My love-hate affair with technology

Ten years ago I would have considered myself someone who was excited about new technology. I always had the latest smartphone, I would read the reviews of new Android releases with a lot of interest, and I was delighted when things like Google Maps Navigation, speech-to-text, or keyboard swiping made my life easier.

Nowadays, to the average person I probably look like a technology curmudgeon. I don’t have a smart speaker, a smart watch, or any smart home appliances. My 4-year-old phone runs a de-Googled LineageOS that barely runs any apps other than Signal and F-Droid. My house has a Raspberry Pi running Nextcloud for file storage and Pi-hole for ad blocking. When I bought a new TV I refused to connect it to the Internet; instead, I hooked it up to an old PC running Ubuntu so I can watch Netflix, Hulu, etc.

My wife complains that none of the devices in our house work, and she’s right. The Pi-hole blocks a lot of websites, and it’s a struggle to unblock them. Driving the TV with a wireless keyboard is cumbersome. Nextcloud is clunky compared to something like Dropbox or Google Drive. I even tried cloudflared for a while, but I had to give up when DNS kept periodically failing.

One time – no joke – I had a dream that I was using some open-source alternative to a popular piece of software, and it was slow and buggy. I don’t even remember what it was, but I remember being frustrated. This is just what I’m used to nowadays – not using a technology because it’s the best-in-class or makes my life easier, but because it meets some high-minded criteria about how I think software should be: privacy-respecting, open-source, controlled by the user, etc.

To the average person, this is probably crazy. “Nolan,” they’d say. “You couldn’t order a Lyft because their web app didn’t work in Firefox for Android. Your files don’t sync away from home because you’re only running Nextcloud on your local network. Your friends can’t even message you on WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter because you don’t have an account and the apps don’t work on your phone. If you want to live in the eighteenth century so bad, why don’t you get a horse and buggy while you’re at it?”

Maybe this nagging voice in my head is right (and I do think these thoughts sometimes). Maybe what I’m practicing is a kind of tech veganism that, like real veganism, is a great idea in theory but really hard to stick to in practice. (And yes, I’ve tried real veganism too. Maybe I should join a monastery at this point.)

On the other hand, I have to remind myself that there are benefits to the somewhat ascetic lifestyle I’ve chosen. The thing that finally pushed me to switch from stock Android to de-Googled LineageOS was all the ads and notifications in Google Maps. I remember fumbling around with a dozen settings, but never being able to get rid of the “Hey, rate this park” message. (Because everything on Earth needs a star rating apparently.)

And now, I don’t have to deal with Google Maps anymore! Instead I deal with OsmAnd~, which broke down the other day and failed to give me directions. So it goes.

Maybe someday I’ll relent. Maybe I’ll say, “I’m too old for this shit” and start using technology that actually works instead of technology that meets some idealistic and probably antiquated notion of software purity. Maybe I’ll be forced to, because I need a pacemaker that isn’t open-source. Or maybe there will be some essential government service that requires a Google or Apple phone – my state’s contact tracing app does! I got jury duty recently and was unsurprised to find that they do everything through Zoom. At what point will it be impossible to be a tech hermit, without being an actual hermit?

That said, I’m still doing what I’m doing for now. It helps that I’m on Mastodon, where there are plenty of folks who are even more hardcore than me. (“I won’t even look at a computer if it’s running non-FLOSS software,” they smirk, typing from their BSD laptop behind five layers of Tor.) Complaining to this crowd about how I can’t buy a TV anymore without it spying on me makes me feel a little bit normal. Just a bit.

The thing that has always bothered me about this, and which continues to bother me, is that I’m only able to live this lifestyle because I have the technical know-how. The average person would neither know how to do any of the things I’m doing (installing a custom Android ROM, setting up Nextcloud, etc.), nor would they probably want to, given that it’s a lot of extra hassle for a sub-par experience.

And who am I, anyway? Edward Snowden? Why am I LARPing as a character in a spy novel when I could be focusing on any one of a million other hobbies in the world?

