So here’s the problem…

Note: I’m kind of riffing off Everything Is Broken here. You should read that first.


I often think about leaving Twitter; about turning my annual Black Ops hiatus into something more… permanent.

The trouble is, I can’t.

I don’t mean in terms of “I don’t have it in me”, or “I’d prefer a better platform”. I mean that, if I did leave Twitter, I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my current role to the standard people have come to expect. In other words, there would be a professional cost to me not using a public, private space to communicate with others.

In fact, the same goes with Skype, Google+, and other proprietary tools: I could switch, but there’s de facto standards at work here. If you don’t use what everyone else does, then you either (a) suffer a productivity hit, or (b) cause other people problems. Sometimes, it’s both.

By a ‘productivity hit’, I mean there’s a cognitive and cultural overhead of using tools outside the norm. I spoke to one person the other day – not a Mozilla employee – who said that their company’s commitment to security, privacy and Open Source software significantly hampers their productivity. In other words, they were trading some ease-of-use and productivity for data ownership, privacy and security.

By ’cause other people problems’ I mean that, particularly in the fast-moving world I inhabit, you don’t want to be slowed down by negotiations around which technology to use. Much as I’d love to migrate to WebRTC-powered apps such as appear.in, the truth is that Skype pretty much works every time. You can rely on almost everyone having it installed.*

It used to be easier to understand. Companies would sell their software which you would install on your computer. Most ‘free’ software was also ‘Open Source’ and available under a permissive license. Now, however, everything is free, and the difference between the following is confusing for the end user:

  • Free as in beer – you get this thing for free, but there’s a catch! (the company is mining and/or selling your personal data to advertisers/insurers)
  • Free as in speech – you get this thing for free, and you can inspect the code and use it for pretty much whatever you want.

As Vinay Gupta often puts it, a lot of the free apps and software we’re accessing these days are a form of legalised spyware. The only reason we don’t call it that is because the software providing the services and doing the spying resides on their servers. Our shorthand for this is ‘the cloud’.

The trouble is, and let’s be honest here, that apart from the big hitters like Ubuntu and Firefox, the the free-as-in-beer software tends to have better UX than the free-as-in-speech software. It’s not enough to have stand-alone apps and software any more – customers demand that services talk to one another. And rightly so. The problem is that unless you’re burning through VC cash or selling user data to advertisers, it’s difficult to fund this kind of stuff. Someone or something has got to pay for the servers.

To conclude, I’m kind of done with thinking of this as an individual problem for me to solve in isolation. Yes, I could sit on an island by myself running BSD and only using super-secure and private apps/services. But I’d be a pariah. What we’ve got here is a cultural, not a technological, problem: it’s something for us all to fix:

It wouldn’t take a total defection or a general revolt to change everything, because corporations and governments would rather bend to demands than die. These entities do everything they can get away with — but we’ve forgotten that we’re the ones that are letting them get away with things.

The above quotation is from the article I suggested that you read at the top of this post. If you still haven’t done so yet, then read it when you finish this one.

Remember: there’s not loads we can do in isolation – especially given the mindboggling complexity of the whole system. But we can talk with others about the situation in which we find ourselves. We can weave it into our conversations. We can join together in solidarity and, where there’s opportunities, we can take informed action.

All of us need to up our game when it comes to the digital literacies and web literacy necessary to operate in this Brave New World. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about this in any way. After all, we’re collectively making it up as we go along.


*I think of Skype a bit like LinkedIn. No-one’s over the moon about using it, but until everyone migrates somewhere else, it’s what we’re stuck with.

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  1. Perhaps I’m too relaxed about these things but I feel that if companies want to know where I live or what my spending habits are good luck to them. It’s a price I’m willing to pay for cracking service

    • If you think that trading privacy and security (on devices we carry around in out pockets!) for ‘cracking service’, then I’m concerned that don’t understand just what’s at stake.

      We’re talking about a world of extreme performativity due to insurers knowing our every move. An (even more) invasive world of advertising. Have you seen ‘The Truman Show’? Read Dave Eggers’ book ‘The Circle’?

      Some things look the same but are fundamentally different underneath. That’s what we’ve got here. The trouble is, we haven’t got the cultural tools to use as a lever. We’re collectively oblivious.

      I’m guessing that you have curtains on your windows and locks on your doors at home? Well, it’s an imperfect analogy, but with popular services you can imagine it being a house that you’re renting from a creepy landlord. It looks like there’s curtains, but people can see through them. Other people have the keys to the house. And your every move is monitored by CCTV.

      Finally, its worth noting that in order to grow and develop as a human being, you need a space to make mistakes. To figure out what makes you, *you*. We need spaces to read up on whether that lump is likely to be cancerous or not, or how to deal with the mental health issues of family members, without having that search history shared with advertisers and insurers.

      You’d be forgiven for thinking that the online world is an extension of the offlibe. Its not. The tools we’re using to communicate are deliberately shapes with certain affordances. And, unfortunately, while you’re getting a shiny interface, you’re paying for it by hemorrhaging private data.

      I haven’t even talked about megacorps and the triangulation of such data. Its a scary, scary world. You cab take the red pill or the blue pill.

      • Results seem the same, they get your data. But I agree it’s important as informed spied upon citizens that we are aware of the choices we made.

        The problem is, we do not truly know the implications, since how such data is used is and likely will never be known to us.

        The privacy we think we have is an illusion unless we completely detach.

        • I think that’s the nub, Alan – we have no way of visualising (and therefore understanding) the scale of the problem. It just something you realise via osmosis as you sink deeper in to the web’s clutches. 😉

          • You both clearly know more about this than I do.

            However, there is one thing that concerns me about being too militant in this area – that we may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

            The thing I love about the internet is it openness, the way people share things and the way it can and is used as a such a force for good. I have much admired for example, Doug, your generosity in sharing your thoughts (and hard work!) publicly. It would be a massive shame if, scared off by the threat of big data, the internet became a secretive, dark place; a place from which people retreated back into their own small worlds. Or a place of unconnected, walled silos.

            I had thought that organisations like Mozilla wanted to point us in the very opposite direction: openness, honesty, trust… Just because there are some bad boys in the playground I don’t think we should stop aiming towards that, or retrench defensively.

          • Oh absolutely! There’s a world of difference between sharing data intentionally and unintentionally. Its the latter that I and others take issue with. 🙂

    • There are other factors to consider. If corporations have access to our data, we can assume that governments have access to that same data. Snowden has revealed to us the complicity of corporations with government organisations, and when corporations don’t cooperate, then the Intelligence Community thinks nothing of simply stealing the data.

      The “nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ crowd think that this is a fair trade-off for our security, but they fail to recognise that, even assuming that our current governments have our best interests at heart, we do not know who will be in power next year, 10 years from now, 50 years from now.

      We’re seeing a resurgence of nationalism across Europe at the moment. What happens if an extremist party wins an election? I’m trying not to invoke Godwin’s law here, but just look back over the history of the world and think about what would have happened had Governments had access to the troves of data on their citizens that they have now. Can you imagine what J. Edgar Hoover would have done to the Civil Rights Movement with such information. Can you imagine how many people would have been indited by McCarthy.

  2. I’d love to pick your brain about this topic some day as it relates to education — both the way in which students/teachers often have no choice but use certain software, but also how can we help craft the resistance (which I think is an edu project).

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