Walking in a circle
So, I read an interesting bit recently, by Chris Messina, about Google+. What I found interesting though wasn’t his thoughts on G+ in and of itself. G+ is, at best, slightly less interesting than watching the slow progression of the blood blister I acquired under my big toenail after dropping something heavy on it. (I forget what it actually was. It didn’t hurt much, and so all I remember is that it was heavy enough to cause a blood blister.)
But as anyone who knows me (and I mean actually knows me, not think they know me because they follow me on twitter) knows, I’ve long been of the opinion that a lot of the…twee-ness of modern software is due to the fact that the people developing it essentially never talk to anyone but themselves.
Oh, they may have different faces, they may have different names, sexes, gender expressions, sexual orientations, (although rarely, to be honest), but mentally and in terms of how they see the world, they’re all the same. The pretty much all live in the same 2–3 places, 80% or more of that being “the valley”. If you’ve ever wondered why new software has this unrelenting “same-ness” about it, the circle-jerk nature of startups and indie devs has a lot to do with it.
Also, this isn’t about Chris in and of himself. I have never met nor interacted with Chris in any way other than reading that article. But he is a very good example of what I’m going to be talking about, and the way he wrote his article creates fertile ground for this.
First, and he’s not alone in this at all, he falls into the trap of defining what would be success for G+ by its competition. It must somehow beat them or outdo them to be a success:
“The most salient thing he said was, “[The Google+ audience sees] Google+ as a social network for their interests.”, which at least suggests how the team must be thinking about the network internally. But if they’re more worried about Facebook, Snapchat, or Pinterest — I can’t tell. And if they have a plan and a vision for creating something new and wonderful in the world, I certainly can’t deduce it from their Oct 9 feature release: Polls (a feature I contributed to over a year and a half ago when I was a UX designer on the team).”
The “he” in “he said” is David Besbris, Vic Gundotra’s successor. Chris goes on:
Furthermore, if you simply look at the velocity of iOS releases across the most popular social apps over 2014, you’ll see that Google+ and Hangouts lag significantly behind (WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook this year, which likely explains their lack of updates)
So let’s ask ourselves something — what makes a thing a success? Is it “destroying” the competition? Hardly. By that notion, there hasn’t been a “success” in software since Microsoft circa 1999 or so. It is a ridiculous thought, suitable only for science fiction movies: “there can be only one”. Is it speed of software updates? Chris thinks so, but never really proves it beyond “other people iterate faster than G+”. I’m not sure that’s “proof” or really even evidence. So what does G+ have to do to be a success? Well, in the end, 2 things. In order of importance, 1) Do whatever it is Google needs it to do to avoid being shut down, and 2) Service its customers well.
Now, I am not a G+ customer in the sense of using it. I have, technically, a G+ account, but that’s only because I have a Gmail account. Honestly, the last time I used G+ was in a surge of rampant immaturity, I created a G+ circle called “people I’ve stuck it in”. Mostly because someone else had done it, and the idea made me giggle. That was maybe three years ago?
But does that make G+ unsuccessful? No. It just means it doesn’t work for me. That’s okay, because the services I use don’t work for other people. However, based on what I see, thanks to Google “sticking it in” every time I use a Google service, the people I know who do use it seem to like it. So, by that definition, it’s a success. Since it was launched in 2011, June 28th to be exact, it has lasted longer than most new Google services. Clearly, Google is also happy with G+ for whatever value of happy they require. They might not be as happy with it as they’d like to be, it might not be as successful as they want it to be, but there is a gaping chasm between “hasn’t taken over the world” and “burning failure.”
So G+ is clearly a success for some valid definition of success. Has it taken over the world? No, but again, that’s a different thing. Porsche, by any means, is a success. Porsche’s market share is a rounding error compared to the truly large automakers. Success and market dominance are regularly two different things. But not many people understand that, and from what I can tell, Chris is one of them.
As well, like a lot of people, Chris confuses himself with everyone. Here:
If you take the long view, you’ll understand why this moment in time is important: the companies and apps that solidify their position in our lives today will likely live on far into the future. Google is one of those companies that has already done this. I believe Facebook will too. So the fundamental problem that I have with Google+ is that I just don’t understand it. And what I don’t understand makes me nervous — and should make you nervous too.
The fact that Chris doesn’t understand G+ shouldn’t make anyone who is not Chris nervous, and frankly, it shouldn’t make him nervous either. I don’t really understand how string theory works, but it seems to do the job it has to do, so the fact I don’t understand it doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t understand the deep details on how most vaccines work, (although I have friends who do, and were I to ask, they’d tell me), but again, my lack of understanding of that mechanism doesn’t have any deeper meaning other than I am neither a biologist or a vaccine researcher. I’m fine with the idea that there are things that work well that I don’t understand. A lot of problems might be lessened were more people to handle that paradox better.