I guess the answer is: this is my hobby. Figuring out how to get my Raspberry Pi to auto-update is a hobby. Tinkering with my TV setup so that I can get Bluetooth headphones working while the TV is in airplane mode is a hobby. Like a gearhead who’s delighted when their car breaks down (“Hey! Now I can fix it!”), I don’t mind when the technology around me doesn’t work – it gives me something to do on the weekend! But I have no illusions that this lifestyle makes sense for most people. Or that it will even make sense for me, once I get older and probably bored of my hobby.

For the time being, though, I’m going to keep acting like technology is an enemy I need to subdue rather than a purveyor of joys and delights. So if you want to know how it’s going, subscribe to my blog via RSS or message me on Signal. Or if that fails, come visit me in a horse and buggy.

23 responses to this post.

  1. Preach it. I’ve had similar internal dialogues in segments. It was nice to read them all stitched together.

    Reply

  2. Posted by George Dorn on August 26, 2021 at 9:53 AM

    For some problems, sometimes the answer is to just keep looking. For example, Organic Maps is significantly better than OsmAnd~, which is heavily limited by some strange decisions, yet it is still FOSS and based on the same data.

    But I think it is worth remembering that the full-fat tech diet is pretty awful, too, and not just for the annoyances. Software sucks, universally, and all of it fails once you start expecting great things from it. At least with FOSS you have a tiny shot at fixing it.

    Reply

  3. […] My love-hate affair with technology […]

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  4. Posted by Mac on August 26, 2021 at 7:46 PM

    “…somewhat ascetic lifestyle I’ve chosen”

    Give me a break. The sanctimonious airing out of this disdain for technology is tired. No one really cares what you are using or what you plan on using. You read a couple blog posts and realized the stuff you bought was sending little packets of your life out in directions you couldn’t see but now make you uncomfortable. Whoopty doo. I wish people would just drop out quietly.

    Reply

    • Posted by Rico on August 27, 2021 at 9:41 AM

      You wish people would drop out quietly, while leaving a noisy rebuke… Hmmm

      For a counterpoint: I cared to learn about his perspective. It so closely mirrors my own frustrations of the extremely adversarial nature of surveillance capitalism. It isn’t normal to have to worry about all these things, but it’s perhaps important for the few who can to do so.

      There are a class of humans on earth who have most of the money and make most of the resource allocations. The rest of the classes literally serve the interests of that class. The abstraction classes [lawyers, legislators, and coders] are especially useful to the resource allocator class.

      So maybe it is important that people in the coder-abstractor class actually communicate about the parts that feel bad.

      Reply

    • Posted by Mac n Cheese on August 29, 2021 at 2:41 PM

      Evidently, you cared enough to bother writing a comment. I, for one, really appreciated this post, and I’m always on the lookout for recommendations on how to lessen my dependence on FAANG (etc.), or even just some sympathy for/from people doing the same things I’m doing. I care. So how about you give me a break from the tired “your vote doesn’t count, just surrender” trope? You can help, or you can get out of the way, but cynicism has never carried the day.

      Reply

  5. […] feel the same way: My love-hate affair with technology. And my Raspberry Pis (both of them) auto-update […]

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  6. Posted by Paul on August 27, 2021 at 1:33 AM

    The solution to getting your photos synchronised when away from home is to have a house VPN. Wireguard runs on the Pi, and provides QR codes for your devices to register with it.

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  7. Thank you for writing this. I’ve followed such a similar path to you, and experienced the same frustrations. It also bothers me that the only reason I’m able to retain some level control over my data and privacy is because I work in the field. I fear the day that I’m too old, or too tired to keep on top of security updates/deprecated software/Microsoft pushing their own repos onto the Raspberry PI without user consent.

    I feel like I’ve come too far to turn away from these choices I’ve made, so I’ll continue to have the occasional all-nighter restoring a Nextcloud database that I haven’t touched in 3 years or sourcing a new motherboard for my NAS.

    Reply

  8. Posted by kepair on August 27, 2021 at 2:42 AM

    I feel the struggle.

    At some point I asked myself if all the time I spent tinkering was worth. Now my decision making is:

    Is there a open, free alternative that I can spin up in less than an hour, won’t require big maintenance, and it’s easy to redeploy without losing anything on the way?
    If not, is there a paid option that respects me as a user that it’s worth paying?
    If not, then I use the free, data-mining option, trying to configure it the best way I can (or they let me)

    For me wasn’t worth to live an ascetic lifestyle if that meant to miss part of what’s happening around.

