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Subversive Computing

or Better Digital Living By Making Things Harder For Yourself
or I spent a Year Without Facebook and Google - Here's What Happened Next

Autumn 2020

It's easy to grow disillusioned with tech, even to the point that it appals you. I've been using computers since 1988 and the net since 1995 and over time, something's happened. During the last decade or so, my mind has increasingly been preoccupied with the following thoughts:

As a child of the home computer boom, I'm used to general purpose machines that do my bidding without interference from neither the manufacturer nor some unknown other wanting to sell me Depends and Bitcoins. That's what I want my computing to still be like.

The Man wants something different, though. The Man wants you to log in, click accept, sell your soul and Buy More Stuff. Hence, working to avoid that must be some level of subversive computing: Sticking it to The Man, one bit at a time.

In this text, I'll try to outline how I do my best to achieve that. Fair warning: it doesn't come without what some would call sacrifice, because you can't have the cake and eat it. This "sacrifice", however, might ultimately turn out to be beneficial.

What I absolutely do not use

Facebook

This is a dead giveaway, of course. No facebook and no facebook services (E.G. instagram, whatsapp, messenger, etc).

Quitting was, considering the circumstances, very easy. I'd had a facebook account since 2007 and I used to live there, sometimes posting several times a day and checking in much more often. In the summer of 2019, I wrote a goodbye post and the day after, I closed my account. This is more than a year ago now and I don't miss it.

I had an Instagram account for a while, but only used it for maybe a month or two. It's the second stupidest "service" available on the net right now, and that's saying a lot: It is, quite literally, a site where millions of people post daily photos of their dinners. To put it as nicely as I can: Instagram has absolutely zero content of any kind of real importance to anyone.

Coping strategy: None, really. It turns out that people who are interested in meeting with or talking to you will send an email or text or perhaps even call you. I'm also particularly thankful I didn't have to witness the COVID-19 debacle unfold on social media.

Twitter

Beating Instagram, Twitter is currently the stupidest site on the net. Best described as a slowly decomposing swamp of infighting and political bickering, it's full of people who will not yield a millimeter in any direction and will never, ever change their opinions about anything.

Coping strategy: None. Ditching twitter is something I advice everyone to do, even those who will gladly sell their DNA for a bit of "free" online convenience. You'll feel much more at peace with the world without it.

Google

If facebook is a dead giveaway, this is the truly crucial part of the concept. Facebook deals with distractions - Google deals with infrastructure. No longer one of many actors on the net, their monopoly quite simply dictates what goes and what doesn't. A recent reminder was when their domain blacklisting suddenly identified pouet.net, an innocent site for discussing the demo scene, as a spreader of malware. Things were, as usual, only resolved because someone knew someone who worked at Google. To discourage their thuggish, predatory behavior, we should avoid them in any way possible.

I closed down my Google account together with my Facebook account. I haven't missed that one, either. I also switched to searching with DuckDuckGo. The major point here is to not find a "replacement Google", such as Office 365 and Onedrive. That's not taking back control over your data, that's just handing it to the next buffoon for continued mining.

Coping strategy: I now pay for my email. A mom-and-pop hosts it all for a very reasonable yearly fee and they throw in some pretty decent web hosting, too. Complete self-hosting would of course be ideal from a privacy standpoint, but I'm happy with this solution. I can also mount the home directory through sshfs, which makes it an excellent "cloud drive". When I've been in contact with their customer support, they've been timely, friendly, efficient and professional.

All things considered, it's probably nowhere near as safe from third-party intrusion and reliable against service outage as the Google equivalent, but then again I didn't use Google Drive for anything important, either. That's what my hard drives and USB sticks are for. Don't hand over the stuff that matters to third parties if you can avoid it.

Caveat: Some people might actually need Google Docs for work, because employers like to force their employees into certain ecosystems. I'm forced into other ecosystems by mine, see Tradeoffs and Concessions below. The best option in these cases is of course to use it exclusively for work, exclusively on your work computer and in a separate web browser if possible.

