Thoughts on the Rocks #3

There’s a joke that goes like this: 

Two guys are sitting at a bar. Guy One asks Guy Two, “If a man from three hundred years ago was suddenly teleported to right here, right now in front of us, what is the one thing you would tell him that would completely blow his mind?”

Guy Two thinks for a little bit before giving his answer, “I would pull out my phone and tell him that the majority of humans around the world have a device that gives me immediate access to all the known knowledge and history of mankind, a device that lets them communicate instantly to nearly anyone else anywhere on the planet, a device that fits inside my pocket and that I keep within arms reach every moment of every day of my life…”

Guy One leans in with every word, waiting for the mind-blowing part.

…“And then I would tell the man that humans use this device mainly to watch videos of cats.”

So, it’s not the funniest joke, but it strikes on the fact that maybe most of us in the world don’t use technology to its fullest potential. In fact, I’d bet that most of us don’t know how to fully harness the raw computing and processing power that sits in most of our pockets and purses. The people who truly understand computers—who can design them, manipulate them, and fully build and develop programs and devices that fully execute their will—are few and far between in the big picture of humanity. Also, they mostly work for a very short list of very big tech companies. 

A certain guy named Paul Miller sees this. And he has dreams of putting that capability—that ability to fully wield computers to their fullest extent— back in the hands of normal people instead of relying on those tech giants to decide how our devices operate. In other words, he has dreams of decentralizing technology. 

It’s a cool idea, but there are some implications to our everyday lives that have been on my mind as I listen to Mr. Miller’s podcast, “Cyberdeck Users Weekly”. It’s a biweekly show where he talks about the idea of decentralization and sometimes interviews folks who are building open-source, decentralized technologies. Miller launched it about a month ago after his recent departure from The Verge where he was a tech journalist and co-host of the podcast “The Vergecast” (the flagship podcast of the entire universe, as one of the other hosts often sarcastically puts it). Actually, I think Paul was one of the co-founders of The Verge as well? If not, he was there from near the beginning.

The podcast, overall, is fantastic—if not a little overly technical for the average person. However, I’m not here to write a review of the show, nor will I go full tech nerd in this post. My goal today is actually to talk about the underlying philosophy behind his podcast and the cyberdeck culture as a whole. 

I know it sounds boring to most, but don’t leave quite yet because, if you use a computer or cell phone or…well pretty much anything connected to the internet, this idea we’re going to talk about applies to you. We’re going to discuss the impact of big tech companies on people like you and me, and why you can’t (or maybe don’t want to) truly own any of the technology you use. Amazon will get name dropped once or twice probably, definitely Apple and Microsoft…and we’ll probably end up discussing the fall of democracy or capitalism or some other such apocalypse, …depends on how much gin I’ve had by the time we get to the end of writing this. Sounds boring but, I promise, it’ll be fun and lighthearted.

So, pour yourself a nice glass of whiskey or bourbon, (I’ve got a nice, new bottle of Old Tom gin on hand) and let’s get this Thoughts on the Rocks article going.

First, What the Heck is a Cyberdeck? 

Well, for my reader friends, does the name William Gibson ring a bell? He’s a Canadian Sci-Fi author who mainly wrote cyberpunk stories in the 1980s. He’s most well known for his book Neuromancer and he coined the idea of a cyberdeck in both that book and some of his other works. Basically, his characters used these rugged, small, mobile computers to hack away at whatever problems or antagonists they faced.

The biggest difference between a cyberdeck and the mobile phone, tablet, or computer you’re reading this on now is that, like everything else in the 80s, cyberdecks are just plain cooler. They have style. Also, they don’t work as well because they’re usually home made. Cyberdecks are kind of a hobby for computer enthusiasts who like to build their own stuff. Sometimes they’re made to be ultra durable and portable. Other times, they’re modeled after iconic sci-fi devices like a PipBoy from the video game Fallout. If you’re still confused, check out a few pictures on the cyberdeck subreddit sometime. It’s lots of fun.

Now, I have to confess that I’m not a cyberdeck user, nor have I ever built one. So, why am I listening to a podcast called “Cyberdeck Users Weekly” and supporting Paul on Patreon? I’ll answer that with a question of my own: Why is a podcast called Cyberdeck Users Weekly released twice a week? I’m not a cyberdeck user and the podcast isn’t weekly…I guess you could say it’s a misnomer in both directions.

Anyways, cyberdeck enthusiasts are really into building their own hardware and software. Additionally, there tends to be a philosophy among the subculture which respects technology that is either open-source, self built, or is as unreliant on “the man”—that is, big tech companies—as possible. You can compare it to the maker movement that’s sweeping the world with their homemade furniture and 3D printers and such. People like having full ownership over a thing and they enjoy the feeling that comes with knowing you have full control, responsibility, and power over an object like your living room table or that sourdough starter you made during quarantine. 

The splash of self-reliant character that cyberdeck users have is similar to that of other hobbyists. The difference, however, is that technology is complex…way more complex than your homemade coffee table or loaf of warm bread. Technology is also way more influential on our lives today, and big tech companies like Apple and Facebook have a crazy amount of control over what happens in the world compared to say, IKEA or Wonderbread. 

Tim Cook and Bill Gates have far grander plans for technology (and humanity) than simply building pocket-sized rectangles that let people watch cat videos and—unlike you and me—they have the means and the know-how to make their tech dreams reality. But, why should they get to decide how technology (which is so foundational and influential over our modern lives) looks and operates?

Back to the Podcast

With that background information in mind, let’s get back to Paul Miller’s podcast. The main theme of the show is based on the idea of decentralized technology—putting computing power and capability into the hands of the people rather than them being reliant on big companies and CEOs. Letting people bake their own bread instead of having to buy whatever low-quality, sugar-filled nonsense that EvilBreadCorp. decides to make.

I personally love the idea of having full ownership and control over the technology I use every day. What if I could communicate with my friends from around the world on my own terms instead of relying on Facebook and whatever features they do or don’t implement that I might or might not like? What if I want to watch and share videos with the world without submitting myself to YouTube (owned by Google)? What if my phone worked exactly the way I wanted it to every time, and had all the perfect apps that suited my every exact need instead of me being reliant on an App Store? Because I had the skills, know-how, and resources to do it myself?

Like I said, I love the idea, and I love Paul Miller’s podcast and how thought provoking it is. However…there’s a problem:

Computers are hard.

Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him for a Day. Teach Every Man to Fish…and We’ll Run Out of Doctors

Building a computer and the requisite software required to make it work is horrendously complex. There’s a reason why there’s only a handful of computer operating systems out there in the world today. They’re hard to make. You can’t just wake up one weekend and decide to build a fully functional computer for yourself from scratch like you could a coffee table. Heck, you can’t even build a decent iPhone app in one weekend, let alone an entire operating system.

Even if I knew everything in the world there was to know about computers, and had every ability to design my own smart phone, develop my own software exactly how I wanted it, and fully utilized the technology I built to its fullest potential, I don’t know that I would do it. The reason why is because I have other priorities in my life. I have a career, other hobbies, other passion projects.

The frustrating complexity of computers makes it incredibly difficult to fully own and control every function and communication without fully committing every minute of your life to it. While I love the idea of having full power and control over the technology I use, I would never have enough time to fully utilize that power and control to its fullest potential. That’s why I pay (through either cash or personal data) other people—the Cooks, the Gates, the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of the world—to do all the work for me so I can have a device or platform that just…works. 

Sure, it may not be a device perfectly tailored to the needs of my life, it may have some features that I’m not happy with, and I might not like what they do with my data, but it works well enough for me to get by in life. It allows me the time to focus on other pursuits instead of spending all my efforts designing my own technology, managing and securing my own data servers, fixing bugs, etc.

It’s the unspoken downside to the “Teach a man to fish” saying. You know how it goes: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life? 

The problem is, not every man or woman has the time or desire to go fishing. They have families, careers, other things in the community to be doing. We can’t all be fishermen. If we were, there wouldn’t be anyone to cook, make art, be bankers, or scientists, doctors, etc. All those other parts to society that take up our time. It’s why most of us are dependent on a grocery store for our food instead of growing, hunting, or fishing it ourselves. 

As much as my self-reliant ego hates to admit it, diversification of skills is what makes society function properly. In the complex, globalized world we live in, we have to accept the idea of being dependent on others and trusting their decisions. And that includes being dependent on companies who have the immense know-how and resources to build our everyday technology. I have to trust the tech companies for the devices that shape my life in the same way that I have to trust my grocery store to make good decisions regarding food supply.

So is that it, then? Are we stuck having to rely on giant (and sometimes arguably evil) tech companies to build the technology we use every day for the sake of time and simplicity? Is Paul Miller’s whole premise wrong? 

No, not at all. Because Mr. Miller admits in the first episode of his podcast that the full, 100% control described above is probably unattainable.

That being said, I think that in the balancing act between control and convenience, perhaps we’ve swung a little too far into convenience, and Mr. Miller is leading the charge to bring us back to center. Also, unlike a grocery store, if tech companies get too carried away, they’ll destroy democracy (aha! Told you that would come up at some point).

Control Versus Convenience

Most people already have more control over their devices than they choose to utilize. Case in point, how many people around the world have been “zoombombed” because they were too lazy to change the default security settings of their video chat platform? Or didn’t bother to set a password? For the average non-technical person, odds are that you already have more personalization options for your devices than you know what to do with. In fact, most of us have probably fallen a little too far on the side of convenience to the point that we’ve voluntarily given up control over our devices—allowing software designers and programmers to set the default settings and features to whatever they want regardless of whether or not it’s in our best interest. 

