I suppose it’s a measure of my social insignificance that I don’t get very many emails to my personal account in a day — no more than dozen or so tops, and a few of those are from automated mailing lists. I have never had much trouble keeping up with that influx. So I can’t say that the priority inbox feature that Google is rolling out — described here by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo — is targeted at me. But it bothers me nonetheless, and for the usual reasons. They want to assume responsibility for some of our tedious decision-making tasks so as to better develop a simulacrum of our thinking processes, to anticipate what we want as an intermediary step to knowing better how to dictate our desires.
Google proposes to collect information about your priorities so that it can sort your mail for you before you see it and perhaps even ensure that some emails deemed unworthy of you never offend your eyes, much the way most spam is effectively banished to junk folders. Manjoo describes how it is supposed to work:
Priority Inbox looks for signals that a message is especially valuable. Among other things, it analyzes your experience with a particular sender—is a message from someone whose mail you tend to open and reply to? Was the e-mail sent only to you, or was it part of an e-mail list? Did the message contain keywords that have proved interesting to you in the past? If a message makes the threshold for importance, Gmail marks it with a small yellow tag. These messages will appear at the top of your inbox, above the rest of your mail.
That seems semi-innocuous, automating a process you can set up manually with Gmail’s existing filtering features. What makes this whole thing sinister is this: Manjoo notes that “Priority Inbox promises to get better the more I use it. Google has added two buttons that let you train the system—you press one button to mark a message as important, and another to mark it unimportant.” To call it “training the system” is to put a benign aspect on what’s really the collection of highly intimate personal data about your social life and encoding in a way that makes it immediately operational. It’s in effect a Google initiative to get a hold of some of the “social graph” data Facebook is designed to collect and own — who cares about who, what, when, and why. Facebook spits out its status update feed on the basis of such information and is always refining it through its monitoring of our interactions with the site. No doubt Google would like to offer future marketers something similar in terms of proof-of-concept: “See, we can mimic their own decision making so well that they accept it as their own!”