Many more sites

There are tons of sites, services and apps I don't use, for example Paypal and Dropbox. In fact, I avoid most sites where I have to register an account.

Phone Apps

My employer supplies me with a smartphone. On it I keep only the apps I need for work and banking. When commuting was still a thing, I also listened to Spotify. Other than that, I try to use it as little as possible these days. I do carry it with me, though: it mostly works fine as a phone and mobile phones are pretty damn convenient.

Coping strategy: I've never been fond of having a lot of apps. Most of them are pointless and solve completely invented problems.

My local newspaper

I used to pay for an online subscription, until I just decided to stop one day. Apart from the poor quality of journalism, the biased reporting and the insipid editorial texts, I was basically paying money to keep feeding the online ad machine. That's a no-go.

Coping strategy: It's probably a reasonable idea to keep somewhat informed about current events. See "News" below.

Things I do use

Linux

In terms of user empowerment, even Canonical's Ubuntu with its telemetry and mysterious snap packages is so far a much better choice than any proprietary home computer OS on the market. From a privacy standpoint, other distributions, such as Debian and Slackware, are of course even better.

Native software

Turns out there are plenty of good programs that can be used completely offline and will let you store your files locally. They're not even hard to find. A few tips: Abiword, GNumeric, The Gimp, WordGrinder, Audacious.

The Web

The web, method one: Links2

The web still has good parts and I want to get at those good parts. Turns out the really good parts are usually remnants of The Old Web, consisting of HTML and great content.

I try to do as much web browsing as possible in Links2. It's a fast, lean browser with zero support for JavaScript and CSS. The latter means some sites look a bit funky. The former means some sites won't work at all. My usual strategy for sites that won't render without JavaScript is to simply ignore them. If they can't produce something worthwhile without scripting, it's probably not worthwhile at all.

On the plus side, no JavaScript means that most trackers and other spy- and malware just won't run at all. Since Links doesn't save any cookies between sessions, other means of tracking will at least be kept somewhat confused. The flip side is that it's probably an extremely unique browser fingerprint.

The web, method two: RSS and native applications

You can subscribe to Youtube channels, subreddits and pretty much every blog out there using RSS. There are also plenty of specialized TUI:s and CLI:s for interfacing with various popular websites such as Youtube and Reddit.

The web, method three: Firefox with UBlock Origin

For some things, like banking and filing taxes, the Internet really has made things so much more convenient I don't want to live without them. Although my bank could easily provide the services I use completely without a single line of JavaScript, they have decided not to. This also goes for most online shopping. For these types of sites, I use Firefox.

Youtube

There's still plenty of worthwhile content published on Youtube, not least recordings of demo scene productions for obscure hardware.

I watch Youtube using my own tube script in combination with a media player. It's not ideal, since Google will be able to infer a bit about my habits through my IP (although that could of course be mitigated using a VPN) and some videos don't work due to various restrictions imposed by their creators (or copyright laws). Somewhere around 90% of them do though, especially the interesting ones such as Computerphile and Numberphile. The upside is freedom from ads and algorithmic "recommendations": I watch only the videos I really want to watch.

Wikipedia

Still a useful and usable site.

News

Most of the content produced by news media is either clickbait or some kind of "commentary" by "experts" on actual headline news, which can then be milked for another couple of days. More often than not, the reporting is either misinformed, or biased, or both. Still, keeping somewhat updated can be beneficial for private decision making and overall functioning as a member of society.

Because of this, I've recently begun using Teletext for my news. I've even written a small script to scrape Teletext pages from the web and display them in my terminal.

Teletext is my favored mode of consumption since the sparse prose required to fit a story on one or two screens of 40x24 character text will allow for a minimum of bias and fluff. This way, I'll be informed about major world and domestic events without getting too disillusioned by the poor ramblings passed off as journalism these days.

Besides, there's not much you can do about most news anyway. Reading too much about stuff you can't affect in any meaningful way will create a sense of powerlessness, which leads to all sorts of bad moods.

