If you use Google products such as Android, Google Docs, or Gmail, you may have noticed more suggestions recently.
On the other hand, suggestions made while I’m composing an email or writing in a Google Doc are a bit different. I find this as annoying as someone else trying to finish my sentences during a conversation. That’s not what I was going to say.
Some of these can be helpful, for example when replying to questions posed via messenging services. There are definitely times when I’m in a hurry and just need to say ‘Okay’ or give a thumbs-up to my wife.
In a recent article for The Art of Manliness, Brett and Kate McKay point out the potential toll of these nudges:
Some of society’s options for living represent time-tested traditions — distillations of centuries of experiments in the art of human flourishing. Many of our mores, however, owe their existence to expediency, conformity, laziness. Practices born from once salient but no longer relevant circumstances are continued from sheer inertia, from that flimsiest of rationalizations: “That’s the way it’s always been done.”
Brett and Kate McKay
The suggestions in Google’s products come from machine learning which is, by definition, looking to the past to predict the future. One way to think about this is as a subtle pressure to conform.
Back in December last year, I was in NYC presenting on surveillance capitalism for a talk entitled Truth, Lies, and Digital Fluency. Riffing on Shoshana Zuboff’s book, I explained that surveillance capitalists want to be able to predict your next move and sell this to advertisers, insurers, and the like.
It’s an approach rooted in behaviourism, the idea that a particular stimulus always leads to a particular response. The closer they can get to that, the more money they can make. It’s true what Aral Balkan has been pointing out for years: we’rebeing farmed by surveillance capitalists.
Who wants to live this kind of life? But it’s not just the explicit auto-suggestions that we need to be of. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter feed off, and monetise through advertising, the emotions we feel about certain subjects. They are rage machines.
Stimulus: response. Let’s not lose our ability to think, to reason, and (above all) be rational.
I spend a lot of time looking at screens and interacting with other people in a mediated way through digital technologies. That’s why it’s important to continually review the means by which I communicate with others, either synchronously (e.g. through a chat app or video conference software) or asynchronously (e.g. via email or this blog).
When I started following a bunch of people who are using the #100DaysToOffload hashtag, some of them followed me back:
It turns out LibreJS is a browser extension maintained by the GNU project:
Disconnect produced a graph which shows the scale of the problem:
This was the output from uBlock Origin:
I’m going to start the process of removing as many of these trackers as I can from my blog. It’s really is insidious how additional functionality and ease-of-use for blog owners adds to the tracking burden for those reading their output.
Recently, I embedded a Google Slides deck in a weeknote I wrote. I’m genuinely shocked at how many trackers just including that embed added to my blog: 84! Suffice to say that I’ve replaced it with an archive.org embed.
I was surprised to see the Privacy Badger was reporting tracking by Facebook and Pinterest. I’m particularly hostile to Facebook services, and don’t use any of them (including WhatsApp and Instagram). Upon further investigation, it turns out that even if you have ‘share to X’ buttons turned off, Jetpack still allows social networks to phone home. So that’s gone, too.
There’s still work to be done here, including a new theme that doesn’t include Google Fonts. I’m also a bit baffled by what’s using Google Analytics, and I’ll need to stop using Cloudflare as a CDN.
But, as ever, it’s a work in progress and, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said, “Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.”
This week, I’ve been over in Jersey helping a school with their educational technology. In particular, I’ve been doing some training on G-Suite for Education (as Google now call what used to be ‘Google Apps’). The main focus has been Google Classroom but, as this is basically a front-end for the rest of G-Suite, we spilled out into other areas.
A bit of history
I first used G-Suite for Education back when I was a classroom teacher. We didn’t have it rolled out across the school but, back then, and in the school I was in, I was left to just get on with it. So I can remember being administrator, sorting out student accounts, forgotten passwords, and the like. The thing that impressed me, though, was the level of collaboration it encouraged and engendered.