    How can “technology” be an enemy? You can be against how certain companies exploit your use of the tools they made available. From that to your last statement there’s a big leap.

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  9. Posted by Gleb Bahmutov on August 27, 2021 at 6:06 AM

    Hi Nolan!
    I get what you are saying, but I would say there must be a backup plan for everything right? And that’s not limited to technology. If I go hiking, I would need two GPS apps on my phone. Plus plan for the phone lost / out of battery / dropped into water. So I still bring a map!

    Reply

  10. I feel you, bro. Thank you for making the time to write this and put it words the struggle of lots of us. I admire you and respect you for this.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Konstantinos on August 27, 2021 at 8:56 AM

    I am glad about your change; but this is possible only by humans at higher levels of ITexpertise/economy – both knowledge and money are needed. It would be good if you also bring this in at your work – sometimes i find software engineers just implement whatever product manager (or sales) people ask – then later say – oh sad – I just did my work.

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  12. It’s as if you had summarized my thoughts on technology from the past few years in a single blog post. You nailed it. You now have a new subscriber to your RSS feed, which I’ll read through Constaflux (an Android app available on F-Droid) connected to my Miniflux server running on the Raspberry Pi 3B+ on my LAN. Cheers!

    Reply

  13. It’s as if you had summarized my thoughts on technology from the past few years in a single blog post. You nailed it. You now have a new subscriber to your RSS feed, which I’ll read through Constaflux (an Android app available on F-Droid) connected to my Miniflux server running on the Raspberry Pi 3B+ on my LAN. Cheers!

    Reply

  14. Posted by nileshtrivedi on August 27, 2021 at 10:03 AM

    I continue to be hopeful though. There are some wins: USB-C winning, products like FrameWorks laptop, companies like iFixit coming up means that there’s enough of us to be a market segment.

    I recently built a browser extension that recommends better alternative products and services based on the current tab’s URL: https://github.com/nileshtrivedi/better

    Reply

  15. Posted by Steven L on August 27, 2021 at 11:00 AM

    This is very similar to my own outlook on modern day technology. Tech was fun to follow while it was fresh and new, but everything that comes out now does some kind of phone-home user tracking and ends up trying to serve you ads at some point. It became less entertaining as the years went by, as things became shitty IoT hundred dollar lightbulbs.

    It’s more enjoyable to work on something of your own. The feeling of accomplishment as you get a bizarre new OS installed on your 5-year old desktop computer you can’t upgrade because of part shortages. Or writing some code for your own project in a language that none of your friends will ever touch. Those are unique adventures I would never trade for anything else in the world. It’s part of the fun of being a tech hobbit.

    Thank you for the write-up and keep it up!

    Reply

  16. I get the comments from friends a lot too that I’m a masochist, just making things harder for myself, or I’m paranoid. I do deeply care about FOSS, privacy, and security and wish others did as well, but one thing that you said that really resonated was that this is “a hobby”. I really do enjoy living in a digital space where I’m using 95% free and open source software. Although using a device that has zero Google services on it is liberating, I genuinely love flashing LineageOS to my device and tinkering. Being able to do my job on a Linux distro while everyone else on my team uses Windows or Mac is just cool to me.

    I’ve been called a luddite because I refuse to have a personal LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, or Twitter account because I absolutely despise ads, tracking, behavior modification but it’s also fun to come up with alternate solutions such as using Signal, relying on good ol fashion email with a custom domain, using RSS for news/updates, and setting up my own website where it’s the only place I exist digitally. These alternate solutions are often times significantly better than the mainstream platforms.

    Thanks for the post.

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  17. Posted by Luís Camacho. on August 28, 2021 at 6:11 AM

    I just want to say thank you Nolan. I really enjoy your blog posts and used pouch db in one company I used to work.

    I share with you the concerns about technology. I’m using a webos phone for 2 years now, and although I cannot use application like an Uber, I don’t regret the change. Messaging on the phone is very difficult so I’m considering to change for a symbiam30 OS that has better messaging and more battery time.

