Rage Against the Machine, or A Journey for Digital Independence

Okay, so the first thing you need to know is that this is a long post. My apologies to those of you who don’t like long-form content, especially written, but I didn’t really want to break this up into multiple posts as they all tie together. For those of you who do like these kinds of longer story-like posts, you’re welcome!

Also, this post is mildly technical at times so I’m sorry to anyone who doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. Just keep with it and it will get back on track. With that said, here we go.

I feel like an old man…

I remember a time when computing was something you did. Computers were something you used to do something of some value or significance. You could write a paper or a book, you could play a game, you could compose/send/receive electronic-mail, or post to a newsgroup or message board. And then around the mid-00’s things started to really change. Early social media sites started to develop a personality and a user-base. Web apps, and software-as-a-service started to become a thing. Web 2.0 technologies started becoming more of a staple to our workflows, and over time started to become our workflows. For example, at my job I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 6. That machine has a 1.90 GHz quad-core i7 CPU and 16GB of RAM (which is a pretty beefy machine for what it is). It’s got the full Office 365 suite, and most of our network is virtualized (as is the case in most business environments these days). Aside from a handful of command-line utilities and the hands-on tasks that I actually have to be on-site to work on, I can do most of my work from a web browser. I know this, because I’ve worked multiple shifts using a MacBook, and/or a Linux machine just fine.

We have entire neighborhoods of new construction homes being built with Amazon’s virtual assistant built in, not to mention individuals retrofitting their homes with doorbell cameras, smart lighting, smart appliances, and an entire ecosystem of Internet of Things devices. Are these things inherently bad? No, not necessarily; but the reality is the most people don’t know how to secure these devices in a way as to protect themselves and others from being exploited, and these things are EVERYWHERE. There are many times more IoT devices in use and on the market right now than there are actual human beings on the Earth.

And then there’s social media. Now social media and I have had a checkered past for some time now. Growing up I used AOL chat rooms and AIM, then moved on to web forums but around 2005 my friends convinced me to sign up for a MySpace account. I hated MySpace. I tried to like it, but it was a dumpster fire and after a couple of months I was done with it. Then our college announced that we could use our school email accounts to sign up for a new thing called Facebook. Now at first, and for a good while, I actually really enjoyed Facebook. It was like blogging, which I’d been doing for a while, but also kind of like message boards with less waiting and notifications of replies and shares. But over time, it got bigger and bigger and they started taking advantage the psychology of their users. I began to disapprove of the data collection going on, and of the way their algorithms are “destroying how society works,” and leaving users “vaccant and empty”.

At some point around 2009 or 2010 I signed up for Twitter. Now I know what some of you are likely thinking. “Didn’t this guy just say MySpace was a dumpster fire?” And yes, you are right. MySpace was a dumpster fire, and Twitter is like soaking the landfill with kerosene and striking a match. Even back then it wasn’t great. To be fair, I barely used it. I just didn’t really see the point of Twitter (and still don’t really), but I tried it out. As time went on I started to find my own little corner of the platform following a few people and sharing a few short thoughts, though the best use of Twitter was that my tweets brought a few people over to my blogs. To this day, the only thing that really got me excited about twitter was finding out that I was being followed by former UFC Champion and WWF Intercontiental Champion Ken Shamrock… yeah, Ken freaking Shamrock! It was awesome. If Dan Severn had been there too I think I would have retired from the internet all together as a happy man. In any event I’ve deleted and recreated that account a few times (only saddened that I lost my Ken Shamrock follow) and honestly have not missed it.

Oh, and Google. Freaking Google. My arch-nemesis.