Then, when I became Director of E-Learning of a new 3,000 student, nine site Academy in 2010, I rolled out G-Suite for Education for all 500 members of staff. It worked like a dream, especially given some of the friction there was harmonising different MIS and VLE configurations. The thing that I valued most back then was the ability to instantly communicate between sites by using a tool which has now morphed into ‘Hangouts’.
At that time, I was a bit of a pioneer in the use of Google’s educational tools, which is why Tom Barrett and I, along with some others in our network, were ‘Lead Learners’ at the first UK Google Teacher Academy. That’s grown and grown in the intervening period, while I’ve been working in Higher Education, at Mozilla, and consulting.
Back to the future
Fast forward to the present, and we’re in a very different educational technology landscape. Where once there seemed to be new, exciting services popping up every week, the post-2008 economic crash landscape is dominated by large shiny silos. The dominant players are Google, Microsoft, and Apple — although the latter’s offering seems less all-encompassing than the other two.
I have to say that I’m a bit biased in favour of Google’s tools. I’m not a big fan of their business model, although that’s a moot point in education given that students and staff don’t see adverts. It’s a much more ‘webby’ experience than other platforms I’ve used.
The more I get back into using G-Suite for Education the more I appreciate that Google doesn’t prescribe a certain pedagogy. The approach seems to be that, while particular apps like Classroom allow you to do some things in a certain way, there’s always other ways of achieving the same result. It’s also extensible: there’s loads of apps that you can add via the Marketplace.
OK, so that’s all very well and good, but what has that got to do with you, dear reader? Why should you care about my experiences and views on Google’s education offerings?
Well, a couple of things, I suppose. First, in relation to my 7 approaches to educational technology integration post, I feel like there’s some really easy ways to move staff up the SAMR model towards the ‘transformational’ type of technology use we want to see. One thing I’ve been focusing on recently, is explaining the mental models behind technologies. In other words, rather than telling people where to click, I’m explaining the concepts behind what it is there doing, as well as situations in which it might be helpful. How they teach is up to them; I’m providing them with skillsets and mindsets to give them more options.
Second, I feel like there’s a huge opportunity to integrate Open Badges with G-Suite for Education. It seems pretty straightforward to build upon Google’s platform to provide the email addresses of who should be issued a badge, as well as the environment in which badge issuing would be triggered.
I’m thinking through a badging system for one of my clients at the moment, built upon the usual things I emphasise: non-linear pathways, individual choice, and an element of surprise. In that regard, I’m planning on starting with something like a ‘Classroom Convert’ badge that recognises that staff are developing mindsets around the use of Google Classroom, as well as skillsets.
There are, of course, ways in which staff can go ‘full Google’ and become (as I am) a Google Certified Teacher, and so on. That’s not what this is. My aim in any badge system is to encourage particular types of knowledge, skills, and behaviours. Whatever system I come up with will be co-designed and go beyond just the use of G-Suite for Education. As the TPACK model emphasises, the system will have a more holistic focus: integrating the technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge required for purposeful educational technology integration.
Ideally, I’d like an approach where students can use something like Unhosted apps to bring their own data store to the applications they choose to use when collaborating with their teachers and fellow students. I’d like to see them have a domain of their own, and learn enough code to have real agency in online digital spaces.
While I’ve got that in mind, I’m also a pragmatist. The tools Google provides through G-Suite for Education, while not world-changing, do move the Overton Window in terms of what’s possible in technology integration. Even just working collaboratively on a single Google Doc is pretty mindblowing to people who haven’t done this before.
Update (January 2015): Although the self-hosted approach detailed in this post worked really well for the six months I tried it, I’m now using Fastmail.
On Friday, I decided to ditch Gmail. It had been a long time coming, to be honest.
I’m not really interested in having a debate whether or not I ‘should’ do this, or whether it’s objectively a good thing to do. I just had an epiphany when I realised that almost all of my data (e.g. search, email, analytics) was going via Google’s servers. It’s like some kind of legitimised man-in-the-middle attack.
