The Magician’s Apprentice
If you don’t know the story of the Magician’s Apprentice, you should, because it’s a fantastic cautionary tale for the age of the technological commons. When the wizard, who is older and wiser, steps out for a while, the apprentice decides to use one of his spells to naively ‘make life easier’. Enchanted brooms begin to carry in buckets of water, but they don’t stop and multiply at every attempt to stop them, leading to an uncontrollable flood.
With Google’s engineering-first, consequences-later approach, we’re hitting a point where the brooms are getting out of control and the water is starting to rise. With Buzz, we have yet another deployment of their notion of a well-meaning science experiment that ignores our human reality. While it’s never classy to link to TechCrunch, this post by Robin Wauters deserves mention for bringing to light a failure in trust and social savvy on Google’s part. The quotable section is actually pulled from another blog that is now behind a password wall:
I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.
There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.
You know who my third most frequent contact is?
My abusive ex-husband.
Which is why it’s SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I’ve made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.
The practice of foisting a new social networking reality onto people who happen to use your product is inexcusable, and Google is not alone in doing so but its mass (like that of Facebook’s) brings along with it the responsibility of treading more carefully.
Given Google’s preference to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, their impulsive changes to the terms of social engagement through their tools have tarnished the trust around their brand, and may have put people in physical danger at the extreme end of things. The problem is, there’s no wise wizard who can come back and right the mess that these well-meaning apprentice’s have made.