Hello, Goodbye: making smart decisions about the digital tools we let into our lives
The interesting thing about traps is that their victims walk into them willingly. Be it a mouse trap with tasty cheese (although allegedly chocolate works better), or a beautifully-designed social network that captures us with relationships and small doses of endorphins, a trap only works because it entices us in.
Sites like Google and Facebook have become effective monopolies because they are so very good at what they do. Their offer is compelling, and so we switch to using them in ever increasing numbers. If you’re looking for people to blame for the digital state we’re in, that blame lies, at least partially, at the feet of us.
Most people reading this will be living in a capitalist society, and part of the deal inherent in that way of organising ourselves is that we should wield our consumer power wisely. It’s about time we start doing that in the digital space.
The internet of s… not great things
Let’s look at one area: the Internet of Things. People kinda like the idea of the smart home and connected devices. And you know what’s great? There’s loads of really cheap connected cameras and lights and their ilk, which you can grab off Amazon and install in your house.
They’re insecure. They have default root passwords. They have no way of being updated. Any script-kiddie on the internet can pwn them with off-the-shelf tools. You just turned your house into part of a botnet — or let hackers scare your children.
You’ve also just rewarded slap-dash manufacturers with your hard-earned cash. Sure, that’s consumerism, but you’re making silly choices, and at some point you have to take responsibility for them, or put up with the consequences. If you think digital products suck, you need to put a digital fix in place. Don’t put your money towards the internet of shit. Find better companies, with a more serious approach to security and who respect the privacy and safety of your home, and commit your money there.
Ignorance is no excuse
For years, “Oh, I don’t know about tech” has been a standard excuse. Teachers use it, managers use it, members of your family use it. But is it an acceptable excuse?
No. We’re better consumers when we’re informed consumers – and the last couple of years have made it clear that we have to be informed about digital, because it’s becoming central to the way we live. Sure, a monastic retreat from digital for short periods can be healthy, but you can’t fully participate in society without digital tools any more, and so we need to get better at making smart choices.
Of course, you can’t stop people making bad choices. Many countries have serious warnings about the risks of tobacco on their cigarette packets – but people continue to smoke. It’s a fundamental liberty of humanity to be left to make your own bad choices — but we should at least strive to make informed bad choices.
However, we should also try to make good choices where we can – and those of us who are a little bit more tech savvy should try to lead the way. But it can be a hard path to follow.
Social media outside the ludic loop
Like many people, I’ve become weary of Facebook’s rather disrespectful attitude towards its users, and Twitter’s seeming acceptance of abuse as a norm of the public space. And so, I’ve been looking for alternative social media.
For the last few months I’ve been using micro.blog, a Kickstarted social network that might be best described as Twitter rebuilt on open web principles. And it works by hiding many of the things that most of us associate with social media. I have no idea how many people see my posts. I have no idea how many people are following me. The service doesn’t tell me. Favourites are just private bookmarks, not something that is displayed on a post – or even to the author of the post I just favourited.
The problem with these “just click a button instead of sending an actual reply” features is that they fool us into thinking we’ve done something meaningful by clicking. Anyone can click a Twitter heart button to show that they’ve noticed a tweet or enjoyed it. It takes very little effort and doesn’t mean much.
On Micro.blog, favorites are private. They are just for your own use, like bookmarks. We’ve found that the lack of public likes encourages people to reply to posts instead, even if it’s just a quick “Thanks!” or “That’s great!” or other comment. It’s a little more meaningful because it requires a bit of effort.
There is a reason why most nutritionists recommend that we only consume fast food in moderation: however tasty it is (hello fats and sugars!), it doesn’t provide a good nutritional balance. Just because something is easy and satisfying, doesn’t mean it’s good for us.
Weirdly, using micro.blog feels a little like starting a new exercise regime. Deprived of my little endorphin kicks of success: no likes, or shares, or follower increases, I wonder why I’m doing this. But then the conversations start flowing, and I realise that I need to respond in turn to get value from the service. I find myself surprised – pleasantly – when someone I didn’t realise was following my replies to a post. It’s fun. It’s social – more so than the gamified version of social so many sites have.
Will it last? Who knows? But I can, at least, choose to spend some of my precious time there, rather than in spaces that respect me less. It’s a small, personal choice. But out of many, many small, personal choices, revolutions are born.