Google Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself

And, finally, is it good or bad for us?

On this, the evidence is mixed. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers argues that self-deception is adaptive, because it makes us better at fooling others. If I really believe I’m a writer, correctly or not, then I’ve a better chance of success when I walk into that meeting with someone who’s looking to hire a writer. This view frames self-deception as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I’d be very sorry to learn that my smartphone is kneecapping my ability to succeed. I’d be even sorrier, however, to lose my “positive illusions,” as articulated by Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown in a landmark 1988 paper. “Most healthy adults are positively biased in their self-perceptions,” Taylor and Brown state. They outline commonly held illusions that fool us into feeling better about who we are, more in control of our lives, and more optimistic about the future. These sound like illusions I need—we all need—to survive.

But self-deception also harms. For one thing, it makes us stupid. In a much-cited 2010 study, researchers discovered that people who performed well on a test because they were given the freaking answer key “interpret their resultant high scores as evidence of superior intelligence,” and that “when asked to predict their performance on a future task, they fail to account for the impact of having had the answers, even when inflated predictions prove costly.” Most of us have spotted this bias in others; most of us are compromised by it ourselves. Even Taylor et al argue for “windows of realism,” observing that people in a decision-making mode tend to be more realistic. And the philosophers point out the ethical importance of self-knowledge, labeling self-deception “a problem of particular concern for moral development, since [it] can make us strangers to ourselves and blind to our own moral failings.”

The issue boils down to this: how is Google Now going to find this balance, for me? How will it temper illusion and reality, according to my complex personal needs? I called Google to ask. Baris Gultekin, one of the founders of and the product lead on Google Now, thinks that the key is in simplifying and refining communications between user and software. “In the real world, you have this communication with your [actual, human] assistant,” he said. “So we want the software to be cognizant of that, to not presume many things, to have a conversation with the user.”

The tension is between seamlessness—a tool that is automatic, predictive, requires no input—and not wanting that tool to be “presumptuous.” This is challenging because all of Now’s data-mining and hey-is-this-what-you’re-looking-for suggestions run on algorithms, and algorithms are algorithmic. Those responses then need to be personalized; to adapt to every individual. “What’s very important is that we need to make sure that the user is in control of all of this,” Gultekin notes. “To create an easy way for the user to communicate with the assistant, to make it for that specific user and no one else.”

I know what this user wants. My perfected digital assistant would help keep me organized, while respecting the touchy stuff. It’d protect healthy fantasies while simplifying my days; allow for “positive illusions” of an aspirational self, present, and future, while making it easier to live effectively in the world as it is. Maybe this is ridiculous—a pipe dream. But hey: 10 years ago, did you even have a smartphone?

The definition of self-deception that I liked best was offered by Chance et al, the researchers with the answer key: “Positive belief about the self that persists despite specific evidence to the contrary.” I can see how this could be dangerous. It also sounds pretty nice. After a few months, I got fed up with my phone telling me what I did, and therefore who I was. I wiped the Kims’ address from Now, told it I was “no longer interested” in travel to that place. I kept going, of course, and so Now kept asking about it; without a name for the location, it would just pin the address: street name and number. Impersonal. Almost a slight, against a family I like and a part of my life that is ... part of my life. I finally came up with a solution:

22 mins to the Kims

Maybe someday, Google Now would’ve known to do this from the start. I still kind of wish it reminded me less often, though it’s still mostly right when it does. And the label is both true, and acceptable. I can live with that. For now.

Presented by

​James Carmichael

James Carmichael is a writer based in Los Angeles. 

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