Gmail Hell, Day 4: Dealing with the Borg (Or “Being Evil” Without Really Thinking About It

Posted on February 25, 2012

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I’m an email guy.  I live (and live and maybe one day I’ll die) with email… I use email to do the online class I’m teaching at a major Canadian university, I use email to manage the online Journal of Community Informatics that I edit, I use email to host the bunch of Community Informatics email lists that I supervise, I use email to participate in a the bunch of email lists that I use to keep informed and help me to interact with those areas of civil society (Governance, Human Rights, ICT4 Development) that I am active in, I use email (and of course skype) to communicate with my family and friends, I use email as the primary means for marketing and management the rental unit that myself and my wife own and overall I use email and my email address as my primary means of communication with and from the outside world.

Since about 2006 my primary email address and thus interface with the e-world has been gurstein@gmail.com. Nice, clean, functional (my kids are envious and I’ve had semi-serious discussions about to whom among the half dozen or so people in the world with the same last name (in that spelling it is quite rare) I’ll ultimately bequeath it to…

My email pattern is to use my gmail account as the reception point and then POP my mail off into an Outlook 2003 client that I’ve dragged along with me through 3 or 4 computers over the last 5 years. This process has worked for me reasonably well over the last years and I’m comfortable with it and the couple of thousand folks in my email directory are also comfortable with the name and how I’m communicating with them.

Anyway, earlier this month I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh working on an ICT and Development project.  About midway through my stay in Dhaka one night during my regular jet-lagged 2 am email fest my Internet suddenly stopped working. I checked around and it seemed that the problem was with the hotel’s wireless provider.  When the Internet came back on there seemed to be some continuing problem with the POP connection with my Outlook… I was getting mail coming in on my gmail account but it wasn’t POPing properly to my Outlook account.

(I’m not a technical whiz… so I started fiddling with my Outlook and somehow, I can’t really remember how, I ended up installing a new (but the same) account on my Outlook and the email started rolling in as usual into my Outlook–POPing off of gmail. (for those with little or no technical interest, bear with me a bit, there is a Community Informatics, and a policy point at the end of this that I think is worth thinking about…

To my dismay however, what was entering into my Outlook wasn’t the usual stream of email rather it was long forgotten (and ultimately by-passed) email from 2006. It turns out that when you create a “new” Outlook account as I had just done when you POP your mail off of gmail it doesn’t start at the end of your inbox, rather it starts at the beginning!

Now remember, I’m an email guy and I’ve been using my gmail account for storing mail that I would “POP” and then work with in Outlook.   Of course, gmail has a maximum free storage of something like 7 gigs or so but my gmail file exceeded that 2 or 3 years ago and I’ve been paying Google a modest amount ever since for extra storage space. My current gmail file is at around 12 gigs and 120,000 emails–yes a lot, and yes, I should have been systematically going through this mail and sorting, discarding etc.etc. but I didn’t and I was willing to pay Google to not have to do this.

Realizing that downloading 12 gigs of mail (120,000 emails) in 3-500 email bursts (all that Outlook (or gmail) seemed to allow) was going to be a long and tedious exercise I turned to gmail “help” to see if there was some other way around this (I had had something similar happen to me 3 years ago while I was in South Africa and at the time there was nothing for it but to download all the mail (at $30 or so a gig) in order to begin again at the end🙂

So I turned to what Google laughably identifies as its “help” function… “Settings” –> “Forwarding and POP/IMAP” etc.etc. and after an astonishing number of steps I’m taken to this gmail Help Forum where I am told that there are (among other things)

38137 discussions ·  Ask a “how to” question

Use this category if you want to know how to do something.

and

33348 discussions ·  Computer email program (please specify: Apple Mail, Outlook, Thunderbird, etc)

Email programs are also known as POP or IMAP email clients.

Clearly gmail is popular and other people also seem to have problems.

So I go into this “help” function and I am literally placed in the middle of an ocean of information and techie geeks without a paddle or a usable glossary.

I have no idea what search terms to use for my particular problem and the ones that I am able to figure out seem to take me to one or two year old comments from people like me with similar issues who were complaining about having to download their entire gmail inboxes as I was ending up doing.

I formulate and post a couple of queries to the forum trying to indicate what my problem is but no replies…

So, I set about downloading my 120,000 emails at 3-500 emails a chunk (that is a very large number of chunks and takes a considerable length of time since Outlook has its own set of issues including a maximum size for its mail files.

Four days later I am getting close to the end of the process when my capacity to download from Gmail is suddenly closed off “temporarily” because of “unusual activity” but according to the page that turns up when I try to access the account it will be turned back on fairly soon (they say) and it was.

Of course, there is no direct communication–the “messages” from gmail/Google are all in the form of standard web screens that appear when attempting to access gmail with no pointers anywhere except back to the gmail forums and a Google “help” search window which isn’t very useful if you can’t figure out the appropriate search terms! (and I tried dozens…

So, an hour or so later I get access to my gmail account again and resume where I left off with the downloading (I’m up to the end of 2010 by this time and the present is beckoning in a most tantalizing fashion and anyway I still have no idea of any alternative to what I’ve been doing over the last number of days…

One more day along and I’m getting into the home stretch (mid-June 2011) when this below appears when I try to access my gmail account.