It’s also amusing to see someone just slightly less than 15 years my junior start talking about “golden ages”:
I’ll be the first (well, maybe the second) to admit that we’re no longer living in the golden era of social networking. We’ve migrated away from the mouse and keyboard era of computing and replaced them with glossy, touchable surfaces that we carry around in our pockets and alert us to all of our friends’ most recent doings. We have access to our contacts, to information, and to superpowers that we’ve never had before. And not only are we starting to take this all for granted — there’s a younger generation growing up without any conception of a time Before Siri, and are living Post Browser.
At this point, I must confess to a lack of understanding myself: how any of that means what he implies it means. If you think about it a bit less “Grampa Simpson”-y, it seems obvious that we’re either just entering or in the middle of the “Golden Era of Social Networking”. Now, I must admit to some bias here. The phrase “Golden Era of” anything makes me grind my teeth, because it’s almost never talking about a true “Golden Era”. It’s like the prats who go on about the 50s being so damned awesome, and get so terribly annoyed when I point out that it was, but only if you were a heterosexual honkie male. If you weren’t, you kinda took it in the shorts.
Golden Eras are fantasies, designed to make us feel like our problems with things now aren’t really our fault. Chris would seem to be a bit old for such things, but he’s just starting into his 30s. He’s still young, he’ll learn.
But then he goes into the kind of behavior I’ve grown used to from Googlers, current and former: A completely weird redefinition of privacy that is really only designed to convenience the stuff he wants to build:
This word, privacy ? — it’s a problem.
It’s one of those words that puts a stop to useful conversations and prevents us from actually engaging with what’s going on in our digital lives. It obscures and glosses over.
Maintaining your privacy doesn’t strictly mean keeping people from having data or information about you. Certainly not preventing yourself from having access to data about yourself. Privacy is about the ability to be left alone, or about not being watched, if you don’t want to be. Which is fine. Turn on Do Not Disturb. There — you’ve got a bit of your privacy back. But that has nothing to do with the huge amounts of data you’re still producing and is being tracked.
(He really missed an awesome chance to use “sheeple” here.)
Honestly, at this point, I almost stopped reading. Because once again, I was being told what privacy “really” is by someone who seems to make about 100% of their living from selling me to whomever throws them a quarter and an e-cig. Someone who works in a field where privacy is something reluctantly granted to your products if they get too squabbly about it maybe, just maybe is going to be a bit biased about it. This is not necessarily bad. Chris’s history, from what my light bit of googling tells me, has really been about using as much data as he can get from you and I, (and himself) to create products that pay his rent/bills.
I’d be quite shocked if he didn’t have such an (Eric) Schmidt-esque view of privacy.
So, given that expectations of privacy are changing (or being changed), I challenge you: what if you want to be watched? What if you were offered an outsize amount of value in exchange for allowing someone else to watch you? What would you do? Who would you want to watch over you? Who would you want to look after you and your best interests? Who would you trust? Do you feel like you have reasonable choices in today’s marketplace?
This, my friends, is the dilemma presented and the opportunity omitted by an overused term like “privacy”.
Exactly what…fucking…value am I getting for that? Because here’s the thing: I have a really concrete definition of value when it comes to someone else using me to make money, namely, money. Don’t tell me about “an outsize amount of value” unless that value comes in a form that lets me buy an island and a yacht. Quick Backstory- I worked on B-1B’s when they were still new. I knew what a billion dollars would get you back in 1987, when that amount still had some real value. I am not easily bullshitted about “value”. I’m actually a bit like Harlan Ellison on that. Cross my palm with silver, or stop filling my ear-holes with your annoying mouth-sounds.
But again, Chris comes from the point of view that it is somehow possible for a company that makes billions or even millions from personal data to be trustworthy guardians of that data. I do not. Not even for a second, but that may be an age difference.
Here’s an example of why. In December of 1984, when Chris was just over a month from his 4th birthday, and I was halfway through my first year of college, a little thing called “The Bhopal Disaster” happened. Just after Chris turned 8, and I was in my third year of military service, we have the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Where Chris has hazy memories, or maybe righteous indignation at Microsoft for their campaign against open source software, I have clear, very clear memories of multinational companies, like Google, having such disregard for human life that people died, oceans were poisoned, and their biggest concern was “how will this affect our stock price?”
