all posts tagged 'google'

Happy 20th Anniversary, Gmail. I’m Sorry I’m Leaving You.

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I am grateful — genuinely — for what Google and Apple and others did to make digital life easy over the past two decades. But too much ease carries a cost. I was lulled into the belief that I didn’t have to make decisions. Now my digital life is a series of monuments to the cost of combining maximal storage with minimal intention.

I have thousands of photos of my children but few that I’ve set aside to revisit. I have records of virtually every text I’ve sent since I was in college but no idea how to find the ones that meant something. I spent years blasting my thoughts to millions of people on X and Facebook even as I fell behind on correspondence with dear friends. I have stored everything and saved nothing.

This is an example of what AI, in its most optimistic state, could help us with.

We already see companies doing this. In the Apple ecosystem, the Photos widget is perhaps the best piece of software they’ve produced in years.

Every single day, I am presented with a slideshow of a friend who is celebrating their birthday, a photo of my kids from this day in history, or a memory that fits with an upcoming event.

All of that is powered by rudimentary1 AI.

Imagine what could be done when you unleash a tuned large language model on our text histories. On our photos. On our app usage.

AI is only as good as the data it is provided. We’ve been trusting our devices with our most intimidate and vulnerable parts of ourselves for two decades.

This is supposed to be the payoff for the last twenty years of surveillance capitalism, I think?

All those secrets we share, all of those activities we’ve done online for the last twenty years, this will be used to somehow make our lives better?

The optimistic take is that we’ll receive better auto suggestions for text responses to messages that sound more like us. We’ll receive tailored traffic suggestions based on the way we drive. We’ll receive a “long lost” photo of our kid from a random trip to the museum.

The pessimistic take is that we’ll give companies the exact words which will cause us to take action. Our own words will be warped to get us to buy something we’ve convinced ourselves we need.

My hunch is that both takes will be true. We need to be smart enough to know how to use these tools to help ourselves and when to put them down.

I haven’t used Gmail as my primary email for years now2, but this article is giving me more motivation to finally pull the plug and shrink my digital footprint.

This is not something the corporations did to me. This is something I did to myself. But I am looking now for software that insists I make choices rather than whispers that none are needed. I don’t want my digital life to be one shame closet after another. A new metaphor has taken hold for me: I want it to be a garden I tend, snipping back the weeds and nourishing the plants.

My wife and I spent the last week cleaning out our garage. It reached the point where the clutter accumulated so much that you could only park one car in it, strategically aligned so you could squeeze through a narrow pathway and open a door.

As of this morning, we donated ten boxes of items and are able to comfortably move around the space. While there is more to be done, the garage now feels more livable, useful, and enjoyable to be inside.

I was able to clear off my work bench and mount a pendant above it. The pendant is autographed by the entire starting defensive line of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings.

Every time I walk through my garage, I see it hanging there and it makes me so happy.

Our digital lives should be the same way.

My shame closet is a 4 terabyte hard drive containing every school assignment since sixth grade, every personal webpage I’ve ever built, multiple sporadic backups of various websites I am no longer in charge of, and scans of documents that ostensibly may mean something to me some day.

Scrolling through my drive, I’m presented with a completely chaotic list that is too overwhelming to sort through.

Just like how I cleaned out my garage, I aught to do the same to this junk drawer.

I’ll revert to Ezra’s garden metaphor here: keep a small, curated garden that contains the truly important and meaningful digital items to you. Prune the rest.

(Shout out to my friend Dana for sharing this with me. I think she figured out my brand.)

  1. By today’s standards. 

  2. I use Fastmail. You should give it a try (that link is an affiliate link)! 

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How Google made the world go viral

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The question, of course, is when did it all go wrong? How did a site that captured the imagination of the internet and fundamentally changed the way we communicate turn into a burned-out Walmart at the edge of town? 

Well, if you ask Anil Dash, it was all the way back in 2003 — when the company turned on its AdSense program.

“Prior to 2003–2004, you could have an open comment box on the internet. And nobody would pretty much type in it unless they wanted to leave a comment. No authentication. Nothing. And the reason why was because who the fuck cares what you comment on there. And then instantly, overnight, what happened?” Dash said. “Every single comment thread on the internet was instantly spammed. And it happened overnight.”

