The promise of technology is one of empowerment. Computers are tools. They make it easier, or even possible, to do certain tasks. Technology’s basic purpose is to help.
While developers often mean well, much of our technology is less than helpful. Today’s web services leave us dependent on telecommunications companies, put control of our data in other people’s hands, and open us up to pervasive surveillance. Planned obsolescence takes our hard-earned cash and turns it into products that we need to replace every couple of years. Online media stores now sell us permission to access books and movies instead of files that we get to own.
Rather than feeling empowered, I feel vulnerable. Certain technologies make me feel weaker and more exposed than I did before using them.
I’ve reached a point where I’ve started to do without.
Table of Contents
1. Modern Day Luddite
Am I a modern day Luddite? From a glimpse at Wikipedia, Luddites weren’t protesting the existence or advancement of technology, they took issue with the way technology was being used to weaken their livelihoods. That is something I can empathize with.
Yet at the same time, I’m someone who pulls in an income working on the web. So I’m aware of the extent to which certain technologies have enabled me to have the life that I have.
I have nothing against computers and the internet. But I did delete all of my social media accounts (and I’m not the first writer at MakeUseOf to have done so). I stopped backing up my data on a cloud storage service. I don’t stream music. Recently, I switched from using a smartphone back to a feature phone with a qwerty keyboard.
I don’t oppose all new technologies, but I do have deep reservations about some of them.
What software can I trust to stick around? Am I dependent on others to get work done? Do I own what I think I own? Can I fix it myself? Most importantly — am I actually gaining anything from this? Is this service serving users, or are users serving the service?
In some ways, this isn’t that different from how the Amish approach adopting new technology. They don’t embrace new gadgets simply because they’re new, or even because they might be convenient. They only accept those that won’t compromise their values or way of life. Technology isn’t neutral, and they’re aware of this.
If you share the same concerns, this guide will help you take control of your digital life and only use the technology you need. What technology do you need? I can’t tell you that. I can only help you raise questions and find alternatives.
And if people want to call you a Luddite, let them.
2. Let’s Start With Your PC
In the past, a personal computer was the center of our digital lives. It was where people could run all the software needed to write papers, code programs, file taxes, manage files, and access the web. If there’s any computing that needed doing, a PC was usually the way to do it.
A PC is no longer the only game in town, but it remains the best device for getting work done. There are few jobs now that don’t require using one at some point or another.
So I’m not going to question whether you need a PC. I won’t even pit desktops versus laptops. For our purposes, there are other issues that are more pressing when determining how to use a PC.
Can You Work Without Internet Access?
You can do anything in the cloud these days. Sync files, stream music, and edit any document. There’s a reason people are buying Chromebooks. You can get by pretty well working entirely in a browser.
Doing so comes with its perks. You can work from any machine with internet access. You don’t have to be as vigilant about backing up your data. You don’t have to manage updates or create storage space on your hard drive.
But the moment you lose your internet connection, you’re out of luck. You can’t access your files. You can’t edit them. You can’t even see them.
There are exceptions, sure. Google has made Docs a functional offline office suite. Streaming music services often let you pin certain files to maintain access to when offline. But you’re left dependent on someone else to provide you with access to your files and applications. If you can’t access those apps or services, you can’t access the files you pinned to use offline.
So it makes sense to avoid cloud services and stick with traditional PC applications. These typically save files to your hard drive in a location you’re free to access. These files are yours. While they may only open in specific software, the files themselves are not hidden away, and that software isn’t dependent on an internet connection. You have the power to edit your files whenever you wish and to do with them what you want. No one else has a say in the matter. And so many of these applications happen to be free.
Can Someone Else Track What You’re Doing?
When we shift from using the applications on our PCs to working in the browser or on a phone, we give internet service providers (ISPs) and tech companies more say over what we can and can’t do. They know when we get online, and they know what we do once we connect. It’s an inherent part of how the internet works. The information has to be generated, even though it doesn’t necessarily need to be stored.
As a result, we now have to advocate for privacy rights to protect data that, were we still working offline, these companies wouldn’t even get to see.
Avoiding the browser doesn’t mean your data is private. Depending on which operating system you use, a tech company may still log a large portion of your activity. If you use Windows 10, you’re giving Microsoft quite a bit of information about what you do on your PC, and how.
Concerns over privacy are a big part of why I prefer to use free and open source software. A Linux operating system is less likely to track you, and switching may not be as hard as you think. I’m not saying you have to make the change, but if the software on a computer is closed source, it is harder to definitively answer the question of whether you’re being tracked with a no.