I do not trust companies. I know what they are capable of. So the idea that there’s some entity out there who will “do the right thing” with my data while using it to make supertankers full of cash from selling that data, and at best, giving me “an outsize amount of value” that at best translates to twee mobile apps that tell me what someone ate for lunch, and a coupon for a great deal at a restaurant I’ll never eat at is, at best, amusing.
But I pretty much guarantee that any, if not all of those concepts, are things that just never occur to Chris, or his compatriots. If they do, they’re dismissed as cynicism and luddite thinking that just hold us back for a few seconds before they get back to dreaming up the future. No really, I’m not stretching. Here:
Taking the data-positive perspective, it seems completely reasonable to me that companies would vie to become my lifelong “data bank”. Ultimately I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier, and cheaper experiences. But I also want to be treated like an adult when talking about my data. Watery terms like “cloud” or “dropbox” or “backup” sound utilitarian but mask the true aspirations of these service providers. They should just come out and say it: they want all this information to establish a competitive advantage in delivering more personalized services to me and people like me. Backing up my files is absolutely not the long game (but it’s a convenient lock-in strategy in the meantime).
At this point, I don’t even know if he’s speaking english. And it’s not just Chris. This is straight out of Eric Schmidt’s playbook. Or Target’s. Or any other person working at a startup or other company that makes no money other than what VCs give them, and base their entire product on how much of you they can sell. I don’t mind giving people information, but I get to be in charge of that. Not just “turn on Do Not Disturb”. But by default, they get nothing until I allow it. It’s called “opt-in” and while people like Chris and Erich Schmidt may hate it, from the POV of their products, i.e. people, it’s pretty damned awesome.
Chris is part of an entire population that seems to have forgotten the “humanity” part of humanity. To them, we’re just meatbags creating the thing they really care about: data.
Here’s the thing: you and me, we’re being tracked whether we like it or not. Use a web browser, use apps — and there’s a company or companies out there amassing huge amounts of data about every click, tap, photo, notification, or icon in your digital life. Sometimes they anonymize it so that your preferences or behavioral data can’t be easily tracked back to you, but then you have no way of auditing that information, accessing it, or perhaps granting access to some other trusted party of your choosing. This may reassure you that your data won’t be that valuable if its leaked when there’s another breach, but this also means that you’re leaving a ton of value on the table. And frankly, most of these companies (especially the ad-driven ones) don’t really care about your data specifically. They can target you just as effectively through other means. And frankly, most would rather anonymize it to avoid embarrassing moments than do the heavy lifting to make your data accessible to you in more useful formats.
Yes, a lot of that is true. You know what used to happen, “whether we like it or not”? People getting beaten for being Jewish in the after dark. Now, these are two VERY different things, please, but the point is, just because something is happening or has happened for “a long time” doesn’t make it okay. Which is why I’m happy when various groups get so pissy with Apple because Apple won’t just hand over the trove of data they have on their customers. Apple, and from what I can tell Microsoft and a few others get it. But then, they don’t make their money by selling people. They sell things. Apple and Microsoft are sleazy in other ways, but they seem to grok privacy.
Taken at the individual level, you’re just a rounding error at the millionth decimal. And yet this data could be hugely valuable to you if you collect and let it accrue for long enough. This is why I’ve called this kind of information exhaust “data capital”. If you think of this data as your money being burned, maybe you’ll rethink what “privacy” is all about, and what stake you should claim in the data being captured about you.
His problem here isn’t with a commercial version of the NSA violating your privacy in ways the NSA only dreams about. (The NSA has to work to get your data, Google just holds out its hand and people give it to them. You know the NSA wishes they could pull that off.) No, it’s that he’s not getting paid enough for it. Sigh. Yet, I’ll bet he’s horrified by the things that Edward Snowden revealed. (Ironically, this was all predicted by John Poindexter after the TIA program was killed by Congress, who said in an interview, and I apologize for not linking to it, but I remember, paraphrased somewhat, the closing remark he made on the death of TIA — “This is not going to stop. But by killing this, Congress has simply driven it into one of the uncounted black budgets this country has. All they’ve done is removed any form of oversight.”)
But that was way back in 2003, so I’m sure it has no bearing now.
Chris goes on for some length in a revistation of Highlanderism that’s not worth revisiting here. But do read it, I think it gives more than a little insight into how he, and most of his compatriots in his world think. There is one bit of unintentional humor, delivered so seriously that he’s almost channeling Leslie Neilsen:
Google Me was necessary to improve Google’s profile and social graph to make search more personalized and humane. It was like Google was saying, “We’re going to be your trusted partner in cyberspace, and we’ll help you surface the right information to the people you choose, at the right time.” The value proposition was search oriented, rather than social.
