Life Without the Tech Giants

Kashmir Hill is conducting a fascinating experiment: completely blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from her life, using a custom VPN. Turns out it’s a tricky process:

To keep my devices from talking to the big five’s servers, and vice versa, Dhruv built a virtual private network, or VPN, for me, through which I sent all my internet traffic. He then used the VPN to block my devices from being able to use the IP addresses owned by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and/or Apple, depending on the week.

On a normal day, as measured by the VPN, I tend to send two million data packets out onto the internet and more than half of them (60 percent) go to the tech giants. That meant that over half of my normal internet usage was going to grind to a halt—including virtually every way I communicate with my friends, family, and colleagues.

The first installment is about her attempt to block Amazon, which turned out to be impossible:

Ultimately, I learn that it’s simply not an option to block Amazon permanently. It’s technically impossible given the use of CDNs, and even if we could come up with a perfect block, it would wall me off from too many crucial services and key websites that I can’t function without for both personal and professional reasons.

This is a fascinating experiment that says something important about centralisation on the web. We like to think of the internet as this great big decentralised free-for-all, but it really isn’t – almost all power has fallen into the orbits of a few giant corporations. They hold more power over us as individuals than any pre-web organisations (or governments) ever have. Are we ok with that? I know I’m not.

I’ll be following the rest of Kashmir Hill’s experiment with interest.

All communication systems incorporate biases

An interesting essay from technology critic Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows:

In his books Empire and Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), the Canadian historian Harold Innis argued that all communication systems incorporate biases, which shape how people communicate and hence how they think. These biases can, in the long run, exert a profound influence over the organization of society and the course of history. “Bias,” it seems to me, is exactly the right word. The media we use to communicate push us to communicate in certain ways, reflecting, among other things, the workings of the underlying technologies and the financial and political interests of the businesses or governments that promulgate the technologies. (For a simple but important example, think of the way personal correspondence has been changed by the shift from letters delivered through the mail to emails delivered via the internet to messages delivered through smartphones.) A bias is an inclination. Its effects are not inevitable, but they can be strong. To temper them requires awareness and, yes, resistance.

Signal v Noise exits Medium

I was interested to read this morning that Signal v Noise, the blog run by the people behind Basecamp (an excellent collaboration platform that powers the work we do at Sidetracked magazine), has left Medium:

Beyond that, though, we’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.

I have pondered this question long and hard myself. I maintain an outpost on Medium called View from the Pinnacle, which I use to publish some of my best long-form articles. These are published on my main website first, of course. Anyone who relies 100 per cent on Medium is a fool, but I came round to the view that there was no harm in also posting my articles on this centralised publishing platform.

However, I’m reconsidering that stance. Centralisation is not a force for good on the web. It’s tempting to just publish somewhere that lets you get your writing out with a minimum of effort, but in doing so you relinquish all personal control over your work, and the internet gradually becomes a less open, less diverse, more commercialised place. The medium is part of the message, after all.

I think that individual blogs, personal newsletters, and RSS are long overdue for a renaissance. These are some of the best things that exist on the internet today. Let’s help them thrive. Let’s not pour more of our effort into centralised, monolithic content silos than we absolutely have to.

Update 2019-01-20

I deleted my Medium account. Decided to put my money where my mouth is.

How to avoid Brexit this week

If, like me, you find that thinking or reading about Brexit provokes your anxiety, there are some easy ways to improve your life by avoiding it entirely.

  1. Work from home. This way you can get away with talking to fewer people face to face.
  2. Don’t watch or read the news. It’s scary, anxiety-inducing nonsense anyway and you’ll never see anything that makes your life better. If something happens that you really need to know about, you’ll find out somehow.
  3. Quit Facebook. (Actually this should have been step 1.)
  4. If you’re on Twitter, install the Hide Twitter Guff extension. Since discovering this essential utility my Twitter experience has improved tenfold. It hides the terrifying ‘trends’ sidebar.
  5. Add ‘Brexit’ and all associated fake words (‘Brexiteer’, ‘Remoaner’, ‘Bremoaner’ etc.) to your list of mute filters.
  6. Enjoy a significantly improved, significantly less stressful life.

Creativity is not an app

Spend much time reading about writing and creativity online and you’ll come across the idea that creativity and efficiency are the same thing, that ‘better’ software can improve your writing. Writers love to talk about the new app that makes them more efficient, or about how they wrote 100,000 words in a month. As if quality can spontaneously arise from quantity and speed.

