Why We Can't Break Up With Big Tech | Texas Public Radio

Why We Can't Break Up With Big Tech

Feb 10, 2019
Originally published on February 10, 2019 10:19 am

Kashmir Hill wanted Amazon out of her life, completely.

It was the first week of a six-week experiment in living without tech giants. She had a virtual private network, or VPN, that would keep her devices walled off from any Amazon product. She would avoid Whole Foods and power down her Kindles.

But she had a problem. A small, chipper problem.

Alexa.

She couldn't connect her Amazon Echo to the VPN. But if she just unplugged the smart speaker, someone, like her husband, might forget and plug it back in.

Then a colleague suggested that she hide it. Say, in a drawer.

Hill was so used to Alexa's constant presence, the convenient timers and music on demand, that she hadn't even considered putting the device away.

"We've only had it for two years, and it already has the level of prominence where I couldn't have imagined just taking it off the counter," she told NPR's Weekend Edition. "I just can't believe that, especially since I'm a privacy reporter."

People will say, if you don't like the company, just stop using their products. I wanted to find out if that was possible. -

Hill, a reporter and editor at Gizmodo, has tackled extreme tech experiments before, like living in a smart home and spending only Bitcoin for a week.

Last fall, she decided to try cutting off Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple — each for a week, and then all at once. She wrote about her attempt for Gizmodo.

The experiment was inspired, she said, by the condemnations of tech behemoths. Critics say the companies are monetizing our attention, mishandling our data and profiting from our children. They've concentrated too much economic power. They're shaping our society in ways we don't fully understand yet.

"People will say, if you don't like the company, just stop using their products," Hill said. "I wanted to find out if that was possible, and, spoiler, it's not possible."

Beyond a surface level boycott, like deleting her Facebook account, Hill tried to sever any ties that usually funnel her data, money and attention to the five companies. Each publishes a list of IP addresses they control, so technologist Dhruv Mehrotra built her a VPN that essentially blacklisted those addresses.

Armed with that VPN and unmitigated determination, Hill put Alexa in a drawer and started her Amazon week. And it was as though a vast tract of the web blinked out.

"When I started pulling stats about Amazon, I was shocked," she said. The company reportedly controls nearly half of all online commerce. But the company's most profitable business is Amazon Web Services, or AWS, its cloud-computing arm that hosts apps and websites.

"They basically control kind of the backbone of Internet infrastructure," she said. "They're not just shipping packages out all over America. They're also shipping a ton of data to people's computers."

Netflix, HBO Go and AirBnB are among the many websites hosted by AWS, and therefore were off-limits to Hill during her Amazon week (though she would have been free to browse NPR.org). Work tools were also forbidden: AWS hosts Gizmodo's website, as well as the messaging platform Slack. At one point, her daughter cried over the digital entertainment blockade.

I would grab my iPhone and just start scrolling. It's how I started the day, every day. -

Other companies presented unexpected challenges. Blocking Google meant she couldn't use Lyft or Uber, which rely on Google Maps. Going into any given coffee shop put her at risk of coming into contact with Microsoft, if the shop used Windows to operate its payment system. Cutting off Facebook left her feeling strangely isolated, pining for connection even at the cost of pervasive data surveillance.

And there were slip-ups, like when she ordered an item off eBay instead of Amazon, only to have it show up at her door in an instantly recognizable package. The seller had used Amazon to fulfill the order.

"The big thing I learned is that it's not possible to navigate the modern world without coming into contact with these companies," she said. "It made me certainly sympathetic to some of the critics who are saying these companies are too dominant in their spaces."

The exception? Apple. Hill says when she gave up her iPhone and stepped out of Apple's "walled garden," she had no trouble staying away from the company — and it wasn't collecting data on her.

But giving up her iPhone posed another challenge when she tried to block all five companies at once in the experiment's final week.

"Google and Apple have a duopoly on the smartphone market," she said. "So when I went out trying to find a smartphone that was not made or touched by either tech giant, it wasn't possible."

After searching in vain, she settled on a "dumb phone." She chose the Nokia 3310, an orange brick with T9 texting that has spawned countless memes — and perhaps even ensured its own continued existence — by being essentially indestructible.

"I went back to the '90s!" Hill said, laughing. "This experiment was a time machine."

A time machine, and a lesson, too. Before the experiment, the first thing she would do every morning, before touching her husband or talking to her daughter, was stare at a screen.