Instead of Gmail, I’m using webmail on my own domain and (shared) server. It was a pretty straightforward process. Here’s how to do it:
Set up self-hosted email inbox
Forward (and archive) email
Import folders and email
Update email addresses around the web
1. Set up self-hosted email inbox
I’m using Reclaim Hosting, which comes with something called ‘CPanel’ installed. This makes it much easier to install and maintain apps and services.
Sign up for a web host that has CPanel. Login, and go to the ‘Mail’ section of CPanel:
Click on the ‘Email Accounts’ option. Fill in the email address and password – for example, I chose firstname.lastname@example.org
You can now access your new email inbox by appending ‘webmail’ to your domain name – e.g. dougbelshaw.com/webmail. You have a choice of interfaces to access your email inbox. I chose Roundcube:
2. Forward (and archive) email
The first thing you want to do is make sure that you continue to get the email sent to you in one place. To do that, you need to forward all of the email that comes to your Gmail account to your new self-hosted email inbox.
In Gmail, click on the gear icon and go to ‘Settings’. Once there click on ‘Forwarding and POP/IMAP’:
Choose ‘Forward a copy of incoming mail to…’ and input the self-hosted email you set up in Step 1. You’ll have to confirm that account by clicking on a link that Google send to your new email address.
I chose to ‘archive Gmail’s copy’. It’s up to you what option you choose here.
3. Import folders and email
This is the bit that takes the longest. In fact, you can leave this running overnight and/or be doing Step 4 while this is happening.
Unless you’re declaring email bankruptcy, you’ll need to transfer your existing emails and folders from Gmail to your new self-hosted email account. Step 2 only redirects all new emails received.
First, you’ll need to use an email client like Mozilla Thunderbird (cross-platform) to download all of your Gmail folders and emails. To set it up, download Thunderbird and then launch it.
You’ll see something like this:
You’ve already got an email address, so click ‘Skip this and use my existing email’.
Add your Gmail account first by entering your name, email address and password. Remember, if you’ve got two-factor authentication turned on for your Google account, you’ll need an ‘App password’ from your security page.
The default option is to connect via ‘IMAP’ which is what we want so leave it as it is and press ‘Done’. You should then see Thunderbird importing all of your folders and emails. This will take a long time.
Note: ‘folders’ in Gmail are known as ‘labels’.
Now you need to add the self-hosted email account you set up in Step 1. To do this go to the menu and choose ‘New’ and then ‘Existing Mail Account’:
You’ll see the same box from when you added your GMail account. This time add your email address and password to the account you set up in Step 1.*
Click ‘Done’ and you now have both your Gmail and self-hosted email account syncing with Thunderbird.
Now you need to select all of your Gmail folders/labels and drag them to your self-hosted account.
Be careful to drag them onto the email address rather than ‘Inbox’ – otherwise the folders you drag will become sub-folders of your inbox rather than folders in their own right. Of course, you can always just drag them to ‘Archive’ if you don’t care.
Now wait. Possibly a very long time if you’re on a slow connection and/or you have lots and lots of emails and folders.
4. Update email addresses around the web
While your email and folders are transferring – and, to be honest, over the next few days/weeks – you’ll need to update your email address with the accounts you have around the web. There’s no great hurry for this, as your Gmail messages will be redirected to your new email inbox, but it’s nice to get things sorted.
You may also want to do one or more of the following:
send a ‘please update your addressbook!’ email to your contacts
use an email auto-responder on your Gmail account for a while
add a message about having a new address to your email signature
EDIT: Remember, if you don’t tell people about your new email address, your emails will still be going via Google’s servers (thus negating the point of the exercise…)
Did you manage to follow these instructions? Have you got a different/better way of doing it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below (or via this Hacker News thread)!
*Apart from believing in Open Source software (and working for Mozilla), one of my reasons for using Thunderbird is that it provides auto-setup for a much wider range of services than other mail apps. Also, the reason you see ‘SSL’ here is because I set up https on my domain using StartSSL. That’s outside the scope of this tutorial, but is also probably unnecessary if you’re planning to access your inbox via the webmail interface.
