Like schools of fish seeking nutrients, Internet citizens swarm over the free software offered by large corporations. Then, later, they discover that they don’t like the terms of service or the protection of privacy. It happens over and over with the same results. What’s going on?
Recently, we’ve become even more aware of the fact that the devices or Internet software we use, while providing lots of utility, is really a black box. It all started with Google mail which we, at first, thought of as serving us, but realized only later that it was a massive data mining operation. These new services are designed to make companies lots of money behind the scenes in, to be blunt, secretive ways. Or they use information about us to make more money by selling it to others who do the same.
Suddenly, the discussion isn’t about how our lives are improved. It isn’t about how we can become more creative. All of a sudden, every day, the discusion is about how the good guys and the bad guys are using our devices against us. Or at the very least, schemes are drawn up that draw the masses in, but don’t improve on what we have — in the name of “free.”
For example, Google music is built with the promise that our music resides in the cloud, and it will be available to us anywhere. Eventually, we’ll have to pay for the privilege of accessing our own music — if the service survives. I am compelled to point out that there is already a service that allows us to access our music anywhere we go - with fairly good sound quality.
It’s called an iPod.
What Can We Do?
Earlier this week, I talked about making technology choices. I mentioned that people fill up their preferred technology bucket in different, unique, personal ways. But I didn’t talk about how people make those choices. For example, what are the risks? What are the tradeoffs? How does the service promote our personal agenda in terms of productivity, pleasure, security, and time well spent?
Even more to the point, are the purported benefits of these services intentionally designed to lure us in but not fully deliver the benefits because we’re deluded into misunderstanding the developer’s promises and positioning? After all, our own preconceptions and erroneous assumptions are used against us all the time in conventional advertising*.
For example, Mike Elgan points out that a lot of information about us, where we are and what we like, has value, but there’s been no legal determination of who owns that information. If that determination is never made, it’s up to us to guard it or hide it or figure out how to make companies pay for it. Or bypass that technology altogether. Or relent. Our choice.
Absent legislation, it’s necessary for us to make some really hard choices about the services and software we engage in. Google and Facebook use information collected about us for its own financial advantage, and hopes that we’ll engage the service in a kind of mindless, off hand kind of happy-go-lucky way. Apple does a better job of delivering cool hardware that makes our lives joyful and productive, but the recent Congressional hearings suggest that Apple is so large that little bits and pieces escape even them. Moreover, large companies like Apple have a voracious appetite for new money making schemes, so we have to keep a close eye on them as well.
I’m going to be spending more time being critical of these Internet software services. I hope you’re thinking about your choices as well.
* “Nobody beats our cleaning product!” Technical translation: if no one product is superior, then in the best case, they’re all the same.