My first computer, way back, was a stand alone device, not connected to anything but a printer, mouse, keyboart and crt monitor, it had less hdd space than my laptop today has ram and a single core cpu running at some MHz yes M and if I remember correctly that was a two digit number. The OS took up around 40 MB of my hdd and was called Windows 95. I remember this computer very fondly, it was an amazing machine at the time. I had it until I think 2004, when I got my parents to replace it with a newer machine, that sported Windows XP and around 98 we got the internet. In the entire house only one computer had access to it and that was my fathers work PC running Windows something, think it was NT, nobody but him was allowed to touch without his supervision. At lightning fast speeds of up to 65kbps it was a vastly different experience from todays web and dialing up to it woke about the entire house with a sound that still sits in my memory today. We had that dial-up modem until around 2002/3 if my memory serves me well, when it got replaced by a-dsl and we got WiFi so I could do school stuff on my shiny new laptop at home. The internet truly exploded at home back then, we had 3 devices that could access it. My father setup an e-mail address for me and it was the first time I could freely communicate online (and also caught my first virus). The first search-engine I used was something called alta-vista and that led to what the web was back then, numerous websites from individuals looking completely different or company homepages informing about products. The internet was more of a wild-west setting, with stuff poping up everywhere and disappearing all the time and it was a wondrous place. My old school offered computer camps, one of which I visited when I was about 9 or 10. I wasn’t much, just two teenagers on a summer job trying to get their strange hobby across to a couple of kids. But I learned some basic hmtl back then and, more importantly, how to install a game called hugo from a floppy disk.
I was always drawn to computers, due to my fathers company, which he partly ran from home, we were an atypical family in terms of owning more that one computer, at least around here. My father knew very little of pcs, but what he knew he tried to teach me. First encounter: A huge Unix machine used for accounting and calculations at his company.
So yeah, like most kids nowadays, I also grew up with computers around me, only like 30 years earlier. But there was also a difference, all of them were only turned on for short times when we used them and the Modem/Wifi was turned of over night, because why let it run? There was no permanent attention to apps and networks necessary.
The world has changed quiet a bit since then, the web is made up of more than a couple of homepages, internet giants have risen to power, actual desktop pcs are a rarity, not to speak of those unix monsters, and most people connect to the web via smartphones. At home almost everything is connected to the world wide web, laptops, tablets, phones, tvs, speakers, gaming consoles even lights. And along with all our appliances we got sucked into the web as well.
Everything is always online, waiting for our voice command or dragging us back in with an ever so nice chime of the latest notification. Almost everyone has an online presence by now, but sadly not a creatively designed homepage, more likely an account on one of the big social networks, be it facebook, twitter, instagram whatever. And yes, I will take some critique for using a default wordpress skin here.
But back to the issue, the web today is more than a way to get some information, it has evolved into our main means of communication, and as the social creatures we are, communication is one of the most important things in a human life. And being able to connect to almost anyone on our planet via the web is a brilliant thing, don’t get me wrong, we live in an amazing time, but we also do have a big problem, or better many big problems.
Most of this communication is handled by only a hand full of companies, write about your life so you friends now whats going on? Facebook. Video conference? Zoom/Skype/MS Teams. Share pictures? Instagram. Need a new phone? Apple/Google. Laptop? Microsoft/Apple. Texting? WhatsApp. Music? Spotify. TV? Netflix/Amazon, Shopping? Amazon.
Yes there is more in there than communication and there are more services available, but what it boils down to is a couple of names. Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify, Zoom. The last one about to be eaten by Microsoft. So all in all 7 companies that handle our entire communication. And they make very good money of the data we ever so happily feed them.
And here the problems start, first these services are centralized if they decide to shut some one out, or if a nation decides it doesn’t want its citizens to communicate so easily that channel is closed within seconds and you lost your main means of communication. And these days that is an actual threat.
Second, with everyone being on these networks if you want to join in you are going to have to accept whatever that company wants of you to join the conversation.
Part of that deal is, that everything you do on these platforms is automatically propertiy of that platform and it will be sold to the highest bidder. These very personal informations about a person are pure gold if applied correctly they can do many things from convincing someone to buy some stupid gadget to manipulating votes.
Third, all these platforms share one thing, they are closed source. That means nobody can check what they really are doing in the background. Sometimes stuff leaks, that is why we know about some of the shady things these companies do, but we will never know what really is going on behind the scenes.
Fourth, they are walled gardens, you can’t communicate with someone outside of that platform, even if you have facebook and want to talk to someone on whatsapp, although they are the same company. You are forced to install them all.
Fifth, the spying doesn’t end on these platforms. Let’s say you have no social network at all, but you own a windows pc, mac, android phone or ios device, something you bought, something that is by any legal term yours and yours alone. They still track what you do. Often with no way of disabling the tracking.
Sixth, microphones in our homes. It doesn’t stop at phones and web platforms, new fancy IoT devices keep poping up, why push a light switch when you can tell alexa to turn on your wifi-lightbulb? While the one listens in on everything you say, the other knows exactly when you are home.
I will stop here, there are too many things and I think I already wrote way to much for one blog post, but if you stayed with me until here, please continue, I’ll try to end soon.
Currently something new is happening, these issues have grown so severe that the slowest acting entity mankind has ever invented, governemts, started reacting to it. Anti-trust processes have started in the US and in the EU laws are being invented to tame these big companies and, if neccesary, force them to be split up into smaller corporations. Sadly that won’t be helping, since these meassures are not being taken to prevent them from doing their business, they are taken to prevent them from becoming monopolies. To prevenet them from destroying the free marked.
Trying to fix these issues with laws and anti-trust suits is applying a 20th centruy solution to a 21st century problem. And even worse, when it comes to dealing with, let’s say a new virus, governments are very happy to drop everything and let big tech companies handle stuff as sensitive a contact tracing.
Austria for example had a contact tracing app, developed by the red cross and later made open source by public demand (which astonished me) but when Apple and Google came out with their APIs the open source app was replaced with one using these APIs.
So, what to do? Take everything and throw it into the trash, mount horses again and use candles for lighting our homes?
No, certainly not, but maybe we have reached the point where we should start to think about how much of all of this we really need. Maybe a lightswitch does the job well enough, maybe we don’t need to see every picture of every lunch of our friends immediatly. Maybe we don’t even have to share pictures of our lunches? Who knows.
We currently live in a very interesting time, since on the one hand all these technologies enable us to stay safe in our homes while a deadly virus holds the world prisoner, but on the other hand we are giving up every little bit of our privacy in the process.
Maybe it is about time, we all take a step back and look at our digital lifes and do a little clean up. Remove services we do not need, maybe leave the phone behind every now an than or at least turn of notifications. Learn to relax a bit about all of this and to use these platforms without exposing everything, or even better, using alternatives like the fediverse.
Doing so is very important to our menatl health, our privacy, our personal freedom and the luxury of democracy. Governments won’t be able so save us this time, only our own choices are.
Most of us have been born into a world where all of these devices and platforms where just dreams of sci-fy authors and we jumped at them when they arrived and why not, we didn’t know any better back in those days, but we do now. Many of my generation have kids by now and they are born into this new world and whenever I see kids in a restaurant gathered around a phone when there is a playground outside something inside of me dies. Apart from how important it is for kids to run around and getting used to what their bodies can do while climbing an so forth, what we do is teaching them early on to jump at any notification, to get a phone the second they have nothing to do, to become a slave to their devices, instead of thinking about doing anything else. Not to speak of how bad it is for a developing brain to be exposed to TV, Youtube etc for prolonged times.
Maybe it is time we learned how to disconnect….