Regardless of how you feel about the FOSS vs proprietary issue, using local applications that don’t have a connection to the internet running in the background is a good way to keep your activity private.
Can You Fix Things Yourself?
There are two parts of this question. Can you repair the hardware, and can you edit the software?
One indicator of whether you can fix your own hardware is the presence of screws. When a company doesn’t want you to open up a product, they seal it up with glue or invent proprietary screws that require screwdrivers you and I don’t have access to.
You probably know desktops are easier to fix, upgrade, and otherwise alter than laptops. Laptops require more work, but with enough expertise, you can go inside those too. Sites like iFixit how you can go inside computers and other consumer electronics. Do some research beforehand and make sure the machine you’re buying is one that you can keep up and running for as long as possible, even if that means not purchasing a product when it’s brand new.
Then there’s software. For the majority of commercial, proprietary software, the answer is no. Sometimes you can tweak a setting or manipulate a file to get things working again, but you aren’t allowed to edit the actual code. In certain situations, you might be able to find a third-party tool that fixes the issue for you.
I don’t want to over hype the usefulness of source code. I have no idea what to do with that information. But on free and open source operating systems, you’re often able to fix bugs or make tweaks by making simple changes to text files. A remarkable amount of what makes Linux run is saved in text files, and the information on how to manipulate these files isn’t hard to find online. Much of the free software culture encourages people to fix their own problems, rather than pay someone else to do it for them.
Regardless of which operating system you prefer, taking the time to get very familiar with the system increases the chances that you can dig yourself out of whatever hole you dig.
3. Now Let’s Talk About Mobile
One question lies at the center of this conversation.
Do You Need a Smartphone?
Not do you want a smartphone. Not would one be nice to have. Not would one be convenient. Do you need one? Does your job mandate you own a smartphone with specific apps? Do your relationships?
For most of us, a smartphone isn’t a genuine need. Even in cases where smartphone use is expected, it isn’t always required. Many of us could make a positive change in our lives by avoiding the price of smartphone ownership.
What Does a Smartphone Cost You?
Think beyond the price tag. Smartphones used to be expensive, but these days you can get a great experience using a budget phone. Plus most apps are free. You don’t have to spend a dime to flood your handset with great software. No, it’s not the money that’s the issue.
It’s your quality of life.
Smartphones go with us everywhere, so it may not be surprising that they have an effect on everything. Then again, maybe it is. Let’s look at a few key areas of impact:
- Attention: Smartphones distract us from getting work done and talking to others. They pull our eyes away from the road. They even draw our focus away from the TV show we’re watching. So many people browse Facebook on their phone that mobile ads are the social network’s primary source of revenue.
- Creativity: Creativity requires focus. It’s also hard to create when you’re constantly consuming. And when we spend too much time inside an echo chamber, we start to think the same. How creative is that?
- Health: Smartphone use is impacting our postures, harming our necks, draining our energy, and increasing our stress. On the other hand, we do get stronger thumbs.
- Relationships: In existing relationships, smartphone use is one of the fastest growing causes of stress. For people not in relationships, dating apps are helping to curate their way away from good matches with people they wouldn’t expect.
- Safety: More people die from selfies than shark attacks. Yet while those numbers are low, the impact on driving isn’t. Texting and other distractions turn us into dangerous drivers.
- Sleep: The light from screens confuse our internal clocks and disrupt our sleep. A majority of Americans stare at a screen less than an hour before bed. Smartphones exacerbate the problem by following us into the bedroom, the bathroom, and anywhere else.
How many of smartphone owners you know display signs of addiction? Probably most of them. By design, it’s hard not to. So why should we invite technology with so many negative repercussions into our life?
Then How Do I Work Away From Home?
I hear you. Again, I’m an internet writer. Being able to work away from home is part of the perk of the job.
In most cases, what matters is being accessible. It’s being able to receive calls, texts, email, or messages through a specific app such as Slack or Facebook Workplace. In such cases, the solution isn’t necessarily technical. Instead of seeking a mobile device that can do all these things, you can change employer or client expectations so that you aren’t online all the time.
Such a change can benefit you both. Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a novel recently featured on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, discusses the way distractions and a lack of focus hinder our ability to do challenging work. Difficult tasks require concentration, and the steady buzz of our smartphone is a surefire way to break our flow.
From my own experience, constant notifications reduce both the quality and the quantity of the words I type.
One alternative approach is committing to check for messages at set intervals throughout the day. Our minds tell us every message needs a response right now, but often it’s not a big deal if we wait a few hours or even a day. I’ve responded to some email over a week later without issue. A smartphone could improve my response time, but that isn’t as important a goal as my emotional impulse says it is.
