Five companies in Silicon Valley are worth a combined $3 trillion. Most of us use at least one of their services everyday and it has become impossible to imagine life without them.
Image composition: Motherboard
This will be the last story I file to my editors using Google Docs for the next month—or possibly forever.
Starting today, I am going to stop using any of the services offered by the so-called “Big Five” tech companies—Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple—for the next four weeks in order to better understand the real cost of total convenience. That means no more Android phone, Gmail, Google Maps, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, two-day Prime delivery, computers running Windows, Facebook posts, or any of the myriad other services offered by the five giants of Silicon Valley.
It’s a cold turkey detox from the tech that runs the world.
As is the case with many bad ideas, it started with a tweet. I have a crappy Samsung phone that is going to die any day now and solicited Twitter for advice on whether I should replace it with a Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, or an iPhone. Motherboard editor-in-chief Jason Koebler had a better idea: Why not try using an old LG Nexus he had flashed with a version of Sailfish, an independent mobile OS? Even better—why not try going a month without any products from these tech giants?
I supported the idea in principle, but had a hard time seeing how it would work in practice. My life revolves around the products and services provided by the big five. All my emails, documents, and photos are stored on Google’s cloud servers, Google powers my two-factor authentication, I browse the web with Chrome, Google Maps is the only way I know how to navigate New York City, I depend on Amazon to save me from having to haul 40-pound boxes of cat litter several city blocks each month, all my computers run Windows, I’m writing a book using Word, I stay in touch with friends around the world using WhatsApp, and I’ve used Android phones for nearly a decade.
Despite my total dependence on these products, however, I also have a deep-seated distrust of the companies behind them.
Amazon’s success is built on the labor of its nearly 600,000 underpaid and overworked employees, huge tax breaks, and the total invasion of our personal space with spy-ready products like Alexa. Facebook harvests user data and allows nearly anyone to target you with advertisements, a business model which resulted in an epidemic of fake news, political ad targeting in the US and Britain, and allegedly fueling genocide in Myanmar. Google is a military contractor that has more data on us than any company in the world and uses its products to target us with ads while aggressively avoiding taxes. Apple’s flagship products are built on the suffering of its contractors in the developing world, from the children dying in cobalt mines in Congo to the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, where nets hang over the courtyards of labor barracks to stem the rising tide of worker suicides. And finally there’s Microsoft, a company slapped with landmark antitrust suits in the US and Europe that has cooperated with Chinese censorship and handed over user data to the NSA for its infamous PRISM program to spy on US citizens.
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In short, I found myself a hypocrite. On the one hand, I was staunchly opposed to many of the business practices that made these companies into the globe-striding behemoths they are today. On the other hand, I was a sucker for the total convenience their products provided.
While some of the products these companies have created have undoubtedly made people's lives—especially in developed countries—easier, this has come at a significant cost. It’s a truism in the tech world that if a company’s product is free then the real product is you, and the negative consequences of this way of doing business are growing more apparent with each passing year.
In 2016, the documentarian Adam Curtis produced a documentary for the BBC called Hypernormalisation . It’s a great documentary and everyone should watch it, but what’s really important is Curtis’s main thesis: The reason why everything is so fucked up today is that we are unable to imagine a better future and so instead we pretend that everything is okay as the world comes apart at the seams around us.
It’s apparent to me that a similar process is at work in Silicon Valley. With the exception of Microsoft and Apple, which have been around for nearly half-a-century, these Big Five companies have quickly infiltrated our lives over the past decade or so and have become so integral to our day to day lives that it is quickly becoming impossible to imagine life without them.
We are in the grips of a techno-fatalism—a belief that technology can’t be other than what it is—and this prevailing attitude is best exemplified by a recent article written by the New York Times technology reporter Farhad Manjoo. Titled “Tech’s Frightful Five: They’ve Got Us,” the article is an exploration of how “we are, all of us, in inescapable thrall to one of the handful of American technology companies that now dominate much of the global economy.”
Manjoo has already conceded that there’s no escape from these companies, but that’s not the main point of the article. The point is to get the reader to take a quiz, which reinforces their dependence on these companies. Manjoo prefaces the quiz with this hypothetical: “If an evil, tech-phobic monarch forced you to abandon each of the Frightful Five, in which order would you do so, and how much would your life deteriorate as a result?”
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The rest of the article is Manjoo describing which tech companies he couldn’t live without in order of importance. He sings the praises of the convenience afforded him by various Amazon products, which the quiz told him was the most indispensible company to his life. He anticipates criticism for one paragraph, writing “If such a future makes you blanch, that’s the right reaction. I have fallen victim to the convenience trap, and you’re right to laugh at me, and also to spin dystopian visions from my behavior.”
Yet rather than spend any time on meaningful introspection about this criticism, Manjoo wraps up the article in the next paragraph: “Sure, you can decide to opt out; you can drive to Target, your life won’t end if you don’t patronize Amazon. But if it’s not Amazon for you, it’ll be another of the five. Or more likely, it already is. It’s too late to escape.”
To look at the current technological landscape and to state that things can’t be different is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way technology develops. Manjoo’s argument is only justified in a very narrow sense. If you use the internet, it’s next to impossible to completely avoid third-party services that rely on Big Five products like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, and Google is building undersea cables so eventually accessing any site on the internet will likely involve at least one Google tool.
For me, the next month is a challenge to the assumption that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple products are too convenient to possibly resist. By replacing these companies’ products with their independent open source equivalents, I am going to test the idea that the convenience afforded by these products outweighs their downsides. To be clear, my goal isn’t to get “off the grid,” but rather to try to stay connected and live as normally as possible by using alternative products and services.
Admittedly, I’m in a pretty ideal position to undertake this experiment. For starters, I already deleted my Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and I refuse to use Apple products because I can’t stand the company’s closed ecosystem, so two of the big five have already been largely cut out of my life. I’m also fairly technologically literate and have a small amount of experience with things like Linux, which will undoubtedly make the transition to alternative platforms easier. I also have a job that allows me to undertake this kind of experiment and live in the densest city in the US, so there are plenty of stores to make up for lack of access to Amazon.
Over the next few weeks, I will be talking with the people fighting the big five’s monopolization of everything by developing alternative tools and will write a guide to replacing these products in your own life. At the end of the month, I’ll take stock of the experience and write a follow up article about what it was like to unplug from the big five. I’ll be the first to admit that there may be products that are so indispensable that my quality of life may greatly deteriorate without them. But I won’t know until I try.