Google Now: The two sides of the 'magic' coin.
I've been using Google Now on a secondary account now for quite some time with settings to flank speed. Meaning Google had access to every option that you could set in Now to obtain more data to be fed into Now.
It works much better better than expected
Privacy concerns aside for a moment Now is a rather crappy excuse when you first start it. There's not much you can configure, not many cards you can force to show and generally it's not that useful really. For a couple of days all it actually showed were soccer results, the weather report and appointments. I get all through other channels. Redundant information and not exactly information that could be attributed with magic since I configured two of those cards and the appointments are simply drawn from the calendar.
But after using it for a while that critter pops up more and more stuff. And it's actually quite good at that. The first change I noticed was that Now learned where my alter ego lives and works. So you get traffic related information on that topic. It also draws information it considers relevant from your searches. And this is quite accurate. You get booking information, stock prices and events near you that you may be interested in. Books you may want to read, TV shows and movies you may want to see. And it's pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff. All in all Now surprised me. It's much better than I thought. It's actually pretty useful.
The other side of the coin
But there's a downside to this ... We are ignoring privacy concerns. It's pretty obvious that Google needs to aggregate quite an amount of information on you and connect the dots to make this work. Otherwise you wouldn't get any relevant information at all or Google would simply flood you with irrelevant nonsense just because you happened to search for that.
Using Now with anything but search history activated doesn't really kick it. It's still useful but it's falling short of what it can do. So obviously Google is going to get to know you pretty well. Better than many of your contacts. And this should raise concerns. Google isn't just a machine. It's a company specialized in advertisement. I have no problem with limited and useful advertisement. But I simply do not like to be transparent. And my alter ego pretty much is the definition of transparent by now.
If that information would ever fall into the wrong hands my alter ego would have a major privacy problem. Not to speak about other problems that may be in the making based on conclusions drawn from that information.
If someone in the 80th or even 90th would have suggested that we all carry radio tracking beacons and that some companies just know more about us than everyone else we probably would have laughed about that lunatic and his conspiracy theories. Today many of us carry at least one radio tracking beacon. On my desk there are 3 right now. And my evil twin alter ego most certainly knows a company that knows more about him than most of his contacts.
And the problem isn't just privacy. The bigger one really is the manipulation. If you know someone very well you can easily push them one way or the other. You know exactly what they like to hear, what they need to hear and most importantly ... what they should never hear. It works perfectly. It's the core of target advertisement and much less favorable endeavors. The problem isn't just deliberate disinformation. There's a truckload of generally favorable filters when raw information is filtered just a bit too much.
It's the information you miss because someone or something persistently believes you are more interested in the other side of the story. It subjectifies your view and opinion on things under the cloak of assumed objectivity. Is it true because everyone claims it or is everyone just a black-boxed delusion based on unbeknown filtering? Politics is a very good example for this problem. If you are more active or aligned with a party you are generally much more subject to biased views from that direction. It doesn't mean you don't get other input. But it usually means that the other side simply floods your input stream rendering alternative viewpoints much less prominent, much less visible and the result is much stronger stereotyped thinking.
I'd totally dig a local version of Now. One that keeps information close-by and under control. Something like Google's desktop search. A great tool that was sadly discontinued 2 years ago. Just with a different spin.The cloud solution simply is too costly for the benefits it provides. That rather important problem aside it's a pretty awesome tool. Which adds to the problem in a twisted way. If it would be useless no one would use it long enough.