I don’t get paid to manage email. I get paid to write. As long as I consistently meet deadlines and submit quality work, clients will want to keep me around even if I’m not accessible 24/7. So that’s where my focus should go, not on email.
I’m a writer, but you may be a developer, a project manager, or an architect. Whatever your job, you likely need to put down your phone and pull out a PC to get actual work done. That same PC can handle communication. There’s plenty of free Wi-Fi, and if you need more connectivity than that, a portable hotspot can get you online anywhere you have signal. In those instances where you do need specific apps for your job, a tablet can fulfill the same functions with less risk of intruding every aspect of your life.
4. What About the Cloud?
Managing your digital life in the cloud addresses two primary challenges: backing up data and sharing files across a multitude of devices.
Cloud services do a good job of meeting these needs. After all, that’s a big reason for Dropbox’s success. If you can click a few buttons, you can set up automatic background file syncing, and you probably won’t encounter many errors. It just works.
But that alone isn’t enough to determine whether we should use cloud services. Like with smartphones, we need to look at what they cost us.
What Do Cloud Services Cost You?
Before signing up for a cloud service, most of us stored our files on our own hard drives. This data included documents, music, and applications. Now more of us are storing that same content online. The ramifications of this change aren’t always immediately clear. Here are a few examples of what we give up to use cloud services:
- Control: With local data and applications, we can disconnect from the internet and still access all of our content. All we need is electricity. Cloud services also make us dependent on ISPs to get us online and on other companies to keep their servers up and running. These companies not only gain a say in when we interact with our files, they also have a say in what we do. They can change interfaces, features, and terms of service at any time. Sometimes, they simply screw up.
- Money: Keeping servers up and running isn’t cheap. Neither is hiring the engineers necessary to make sure we all can access cloud services without a hitch. As a result, such services typically require a monthly or annual fee. Three years of cloud storage will cost more than buying a portable hard drive to use during the same time, and you won’t get as much space for money.
- Privacy: Not only do companies get a say in what we do online, they also get to watch us do it. Some log every click. Offline, you can take whatever pictures you want, store them, and edit them without much thought. Online, those same photos tell someone how you look, how many people are in your family, where you live, your ethnic background, who you associate with, and what you like to do for fun.
- Security: Any data or information we share with a cloud service provider is fair game for anyone who gains access to our account. That could be a hacker who steals the passwords for millions of accounts all at once, someone who manages you break into your particular account, or a law enforcement agency that subpoenas your cloud service provider.
There are conveniences that come from storing your data on someone else’s servers, but you’re not the one who gains the most from giving other people access to some, if not all, of your most sensitive personal files (after all, it’s their importance that makes us want to back them up in the first place). Unlike with storing your important documents in a safe, you have no idea neither who can access them nor who already has.
Don’t like that situation? In this case, doing without probably isn’t as big a deal as doing without a smartphone. Let’s return back to the two primary challenges addressed by the cloud: backing up data and sharing files across devices.
What Are Other Way to Back Up Your Data?
Storing your data on an external hard drive used to be good practice before cloud storage providers started popping up, and it remains a good practice today. Prices have dropped so much that you can get 4TB for the price of 1TB on Dropbox. A portable hard drive won’t last forever, but it will likely last you longer than the year of service you would get before having to renew. That said, you likely want more than one external hard drive, in case one fails. There are also storage hubs that contain multiple drives for this reason.
You don’t have to backup your data manually, either. Plenty of apps are able to do this on a set routine. Or you can keep the Dropbox experience and sync your files automatically. You don’t even need to buy additional storage if you have multiple computers lying around. Services such as Syncthing and Resilio Sync let you copy files across devices without having to upload them to the internet. As long as one computer is safe, so are your files.
What About Sharing Files Across Devices?
Syncthing and Resilio Sync scratch this itch too. Files on your desktop are also on your laptop, and they can be on your tablet as well. You can also set up your own personal network-attached storage computer, which you can access wirelessly around the house or remotely.
But backing up files is hardly all the cloud is for. Some services let you stream music, edit documents, and do the kind of work you would otherwise do locally. Because this functionality does have its perks, some developers are creating a means to host such a service yourself. Check out Nextcloud, Sandstorm.io, and Framasoft. Yet even though you own the data, you’re still dependent on someone else to get that information from your host machine to your current device, and it’s possible someone can access your information en route.
So you might want to kick it old school and use a flash drive. Those things are so cheap these days, and they can hold a lot more data than they used to. I could use a flash drive to back up and share all of the data on my laptop. Some have both full-sized USB and micro-USB ports, allowing them to work with mobile devices.
