we learn. And on the second occurrence, we don't say anything until we've done our due diligence and we know for a fact that a bird is staring us in the face.
So what do we do
Instead of pausing or going backwards in life, let's use these challenges to propel us forward just a bit. After the first accident, we didn't just stop making cars and go back to the old tried and true way of the Oregon Trail. We improved the safety features of vehicles, and now we can survive crashes at 30MPH with very little ease.
If anything, I think this current incident in history should just make people realize that they are spending too much time in the virtual world. Ads can't hurt you when you are playing with your kids outside on a nice summer day or when you are working on that book that you told yourself you were going to write at some point in your life. So maybe, we shouldn't really do anything. We should take responsibility for our own thoughts and judgements, and then go outside and have a drink with a friend and talk about anything but the news article that you stumbled upon that might or might not be true.
We should stop writing giant articles pointing out the obvious, that words influence people. Yes, yes they do. So let's make sure that those words that do influence us don't come from a 300 x 400px banner that randomly pops up while we talk to our dear sweet Nana online. Let's use technology for something more valuable than measuring how much people like words, and then showing them said words, so that our children one day won't just be repeating words or statements that they saw online, but so that they will have genuine thoughts that they came up. And those thoughts will create the reality for the next generation of people on this planet.
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Walter G. is a software engineer, startup co-founder, former CTO of several tech companies and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He has been blogging for the past 5 years and is an avid BMX rider, bio-hacker
and performance enthusiast.