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I Know What You’re Collectively Thinking

Hokkaido: snow inbound

Your company makes widgets and like most of the online planet many of your staff use one of the popular search engines to effectively go about their business. The guys and gals in the research lab use it to track down obscure topics in online journals; the creatives spend a fair bit of time, well, y’know, browsing stuff to stir their creative juices; human resources use it to do whatever it is they do between alternate rounds of hiring and layoffs; and the comms team monitor the response to the quarterly results or the latest press releases.

The search engine company knows some of you by name and some of you a lot more – you did after all sign your soul away for that terabyte data archive. A few brave souls consistently practice safe browsing – multiple pseudo-anonymous identities and so on, but by and large your search finger-print, a data set built up over your life-time gives you away. Every time.

Anyway even for those safe searchers out there, there are multiple ways to know who you are and where you live. Reconstructing the real you is not exactly difficult since your family started using handhelds, embeddeds, online accounts and old fashioned online photo albums. Automatic face recognition now works well enought for identifying self-documenting teenagers and selca Koreans up to the age of 30, but for the rest of us its the simple stuff like the wallpaper in the home and traces of unique combinations of objects that were (re)searched, and bought and delivered that give you away. But anyway its all moot because ever since the ability to search was refined to the point where it is truly (mobile) seamless to your daily life, your search queries have become a brain dump of what you’re thinking. They know that thing that you plan to keep secret from your closest friends. Sometimes when the brain interface fails the search engine implant sends queries from your subconscious.

Yes, you’re right – none of this is particularly novel or new. So what is?

What happens when you take a reasonable time span of search data – say 10 years, associate it with the education, leisure, pleasure and work search queries of individuals, and pool it with a collective/legal entity such as a company? A widget company even. It could be something as simple as tracking searches by domain. They haven’t been sitting idly by just looking at search terms over those ten years – they’ve tracked the financial returns of the widget market, career trajectories of whose joined and whose left, the products and services they’ve released and how well these have done in the market place. That big recall in 2017? They were there, hosting the complaints forums, re-directing searches for the class action lawsuit, and remember the search queries by an engineer clearly out of his depth. That researcher who went onto earn a Nobel prize – they were there at the beginning when she typed her first hesitant words, scoping a new vocabularly. They watched and learned.

How long before the collective search terms of a company can be used to sufficiently predict the products and services they next bring to market? How long before that search engine moves into financial forecasting? And given that companies and other deep-pocketed legal entities are (profit) motivated to protect ‘their’ privacy what tools will ensure that what goes on in the lab, stays in the lab? How will these tools manifest themselves as consumer products?

With apologies to Alan Kay – the best way to predict the future may be to invent it, but the easiest way to predict the future is, simply to predict it. Or keep tabs on those who are inventing it.

Right now Google’s keeping tabs on itself.