Tech veganism

Hand draw picture of a computer with vegetables on the screen

A year ago I wrote a blog post about living with an open-source phone. A commenter on Reddit described this as “tech veganism,” and I thought it was a great metaphor.

For the past few years I’ve swum in a lot of “tech veganism” circles (mostly thanks to Mastodon), so I think I have a good definition now:

  • a preference for open-source software over proprietary software
  • a suspicion of big tech companies
  • a high bar for privacy and security

The parallel with veganism is a good one for several reasons. First off, a lot of people find vegans annoying. “What, you think you’re better than me?” It’s a lot easier to eat animal products if you don’t think about where they come from, and vegans are an uncomfortable reminder of food’s icky origins. Plus, it’s never pleasant to think that someone might be silently judging you for your personal lifestyle choices.

Now imagine someone telling you they don’t use Google, Facebook, etc. “What, you think you’re better than me?”

Second, people don’t typically choose tech veganism because it’s a better user experience. Even though some vegans may swear that their black bean burger tastes just as good as your Angus beef, the honest ones will acknowledge that it’s more about principle than palate.

Similarly, there are plenty of tech vegans who will claim that OpenStreetMap is a great replacement for Google Maps, or that DuckDuckGo provides better search results than Google. But if they’re being honest with themselves, they’ll admit that they’re more motivated by principle than quality or convenience.

Third, tech veganism is a good way to alienate people. Talk about it enough, and you may get accused of being overly dour, negative, cynical, etc. Can’t you just eat a burger and enjoy it like a normal person? Why do you have to bring up factory farms all the time, and ruin my meal? Similarly: why can’t you just use Google like a normal person? Why do you have to drone on and on about LibreOffice and OpenBSD?

Tech veganism can even cost you friends. In the same way that having one vegan in the group severely limits your restaurant choices, being the one tech vegan among your friends can really narrow down the options for communication apps. Sure, you can ask them to use Signal. Or email. But most likely, the group chat will just happen without you, and you won’t be getting any Facebook invites.

Fourth, in some cases tech veganism is difficult if not downright impossible. If you’ve ever actually tried to go vegan (note: I have), you’ll find it’s a constant battle of reading ingredient lists to find the hidden references to milk, eggs, fish, etc. (Some surprising things that aren’t vegan: Worcestershire sauce, kimchi, even sugar.) And once you travel to a foreign country, you might find yourself surviving on bread and water, or else giving up entirely and grabbing a croque-monsieur.

Similarly, it’s almost impossible to avoid proprietary software or the tech giants. Consider this FOSDEM talk, where the executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy admits to having proprietary software embedded inside her body, because that was the only option for a defibrillator. She advocates open-source software, and yet despite her best efforts, she’s a closed-source cyborg!

Try to avoid Google or Amazon and you may find yourself in a similar boat. There’s a great series of posts from Kashmir Hill where she shows that it’s nearly impossible to quit the tech giants because of how enmeshed they are in every app, website, and network request. It’s easier to find something vegan at a Brazilian barbecue than it is to eliminate big tech from your internet diet.

Another similarity: just as there are more vegetarians in India, tech veganism can be surprisingly region-specific. In particular, Europeans have more reason than Americans to embrace tech veganism, because the non-Chinese tech giants – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, the dreaded GAFAM – are all American.

The dominance of American tech platforms in Europe, and especially all the data from European citizens being siphoned back to Silicon Valley, can feel like an issue of national sovereignty. Hence we have France opting for the open-source Matrix project for government communications, or organizations like Framasoft depicting themselves as a tiny Astérix-like village holding off foreign invaders. And the invaders really are foreign!

One place where the veganism metaphor breaks down is that, although nearly anyone can be a vegan, tech veganism is mostly practiced by those who are expert enough or privileged enough to learn the elaborate workarounds to avoid the GAFAMs of the world. Setting up an Ubuntu laptop, a LineageOS phone, a Fastmail account, and wiring it all together so that you actually get calendar notifications is no easy feat. You will probably have to get your hands dirty on the command line.

I find that there’s a bit of a “let them eat cake” attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (“Let them use Linux” could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?

To be a vegan, all you have to do is stop eating animal products. To be a tech vegan, you have to join an elite guild of tech wizards and master their secret arts. And even then, you’re probably sneaking a forbidden bite of Google or Apple every now and then.

So where does that leave tech veganism? Well, for the near term, it’s probably going to remain the province of geeks and specialists due to the difficulties described above. Ironically, that means that it’ll mostly involve tech workers building products that other tech workers refuse to use. (Imagine if veganism were only practiced by employees of meat companies.)

I also suspect that tech veganism will begin to shift, if it hasn’t already. I think the focus will become less about open source vs closed source (the battle of the last decade) and more about digital well-being, especially in regards to privacy, addiction, and safety. So in this way, it may be less about switching from Windows to Linux and more about switching from Android to iOS, or from Facebook to more private channels like Discord and WhatsApp.

