Outside the Interface: Zen and the Value of Google Privacy

Today I opened something somewhere online and got another nag message from Google about its new privacy policy. The nag message invited me to “dismiss” it, a language choice that reflects a mildly amusing and disturbing political and interpersonal frame that we’ve developed with internet computing. Perhaps my amusement about being nagged over privacy derives from my almost-divorced status, but that is neither here nor there.

I’m not going to waste time knifing through the current policy change. The short version: it will consolidate the privacy options for multiple Google services into one statement for the user to accept or reject with one click of a button, all for the sake of clarity and simplicity. Bundled privacy, in other words. I’ll get back to Google, but I want to talk about the issue of interface. This will be a branching, circuitous route, so bear with me.

Sherry Turkle’s notion of “interface value” claims we suspend disbelief, we immerse ourselves in and with the medium because the user interface itself disappears. We remain immersed on the surface and we don’t look underneath “the hood” in order to have the experience. We get jarred out of the frame when things disconnect and fail to work. Driving a motorcycle is an example of this. My example is intentional because of Robert Pirsig‘s famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig’s beautifully anxious deliberation over the technological and humanistic views of the world (.pdf) traverses the same terrain. The character Sylvia prefers just to ride the motorcycle and enjoy the romantic experience. She doesn’t want to know how the gritty, greasy camshaft works even when the motorcycle breaks down.

So, that’s interface value. It’s a problem. A big one.

I’ve clicked on the nag button three times today.

I hate being nagged. I get this nagging feeling. Google is playing a game with me because, really, they want me to be dismissive of their policy changes. The nag button appeared on my screen seamlessly. I rolled my mouse, clicked, and it disappeared; it was harmless, inconsequential. I haven’t read the policy. I swatted the link away with less effort than I do a fly. The action appealed to my “twitch speed” mentality and I derived video-game satisfaction from accomplishing something. It’s quite possibly more than I’ve accomplished all day, in fact.

Then, as part of my digital ranconteurism, I posted about it on Facebook. I couldn’t recall whether it was a Facebook policy change or a Google policy change. So I posted about that too. Then I observed, in another Facebook post, that it didn’t matter because Google and Facebook run together interchangeably, at least in regard to privacy policy, their functional interactivity in my desktop browser, and in my way of interacting in the digital world. All of this is rather terrifying if I stop to think about the political, economic, and social camshafts and tappets that are humming beneath the shiny interface, not to mention the technological ones.

As I posted while sitting on my desk chair, which is decidedly not a motorcycle, I recalled one of the articles I used a decade ago in my cyberculture class about these issues. Specifically, there’s an article called Foucault in Cyberspace, by Duke law professor James Boyle. It treats digital libertarianism, censorship, and technical solutions to regulating behavior (the V chip, DRM technology). It’s an appropriately sentimental journey in light of SOPA. Boyle argues you can’t regulate behaviors, beliefs, and norms through technology. Or, well, you can. But it’s wrongheaded. On top of it, you can’t. Really. For every application of technologized power, there’s an invitation to invent something that will break it or hack it. On top of it, it’s morally wrong. So you shouldn’t. You just shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, “interface value” lulls us into complacency by the lovely interface. If I stopped to read that damn privacy policy, which I never did – I just read someone else’s summary of it – I might have objected or refused to participate. I’m not going to read it, though, and Google counts on that. They appease their “Don’t Be Evil” corporate conscience with the nag button (“Honey, I told you three times last week we’re having company for dinner”). I just pull the New York Times higher over my face to block out the annoyance.

See, when the interface or the camshaft breaks, I yell because my user experience is interrupted. I don’t like it when Facebook makes me revamp my page. I will post vast amounts of complaints and click numerous “like” buttons on whatever website using whatever mobile device I can find to state my feelings about the issue. Things around me generally keep hidden the deeper, complex relationships that make them function.  If you’ve read Pirsig’s Zen, you’ll recognize I have a strong streak of Sylvia in me. I just don’t want to know. Let me ride in comfort. The post-Bush/Patriot Act world of eroded privacy and increased censorship isn’t encroaching on my “like” button in any immediately obvious way. The Google formula that keeps things from appearing on my search hits and the Facebook formula that feeds me ads instead of showing me my friends’ posts illustrate the encoded lack of transparency. The interface hides it all from us, but because our experience is seamless and comfortable, we are content.

What resonates about Pirsig here is that he wanted something to resolve the binary between the knife-wielding classicist view that slices up all the code beneath the interface and the romantic, paint-brush view that uncritically sentimentalizes the human experience. In the world of the interface, we seem stuck in the middle and oblivious to both ends. I don’t think that’s the kind of motorcycle ride that we need at our desks.

Incidentally, WordPress tries to comment on this betwixt and between in its unique way with lines such as “Code is Poetry.” I’m good at neither. I just want a “like” button for everything off the screen.

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