Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
By MIKE PICKETT
You are being used. We all are. We are being used for crowd sourcing without even knowing it.
If you drive down a road using Google Navigation, your data is being used to give every other Google Navigation user more accurate traffic forecasts. If you buy a book on Amazon, that data goes into a database that Amazon can then sell to publishers. It’s all pretty benign, and for the most part, you get what you want and the company gets what it wants. Everyone is happy.
This week I learned about two more crowd-sourcing efforts, one by Google, one by Amazon. The first makes me happy, just the way crowd sourcing should. The latter does not make me happy.
I’m sure you’ve even participated in the first one. It’s the group of tests that is supposed to ensure that you are a human when you are inputting information on an online form. The ones with the skewed words that a computer is not supposed to be able to read. I just learned what those were actually doing.
If you don’t know, let me drop some of my new-found knowledge on you. If you are on a Google website, those words are from the Google Books Library Project. One of them is a word that the Google scanning bots recognize. The other is a word from a scanned book that they don’t recognize because of a smudge or a skewed page or some other defect. When you type in the word that Google already knows, they confirm that you are a human; when you type in the second, you are telling the scanning bots what the word is. Once they get the same answer from 100 or more people, they know what the word is and fix it in the book’s digital file.
I thought that was pretty neat. It makes me feel like I am part of building the world’s largest digital library. I know that I’m really just saving Google from having to hire someone to check all of those unrecognizable words, but it feels like I’m contributing to something.
The second is Amazon’s effort to get you to do their dirty work.
According to Engadget, Amazon will give you $5 off a select purchase if you go into a bricks-and-mortar retail store this Saturday and scan some bar codes. You can do this up to three times. What does Amazon get out of this? On-the-ground reconnaissance of their competitors.
This just makes me feel icky. It’s as if Amazon is contracting me as a spy, but instead of using my uncanny espionage skills to protect the free world from a conspiracy to bring about global dominance, they are using them to bring down a twelve-year-old’s lemonade stand. Is knowing that I contributed to a neighborhood store’s—arguably inevitable—demise worth five bucks to me?
I don’t dislike Amazon and I buy stuff from them all the time, but am I devoted to them to the point where I am willing to sneak a quick scan of a bar code when the store employees aren’t looking? If they want information on their competitors, shouldn’t they do this dirty work themselves?
This points out a major difference between Google and Amazon (and one of the reasons why I feel some loyalty to Google, while I feel none to Amazon): Google uses me and makes me feel like I am contributing to something worthwhile; Amazon uses me and just makes me feel like I’m being used.