A Little Bit of Life Hacking With Google
A philosophical exploration of data tracking and collection, with a few tips and tricks.
I will admit to being a Google Fan. As much as people love to malign the company for their personal data collection, I’ve taken a rather philosophical view towards their practices. I think they’re much better than Facebook, but I’m not pleased with the way they’ve hollowed out journalism with their advertising fees. I think that overall though, I’m OK with Google.
Google collects an enormous sum of data every hour of every day. Then they organize it into something that is useful. I’d like to share with you some of the ways we can exploit that data and how we can put it to our own good use. In this essay, I will cover a few tips and tricks with Chromebooks, Google Assistant, Google Maps, and My Activity, a record of all activities recorded by Google.
I’ve been using Chromebooks for years now. I have enjoyed using Chromebooks, which run ChromeOS, for their utility and small footprint. After a few weeks of working on a Chromebook, I found that a full-blown operating system is an overkill for much of the work I do on computers. The reason for this that most of the applications I work on are built to run in browsers. The ChromeOS is a very well designed, nearly perfect evolution of the browser and operating system.
I have seen ChromeOS referred to as a browser operating system. The primary human interface for the ChromeOS operating system is the Chrome browser. If you use the Chrome browser on Windows, Mac, or Linux (the latter is my preferred OS), you will find Chrome on a Chromebook to be very familiar to you. The thing to remember with ChromeOS is that every application runs in a browser.
When you log in to ChromeOS, the first thing it loads is the Chrome browser with the same settings that you have from other computers that you have used Chrome on. The bookmarks, the credentials for secure sites that you have saved, your history, all of that stuff, are there from the moment you log in.
To further underscore the point that everything is a browser in ChromeOS, try the following exercise on any ChromeOS device (for most of us, that would be a Chromebook): 1) close all the windows with your mouse (or control+w); 2) press Control+t to open a new tab. In ChromeOS, control+t opens a new tab even when there is no apparent browser running. That’s because the operating system is a browser.
There are numerous programs that come preinstalled on ChromeOS. Gmail, Messages, the Play Store. They all run in a browser. I’ve proven this point to myself by installing the Twitter application (I’m a fan) and running it in full-screen mode. Full-screen mode means that there is no title bar for the application, and the dock at the bottom of the screen, where all the shortcuts and icons are, is hidden from view. In Windows, everything else besides the browser would be hidden from view when Chrome is running in full-screen mode. In ChromeOS, The Twitter application running in full-screen mode looks identical to what you would see if you visited Twitter.com in a browser, and then enabled full-screen mode.
Since there was no real functional difference between the Twitter app and Twitter on the browser, I removed the Twitter app. In many use cases, the browser has greater utility than the “native” apps that we can install. Every app on ChromeOS has a website that it uses as a data source. All the Google Apps are designed to run in the browser. Most of the default shortcuts we see in the dock at the bottom of the screen are really just browser shortcuts that lead to a URL that corresponds to the app.
This means that instead of using the Medium app on Chrome, I can open multiple browser tabs to Medium and use one page for reference while writing something else on another tab. I can’t do that with the Medium app, and that makes the Medium app less useful to me than Medium in the browser. The Chrome browser is flexible and powerful enough to have multiple tabs open to the same website, with each tab on a different page. This flexibility is what makes Chrome, and ChromeOS a joy to work with.
I’m a fan of the Google Assistant. I’ve been using it with Google Home and other smart devices for simple home automation for a couple of years now. I’ve had a very positive experience with automation when I was a young man, and I’ve been fascinated with it since. The Google Home and Hub along with Chromecast and other Google Assistant-enabled devices seemed to me like a natural evolution of my interest in automation.
If you’re familiar with the Google Assistant, you know that you can invoke the assistant with “OK, Google” or “Hey Google”. All Chromebooks have Google Assistant built-in, and they will respond to your voice commands if there are no other Google Assistant-enabled devices nearby. So even though my Chromebook might hear my command, a Google Home Hub nearby will do the work.
Although voice commands are the norm, the Google Assistant has a facility that allows for typing commands. This is true for both phones and ChromeOS devices. On newer Chromebooks, I can press the assistant button:
On older devices, the keyboard shortcut to invoke the Google Assistant is Search+A. Once the Google Assistant is invoked, we see the prompt below:
Notice that the prompt says, “type a message.” This means that I can type a command rather than using my voice. (Note also that I can press tab once and press enter, to turn on the mic and issue a voice command.) This is a great alternative to using voice commands when the environment is noisy. I also like to type my commands when I want to turn off the TV without being noticed by the kids, or when I just want to be quiet about turning the lights on or off.
Google lets you choose. You can use your voice or you can type commands for the Google Assistant.
I’m a fan of Google Maps. I’ve been using the service for more than a decade now and with few exceptions, I’ve been very happy with the service. I’ve used Google Maps to plot courses, estimate time and distance for travel, and to find a restroom in the middle of the desert. I’ve never been completely lost with Google Maps.
In a recent article, I mentioned that I knew the last date I drove to work was March 11th. I know this because I can use the Google Maps Timeline to see where I’ve been. I can also use the Timeline to estimate the number of miles I drove on my last trip, my last errand, and to recall where I was before when I saw that new Indian restaurant pop up out of nowhere.
I can use Google Maps to mark my favorite locations and share them. Google Maps makes it easy to meet up with other people because the location can be easily shared. I can also use Google Maps to help others find me if I need help.
I’m well aware that Google records my activities. With phones, tablets, laptops, and smart devices around me, every command, every search, every movement is recorded. This is not just for Google’s advertising reference. I can use it for my reference, too. My Activity allows one to look at everything that Google records and use it for reference. You can start using it by pointing a browser to:
Welcome to My Activity
Data helps make Google services more useful for you. Sign in to review and manage your activity, including things…
There, you will find a record of every web page you’ve visited, every voice command you’ve issued, your travel history, and your use of Google Apps. CNET has a really good write up on it here (dated but still relevant). It’s all searchable, too. Chances are, if you did something on a Google device, with a Google device, or with Google Software, you can find it in the My Activity Dashboard.
I’ve used My Activity to find an interesting article that inspired me to write my own — this is much more effective than using the browsing history. I’ve used it to see what commands I’ve issued. I can see all of my search queries, too. So I know where I’ve been, and Google does too.
The one thing that My Activity does not do is record the songs you’ve heard on Google Play Music. I’ve been using that service for years now, too. I’ll ask it to play one song knowing that it will play other songs like the first one, but from artists I’ve never heard of. I find myself so enthralled while driving, that I plan to go back and find out what that set of songs was, but that history is not recorded. If I like a song, I have to stop the music and let the Assistant know that I like that song. That’s a record that My Activity can find.
My Philosophy About All Of This
I know that it’s a lot to take in. All of your activities are being recorded. I didn’t have this when I was a kid, in fact, not even until I hit middle age. I know well what life was like before all of this recording business. I know how the mental narrative has changed. I know that what goes through my mind now includes not just what I think but also, what others think, too — just because I read something every day on the internet.
Cell phones and other devices have become a part of our way of life. I know that my location, what I’m doing, what I’ve said, how much money I make, where I spend it, and everything else is recorded. I know that Google is collecting all of it. Somebody really wants that information. The forces that want that information are, to a large extent, inexorable.
To me, it’s a very interesting transaction. I give up my privacy for a ton of “free” services. I have to admit I’m very happy with the services received. I think it’s also fair to say that if it wasn’t Google, it’d be Microsoft or Apple or some other upstart of a company. I know that it’s there. Whether it’s used for good or evil, I can’t really be sure. If there are people who would use my data for evil, then they have much bigger problems than I do. If they use it for good, then perhaps we can all get along.
I know that it’s going somewhere, all that data. I know that I could “delete” it all if I wanted to. I could delete my Google Account completely, but data storage is so cheap that I’m sure it would still be out there, somewhere. I guess I’m a data nihilist. I really don’t worry about what they’re doing with the data. I just make a point to be mindful of what I put into it.
If Google is using my data to make the services they offer work better for me, then so be it. I accept that. I also know they’re using it to help businesses target their advertising. You know, if businesses are going to use my data to target their advertising, rather than resist giving them the data, I will give it to them. I will use this relationship that I have with Google as a way to influence the people who want to sell me stuff.
I use it like voting. When I get a call for a survey, I answer the call and give the survey. If I win stuff, that’s nice, but what’s more important to me is that as long as the data is being collected, I might as well use some discretion in what data is presented by me. I might as well make the best use of this opportunity to influence the producers of the stuff I buy, to make the stuff I want.
I know, it kind of sounds like a rain dance. But that’s because there are no guarantees. I can only hope that the data I create is being put to good use. Or I can be a hermit and you can call me Jeremiah Johnson. I know what isolation looks like, and I know it’s name. So I’m here. Raising a family, working a day job, doing what I know how to do. I make do with what I have around me, and if that means sharing data to get really good services like email, voice, text, maps, and a bunch of other services that work well for me, I can live with that.
I’ll be OK. That’s what I think about all of this. I’ll be OK.