Ethical Technology User ★
I’ve been an active user of the internet since late 1993. In all that time I’ve never really sat down and thought about how and why I use all the different services on the internet; my internet habits have instead grown organically as I try out new services, follow my friends into new spaces, and grow bored of existing patterns.
The lockdown associated with the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak has provided that missing opportunity to sit down and think clearly about how I use everything the internet has to offer, and to solidify some thoughts that have been bubbling in the back of my brain for some time. As a result I’m making a few changes to what I use, how I use it, and how much time I spend in front of a screen.
This is going to make a noticeable change to my online appearance, so I thought it would be a good idea to write as briefly as possible about the what and why of these changes (which you’re reading right now) and give that a chance to circulate before pulling the switch. A side benefit of a public statement is that it will keep me honest. 🤨
The short summary is that I’m striving to be a more ethical technology user. I’m going to “put up or shut up” with regard to some specific technology and services and in my general approach to how I use technology, both to align better with my moral compass and to be a leader by example to my children.1
I’m not going to write a whole bunch about the failings of certain platforms and companies, as many people have done that before me and written about it far more eloquently. Here’s a list of the main changes I’m making, along with any relevant links to that eloquent background.
I’m going to stop using Facebook, and all it’s associated properties.
Facebook is a security and privacy disaster that causes harm to its own employees. It is a massive, unregulated data machine who’s objective – as a by-product of not charging users for access – is to gather as much information about you as possible and to profit off that data, with no checks and balances to stop that machine from being used for objectively unethical purposes. Arguably, even if Facebook was run by a saint, the fact that it is so large, has so much data, and doesn’t have a non-advertising-based business model means it would constantly be used by outside forces to invade user privacy and security.
The deletion of my account isn’t going to bring down the juggernaut, but I will have a clearer conscience for having done it.
2. Paying My Way
I’m going to start actively paying for services that I use where payment is voluntary, and to choose options (for apps and services) where payment is possible.
Part of the problem with the power balance in technology today is that the price point has been set to zero by large companies (Google, Facebook) for many services. That means the users like you and I are the product, which encourages those firms to make decisions in the interest of their actual customers (advertisers) rather than the users. That’s a big part of how we got into this mess. By supporting options where I am the actual, real customer, I do my incredibly tiny part to change that dynamic. This includes paying for services from the bohemiths (e.g.: Google’s YouTube) to avoid advertising.
3. Less Electronic Idle Time
I’m going to more often prioritise non-screen activities.
Like many people, when I have a few moments of idle time I pull out my screen. It’s pretty common for me to start and end the day with screen time in bed. I know that it stops me from doing other things that I would prefer to do but I’ve apathetically kept going this way. No more.
I love reading (books). I have an awesome workshop that brings me joy. I feel great after working in the garden. I have limited time with my children before they leave home. We don’t allow ourselves to be bored any more, but I’m going to try.
My Future State
These are the major areas of possible change that will be affected by this decision:
- Devices: I use Apple devices exclusively at the moment: Mac Mini, iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. I feel ethically comfortable using these devices because I paid Apple directly for them, and the lion share of their profit is from that exchange, not through trying to exploit my data with advertisers. Apple also has a documented history of prioritising user privacy and security over outside forces. If Apple changes it will be fairly crushing because their inter-device synchronisation underpins most of my day.
- Email: You can reach me at email@example.com. I’m lucky to have the opportunity and skillset to run my own email service.2
- Messaging: You can reach me on 3 messaging services, conveniently under the same handle: +61 438 947 701. SMS, iMessage, and Signal.
Facebook Messenger has been my mainstay for cross-platform group chat, and going dark there will isolate me a bit. Signal provides the same functionality, but I’m swimming against the network effects.
Social Media: I’m not aware of any seriously viable services in this space where I can pay so that I’m not just another data stream to sell to advertisers. I’m a bit on the fence with my twitter account since there’s no way to pay, but it’s not that interesting so not much of a time sink. Not being on social media will also help me with reducing my electronic idle time.3
If you want to find out what’s going on with me, get in touch via email or one those messaging services. You can also get notified about updates to this website. I’ll be updating this site with details of all the projects I get done with the extra time I’m not spending on screens. 🤔
Compromise, Sacrifice, Failure
It’s not unusual for ethically-motivated decisions to come with sacrifice, and that’s definitely the case here. I’m not going to be as technology-connected with my friends, especially the ones that aren’t in the same city.
To be honest I’m not entirely convinced that the loss is as bad as it seems – Facebook makes you unhappy, and there’s a pretty loose correlation between the content on someone’s facebook feed and their real thoughts, feelings and actual life, and the most genuine technology connections with my friends happen on group chat anyway. I don’t have a specific plan for dealing with this gap, it’ll be interesting to see what evolves.
A lot of sports teams and clubs my family interact with tend to use Facebook as their primary communication channel, so that’s going to be a challenge. I’ll have to be an active participant in bridging that gap.
I expect I will compromise my values at some point,4 but hopefully in a more mindful way. The biggest compromise I’m going to make out of the gate is to continue using Google Photos for our family photos. It’s exactly the service I need for photo security, management and intra-family sharing, I haven’t been able to find an alternative. I am paying Google for the storage space, so that’s something I guess. If a non-Google alternative comes along, or Apple Photos is updated to improve the intra-family options then I’ll jump ship immediately.
Here’s a sample of where I’m making an effort to pay my way, and support the creators of services and content that I appreciate. It’s not exhaustive.
I welcome your thoughts if you also have an opinion about this, or can see somewhere I’ve missed something.
One point I need to make clear, especially to my close friends: anything I say here is about my values, and I’m making no judgements about anyone else. You do you, I’ll do me. 🙂 A good analogy is choosing to go vegetarian. I’m doing it to live a life more in line with my values, but I don’t judge you for choosing differently. I won’t go on incessantly about it either, this post is the entirety of my thoughts (unless you’d specifically like to have a discussion about it). Yes, I still make jokes about vegans, so feel free to make jokes about me being a weird internet loon. ↩
I pay for a VPS through a local hosting provider and run postfix and dovecot as hardened as a I can with all the extra security protocols I could find turned on (SPF and DKIM extended with DMARC, RBL and URIBL, BATV, SpamAssassin & greylisting). I was always warned that running your own mail server is complicated and dangerous, and it definitely isn’t a task for an IT novice. Having said that, getting set up wasn’t difficult if you understand the concepts, and maintenance doesn’t take up a huge amount of my time. I’m happy to discuss if you’re interested in doing the same thing. ↩
I started blogging back in the late 90s with a hand-built website and then MovableType, and social media and network effects have seen the death of the blog. I expect timeline-based blogging would have withered on the vine anyway; I have no desire to have my collection of thoughts presented that way, and my threshold for what constitutes a publishing-worthy thought has thankfully climbed back to the heights where it should always have been. ↩