So I really and truly meant to go for a whole week without interacting with a Google product. But it’s kind of like announcing that you’re quitting sugar. You mean it at the time, but then you realize that not only is it nearly impossible but it turns you into some kind of weird social outcast if you try. So, this turned into more of a thought experiment because I just couldn’t face a whole week without Google. I wouldn’t actually advocate either a sugar-free or a Google-free lifestyle, but it’s sobering to realize just how reliant we are on one big corporation.
I’m strong out of the blocks because I don’t have any Google hardware. If I had an android phone or chromebook, I’d be dead in the water. As a smart home laggard, I also don’t have a Nest thermostat or Google Home Assistant. Things are looking strong until I think about checking my email. And this is one of the biggest problems for me: my main email accounts go through either Gmail or Google business. I know there are alternatives, but weaning myself entirely off Google email is a big task. It’s just so darn convenient to use it, and so much effort to close down existing email accounts. I’m also always surprised at how many sizeable startups and individuals use Google for their email, which means that my day is punctuated with Google calendar events. This is where I start to realize that going Google-free has social consequences.
Using Firefox over Chrome is completely seamless, and skipping the Google search engine is tolerable, if a little janky. In fact, it feels good not to be tracked all over the place and I get that smug, sugar-free feeling from Duck Duck Go. Box, Dropbox and other cloud-based providers have me covered for document sharing, and it’s a simple switch-out from Google Hangouts to any of the other video chatting services (please don’t pretend like a week without Google+ is some kind of loss). As an old-school lawyer type, I use Office, so I’m also in the clear for document creation. It’s Google Maps that’s going to create the withdrawal migraine for me. It’s not just the road directions and public transport times that I have to forego; it’s also any of the ride-hailing apps (since Uber and Lyft both rely on Google Maps). This is bad. Apple Maps bad, Gavin.
So an audit of my day proves that I can theoretically go without Google, but not without some pain. Why does this even matter? It matters because knowledge is power and we have unthinkingly given one company a huge amount of power. Google indexes, interprets and stores vast amounts of data about our personal and professional lives, as well as information about our government and infrastructure, and our collective learning as a society. What happens if they fail? What happens if they make policies and decisions that we don’t agree with? How bad would it have to be before we boycotted Google, and would we have any alternative provider?
I don’t think we need to go Google-free. As a company, they certainly make mistakes, but they also do great things. The point is that we need to keep them honest. We need to support competitors so that there is no complete concentration of power with any one company. It is so tempting to go all-in with one tech ecosystem but we need to insist on cross-platform compatibility and genuine competition.