Pardon me while I laugh at this in the same way I laughed at some of Mr. Neilsen’s better bon mots. Google…trusted…with…my…data…giggle.
But here, and I apologize for going out of order here, because this passage appears much earlier in the post, here is the shining example of why Chris, and the rest of the data miners in the Valley, Seattle, and one or two other places are just so completely out of touch with anyone who isn’t them:
Simple: for the same reason that motivated me to join Google in 2010 — that the future of digital identity should not be determined by one company (namely, Facebook). I still believe that competition in this space is better for consumers, for startups, and for the industry. And Google still remains one of the few companies (besides Apple, perhaps) that stands a chance to take on Facebook in this arena — but Google+, as I see it, has lost its way.
Read that. Read it again. Read it in the context of all the things Chris has said (along with so many others) about “outdated notions of privacy”. Let it sink into you like the heat in a hot tub set at just the perfect temperature. You know, the one that gives you goosebumps and makes you never, ever want to get out. Let it wash over you like a warm summer rain. (The Florida kind, not that ridiculousness they have on the west coast. Real rain.)
He joined Google because he was worried about one company having too much control over people’s digital identity. Google was going to preserve competition.
This is where I miss laptops made of plastic. They gave more when you slammed your forehead into them. Friggin’ MacBook Pros are like hitting yourself in the head with a building, which I have done. (I don’t recommend it.)
I literally cannot imagine the thought process that leads someone to work for Google as some kind of hedge against a monopoly, against market domination by a single company. What the hell, did he notice anything, before, during, or after his time at Google about how that company actually works? The things it does? To its own workers? The difference between Google, 1990's Microsoft and pre-1980s IBM is the number of letters in the name.
But this is the kind of…blindness…to anything outside of themselves that Chris and his compatriots operate on. I mean Chris is a huge, and I mean huge advocate for Open Source, Open Government, Open everything and yet he talks glowingly about a company who won’t even tell you why it cancelled your AdWords account because that’s a secret. Da Fuque?
This is the infuriating thing about so many devs and by extension, the companies they work for. They are so, so very deeply wrapped up in their own headspace, their own ideology that they cannot even begin to see far enough outside themselves to realize that maybe, just maybe, putting Google up as the shining light of trusted data guardian might not be all that great of an idea?
Don’t get me wrong, all these companies do shady shit. Apple and all the other companies who colluded in screwing over their own employees so they could keep salaries down and not worry about headhunters? That’s some inexcusable bullshit there, and they all deserver a good slapping over it. Facebook is as creepy as can be, although to their credit, they’re upfront about how they’ll sell your ass to anyone willing to pay the price. IBM has great service groups, which is awesome, since they haven’t sold human-usable software since SmartSuite. Microsoft will vacuum your pocket for license fees until your ascending colon is coming out your wallet. Oracle will vaccum your pocket until your skull comes out of your pocket, and then treat you like crap for not having more skull. Apple wants to sell you shit. Not cheap shit either. Adobe sued Microsoft via “Antitrust” because Microsoft was about to dare to build PDF generation into Office 2007. These are companies that have been, are, and will be sleazy as hell if they think they can get away with it.
But all those companies are honest about The Deal. You know what The Deal is when you do business with them. You know what your part is, (give us money) and what their part is (we will then give you stuff). Or in Facebook’s case “we will sell you to everyone, right in front of your face.) That’s not “trustworthy” in the good sense I suppose, but at least they aren’t lying to me about what’s happening.
They don’t front. Google fronts. Google is King Front, of a long line of Frontzenhollerns, ruler of Frontovia, beloved by all the Frontlings.
And yet, somehow, an open source, open everything advocate wanted to work for them as a backstop against The Facebook Hegemony.
The mind boggles at how tight the blinders must be for that to work.
But it’s not just Chris. We see this all the time. All the time. And all kinds of people are just as damned blind. Look at all the idiocy that’s surrounded Uber from day one, and how shocked, just shocked people are by it. Which tells me they spent zero time thinking about the people running the company, and all their time being thrilled that Travis was going to save them from the evil dirty cabbies. Ah, that sweet, sweet tech elitism. “OMG, UBER IS SO SLEAZY! HOW DID THAT HAPPEN!” Really dude?
People buy into this “oh, I’ll just give away all my data because look how convenient it will be” and then are amazed at how it’s misused. Again, go read that entry on Bhopal, and tell me again how suprised you really are. Companies making millions, or billions off your data are not your friend. They never will be. You are a product to them. Really.