TL;DR: we’re using software with shareholders and interacting in private public spaces. We can do better than this.
I live in Morpeth, Northumberland, a lovely market town in the north-east of England. It’s the kind of place that still has a vibrant high street and plenty of stuff going on. Somehow or other it’s survived the hollowing-out of places that seems to have accelerated since the 2008 economic crisis.
Offline private public spaces
Within Morpeth is a small shopping centre called Sanderson Arcade. It’s got shops like Marks & Spencer and Laura Ashley, piped music and a friendly, retro vibe. To help with this they employ men called Beadles, ostensibly to welcome people, give directions and lend an Edwardian air to the place. If you pay attention, however, the Beadles wear earpieces and both look and act a bit like bouncers. It’s then you begin to realise that one of the main reasons that they’re there is to keep out the riff-raff.
I’ve got no particular problem with Sanderson Arcade nor with the Beadles. I would be interested to see what would happen if a group wanted to stage a protest there. I guess they’d invoke the fact that it’s a private space pretty quickly. Still, there’s other places in Morpeth you could go to protest and still be seen and heard. Sanderson Arcade isn’t the only place people go, and the other spaces are owned communally. That’s what our taxes are for.
Online private public spaces
The problem comes when we apply what I’ve just described as a lens through which to understand what we do online. I suppose that, yes, we’re surveilled on CCTV within offline public private spaces. People can track what we purchase. We can answer survey questions about our shopping habits and lifestyle. But that’s where we hit the limits of the analogy. Online private public spaces are very different.
I came across this today. It’s the latest in a long list of examples demonstrating the amount of data Facebook collects on its users. And it’s not as if everyone is unaware that Facebook, at its very core, is a scary privacy-loathing service seeking to track as much about you as possible. Once it has that information it sells it to the highest bidder. I like to think Google’s slightly better in this regard, but if I’m honest that’s only because I use Google’s services more than Facebook’s.
Almost every space in which we interact with other people online is a private public space. For me, Twitter and Google+ are prime examples. In the past we’ve been reassured by Google’s mantra of “don’t be evil” and how people in Iran and Egypt used Twitter to rise up against their oppressors. The reality is that both of these companies are now companies in which you can buy stock. They need to deliver shareholder value.
I’m increasingly leaning away from using software that has shareholders and leaning towards alternatives. I’m writing this on a Chromebook with Ubuntu 14.04 installed, for example. One of the things that’s great about non-profits making software is that they can innovate on behalf of users, rather than in ways that will increase market capitalization.
The problem we’ve got is that to interact with other people you need a means of communicating with them. When everyone’s physically co-located you can use your voice. If the place you’re in is unwelcoming or not to your liking then you can all decamp and move elsewhere. This is not the case when you’ve got a network of thousands of people distributed around the world. It’s quite likely that the only means you’ve got of contacting one another is through a single privately-owned platform.
I’ve toyed with the idea of closing my Twitter and Google+ accounts many times over the past few years. The problem with that is that it would affect me professionally. Not only are they spaces from which I gather a lot of information to do my job, but they’re spaces where other people find out about my work. You can’t do good in the world as a knowledge worker if no-one knows what you’ve been doing.
So what can we do? It’s not a problem for us to solve as individuals, but something for us to do collectively. And the call to action can’t be protect your privacy! because, to be quite honest, people don’t seem to care. Technically-minded people think that building a version of Twitter or Facebook or WhatsApp but with public-key encryption will see users flocking to their site. Well, here’s a newsflash for you: no they won’t. They’ll trade privacy for convenience.
Instead, we need to work at a meta level and do some systems thinking. Here’s a bad idea: try to get everyone to switch from Twitter to IRC. Here’s a good idea: work on creating a compelling way for users to bring their own data and authentication to services. Unhosted seems to be on the right track with that. Just because things have failed previously (OpenID!) doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily fail again.
Of course, the meta meta level problem centres around online business models that aren’t dependent upon advertising. Providing free services and selling user data is the high-fructose corn syrup of the internet. While we in the west might tolerate paying for services, many of those getting online for the first time in developing countries know nothing but Facebook Zero.
