Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering

Google has created a multi-million dollar company knowing all about its users. Now, a video produced on Google and obtained by The Verge offers an astonishingly ambitious and disturbing look at how some in the company anticipate the use of that information in the future.

The video was made in late 2016 by Nick Foster, the head of design for X (formerly Google X) and shared internally on Google. Imagine a future of total data collection, where Google helps push users to align with their goals, custom prints customized devices to collect more data and even guides the behavior of entire populations to solve global problems such as poverty and disease .




All data collected by their devices, the so-called ledger, are presented as an information package that can be transmitted to other users for the betterment of society.

Titled The Selfish Ledger the 9-minute film begins with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which are largely concerned with the transmission of traits acquired during the life of an organism. Narrating the video, Foster acknowledges that the theory may have been discredited when it comes to genetics, but says it provides a useful metaphor for user data. (The title is a tribute to the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene .) The way we use our phones creates "a constantly evolving representation of who we are", what Foster calls "ledger" ", postulating that these data profiles could be built, used to modify behaviors and transferred from one user to another:

" User-centered design principles have dominated the computer world for many decades, but what about If we look at things a little differently, what if the ledger can have a volition or purpose instead of just acting as a historical reference? What if we focus on creating a richer ledger by introducing more sources of information? What would happen if we considered ourselves not as owners of this information, but as custodians, transient carriers or caregivers? "

The so-called usage record of our device: the data on our" actions, decisions, preferences, movement ", and relationships" – is something that could be passed on to other users in the same way that genetic information is transmitted through the generations, says Foster.




Resolutions by Google, the concept for a system-wide configuration that allows users to choose a general goal and then directs their daily actions towards it.

Based on the idea of ​​the ledger, the central section of the video presents a conceptual system of Google Resolutions, in which Google asks users to select a vital goal and then guides them towards it in every interaction they have with your phone. The examples, which would "reflect Google's values ​​as an organization," include urging you to try a more environmentally-friendly option when calling an Uber or directing you to buy locally grown Safeway products.




An example of a Google resolution overlaying the grocery store's shopping application, suggesting an option that aligns with the user's expressed goal.

Of course, the concept is based on Google having access to a large amount of data and decisions of users. Concerns about privacy or possible negative externalities are never mentioned in the video. The demand for more data could be the most disturbing aspect of the presentation.

Foster visualizes a future where "the notion of a ledger guided by objectives becomes more acceptable" and "the suggestions can be converted not by the user but by the accounting book itself." This is where the backgrounds of Black Mirror come to the fore, and the book is actively seeking to fill gaps in their knowledge and even select data collection products to buy that they believe can attract the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the accounting book does not yet know how much its user weighs. Then, the video takes an additional turn towards science fiction that induces anxiety, imagining that the book can become so cunning as to propose and print its own designs in 3D. Welcome home, Dave, I built a scale .




A conceptual cloud processing node that analyzes user information and determines the absence of a relevant data point; in this case, user's weight.

Foster's vision of the accounting book goes beyond a tool for self-improvement. The system could "cover gaps in their knowledge and perfect their model of human behavior", not only their particular behavior or mine, but that of the entire human species. "By thinking of user data as multigenerational," Foster explains, "emerging users may benefit from the behaviors and decisions of the previous generation." Foster imagines mining the database of human behavior for patterns, "sequencing" as the human genome, and making "increasingly accurate predictions about future decisions and behaviors".

"As the collection and comparison cycles extend," concludes Foster, "it is possible to develop a species-level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health, and poverty."




A central principle of the ledger is the accumulation of as much data as possible, with the hope that at some point, it will shed light on major world problems.

Okay, Foster's job is to lead the design in X, Google's "instant snapshot factory" with intrinsically futuristic objectives, and the concept of accounting borders on science fiction, but it aligns almost perfectly with attitudes expressed in existing Google products. Google Photos already presumes to know what main aspects of life you will consider, proposing entire albums based on their interpretations of artificial intelligence. Google Maps and the Google Assistant make suggestions based on the information they have about their location and habitual habits. The trend with all these services has been towards greater inquisition and assertiveness on the part of Google. Even email compositions are being automated in Gmail.

When a comment was made on The Selfish Ledger a spokesperson for X provided the following statement to The Verge :

"We understand if this is disturbing, it is designed to This is a thought experiment of the Design team of years ago that uses a technique known as "speculative design" to explore ideas and uncomfortable concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate.It is not related to any current or future product. "

At a time when the ethics of new technology and the AI ​​enter the broader public discourse, Google is still surprised by the possible ethical implications and disadvantages of its products, as seen more recently with its demonstration of the call Voice Duplex AI in I / O. The protest over Duplex's potential for deception motivated Google to add the promise that its AI will always self-identify itself as calling unsuspecting service workers.

The Selfish Ledger positions Google as the solver of the most difficult problems in the world. fed by an agonizingly intimate degree of personal information of each user and a facility to guide the behavior of entire populations. There is nothing to suggest that this is anything more than an exercise of thought within Google, initiated by an influential executive. But it provides an insight into the types of conversations that take place within the company that is already the most prolific personal data collector in the world.