But then they’ll tell you, “Oh but tech is different, tech is better, tech will make everything right.” Yeah, and Leo Grand is a billionaire living on a yacht in the Mediterranean.
Chris is not a bad person. I think that’s clear. He’s also not a stupid person. I think that is clear as well. But I think, thanks to the idea that you have to be deep as hell but an inch wide that has taken over the tech world, he, and the other folks in his world, encouraged by the fact that they’re all about interchangeable with each other, (and people are SO SHOCKED by the lack of diversity in tech. Again, WHY?), they all only see this wee narrow slice of things that makes their confirmation bias purr, and that’s the entire world to them.
I don’t know a lot of details about Chris’s background, other than what’s on Wikipedia. But I know a lot about mine.
By the time I started working in IT as a career, I was 26. Prior to that, I’d worked in a newstand, fast food, a mexican bar, the US military, as a Domino’s driver, and a part-time D.J. I’d tagged along with my dad as he worked for a variety of newspapers, a cab driver, (at night in Miami. I learned a LOT about the functional economnics of prostitution), a cab dispatcher, and a security guard. I similarly tagged along with my mom during the years of secretarial work she did in a variety of fields. I’d been drunk in bad neighborhoods and mansions on Star Island. I can tell you with some authority what it feels like to have a gun in your face. Or what a car hitting you feels like. Or a building.
In my 20 years of IT, I’ve worked for private industry, higher ed, a science company, doing IVR programming for an open enrollment consultancy, an insurance company, and a marketing company.
I’ve gone to 5–6 colleges and managed to graduate from none of them. (I don’t really count the CCAF, but if you do, okay, I ‘graduated’. I’ve an A.S. in Avionics systems. I’ve not touched a plane’s innards in a maintenance way in over two decades. So yeah.)
I’ve not had the luxury, as it were, of only doing one thing, or a small number of things. So the “inch wide and miles-deep” viewpoint is as alien to me as my background is to the group of folks I’ve used Chris as a model of. I can’t say for sure which is “better” in an objective way, I’m as trapped by my worldview as they are theirs. I don’t think any of them are bad people.
But they, and really, we have to stop assuming that just because all our friends, who all think like we do, and probably look like we do or mostly look like we do, think that our ideas are awesome and our companies are awesome that any of that is true. We have to be able to step outside of our immediate world and think about how people who aren’t us.
I’m not going to recommend my path, I’ve (deliberately) left out a lot of the minefields I had to (sometimes…mostly) successfully navigate along the way. I’ve accumulated a lot of scars. If you haven’t, don’t envy me, let me envy you.
But, I think the value I’ve gained from my wanderings with the lost tribe of Trevor is that I have dealt with a huge range of people who weren’t like me. They weren’t white, they weren’t male, they weren’t techies or nerds. Many of them didn’t speak english really well. A few of them may have actually killed a LOT of people in other places. Some of them have backgrounds they will only talk about in places where other people are not.
For better or worse, it has beaten the idea that my viewpoints are everyone else’s out of me. It has forced me to see that not only am I not smarter than everyone else, I’m actually pretty goddamned stupid most of the time. I mean, I know a lot about electronics, but one time I watched my father-in-law barely glance at a wiring diagram that I’d spent an hour deciphering, (and I actually know how to read those things) and then promptly rewire my wife’s car’s window control system with less effort than I eat pie. Talk about an ego evisceration. (Egovisceration?)
I may know more about networking than he does, but not only can he rewire everything faster and better than I can, he’s actually built a house. Multiple houses. The dude can do EVERYTHING. He’s even not bad with computers and home wifi. I an constantly jealous of his skills, for they are mad, l33t, and practical as hell. You hang out with people like that, and you realize just how non-special your tech skills are. I can fix a computer. He can fix plumbing. You know the stuff that makes poop leave and clean water arrive. I’m convenient, he is necessary. It helps widen your view of things. A lot.
Chris is not special here. He just happened to write an essay that crystallized a lot of the narrow viewpoints, and lack of…I dunno, skepticism? diversity? both?… that are causing so many of the problems we see in tech.
Maybe the people creating software should spend more time talking to people who don’t do that or have any clue about doing that. Who fix toilets or wire fire engines or fix airplanes or pave roads or do all the other jobs that they might never, ever think about outside of a Mike Rowe TED talk, but without whom, we’d be screaming in the streets without clean water or a home that wasn’t on fire.
I don’t know what the precise problem is, but when you have people who believe that Google is how you fight a monopoly, something, somewhere is really fuckin’ wrong.