    Six months prior to the pandemic I changed home and as an experiment for that time I didn’t install internet. I tried to have an podcast downloaded at work to listen at night. I used a Kobo e-reader combined with pocket app, so I could have articles to read later. On that 6 months I read much more books and the quality of sleep increased.

    On the last months of the experiment I discovered secure scuttlebutt which can be used offline. I didn’t interact much but it has a very cool community.

    Reply

  18. Posted by Matthew on August 28, 2021 at 11:05 AM

    Oh man I feel this.

    Flashback to the 1990s when I’m a graduate student, pleased to get a codebase of Fortran and C compiling and running cleaning across four different Unix platforms, and doing my part to uncover the magic words ‘Squeamish Ossifrage’. One day the Mosaic browser pops up, distributed as source code. The key binding offend me so I make a few code changes and recompile.

    Wired magazine was already promoting its vision of a techno utopian future. But our group’s senior contract programmer in his forties was unsettled by the browser. I think he felt the old world was about to slip away and of course he was right. I never bought the Wired vision, feeling it neglected to account for human nature. I don’t know what my friend feared; perhaps he had a vision of just ten percent of the current hellscape. Who could imagine the destructive nature of social media back then? It was more fun to go skiing and get a beer afterwards.

    Now I run my own e-mail server, located in my home where the Fourth Amendment unambiguously applies. I have one inbox but 80+ e-mails funneling into it for different companies and organziations. I have many backups, none of them in the cloud. Don’t look for me on Crapbook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, though Google Photos proved to be a little too convenient.

    I own a Logitech Squeezebox but nothing is actively listening in my house.

    Don’t try calling. My Android phone, purchased in the Southern hemisphere, and registered to a shell Google account with no financial information attached, doesn’t seem to be supported by any U.S. carriers. Eventually I rooted it just so I could unambiguously hunt down space wasters (rm -rf my old friend) and decrapify it. Many apps on it are now installed from F-Droid or pushed over as APKs.

    Maybe Windows 7 was an improvement on XP. Window 8 and 10 are clearly not improvements on Windows 7. Why the hell does a Windows 10 update require a multi-gigabyte download and take an hour to install while killing performance on a quad-core box with 32 GB of RAM?

    I beat my Windows 7 box to death. Two years ago a bad sector appeared in the Windows Registry, an ominous sign. The drive SMART stats suggested imminent failure. Windows 7 final End of Support was just a few months away but I rebuilt the box anyhow on a clean drive. I’ll browse the web on a Windows 10 box in my living room but my development environment is still on a Windows 7. No more updates means no more rebooting. It’s been 18 weeks since I’ve rebooted that box, I appreciate that freedom.

    Maybe I’ll fall prey to an unpatched Windows 7 security issue. But I’m behind a firewall running Firefox with the uBlock Origin, HTTPS Everywhere, Decentralyze, ClearURLS, and Cookie Remove extensions installed. How do people get anything done on the web without a good ad blocker? It’s just hideous!

    You’d be surprised how much software still works just fine on Windows 7. Sometimes it pretends not to, e.g. the Calibre 3 installer but actually it does, though I have to use the standalone version.

    Maybe I’m gradually sliding into some technology third world. But my technology is serving my needs. I don’t need anything from Amazon in one hour. I live in a low crime area with no need for external surveillance. I know where things are located in my own town with maps or turn by turn directions. I’m ten times more efficient with a keyboard and mouse than a touch screen. My data problems are medium data at worst, hardly “big data”.

    I’m just sick of the bullshit. Of outright and dangerous lies spread on social media, halfway around the world before truth has laced up it’s shoes. Of five paragraph “articles” that take twenty seconds to load on a smartphone because of all the tracking, and then read like they were written by a computer program, because they were. Of app store tech monopolies for hardware I paid for. Of lock-in to Safari WebKit on Apple devices, regardless of how you skin a third party browser. Of gadgets where even the battery is a challenge to replace. Why do I have to jailbreak everything just to own what I own?

    Reply

  19. Speaking of scaling down (or beeing stuck in the past with deprecated hard/software). Checkout https://collapseos.org and gemini! https://gemini.circumlunar.space/

    Reply

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