I’ve mostly stopped using Google. I use Google mail as my primary account, and it would be difficult to immediately change my essential contact information, so I will likely continue to use that service for the foreseeable future. But I try not to use it for web searches anymore, relying instead on Bing. And I certainly no longer read Google news.
This has been a long time coming. It was bothersome when I found that Google was saving my search information. I don’t typically search for the same things over and over again, so I don’t need to see old results every time I begin a search with the same letters. It just makes things look cluttered to me, and it’s very much against my tastes. I don’t want an all-purpose search engine to reflect my personal use of it. I want it to be a blank slate each time I access it – demonstrating equal accessibility for everyone who uses it, regardless of IP address.
I found it creepy when on top of storing personal information, search results ended up being specific to me. I don’t like the fact that Google plainly knows exactly where I am every time I am searching for something. When I type a word like, say, “cemetery,” or “restaurant” I don’t want the search results to be a list of cemeteries or restaurants that are in my area unless I’ve specified that. It feels like an invasion of privacy, and it’s not only that the system is acknowledging the source of my IP every time I access it. I know that that information has always been available, but it was more acceptable when it was in the background and I didn’t get the impression that I was actively being identified every time I sought information.
But more than that, sometimes when I type in a noun that describes a place or establishment, I really am just looking for general information. It’s presumptuous of Google to tailor the results to my location, and perhaps to my search history, when that information may actually be completely irrelevant to what I want to know. There was a time when the internet was a place I could go to find information that I was looking for, and not to be told by a third party what information I’m supposed to be looking for.
That same trend was what irritated me about Google News badges. Rather than continuing to allow what is objectively important to take center stage, that new feature sought to begin customizing each individual’s news according to a series of indicators that, while he may have demonstrated, he did not acknowledge or consent to. Much like my prior search results, I don’t need to retain a roster of news stories that I’ve read in the past. My interests change, and they change in dynamic ways. What I was reading last week or last month should have no bearing on what news is made most accessible to me now.
One of the major influences on how my interests change is according to what is happening. I want to know what’s on the cover of the New York Times and the Washington Post not because it fits with my preferences, but because there are people whose jobs are to identify current events that are of importance to the society in which we all collectively live. I trust them to tell me what matters to a greater extent than I trust myself, especially if I have no idea what has happened in the past twelve hours and all I have in order to filter my news is the history of my own base desires. That’s essentially the direction in which Google News badges were moving us. If that’s considered a good way to disseminate news to the population, the vast majority of Americans are going to end up knowing in detail the results of voting on American Idol but have no idea who the Republican frontrunner is. You may think you have better priorities, but I’m sure that important things do sometimes happen that fall under categories that you don’t typically read about.
But that was just a trend that Google was experimenting with. I could deal with that. I figured that opting out of the news badges service would keep my news objective. Then one day I signed in to my Gmail account, clicked over to news, and momentarily wondered why the hell the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres were national top stories. That was the breaking point that drove me away from Google altogether. Despite my best efforts to ignore their push for invasiveness, they continued to try to corrupt the information that was presented to me. And the source of that corruption, apparently, was me. Or rather, it was me as understood by a series of algorithms striving to represent me as a self-replicating digital entity. That is distinctly different from me as a human being, which is incidentally the me that wants to decide for my goddamn self what news to read and what general information applies to my professional and personal lives on any given day.
So I won’t be using Google as a search engine or a news aggregator anymore. I’ll wait until they start ranking my e-mail messages against my will and sending targeted advertisements directly to my inbox before I drop them as a mail client, as well. I know that Bing will probably trend in that direction, too. For now, I’m pleased to know that they prominently display the option to turn off all search history, although I do have to click it again every day. Even that is heartening, though, as it suggests that they aren’t saving my preferences based on IP address.
I earnestly hope that that behavior keeps up and they prove me wrong in my assumption that ultimately every large company in the information technology business trends towards hideous invasions of privacy and assertions of content control. If Bing or any other reliable search engine or news aggregator were to actually build their brand on the basis of their being the guys who let the customer make his own decisions, I would stick with them for the long haul.
For now, all I can say is that I’m done with Google, and that I’ll move on from each next option either until someone rediscovers the concept of boundaries or until I become the weird guy who spends all of his time in the library, has a subscription to the last remaining newspaper, and uses an old laptop as a writing table.
If you’ve got nine minutes, watch this TED Talk on the same topic: