William Gibson: Google isn’t a panopticon

Paul Raven @ 01-09-2010

The New York Times turns the mic over to William Gibson, who ponders Google’s place in the world (or, perhaps more appropriately, our place in Google’s world):

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design is a perennial metaphor in discussions of digital surveillance and data mining, but it doesn’t really suit an entity like Google. Bentham’s all-seeing eye looks down from a central viewpoint, the gaze of a Victorian warder. In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.

Note to self – I’m still enough of a vain little fanboy that I’m hugely gratified when my heroes think  similar things to myself, in this case regarding Eric Schmidt’s unGooglable childhood idea:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

The genie won’t go back into the bottle, folks.

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2 Responses to “William Gibson: Google isn’t a panopticon”

  1. Wintermute says:

    What would we do without the coiner of cyberspace.

    Incidentally, I think I’m the one who referred him to that “People want Google to tell them what to do next,” article.

  2. Tom Marcinko says:

    We were talking about tactless Facebook and Twitter posts as the unacknowledged reason behind so much unemployment. Kidding, right? Right?