5. How Smart Are Smart Devices?
Smart devices, or Internet of Things products, are making their way into stores. The implication is that they can do more than the typically non-internet-connected devices they replace. If you use them exactly as advertised under ideal conditions, then yes. But many of these products require a companion smartphone app to work. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can’t use them. If you have a smartphone but it doesn’t run Android or iOS, you can’t use them. If you’re running Android but your phone has an old version, you can’t use them.
The restrictions don’t stop there. Some require a constant internet connection to be of any use. Many would turn into bricks if the manufacturer were to go out of business, get acquired, or simply decide to cancel the service.
With smart devices products often needing a companion app or remote server to do the actual thinking for them, you could make the case that they’re dumber than the standalone products they replace.
But the question of intelligence is a secondary issue. There are other issues to consider before making a purchase or, as you might expect from this guide, doing without.
What Is the True Cost of “Intelligence”?
The smart homes, wearables, and the broader IoT industry aren’t nearly as mature or entrenched as smartphones and cloud services. The products are costly. Not only that, many people simply don’t see a point. How hard is it to flip a light switch? Do I really need to track every step I take? But also, the implications of what you give away can be pretty dire. Here are some of the areas of concern:
- Control: A power outage can render most of our appliances moot. With smart gadget, the power can be on, but an internet outage can be just as debilitating. The outage doesn’t have to be on your end. A problem with Amazon’s servers can disable many of your favorite non-Amazon products.
- Longevity: My parents have kept a fan alive that’s older than I am. A “dumb” watch can be passed down for generations. Whether due to a lack of software updates, a change in company priorities, or dependency on a service that eventually shuts down, smart devices are not likely to last anywhere near as long. Those still in use two decades from now will likely have lost most of their “smart” functionality, but only if they were designed with this much forethought in mind.
- Money: Smart devices cost more, and they need to be replaced more often. $250 isn’t much to spend on a smartwatch, but it’s a lot to pay for a regular one, and the latter will last much longer. We have little control over the rising costs of housing and healthcare. Is this another steady expense you want to take on?
- Privacy: What goes on inside your home is your business. While much of our privacy has eroded over time, what goes on in our homes has remained a largely private affair. Internet-connected cameras and personal assistants provide unprecendented access to our homes. Even thermostats and lightbulbs controlled remotely reveal quite a bit about when we are or aren’t home. Companies and law enforcement have already shown a willingness to use this information however they can.
- Safety: Our homes have never been fully safe, but smart home gadgets open up new ways of attack that don’t require someone to be anywhere near your home. Most smart home gadgets have abysmal security. Many never receive software updates or patches. That means once a vulnerability is discovered, someone can use it on any household with that device connected to the internet. Even still, the more serious threat isn’t attacking your home, it’s using your home to do the attacking. We’re already seeing websites and internet services attacked by botnets consisting of smart home devices.
Can You Get By With a Less-Smart Alternative?
Here’s the part where you take action. In this case, the solution is simple — look for products that cannot connect to the internet.
Doing without internet-connectivity doesn’t mean your gadgets won’t be smart. There are plenty of digital thermostats that automatically adjust the temperature of your home on a set schedule, reducing your energy usage and monthly bill. I have a toaster oven that can bake based on the number of slices of toast or the type of food. Do I really need to be able to monitor the cooking from my phone?
You can operate fans from across the room using remote control and adjust window shades using a remote. You can say goodbye to keys by swapping out your lock for a keypad. Then have lights automatically come on when you step inside thanks to motion sensors.
With this kind of tech in your home, people won’t even view you as a luddite. And you manage to avoid the aforementioned risks and plenty of other headaches.
6. How About Cars?
While cars move fast, new features are implemented very slowly. Due to technological limitations and the dangers of driving distracted, the internet hasn’t penetrated the automobile all that much. You can get a model with built-in Wi-Fi, but that’s not all that different from having a portable mobile hotspot in the backseat.
Still, new software is arriving in the latest vehicles that integrate more deeply with our smartphones. Is this something to be excited about? And is this only small potatoes compared to what may be on the horizon?
Should Your Car Need Software Updates?
Android Auto and CarPlay have arrived in the latest generation of many car manufacturers. This isn’t a feature reserved for luxury cars, either. If you can afford a new car, whether economy or a speedster, you can afford either of these platforms. Is that a good thing?
Google and Apple’s car interfaces both rely heavily on a smartphone. Handsets are outdated after only a year or two, a much faster pace than car manufacturers do anything. Tech companies may want to introduce new features to keep people picking their car platform over the other’s, but we don’t have a culture of updating our vehicles. Changing that can take time, even if car companies want to play along. Some may simply see this as a new way to convince customers to trade in their older vehicle for a newer ride.
