Trying to Reach Google Escape Velocity

In years past, I had almost no reservations about giving myself to Google. The loving embrace of the brightly-colored letters made me feel safe on a web full of strange, dark corners. Google gave me insight into the contents of the web as well as all the data I put into it. The trade seemed fair to me; I go about my business while letting unseen machines and their keepers knead my data and distill its essence, and in exchange I get the convenience of having almost anything I could need on the web anytime, anywhere. In short, I welcomed our robot overlords and counted myself among the ones who would be spared in the machine uprising—or at least eventually made into a pet for some superintelligence.

In recent months, my feelings have changed. I no longer see Google—or any of the companies I’ve carelessly entered into a relationship with—as a provider of convenience powered by data I didn’t care about anyway. Instead, I agree with many of the people who’ve been warning about the dangers of this model for years. The trade isn’t worth it for me anymore; I care more about my ability to secure and even anonymize my data than I do about the convenience I may find in accessing it.

I think I’ve changed my mind on this issue mostly because I’ve learned enough about computing systems to know how fragile they can be. I don’t claim to know much more than that, but it’s obvious to me at least that the magic of computers is often simple and sometimes dangerous in its nonchalance. Laziness, ignorance, and even deliberate negligence exist in much larger quantities than many consumers understand, I think. This is perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the fierce openness of Internet culture; since anyone can do anything, implementation speed joined with right-place-right-time happenstance pushes good but hacked-together solutions to the top of the market, leaving slower, more considered systems behind.

But what do I know? I’m just a dude with data, like anybody else. The real reason I started writing this screed was to talk about how I’m trying to reach Google Escape Velocity. Someday, I’d like to permanently close my Google account. I’m not there yet, but it’s been a serious process to get even partially to my goal. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Mail: I run my own email server on a Linode, and I’ve forwarded my Gmail account to my primary self-hosted account. Slowly, I plan to update accounts that email the old address to point directly to the new one. I’ve had issues with delivery to at least one domain (looking at you, outlook.com), but overall I’ve found success here. It was a long road, though, and email still confounds me as a system sometimes. That it works at all is amazing.
  • Notes: Until recently, I used Google Keep to store lots (and lots) of little notes to myself. I use a GTD-like system to keep my life in order, and Keep was great for inboxes. I’ve shopped around for a good replacement, but I’ve decided I don’t want to centralize this part of my system with any single party if I can avoid it. I’ve been using StackEdit for long-form stuff for a while, so my plan is to switch completely over to that, even for little things, and point the client at a self-hosted CouchDB instance rather than use StackEdit’s servers.
  • Task Tracking: I use Todoist, which I quite like, but I sign into it through my Google account. I recently experimented with raw todo.txt, but even I found the manual text file jockeying to be too much. I need to trust my task tracking system in order to stay sane, and Todoist hasn’t failed me yet. I’m currently riding a year-long Premium subscription, but maybe there’s a way to transfer my account to an email address without losing that—to say nothing of my precious, precious Karma.
  • Podcasts: I listen to a lot of podcasts. They fill in the gaps in my daily life. I started out with Podcast Addict on Android some years ago, and then I switched to Pocketcasts. Now, I just use gPodder on my laptop and transfer the raw files to my phone using adb. Once there, I play them using VLC and delete them when I’m finished. There’s something I like about this method. I think I just enjoy the disconnectedness of it; if it’s not on my phone, then I can’t play it. (I mean, I can, but it would take just enough effort to not be worth it.)
  • Online Video: I follow about thirty channels on YouTube, but I didn’t want to deal with the endless rabbit hole that is YouTube recommendations. I just wanted to see the videos that my subscribed channels post, nothing more. Invidious has proven to be a great match for me. I run a local instance on my laptop, so I just go to localhost:3000 and click around. Obviously, the data is still coming from YouTube, but at least YouTube doesn’t know who I am—at least not well, I think—and I am much less likely to get sucked into needless clicking and watching. (That can be fun, but I have things to do.)
  • Smartphone: I got a OnePlus One way back in December 2014, and when CyanogenMod stopped releasing updates, I didn’t have the knowledge, interest, and courage to try to flash something else onto it. Several years later, I do have those qualities (some more than others), and it’s proven pretty easy to root the device and flash LineageOS. I’m running a minimal installation without any Google Apps, and everything is more or less fine. I replaced the battery a few months back, so between that and keeping it off a fair amount of the time, I only charge the device every other day or so.
  • Search: Instead of using Google, I use DuckDuckGo. I know, such skill.

I could go on, but those are the big items. I still need to figure out a good filesharing and cloud spreadsheet system (NextCloud?), and some other stuff, but we’re making progress.