A Bit Too Automatic

17 Jun 2014

After I returned from Copenhagen, the notification icon on Gmail's toolbar lit up. Against my better judgment (and because I can't work out how to turn it off), I clicked it.

It opened a page showing a well-designed timeline of my recent trip, photos grouped by day and interspersed with maps of my travels. A really nice interface offered possibilities to caption the photos, rearrange them, and set the cover pictures for each day and the trip as a whole. I recognised the pictures as ones Iā€™d taken, but this was a neat new way of looking at them. For a moment, I was impressed, but then something struck me.


Where did you get those photos?

After a few chilling moments, I figured it out. It was because I have a third-party app set to upload camera photos to Google Drive, so that I can sync them back to my laptop and import them into Aperture. I'm using Drive as a dumb data store, somewhere to put the bytes while they're in transit. But Google Plus is apparently helping itself along the way.

That's not okay. That's the guy at the photo lab going through your pictures, gluing their favourites into a scrapbook, writing notes about where they saw you, and mailing it back to you anonymously.

There's no real damage here, and I'm not that upset. It's not that I trust Google Plus not to share that collage. It's that I recognise that, the moment I uploaded those photos anywhere (or, indeed, captured them with an insecure device), I might as well have mailed them to GCHQ, the Times, and Mark Zuckerberg's office myself.

But I found it interesting that I had such an overwhelmingly negative reaction to what is, after all, a rather cool piece of technology that a lot of people worked very hard on. I won't use this product, now, and that has nothing to do with how well it works. A button marked ā€œ[Fetch recent photos from Drive and do something cool with them]ā€ would have made all the difference.

I think fundamentally it's a difference of intention. Google is not my friend. None of my devices are. They are my equipment. I expect them to reactively follow my instructions, helping me to complete actions that I initiate and staying strictly within boundaries that I set.

I want my friends and colleagues to look out for me, be proactive, make suggestions, be curious. I want my devices to wait for my orders and then follow them to the letter.

I want there to be a difference.