Generation Z has grown up with smartphones and app stores as an inescapable fact of their lives. Does anyone under 21 actually care whether the code on their phone is open-source and whether, Stallman-style, they can dive into an Objective-C file and change something? Probably not many. Does anyone in that demographic care about their phone’s impact on their anxiety, their quality time with friends and family, and their safety from harassment and abuse? Probably a lot more.

In my opinion, this change is a good thing. You shouldn’t have to enter an elite tech priesthood just to preserve your privacy, security, and safety online. Tech veganism should be as easy as regular veganism – it should just be an option on the menu. That doesn’t mean that it won’t suffer from many of the same problems as regular veganism, but at least it will be democratized.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Here’s a thing I don’t understand from vegetarians and vegans. They refuse to eat animals (or make use of animal parts) because they find the practice objectionable. I get that, even if I don’t agree. However, most of them go out of their way to imitate the action of eating animals. They spend millions on research to make food products that taste, look, and feel as close to real meat as possible. Shouldn’t they be equally repulsed by the thought of even these imitations?

    As an analogy, I find the practice of child sacrifice abhorrent. I don’t practice child sacrifice, and thankfully don’t know anyone else who does. However, I also don’t go around figuring out how to make imitation children (perhaps out of paper maché) that would be suitable for fake child sacrifices. In fact, I want nothing to do with even the pretend practice of child sacrifice.

    Why don’t vegetarians and vegans avoid all products that look or taste like meat or animal products?

    Reply

    • Posted by veni vidi copi on June 1, 2019 at 12:00 AM

      Some vegans in fact are repulsed by meat. But most people grow up eating meat and liking its taste. Even people who don’t like hurting animals often can’t be bothered to go through the trouble of significantly changing what they eat. The logical solution is to provide imitations so that the only trouble a consumer has to go through is picking a diferent brand of a product.

      Your analogy is quite interesting to me, because in my country people burn straw witches every year. It is usually easier to make people change their behavior slightly, than to make them restructure their whole lives.

      Reply

      • @veni I don’t like hurting animals, and when I kill them for their meat and products, I try to minimize harm (unlike most animals). The process is unpleasant, but only because of how I was raised. My friends who grew up on farms have no such unpleasant feelings. As a result, I prefer to offload the process to specialists most of the time.

        Either way, I would expect someone who took a moral stand on vegetarianism or veganism (as opposed to a practical or health-based stand) to not go about imitating the actions they find abhorrent.

        Burning straw witches? That sounds ominous.

    • Easy: The knowledge that animals suffer for meat production is abstract; the flavor of meat is concrete. People’s brains aren’t logically consistent in general, so you end up with all sorts of dissonant beliefs and preferences.

      Reply

      • @Tim Oh yeah. I keep forgetting that people aren’t logical. I don’t mean that pejoratively. I spent more than half my life not realizing this fact, thinking everyone operated on, at minimum, a consistent mental basis given their available information.

    • Posted by oliverjkb on June 2, 2019 at 6:35 AM

      I get that question a lot.
      Tell me, what’s “natural” about the shape of a sausage? Or the shape of a burger pattie..
      That’s one thing.
      The other is: i like the taste of meat. I just don’t like to think where it comes from.
      On a side note: vegan sausages and burgers etc. still have a lower impact on the environment. It would be easier for people to switch to an alternative that otherwise wouldn’t if they don’t have to sacrifice the taste.. That would still be better than eating meat somehow.

      And still: you’re completely right about it. It’s not necessary. I don’t need vegan sausages, burger patties that taste like ‘the real thing’.
      I do however understand that some people do.

      Reply

  2. Great article. I would say that the metaphor hold true: not everybody can go vegan. Vegetarian maybe, vegan most likely no. As you said, it’s a pain to check the ingredients and find vegan sources of food, especially in non-friendly countries.It takes time, it takes energy and often times it’s also more expensive if you have no time to cook. For a person working 3 jobs to get to the end of the month, having a balanced vegan diet is not so trivial. Being vegan, like every single lifestyle choice, is a matter of privilege. While it’s much easier to go vegan than to go full free software, I still think the metaphor holds true.

    Reply

  3. Posted by 6ae52c on May 31, 2019 at 1:02 PM

    I find comparision with vegetarians and vegans derogatory.
    Vegetarians and vegans are driven by semi-religious ideology based on derailed sense of morality.
    Homo sapiens is is an omnivore species.

    My high bar for privacy/security is meritorical.

    I use mostly open source because of technical reasons.
    Since Nov 2018 all systems from top500 run on linux.
    Not because of some semi-religious beliefs about open source.
    It is simply the best thing you can get.

    As of suspicion of big tech companies – their main imperative is to make money.
    I am just aware of that. “Suspicion” comes from being informed about their nature.
    Most people are just blissfully unaware.

