Tuesday, March 5, 2013

In support of Gmail (and against Microsoft)

I hate Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign so much that I will even post about it.

So, they claim that Google reads your mail (mainly to provide you with contextual ads, they admit), and it is a breach of your privacy, and so (surprise!) you should switch to Outlook. All heavily stylized, on a red background, with almost-blinking exclamation marks, and so on.

So, let me elaborate why Microsoft is wrong, and Gmail is actually good:

  1. Spam filters. The best way to stop the spam (and the only effective way available at the moment) is to use the collective intelligence, the web2.0 approach, so to say. That is, to provide individual users with a "report spam" button, and to filter messages that have overcome a certain threshold of reports. But you know what? The implementation of this algorithm actually requires the software to scan through your letters. And you do want it, because you don't want spam.
  2. Non-context-driven advertisement is bad; which means that context-driven ads are at least not as bad, or maybe even good. Now, this is a strong belief of mine; one with which many people would not probably agree immediately, but consider the following. Ads (general ads, like those on TV) create information noise around you. In a sense they aren't much different from spam: they just load you with unnecessary information you didn't request; they take your time, your thoughts, your life. They try to trick you into doing things you don't need, or want. Also from purely financial point of view, if a product is heavily advertised , it means that marketing expenses constitute a substantial part of its price. So by buying products that are advertised you are essentially paying somebody to have your TV-shows interrupted. You are paying somebody to have your internet-magazines and web-sites cluttered with useless ads you don't read anyway (or at least try not to read). You provide positive reinforcement to them! The only rational response to advertisement actually is not to buy the brands that are advertised, as you want to pay for the product, not for the noise about it directed at you. There's only one thing that is good about ads: that they can potentially expose you to something you do actually need, but are simply not aware of. Now, if you think of it, contextual ads is the only realistic way to minimize the bad components, while increasing the good. That's the only way to make ads informative and useful, and maybe even interesting, while reducing the total amount of noise in the system. For you personally, mind it.
That's two good points in favor of Google. Now two bad points against Microsoft:
  1. Microsoft's "Scroogle" campaign is inspired (visually and in spirit) by hysterical conspiracy movements, such as, say, anti-vaccination movement, or tea-party style propaganda. And as such, it actually promotes this style of thinking. Making the world a slightly worse place to live.
  2. It pushes the privacy-related discourse into wrong direction. Now, this is again somewhat controversial, but I think it is fair to say that privacy as we knew it for decades, is dead. We leave so many traces in the world (mainly digital, but not only), we are so interconnected, and the computational power and information access available to each of us are so great that given enough time and will anybody can learn anything they need about any other person. I think the "Vanish" project is one of the best illustration of it, but not the only one of course. Anyway, the sooner we start re-thinking the concept of privacy; the sooner we realize that we just can not hope to hide from the world around us anymore, the better the outcome will be. Privacy is at decline, and just hiding information about us can not solve our problems anymore. It may give us a false sense of protection, but it would only increase the risks, as it would make the stakes higher. We need to think of other mechanisms to protect our lives from bad will and bad luck. But the first step towards the solution is to accept the problem. Not to pretend you can deny it by switching from one IT leviathan to another.

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