I recently spent some time bingeing on Sons of Anarchy, a ridiculous show about a fictional California motorcycle club. I got bored and stopped watching in the 4th or 5th season after the hilarious Irish story arc finished (it’s as good/bad as it sounds), and I don’t know that I would recommend it. The main themes are family, guns, motorcycles, and boobs, in that order, and the humour can be kind of sociopathic at times. There was some great gear in it though, it made me want to buy a Ka-Bar. Yeah. Anyway, one of the concepts at play within the motorcycle club universe is ‘going nomad’, which is when you stay within your broader club (e.g. Hell’s Angels) but leave your chapter (e.g. Hell’s Angels – Santa Monica), and RIDE ALONE, JUST YOUR THOUGHTS, YOUR HARLEY, AND THE ROAD. And I guess what I’m trying to say is that, what I’m doing, what I’m going through… well I’m not saying it’s the same but, it’s equivalent in a lot of ways, and it sort of is the same if you really, really don’t think about it. Right?
A couple of months ago I decided to take a firm and decisive step back from the corporate web, and this site and its contents are one offshoot from that. I thought it would be a good exercise in self-examination to outline why I’m doing that, how I came to the decision, and what it’s been like. I’ll probably do a write-up at some point detailing the practicalities and technical limitations of the process, but first I want to provide a little context, narrative, and reasoning. Consider this the ‘theory’ post.
Over the years, I have flirted with ideological commitment to Free and Open Source Software. My first proper exposure to this ideology was during Anonymous’s much publicised Operation Payback, in which I enlisted following the financial services boycott of WikiLeaks in 2010. Yes, yours truly was a naive and lowly LOIC gunner back in the day. Of course, then as now the DDoS heavy lifting was done by botnets, but I didn’t know it at the time, and anyway it felt better than not doing it. In the midst of all this, I began to wander down some intellectual tangents, in particular surrounding data, its ownership, and the means of digital production. So began my on and off practice of a kind of ‘digital ethics’.
If I’m being honest, “on and off” suggests a false equivalence – it was mostly off. As always the slope is slippery, and the lure and appeal of social media and the Google ecosystem led to me becoming incrementally reabsorbed into the corporate sphere. I was definitely a bit of a Google fanboy, and because my initial concerns had been around data, it felt like an all-or-nothing deal: if I was going to be in for a penny, I may as well be in for a pound. I basically had to give my data away to the government and telecoms companies and employers, and that seemed a lot riskier than giving it to some distant megacorp (I actually still believe that up to a point, though the calculus may be different depending on where you live, e.g. US/China). So why not float down the path of least resistance? Soon I was being Very Serious on Facebook and trying to be Very Funny on Twitter, in between clicking through photo albums of attractive friends and acquaintances, just like everybody else. I unironically consider this time to be worse-spent than all the flashlight and multitool reviews I watched. And that’s saying something.
The habit-kick came about 3 years ago. The post-2016 scandals around Facebook were swirling, and I guess this stirred up my latent FOSSophical inclinations. But more importantly, as I delved into the Cambridge Analytica affair, I came to a parallel but separate realisation: I fucking hated Facebook. Not just the company or the policies, but the app itself, the platform, the whole scene. I didn’t enjoy using it, it was just this weird compulsion borne of FOMO and longing and push-notifications. I think at the time I explained/justified quitting in terms of the broader sociopolitical concerns, but in truth I was depressed, struggling with other addictions, and this was just obvious low-hanging fruit. Looking back, I can honestly say it was the easiest and best step I’ve taken in the last decade. Even if you have no interest in any of what’s to follow, I’d urge you to look at what you get from social media. Maybe it’s a necessary evil for work/business, and I understand that (more later). But if you are in it and on it and don’t really know why… you have a phone number, you have an email address. You can make a website. Anyone worth maintaining contact with, will.