You know how in those movies/books/games/etc where to people start off as friends and by the end they’re locked in a battle to the death? It’s like that. I feel like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Google is like Anakin Skywalker. The potential for good was endless, and they could have brought balance to the Internet, but they have contributed (along with Facebook, and Twitter, and Microsoft and Amazon, and Apple, and the Linux Foundation, and *insert big tech name here*) to the abuse of their users. They work with tyrannical governments around the world who spy on their citizens, they remove people with differing political or ideological views from their corporate culture, they track searches and apps to track us and sell our data to advertisers, and they even buy up our offline physical purchase data to better track us. The company who started with the motto, “Don’t be evil” (though they have since removed that from their code of conduct) has literally become Darth Vader. They stormed the Jedi Temple of Internet Freedom and… well I’m not going to say they killed younglings, but an awful lot of schools have deals with Google to issue Chromebooks to all of their students (and Google has been caught tracking them too).

Taking a step back

By this point you may be thinking I am being hyperbolic, and I am (a little bit). You may be thinking I need to dial back the rhetoric, but I won’t because it’s fun. But if you take a step back and really consider what I’m talking about and do your own research (on top of the links I’ve already provided) to see what they companies are doing to our users – and even people who don’t use their platforms – and I think we can almost all agree that we have a very serious problem.

The Internet, which so much of our modern world runs on these days, is an ecosystem unto itself. From a social aspect, we interact on it in ways that most of us would never behave in a face to face environment. From a technological perspective, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. From a psychological perspective (disclaimer, I’m not a doctor and don’t pretend to be) it really seems to me that our always online culture these days is a net negative for our mental health. To be fair, we see things that make us happy (like memes and kittens) but there is so much toxicity all over the modern internet. From social media to YouTube comments, to certain sub-reddits, people are just nasty and hateful to one another… especially on Fox News and MSNBC article comments… good Lord those are some of the worst places in the history of ever (again, hyperbolic rhetoric is acceptable at times for dramatic effect).

So what to do? I’m glad you asked.

A (sort of) plan for digital independence

Okay, so digital independence is probably not the best word choice for this but honestly, I couldn’t really think of anything better so I went with it. By my estimation, for me, the things I’ve discussed above are some of the biggest problems with modern technology and life on the internet. There is a real use case for being online, but do we really need to be online all of time? There is a real benefit to social media, but do those benefits outweigh the negatives that they bring with them; and are social media platforms as we know them today the best way to achieve those benefits? Is the convenience of internet connected appliances and smart assistants greater than the risk? I would say no, but a lot of people think differently. Is there a benefit to Google’s tracking and unethical practices? No. No there is not. I don’t care what you say to the contrary, because it’s wrong.

I’ve felt for a long time that I have wanted and needed to get away from these things, and I often look back to the early-mid 2000’s as kind of a “golden time” of computing; and now it’s as if the voices of a thousand vintage computing nerds cried out in a single voice and were suddenly silenced…

But in all seriousness, I grew up computing in the 90’s, and while I look back fondly on that time, I finally have the technical experience to remind everyone that it was not easy. Getting your modem setup for dial-up was hard, and bless your heart if you only had one phone line. But in 2003 I inherited my parent’s old Windows XP machine. It wasn’t top of the line, but it was a solid system. It did what I needed, it was easy enough to get online, it had plenty of storage for my music (which was all totally legit and not downloaded from places like Napster or Limewire, I swear…), videos, pictures, and more. More or less, things just worked but we didn’t have all of that bloat. For example, a base install of Windows XP required around 1.5 GB of disk space. Windows 10 currently requires 32 GB of space. Which one is better? I guess that’s for you to decide, but I’d prefer the lighter one with better performance.

And then there are our smartphones. I’m going to set aside the tracking and privacy concerns that smartphones and tablets bring with them for now and just consider the nature of apps and always on internet connections. How many people today do we hear complain about spending too much time on their phones? How many of us spend too much time on our own phones? How many hours a day do you think we waste, individually and collectively, just scrolling Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and more? And what exactly is the benefit to us? I’m not saying that spending your time like that is bad, I’m just not convinced that it’s what’s best for me.

The Plan (in pencil…)

So I decided that I wanted to make some changes in my life. I want to get back to using my computer for computing, and less as a platform for internet services. I want to read and write more, and consume less. I want to design and create rather than like and share. I’m tired of the all of the hate and nonsense on social media platforms. So here is my plan. It might change, it could fall apart, and or it could be a game changer. In any event I’m going to try it. My goal is to be able to fully implement this plan in stages, but to fully get there by January 1, 2021.

