Digital Life: Stripped naked by Google Fiber, still hard to see

Faster internet in Kansas City could mean more mining of the data of people in the market.
Faster internet in Kansas City could mean more mining of the data of people in the market. MCT

Going on the internet means sharing data with strangers. Each term plugged into a search engine, every click on a link adds more nuance to the virtual dossiers that put advertisers on your scent.

That’s why ads for a particular kind of shoe I looked for appear when I go to Facebook. It’s why pitches for camping gear I scouted online follow me when I wander to Wired’s website. And it’s the reason sign-up offers from Google Fiber, an outfit I track for my job, hound me at nearly every stop on the internet.

Except I purchased those shoes more than a year ago, and the camp stuff before that. I already pay for Google Fiber service. Been there, bought that.

Advertisers have loads of data about us. They just don’t always understand it.

In Kansas City, we’re likely pouring more information into the Big Data complex than in most places.

Google sprung the idea of twitch-quick Internet at the start of this decade with unblushing self interest.

Research showed that eye-blink differences in the time a search result popped up could mean the difference between staying with a Web hunt or quitting. More speed, more time online, more internet ad sales for Google.

Telephone and cable companies moved too slow chasing those speeds to please the brainiacs in Mountain View, so the company created Google Fiber.

Its launch in Kansas City pressured other internet services in the market. Now few places offer a home so much bandwidth for so little.

That means people in Kansas City likely use the internet more than they do in Phoenix or Omaha or Boston, or at least travel more of the Web in less time.

All that surfing creates more data, and Madison Avenue has been won over by Silicon Valley’s power to target. Internet ad spending surpassed dollars spent on TV spots last year.

Maybe that’s smart. In his book published this year, “Everybody Lies,” former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz makes a strong case that we reveal more of our true selves to our internet browsers than we do to family and friends.

He shows how Google searches reveal the stubborn pull of racism, interest in realms of sexuality we don’t share even with those in our beds and a much stronger fondness for tabloid topics than we’d admit.

His insights prove most valuable on a large scale. The number of searches in a country for information about child abuse hints at the breadth of an epidemic. But any particular person searching on the matter might be neither victim nor perpetrator, just someone interested after reading a particularly horrific story in the newspaper.

Can you look up bomb-making techniques simply out of curiosity, or must you have terror in mind? The answer matters in a time when police agencies are exploring the possibilities of Big Data.

To be sure, data mining can be eerily prescient. The New York Times documented, for instance, how Target learned a teenager was pregnant before her father knew.

Has the presence of Google Fiber in Kansas City revealed local ovulation cycles to the world? Not even close. But if a better internet experience leads to more internet use — the premise of Google’s big bet on beefy broadband — that means more data about you plugged into more algorithms.

It’s just that those formulas might still get it wrong.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon