OMG! Gmail Turns 15-My tryst with the intrusive behemoth

There was Yahoo, there was Hotmail and somewhere along the way in 2004 came Gmail. It used to be by invite and I don’t quite remember who sent me one. But I started using Gmail in July 2004 (most Indians it seems missed Q1 invites or it took time getting to us ‘Bangalored’ folks) — and initially the lure was the 1 GB storage and to get my name as is as the email id and not have to add digits, invert it, et al. And I managed to get the handle I wanted (and I must thank my parents for choosing my name — all the mail accounts I’ve ever had have been @prasadsanyal).

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I had a Hotmail account and one from Yahoo but little-by-little, Gmail displaced these incumbents. Little wonder that if Luddites like me could be easily won over, Gmail today has over 1.5 billion monthly active users — that’s one in five of the world’s total population.

Over the years, the mail client has become by default login for various other apps and products and, I have inadvertently contributed to letting Google in on all aspects of my life. A small example of that would be how my android phone wakes me up with a reminder when I have a flight via the Google calendar, wants to know if I want to book a cab to the airport and Google Maps tell me the best route — Google seems to track my every move. Intrusive? Definitely but when I was slowly giving up my privacy to be targeted specifically for ads, and AI was influencing my behaviour, I never thought that with a simple mail account, things would come to such a pass.

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As the machine learnt how to read me better, I learnt what not to tell it — but somehow, it seems almost all is lost and in the dozen years that I was carefree with my information, the algorithm improved manifold. Sometimes I feel Google knows me better than my self and is able to predict my behaviour better than my long-suffering wife of 13 years. (Perhaps, I shall give Rashi my Google password, seeing that AI tracks me better than HI aka Human Intelligence — that way she’ll at least know what I’m upto! )

From the time Gmail was launched, Google has built the Chrome browser, which was launched by Sundar Pichai and the Android phones (9 in 10 smartphones worldwide are powered by Android and Chrome has replaced Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the world’s most preferred browser) — and Google has become a verb in the English language. What do you do when you want to know something? You Google it…

I was encouraged, almost incentivised to use my Gmail id as a login — the process was so simple and intuitive that I saw no reason not to. That was then. Now when I browse through sites, I’m mortified to make simple queries like ‘how much does this cost?’. Google will bombard you with suggestions to buy a product even if you so much as linger on an ad for a bit longer than usual.

Then there is YouTube, almost a default setting for videos — mostly free — and in this not paying for services, (for storage Gmail now offers 15GB free storage with each account) that bit-by-bit we have surrendered our privacy and freedom to this intrusive behemoth. So don’t bother about government surveillance or ‘the big brother in the sky’ — Google trumps all and we have given out this information on a platter just to get free mail, music and some such.