I just closed my Google account. It was easy. Log in, choose ‘My Account,’ select ‘Delete Account,’ ignore dire warnings of your life as you know it ending, done.
Getting to this point took over a month. I signed up with Gmail in 2007. I was about to quit my job and needed a personal email address. Google was the cool new service on the block, so I signed up. Then came GrandCentral (which eventually became Google Voice), YouTube, Docs, Picasa, Maps, Analytics and probably more, all tied to my Gmail address. It took a while to disentangle my digital life from Google. I even had to pay three bucks to get my Google Voice number ported to my cell phone.
Why leave Google now? The NSA information released by Edward Snowden was the precipitating incident. Knowing that the US spooks were targeting Google both via FISC orders and by tapping into Google’s internal networks was disturbing enough. But it wasn’t the primary reason. I make regular phone calls to Germany and have know for a long time that these were subject to NSA interception. Yeah, yeah, they weren’t supposed to since I am a US person, but I wasn’t having any illusions about that. I also don’t believe that my current email address via my hosting company is any more secure. I might figure out how to do encryption but don’t hold your breath.
No, I quit Google because Google is worse than the NSA. Google’s business model made large scale surveillance possible. Google’s raison d’être is to create as complete a profile as possible about its users. The company incessantly collects even the most minute bits about our lives, our preferences, our dislikes, what we shop for, which map locations we search for and on and on. No wonder the NSA was interested in tapping into that stream. Why collect it yourself when Google has already done it.
Of course, Google doesn’t collect all that information so that the NSA can get it. Google collects data and builds my profile in order to sell me, my interests, my likes, my dislikes to anyone who’s willing to pay for it. I’ve decided to stop being a willing participant. Let me explain.
In 1977, Dallas Smythe penned one of the first materialist analyses of advertising, concluding that advertisers bought an audience. The audience became a commodity, abstracted into specific demographic categories. The audience also performed labor in watching the ads and thus helping speed up the circulation of capital. A decade later, Jhally and Livant refined that idea by focusing not on what advertisers were buying but on what media companies were selling–the audience’s time spent watching TV. In exchange for watching an ad the audience was offered programming. The value of the ad viewing was obviously higher than the cost of producing the programming, thus creating profit for the networks. The audience therefore created surplus value for which it wasn’t reimbursed, in other words, it was being exploited.
Henri Lefebvre’s work on everyday life is very enlightening about such matters. Everyday life represents the banal, repetitive patterns that govern our lives. We get up, we go to work, we have lunch, we work some more, we get home, eat some more, and eventually go to bed. For Lefebvre this part of our lives remains unreflected upon. Then there is the other part of our lives, the “higher” activities where we reflect upon our lives, are politically active, live memorable experiences. In capitalist societies, the banal, repetitive part of our lives is vital to sustain the other, more creative part. Advertising intervenes in everyday life with the goal of creating new needs and desires to be satisfied through consumption. As early as 1968, Levebvre described capitalist societies as “bureaucratic societ[ies] of controlled consumption.”
Fast forward to 2013. Information technology has made the distinction between work and leisure even more tenuous. E-mail follows us home, cell phones make us instantly available. We end up working even when we are pursuing our “higher” activities.
The social web has completed that invasion. The photos I upload to Picasa so my family in Germany can see them, the video of my dog I upload to YouTube because he’s such a funny dog, all the daily sharing I do with my friends and family is added to my profile by Google, who then sells it to advertisers, who can gauge with near certainty what ads to present to me.
My “higher” activities, my self-expression as a human being, my sharing all add to the “content” of the worldwide web. It causes my friends and family to check the web, just as their “content” causes me to log on. Google turns our creative products into commodities, which, like all commodities, assume a life beyond our control.
That’s why Google’s services aren’t free. They never were. The value I receive from Google in the form of email, photo galleries or funny dog videos is significantly less than the value I produce for Google. According to one estimate, I generate $500/year for Google. That’s one hell of an expensive email service.
Call me crazy, but I value my time. When I offer my time, I’d like to control the conditions of that offer. More than that, I want at least part of my life to remain outside the tyranny of market relations.
That’s why I quit Google.
Fortunately, there is life after Google. I pay $8/month for web hosting and email service. I know my message content isn’t scanned for keywords that trigger ads. There are free or donation based email providers that offer similar respect for one’s privacy. When I search the internet, I use DuckDuckGo, for anonymous and non-tracked searches. To look up a map, I use OpenStreetMap. There’s lots of free and open source software around. It’s free because it’s a community project, not because the coders collects your information and sell it to some advertiser.
Facebook is up next.
- Careless in Red by Elizabeth George
- Call For The Dead by John LeCarré