Maybe it’s time more people brushed up on their technical know how and took a little more ownership and control over the technology that shapes their lives. We don’t all have to become full-up software developers or computer engineers. We don’t all have to build our own computers, start mining Bitcoin, or become regular contributors on GitHub. But we can all have a little more agency in our lives, take full advantage of what features the tech giants deign to provide us with now and then, get vocal when those companies do something to our tech that we don’t like, and use our democratic voice (or our dollars) to tell the companies what we want out of them. 

If we don’t, well, then tech companies will continue to assume more control, doing whatever is in their best interests as opposed to what is in ours. And, if you’ve ever read a cyberpunk novel (or any story where the big monolithic corporation is the bad guy) then you know that’s not a world you want to live in. In fact, Mr. Miller said it pretty well himself in the first episode of his podcast:

“[Apple] has a lot of control…They can just delete something off the App store…they could delete your phone if they wanted to, you know?…Who could stop them? They are completely within their power to change the rules on you. I want to get out of that setup.”

Mr. Miller is advocating for more control—more autonomy—over our technology. Sure, full ownership and responsibility isn’t 100% the answer, but the state of things today where Facebook drives elections, Amazon controls the global economy, and WhatsApp is shaping democracy in India, is equally as bad. 

We need to gain a little more control and autonomy. If we give up too much to these tech companies, what happens when they threaten to take things away? For a homeowner who relies on Airbnb for a large portion of their income, what happens if the platform decides to remove them for no apparent reason? What happens if Apple decides to delete a feature that you staked your livelihood on? What about when Medium changes their payment policy, hurting thousands of hopeful writers? What if Google decides to charge you ten cents per web search? There’s no reason they couldn’t. All it would take is the whim of an executive and a few lines of code.

In other words, how much do you trust the companies you rely on to do the right thing for you?

Even beyond trusting companies, there’s the added factor of availability. As a traveler, I’ve often been in countries where the platforms I rely on and use the most are completely unavailable because of my location. What do I do then? I could use a VPN, but those are increasingly becoming illegal in other countries. On top of that, the US has a complete ban on Huawei equipment…in the future, what if I visited a country where it was illegal to use my brand of hardware? (Highly unlikely, yes, because Apple rules the world. But, you get my point). 

Our experience, our communications, and, more and more often, our incomes and livelihoods are reliant on these tech firms who answer to two groups, we the people consumers and themselves. And as these companies get bigger and bigger, our dollars start to have less and less of a voice. And that’s why Mr. Miller is advocating for people to learn how to utilize their own open-source, decentralized technology for the functions they rely on the most. He has a simple way of determining whether or not we have the amount of control that we should have over a certain technology. He asks three questions: 

1. Is it actively harming me? (conversely, ‘Is it useful to me?’) 

2. Can it be taken away, and…

3. How easily?

Mr. Miller’s answer is self-hosting—building your own servers to host your website, podcast, messaging system, etc. instead of relying on the likes of Medium, Facebook, Airbnb, and YouTube. In other words, Paul’s solution is a server in every home, so we can all communicate with each other directly instead of relying on a centralized hub. 

Me? I just don’t know if I have the time (and IT skills) required to do that. And, as far as having a voice to cry foul when the tech companies I rely on hurt me…I don’t think any CEOs care about—let alone notice—my individual dollar. For example, I stopped using Google years ago in favor of DuckDuckGo, but I doubt that Sindar Pichai took note. And I have several open-source operating systems like Ubuntu and hardware like RaspberryPi lying around, but my Mac and iPhone are way too convenient for daily use by comparison—despite the underlying fear that I’m relying on a company that could ruin my life with a few keystrokes. 

Maybe if hundreds of millions of us started abandoning tech giants in favor of open-source competitors, then the platforms might make more of an effort to do what’s right by us but, for now, I just don’t know.

And Now I’m Out of Gin

While I have no desire to be my own, self-sufficient tech startup (I already don’t have enough time for writing, let alone building my own web server to host said writing), I agree with Mr. Miller’s premise. I rely heavily on WordPress, Fiverr, Apple, and other companies to make decisions that benefit me and allow me to live online. Things are good now, but what happens when they change their minds? Do I trust the platforms I use? Maybe, but when my choices are either trusting them or some other faceless megabusiness, is that really a choice?

That’s the end of my rambling for today. I think there’s still a lot more that can be said about how specific platforms are damaging various aspects of our society and perhaps gaining too much influence and responsibility over our lives. But what do you guys think? Are there any online platforms, software, or technology which are just absolutely critical to your lives that you don’t necessarily have control over? Give Paul’s podcast a listen and tell me if I’m way off course. I’m always eager to hear and learn other perspectives. For now, I’ve got some fishing to do and a sourdough starter to feed.

Cheers,

Liam Brodentel

(Drink Pairing: If Social Media Sites Were Cocktails).

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