by December 17, 2005 0 comments

There is much concern raised these days about the data that
gets collected by various services offered by the likes of Google, and on the
ends to which it can be used for. Most people talk about the privacy of the data

I have a different take on this.

Individual privacy concerns are of course there, and to a
large extent valid. But seriously, do you expect someone unknown, employed by
Google to sit down and analyze the traffic pattern at or for
someone at Amazon, or eBay or Microsoft or Yahoo or Apple to analyze one Krishna
Kumar’s online purchase patterns?

Sure, the analysis can be done, but to what extent? For how
many individuals and for what use? The privacy issue is whether, the data could
fall into the hands of others who would have vested interests in understanding
the behavior patterns of specific people, much like some may be interested in
knowing your credit card number.

The fact is that your cellphone company, your bank and your
credit card company already know much more about your earning capacity, your
spending patterns and your likes and dislikes, than Google or Microsoft probably
cares to find out.  And worse still, they are already sharing that
information around, and possibly selling it to others too.

The utility of this data to companies like Google, Amazon,
Yahoo, Microsoft or Apple is completely different.

Have you read the Foundation series?

This fascinating series of Sci-Fi novels by Asimov is based
on the concept that the future can be predicted on a large scale, like for an
empire or a planet.

In real life, we use an extremely similar technique called
market research. Market research collects information about consumption and
other behavior from a large number of individuals and attempts to predict group
(large scale) behavior by aggregating the individual behavior. Market research
like Seldon’s psychohistory cannot predict an individual’s behavior, but can
predict group behavior with amazing accuracy.

What all the companies I mentioned above can do (and most
probably are doing; they would be foolish not to) is aggregate the information
they keep on collecting to predict trends.

The Google zeitgeist is a simple example of such broad
trends. These trends can be put to good use. For example, the top five games
queried for in Google in September 2005 were Final Fantasy, Dragon Ballz,
Runescape, Halo 2 and Counter Strike.

Now, if you are selling games, you get an idea of which
games to stock more of.

The more the data, the finer your predictions; and Google,
or Apple or Amazon, or Microsoft has enough data to do finer geographical
predictions of not just the games currently in demand.

It is not as if this data was not available in the pre-Google
days. It was. Only it was more costly and much more cumbersome to collect. The
ACNielsen’s and the IMRB’s made a fine art and a thriving business out of that.
The Web has changed the rules of the game, and a new set of players have emerged
with the same set of ‘powers’, magnified a few times, due to the difference
in technologies used.

The Big question is-what will they use this trend
information for? Will they also use it for ‘the greater common good’ as
Arundhati Roy terms it, or will they be used (only) for competitive gains
against each other?

Krishna Kumar, Editor

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