or Better Digital Living By Making Things Harder For Yourself
or I spent a Year Without Facebook and Google - Here's What Happened Next
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:
- I'm no longer in control of my computer and my OS.
- The modern web is a cesspool of tracking scripts, ads, malware and clickbait designed to suck you in and make you stupid.
- Even the most premium commercial software and hardware more often than not comes with contraptions to spy on you.
- "Cloud apps" are replacing programs I'd much rather run natively.
- Thus, we sacrifice our privacy and intellects for faux conveniences.
- The Idealist Net we fondly remember is long dead and unlikely to come back.
- ...but there are still pockets of sanity left.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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
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.
Still a useful and usable site.
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.
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.
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.
Is there anything I'd like to change, then? Indeed there is!
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.
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.
There are far worse Linux distros than Raspbian, but I find myself more and more drawn to the *BSD camp. Further investigation is needed.
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
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.
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:
- I'm less likely to get worked up about something stupid posted online - be it news or otherwise.
- Getting a message from a friend feels more special and fun than it used to do on Facebook.
- I'm much more likely to meet with people offline. I say yes to more social invitations and there's also always something to talk about, since everything hasn't already been discussed to death online - at least not by me.
- After years of instant access to an infinite supply of crap content, my brain has been conditioned to constantly demand more. Now, instead of hunting for more content to waste time on when I don't feel like programming, drawing or writing, I simply leave the computer. It might sound self-evident, but the brain works in mysterious ways.
- I spend less time consuming and more time producing. Not that the software and pictures I produce on my spare time will find a large audience, but I'm having fun with my computers. I used to think this kind of fun was almost only possible on my old Amigas (and I still consider them more fun), but it turns out that when a machine is not a wide open faucet for stupidity feeds, I associate it less with bad things and more with creativity.
- I still find myself reaching for my smartphone without thinking. I usually end up checking the time and then putting it back into my pocket. Without a constant influx of new "content", there's not much I can do with it. The learned reflex is slowly being unlearned.
- I've started reading books in earnest again.
- I still get affected by some of the things I do read, but I'm less likely to jump headfirst into a pointless flame war.
- Re-learning patience: Maybe I don't have access to something Right This Instant. When I do get access, I realize that perhaps it wasn't all that important to begin with. Also: Turns out there's stuff to look at in nature.
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!