If this approach helps you, then don’t let me put you off – but let’s stop pretending that the quest for perfect efficiency in the writing process will improve the quality of what we create.

I think this idea arises from a widespread belief that all human endeavours can be understood in the same way as a computer program. As software dominates more and more of our affairs, it’s only natural that this idea should emerge. The busy office worker who replaces her to-do list with an app believes that a computer can effectively manage her workload – maybe even than it can do a better job. In some cases this belief is justified (although I know people who have tried a lot of to-do apps and failed to find one that works for them). In some cases it isn’t, and the computer model ends up being too inflexible, or certain UI design choices end up changing behaviour as the user adapts to fit the software’s quirks. We’ve all been there, right?

Sometimes this is no big deal, but sometimes the user finds the new method or app worse in numerous subtle ways. Maybe they tell themselves it’s fine because everything is an app now. Maybe they’ve come to believe what the world tells them, that computers are better than humans. This message is everywhere.

My point here is that software restricts choices and changes behaviours, because software that attempts to model some aspect of the human experience can only ever be just that – a model. The model may be good enough – or even better than what it replaces in several ways – but it’s always someone else’s idea of what you want to do.

This brings us back to the belief that the perfect writing app will make you more creative or improve the quality of your work. It won’t. Software always drives in the direction of greater efficiency, more features, more speed. These qualities may or may not be beneficial in some way, but they have nothing to do with creativity, because that comes from within – it’s an ineffable aspect of the human mind that can’t be modelled by machine. If you don’t believe that, then maybe you’ve internalised the idea that computers are better than we are.

I’ll finish with a personal example. Over the years I have used many writing apps. I’ve written novels in ClarisWorks and Microsoft Word, composed features in Ulysses and BBEdit. These apps are all absolutely fine – when you’re in a flow state and the words are coming, anything will do – but in the last year I’ve gone back to writing drafts with a pencil. Why? Because I have to pause every few minutes to sharpen it, and this gives my mind the chance to breathe and make connections. The quality of my work is always better when it starts with a pencil. Another reason is that I have to type it into a computer afterwards, which gives me another chance to improve my prose.

Of course, this may very well not apply to how you write – which is precisely my point.

Don’t let the world tell you that your creativity, your individuality, can be modelled by an app. This belief diminishes the standard of what it means to be human just a little bit. You’re better than that. Use any app you like, but recognise that quality comes from the human mind, not the machine world.

Childhood’s End

This superb piece by George Dyson is well worth reading – it covers a number of Entanglement concepts.

Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.

George Dyson, ‘Childhood’s End’

What tech does to us

I was interested to read this piece from The Guardian, called ‘Unplugged: what I learned by logging off and reading 12 books in a week’. The author went offline for a week and read a big stack of books, which sounds pretty good, but there was more to it than just reading – she had the chance to think about our relationship with tech.

This passage jumped out at me:

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in the context of a perfectly designed reading experience, it was easy to avoid distraction. But too many of the arguments about social media “addiction” pay no attention to context when they should. Many of the ostensibly “addicted” social media users are always working, trapped at our desks or in our cars, eyeing our phones, perpetually on call. Like coffee, the little dopamine hits of a “like” or “fave” are an affordable pleasure in a world of constant work.

The bit about context is important, and I think this hints at why I’ve felt that something is a bit off about the current narrative regarding social media and its dangers. This is an incredibly popular subject at the moment – the evil deeds of Facebook and Google are very much in the spotlight. However, I think the focus is far too narrow. Too much attention is being paid to precisely how and why Facebook is doing what it’s doing, and not enough attention is being paid to the bigger issues.

What are the bigger issues? I’ve only just begun to ponder this, but I’m starting to think that toxic social media is just one facet of a deeper problem. Perhaps it’s both a symptom and a contributing cause, an exacerbating factor, part of a feedback loop. Technology is making us work more, and increasingly we’re the ones being controlled by our tech, not the other way around. Social media can act as part of that great big machine of stress and overwhelm. Right now the press is focused on precisely what Facebook et al. are doing to our brains, but it’s my hope that over the coming months or years more people will begin to question the digital universe we’re building, and ask where it all went so badly wrong – and how we can put control back into the hands of users.