Editor’s Note: Janet Vertesi teaches sociology of technology and human-computer interaction at Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter: @cyberlyra.
User complaints prompted Apple to apologize for its new maps app
Janet Vertesi: I was delighted that Apple no longer relied on Google Maps
Vertesi: Breaking the Google monopoly means that all of our choices can improve
A recent torrent of complaints has prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to issue a public apology for the company’s new maps app in the iPhone 5 and iOS 6, which previously relied on Google Maps. Addresses are not showing up correctly, public transit directions aren’t available, and the satellite views make it look as if the Brooklyn Bridge is bending into the Hudson River.
Unlike the naysayers, I was delighted to see the change. That’s because six months ago, I broke up with Google.
It’s not a decision I made lightly. I was in an intimate relationship with the company for years. Google knew what I watched on YouTube and which trains I caught into New York City for a night out. It facilitated collaborations with my colleagues and helped me navigate foreign cities. We had some good times together, Google and I.
But over time, our relationship changed. Ads started to show up based on keywords that I had typed into the search engine or in my e-mail. In Google search, things I was looking for were now buried beneath “helpful” suggestions of things I wasn’t interested in in the slightest.
Why does Google collect and aggregate your information? Because when Google has a better picture of who you are, what you like and what you do online, it becomes even more attractive to advertisers. While Google’s ecosystem offers many appealing perks and conveniences, the price you pay is your personal data.
In short, when you use a Google service, you’re not using a product – you are the product.
So I took matters into my own hands, and broke up with Google.
Anyone coming out of a long-term relationship will tell you that breaking up is hard to do. You have to change your patterns. My first step was obviously to switch search engines. But to what? The old alternatives are all gone, absorbed by Google, Yahoo! and Bing. To make matters worse, I discovered that my own devices were working against me. Clicking a link on my computer or phone automatically opened Google Maps, search, or YouTube.
I had to find new ways. Juggling directions from Nokia, Bing and MapQuest has led me on several wild goose chases while trying to get from A to B. I also spread my activities across multiple servers. I deleted my YouTube account, set my search engine to Duck Duck Go (a service that doesn’t track search information), and logged into AIM.
Deleting my Gmail account was the hardest – and most revealing. It reminded me of the evil computer HAL 9000’s death scene at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” As I selected all the messages I have ever received and clicked the delete button, the system protested: Was I sure I wanted to do this? It reminded me of all our good times together by telling me we’d shared “38,496 conversations since 2008.”
The ad bar stopped showing ads and started displaying environmentally friendly statements. Did I know that “there is no limit to the number of times an aluminum can can be recycled”? Or that “empty tissue boxes can provide easy and handy storage for plastic grocery bags”? I felt pangs of guilt and regret. When the screen finally displayed, “You don’t have any mail! Our servers are feeling unloved,” I almost changed my mind.
That’s when it hit me. I thought we had an intimate relationship, when in fact I was being manipulated into codependence. Service by service, Google had convinced me that I needed it for everything, all to seduce me into giving up more of my personal data.
Of course, Apple collects user information as well. But it is not the company’s main source of revenue. Apple users pay for their products in dollars, not in personal information. Its closed system of products and devices, while decried among tech pundits, is its advantage.
Apple also has a long history of treating its users not like products, but like consumers. This incentivizes improvements that put the user first, giving us a more powerful voice. After all, we can vote with our dollars and with our downloads.
Breaking the Google monopoly means that all of our choices can improve. And that’s why Apple’s leaving Google Maps is a step in the right direction.
In the meanwhile, as long as I know where my information is going, I don’t mind getting a little lost.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Janet Vertesi.