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More innovation means less control. Is that bad?

March 16, 2013 07:00 AM ET

For example, if you're a fan of Dr Pepper and "Like" their Facebook page because you want to get that company's status updates, Facebook's EdgeRank algorithm will protect you from the majority of those updates and will not deliver them to your News Feed.

With some knowledge and effort, you can exert some control over what you get, but you cannot control who gets what you post.

As users of social networks, we don't control what's in our incoming or outgoing streams. That's controlled by secret algorithms and unpublished criteria.


Another helpful advancement can be found in the world of Autocomplete and its notorious cousin, Autocorrect.

In both cases, sophisticated software takes a guess at what you intend to type. The results can be so comically disastrous that blogs showing Autocomplete and Autocorrect gone wrong make for some of the funniest reading on the Internet.

Computing itself

Even general computing -- the creation and management of your own data files -- has become less user controlled as the result of innovation.

The two concepts that dominate computing these days are cloud computing and the post-PC computing model.

With cloud computing, the whole point is to remove user control and knowledge of exactly where your applications and files reside. The word "cloud" is a reference to the network diagram symbol for a system of complexity where the details are unknown and where the knowledge of those details are unnecessary.

You just upload your financial and personal data into "the cloud" and somebody else takes care of the details.

The post-PC paradigm, as exemplified by the Apple iPad, removes your control over the location and management of your own files by removing the ability to have knowledge of or access to those files.

I'm not saying the trend away from user control is all bad.

All this innovation is generally good. Ease-of-use is good. The reduction of complexity is good.

But taken together, all of this removal of user control takes its toll and could be creating problems that will be hard to solve.

I also suspect that the general trend away from user control is a trend that benefits companies more than users.

Take the example of Google Reader. You can complain to Google all you want about the loss of a user-controlled content stream and its replacement with algorithm-controlled streams. But ultimately Google is in the algorithm business. Its innovations, intellectual property, and trade secrets are Google's secret sauce -- the stuff that makes Google better than its competitors.

In other words, user control is nice, but there's no money in it.

If we as users want to maintain control, we're going to have to fight for it. And that fight starts with a full understanding of this larger trend to take control away.

writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on

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