Google On The L Train: Sci-fi, Wifi And The MTA

Second in a pair of essays today on freedom and the Internet. Previously: What are the politics of the Internet?

Last week, gracious youngsters from Google, Inc. were stationed below 14th Street, handing cards to commuters. The cards confirmed that those wireless signal bars appearing on certain subway platforms weren’t phishing expeditions by identity thieves or digital phantoms. Rather, they were the fruit borne of a partnership between Google and a wireless Internet provider named Boingo. Log in to their hotspot and get a summer of free Wi-Fi access all over New York City. In return, Google gets to hoard the information they generate, assembling an accurate picture of who exactly was passing through the station and when.

This repository of information will serve as both a map and an archive. The latter aspect will help generate advertising so customized that it’s fast approaching the realm of dystopian science fiction. Google also wants to tie its information to location in the real world. Not just for more accurate driving directions and a place to pin reviews of local restaurants, but in a Borgesian attempt to map everything that isn’t already online.

The Boingo operation was sponsored by Google’s coupon-spewing Groupon clone, Google Offers. According to Tim Peterson at AdWeek, , “Once a consumer enables WiFi on their smartphone (or tablet or laptop) and picks the Boingo network, they’ll come across a branded landing page to connect with the option to subscribe to Google Offers.” Subscribers receive coupons from nearby merchants. Meaning that if you access a hotspot in Soho, you will get coupons from merchants in Soho, access a Midtown hotspot and you will get an offer from Midtown, while those of us waiting for the L train at 14th Street will expect subway-related deals, perhaps discounts on those M&Ms sold for the benefit of local basketball teams.

Certainly this is a boon to commuters and office drones looking to save money at lunch, but there is, of course, a more sinister side to this seemingly generous gesture. If you log into Google Offers at a Boingo hotspot, in theory, not only will Google know where you are, it will also know who you are, and that with some detail. That is because Google Offers is linked to every other Google account you may have, which means it can pull from an enormous database of information consisting of every email you have ever sent from Gmail, every YouTube video you’ve ever seen, every search you have ever made, etcetera. By combining all of this data together, Google can assemble a pretty accurate picture of who exactly was passing through the station, where they were going and for what reason.

Why would they care? Subway riders “are a valuable demo for advertisers to target,” Christian Gunning, Boingo’s director of corporate communications, told AdWeek, “with more than 70 percent between the ages of 18 and 54 and more than 35 percent exceeding $75,000 in annual income.” For Google to have access to information about the habits of people who ride the subway is valuable. All the more so because Google has the ability to segment its audience into far thinner slices than whether or not someone is a subway rider in New York City.

The conventional wisdom about advertising goes (and this is one of Google’s main selling points) that the more precisely aimed an advertisement is, the better it performs for the advertiser and the consumer, who presumably really did want whatever it was the advertiser was hawking. But sometimes you don’t want to buy.

George Saunders’ story, “My Flamboyant Grandson” (from the 2002 collection In Persuasion Nation) is about an old man forced to retrace his steps through the custom advert-clotted hellscape of Midtown Manhattan. In it, Saunders imagines what New York City might be like were a company like Google’s information hoarding taken to its logical extreme, crunched and fed through a pair of Google Glasses:

At Forty-third a light-pole mounted Focusser shouted, “Golly, Leonard, remember your childhood on the farm in Oneonta? Why not reclaim those roots with a cup of Starbucks Country Roast?,” in a celebrity rural voice I could not identify, possibly Buck Owens, and then, best of all, in the doorway of PLC Electronics, a life-size Gene Kelly hologram suddenly appeared, tap-dancing, saying, “Leonard, my data indicates you’re a bit of an old-timer like myself! Gosh, in our day life was simpler, wasn’t it, Leonard? Why not come in and let Frankie Z. explain the latest gizmos?”

