We're Not Tech Users, We're Useds
I recently read an excellent article by Shannon Valor: We used to get excited about technology. What happened?
She starts by sharing an experience she had where she was scrolling through her Twitter feed, but soon realizes she is feeling a heaviness in the pit of her stomach and not having a good time. About this she writes:
I recognized the feeling and I knew its name. It was resignation—that feeling of being stuck in a place you don’t want to be but can’t leave. I was struck by the irony that I studied technology my whole life in order to avoid this kind of feeling. Tech used to be my happy place.
The entire article is worth reading. It really resonated with me and got me thinking.
I know Richard M. Stallman (RMS) is a controversial figure. Some things he says I take with a grain of salt or disregard out-of-hand. But when it comes to the state of technology today, a lot of what he says makes sense.
When speaking of the people who avail themselves of the “services” of Facebook, RMS often refers to them as “useds”, not users, because Facebook is using them.
This concept of customers being “useds” applies to any tech company that is monetizing the personal information and behaviors of its customers and/or putting the interests of shareholders ahead of its customers. In other words, the customers of any tech company that is going beyond simply providing a product or service, but actively preying upon and exploiting its own customers for financial gain, can justifiably be referred to as “useds”.
For companies like Google, Facebook (Meta), and Amazon, who have business models built around the surveillance economy, the more information they collect about every possible aspect of everyone on the planet, not just their own customers, the more money they make.
For companies like Apple, who have focused on hardware-software lock-in and high hardware profit margins, the harder they make it for their devices to be customer-repaired, the more difficult they make it for their products to be cross-compatible with other hardware and software outside of their own ecosystem, the more money they make.
Most of the personal tech “innovations” by these companies over the past decade have been focused first and foremost on expanding the reach and scope of surveillance and pulling customers deep into proprietary hardware and software ecosystems to lock them in and maximize opportunities to monetize them. Providing a better experience for the customer for the customer's sake is always secondary to increasing profit and pleasing shareholders.
Take, for example, the removal of the 3.5mm audio jack on smartphones. Whatever the marketing materials may claim, this move was never in the best interest of the
users useds. Claims of having no room for it or that it prevents water-proofing are downright false. It was a blatant money grab. Dongles and wireless earbuds/headphones bring in more money than continuing to support a perfectly functional, decades-old universal audio connection standard. And they never, ever mention the fact that when the batteries in wireless earbuds/headphones inevitably fail and when dongles wear out, they end up as yet more harmful and unnecessary e-waste. But who cares about providing flexible options for the customer and reducing e-waste when AirPods are selling like hotcakes and the shareholders are happy, right?
Alas, I rant, yet I continue to use the products and services of these companies. Why? Because they have become so enmeshed with modern society – the way we work, communicate, interact with businesses, etc. – that to forsake and reject these exploitative technologies is to live as a technological hermit, effectively isolating myself from the rest of the world. (Ironically, and tragically, despite all the social media platforms out there, despite all of the opportunities to connect and interact with others in ways only dreamed of 20 years ago, more of us are feeling more socially isolated than ever before. Just type “social media social isolation” into your favorite search engine to read about all kinds of studies that have been done on the topic.)
I'm still trying to find my way through all of this. At times, I feel like going completely in one direction or the other – completely embracing big tech or completely embracing FOSS (free-as-in-freedom and open source software) – but neither extreme is desirable. So I try to find a balance and press forward. I'll have to somehow deal with that heaviness in the pit of my stomach, that feeling of resignation that Shannon Vallor wrote about. Because, like it or not, I'm being taken advantage of by big tech. I'm stuck in a place I don't really want to be, but can't leave. I'm not a tech user, I'm a used.