Google is everywhere, in our computers, our phones, our tablets, our heads. Many people don’t know an Internet outside of Google, it has become that pervasive. It’s never a good thing when we come to rely entirely on corporations for basic day-to-day services, not because they’re likely to disappear overnight, but because you lose control and independence of your own information. Maybe it won’t be felt yet, but there eventually will be a downside in the future, when your interests don’t align with theirs. In other words, spreading the risk is a sensible approach.
It seems like Google has always been there, but that wasn’t always the case. I’ve been a GMail user since early 2007, and watched with delight as Google expanded and acquired their way to just about everything. At one stage I was even vouching for Google Wave. Yes, Wave. Google’s services seemed almost too good to be true – solid, free and feature-packed services for nothing. I was neck-deep in the Google ecosystem and life was good. But like spiced ham, there was a catch.
A year or two ago, I realised how immensely pervasive all this technology and convenience had become. We were putting everything into these systems. All our most private searches, all our photos, our relationships, every last bit of information that we have since long-forgotten, and the Internet NEVER forgets. Even to make a small part of the internet forget requires extreme wrangling. We may only just be bumping up against the downsides of unwittingly feeding the all-knowing network that will power our demise. Privacy is not a quaint concept, but one of humankind’s fundamental needs. We’re frogs in the boiling water.
Something had to change. Maybe the effects would not be felt immediately, but eventually, all that information would come back to haunt us, in some way or another. Look at how far technology has come just in the last 10 years, let alone what it will be in the next 10 years time. My view of such advancements like Google Now and Glass changed from excitement to a curious dread. This, of course, also goes for the latest self-tweeting location-sharing heart-rate checking gizmo. Sure, they provide grand promises of security, but in reality, companies don’t have your interests at heart.
Fortunately, I’ve never been an oversharing kind of guy, especially not on the net. So cutting back on these services was not difficult. It took a fair while to remove the few hundred G+ posts, because there’s no ‘Delete Posts’ option, it has to be done manually, in it’s painful animated card-flipping glory. Well-played Google. But there was still plenty of info left.
Now keep in mind, I’m not advocating zealous blanket boycotting of all cloud-based services and living in a cave, but instead adopting some common-sense and pragmatic approaches to personal information management. As with all things, a certain amount of compromise is required. I believe it’s still possible to use Google’s services like Search and Maps, whilst retaining some shred of anonymity.
Then there’s also the fact that we don’t pay for any of this. Google Reader was a sobering lesson, I rely hugely on my feed reader to save me an immense amount of time in catching up with the news, happenings and articles of interests from websites. The key here is websites, since curated feeds from social streams often turn into an echo chamber of worthless but infinitely re-shareable content (ie. Buzzfeed) which do little to broaden one’s horizons. Anyway, Reader was unceremoniously shut down. It was a niche product that didn’t fit Google’s grand plans. I’m happy to pay for a service that I rely on – I already do for a host of things.
The same can happen for any number of online services, not just Google’s. People who invest time or effort into services that don’t have a solid business case for existing, run the risk of being left in the cold when reality sinks in. At best, it becomes a great inconvenience to find alternatives and begin the migration process. At worst, a loss of information. Unless the service had a system in place to allow you to export your data in a standards-based format. But how many average people do you know, that regularly do that.
So we know that Google wants to collect all this information about us. Sure, their track record with user privacy isn’t horrible like Facebook, but that still doesn’t mean they have your best interests at heart. If they did, Youtube would have RSS feeds. And I wouldn’t be reading about some random company’s birthday, that I followed eons ago on Google+. Corporations strike a fine balance between keeping users just satisfied enough to stick around, but catering to their real, paying customers.
But it’s a big step to take. The inertia is tremendous – your email is there, so you might as well keep your contacts there. If that’s there, you might as well use the calendar, and since that’s all working, then tie it all in with Android. If that’s all working, then you may as well tie in Youtube, Photos, Maps, and all the rest. It’s nearly a case of all-or-nothing.
Of course, I know that I’m in a tiny minority of those that care. And in doing so, will sacrifice some degree of convenience, which I’m more than happy to do. Sure, I won’t have every single all-singing all-dancing convenience at my fingertips, but maybe it’s better that way. Since when was it a valuable thing to stop relying on our intuition, memory and instincts?
In the next article, a list of alternatives which I’ve found to be pretty darn solid.