As a kid growing up in the 1970s, one of my favourite after school shows was The Brady Bunch. Each afternoon I’d tune in to find out more about this blended family of six kids, a housekeeper and a widowed husband and his wife. But the show’s impact has had a broader, and totally accidental, impact. It helped Google create surveillance capitalism.
Back in the early 2000s, Google was almost broke. Its initial venture capital funding was running out and newly installed CEO Eric Schmidt was looking for new revenue streams. In those days, Google looked back at search logs to see what people were searching for.
While the traffic was humming along at its usual pace, there were a series of spikes. At regular intervals, there was a surge in searches for “Carol Brady’s maiden name” that were repeated.
As it happened, those spikes coincided with the time the quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire was airing across the United States of America from Hawaii to the East Coast. And one of the questions was about Carol Brady’s maiden name.
Apparently the answer was Tyler and was revealed in The Honeymoon episode where we also establish her previous married name was Martin – although the creators of the show never revealed whether she was also widowed or divorced as the network that aired the show didn’t think 1960s USA was ready for a divorced woman to be on TV.
That spike led Google to the realisation it could predict what people would search for given a sufficient pool of data. And the way to the pool of data was filled by collecting information from us so Google could predict what we’d want and serve us ads.
So, while The Brady Bunch was meant to present a look at a wholesome American family, it played a part in helping Google transform the world – and not in a good way that the idealist architect Mike would have approved of.