Freedom from nagging

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 17, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Freedom from nagging software is not one of the Free Software Foundation's four freedoms. However, after several days of setting up my new Samsung Galaxy Tab 4  to avoid as many unwanted notifications as possible, I wonder if it shouldn't be the fifth.

On my KDE Plasma desktop, the only nagging is for upgrades -- and that can be turned off. In fact, as on many desktop environments, I can set which notifications to display. Having long ago set my notifications so that only essential system messages display, I can focus on my work, confident in the knowledge that my thoughts will not be interrupted by a bit of system trivia that I can read later.

Unfortunately, not having bought a pre-loaded computer for a few years, I had mercifully forgot that notifications operate differently in the commercial world. The fact that I bought an Android device should not have lulled me into forgetting the obvious -- in the name of providing services to me, I was condemned to drown in a steady stream of messages that, properly harnessed, could provide the electricity for a small city for several centuries.

The deluge began with the setup wizard, which swept over me before I was ready. The Home screen had barely popped into view when I was awash in a series of messages. Google wanted me to enter an account. So did Dropbox and the generic email reader. At least two -- I forget which -- wanted permission to locate me by GPS. Then Gmail got in the act, and on it went. If I hadn't declined most of them, trusting I could configure them later, I might have forgotten what I was doing -- never mind that I was doing nothing more complicated than booting my tablet.

When the home screen finally appeared, I imagined that I had survived the worst. But I was being naive. One or two of the apps I rejected evidently felt neglected, because they inquired, apparently at random, if I would like a relationship with them after all. When I bought a book on Google Play, it got into the act, sending me emails telling me that I had bought the pages I was reading. I was just starting to relax, thinking that the worst was over, when Android decided that an update that was several months old could no longer wait. Several apps, sensing the system upgrade, were soon doing the same.

No wonder Adult Attention Deficit Disorder is so widespread. I felt as though I had landed in the middle of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," and been provided headphones that emitted blasts of random noise to keep my thinking from becoming better than the statistical average.

I know, of course, that a tablet is not meant for serious work, although people have been known to try, either out of bravado, or because they were traveling. And I have worked at coffee shops and on public transit, so I don't exactly suffer from a short attention span. But, seriously, with all these interruptions, how does anyone accomplish anything on commercial hardware? Even checking your email becomes a major feat of determination.

What makes the whole situation even more unbearable is my impression that all these services are supposed to be a benefit. I never asked for most of them, and many I have no desire to use. Some duplicate the services of others, yet none coordinate their activities. Many I would prefer to delete so I never deal with them again, but the best I can do is hide or disable them. They still lurk somewhere in memory, and I suspect that, come next system upgrade, at least some of them will come slinking around again, asking for forgiveness in the hopes that I have forgotten the horror of dealing with them.

No wonder rooting Android devices is so popular. It's not just a technical challenge, or even the demonstration of support for free software. It's a last, desperate struggle for sanity before you tear off your shirt and pick up the nearest battle axe to go charging into battle screaming hymns to Lord Odin.

The fifth freedom
Freedom from nagging may not fit comfortably into the four software freedoms. However, in the last decade, the Free Software Foundation has equated free software with control of your computer. All jokes aside, I would maintain that notifications that I do not want but cannot delete, and that distract me from my work are a significant diminishment of anybody's control of their devices.

Nor am I just vocalizing a pet peeve. The way notifications are arranged on most commercial devices is also a violation of least privilege, the basic adage of computer security that states that no application should have more access to system resources than it absolutely requires to operate. Many of the apps sending notifications demand far more access than they need, including the right to upgrade in the future without asking you. Unlike the apps in Google Play, many do not even explain in general terms, exactly what they access.

Add the fact that many of the notifications come from remote services, and the obvious conclusion is that manufacturers are pushing machines whose security is hopelessly compromised before they leave the factory. To say the least, this practice is irresponsible, all the more so because it means keeping users ignorant and exposed while presenting their lack of knowledge and control as a benefit.

Buying a new computer should be at least a minor event, noteworthy even to those who have bought dozens in their lives. Yet perhaps the worst thing about the comprehensive system of pre-installed nagware is that it takes what should be a pleasure and transforms it into a sustained exercise in frustration. Surely consumers deserve better?

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