Originally posted on Forbes.com.
The news that Google is planning to move into Uber’s territory sent chills through a lot of media watchers and consumers. The search-engine-turned-gateway-to-the-web-turned-organizer-of-all-the-world’s-information is seemingly more and more ubiquitous and omniscient.
Some people find Google Now scary enough, though plenty of others are perfectly willing to give Google yet more details about their identities and lives (or they’ve just assumed Google already knows everything there is to know about them and might as well drop the pretense and get upfront and personal) in order to get detailed reminders about what to do the night before a big meeting. But in some ways, that was just Google being Google. The company is nothing if not innovative and masterful at getting consumers to trade privacy for convenience.
Google has already made itself essentially a monopoly when it comes to search and digital advertising by doing things that no one else was doing. With Gmail, it did email so much better than anyone else that it more or less became a new service.
But Google’s foray into the tech-enabled, sharing-economy space feels different. Several perfectly good ride-sharing companies have already successfully disrupted the transportation industry, forever changing the way people hail taxis and earn money by driving them. Uber, like Google, is another company whose name has become a verb—when it’s not shorthand for a new business, like “the Uber of grocery delivery” or “the Uber of babysitters.”
So the news that Google reportedly wants to be the new Uber of, well, Uber, was especially troubling to the industry. Vox reported that “Google’s rumored ride-sharing service should terrify Uber and Lyft.” The twist: As reported by Bloomberg, Google’s service could streamline the process even further, cutting out not only the dispatchers but also the drivers, replacing human workers (with their pesky demands for fair compensation and their human propensity to make occasional liability-inducing mistakes) with self-driving cars.
It’s all very “Jetsons,” but if it comes to pass—with people behind the wheel or not—it comes with some privacy implications. Now Google will know when you decide you can’t drive home from the bar, or when you hail a ride across town after midnight—and whom you were home GChatting with before. Even if you’re up to more respectable behavior, do you want the service that already knows almost everything about you to know when you go somewhere for, say, a job interview?
It might seem like that’s just one more relatively minor piece of data that Google—not to mention Facebook and Amazon and Netflix—is constantly collecting, but it’s easy to see how it could become the missing puzzle piece in certain situations.
If we start using Google to arrange rides, too, that makes the company even more omniscient, if not omnipotent. Half the engineers at Google likely weren’t even alive in 1984, much less when the book of the same name was written, but it hardly matters whether they know exactly what Big Brother was. Their company is the new Big Brother.
The announcement from Google that it’s going into an existing space, rather than creating a new one, is shudder-inducing. Its land grab on the market where Uber is the de facto inventor is reminiscent of that classic Steve Jobs speech introducing his company’s famous “1984” commercial: “It appears IBM wants it all…. Dealers initially welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future.… IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”
Big Blue turned out not to be Big Brother. Apple was reborn as the gold standard for the rest of us: the crazies, mavericks, square pegs, innovators … folks who savor their individuality, something that is the opposite of the ubiquitous Google. Or maybe not. It’s unclear whether the Google is Big Brother or, like the rest of us, just a work in perpetual progress.