Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

The Silicon Jungle: A Novel of Deception, Power, and Internet Intrigue

This novel portrays a possible, unfortunate future, where privacy is gone and large search companies and governments can track people's every deed, even if they don't do them. The author, Shumeet Baluja, works at Google, and the startup culture depicted in the opening chapter as well as the life in the (fictitious) search company Ubatoo, are well done and extremely realistic. I've seen it all myself.

Baluja convincingly explains how it is possible to follow the network of the complex interactions among your activities and people you encounter. The result from these numerous tiny, innocuous pieces of data can be used to determine what you are likely to do in the future. All it takes is an enormous amount of computing, with literally millions of simultaneous processors and unimaginably large databases, all of which is available to Ubatoo's employees (much to the envy of the FBI.

Much of this power is used to figure out what to sell you, but it is also quite useful to those who wish to spy upon you, or ferret out possible terrorists. The complex networks reveal the likelihood that someone has terrorist ties, and if the likelihood is high enough, they get put on a watch list. Whether or not the people on the list really are terrorists is irrelevant: once on the list, they are marked, perhaps for life.

The fictitious company Ubatoo bears a striking similarity to the real search company, also with a six-character name, with its famously inscrutable hiring practices that subject the candidate to hours of probing tests by people who haven't the slightest clue about how to evaluate a candidate, multiple cafeterias well stocked with high quality food, and an internship process that is brutal.

All this is well depicted in a manner that veterans of the valley will recognize. But that's not what is frightening. The frightening part is the total access that workers at Ubatoo have to every aspect of a person's daily life: the interns delight in reading private emails, examining the search queries of people who they not only have identified, but whose on-line photos of their homes are displayed on large monitors that also display their activities, stroke by stroke. Ubatoo has access to phone calls, web searches, documents, purchases -- all provided by its various product offerings.

Is this real? Baluja emphasizes in both the preface and the end notes that Ubatoo is fictitious and that, to his knowledge, no company has access to everything portrayed in the novel. (At least not yet.) Interestingly, he doesn't state that interns and other workers can not (and do not) read people's personal email.

The story itself is weak, with secret spy agencies (NSA? FBI? CIA?) plus dastardly foreign terrorists, but the writing is good and the plot easy to follow. The computational scenarios are realistic and the implications made obvious: hence the fright.

Read it: you will learn how modern search takes place and the various uses to which it is being deployed. Not a pretty picture, even though we all find the results useful.  The real question is whether we want this much power in the hands of powerful companies and governments. Note that the companies have much more powerful computational resources than government agencies. We have learned not to trust the government: why should we trust private, profit-driven companies?

Link to the book on Amazon.com
The Silicon Jungle: A Novel of Deception, Power, and Internet Intrigue

Kindle Edition: The Silicon Jungle: A Novel of Deception, Power, and Internet Intrigue


PDF of Chapter 1 (from the publisher's website).

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