Things change. The tech world used to be full of people resisting The Man; the discourse was around connecting people and envisaging new possibilities. Now, however, we have a tech elite with control of the spaces in which we interact. If you don’t understand the potential implications of this, then you might want to dig a little deeper into the NSA revelations and read Dave Eggers’ The Circle. That will open your eyes.
Public spaces should be public and commonly-owned. Perhaps it’s time for governments to stop fawning over billionaires with technical skills and start providing services for all of us. Maybe instead of dismantling the state to allow for private profit, we can use technology to create a more egalitarian and just society. And could we, just for once, use technology in ways other than shoring up the privilege of the one per cent?
Open Education Week is a series of events to increase awareness of open education movement. The third annual Open Education Week takes place from March 10-15, both online and offline around the world. Through the events and resources, we hope to reach out to more people to demonstrate what kind of opportunities open education has created and what we have to look forward to.
Mozilla is playing a role, through a week-long online discussion entitled Open Education and the Open Web. There’ll be a new question to prompt conversation each day in our Google+ Webmaker community.
What does it mean to participate on the open web? How can we encourage others to take agency over the opportunities the open web provides? This discussion led by Mozilla’s Doug Belshaw will explore the participatory culture of the web, why it matters, and what we can do to protect and cultivate it.
Today’s prompt is simple. We’re just asking people to introduce themselves and respond as to what ‘open education’ looks like in their context.
You should join us. It’s totally fine to dip in and dip out. Take the first step:
Earlier this year I wrote about my attempts to move to a web-based workflow. I discussed how people tend to see devices that rely entirely on the web as for other people.
Last week I moved house. We don’t get broadband until tomorrow so I’ve had to go about my web-based job by hopping between dongles and tethered devices. On top of this, I decided to run an experiment. Rather than using my MacBook Pro as usual, I opted to use a Chromebox connected to a 24-inch display, wireless keyboard and mouse.
So instead of picking up my MacBook Pro every time I ran into an issue, I decided to use the difficulty:
I bought a webcam that doesn’t need drivers and works with the Chromebox
When I needed to use Vidyo or Skype to talk to my colleagues I used the Android app
I used the opportunity to try appear.in (a WebRTC app)
What surprised me was just how easy it all was. No need to update apps. No perceptible slowdowns. No spinning beachball of death. Everything I needed to do as part of my current job was possible by using the web.
At Mozilla we say that “the web is the platform”. It’s almost like a mantra. By that we mean that, as the world’s largest public resource, the web is big enough, fast enough, and open enough for everyone to use on a full-time basis.
To prove this, we made FirefoxOS, a mobile operating system comprised entirely of web-native technologies. But FirefoxOS devices aren’t the only ones that lean heavily on the web for their functionality. Google Chromebooks have a stripped-down version of Linux that boots directly into Google’s Chrome web browser.
The meme over the last few years seems to have been that Chromebooks (and by extension, I guess, FirefoxOS devices) are for other people – you know, the type that “just do a little bit of web browsing here and there.” They’re not for us power users.
Even if you can do everything you need to be able to do on a Chromebook, switching from any operating system to any other operating system is going to cause some friction. I use OS X to get most of my work done because it’s got a bunch of built-in features and applications that I like. I use Full Screen Mode to keep my laptop’s display organized and uncluttered. I like Limechat because it’s got a bunch of preferences and settings that lets me change the way it looks and works. I like Messages because it lets me connect to our XMPP server and Google Talk and iMessage, all within one client.
That’s what bothers me the most about Chrome OS. It’s not that you can’t do a lot with a Chromebook. It’s not even about getting used to different tools. It’s just that the operating system works so differently from established desktop operating systems that you’ll have to alter many of your normal workflows. No one’s saying it’s impossible to do, but for people used to something else it can be a laborious process.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with native apps. I really like Scrivener, Notational Velocity, and others. But unless you’ve got unusual requirements I reckon that in 2014 you should have a workflow that can use the web as the platform. In other words, being away from your own machine and ‘perfect setup’ shouldn’t dent your productivity too much.