It’s worth pointing out that modern cars are already complex computers. We have electric steering, automatic windows, and digital dashboards. Gone are the days when all that mattered was if the engine worked and the AC still kept you cool. When any of these components fail, it’s time to go back to the shop.
But this programming is static. As long as it continues to do what it does, life is good. Fixing problems consists of getting the code to do what it used to do before. There’s no need for updates. There’s no need for internet connectivity. And there’s little risk of exploitation. Introducing more complex interfaces and smartphone dependency may change all of this.
Should Your Next Car Drive Itself
This is the question facing us in the coming decades. Google’s driverless cars are already appearing on city streets, and they aren’t alone. From tech giants to car manufacturers to retailers and restaurants, there is increasing interest in autonomous driving.
But it’s not yet a done deal whether driverless cars will become the norm. There are many challenges left for technology to overcome. Companies also have to win over hearts and minds. Do they have yours?
I like to drive, but there’s more to consider here than personal enjoyment. Autonomous vehicles open a magnitude of concerns that make CarPlay look irrelevant. Some software will need updates, and any bugs can have life or death consequences. And if they’re internet accessible, that means millions of speeding vehicles could be susceptible to remote attack at any time. Imagine the fear you would feel if your car started driving somewhere other than the destination you expected. Then imagine if there actually is someone dangerous waiting at the end of the ride.
There are ethical questions, such as whether a driverless car should choose to run into a pedestrian or crash and kill the driver if a split-second decision has to be made. There are privacy considerations, since Google or another manufacturer would likely gain troves of new information on where everyone goes, when, and how.
There’s the potential economic fallout, with driverless cars potentially threatening the jobs of people who driver taxi cabs or tractor trailers. There will be less reason to slap an Uber or Lyft sticker on your car as well. Uber is already working on replacing its own drivers with autonomous cars.
And will the people who don’t want a driverless car be allowed to drive alongisde automated vehicles, when the unpredictability of humans is one of the factors computers have a hard time accounting for? Will future generations never bother learning how to drive? This would leave them unable to take control if the software fails.
On the other hand, such vehicles could save a lot of lives, and they would free up a good deal of time. Though if we start treating our commutes as work time, maybe that’s not such a good thing after all.
Should we embrace driverless cars? I’m skeptical, but my mind isn’t made up. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Maybe We Should All Bike More
There’s a compelling case to be made that we shouldn’t be driving cars at all. The car industry has contributed substantially to much of society’s ills. Whether it’s the destruction of the environment used to produce vehicles, create roads, or make space for suburbs — or the change in how we view one another now that we live further away. Cars are also complex machines that only a few companies are able to create in mass, concentrating a large amount of power and influence in their hands.
Bikes are cleaner. They encourage us to live closer. They don’t box us off from our surroundings, leaving us more intuned with the world around us. They’re also easier to build and maintain, allowing more people to get involved and decentralizing the transportation industry. Plus bicycling is good for your health.
Motorcycles fit somewhere between the two. Compared to cars, they require fewer resources to make, less energy to power, and don’t cut us off from the world. For those of us who live in rural areas or distant suburbs, motorcycles could be the closest we get to biking everywhere we go.
7. You’ve Made It to the End and Yet…
Hey, even actual Luddites still used technology. They were opposed to certain technologies, not all. Today, there are many more types to consider. There are many that don’t add all that much benefit to our lives, and there are others that are plenty worth keeping around.
Without a TV playing or music streaming, my house is pretty quiet the vast majority of the time, but no one would enter and think I was trying to live in the past. Openly questioning technology maybe controversial, but opting to do without really isn’t that big a deal. Life goes on, and most people still think of you as a perfectly functioning human being.
If you do decide to do without much of the latest tech, you won’t be alone. You can check out the Luddite subreddit (a subsection of the social news aggregator, Reddit), which describes itself as “a place to plot the destruction of the internet, on the internet,” to find others online.
You may even decide to identify as a Neo-Luddite.
You don’t need to agree with every point I’ve made above. What matters is that you keep asking questions. Think deeply about each service before absentmindly handing over years of data.
We have to look out for ourselves right now. With the internet being so young, there are very few protections encoded into law. Companies are largely free to say and do what they want, with priorities that don’t necessarily match ours. We vote with our dollars. The products and services you choose to use, or not use, go a long way toward shaping the direction the industry takes in the future.
What do you feel about modern devices and internet services? Have any advice for others looking to dial back? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ll be keeping an ear out in the comments section below!