If you think about it, Google is now practically omniscient – it knows pretty much everything. Ask it anything, and it will usually find you an answer. But there’s also a growing concern about another aspect of their omniscience. A few years ago, Supernews did a spoof about Google, about the real price of their “free” services: they know everything about you.
One of the attractions of the internet has been its privacy. If you wanted to search for the IRA, or government conspiracies, or pornography, or whatever, nobody sat behind you watching. This freedom to do anything on the internet without fear of people stopping you, or even seeing you, is deeply ingrained in the internet’s identity, and Google threatens that.
But here’s the odd thing: that video came out in December 2009, voicing a wider concern about Google’s “prying eyes”. But since then, the use of Google’s services has increased. Since Supernews’ scary spoof, Google Chrome has gone from being the browser-of-choice for 9% of users, to 28% – more now than Internet Explorer. More of us have gmail accounts now, so they know every word we write. Google Android is quickly taking over Apple’s IPhone in the mobile-phone war, and includes a handy Sat-Nav, which uses Google Maps to tell them every turn you make. They know it all, but obviously, while some of us are scared, a lot of us couldn’t care less.
Why? It could be a blissful ignorance of their power. Or it could simply be that we don’t mind, because their services are worth our privacy. It could also be that most of us don’t do much on the internet that we want to be very private – I don’t search for the IRA, government conspiracies, or pornography. If Google wants to know about my Aussie Rules football obsession, or my religious convictions, or that my grandmother has cancer, or where my daughter goes to playgroup, well, fine. Google has omniscience – but it’s a benevolent, even benign omniscience. They know everything, but it doesn’t hurt me.
There’s a risk with that. The third episode of a BBC documentary, The Virtual Revolution, pointed out that context changes information. For example, the Dutch government in the early nineteenth century started recording everybody’s religious beliefs, so that they could always offer people an appropriate burial service – that was fine, until the Nazis came to Holland in 1939 and used that information to find all the Dutch Jews, and kill them. The same could potentially happen with Google. Nonetheless, even this threat isn’t enough to stop us using Google, or the internet generally.
There is only one other Entity in history that has claimed such omniscience. In the Bible, there are times God is worshipped for this, but there are other times it makes people nervous. David thought he’d secretly got away with murder and adultery – until the prophet Nathan told him God had seen the whole thing. A famous Psalm is all about this encroaching omniscience:
You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar… Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?… If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me…” even the darkness will not be dark to you… (Psalms 139, TNIV)
And of course, the Bible ends with God judging us by looking at a book containing everything we ever did. He knows it all. He even knows all your searches on the internet.
But while God is certainly not benign, He is also not malevolent, but kind and constructive. Google uses our transparency to give us better advertising. God uses it to make us better people. And yes, there is a point where He will – justifiably – judge us for our actions, but this is always couched in an offer of grace and forgiveness. If you’re not afraid to search on Google, you might not need to be afraid of God. And if you don’t resent Google’s omniscience, why on earth would you resent it of a benevolent and loving God?
Hmm, maybe I should Google the answer to that question…