Dash has written extensively over the years on the impact platform optimization has had on the way the internet works. As he sees it, Google’s advertising tools gave links a monetary value, killing anything organic on the platform. From that moment forward, Google cared more about the health of its own network than the health of the wider internet. 

I’ve been on the internet since before Google came to dominate it, and this feels like an extremely accurate assessment.

It doesn’t seem fair to say “this is all Google’s fault.” After all, most of us who work on the internet wouldn’t be able to do so without people commercializing it.

But it comes back to your goals, I guess. I never built a blog to make any sort of money. I lose hundreds of dollars a year by cultivating this little space on the web.

But I don’t regret a single penny. It’s an investment in something that brings me true joy.

I have zero analytics running on this site right now. It’s a bit of a weird flex, sure, but honestly, I don’t care if there is one person reading these words or a million.

The main reason I don’t track people is because I don’t want to start making this something which requires me to keep dancing to get people’s attention.

I dunno… I just miss open comment boxes. And while I don’t like what I see on sites like Facebook and Google these days, I can at least hang my hat on the fact that there’s a thriving indie web community that keeps writing on their sites and connecting with each other through RSS feeds.

And also, shout out to Ryan Broderick, the author of this article. I’m a huge fan of Garbage Day and his work dissecting the weirdness of the internet. If you like this piece, you’ll love his newsletter.

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Mourning Google

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And now, in Anno Domini 2024, Google has lost its edge in search. There are plenty of things it can’t find. There are compelling alternatives. To me this feels like a big inflection point, because around the stumbling feet of the Big Tech dinosaurs, the Web’s mammals, agile and flexible, still scurry. They exhibit creative energy and strongly-flavored voices, and those voices still sometimes find and reinforce each other without being sock puppets of shareholder-value-focused private empires.

I touched on my general feeling of Google’s decline when I talked about the Gemini demo a few weeks back, but this article does a better job of encapsulating the general feelings I get when using Google properties in 2024.

My default search engine is Ecosia because I feel like at least my ad revenue goes towards something noble, but since the engine is backed by Bing, their search results are also relatively hit or miss.

I used to fall back on Google when I felt like I needed a more correct answer. Nowadays, that fallback routinely falls flat.

I’ve mostly untangled my life from the Google universe these days. I use Fastmail for virtually everything, including my calendar and notes.

I use Safari for most of my browsing needs, only moving to Brave when I need Chromium. I’m considering Firefox again, though.

I use Apple Maps 60% of the time and Waze the other 40%. I enjoy Waze because of its social features like reporting police or bad traffic, but that’s also a Google property, and really, I should just drive slower, safer, and less often.

YouTube is hard to quit, I’ll be honest. My brother-in-law pays for Premium and it has spoiled me. But it seems like a lot of my favorite YouTubers are leaving the platform, so who knows what’ll happen.

I enjoyed this pull quote because it shows to me that we shouldn’t just lament the loss of what we had. If anything, all this flurry of IndieWeb activity should be an indicator that something less terrible will inevitably emerge.

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Google’s best Gemini demo was faked

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Now, if the video had said at the start, “This is a stylized representation of interactions our researchers tested,” no one would have batted an eye — we kind of expect videos like this to be half factual, half aspirational.

But the video is called “Hands-on with Gemini” and when they say it shows “our favorite interactions,” it implies that the interactions we see are those interactions. They were not. Sometimes they were more involved; sometimes they were totally different; sometimes they don’t really appear to have happened at all. We’re not even told what model it is — the Gemini Pro one people can use now, or (more likely) the Ultra version slated for release next year?

Should we have assumed that Google was only giving us a flavor video when they described it the way they did? Perhaps then we should assume all capabilities in Google AI demos are being exaggerated for effect. I write in the headline that this video was “faked.” At first I wasn’t sure if this harsh language was justified (certainly Google doesn’t; a spokesperson asked me to change it). But despite including some real parts, the video simply does not reflect reality. It’s fake.

This video melted my face off yesterday because I took it at face value. Despite the disclaimer at the beginning of the video, I assumed the edits were merely to speed things up and gave it the benefit of the doubt.

