In writing about Google Lively, I’ll go a little further and explain what I think is coming from Google and others in the next few years. I’ll call this service "Google Me," which is the natural extension of behavioral advertising. Here’s how it’ll probably work:
By using this service (or related services), you’ll give the company permission to maintain and improve an "anonymized" version of you. It’s anonymized in name only, because the point of the system is to know you inside and out — what you like, what you do, and what you’re going to do. It’s a virtual you, way beyond your 3D avatar or search history. It can even predict your future, or at least your choices, which is not that far off.
The feature would be first sold as "your personal agent on-line" — an AI that can go out and find what you need on its own. These things exist today, piecemeal. Train the agent to look for articles you like, products you want, and it’ll go out and find the best of what’s out there — good deals, promotions, and so on. Tell it where you are (automatically, via your GPS phone) and it’ll give you all the information you need — plus find any local deals, promotions, and so on. Tell it what you’re doing (via twitter-like microblogging or more automatic life-logging) and it’ll try to assist, providing helpful deals, promotions, and so on.
The ultimate salesperson is one who has complete information about you, access to billions of other people, and infinite patience. He/she knows how likely you are to buy their product. The ideal sales algorithm is one that says "search the list of all possible ads and provide you with the three you’re most likely to buy right now." The service would earn top dollar from happy marketers (it’s what Amazon works its ass off to do every time you visit their sites). And on the positive side, they’d minimize wasting your time and attention with things you don’t want.
The evil side (there always is) is that this information will be used to help manipulate you as well. That ultimate salesperson can not only use the information to chose who to spend time on. He/she now knows what to say, how to say it, and just how hard [and often] to push before you’ll get annoyed and walk away. And no matter how smart or rational we think we are, there exists some pitch that can break down or bypass your defenses and get you to buy something more expensive than what you really want or need, or something you don’t even need at all, but which promises to fill an emotional desire that can never, in truth, be filled by a mere thing.
Can you imagine a personally optimized version of QVC that figuratively (or literally) has your number? QVC works (for some) because it matches the needs of its audience, and without any qualms, gets them to buy useless overpriced crap (IMO). Now assume there’s a magic format or approach that works for you too, 20%, 50%, 95% of the time. In the end, we would become part of some vast network of brains and wallets, for which the goal is to maximize transmission of money and return of instant gratification, if only to feed and self-optimize the cycle.
The question is, for a company like Google, where will they draw the line? Advertising itself isn’t evil — it’s fundamentally useful when done respectfully and within limits. But will the search for ever increasing profits and automation eventually bring in the kind of people and algorithms that don’t know or care where those limits are, and who have all of the information anyone would ever want about you, with or without your name?
It doesn’t look good right now, given their self-serving privacy and data retention policy.
In the previous post, I touched on how virtual worlds provide a preview of how this system might work when we’re all streaming our real-world activities to a computer system that can, even anonymously, predict our next steps with some degree of certainty.
This is a choice we’ll each have to make as we contemplate out-sourcing part of ourselves to become "more" than we currently are, especially as a "free" service that can helpfully pick our pockets. But the choice is not binary. The old-world models of fee-for-product or services are still around, and are perhaps a bit safer in this case.
And I imagine Google will even help sell them to you.