One blocker to all this, of course, is other people. For example, it’s very difficult to move away from using Skype (which doesn’t have a web client) because it’s the de facto standard for business VoIP communication. That is only likely to change when there’s a critical mass of people familiar enough with different technologies to be able to switch to them quickly and easily. Hopefully WebRTC will expedite this process!
So, in conclusion, if you’ve got a workflow that depends upon a particular native app, perhaps it’s time to look for an alternative?* Then, at the minimum you’ve got that alternative up your sleeve in a pinch, and at best you may find you want to switch to it full time.**
Ever wondered why Mozilla’s Firefox web browser exists? It’s because about 10 years ago Microsoft had sewn-up about 90% of the market and was creating vendor lock-in through anti-competitive practices. You can read about this in the History of the Mozilla Project. Happily, Mozilla were successful and now there’s at least two high-quality alternatives to Microsoft Internet Explorer – which itself has become more aligned with web standards. It’s a win for everyone who uses the web.
The next battleground is mobile. Although Google’s Android mobile Operating System (OS) is billed as ‘open’, for example, it’s not really developed in the usual Open Source way: the source code tends to be released long after each iteration of the OS. Apple, meanwhile, maintains a notoriously closed ecosystem with a stringent procedure for inclusion in their App Store. They also control how you can get things on and off iOS devices in order to make money from the iTunes store.
Amazon, meanwhile, is a fairly new to the mobile device game. They’ve taken Android and significantly modified it – including defaulting to their own app store. They’ve slashed the price of the Kindle Fire 2 (with, cleverly, ‘special offers and sponsored screensavers’) for Black Friday* making it a loss-leader. They’re betting on making the money back through Kindle book purchases, Amazon Prime subscriptions, and Lovefilm streaming.
So even though we may have multiple vendors it’s essentially similar problem to the Internet Explorer issue ten years ago. You may get shiny new ways to consume things that the vendor is selling you, but it’s not a great situation, overall.
You want a tablet? For Christmas 2012 that means you’re going to need to choose your vendor lock-in.
Thankfully, all this is set to change in 2013. Why? Two reasons. First, Mozilla are working on Firefox OS built entirely of standards-based web technologies. Secondly, Ubuntu Linux is being developed for mobile devices like the Nexus 7 and (even more excitingly) you’ll soon be able to run an entire desktop OS from your docked smartphone.
My conclusion? Buy a tablet if you have to, but be aware that real choice is around the corner…
Although it’s a proprietary, closed product I haven’t come across anything close to it for discovery. Take, for instance, a post entitled On Leaving Academia by Terran Lane, someone I’ve not come across before. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico.
Terran is off to join Google.
His post is neatly organised into section titles listing the reasons he’s leaving academia to join Google:
Opportunity to make a difference
Workload and family/life balance
Centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy
Hyper-specialization, insularity, and narrowness of vision
Mass production of education
Anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and attacks on science and academia
Whereas he’s decided to quit academia, I’ve made a conscious choice from the start to stay on its sidelines. Around the margins. On the edges. Whilst the logical thing to do after my doctorate would have been to apply for a research position or lectureship at a university, I decided against it.
Not only would I be earning half the amount of money I am now – and less than when I was teaching in schools – but it seems a spectacularly bad time to decide to become a career academic. No money, no status, no freedom. And with the introduction of a market into UK Higher Education it’s increasingly difficult for academics to even claim the high moral ground.
That’s not to say academics aren’t doing good, publicly-useful work. Of course they are. It’s just crunch time in their industry.
I think we’re going to see a lot more of this talent-drain from academia. In fact, we’re already seeing a new generation of people not satisfied with traditional career structures and ways of working. I’m not sure if this is good or bad in the scheme of things, given the direction the universities (in the UK) seem to be headed under the current government.
What I do know is that universities need to do something, and fast. The Bank of Goodwill doesn’t have infinite reserves…