last updated: AUG 17 2020
Technology is not neutral, it hard codes society’s unequal power dynamics and economic relationships. Given tech’s ubiquity we need better tech in order to have a free society and support each other. This is an intro to the problems with big tech and a directory of alternatives.
Part 1: What’s so bad about the tech we use?
Monopoly (or… Greed & Power)
The problem at the root of most technology companies is their desire for monopoly. This is the market equivalent of a dictatorship. And a monopolist that makes a product you like is sort of like a dictator that seems like a cool guy you’d want to have a beer with. But once a company concentrates enough market power, it can command high profits without any accountability (and who knows what will happen to that original product). Consumers, vendors, partners, potential competitors or advocacy groups have no leverage. Product quality, price and customer service can be anything or nothing and customers can’t leave. Much of the wealth in the sector gets funneled to the owners and investors of a single company instead of circulating among a diverse array of community-based companies, public institutions, or democratically-run organizations. Every company in that company’s supply chain have to yield to their price and policy demands. New businesses can’t compete since the powerful company has the resources to copy what they’re doing, manipulate the markets to crush them, or buy them out. They hold inordinate control over the labor market. With customer demand so high there is little chance of pushing back against human rights or environmental abuses. The list goes on. Most problematic tactics are implemented to pursue or strengthen some kind of monopolistic position.
- How Congress could take on ‘monopoly power’ in Big Tech, CNET
- Elizabeth Warren Proposes Breaking Up Tech Giants Like Amazon and Facebook, NY Times
Digital data surveillance large rose with online ads, implemented to monetize internet-based information and services which users came to expect to be free. More invasive data collection initially allowed for better ad targeting, then better content targeting, and then other people’s data became its own revenue stream. Though many have a negative reaction to the idea of surveillance, the precise problems with it get hazy or hand-waved when people want to reap the rewards of it (like free stuff, convenience, security or “peace of mind”).
Many turned a blind eye to surveillance early on because it was focused on marketing. Matching consumers with a pair of pants they’d like was a win-win and no big deal. But we are now at the totally foreseeable point where data acquired by marketers is being sold to gestapo-like federal agencies. Surveillance can also easily be used against anyone fighting injustice at any level. That includes BLM protestors, workers organizing for better conditions, consumer advocates – anyone with enemies who will pay. Surveillance has always been used by power structures to neutralize threats and now technology allows them to do it more quickly and cheaply and ubiquitously than ever before. Many are sold on it as a way to stop a serial killer on a cop show, protect the delivery package on your doorstep, or check up on your troubled teen; but (problems with those examples aside) that’s not the primary use or value of these systems. If you believe the little guy/gal should be able to fight abuses of power, surveillance significantly hinders their ability to do so. When you support surveillance, you erode solidarity.
Surveillance is an abstraction to many upper middle class consumers who don’t engage in political action nor are often targeted for particularly invasive authoritarian policy or practices. They have no direct life-threatening experience with it. However, even if they are not moved by the experiences of others, they will likely be affected eventually. When companies have complete access to information about your finances, state of employment, social involvements and even psychological and emotional states, your access to everything from employment to financing to consumer goods to events or organizations can also be scrutinized and manipulated. There is no need to adhere to standard pricing as all transactions will be digital and prices can be customized to individuals at whatever they can get away with. If you’re a vocal critic and an infrequent customer, they can decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth and not deal with you at all. When everything is recorded, stored or accessible over a network, it creates more opportunities for spammers or stalkers. In an era of high connectivity, surveillance and no regulation, many scenarios are possible. Dystopia is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.
- ICE Is Using Location Data From Games and Apps to Track and Arrest Immigrants, Report Says, Vice
- Amazon’s Ring Is a Perfect Storm of Privacy Threats, EFF
- US to require would-be immigrants to turn over social media handles, CNN
- United Airlines debacle: Was a ‘random’ computer search really to blame?, USA Today
- Candidate and employee surveillance software is booming and there’s many to choose from, cf. Twitter post by one of Fama‘s targets.
- Zeynep Tufekci explains how algorithms are designed to identify if you’re bipolar and having a manic episode but it’s more lucrative to sell you travel offers to Vegas than to help.
- Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee pushes for regulation in Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe
A primary way to grow market share is by scaling quickly and making offerings cheap or even free. This is where labor exploitation comes in. Though tech jobs are coveted as the last vestige of the middle class or a path out of poverty, there is growing stratification to support the scale and convenience they’re selling. Hardware production, original based in Silicon Valley, long ago moved overseas for labor that’s cheaper and more easily controlled. Any work outside the tech company power structure is often classified as contractor or vendor and squeezed for wages and benefits. This includes many suppliers and core service providers. Tech companies often operate as middle-men putting the pieces together and extracting the profits. To enable new scales or convenience, they also create jobs that are uniquely monotonous or downright horrifying. They also redefine traditional jobs in ways that remove legacy protections and opportunity for advancement under a veneer of efficiency or modernity. This leads to growing poverty for the many and less freedom and opportunity for individual workers and small businesses. The number of those who benefit from this exploitation shrinks as there is growing downward pressure on wages and concentration of power for the owners.
- THE TRAUMA FLOOR: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America, The Verge
- WEEKS AFTER PTSD SETTLEMENT, FACEBOOK MODERATORS ORDERED TO SPEND MORE TIME VIEWING ONLINE CHILD ABUSE, The Intercept
- The Internet Is Enabling a New Kind of Poorly Paid Hell: For some Americans, sub-minimum-wage online tasks are the only work available, The Atlantic
- Agency and Exploitation in Amazon Mechanical Turk, Lilly Irani
- Your Smartphone Is Probably Powered by Child Labor at Mines in Africa, Vice
- Chinese workers link sickness to n-hexane and Apple iPhone screens, The Guardian
- Amazon Working Conditions: Urinating in Trash Cans, Shamed to Work Injured, List of Employee Complaints, Newsweek
- The Gnawing Anxiety of Having an Algorithm as a Boss: Some people try to game tech companies’ systems. But resistance may be futile, Bloomburg
- When A Machine Fired Me, Ibrahim Diallo
- Uber conditions twitter thread
- Tale of two janitors — Kodak vs. Apple — dramatizes how economy has changed, NY Times
Once a company is big enough, more value can be squeezed by not allowing access or interoperability with their systems. Apple is a big proponent of this. They sell the iPhone, but do not want other companies or even their own customers to access, modify or fix their products. They have tight controls on who can build and sell apps for the phone and take a steep cut of profits made by the app. Their own products don’t work with each other over time causing people to buy the same (slightly modified) product over and over.
Some of this is classic monopoly profit-making and control with it’s ability to shut out potential competitors and upstarts, but it also has an immense negative impact on the environment and local economies. Think of all the plug-in peripherals, speaker systems, chargers and plastic cases over the years that are instantly unusable with every design and port update. Think of all the time and expense needed to go through Apple instead of having the ability to fix something yourself, replace interchangeable parts or go to a local repair shop. This is especially dangerous as we trust tech with more of personal lives. Your entire media collection, family album, or personal records can get wiped out when a company goes out of business, decides to discontinue a service, stops supporting a piece of hardware or makes an arbitrary decision to ban you.
- IP in Locus Magazine (also Hope 2020 Keynote) and Unauthorized Bread, Cory Doctorow
- Right to Repair Europe
- Fortnite May Have Just Laid the Perfect Antitrust Trap for Apple—and They Fell For It, Gizmodo
- Apple Engineer Talks about the New 2015 Macbook (parody)
Attention & Addiction
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
- Data & Society
- Tech is not Neutral
- Tech Workers Coalition
- Logic Magazine
- Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow
Part 2: What are alternatives?
Alternative technologies chip away at powerful monopolies and offer more equitable visions for what technology could be. They may offer more privacy, user autonomy, open use, interoperability, shared ownership, democratic stakeholder governance, worker empowerment or some systemic combination of approaches. With less capitalization (money) and no aspirations for monopoly, they may not be as accessible, convenient or user-friendly to all users. But these spaces are evolving and grow with our support and investment.
This spreadsheet below is a list of known alternative technologies with details on why they’re preferable and how to adopt them. The goal is to keep refining the listings for easier use and greater accuracy. Technologies are posted that are subjectively deemed sufficient enough a replacement for something in common use. You can comment on the spreadsheet to make additions or request edits or you can comment on this post. This is not a wiki or repo in order to be more accessible to non-technical people, but format suggestions are also welcome.
IN PROGRESS, references: https://ioo.coop/directory/clouds/
Case Study for Solidarity Club
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