Despite the common fears regarding overt censorship on the Internet – Twitter blocking tweets, SOPA and the like, and even the general Disney-ification of our mobile lives by Apple’s draconian iTunes submission policy – here at Motherboard we tend to fret over the rise of Big Data. For many of us, myself included, Google knows everything about our lives: All of my correspondence and searches are crawled for ad data, and the Goog knows where I am at all times. Just yesterday, Google Maps found my location as being Vice’s offices immediately, on my computer, via my wi-fi network or something.
This nagging distrust and feeling of being swindled is so stressful simply because quitting Google seems like a massive pain in the ass. Google’s got me by the balls because it offers all these services, all working in concert, for the heft cost of zero dollars. Therein lies the root cause of my paranoia: Aside from Google storing all of my strange searches on a server somewhere, handing out all this capability for nothing more than a few ads. It feels like I’m walking slowly into a big set of jaws that are about to snap shut. Why? Because we’ve evolved to distrust anything that’s free.
The process of evolution is a libertarian’s wet dream. It’s the ultimate free market: Either you find a niche for yourself, some way to carve out an advantage and score resources better than the next guy, or you die. It’s as simple as that, and it’s amusing to me how evolution has been accepted politically. If you really want to piss the so-called socialists off, talk about economics in evolutionary term.
I’m not quite at this level of paranoia, but WHAT IF?
There’s no free lunch in nature. Everything, even eating a ripe apple sitting on the ground, has costs and risks. That’s doubly true of relationships; the most frustrating ecological misconception in the regular old media is the pseudo-concept of ‘symbiosis’ in nature. I guess it’s fun to think that cute Mr. Honeybee is just cruising past Ms. Flower to pick up a bit of pollen and have a spot of nectar just to be nice. But that’s not the case.
Nothing in nature happens because it’s the nice or friendly thing to do. In this case, a bee and a flower both get very real advantages: high-octane sugary nectar for the bee, and targeted pollen transportation for the flower.
It’s what more correctly would be called a mutualistic relationship: it persists because both organisms get positive benefits. That doesn’t happen without very real costs, however. Nectar is resource-intensive to produce, and the bee spends more energy and is likely at more risk of getting eaten when covered in the extra weight of brightly-colored, often-smelly pollen.
Hippo spas: where everybody benefits.
The relationship hasn’t arisen because of some symbiotic relationship, with the plant and the bee saying “Hey, we get along well together, let’s help each other out.” It’s evolved and refined because both organisms gain an advantage from the relationship that happens to outweigh the costs.
Mutualism isn’t the only type of relationship that appears in nature. There are plenty of situations in which one organism benefits at the detriment to another, which is how we’d define parasitism. Even a classically-used case of supposed symbiosis, like a remora catching a free ride on a shark, would be more correctly considered parasitism: the remora’s saving energy on swimming, while the shark does have the negative effect of dragging that remora around, even if it’s a small detriment. Predation, of course, is also a positive-negative relationship: one organism gets fed, while the other gets eaten.
(Commensalism, in which one organism gets an advantage while the other is unaffected, is extremely rare, and is generally the case of a positive or negative effect not being discovered yet. Negative-negative relationships don’t persist, because both organisms end up destroying themselves.)
What’s this got to do with our wariness of Google’s obsessive data compilation? All this evolutionary baggage of good and bad relationships has tuned us to assess what we’re getting out of a connection, for both our benefit and safety.
We worry about parasitic and predatory relationships because we don’t want to get screwed. (If we’re the parasite, we instead worry about getting busted.) Likewise, our mutualistic relationships tend to be pretty overt: we know when one hand is washing the other, and we keep up with any potential for trickery.
This is basically what Gmail has done to me.
But think about my relationship with Google. Google’s obviously benefiting, making billions off ads and whatnot. I’m scoring the product of all this research and infrastructure development, getting instant answers, communication, and directions for free. But while Google’s clearly paid money to make money, what’s the cost to me? Letting the company know more about my habits, to give me more enticing ads to ignore? That doesn’t seem like much at all.
In fact, it seems too enticing, without the trade-off you’d expect of other relationships in nature, which makes it feel like a trap. It’s like a that offers nectar to insects for free, which they enjoy before they slide into the plant’s water reservoir to drown and be digested. Is that what Google’s doing to me, pulling me into a sweet-smelling Venus Flytrap just to suck the life out of me? Probably, and that’s the reason I’m so worried: with all of the data Google’s already extracted out of me, the life-sucking may have already happened.
Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: Climate Change Denialism Is In Our History.
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