Gmail is boiling the frog – and we are the frog

Summary:Google's steady push to become an intermediary for all of our communications comes at a cost – but do we care anymore about paying it? Judging by the results of the latest ZDNet Great Debate, the answer is... ribbit.

It probably would have compromised my Great Debate argument  – that Gmail's increasing sequesterization of itself means it's time to abandon the world's most popular webmail service – had I mentioned that I am also a rabid fan of the service and would, like many of us, struggle to live without it.

And yet, as I considered the arguments of the increasing number of people giving quite well-considered reasons why the platform may have innovated itself into a corner , and how easy it is to switch to Outlook.com , I began weighing up some of the assumptions that I and many others take for granted about Gmail.

FroginSaucepan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Frog_and_saucepan.jpg
Frogs, they say, can't feel subtle temperature changes as the water gets hotter. CC BY-SA 3.0 James Lee

We have forced ourselves to adapt to its conversation-based email conventions, which befuddle novices but become second-nature over time.

We have learned to slow down our keystrokes lest the shortcuts confuse the interface and mute a conversation when we meant to write a reply.

We have learned to deal with email attachments in new ways, and how to handle the cc: and bcc: fields so messages go to the right place.

We have learned to ignore the incessant advertisements, which were originally contained on the right-hand column but have recently begun creeping into our Inbox listings.

We have taught ourselves not to think about just how strange it is that those ads seem tailor-made to solve the issues being discussed in our emails.

We bleat and scream to the hills about the government's invasions of our privacy, then turn around and mail our personal information using a service specifically designed to harvest that information.

Which is, of course, because they are exactly that. Google has sucked millions of people into its web by delivering a feature-packed email service that comes only at the price of our privacy. And, as we continue to enjoy its benefits – and compare them, usually favourably, with the alternatives, we must face the unavoidable reality that we have sold our souls for free email.

Think about it: We bleat and scream to the hills about the government's invasions of our privacy, then turn around and mail our personal information using a service specifically designed to harvest that information.

It may sound a bit histrionic to say that, of course, since we are only talking about email. Aren't we?

Of course we aren't.

As I intimated in my arguments, Google has positioned Gmail as a gateway drug to a world where everything runs according to Google. Google wants to manage our photos, our social media, our email, our word-processing documents, our everyday tasks, even our general documents.

It wants to harvest that information and feed it to the Borg that is far and away the largest single information-filtering service in the world. By continuing to buy into Google's model, we are feeding the centralisation of human knowledge – one email at a time. This is the brave new world of the Internet, where privacy is an historical footnote and we are tricked or simply bribed to give it up.

By and large, we are quite happy to do so. We may not love the need to deliver our personal lives on a platter in exchange for a spam-free, easily-accessible and substantially awesome email experience – but we do so with a smile, over and over again.

As we continue to enjoy Gmail's benefits – and compare them, usually favourably, with the alternatives, we must face the unavoidable reality that we have sold our souls for free email.... Not only can we no longer live without it – but we are beginning to struggle imagining why we would even want to.

I was thus pleasantly surprised to see that, at one point in the debate, I actually crept over the 50 per cent mark in terms of the number of votes cast. Concern over Gmail's rampant intrusions clearly struck a nerve, and has generated real issues with its business model for many on the Internet.

With many tens of thousands of people following the debate and a high level of voting participation, this interim result seemed to me to be far more telling even than the final tally of 34 per cent to Ken's 66 per cent, which I can only attribute to a late campaign that rallied Google employees to vote and tip the scales back in their favour.

What was interesting about this debate, however, is that so many people clearly believe that the unprecedented revelations about privacy this year – the NSA's systematic spying  through PRISM, the global culture of snooping and the unspoken mass exchange of our personal information – have tipped the balance enough that Gmail should no longer be used with impunity.

With so many people willing to support the argument that we should abandon a platform that has become so useful to so many people, it is clear that concerns over our true privacy online are starting to outweigh the benefits of selling our digital souls to Google. Edward Snowden's legacy has become an interruptive force that will drive many to consider alternatives where they previously lived in quiet denial.

Where this will lead, I am not sure. Gmail is certainly feature-packed and useful; while some arguments could be made that its interface is becoming overcrowded and over-difficult for new users to get their heads around, on the whole it is a robust and useful service.

Just as most of us continue to drive the same old gas-guzzlers even though we know we'd have a cleaner conscience in a Prius, we continue with Gmail not only because it's free, but because it has made itself indispensable. Not only can we no longer live without it – but we are beginning to struggle imagining why we would even want to.

The frog is well and truly up to its neck in boiling water. And we're it.

Topics: Privacy, Apps, Enterprise Software, Google, Google Apps, Great Debate

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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