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A look at Google's vision of total data collection and its usage

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In 2016, Nick Foster, Head of Design at X (formerly Google X), made a video about a future where Google was the custodians of what they called "The Selfish Ledger," a system that specialized in total data collection. Please note that the video was initially only shared internally with staff, and only now became available for public viewing. The idea was never implemented or taken further (but who really knows) and was only shared as a possible future in data collection. And mass manipulation.

The Verge obtained the following quote from a source at X.

“We understand if this is disturbing -- it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

It's not related to any current or future projects, yet Google's primary business is to collect data from billions of people around the world. And to use that data. Be that as it may, let's take a look at the idea of The Selfish Ledger. You can also watch the full video at the end of the article.

What is The Selfish Ledger?

In the 1800s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French biologist, proposed the theory that there was an internal code within every living organism, and that this code gets altered or modified as the organism undergoes different experiences. He also believed that it is the internally modified code that an organism passes on to its offspring. His theory termed the Lamarckian inheritance wasn't very popular, as it was overshadowed by Darwin's theory of evolution. Centuries later, Lamarck theory is finding a new home in modern technology, and Google calls it, Lamarckian User Data - meaning that in the same way human data collected by say an App, can pass information on to future generations.

On the surface, it sounds very plausible and even useful, but the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper.

Let's take a step back and talk about the how of data collection. Whatever you do online (be it Facebook, search engines, using your cell phone, shopping, social media, playing online games or games requiring always-online), it all leaves a digital footprint of user data. Need I remind anyone of just how much user information gets collected, and how companies like Facebook handles user privacy and data? After the Facebook/Cambridge debacle, Online companies across the board scampered to get their user-data privacy policies above board like we've not seen in decades.

We knowingly (or unknowingly) construct a digital self-portrait, we draw the lines of this portrait with what we like or dislike, what we order online, how we express ourselves on social media, what news we follow, what ideologies we ascribe to and so on. We live so much of our lives online, and because of the Internet's anonymity we sometimes express ourselves even more freely - not always knowing who collects, uses or sees that data.

It’s a codified version of who we are,” explains Foster in the video. It is also an ever-changing thing, much like a living organism if you will. Google calls this digital self-portrait a "Ledger" that holds all our data (like a single App that combines everything about you), and it is also “a constantly changing representation of who we are.”

The word "Selfish Ledger" is based on Richard Dawkins' and WD Hamilton's theories on “The Selfish Gene.” which states that the ultimate criterion which determines if a specific gene will spread "is not whether the behavior is to the benefit of the behaver, but to the benefit of the gene." Google is asking the question – what if this "Selfish" Ledger can be given a purpose, and what if even more data can be fed into it? What if your Ledger can be used for more things than a history of your preferences for example?

Custodians or Gods?

“What if we thought of ourselves not as the owners of this information, but as custodians, transient carriers, or caretakers,” continues Foster. Google is essentially offering to serve as an organization that will present “suitable targets” for these User Ledgers. To what end you might ask? Google wants to take the "Selfish" and turn it into a "goal-orientated ledger" that will benefit humanity.

They want to target things that will serve the global good, examples are environmentally conscious citizens, health, poverty and so on. But here's the fine print, and things that will align users to Google's vision. Good things it may be, but it is still mass manipulation.

A few months ago I played a video game (The Red Strings Club Review: My Digital Mirror) that explored parts of this concept, and it turned everything I thought I believed on its head. I can see the lure of The Selfish Ledger, and the benefits of its uses - and its traps. It would indeed be a very cleverly designed tool for manipulation.

The danger would be in its application, and in who has access to its information.

How would it work?

The example shown in the video is that of a person using his cell phone to link his ledger to say the goal “Better the environment.” From that moment onward, every single interaction that can be linked to that topic from your ledger is shown on your screen as a message. For example, this petrol is better for the environment, or rather purchase a product that is harvested organically, and so on. The point of this Ledger integration with your daily activities is to change your behaviour so the “Ledger” can move closer to its target – making of you a more environmentally conscious citizen.

Taking this idea even further, Google suggests that eventually, the Ledger itself evolves and changes from user-driven to Ledger-driven. So, instead of you selecting environmental friendly as a goal, the Ledger chooses for you - based on data it collected about you. In the example in the video, the Ledger is trying to do just that, but it is missing essential user data to complete its assessment. The Ledger then searches the Internet to find a solution, and it creates an opportunity to present that solution to the user. The Ledger is, therefore, compiling a profile of an environmentally conscious citizen, and it is tailoring everything it can find about the topic and presenting it to the user so he or she can fit into that mould.

It presents ideas to the user as solutions or suggestions and thereby shaping the user’s preferences, buyers choices, places they visit, and so on to fit into that profile of an environmentally conscious person. What is fascinating is how The Ledger proceeds to find a plug for that missing data. It would eventually find a solution and by suggesting to the user that he or she hasn’t thought of, or try to push the user in that direction so he or she can perfectly fit that profile. The example of such a solution in the video is that The Ledger is able to print a 3D model of say a more Eco-friendly product like a coffee mug and present it to you as something you should use.

It's not all bad, or is it?

Another befit of these Ledgers is that it can survive the lifespan of its user. Humans can only live so long, but their Ledger can exist forever and its knowledge can be invaluable for posterity and the human race.

Just think if we had such a Ledger for say Einstein or artists like van Gogh? How much invaluable knowledge and skills get forgotten and lost because it is currently impossible to contain all information about a person. The lifetime of an individual captured digitally. The possibilities for its use are endless.

So, your Ledger becomes multi-generational. Generation upon generation can learn from the previous in a whole new way. Google calls it "An emergent Ledger of the Human Race." For Google, one of the benefits would be to predict human decisions more easily. “As cycles of collection and comparisons extend, it might be possible to develop a species-level of understanding of complex issues such as depression, health, and poverty.” What if such a thing can help find the cause of mental illnesses like dementia? It is, essentially a study in billions of human patterns and behaviours, and finding a pattern is the first step to finding an answer.

Combining this Selfish Ledger, with the ever-growing market of Smart Things (for more on this topic read All the world's a digital stage), it will become the norm to predict human behaviour and understand human behaviour on a level we cannot fathom. The question of “Who we are as people” will become almost redundant, because we will know, or those who have access to the data on a global scale will.

“As these streams of information are being brought together the effect is multiplied, new patterns become apparent and new predictions become possible,” explains Foster. DNA-sequencing has caused valuable breakthroughs in the medical field, and with this Ledger, Google proposes to continue that on another level - to extend it to “behavioural-sequencing.” Like DNA-sequencing has produced a comprehensive human biological map, so can the Selfish Ledger produce the same for human behaviour. Also, as biological data can be engineered and manipulated to produce a better-desired change/effect, so can the Ledger.

I've always wondered how Androids will become a reality, and this Ledger just gave a big step towards that. It isn't something mentioned in the video, but what if the Ledger can be passed on, or inserted into an Android both to guide its behaviour and to model it after the perfect human? It would be much like passing on digital DNA. I would love to see how Quantum Dream explores this in the upcoming Detroit: Become Human.

The grand end could be that humanity is governed by a Ledger, who steers us all into the glorious future of the perfect human race.

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"What if we thought of ourselves not as the owners of this information, but as custodians"

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