Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

As 704 continues to try to push us away from phat clients

Critiquing the Cyber Minimalist:

I've since been freed to use Gmail, and I'll never go back.

Only using Gmail is a pretty clear mistake for anyone whose work depends on their email.  There are times (for me, on the train or waiting in the car or when our DSL modem goes out, again) where having local copies is A Good Thing, both to search through and to draft replies in what would otherwise be dead time. Perhaps this author is better at compartmentalizing than me, but I would be pretty geographically limited if I could only use my laptop when I had a net connection, and the dependence you cede by counting on having not only a connection but working, accessible online applications has deeper political ramifications than the Minimalist seems to let on. There's a reason Microsoft's attempt to move Office to an online subscription model didn't take hold (yet).

Yes, I’m a Google freak, and others have problems trusting a company like Google, but I don’t.
I don’t actually do backups for the most part. All the companies I use to store my information online backup the information themselves.

I can think of two good reasons not to trust online storage services. 

The first is the most obvious: What happens when the system loses, oh, I don't know, just a few (maybe 3000?) users' emails?  Lots of egg, and they're really sorry, but you're the one that's stuck.  Or, more likely, what happens if Google loses, oh, I don't know, just a few of your emails?  You may not have noticed it already having happened, but once you try to get that [insert need along the lines of your last picture taken with your grandmother] back and it's gone ("Did I delete that on accident?"), you'll only have yourself to blame.

Perhaps it's the database admin in me, but I always say that if you don't have a digital file in at least three places, you don't have it at all.

The second is the way that services like Gmail and iTunes Genius use aggregated data about you and others to make those companies cash.  Your privacy is likely ensured, but that's because on some level neither company cares about you as an individual.  You're part of a revenue stream.  And your data, aggregated with others, allows them to predict your interests and use your own work to target you with more effective ads.

Let me emphasize that a bit:  Online services that the Cyber Minimalist mentions use your own work (content and time) to sell you more things you don't need.  They use your own work against you and others, without obvious compensation.  It's hard to imagine ourselves as potential rubes because of the sort of negative connotations it brings; only idiots buy snake oil, right?  I don't know about youse guys, but I'm guilty of buying NFL season tickets for three years, have a Playstation 2, buy a new Mac about every two or three years, and for a long time was a DirecTV subscriber -- and those are simply the most obvious transgressions.  Don't know that I need any of that oil, and probably wouldn't've gotten them without effective pitches of some sort.  I'd rather not contribute to consumerist capitalism's effective pitchmaking.  Yet I still use Gmail and iTunes Genius.  Fn Rube.

[Privacy] is a real issue for some people, and I won’t deny it. However, I don’t really think Google employees (or whatever company I’m using) have time to read through everyone’s files, and even if they read mine, I don’t have anything secret in my documents. If that’s an issue for you, for whatever reason, online work would be more difficult. You could encrypt files — maybe only those that you really want to protect.

Try encrypting your Gmail email. Think its content is still encrypted when you read it through Firefox? You don't think Firefox is decrypting it, do you? (Edit: Maybe it is.)

And more to the point, the Minimalist misses it here.  They don't want to read your email, dangit.  They want to create automated ways to data mine your content to help them sell to you and people like you.  Gmail is reading your email.  Not an employee but a database.  Why do you think I keep getting Gmail adverts for stories on ESPN and not Ladies' Home Journal?  (or is it the other way round; I can't remember...)  We're being mined, put to work without representation (or even middle management!) for the companies whose systems we're consuming.  BOOM!! HEADSHOT!!

Google CEO using your data against you
Having your own private data used against you and others for corporate profit is fearsome, no?

I'll end with this...

I should have had this in the original article, but here’s the key issue: if working online would be more complicated for you, don’t do it. For me, it has mean a simplification and minimalization of my computing life, and I really enjoy that minimalism. Others have more complicated needs, or have issues with privacy, backups, security or the quality of their connections. Those people shouldn’t use an online solution, as I do, because it would be more complicated for them. And that’s the final test — what is simpler and makes more sense for your situation?

Yeah, I get it.  There's some proverbial American Intellectual Independence style intertextuality here, isn't there?

Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.  Our life is frittered away by detail.  An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

I really don't see Henry David lighting out for the woods saying we should cyborg ourselves inextricably to the corporate and consumerist grid as an exercise in simplicity.  I believe, in the end, the Minimalist may be confusing simplicity with willful, un-self-critical shortsightedness.

Update edit: So I emailed a Thoreau scholar to see if I'd misrepresented Thoreauvian simplicity. Here's my Gmail ad post-email.

It's enough to move a lesser man to tears. (And when I say lesser, I mean, you know, like under 200 lbs.)


Susan said...

Ha ha ha! The irony in the term "Cyber minimalist" was not only evident to me, I see. Or at least in this definition of the term.

Maybe I don't feel quite as backwards now for carrying my flash drive with me everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Another Google critique: