Just Between You and Me (and Gmail)

Remember privacy? Soon you won’t anymore.

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So the U.S. Postal Service has a $10 billion deficit. Who doesn’t? That’s no reason to say goodbye to good-old, undeterred-by-rain/sleet/snow/dogs, hand-carried mail. Never mind the nostalgia. There is real value in being able to stuff something in an envelope, seal it, and send it with reasonable confidence it’ll make it to your intended recipient.

Most importantly, no one else will read it.

Conversely, Gmail—for all of its miraculous, free convenience—is nosy, pushy and on the verge of driving me nuts.

With every e-mail I send through Gmail, the ads and links on the side of my screen change, depending on the content of that e-mail. This is not new, and I’m sure most users have developed a sharp ability to ignore the margins.

At first, I found it merely disconcerting to have my e-mails combed through by Big Ad Brother. But then a friend was divulging the results of her mammogram; and Gmail said, “More about mammograms” and offered a link. It also offered links for post-surgical bras and breast implants. It felt intrusive. Who asked Gmail for its medical or aesthetic input? It’s one thing when I use the search engine. It’s quite another when the engine searches me.

When I e-mailed a friend about my recent driving mishap—I backed into another car and knocked my tail light out—Gmail butted in, “Geico Auto Insurance,” “More About Neck Pain” and “Akers Chiropractic.”

When I e-mailed to a friend, “Sorry I missed your call,” Gmail spoke up, “$1 Call Answering Service.”

And this exchange:

Me: “Did you see Mitt Romney in North Las Vegas?”

Friend: “Total douchebag.”

Gmail links: “More About Douche. More About Bag. Mitt Romney 2012.”

Me: “Worse—Perry.”

Friend: “Dick.”

Gmail: “Barack Obama Lies” and “Rush Limbaugh.”

I like to imagine a boiler room full of tech people reading the world’s infinitely boring e-mails, scanning them for key words from which to hang sales pitches. Of course it’s not like that, because the industry’s whole point is to make technology do everything, but I still love the visual. (Does that mean I’m anthropomorphizing technology?)

However amusing, though, this technology has become a third party to my two-way conversations, an unwelcome personality in my messages. While it’s not new (nor is the fact that everything online is subject to someone else’s business interests), it makes me more keenly aware of our loss of privacy. Even when a people-less program such as this picks up on key words and delivers paid ads automatically, a certain intimacy of communication is lost. The presence of others is felt. We feel our words sliding through a digital sieve and being divvied up for sale. I’m so tired of saying Orwell was right, but he was right: Big Brother really is watching us. Enter the pathetic headlines about the U.S. Postal Service being unable to pay its bills (about which, by the way, I was informed in an e-mail). The Obama administration is bandaging the problem for now, but a complete overhaul of the quaint system involving stationary and penmanship and people walking from door to door seems inevitable. Already there is talk of shutting down hundreds of post offices and stopping Saturday delivery.

It’s too bad. Letters have a long history of being personal in nature, and even those letters that have subsequently become public—Abe Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby, or the letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo—were composed with the belief that the addressee would be the lone recipient. It’s a confidence that allows for more unadulterated thoughts to surface. It’s a private undertaking.

In an e-mail I sent the other day, I typed the once-personal words, “I love you.”

Gmail offered, “More About I Love You.” When I clicked it—perturbed but amused— I found ads for “Cute I Love You Cards” and “Ashra’s Love Spells” and, mysteriously, “Teach English in Japan.” Had I wanted Google’s advice on love, I would’ve Googled it.

And worse, now I’m forever wondering if I’m destined to find love in Japan.