Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Google reads email too

The night of September 20th, I got home from our first full lecture and sat down at my laptop to check my email and finish coordinating a meeting with a friend. That night in class we had discussed actor-network theory and cybernetics, to note two topics... I log into my Gmail account and notice that my friend had agreed to meet with me the following day. I also notice to the right of my email, Google requesting to add this meeting to my calendar. I was caught off guard; Google had the details down: “meet at TD Bank on Richmond at 1pm”. How on earth....? And then I realized that I had written nearly those exact words to my friend in the previous email, which obviously triggered some Google Calendar function, providing me with the feedback that I should be adding this commitment to my calendar.

I am used to shopping online (Amazon, Sephora, etc), so I am frequently being offered suggestions by the cybernetic technology of those major consumer websites. I’m used to that sort of technology tracking my actions. But when I realized that text from my email was also being scanned – not just my clicks and product choices – I was shocked (and a little creeped out).

To me, this instance reveals greater depth to the capability of cybernetics than what we had discussed in class. In that moment, I realized that so many of our online activities occur within the cybernetic loop and we don’t even realize it, plus there’s not much we can do to avoid it.... unless we’d rather boycott web 2.0; these cybernetic surveillance technologies can only fulfill their intentions with our participation. We perpetuate the feedback loop between users and technology so technically, we’re accountable for the way cybernetics works. I am not willing to forfeit cybernetics today for the sake of my privacy and identity. So many of our online activities are interactive and the feedback we get – fun features, smart applications, efficient ways of web browsing – encourages us to continue interacting. It’s almost an example of classical conditioning, where we receive positive reinforcement for our behaviours. I’m conditioned to see cybernetics in a positive way. I want to keep participating and giving away my information.

And so I guess I understand now how, in terms of actor-network theory, I am an effect of the network. Who I am online is undoubtedly shaped by what I do and what I am connected to. has a very specific identity, which is constructed by every interaction: every online purchase, every Google search, and every site that asks for a log-in or email.

I would love to see a giant a cloud diagram with my email or IP address in the middle of it, stretching out to everything I am related to online, every site that stores information on me...and then I would like to compare that data-mined image to who I think I am. I think it would be frightening to see all the information about me that is stored somewhere, but I think it would be interesting to see the type of identity that is constructed for me. How personally can an actor within the network be portrayed?

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