Having left Facebook, I slowly began divesting from the rest of the corporate web. I say slowly, because Android and Google represented a massive issue. The Android ecosystem is ever-increasingly indistinguishable from Google, with more and more services, high-level functionality, and development retreating behind the walls of their proprietary garden. To really quit Google usually means quitting your phone’s OS and replacing that functionality yourself. I’ll go into the specifics some other time, but I’m not going to butter it up for you: doing this is a root-and-branch affair. You have to go back to an older, different concept of the internet, in which decentralisation and personal agency and responsibility were core. That doesn’t mean returning to some 1997 hellscape – modern FOSS is, in terms of functionality and usability, honestly incredible. But if you want to own your data, well, you’ve got to take ownership of your data. You have to put some time in and some money down. Not a lot, but probably (in fact, evidently) more than most people are willing to.
One of the biggest concerns people have is that if they decide to drop out of the corporate web completely, quit social media etc, they’ll be cut off from their friends and social circles. This worry is mostly misplaced, but there is certainly a risk that you will feel socially isolated. Some of this is just FOMO, plain and simple. The stuff you’re missing is the same stuff that was bumming you out to begin with, and like any bad habit you just have to quit and stay quit. But if you’ve been relying on feeds and status updates to provide a kind of passive contact with your friends, you are probably going to have to make more of an effort to send messages, emails, and make phone calls. This is a GOOD thing! The passivity was part of the problem – real engagement is much more rewarding for you and those close to you. Another risk is that you may occasionally feel like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to group messages on platforms like Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. Just remember that you are taking a step to demonetise your friendships and make them about authentic communication, instead of passive/reactive likes and comments in a virtual rat park. Give yourself appropriate credit, because it will help with your resolve. And for what it’s worth, I find saying “because Facebook is evil” gets a lot more nods and sympathy than you might expect.
A bigger issue is that depending on how you earn your crust of bread, you may not be able to opt out of the corporate web on a whim. If you’re self-employed you might have a little more flexibility, but realistically clients will probably not be sympathetic and you’ll have to make compromises. And if you’re not your own boss, a lot of these decisions will be completely out of your hands. Hell, you might work for the corporate web! For that you’ll get no judgement from me – there are few if any sinless professions just as there are few if any sinless people. We are all products of our environment to a greater or lesser degree, and most ways of earning a living are implicated in one form of broader injustice or another. With every keystroke, I probably help to kill an endangered insect somewhere (or if anyone actually reads this thing, human braincells). My best advice is to draw a clear line in the sand between the technology in your personal life and your professional one. Frankly this is something you should do anyway – work cults are bad for you, don’t live your job, etc. Most phones and basically all computers support profiles, but get a cheap second phone or even another computer if you have to. When the working day is done, log out/turn them off. This way you can maintain a clear separation between your career and the time that is for you and the people you love.
When you come out the other end of the tunnel, you’ll discover that practically speaking not much has really changed. You’ll still have a phone, an email address, and you know, yourself. You’ll still go to things, meet up with the people who are actually in your life, the usual. You might find you have a bit more time on your hands; you can fill this with things called ‘hobbies’ and ‘interests’. You may even discover that Your Shit Is All Fucked Up and start doing something about it. In any event, you’ll quickly realise that all of that faff was not nearly as important as it seemed when you first thought about dropping it, and was in fact very much the distraction it was designed to be. And depending on how much you used social media (or how much it affected you), you may have a palpable sense of ‘being clean’, or of a weight being lifted. The benefits of this for your well-being cannot be overstated.
I’m not going to proselytise too much, except to say that the people who need to do this will probably see those lines and know they want to be in that place. If you don’t and none of this stuff gets you down, more power to you. As I keep saying:
To be absolutely clear, this isn’t about judging people and how they spend their time on the internet. That would be horseshit. Rather, it’s about stepping back from a world where the public sphere has been gobbled up by global megacorps whose bottom line depends on stimulating certain kinds of discourse and behaviour within that sphere.
Just be honest with yourself about it. To paraphrase the great Jon Bon Jovi, it’s your life.
To sum up: over the last two decades, we have collectively and willingly sold our lives and ourselves to companies that are now the most valuable in the world. But despite often being the focus of this shift, data isn’t really the important bit. Of far more significance is the extent to which these corporations own us, through habit, addiction, and dependency. Man is born free, but everywhere he is on Instagram. But just as we entered into bondage willingly, self-emancipation is also within our gift.