Shifting the paradigm

To make a long story short, I recently logged out of Gmail, and discovered a link to this YouTube video. It was kind of cheesy, and a little corny, but it was watchable (it didn’t kill me).

The comments were full of bashing, swearing, and cursing by Gmail users who felt it their duty to voice how they felt ignored, and how Gmail’s sorting of information was the worst ever invented.

Interestingly enough, a paradigm shift is when a widely held belief (such as the theory in which the mind and body are separate a la Descarte) changes. It is often joked (and said) that for a paradigm shift to occur, those holding the current paradigm need to die off.

E-mail, like nearly everything else on the Internet was once very open and trusting. These systems were primarily designed in academia (the Linux kernel was designed by Linus Torvalds while he was a student), where “trust” was open, and as such security wasn’t that big of an issue back then. Information was cool, and sharing was even cooler. MTAs (the server(s) that you communicate to when you want to send e-mails) were often setup by default to relay e-mail (a large source of spam some years ago, now not as big of a problem as evidenced by the shutdown of ORDB) and nobody was none the wiser. We got used to it then, all this sharing and openness. It was cool.

E-mail evolved into what it is today, with .maildir folders, and Mbox files for storage. Without getting into specifics, the e-mail folder on many IMAP servers is nothing more than a directory structure which holds your e-mails. Have you ever seen a directory tree with the little pluses and minuses a la Explorer in Windows? Its just like that. Your e-mail is generally stored like that.

We’ve been using folders for a long time now, and the idea of the folder has become deeply ingrained in our sense of organization. Its natural. When an e-mail from Aunt Mag comes in, we put it in the Aunt Mag folder. When a reply to that NSA** off of Craigslist comes in, delete it, and it goes away after you’re done with it.

Google called (and still is calling) for a paradigm shift, by simply changing the way we think about e-mail. It has not been without controversy.

Many technically aware people will probably recall when Gmail proposed using the content of e-mails to deliver advertising. Politicians and privacy advocates were beating their drums so loudly that they drowned out technical speakers with actual reason, than emotion.

At Google, there was a small paradigm-esque shift in the way they thought about advertising and e-mail too, although a very short one. Google’s senior management had first believed the very thing that many others had believed (parsing e-mails for advertising content was privacy intrusive). Initially, the idea was scrapped. The story* goes that a coder wrote in the system for contextual advertising anyway and linked them up with the e-mails. It was then re-presented to Google’s Larry and Sergey. They didn’t think it was so scary after seeing it again.

However, they probably realized what the world was thinking. The world was about to do the same thing when Gmail was released (into beta), except on a grander scale.

When Google got attention for their form of targeted advertising, people were in uproar. Senators got involved, and in general people donned their tin foil hats, clutching their copies of Orwell’s 1984. For many people, it seemed as if major corporations were coming down to take over the world.

To make a long story short, such parsing wasn’t new in the computer industry at all, it was automated, and to many computer scientists, trivial. Other agencies were doing the same form of contextual parsing in one form or another, and Google itself already had the e-mails. If they wanted to do something nefarious with them they could. Your own ISP could be doing the same thing, and so could Yahoo, or Hotmail. If you didn’t trust Google, how could you trust anybody else? Sure, you could run your own mail server but that entailed managing it. Software updates, spam maintenance, security tightening, backup issues, mail queues, load management..

E-mail (disregarding things like PGP signing/encryption) is an insecure medium, and one should not expect privacy when firing off e-mails through systems that are not within their direct control.

Going back to the YouTube video, labels, and such, are an interesting facet of how Gmail works. Instead of piling things into folders, you have labels. Aunt Mag no longer has a folder. She is in the same area as the NSA guy/girl down the street you go to every other week to have fun with**.

How is this different from a folder? A label’s feature is synonymous to a folder. When you click on a label it shows you all things that are labeled “xyz.” When you click on a folder, it shows you everything inside “xyz.”The archive is synonymous to clicking “show all e-mails” in your MUA (Mail User Agent, eg: Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Outlook, etc).

Same same, no?

And if you’re wondering..I run my own mail system. But sometimes I get ticked off by it enough (managing a mail server can become a full-time job) that I just run stuff to my Gmail account.

* AFAIK, I do not have the original article/video and cannot find it. Please leave a comment with corrective material, and/or a link if you do know where to find it.
** No strings attached (I looked it up while browsing the best-of-craigslist).. your first interpretation of this is probably dead on.


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