It Had to Happen Sometime: Involuntary Switch to 'New Look' Gmail

Last year, Gmail warned us that the change was coming.

Early this year, the warnings became more frequent and pointed. The "new look" of Gmail, unasked-for by the public and shorter on usability than what came before, would soon arrive.


I kept pushing "Dismiss," and over the past few weeks the warnings went away. I thought that perhaps I had dodged this bullet and that Google had decided not to force the change on people who really didn't want it. Dream on! Just now I rev up Gmail to find that my accounts now feature the "airy" new look, with no "Dismiss" or "Return to old look" or "What the hell?" button in sight. In celebration of Earth Day, perhaps, the new age has dawned.

For the record:
  - I realize that it doesn't matter. If you can complain about this, you've got no real problems;
  - If you use keyboard shortcuts, plus the "compact" view option, the new Gmail, while worse, isn't that much less convenient or efficient than the old;
  - The Offline Gmail app, which I use all the time, has had the "new look" for a long time, and I am used to that;
  - If you rely on a cloud service, and one that's free, you live with the choices the people running the cloud offer; moreover
  - If you use a mail-handling program, from Eudora to Sparrow to Outlook to Thunderbird to Apple Mail (etc), you can be spared any further awareness of future choices Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc make about the look of their web-based mail. I am hoping to dig out a clot of impacted emails today, and I'll do so via Sparrow or Thunderbird.
  - And finally: I'll never mention this again.

Still: someday I hope someone will chronicle the decision process within Google that led to the forced "improvement" of something that wasn't broken, and its replacement with an approach that has been highly controversial within Google itself and that contradicts what Google has been known for. The contradiction is the elevation of an artsy "design" preference over sheer engineer-style and ergonomic usability. More of what I see on the screen now is padding, and less is info, than was the case yesterday and through the years before. 

That's it from me, forever, on that topic. If you want to dwell instead on a science/tech issue that actually does matter, please read Steven Weinberg's essay on "The Crisis of Big Science" in the latest NY Review of Books. Two years ago, I had a chance to visit Fermilab, outside Chicago, where I heard about the ramping-down of various American big-science ambitions. That's still on my list of articles to do "sometime soon," but Weinberg gives a super-authoritative and disturbing account of the ways in which high-end U.S. science is being deliberately lobotomized.

Sample, describing the ultimately failed effort in the 1990s to build the Superconducting SuperCollider, or SSC, for high-energy particle-physics research:

What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered--it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering. But not everyone feels the importance of this. During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn't against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn't deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was "No."

What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents....  Before the Texas site was chosen, a senator told me that at that time there were a hundred senators in favor of the SSC, but that once the site was chosen the number would drop to two.

I'll admit it: the crisis of big science is more important than the crisis of the new Gmail. It is worth reading the related post, and comments, on the mathematician Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong site. Happy Earth Day!

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In