How writing leads to empathy / why does anybody waste money on a speaker like Google Home

alexa

This morning I saw a Tweet with this graph showing the top things people ask their Alexa and Google Home devices:

DPjhn87VAAAtLSz.png-large

Since you’re probably too lazy to click the image for the full-size version, the top three things people say to their Alexas are:

  • Tell me the weather
  • Set a timer
  • Play me a song

After I saw this, I decided I was going to write a post about how I think products like Google Home and Amazon Echo are stupid and I don’t get why people would waste money on them, especially if they’re just using them to see if they need to bring an umbrella to work tomorrow.

I was going to write about why people don’t just use the “Hey Siri” function on their phones to set a timer for that soufflé. Inspired by the graph, I tried it after work tonight and it worked great. When I said “Hey Siri, play the new Sufjan Stevens album,” she got it and soon I was listening to Greatest Hits for the tenth time today.

I was going to write about how Siri also set a timer and told me tomorrow’s weather, all without me having to touch my phone or talk to a $100 speaker.

Then I realized that the reason people want these stupid speakers is because not everyone lives in a studio apartment in Brooklyn where one set of speakers is more than enough to carry the sound throughout my home.

But that’s the cool thing about writing. Not only does it force you to examine the validity of an argument, it also helps you empathize with other people. There had to be a good reason this guy at work was bragging about the Black Friday deal he got on a Google Home today, I thought to myself. I should write about why that guy is stupid.

I guess I’m the stupid one.

Image from the Amazon Alexa product page.

Google, the enabler for the big-brother era of retail

If you click on an ad for the new Ford Taurus on a website that uses Google to serve ads (and Google serves about 13% of all online ads), then go to your local Ford dealership to check out the car in-person, Google (and the dealership) will be able to connect the dots without you ever knowing it.

This is old news, but it was news to me. This is creepy shit.

More from this Digiday article from 2013:

Dan Auerbach, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that users might not realize they’ve opted in to constant location tracking when they opt in to “location services.”

“The disclosure mechanism for these apps are pretty weak,” he said. “I think there’s a gap between user expectations and what apps are really doing.”

It gets even better for Android users:

It is easiest for Google to conduct this passive location tracking on Android users, since Google has embedded location tracking into the software. Once Android users opt in to location services, Google starts collecting their location data as continuously as technologically possible. (Its ability to do so is dependent on cell tower or Wi-Fi signal strength.)

The only way out of this tracking for non-Android owners is to uninstall every location-aware Google app from your phone, including Google Maps and Waze:

But Google can also constantly track the location of iPhone users by way of Google apps for iOS […]

Google’s namesake iOS app—commonly referred to as Google mobile search—continues collecting a user’s location information when it runs in the background.

You can apparently opt out of this on a per-app basis. Not sure how to do that, what it’s called in the app settings menu, or how many people actually do this.

See also: More about Google on this blog.

How search engines influence the vote

The Google search engine (or whatever they end up calling it after yesterday’s announcement) can color the way we see the world in all kinds of troubling ways.

A clever study {washington post} recently found that search results can even influence for whom we vote:

The experiment was simple: Take a diverse group of undecided voters, let them research the candidates on a Google-esque search engine, then tally their votes — never mentioning that the search was rigged, giving top link placement to stories supporting a selected candidate.

The researchers expected the bias would sway voters, but they were shocked by just how much: Some voters became 20 percent more likely to support the favored candidate.

Via {tech redef}.

Also in election news: this great Fresh Air interview with Ari Berman, author of a new book that chronicles the history of the recently defunct Voting Rights Act.

A legitimate ad blocker?

Pretty cool new idea from Google. It’s called Contributor, and it allows users to pay not to see ads on the web.

Internet advertising works on a cost-per-view (or cost-per-click) basis. So if you’re browsing Salon.com and click on the Roto-Rooter ad, Salon gets, say, 50¢. (And Google takes a cut, too.)

With Google Contributor, you can pay Salon.com 50¢ direct, in exchange for an add-free reading experience. It all works on a budget system. So if you only want to spend $1/month, under this costly scenario, you’ll only get your ads blocked twice.

This could be great for media companies, as ad blockers become ever more common and the revenue from ads falls as a result.

It’s important to note: This only applies to ads served by Google. (Which is a lot of the web’s ads.)

Check out the story from On the Media below. It includes an interview with the Contributor product manager.

Why not Google

After the Snowden revelations back in 2013, I started to re-evaluate my relationship with companies like Google. The amount of info they collect makes me nervous. Like Obama often said, I’m more worried about the incentives behind using customer data for advertising than I am government snooping.

But the amount of stuff revealed by Snowden made me re-assess my relationship with those companies, beyond just the prospect of government surveillance. Examine their motivations. (Rushkoff contributed to this as well.)

And if you can live without having a big part of your digital life in the hands of one company, why not?

Enter Marco Ament, whose post, Why not Google? sums up a lot of my feelings toward this. Specifically this part:

…The reason I choose to minimize Google’s access to me is that my balance of utility versus ethical comfort is different. Both companies do have flaws, but they’re different flaws, and I tolerate them differently:

—Apple is always arrogant, controlling, and inflexible, and sometimes stingy.
—Google is always creepy, entitled, and overreaching, and sometimes oblivious.
How you feel about these companies depends on how much utility you get out of their respective products and how much you care about their flaws.

Simply put, Apple’s benefits are usually worth their flaws to me, and Google’s usually aren’t.

I still use Google for some things (their biking directions are a really good resource when embarking on a new route).

But the web services I use are from different organizations. I’m spreading out my data, making it more difficult for a single company to get that detailed of a profile of me.

For search I use DuckDuckGo and I have my own email provider through my hosting domain. It’s not as convenient as Gmail, but I think the tradeoff is worth it. I do use a lot of Apple products, but I trust their “we honestly don’t care what’s in your iMessages” stance.

Maybe this is just an illusion of control. But it makes me feel better… so that’s all that matters?