Google’s business thrives in large part thanks to the data its billions of users provide. This data informs the way we experience Google’s products and services, but what if it was more than that? A leaked internal video created by X (formerly Google X) called “The Selfish Ledger” explores a world in which the sum of our data can be used to modify behavior and understand society in new ways. In essence, the Selfish Ledger becomes a living thing that we pass on to future generations.
The entire purpose of Alphabet’s X is to create moonshot technology and wacky thought experiments, and The Selfish Ledger seems to mostly be the latter. X head of design Nick Foster created the 9-minute video in 2016, and it was never supposed to leave the company. However, someone provided a copy to The Verge, which is why you can watch it right now.
The video starts off with a brief explanation of Lamarckian evolution, widely considered the earliest attempt to explain the heritability of traits in biological systems. In the early 19th century, Lamarck suggested that all organisms contained an “adaptive force” that changed over their lives. When they reproduced, that modified version was passed down to offspring. This is contrary to the way natural selection works, but Lamarck’s epigenetic ideas are still intriguing, and The Selfish Ledger applies them to data.
When Google talks about the Selfish Ledger, it asks us to think of ourselves as the temporary custodian of the data rather than the owner. It’s a callback to The Selfish Gene, a book by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that explains evolution as what’s good for a gene, not necessarily what’s good for the individual. So, the Selfish Ledger is out for itself, but it can still be of use while we have it.
Google describes a world in which you can set goals using data from the Selfish Ledger. You might tell it you want to focus on environmental sustainability, and it could offer small nudges and suggestions to help. Over time, the ledger could learn more about all of us by storing behavioral knowledge, allowing it to suggest products. It could even interface with 3D printing hardware to create new products when a good match doesn’t exist.
The Selfish Ledger, as described by Google, is multigenerational. Thus, new users can benefit from the decisions and results of their predecessors. This is a profoundly different way to think about user data, and it’s one that will no doubt make many people uncomfortable. Google told The Verge the video is intended to ask uncomfortable questions. The team behind The Selfish Ledger used a technique called “speculative design” to provoke discussion within Google about these issues. For the rest of us, though, it comes off a little creepy.
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