Sorry… account maintenance underway

 

 

We are currently working on your account because an error occurred with your mail storage. Your account data and messages are safe. However, you won’t be able to log in until our team is finished.We can’t predict exactly how long this will take, but if you are still unable to access your account in 48 hours, please contact us with your username at gmail-maintenance@google.com . We apologize for the disruption.

That was roughly 4 days ago.

My first reaction was panic… what am I to do… Not only can I not download my mail but I can’t even access it, nor can I access my mail file (and thus my entire 6 year mail archive!)

I send off an email to “gmail-maintenance”, feverishly scan Google for points of entry into the Google Borg-o-sphere for my problem, send an email to the only person I know in Google who might be in a position to help, then another email to “gmail-maintenance” … and I wait… Nothing… I wait some more… nothing.. I’m incommunicado in the e-world, the only world that I’ve been really communicado in for the last dozen years or so!

Everything comes to a halt, my class, the Journal, my elists, the 3 or 4 projects I have on the go around the world… everything…

Folks, if you haven’t experienced this you have no idea the feeling of having been broken off in your communications capacity with your world and as well the loss of your e-memory of everything and everyone that you have been in touch with since you bit the gmail apple!

And folks attempting to communicate with you of course get this form email

Mail Delivery Subsystem mailer-daemon@googlemail.com

 

7:02 AM (22 hours ago)  
to me

 

 

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification

THIS IS A WARNING MESSAGE ONLY.

YOU DO NOT NEED TO RESEND YOUR MESSAGE.

Delivery to the following recipient has been delayed:

gurstein@gmail.com

Message will be retried for 13 more day(s)

Technical details of temporary failure:
Account temporarily disabled

(I particularly liked the slightly ominous and potentially shameful–“explanation” (“Account temporarily disabled”)–for this lack of communicability. What could he possibly have been doing that has provoked those nice people at Google to “disable his account”?

Toward the end of Day 2, and after the 5 or so unanswered/unacknowledged messages to the kind folks at gmail-maintenance@google.com I start to move from shock and awe to recovery and I set up a new account (gmail of course😦 it’s so easy and it’s free after all… as a means to begin to re-establish contact with the outside world.

I’m now into Day 4 of “Account maintenance” mode i.e. I can’t access my normal gmail account or inbox (although last evening for a few very brief moments my inbox was accessible but this disappeared behind the outer carapace of the Borg once again–which is where it stands at the moment.

According to the Google search I just did some 720,341,564 people use gmail all over the world. This is a truly astonishing number and the access to the information about those people that Google obtains through the provision of the “free” gmail service has made Google one of the largest and most profitable and (at least in the tech and information world) most powerful companies in the world.

But with great wealth and great power comes (or at least should come) great responsibility and my little excursion into gmail hell indicates that not only is Google operating in a thoroughly irresponsible fashion but with its choice to offer a Borg-like interface with its users (and clients remember that I’m paying for the storage of my gmail file) it is crossing the line from neglect to actual “being evil”.

Probably many if not most of the roughly billion people currently using gmail aren’t as heavily invested in their account and e-address as I am but I would guess that a rather large are as or even more invested in a life and death way.

Some of the ways in which gmail/Google is not accepting its responsibility to its users/clients include…

That gmail can “temporarily suspend” my account with no explanation or recourse or even means of communicating back to them to provide the background to whatever my transgression has been,

That the “help” function for gmail is nothing more than a huge untended, unedited flea market of bits and pieces of expertise, experience, knowledge combined completely blind with inexperience, misdirection, and useless information,

That there is no accessible and responsive point of contact for circumstances such as mine (and anecdotally I’m hearing that these circumstances are rather more common than not)–remember that I’ve now sent 7 emails to gmail-maintenance@google.com without one reply or even acknowledgement!

Given the impact of the above on my personal circumstances gmail/Google has acted in an “evil” way towards me–not just irresponsible but actually evil in that I have had no recourse, no means of providing supplemental information, no way of pleading my case, no indication as to when my particular excursion into gmail hell might end or what form that final resolution might take.  I’m in limbo–Kafka’s Castle, the Borg, HAL–you name the nightmare scenario of dealing with implacable, faceless, unresponding authority/power/privilege and that is what you have with gmail in my life and ultimately and potentially in the lives of any of the other billion or so gmail users.

Why for example, gmail/Google hasn’t spent the money to set up an Ombudsperson service with an email that someone actually reads and answers is something that would, if Google were as I mentioned selling milk or mining coal, be something that legislatures would be compelling them to do… Providing instructions and “help” information that are intelligible to ordinary users would be the subject of regulation if they were selling toasters or refrigerators rather than an email service.  Giving an explanation about the “temporary suspension” of a vital service would be required by law if it were concerning the flow of clean water or electricity rather than the (arguably) equally necessary flow of information and communications.

If gmail was a service delivering milk, or providing electricity or supporting financial transactions they would be regulated and the kind of behaviour I’m describing above would be subject to government intervention, legal sanctions, political inquiries.  Because the world of the Internet is so new, so shiny, so global it is a free-for-all and global utilities such as Google (which is what email/gmail is in practice and as it should be understood in law) can be as they are, with no recourse from individual users who after all are scattered and isolated and without any of the resources that a Google can command.

And notably the world has not yet managed to catch up so there are no frameworks available globally to deal with issues such as mine (or megaliths such as Google)… They will come in time but a lot of folks are going to feel a lot of pain, and Borgs like Google are going to get away with doing (and being) a lot of evil in the meantime.