Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What I Learned Using "Alternative" Tech

Regular readers know that I recently decided to use alternatives-to-Google. I am not boycotting Google, and I am not so naive to think that other tech products don't have the same ultra-surviellance-you-are-the-product problems that Google has. I just feel like, if tech companies are going to be the man-behind-the-curtain while we live out our little Oz-lives, wouldn't it better to have a few of them rather than just one? So -- you know, the one couldn't rule the world?

Two practical steps I've taken are 1) switching my search engine to Duck-Duck-Go and 2) deleting Google maps on my phone. Oh yeah -- I also disabled location on my weather app, when I read that weather apps sell data location and I came home one day after shopping for physical shoes and was inundated with shoe-related web ads. I know: whatever. But also: creepy.

So: what have I learned so far?

1. People have a lot of opinions about other people's technology choices. 

This starts with a long story, so bear with me. As regular readers also know, while I often take the Greyhound bus between Toronto and Waterloo, I decided to experiment recently with the GO bus. Specifically, in this case, I took a 7:20 am bus from Toronto to Bramalea, where I would change to catch a different bus to Kitchener terminal, where I'd get a local bus to Waterloo. This schedule has a "timed transfer," which means that the bus in Bramalea is supposed to wait to leave until after the bus from Toronto has arrived.

When I got on the bus in Toronto the driver got up in front and said, "Is anyone going to Kitchener"? I raised my hand. As he acknowledged me, his face fell. "OK, he said, I'll have them hold the bus for you. There's an accident and long delay on the 401, so we're likely to be quite late."

As we started off, I sat in the pre-dawn darkness digesting this information and fretting about my responsibilities. If we were going to be late, should I ethically tell the drive not to bother, that I'd just catch whatever bus I could? But they only come every hour. How late would we be? This is the kind of small stupid thing that I can really get myself into an anxiety about, so I was thrilled when a guy, Mr. X we'll call him, got on at the next stop and said, "I'm going to Kitchener. They're going to hold the bus, right?" Out of my hands.

The trip ended up being epic and complicated along multiple dimensions. We were quite late. At first, the driver couldn't get ahold of the Bramalea drive to ask him to wait. At the last minute, he did, but the Bramalea bus had already left the stop, so we had to catch up to him along the service road. We were admonished "Do not run to catch the bus!" which I guess is because they're afraid people will fall. Then between Bramalea and Kitchener, an even more massive car crash had actually closed the highway, and our bus, along with a million other vehicles, got off and crept along the side streets.

As we'd made our bus connection, I had briefly engaged Mr. X in conversation about our situation. Turns out he was making this trip for the first time as well. Didn't know where he was going, was heading to some kind of business conference thing near Kitchener. He asked me for directions. I didn't know. He asked me what I taught at the university. I told him. He leaned in for follow up convo. I put my headphones on.

At something like 11:00, when we'd all been trapped on this bathroom-less bus together literally for hours, Mr. X asked me if I had data on my phone, and I told him yes, and he asked me to look up the location of his event, and I said why don't you just borrow my phone and look up whatever you need to. And he took my phone -- an iPhone -- and he stared at it, befuddled.

"Um," I said, "are you looking for the browser or the maps program?" And he said, "Google maps." And I said, "Yeah ... I don't have Google maps. You can use the Apple maps, or a browser." And he looked up, and -- honest to god -- started lecturing me on how Google maps was better than other maps programs, including Apple maps. He had a friend in tech. He knew all about it. There was research. Google was better. Way better. I'm sitting there, looking at this guy, a stranger to whom I have just lent my phone, a profound act of trust and -- he is fucking lecturing me?

I didn't tell him I was engaged in a complicated non-boycott. I didn't tell him I knew that Apple is just as bad as everyone, but that it didn't seem in the same world-domination business as everyone else which is one reason I feel OK using it. I just stared at him, and, eventually, took my phone back.

I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but it's just a relatively dramatic one. Often I'm in conversation, and some question or problem comes up, and I'm like "Oh, I'll look it up," and enter into the search bar and  ... hmm. And I say to my friend or acquaintance, "I can't find it..." and they're like "Wait, you can't find it? Really?" And I start to explain, "Well, you see, Duck-Duck-Go ... and etc. etc., ..." and they look at me like "What planet are you from again?

2. The surveillance bubble is the surveillance bubble

I am constantly taken aback by my search results on alternative search engines. On Google, I search for a philosopher by name, and I see a philosopher. I search for a Toronto bar by name, and I see a Toronto bar. I search for health and science info, and I see help sites and scholarly sites.

It's not like that out in the search wilderness. You type in a philosopher's name, you see a million links of athletes and celebrities and random people with Instagram accounts who have the same name. You type in the name of a Toronto bar, and you see a pub in Idaho. You search for health and science info, and you get some site like "mystichealthhealing.com"

It's bracing. I mean, intellectually, I always knew that Google was shaping my results to tailor them to me based on the vast data about me that they had at their fingertips. But seeing it in action is something else. For one thing, it makes you realize your part of the world is way smaller than you think-- a salutary lesson that probably most of us could stand to have reinforced every day. For another thing, it reminds you that the bad things about Google -- the infinite tracking, the knowing your favorite brand of toothpaste -- is essential to the good thing about Google -- the knowing just what you were looking for.

This means the conflict between convenience and privacy is an essential one. There's no magic world where we get the one without losing the other. It's always going to be a trade off. The surveillance bubble that tells you what you want to learn is the same surveillance bubble that keeps you trapped in the world of your own information.

3.  Google is a really good search engine.

Sometimes when I really need to find something, I go to the Google search page. It works amazingly well. I guess we all knew this, but still.

If they could ratchet back the dreams of world domination, and stop trying to make entire "smart" neighborhoods in cities I care about, Google and I might be able to get back together.

In the meantime, though, not finding the things I'm looking for is not really that big of a deal. Sometimes, I ask people, and we chat. It's nice.

1 comment:

Daniel said...


I laughed out loud at "I put my headphones back on."

Reading your technology-related posts makes me hate my technology more than ever. I hate that I can remember what it was like not to know things or not to have the information at my fingertips (with a Google search) - or, in other words, to have some patience and perspective.

Doomed, I say.

Oh well.

Thanks for the funny posts!

p.s. I just spent 4 hours (huge exaggeration) trying to click all the pictures with "roads" to prove I'm not a robot. I couldn't do it right. I'm totally a robot, I guess.