    Reply

    • You’re describing PETA vegans, or as I like to call them “White people at Whole Foods Vegans”. They are responsible for much of the stigma against veganism as a practice due to their moral argument for veganism (and I can see you don’t value those and I don’t really either).

      The thing is, characterizing all vegans as being concerned about animal suffering is misleading and detrimental. There are many vegans (me among them) who have decided to change the way the live because the production of animal products requires more resources and extra steps in production compared to plants as well as causing environmental damage and disease risk (factory farms are petri dishes for the next plague). If killing animals for food were necessary (say I was an Inuit hunter) or more efficient (I do not eat avocados because they are environmentally detrimental) then I would not blink an eye (except for the occasional guilt every meat eater gets).

      The first kind of Vegan you are describing gets a lot of press because it helps make clickbaity articles (think “stupid SJW destroyed by LOGIC and REASON”) not because it represents the extent of the thought process behind any given vegan/vegetarian.

      There are Free Software /Open Source advocates whose reasoning behind their choice to go “tech vegan” I’m sure others would take issue with too (extreme nationalism from a country like France, for example) but that doesn’t seem to come up?

      I think the comparison is a bit one-dimensional maybe, because the motivations aren’t thoroughly discussed, but it still seems applicable to me.

      Reply

  4. […] Read More […]

    Reply

  5. “Generation Z has grown up with smartphones and app stores as an inescapable fact of their lives.” Heck, people two decades older than Generation Z grew up with software intellectual property and commercial prepackaged computer software always being things in the world, and it hardly precluded all of them from getting into open source in the 90s.

    Reply

  6. Posted by S on May 31, 2019 at 7:09 PM

    I can see the analogy between the two situations .And both are rooted on the resistance to what it is established and resistance to follow the herd. The same way we’ve been brainwashed to eat mainstream we are brainwashed to be online.In this case, I will do like carnivores. As I comfortably reading this thanks to a main stream software I will bury my head in the ground and look to the other side except ,in this case nobody lost his/her life,unlike omnivores insensitivity.

    Reply

  7. Posted by oliverjkb on June 2, 2019 at 6:25 AM

    “To be a vegan, all you have to do is stop eating animal products.” is a hard oversimplification of the topic.
    It’s also taking into account if there’s actual leather on your shoes, jacket, etc. It’s about whether or not your vodka was filtered with milk, or your orange juice got filtered with gelatin (yes, why would someone even do that, right?). Is about reducing plastic, co2 emissions etc. etc. The list is endless.

    “So in this way, it may be less about switching from Windows to Linux and more about switching from Android to iOS, or from Facebook to more private channels like Discord and WhatsApp.”

    Are you really serious about this?
    From the bottom of your heart: where would it be better to switch from open source android to closed source iOS?
    Where would ditching facebook in favour of WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) be any sane decision?

    Reply

  8. The point that a lot of people miss is that there are two tech revolutions going on.

    On one end, there’s the application, end-user technology that is designed to fit some specific need and be easy to use. Ideally, it’s just tapping buttons on a screen.

    These tend to follow direct physical analogs of specific, single purpose tools: Search/Keep replaces the file cabinet, Maps replaces maps, YouTube is mobile television, Play is mobile board games, News replaces the newspaper, Gmail is mail, Contacts replaces the Rolodex, Drive replaces the suitcase, calendar replaces the Day Planner, Translate replaces the foreign language phrase book, Photos replaces the photo album, etc.

    They do one thing. They do it well. They are useful. And they are all being combined in one device. But, they aren’t the standard by which every tool needs to be judged.

    Some tools are general tools that can be applied to a wide variety of problems. Any idiot can pick up an arc welder or write a Python script. But, it takes time to learn how to use these general purpose tools well. They’re never going to be easy in the way that using email is easy. And there is no need to use Python or an arc welder on your phone.

    Should TeX be compared to Word? It’s apples and oranges. How much does that Venn diagram overlap, regardless of definition?

    Emacs is as different from a word processor as a word processor is from the legal pad. There’s inherent capability that doesn’t reduce down to the level of a pull-down menu or button. As soon as you make ease of use the defining feature, you narrow down capability to what a pull down menu can handle.

    Most people aren’t solving problems that require training A.I.s, collaboratively writing programs with a tool like Git, making CGI movies with Renderman, etc. So, they have no need to learn these tools, and these tools do not need to simplified to suit them. They are what they are. OpenBSD is about security, not being “user-friendly” to the novice user. If you want “user-friendly,” use what everyone else uses.

    “Tech vegans,” as you describe them, have different needs and different values. Some day, it would be nice if a LineageOS device were available at your telephone carrier’s store, Google didn’t mess with ad blocking extensions in their browser to make more money, and so forth. But, the incentives are what they are. Opting out of the default is hard by design. That’s not only a technology problem. It’s also an economic one.

    Reply

  9. […] Lawson, “Tech Veganism.” nolanlawson.com. May 31, […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.