REUTERS/Chip EastGoogle Now is best understood as the company's response to Apple's Siri. In fact, it puts Siri to shame – it's more accurate and far more versatile.
And I want nothing to do with it.
My colleague Steve Kovach sang Google Now's praises last year and provided some compelling examples of its functionality:
- It paid attention to his repeated Google searches for Mets scores, so now the app automatically sends him notifications of the latest score.
- Google Now noticed a meeting on his calendar and gave him a warning based on his location that if he wanted to arrive on time, he had to leave right at that moment (it even accounted for traffic).
- While killing time before a flight from San Francisco to New York, it captured his flight number based only on his search history to keep him apprised of gate information and delays.
Steve's only "input" was his everyday Internet use and the appointments he entered into Google Calendar. With access to this data as its foundation, Google Now can automatically solve problems and provide you with useful info.
Sounds amazing, right?
Well, not to me.
Google Now raises a troubling question for me.
It's pretty easy to imagine a person making Google Now a huge part of his or her existence. It begs to be relied upon and integrated into your lifestyle in a major way. Even a casual Google Now user is still feeding all his data to it every time he uses the web.
How do we draw the distinction between the technology that makes your life easier and the technology that breeds mindlessness? In my opinion, Google Now flirts too closely with this boundary.
I kind of pride myself in having my phone work for me instead of the other way around. The best example of this is that I refuse to use push notifications. I'd rather check email and Twitter on my own terms, not when my phone tells me it's time.
When I see my people fumbling with their phones in response to whatever notification just popped up, I can't help but be reminded of Thoreau's quote that "men have become the tools of their tools."
If we can learn anything from technology's recent history, it's that relying too strongly on a third party service can be dangerous when it fails. Even those things that are "too big to fail" – banks, Bitcoin, your cloud provider –have all shown their weaknesses.
And the intrinsic nature of Google Now is that it's designed to be blindly relied upon, to be a "life aid." What happens when it goes kaput for some reason? All those things that you were used to not having to think about become problematic. Your phone is no longer sounding the alarm to catch your flight on time unless you set it yourself.
If its servers were somehow compromised, then Steve would have been late to his meeting, missed his flight, and wouldn't know the score of the latest Mets game (probably for the best).
If I were to boil this all down to a single idea, it would go as follows: I'm in charge of my phone. My phone's not in charge of itself. Google Now nearly represents the phone coming to life, acting on its own and without your direction.
It becomes slightly less your phone and you become a slightly less mindful.
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