For now Google’s ability to deploy personal information seems limited. This author’s own Google demographic profile lists him as a 65-year-old male, interested in British pop music, political humor and breakfast foods, which is either hilariously off-the-mark or confoundingly accurate, but only on a deep subconscious level. But even if Google could conjure the perfect holographic shill, the number of merchants willing to advertise in a given area is limited. Meaning, I’m not buying any off-label breakfast sausages from the local 99-cent store, no matter how good hologram Jarvis Cocker says they are.

That said, Google’s foray into wireless Internet is about a lot more than information gathering. At stake is the texture of the Internet to come. Google wants to pressgang our phones into service as roving eyes and ears, assembling maps of the real world as detailed and filled with browsable information as the non-space behind your computer monitor. The hope is that by using this geo-locative data, the Internet will layer itself seamlessly over the real world. So that you might one day be able to Google your missing car keys.

Already developers are using geo-locative data to produce strange and pungent cocktails of software. One of the most salacious was an application called Girls Around Me, a Russian innovation, which, according to NBC Bay Area News, “scans for women who have checked into [geo-locative social networking site] Foursquare… and then offers their Facebook profiles” to give you something to chat with them about. Foursquare has since removed Girls Around Me’s ability to access their data.

To hoary cyberpunk turned grey eminence William Gibson, Google’s spread into the prime material plane is an outrageous act of colonization, a conquest of society’s perceptual apparatus. Writing in the New York Times last year about Google Earth, he observed:

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.

Like all proper imperial conquerors, Google faces fierce competition. Its archrival Apple, Inc. is about to release an application designed to compete with Google Maps, and, according to The New York Times, has already announced that future versions of the iPhone operating system will “no longer carry Google Maps,” effectively cutting off a rich feed of information from Google. (Naturally, The New York Times has dubbed this the “mobile map wars.”). Sponsoring wireless Internet nodes might be a way to keep those millions of iPhones under surveillance.

William Gibson warned that, “sharper cookies [despite taking adequate privacy precautions]… will 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.” Perhaps the ultimate threat to Google’s dominance is a mash-up of Apple’s Map application and its portable digital personal assistant service, Siri, the digital concierge that regurgitates search results and performs simple tasks in response to spoken commands (“Siri, order me those sausages I like from the 99-cent store…”)

In his 1998 story, “Makeki Neko,” Gibson’s one-time cyberpunk contemporary, Bruce Sterling (now a bit of a grey eminence himself) conjured a convincing vision of a Tokyo in which a large number of its inhabitants have surrendered control to what appears to be a benign gift-giving network; an underground economy in which people trade favors for one another. But when a prosecutor destroys one of if its nodes in distant Providence, Rhode Island, the network begins to turn on her:

“I’m under attack. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since I broke that network. Stuff just happens to me now. Bad stuff. Swarms of it. It’s never anything you can touch, though. Nothing you can prove in a court of law.” She sighed. “I sit in chairs, and somebody’s left a piece of gum there. I get free pizzas, but they’re not the kind of pizzas I like. Little kids spit on my sidewalk. Old women in walkers get in front of me whenever I need to hurry.” The shower came on, all by itself. Louise shuddered, but said nothing. Slowly, the darkened, stuffy room began to fill with hot steam.

Each one of those miniscule actions was performed by an unwitting agent, one who didn’t even realize what he or she was doing, but it all added up to something enormous. A panopticon with claws. Which brings us back to the blue-shirted youngsters manning Google’s information booths. They may well be unwitting harbingers of evil. So think twice before you check your email on the platform, and consider deeply whom Google’s Don’t Be Evil credo is really meant for. They might mean you.

Related: One Google Books To Rule Them All? and The Google Goblins Give Firefox a Reprieve—But What About the Open Web?

James McGirk has a BA and an MFA from Columbia University. He writes a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily and his bylines have appeared in TIME, Foreign Policy, More Intelligent Life, and other publications. His short stories have been published by Fence, The Drum, Gigantic, and 3am magazine.