Is life offline over? Has BIG TECH changed everything?

When people want to look something up online, chances are they use Google. Online shopping? The first choice is probably Amazon. Browsing social media or messaging your friends? It’s likely people are using Facebook or one of the other platforms it owns, like Instagram or WhatsApp…
Recently, a community member, @deven brought up an interesting topic on one of the threads about comments they noticed surrounding PURE. This got me thinking: can we really get away from BIG TECH? Or are we too far down the rabbit hole?

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  • Online searches: Yes
  • Online shopping: Yes
  • Social media: Yes
  • Messaging: Yes
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Big Tech is too big. We can take steps away from them and create a distance, a buffer zone, but they will be there. So, yes, Big Tech changed it and now solutionism is on a rampage. We keep making connected things for some reason. My thought, and what I teach my students, is that in the west we are on course for a Huxley-inspired Brave New World.

When a new tech comes along and disrupts the old, we are forced to use the new one. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. A recent case is a university mealhall in France where the students were forced to install an app or else they were not allowed to dine there source.

Big Tech has given us complicated entertainment machines that generate both harmless leisure and the high levels of consumption. We don’t even bother to check who owns what anymore and they know that. The Facebook empire we know, the Amazon empire covers the social network Goodreads and the movie site IMDB. We try to get away from Amazon and buy a Kobo but it turns out that Rakuten is an empire too…and in Japan you can buy whale products and ivory on their site. We make our open-source software and put it on Github which is Microsoft. Firefox gets large sums of money from Google. And offline it is the same thing, like with the university meal hall mentioned above, some essential services are online only. My mother, who is not tech savvy, spent 3 hours making her vaccine appointments because she had to sign up and then confirm her email, but she didn’t know that and waited…and waited.

We can widen our buffer zone by getting politicians interested in the problems, and by being very selective. Use social media as a tool. Try the FOSS option before the proprietary. Be careful when you agree to terms and conditions.

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@kirkmahoneyphd I was about to tag you in a post because I remember you mentioned that although you deleted all social media, you kept your Amazon account because, as an author, it’s a tool that you find useful to market your books. If any ecommerce platform has been a proving ground for what BIG TECH can do, it’s Amazon. It’s a big data behemoth. How do you balance your desire for internet privacy, while still using such a platform?

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@urszula: I have yet to disentangle my book sales from Amazon, where I sell ebooks and paperbacks. I sell my ebooks also on Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Kobo, and I sell them through Draft2Digital (thereby reaching Apple and many other online retailers). I will move my ebooks away from most, if not all, of these when I can find a way to sell them without taking on the personal responsibility of knowing when to collect sales tax and how much sales tax to collect. I used Lulu for my first two books in hardcover format, but those never sold, so I switched to paperback at CreateSpace for my first two printed books and all subsequent printed books. Amazon owns CreateSpace, so… :slight_smile:

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Add:

  • Dating: Yes

to that list…

I think that’s the wrong question.

You can get away from big tech if you’re sufficiently committed. You can use something like Duckduckgo for search, do online shopping directly from vendors’ websites, etc. Depending on your definition of “getting away” in this context, that may still not be enough, but you can even go further with tools like Tor.

But would you want to? I wouldn’t. I think the better question is, on an individual level, how we can be more intentional about how we interact with big tech. And on a collective level, how we can push the tech giants toward less exploitive business models through regulation, activism, and innovation.

My current phone is even more basic than the Pure. I have no social media accounts other than a Twitter from which I never tweet and that I typically only check once or twice a month when I need to use it for something specific. I have no smart home devices of any kind. In the parlance of this forum, I’ve been living a life of digital minimalism for as long as that has made sense as a distinct concept.

But I choose to continue using Google search while signed into a Google account without any anonymisation, because the search result personalisation that I get in exchange for allowing them to collect data about me saves me time, makes it easier to do my job, and generally removes friction from my interactions with the Internet. I also choose to continue using YouTube while signed into a Google account without any anonymisation, because the algorithm consistently exposes me both to new musicians I enjoy and introduces me to new sources of knowledge that I value highly, from university lectures to book talks to home-grown educational YouTube channels. On the other hand, I don’t let either of them determine my news consumption, for example.

These and many other things aren’t merely valuable in spite of being products of big tech; they’re valuable because they’re products of big tech. Economies of scale, network effects, Metcalfe’s Law, etc. are very real and very powerful forces that can provide substantial benefits to consumers. It would be foolish to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

It seems to me that most people think about how to approach antitrust cases with the big tech companies from completely the wrong angle. You hear people talk about how Google has a virtual monopoly on search or how Facebook has a virtual monopoly on social media profiles, and the problem is presented as being one of lacking competition in those specific services. Let’s call this vertical monopolisation.

But the real problem is very different. The issue is that the company with the dominant search engine also has the dominant email service and the dominant streaming video platform and one of the dominant mobile operating systems and a huge share of the digital advertising market and so on. And furthermore, all those different services aggregate their data together and share them between one another so that they’re able to build profiles of end users that are so accurate that, in many cases, they can predict your future behaviour more accurately than you can. Let’s call this horizontal monopolisation.

In most cases, vertical monopolies in the tech space actually benefit consumers. And that means that, according to U.S. or E.U. antitrust law, they’re not actually a problem. Regulators should be more vigilant about placing limits on vertical acquisitions that quash startups that might disrupt the status quo of the company’s existing services, but this isn’t where the biggest issues lie. Where we really need to see regulators getting more assertive is blocking further horizontal expansion into yet more novel areas of people’s lives. And they likely need to go further and actually forcibly break apart different arms of these companies that have already been integrated horizontally. Outside the scope of antitrust, we also need to see regulations like GDPR continue to be refined. Personally, I’d like to see an end entirely to the ad targeting model of funding online services, but I don’t really see a path to making that happen in the near term.

Beyond regulatory issues, most people have effectively zero understanding of their own psychology. They don’t understand how much they’re impacted by cognitive effects like decision fatigue, the unfortunately-named analysis paralysis, etc. They radically overestimate their free will and have no appreciation for how much their decisions are subject to cognitive biases and outside influences. As a result, people use technology carelessly and without regard to the ways in which it affects them.

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