If they would’ve presented an unedited interaction showing exactly where they’re at… sure, it might not have been as impressive, but it would’ve been authentic. It would still be valuable to show that they’re still in the game despite how far ahead OpenAI currently is.

This, though? It’s 2023. What even was the point of this? This was clearly not presented as an aspirational video; it was titled “hands on with Gemini”.

It’s hard not to take this video as a desparate attempt to make Google look way, way better than they may actually be.

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Contra Chrome

🔗 a linked post to » — originally shared here on

Anyone who's spoken with me over the past eighteen months knows that I've been contemplating what to do with my life.

I think one area that I want to explore is helping normal people understand how technology works.

Digital privacy is one of those areas that people vaguely agree with but also dismiss as something that is not that a big deal.

Whenever I hear that argument from here on out, I'm gonna use this comic book as a way to change their minds. It's an easy to understand explanation for how Chrome tracks everything about you.

There's an old adage in tech that goes "if you are not paying for something, you are the product." I think it's only fair that people understand what it is they're actually selling.

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Facebook Is Using You

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With social media being a big part of my job (and a big part of maintaining clients as a freelancer), I know I can't totally get rid of Facebook and Twitter, and I certainly can't shed myself off of YouTube. But since the latest "Google Privacy Scandal of the Week," I've really been trying to ween myself off of as many free services as I can. It's really pretty stupid: why are we willing to give so much information to these companies who are more than willing to sell it to the highest bidder?

This is a great article in the New York Times about the various organizations who mine and utilize the information we give to companies like Facebook every day. This part, in particular, really worried me:

Stereotyping is alive and well in data aggregation. Your application for credit could be declined not on the basis of your own finances or credit history, but on the basis of aggregate data — what other people whose likes and dislikes are similar to yours have done. If guitar players or divorcing couples are more likely to renege on their credit-card bills, then the fact that you’ve looked at guitar ads or sent an e-mail to a divorce lawyer might cause a data aggregator to classify you as less credit-worthy.

Even more scary:

The term Weblining describes the practice of denying people opportunities based on their digital selves. You might be refused health insurance based on a Google search you did about a medical condition. You might be shown a credit card with a lower credit limit, not because of your credit history, but because of your race, sex or ZIP code or the types of Web sites you visit.

Just searching for something like "diabetes symptoms" could disqualify you for health insurance, even if you were just doing research for an article on the disease.

I bet the first person who makes a social network that values its users' privacy and operates on a model that can make money without selling out their users will become very, very wealthy.

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I have my e-mail server configured here to combine e-mails sent from any address I choose to be lumped into one main inbox.

This method may not have many advantages over one main e-mail (in fact, it's probably just overkill), but my primary reason for doing this is to allow specific companies access to only one e-mail address.

For example, my e-mail address on file with Best Buy is bestbuy@timbornholdt . com.

My e-mail address on file with the Minnesota Historical Society is mnhs@timbornholdt . com

By doing this, I can simply deny all e-mails sent to a specific address if I'm getting spammed or I can mark all e-mails sent to that address as read and auto-file them. I'm also making sure that any e-mail sent to my main personal e-mail on Gmail is actually important.

Plus, I think it's funny to sign up in stores and give my e-mail address as "cvs @timbornholdt . com."

But while I do have a personal address, I almost always list my Gmail account for all my "important" accounts (like bank notifications, cell phone bill statements, etc).

It stuck me today that while I was signing up online with my insurance company, I was very hesitant to provide them with "".

Why am I so hesitant to use my @ e-mail address, an account for which I pay, as my primary e-mail address over Gmail, for which I pay nothing?

The old saying goes, "If you're not paying for something, then you're the product being sold." (pretty sure I first heard it from Marco Arment on his excellent Build and Analyze podcast)

I'm relying on Google to keep track of all my personal data, including credit card statements, work spreadsheets and much more. What would happen if, one day, they decided that they're going to start looking through that information? What if they decide to just shut down with no notice and delete all of my work?

Of course, the odds of that are very slim.

But it's scary enough to me at this point to start using my own domain as my primary e-mail address.

These days, I trust my host (and myself) a lot more than I trust Google.

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