Chitra Ramaswamy: Google is watching you

LET’S not lose the place over Timeline, writes Chitra Ramaswamy

Google is becoming more like Big Brother. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Google is watching you… even more than before. Last week the company that wasn’t even a verb 15 years ago added a feature that has been described as “terrifying”, “scary”, “creepy” and, erm, “useful”. It’s called Timeline and allows people – sorry, users – to view their pasts, via Google Maps, as a step-by-step, minute-by-minute list of what happened, where, and when. It’s a map of your life (or at least the one you pretend to live online), fed back in user-friendly titbits, links, and photos by a faceless multinational giant. What’s not to love?

So that restaurant in Glasgow whose name you can never remember? Google knows when you went there and the cod-artful pictures you posted of what you ate. The secret spot up Arthur’s Seat where you like to stop and enjoy the view? Google goes there too. Timeline is basically the internet’s version of a trip down memory lane, if that trip was guided by Big Brother and there was an Amazon sales rep on every Proustian corner.

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The words of George Orwell in 1984 come to mind: “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.” And it’s hardly news. Timeline is simply a reminder of how long already we’ve been living in a world where Facebook owns our status, Twitter our views, and Instagram our pictures. The only way Timeline works is if you have “Locations” turned on in your settings. In other words, you need to have already given your life to Google for them to feed it back to you. If you’re the sort of person who uses your smartphone as your second, more reliable brain and updates the world on your life as it happens, meal by meal, jog by jog, and opinion by opinion, you have entered into the pact. (It’s called lifelogging, by the way, and has its own camera, the £299 Autographer capable of shooting up to 2,000 shots a day.) You probably see Timeline as the latest useful tool for giving your frazzled brain a helping hand. You probably think there is nothing sinister about it. That this is modern life and I just need to get with the programme and get an Apple Watch.

I admit I’m of the awkward generation who uses the internet constantly but continues to find it a bit creepy that it knows so much about me. I don’t like it that I’ll be shopping on Asos one minute then reading the news on the BBC the next only to find ads popping up of the shoes I was just coveting. With a further 10 per cent off! I always choose not to turn Locations on or link my accounts, mainly because I worry it will gobble all my data allowance. And, OK, I don’t really understand it.

This morning my inbox contained the usual guff: jobs tailored for me from Gorkana, a list of the childminders closest to me in Leith from, the daily Amazon appeal to check out the building and construction section of the toy department and Kindle holiday reads from 99p (me? A person who finds the concept of a “beach read” an abomination?). Meanwhile, Dropbox keeps shoving my memories of this time last year down my throat, which is particularly lethal for parents of young children because you see old pictures of the baby and immediately disappear down a wormhole screaming “HE WAS SO SMALL!!!” This can take hours out of your day.

And so it goes on. Spotify wants me to spy on what my friends are listening to. Netflix recommends films to me while annoyingly addressing me by my partner’s name. And just this week I signed up to Instagram and had the deflating experience of posting six of my most cherished photos in succession and having them liked by no-one.

The fact is, Timeline will never be a substitute for our actual pasts – the messy and gloriously unreliable memories of the lives we are actually living. The thoughts we don’t voice on Twitter, the places we loved but never updated to Facebook, and the parts of our emotional hinterland that remain mysterious even to ourselves.

Our internal (as opposed to internet) lives are the “unmapped country within us”, as George Eliot wrote. As of yet, neither Google nor any other corporation can touch them.