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Can Google be trusted with our digital wellbeing?

Among Google's recent product announcements was Digital Wellbeing, a suite of tools and personal assistant features to help manage your time online, enact parental controls, and spend less time viewing screens. My first reaction was that this seemed counterintuitive to Google's business, which thrives on and competes for user "engagement" and mindshare.

It's a topical gesture with tech ever-encroaching into our lives, but I think it's little more than a gesture at Google's scale. These wellbeing products and their marketing seem at least partially designed to further entrench users in the Google ecosystem and mislead us, and I wouldn't call that wellbeing.

Product lineup

Google assistant

Use voice controls to send messages, control media, and automate your internet of doodads. Invest some time (and money) into this setup and you'll be spending less time using screens, right? Maybe not. I wonder if users will reinvest that time right back into a device again. Without self-enforced controls, voice assistants have the potential to just increase engagement with a platform.

Amid all the conveniences built into devices and services these days, I still don't feel like I've somehow been freed to now spend extra time elsewhere. It's entirely on users like me to prioritize their time, but the point is that users who aren't disciplined about device time before buying a Google assistant won't magically be after despite what the marketing says.

Smart replies

Android smart reply and Gmail smart compose impressed me with their ability to piece together replies with a minimum of thinking. It's that last part which also worries me.

Sure, some conversation contains a lot of boilerplate and repetition, especially in business. But we all know how it feels to receive a generic "Hello $customer" e-mail. How will we feel when our friends and family are using cookie-cutter replies on us? Worse, what happens to literacy as AI takes over more and more of a user's writing responsibilities? Is that digital wellbeing?

Overusing smart reply will be just as impersonal as having a speechwriter prepare statements for you, but with less human thought behind it.

Duplex AI

Duplex is an AI system for holding natural phone conversations with businesses to inquire about hours or make bookings. This is still an experimental technology in a limited domain, but it shows signs of things to come.

As the authors allude to, something like Duplex could call up businesses and inquire about information not yet present online. It's a natural extension to web crawling, so maybe tele-captchas will be a thing one day.

I just hope we don't get to the point of "OK Google: call grandma and wish her a happy birthday."

Personalized maps and news

Other announcements included a more personalized maps experience and AI-driven news aggregation. I have already covered my thoughts on personalization and aggregators. In short, I feel that the results can become an echo of yourself or a community, with little diverse perspective. It takes an active effort to seek out other perspectives, and we can't rely on a passive system to do it for us. Sometimes we don't know what we like until we try it.

Until the point where users become frustrated, there is little incentive for such systems to optimize for your needs and every incentive to optimize for the platform's.

The Google News announcement promises to keep us fully informed on the most important headlines, using sources we trust. But it also raises questions:

  • Can just any source pay for a featured spot in the newsstand? How is this vetted?
  • How is the video content being pulled in from YouTube? Will it favour monetized channels? Can it be exploited to promote fake news?
  • How exactly does For You judge what's most important for the topics you follow?
  • Is Google really experimenting with the visually-oriented layout? Or do they already know that's what will keep users in the app rather than linking out?
  • What sources will be present in Full Coverage and Headlines? Is it truly unfiltered or will it be subject to regulation and censorship depending on your locale?

Parental and personal controls

On the wellbeing page, there's also a slew of controls over everything from YouTube time to lockouts to content blocking. For parental controls, I think Google's own intro hits the heart of the issue:

Kids today are growing up with technology, not growing into it like previous generations

It's not to say older generations grew up without technology, but maybe not with such ubiquitously addictive technology as exists today.

But let's take a step back from that intro. Google is implying that "growing into it" is passé, and that parents need to adapt to the new reality that kids grow up with technology. Why should we accept that reality? This is the first part of a sales pitch in disguise, and I don't believe it's necessarily true. There's nothing forcing parents to buy their kids tablets and cell phones.

There is plenty of nuance in digital citizenship which kids should understand. While Google's "Be Internet Awesome" Interland game and digital citizenship safety curriculum are a good start to education, they certainly aren't complete. If parents completely buy in to the Google parental control suite and don't teach their kids about vendor lock-in, online business models, privacy, and comparing alternatives, they'll be raising another loyal customer.

Conclusions

Great technology should improve life, not distract from it.

I agree with this premise. Technology should enrich our lives and not become the centerpiece. It's the means to an end; it's not the end itself. But the effort sounds disingenuous if what's preached about wellbeing is not practiced holistically.

I also don't want to sound too cynical. A lot of the Android P features, for example, look genuinely helpful and in the spirit of unobtrusive convenience. I'm sure there are plenty of well-meaning folks at Google and elsewhere who aim to help users achieve more with less through the healthy application of technology.

Let's see how far their commitment goes, but ultimately it's still our responsibility as consumers to look after number one.