ON the face of it, Dan Thompson and Gary Kerr are unlikely subjects for statues.
Not for them leading charges into battle, hurdling the barriers of science, or spending lifetimes as local government worthies. Yet the two mechanics from Edinburgh could well go down in history as the men whose desire for a laugh helped form the beginnings of the great revolt against Google.
Messrs Thompson and Kerr were working at a garage in Leith when they spotted a Google car, one of the vehicles that maps streets and puts the images on the internet. Spurred into action, the older man lay face down in the street while the younger stood over him with a pick axe handle. "It was just devilment," said Mr Thompson. "We work on a back street in Leith - anything to liven up the day."
Loading article content
A year later, the image of an apparent murder having been seen on the net, the police paid a visit. Fortunately, the forces of law and order saw the funny side, as did everyone else when the story made the papers. The incident demonstrated two things: the way high tech is now part of our everyday lives, and the glorious capacity of humans to thumb their noses in the face of The Man, or in this case The Car. Governments may come and go, it seems, but Google will always be with us.
Hence the global interest in what is going on at the organisation's conference in San Francisco this week. The get-together is a giant shop window for Google, the place where it displays all the bright new gizmos it would like us to buy one day. Apple runs similar events, and technology being the new religion for some, the bashes have become like the revivalist meetings of old. They attract a lot of media attention and, in consequence, have become the target for protesters. No sooner had Google opened proceedings than two demonstrations were staged. One stemmed from the house price bubble being caused in San Francisco by highly paid high tech workers. The other took a broader view. As a bearded, T-shirt-wearing speaker on stage got into his verbal stride about "developer productivity" and "cloud functioning", a voice shouted from the floor: "You all work for a totalitarian company that builds robots that kill people."
As interventions go this was the modern equivalent of a Flat Earther interrupting a conference on space travel, or a Luddite railing at a power loom. It was bizarre, howling-at-the-moon stuff. Just so we are clear, Google does not build robots that kill people. The content of the protest is not what was noteworthy. What was significant was that Google was the target of such a demonstration in the first place. The company has become so synonymous with internet use that in some minds it represents computer technology as a whole. And where that technology is taking society is giving a growing number of people cause for concern. Just because you are paranoid about the ever increasing dominance of technology does not mean they are not out to sell you a pair of Google glasses.
Google Glass, once the stuff of comic-book fantasies, went on sale in the UK this week. For just £1000, you too can wear specs that will stream information, from messages to directions, before your very eyes. Eyes, mind you, are now relatively old territory when it comes to wearable technology. The new frontiers are the wrist (smart watches), the car (self-driving, natch) and the home (IT systems that can do everything from feeding the dog remotely to switching on the oven). Wherever one goes, there can be a screen. Does that make your heart soar or sink? Either way, there is probably someone building an app to measure it.
As has become traditional with new technology, some consumers will rush to embrace the new items. The first few brave souls wearing Google Glass and smart watches will doubtless suffer a few stares, but give it time and these devices could become as much a part of life as the mobile phone, those blights we all promised to avoid forever. It is not Luddite to wonder where, eventually, these advances will take humanity.
Humankind has always had a "me first" attitude to technological advance. While we are greedy for what will apparently make our lives better, we allow doubts to starve. We have a gimme, gimme, gimme culture and we do not wish to think too much about the take, take, take that comes with it. And there is a lot of take. As the Commons Public Accounts Committee found, when tech and other conglomerates choose where to site their headquarters, low tax beats customer proximity every time. Vast fortunes are made, yet only a fraction of those earnings are paid back in corporation tax. Being at such a remove makes tech giants in particular appear remote. One cannot pop into Google the way one does to Starbucks.
Being remote, the laws of the land do not always apply in the same way as they would to domestic firms. If I made a telephone call from Nairn to Newcastle, for instance, it would be classed as an "internal communication", meaning it could not be intercepted by the authorities without specific permission and reasonable cause. But a message sent via the internet, because the host company is based abroad, is regarded as "external communication" and could be picked up as part of a general trawl. Still, what has this to do with me, asks the ordinary citizen who only wants to check the forecast at their holiday destination or buy a book. The answer is we do not know, and that is the point. We only know about the external/internal divide operated by the UK Government because campaigners Privacy International asked.
There are other privacy concerns besides what is being snooped on. If computers become wearable as standard we can all be monitored and recorded, by stranger or friend alike. Everyone who wears the kit will be a mobile CCTV system. Again, no harm done, one might think, especially if it is made clear that the device is recording. But what happens if wearing the kit becomes so common we stop noticing it?
Nor do we know the effect that having screens everywhere - on the wrist, in the car, at work, in every room in the home - ultimately has on society. Humans are social animals, accustomed to interacting with each other. Is tapping on a phone or swiping a tablet making us less than human, less able to pick up cues from each other?
Questions, questions, everywhere, but at least some are starting to ask them. Hence the minor earthquake that started yesterday as Google began implementing the European Court of Justice ruling on an individual's "right to be forgotten". From now on, people will have the right to ask that certain information about themselves be removed from search results. If the internet is a business - and who would argue that it is anything else these days - then it is time we all began acting as concerned, active consumers, and not just of all those shiny new gadgets.