"I would grab my iPhone and just start scrolling," she admitted. "It's how I started the day, every day."

There was nothing worth scrolling through on the Nokia 3310, so she didn't bother. The smartphone fast broke her habit. Now she turns her phone off each evening, and she doesn't turn it on in the morning until she needs it.

"I got out of some bad tech habits," she said. "And I'm just kind of looking at screens less. So, if nothing else, I'm glad I did this experiment in terms of becoming a healthier tech user."

Editor's Note: Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are financial sponsors of NPR.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Facebook and Google and Amazon have become tech giants because they've made a science of being a part of everything we do, from shopping to taking care of our kids to connecting with friends and relatives. Despite the scandals and concerns about their practices, modern life is seemingly impossible without them - or is it? Kashmir Hill is a reporter for Gizmodo. She tried to cut Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple out of her life. And she joins us now to explain her experiment. Welcome.

KASHMIR HILL: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I got to ask you, first of all, how did this idea come up?

HILL: It was inspired partly by, you know, when people are criticizing these companies or complaining about how powerful they are, how privacy-invasive they are, people will say, well, if you - if you don't like the company, then just stop using their products. And so I wanted to find out if that was possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

HILL: And spoiler - spoiler, it's not possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). It's not possible. Right, OK.

HILL: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you took us to the end. But I want to hear about the process because I think that can be instructive to us all. You wanted to completely remove one tech giant from your life each week. It's sort of like - (laughter) - it's sort of like cutting down your alcohol intake.

HILL: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me - tell me how how you got started.

HILL: Right. In part, I thought it would be too hard to go cold turkey. So I wanted to do it step by step. And I also wanted to go beyond just boycotting their products. I really wanted to completely stop all my data, all my attention and any of my money from going to the tech giants. So I consulted a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra.

And he did a little research and came back to me and said, you know what? I can build a network tool for you - a virtual, private network, or VPN. And you can connect all your devices to it, send all your network traffic through it. And I will block a tech giant each week - or all of them together. And I'll keep your devices from being able to communicate with their servers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about Amazon because that seems like it's going to be really hard to take out of your life.

HILL: Yeah. When I started pulling stats about Amazon, I was shocked that, you know, they control 50 percent of online commerce in the U.S. That seems like so much. The crazier thing is that's not their most profitable business. Their most profitable business is AWS, or Amazon Web Services. They host websites. They host apps. And so by blocking Amazon and blocking AWS, I just took out a vast amount of the Internet. And so basically, all digital entertainment was wiped out for me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh.

HILL: But this raises real questions about just, like, how much data Amazon is gathering from the fact that it just controls the infrastructure of commerce and Internet activity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The last week of the experiment, you tried blocking all five companies at the same time. God bless you. So how did that go?

HILL: So the hardest thing about blocking all the tech giants that last week was getting a phone. Google and Apple have a duopoly on the smartphone market. And so when I went out trying to find a smartphone that was not, you know, made or touched by either tech giant, it wasn't possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what did you do? You just didn't have a cell phone?

HILL: Oh, I had a cell phone. I had a dumb phone. I had a Nokia 3310, little, tiny, bright orange brick with t9 texting. It just had, like, the number buttons. And all it - all it basically did was calling, texting. And it had the Snake game.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You went back to the '90s.

HILL: I went back to the '90s. This - this experiment was a time machine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So now that you've sort of come out of this, what did you learn? And did it have any lasting impact on your relationship with these companies? And what can we take away?

HILL: I mean, the big thing I learned is that it's not possible to navigate the modern world without coming into contact with these companies. They are unavoidable. It made me certainly sympathetic to some of the critics who are saying that these companies are too dominant in their spaces. You know, when I went off of Facebook's products, because Facebook bought Instagram, it controls everywhere where my friends are. And so by rejecting Facebook, I had to reject a lot of people in my life. And it was very hard to stay in contact with them.

But there were certainly benefits to rejecting the tech giants because it forced me to reject technology completely and in many cases. Like, I couldn't watch TV because we don't have cable, and Internet TV didn't work. And - and I think that was really good for me. I got out of some bad tech habits. And I'm just kind of looking at screens less. So if nothing else, I'm glad I did this experiment in terms of becoming kind of a healthier tech user.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kashmir Hill is a reporter for Gizmodo. Thank you so much.

HILL: My pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one note - Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are financial sponsors of NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.