Damon Young July 13, 2012
Google has followed me to Canada. As I arrive, desiccated and a little deranged, at the Halifax International Airport, I have my Google mobile phone in my pocket. Google discovers a fountain pen shop downtown, and Google Maps charts the walk. Google Mail chat lets me instant message my wife. Google Voice lets me call Australia so cheaply it may as well be free. And on Google Video, I can watch my kids fight, in real time, over a cowbell. I can blog pithy travel stories on Google's Blogger. The total cost? Less than a couple of Melbourne coffees.
I am genuinely ambivalent about this multinational cicerone. I am certainly grateful for the sound of my wife's voice, and the sight of my daughter's drawings for her distant dad.
Yet I am also troubled by the global power of this company, which has the wherewithal and resources to provide free services worldwide, because it records and trades in the information of literally billions of citizens.
For all its privacy talk, Google is a little dangerous: not simply because it has too much data on too many users, but because it has quietly invaded everyday life. The threats to privacy are problematic enough; the danger that one's address, phone number, browsing and shopping habits, and conversations are tracked by a single business. This not only allows for the buying and selling of personal information, but also raises the possibility that one begins to surveil oneself: to internalise the all-seeing eye.
But there is another problem, which is quite the opposite, and much more likely: the transformation of a company into a silent companion, no longer even noticed. We all know brands that become familiar words and generic things: Hoover, Aspirin, for example. But Google is not simply a proper noun grown into a verb. It is a corporate prerequisite for many of the activities we take for granted. It is how many search, talk, write, archive, collaborate. It is worryingly ubiquitous.
The problem is not that a multinational is providing goods and services to meet demand. This is what all successful businesses do: software companies, watchmakers, newspapers. The problem is that Google soon looks like a company we cannot do without. And if it does fail, it will be because it has been replaced by another company we ''cannot do without'' - what Facebook did to MySpace, for example.
In the right circumstances - like working on the other side of the planet - Google's services make sense. Hence my genuine gratitude for their cheap, easy functionality.
But like Facebook and Twitter, Google also provides countless flights into electronic faff-land. According to one study by Optenet (which does, admittedly, sell internet security), over one-third of the internet is dedicated to pornography. Google helps pornographers find audiences who don't read youporn.com for the articles. Over one in five of the top 50 searches are for adult content. Online gambling is also growing rapidly, according to the 2010 Productivity Commission report. Google has a dedicated gambling policy for their Adwords service, but they happily provide links for popular online casinos in a quarter of a second. Then there are the less salacious or controversial ways to turn one's head from ennui: glassy-eyed browsing, habitual self-searching, Android zombie-hunting apps, watching videos of puppies rapping on Google's Youtube.
My point is not to herald the coming electronic apocalypse, or to blame Google for our own restlessness or boredom. My point is that Google's profits and power partly come from our willingness to be vacantly amused. They are the middleman between information junkies and their pushers, advertising wares in Google Mail, and in every search result.
There is nothing wrong with amusement, of course - as ''delete fiction'' or lolcats, it can be a way to rest or refresh weary minds. And the ubiquity of distraction is not some Matrix plot. The only conspiracy is existential: the mind in harried flight from itself.
But alongside their more utilitarian roles, Google and its information-age peers also make diversion more efficient; make the electronic ''high'' easier, faster and more addictive. At the very least, they are symptoms of the distraction disease.
When I return to Australia, Google will undoubtedly follow me back. But I intend to leave some of my electronic baggage behind.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and the author of Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free.