08/07/2012 12:54 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Will Google's "Don't Be Evil" Mantra Save My Life?


I had an idea for a short story in which the main character's life is dictated by products and services provided by Google. It was set in the near future where self-driving cars dominate the roads, and one's home and social life, commute and workplace are completely regulated by computers. Every decision my character made would be run through a customised, personality-based algorithm that, in my fictitious society, is a mandatory download for every citizen at a certain age.

I started writing this story. I began to imagine an individual's otherwise lonely existence lovingly devoted to Google. I wrote one paragraph and then stopped. It was already too pedestrian, too easy. The present day obviates an explicit description of such an existence. When I read about Google Now -- the automated personal assistant you never knew you needed -- I realized that we have practically arrived at my vision of the near-future.

We have given less responsibility to machines or little robots that physically complete tasks (as imagined back in the '80s), but have placed a great amount of faith in apps and programs that make simple, everyday deductions for us: cooking instructions, directions, suggested news to read and media to consume, shopping recommendations and other monetary deals, who to be friends with, who is interesting enough to creep, and the people and things the AI believes you should generally avoid.

The other day I logged into Google and purchased one of the hotly touted Nexus 7 tablets -- after careful research and an increasing skepticism of the Steve Job-less direction Apple is taking, I decided to go fully Google. I believe in Google, in a company that admits its mistakes and that tries not to be evil. Like Microsoft before it, Google welcomes ideas and criticism, allows its users to hack and reprogram the products they buy. Apple, on the other hand, is a very exclusive club. A tight, insular and proprietary collection of well-branded hardware and software. But to what end? Apple rules the roost with dedicated customers who will unquestionably buy every new increment of their products not because of actual practicality, but because of incredible marketing.

I think, like Facebook, Apple has peaked. As I type this on my MacBook Pro -- the "entry-level" model from a few years ago, a computer that is powerful enough to record, edit and multitrack an entire album or batch process hundreds of images at a time -- I wonder why I need such a powerful machine? I have probably only ever demanded 5 per cent of the computer's processing capabilities at one time. It's an expensive typewriter, just like an iPhone is a rather pricey telephone (unless you lock into some telecom contract, which is an other story altogether).

What is the function of all this gadgetry? What is essential and what is superfluous? In newly acquiring the fully Google tablet, I'm hoping that downgrading computers -- that is, paying for the processing power that I actually need -- my life will be simplified. My data can float in a cloud or remotely on a memory stick, wherever I choose. And although I admittedly give preference to Google services, I still feel a certain freedom, that I have not over-committed to Google, that my data can be liberated at any time, that I did not compromise financially, and that when the world falls apart, I'll not have lost track of who I am.

So what of my short story? I probably should have written it earlier. For now, it seems, I'm destined to just live it.