Step 1: De-Google-fy my life

You should have seen this coming from a mile away.

I have used Google for years. I think the first time I recall using the search engine was in 1998 or 1999, though I was more of a Yahoo! and Alta Vista guy myself. But overtime I got on the Google bandwagon and got in deep with the Google Services. I started using Gmail and YouTube in 2007, Google Docs and later Drive followed, and Google Maps have been a part of just about any road trip I’ve taken for over a decade… I’m sure they know me really well at this point. But at some point enough is enough. At this point I’m still using them because I have them, granted it’s mostly just Gmail now, but I do still have some photos and files stored on Drive that I need to gather.

So, the plan is to start by removing whatever data I have stored on Google Drive and migrating them to local storage solutions. This sounds easy and straight forward, but before I can close out my Google accounts, there are a metric crap ton of sites around the internet that I am signed up with using them, so I will need to change those accounts over as well.

Step 2: Leave social media

Now this is kind of a tough one. I can’t stand most social media, and I’m rather annoyed by what I see on them most of the time. To be honest, I haven’t really even been on any of them in the last six months (except a couple of quick exceptions) so you might think it would be easy too drop them for good.

Leaving Twitter is no problem. I don’t like Twitter and I’m not invested in Twitter. But like it or not, I am invested in Facebook. I’ve been investing in that stupid platform for the better part of 15 years and have a lot on there. While I don’t talk to most people I am “friends” with on there, I do care about them; and while I can talk with most of my family over the phone, half of my family lives on the other side of the world and we keep in touch through Facebook. I’m just not sure how easily I can really withdraw from the platform without losing touch with the people that I really want to stay in touch with, and that is dumb.

Step 3: Reduce mobile data and smartphone usage

Again, spying and tracking aside, I like my smartphone. I like listening to music and podcasts while I do stuff around the house and at the office. I enjoy having YouTube playing in the background while I work, and it’s nice to be able to randomly look stuff up. It’s really convenient having a decently good camera handy for when I need to take a photo of something work related, or something cute the kids or the dogs are doing. But then there is the tracking and spying thing. It’s convenient to have those apps handy, but they can often detract from being in the moment whether I’m with others or I’m enjoying some quality time alone.

I’m not saying the smartphone will go away for good, but I would like to try going without at some point in the next 6-12 months. Maybe I can pick up a used Motorola Razr for my phone needs. Maybe I can find my old iPod and fix it up to be used again for music and podcasts. Maybe I could even find a cheap, used PDA but if not I could even just write down stuff like that in a physical planner like I used to before I had my first Blackberry.

I just think it would be a fun experiment, but the real change will come when I’m able to get my hands on a real privacy-respecting device like the PinePhone or the Librem 5, though that’s probably a year or two down the road.

Reduce dependence on WiFi

WiFi is great. I use it all the time, just like a lot of us do. But what’s the point of reducing mobile data usage if I’m just moving it all onto WiFi? I think it would be better to just leave internet computing to when I sit down with my laptop or desktop and all the rest of the time, it’s not a thing.
Now, to be fair, I’m not talking about streaming stuff like Netflix or Disney+. We don’t have a normal TV package so I don’t really consider those to be the same thing as internet computing. Besides, I barely have time to sit down and watch stuff as it is anyway (that’s why I have YouTube on my phone).

Conclusion

To sum it all up, I think I’m just generally dissatisfied with the direction we are heading as a society, and modern internet services (especially social media) have a major hand in causing it. But I’m more disappointed in my own habits, and that is something I actually can do something about.

I’m going to start working on reducing my dependence on the internet, and on these companies that do not respect us or our privacy. I’m going to document that journey as I go, and we’ll see what happens. It’s entirely possible that this won’t work and that I’ll end up right back where I started, but I don’t really think it will. It’s a good time to say goodbye to some parts of my life (both physical and digital) that are quite unhealthy, and I’m looking forward to sharing the journey with all of you!

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s