Freedom from numbers

For years now, I’ve been a loyal user of Google. I can remember the day I made the transition from .Mac to the power of the Google. It was quite an interesting day. I was convinced that Google was the way to go. Everything in sync, all the time. All my information, my photos, my calendars, email, everything. Everything was going to live in the cloud with the Google overlords watching benevolently as I used their services, added to their search statistics, usage patterns, and more. I became obsessed with keeping everything together, everything synchronized across multiple devices, using their servers as a free way to organize my life.

What I learned, however, was that I wasn’t as much interested in the sync or the connectivity, I was more interested in not losing everything. Being a student and a geek for many years meant that I was always trying to push the limits of technology in the classroom. I was using my 12″ Powerbook G4 in classes long before teachers were comfortable with the idea. I was tethered to my Nokia 6600 through bluetooth and surfing the web happily while my teachers lectured. My mind was busy, I took copious notes, and, come exam time, had a far easier time studying than my peers with binders and notebooks full of handwritten scribble (“When did we talk about that? Was it before or after the thing about the guy…?” *Command+F* “Nevermind, found it.”)

When my computer suffered a critical hard drive failure, however, it became clear that I needed a way to back everything up in the case of a similar failure. I lost almost everything. I had managed to backup a significant portion of my (for those days) gargantuan music library (60 GB!), so it wasn’t a total loss, but my notes, papers, research…all gone. I was upset, which is why I started using Google Docs. I never wanted to be left in the position of losing everything and being without some record of my past. Obviously, using Google Docs led me to Gmail, and Google Calendar, and Google, well, everything.

There’s a special insanity that comes from using Google products, as I’m sure is true of using basically any product almost exclusively, but Google’s is particularly sinister and particularly ubiquitous. In a matter of a few months, I had made the transition to Google almost completely, and I started learning to do things “The Google Way.”

This refers to the accumulation of knowledge, facts, data. You essentially start to look at your life as a series of interconnected services, all of which are always accessible and always updated and live in this magical land known as “The Web.” It’s comforting. You don’t have to worry about software updates, managing resources, or crashes. You just open your web browser, and you have Google (I mean that almost literally, since almost every single browser has a little search box that takes you through the goog’s massive brain). And it’s free! Wow!

Then you look closer, and you realize something. Google has eaten your life.

You’ve given them everything: your contacts, events, email, documents. Literally everything you need to make your life work. They have it all. In return, they gave you the tools to create more, give them more. Sure, there are privacy concerns there. How many articles have you read about Google’s scary in-email advertising? It’s not really invading anything, and they’re not really “reading” your email, but people are creeped out by it. It’s uncomfortable. It’s like cheating on your taxes, and then opening a fortune cookie that says, “Cheating is bad!” It’s not meant for you, it’s a random cookie from a bag of a thousand, but it feels like it’s for you, and you get all weirded out and feel guilty (I’m not saying it’s ok to cheat on your taxes, just trying to illustrate an example).

Even more sinister, however, is how Google has made you a slave to numbers.

Your inbox, your unread count on Google reader, your new voicemails on Google Voice, your unread Waves. These and more pull you in a thousand directions, trying to coax you back in from productivity, focus, or wherever else you may have been doing. Suddenly, instead of reading that book you wanted to read, you’re wrapped up in a conversation with a friend from halfway across the world while reading the latest Guardian headlines. Then you’re behind, but those numbers keep getting larger, and you can’t get to that paper until your unread RSS count hits zero.

You’ve gone crazy.

So, I decided to pull the plug on all that. No more google. I got a subscription to MobileMe, synced all my contacts, and was on my way. I don’t have an “unread” count anymore, just a folder full of sites that I like to check. If I have time, I read them. If my day is too busy, I don’t. The world will survive, it moves on. I don’t need to check my inbox constantly. I can, if I want, but I like knowing that my email is there for me to take care of when I actually have time to take care of it.

It’s not freedom from the privacy that was my victory, it was regaining appreciation for doing things my own way. Having my computer, my iPad, and my iPhone tied together with a service that is expressly made to keep them in sync is amazing (like the old ads for Mac OS X Tiger, it feels “built-in, not bolted on.”), but having the ability to handle my work my way? Beautiful.