Hacker News

This site is full of pompous know-it-alls never missing an opportunity to humblebrag about their superior intellects. (This of course also describes yours truly a bit more than I'd perhaps care to admit.) Aside from that, it's still a decent aggregator for tech news - especially once you learn to identify the shitposts about How To Make It Big Using Venture Capital and How To Monetize Just About Fucking Everything, so that you can avoid them.

Reddit

There are still some worthwhile subreddits and for reading the posts, RSS works well.

Mailing lists and newsletters

These are still around, you know. I find them especially useful for work related stuff.

CLI:s and TUI:s

The less web dependent I become, the more I find myself mucking about with the command line. I find most CLI and TUI apps to be far more succinct and efficient than their GUI counterparts. This text, for example, is written in the excellent WordGrinder. It seems the somewhat recent trend of using tiling window managers has led to a renaissance for console apps and I'm certainly not complaining.

The Future

Is there anything I'd like to change, then? Indeed there is!

Hardware

I'm currently on an Acer Swift 1, which apart from featuring an Intel Management Engine is also fast enough that I sometimes have to remind myself not to fall back into mindlessly browsing JavaScript enabled sites, wasting hours on pointless media consumption.

I've previously dabbled with a RasPi 3B+ as a desktop replacement, which mostly works fine: It's too slow for modern web browsing except when you really need it, but it does everything else fast enough that I'm pleased with it.

I'm currently torn between going all in on the 3B (I.E. buying a heatsink case, larger SD card, maybe even an SSD, etc.) or getting a RasPi 4. The latter is faster, which might lead to frivolities, but in that sense it's also somewhat future proofed: online banking probably won't become less JavaScript-dependent any time soon.

Websites

While there are some good aspects of Hacker News, Reddit and similar sites, it's also a great place for arguing on the Internet. On rare occasions that can actually be fun, but for the most part I loathe myself for wasting time by arguing semantics and bikeshedding pointless minutiae. The same goes for a few other sites as well, although not quite on the same level.

Links2 helps with this. Since I'm not kept logged in between sessions, there's a slight threshold keeping me back: Is it worth logging in for this? I find myself thinking "No" more often than not these days.

Software

There are far worse Linux distros than Raspbian, but I find myself more and more drawn to the *BSD camp. Further investigation is needed.

Netflix

I do have a Netflix account, but I seem to rarely use it these days. For now, I'm keeping it as a fallback for sick days and those occasions when I actually want to watch a bit of telly. If switching to a RasPi full time I'll have another threshold, because the easiest way to watch Netflix then will be to boot up my arcane PS3, connected to a similarly aging "dumb" TV.

Tradeoffs and Concessions

Work

My job requires running both Windows and iOS. Then again, the software I write professionally is of the kind that doesn't rely on spying on its users for profit, which seems to be increasingly rare these days. I figure I'd rather use spyware at work than work with producing spyware.

Conclusion

The downsides of this gradual online downsizing aren't that many. On the whole, my life is now no less convenient than it was when I was constantly checking social media feeds and news sites.

In fact, the upsides are plenty:

YMMV

These are a few ideas intended to inspire. We're all different and we all have to make different tradeoffs - but I sincerely recommend trying. Like a lot of things, it's mostly a change of mindset. We've been so conditioned into the Data Churn Economy way of doing things that we only see the bad about the olden ways and don't seem to consider the dangers of the new.

For example, spending a bit of time backing up our personal files to an external hard drive is "inconvenient" and "what if there's a fire?" - but handing very precious and personal photos of our children to a third party is apparently a safe option, despite data breaches, account lockouts and service outages happening all the time. And for what? To give us more free time for inhaling the Infinite Scroll Of Influencers? Thanks, but no thanks.

Oh, and, of course: If you, in your heart of hearts, really enjoy sitting in the middle of the maelstrom that is the modern web, feel free to go for it. It's there for you, all the time. Me, I intend to keep subversive for as long as humanly possible.

Good luck and Happy hacking!