Thursday, March 21, 2013

Businesses and the Hard Decisions They Have to Make

As a follow-up to my previous post, some may wonder:  well, don’t businesses have to make hard decisions in order to survive and take care of their bottom line?

We’ve all been brainwashed into thinking like that, nowadays.  We have all been manipulated into complicity with that attitude.  The power of that way of thinking is that it is partially true:  businesses do have to make enough money to survive; sometimes doing so requires unfortunate sacrifices.

But, in this world in which the rich are getting amazingly, incomprehensibly rich while the poor are getting poorer, the problem is not that there is not enough money.  We see desperation growing around us, and assume that everyone is struggling more and more, that something has changed, making money increasingly scarce.  But it is not increasingly scarce for everyone.  Yes, something has changed:  money is increasingly scarce for most of us, but not because it has mysteriously disappeared.  It’s still there.  But where?  It is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very wealthy.  And it does not trickle down.  The mechanisms of our economy have become ones that suck the money up, instead.

I recently read an interesting book about how this change has happened.  The book is Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland (Penguin Press, 2012).  Very illuminating!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Demise of Useful Google Products

Happy Spring!

There’s been a lot on my mind, lately.  I’ll start with what is most recent: I just learned that Google Reader is shutting down.  This, of course, is not the end of the world.  Lots of people have far more serious problems.  Indeed, I myself have other more serious problems than this!

But even this problem is more serious than it initially seems, and that is what I feel like writing about at the moment.  Google’s getting rid of Reader follows their getting rid of many innovative, useful, and promising products they have created, such as Notebook, iGoogle, Desktop, Sidewiki, and even Wave.
I especially valued Notebook.  There are other notebook apps out there, but none were so intuitively user-friendly and elegantly integrated with web research as Google Notebook was. 

I also saw tremendous promise in Google Wave, but was frustrated that they restricted the early users and then had the audacity to eliminate it due to “lack of interest”!  Its potential could not be realized without making it easy for lots of users to try it!  They should have integrated it right away with Gmail.  What was brilliant about it was that a “wave” (an e-mail conversation) could function as a jointly edited document.  Anyone who has been frustrated by long e-mail chains where information keeps changing (such as a group planning an event by e-mail) can see the value of Wave:  you can keep editing the Wave to reflect the most up-to-date information (without losing the “history” of the conversation: the history just hides out of the way unless needed for reference).  So you no longer have a long confusing and branching e-mail trail: you have a single dynamic document keeping the most relevant and up-to-date information front and center.

But, Notebook, Wave, and soon Reader are no more.

One of the articles I read about why this is so noted that times need to change, and what is new and emerging to replace apps like Reader is apparently something so advanced that instead of providing us with what we want to read, it suggests to us what we should want to read!

The gist of that article and others I read seems to me to be this:  The web is evolving in a way that cares less about us and our autonomy, and is more about exploiting and controlling us.  The big players are not really interested in providing services that we find useful:  they want to mine our information and use it to manipulate us into seeing what they want us to see, and buying what they want us to buy.  They do it so cleverly (based somewhat on what we are observed to be interested in) that they hope we won’t notice or care -- or, better yet, that we will be pleased and happy to turn over the major decision-making to them, because they do it so well.  The result is that the programs that respect and respond to our autonomy are gradually disappearing, and are being replaced by apps that more and more control what we see.

While overtly Google justifies its eliminations of products in terms of numbers of users not being high enough -- or, note the difference here:  growth in new users not being high enough (but there still is growth!) -- I think that language is carefully crafted to suggest that they care about what their users want, but hides the true significance of their decision.  I suspect that it’s not about the number of users at all.  It’s that the use of something like Reader does not fulfill their purposes of exploiting and manipulating us.  When we use Reader, we, well, read!  More specifically, we read what we are interested in reading, and what we have consciously chosen to read.  What is problematic for Google is what we are not doing:  we are not clicking on ads and buying stuff. 

So, not only is this yet another in a long series of personal disappointments (our “world of opportunity” keeps eliminating products I really like, forcing me to keep spending time looking for alternatives that inevitably I find not as good), it shows a disturbing trend in the evolution of our relationships with computers and the internet.  I have a sense of a golden age having passed, before it ever fully started.  Something sinister is taking hold.  The interests of Big Money are taking over.  It is just another example of a growing change in our world:  of valuing money over people, of valuing profits over serving the common good.

That is why I say this is more serious than it looks.