Google just became shamelessly terrifying

October 21, 2016 Originally published on SFGate

They were, admittedly, already pretty close.

But now it’s downright undeniable: Larry, Sergey & Co. chucked the cutesy “Don’t Be Evil” motto years back – well before they created parent company Alphabet – in favor of vast and irresistible repositories of global power, data-driven influence and simply volcanic amounts of money.

It’s all led to what they just revealed themselves to be: The most blithely megalomaniacal, data-sucking company on earth, a vast and ominous succubus of (mostly personal) information, nothing more or less than the single-most potent, AI-driven conduit through which forcibly floweth all human activity, both social and domestic, public and personal.

Don’t believe it? Just glance at the rather numbing array of gizmos and services Google just announced – specifically, two new ‘Pixel’ phones, an integrated home Wi-Fi system and a central AI hub called Google Home, all running the company’s cute new puppy-dog/demon AI program called, deceptively, Google Assistant.

I admit, the products don’t look like much. It’s Google, after all; the gizmos themselves are, naturally, completely banal, uninspired, entirely forgettable in a classic, let’s-just-rip-off-Apple-like-everyone-else sort of way. Never let it be said that anyone at Google gives a serious damn for radical or beautiful artistic innovation, for its own sake.

(Is this not downright mindboggling, by the way? I remain eternally stunned that, despite all their billions and all their R&D, behemoths like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon are thoroughly incapable of unique design originality, of making something of real and immediate delight to the mind and the senses.

Whine all you like about Apple’s perfectionism and “walled garden,” but Steve Jobs wasn’t lying when he said his company lives at the intersection of technology and the humanities. He really did create a singular company that still cares deeply about making beautiful things people actually want to use – and which every other company merely clones, and poorly).

Thanks for asking, Sundar. Maybe you could start by revealing the true nature of your business? Total, relentless data domination, at the expense of, well, nearly everything else? Thanks.

But let’s be fair: Google never pretended to give a damn about creativity, or making beautiful things. It’s a glorified classified ad company, after all. Sergey and Larry got filthy rich invading your personal space in a handful of clever ways no one had imagined of before. What, you think they made their billions on Gmail and a simple search bar? Sucker.

But now it’s all getting so much uglier, and more disturbing. This is the gist few seem to understand about Google: Every time you use any Google product, from Gmail to YouTube, Drive to Google Maps, Calendar to Allo, it’s tracking you a thousand ways from Sunday, with the singular goal of turning it all around and using that fireball of personal data against you – that is, to coerce and manipulate you more ruthlessly, more precisely and more comprehensively than any advertising company in the history of the human species.

But now, add in Pixel phone, a Google Home hub and scatter a bunch of Google Wi-fi hockey pucks throughout your house, and let voice-activated Google Assistant run them all? You might as well just give them your first born.

Yes, I know – they all do it. Facebook is a relentless data-mining wonderland. Amazon’s Echo wants nothing more than to have you instruct it to order more crap from, well, Amazon. Microsoft… well, no one cares about Microsoft anymore. Apple would very much like you to buy another iPhone and maybe a watch and a laptop to go with it. But hey, at least they’re gorgeous. And Apple largely leaves you alone.

But it’s difficult to express how omnipotent, how nefarious Google has become in its plan to be the omniscient, money-sucking catch-all for, well, your entire life.

Google products: Endlessly bland, deeply invasive

Google products: Endlessly bland, deeply invasive

Let’s be clear: I confess to only a tacit understanding of the imminent, astonishing AI revolution. But even I can sense that Google is getting viciously invasive – a fact they’re desperately hoping you don’t notice. Even Google CEO Sundar Pichai dubbed Google Assistant “your own personal Google,” making it sound like it’s just a friendly little robot following you around in relative privacy.

As if. Fact is, it’s quite the other way around: It’s you who will end up following Google around, as the Silicon Valley succubus swallows every data point about you and spits it right back in your face as a shameless and never-ending lure. Not to mention increasingly dire questions of surveillance and civil liberties.

Natasha Lomas over at TechCruch gets it exactly right (“Not OK, Google”), showing how the ad giant and its new, draconian focus on AI is far more horrifying than helpful. She points out that Google is not merely tracking your shopping behavior. It is no longer so blithely simplistic. “Your daily business is Google’s business,” she says.

Which is to say: They are following you into stores, restaurants, bedrooms, hospitals, into traffic and onto planes and in your bathroom and kitchen and eyeballs. They are in your texts, your photos, your social media, your calls, your car, your late mortgage payment, your insurance plan, your friends and relatives, your fears and doubts and desires, pinging your phone and pulsing your digital watch and tracking your kids and your sex and your greatest pleasures and quietest moments, and then chortling.

Let it be hereby known: We are fast entering the post-privacy era, a time when tepid male billionaire programmers with zero concern for beauty, intimacy or artistry – but a simply staggering amount of gall, of unchecked, megalomaniacal audacity – are allowed to pretend they’re bringing something of generous value to the world, when they bring nothing so much as a massive, mercilessly targeted classified ad, shaped like a hammer.

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Mark Morford

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