Losing Control of Our Screens and Data

After nearly a decade of using the internet daily, it is clear that users have little control over what is displayed on their screen. The control has been ceded to capitalists wishing to sell you something. I am not just talking about the algorithmic social media that is the rage these days. (TL;DR Tik Tok is becoming more popular than Instagram because their algorithm is better and Instagram is getting anxious about it.) I’m talking about advertisements. Newspapers, radio and television have never given the viewer any option about the advertising content that they hear/see. On those mediums, it was easier to distinguish between content and advertising. When the commercial break begins, I can mute the television. With newspapers, I can skim past pages that are advertisements. When an ad is disguised as a search result marked by a greyed out “Sponsored” label which is very small and designed to be hard to notice, the user has no choice but to engage with the ad as if it were a legitimate result.


I have gone to frankly absurd lengths to ensure that advertisements are not seen on my home network. I have installed an ad blocking DNS server, which requires some periodic maintenance. I have VPN setups to ensure that this DNS server can be used even when I am on mobile data; where network providers and the phone software forces you to use the provider’s DNS server. I have installed the uBlock Origin plugin on my computer and I avoid websites which give you some self-righteous message about how their content is paid for using ads and you should whitelist their domain: “Our ads are not ads. They are the latest thingamajig and very secure.”

How did we get here? How could a set of technologies aimed to create a network of computers turn into this?

One obvious (and low-hanging fruit-type) answer is capitalism. Capitalism is the overriding philosophy on today’s internet. Most of the Internet is designed around the facet that it is a conveyance for the age-old salesperson. There is something to be bought and the viewers are going to do the buying. Why are they going to buy anything? Because capitalism connects the society’s value system to things, and the more things you have, the richer you are perceived to be. (Have you not had the experience of scoffing at someone who said they don’t have a Netflix subscription?)

Inversely, if you don’t have things, then you are one of 2 things: poor or minimalist. Poverty has always been the same. Today’s minimalism is the life of the average person from a few years ago; a person who used anything they bought for more than 2 years; someone who liked to buy things instead of subscriptions to things; someone who had all their photographs in a photo album or a 1 TB hard drive, instead of the latest cloud storage offering.

The Best Phone (Only For 2 Years Though)

Apple (famously) spends a huge amount of time and effort on each of their phones. In the bazillion biographies of Steve Jobs, one thing that gets focused on over and over is that the company is detail oriented. Tim Cook, current Apple CEO, is known to negotiate contract prices upto the 6th decimal point because that is how detail oriented they are. What happens to their products that are built with such care and precision? They are chucked out every 2 years.

Every 2 years, Apple releases a new iPhone. A lot of people with the old iPhone walk into an Apple Store and trade their existing iPhone in for the latest one. They get a 50% discount on an insanely overpriced phone. (They also get the social status of owning the latest iPhone. Apple makes a point to make the backs of phones, the part that is most easily visible to everyone except the owner iconic and different on every phone. Other phone makers have caught up to them in this department. The more iconic the back of your phone, the more people will buy it for the social status of owning it.)

What happens to the old iPhone? It is dismantled and used for the parts inside it by Apple. They will use these parts to make the “best phone,” 2 years from now.

Well. Why would a company that is so focused on details and building good products be so insistent on getting its users to keep buying the new iPhone? Money. This is probably banal. Apple wants to make a lot of money? Duh, of course they do. I think this shows the deep-seated contradiction in the philosophy of a company that claims to build the “best” products. If the product is that good, why are you insisting that I change it every 2 years? If the product is that good, why do you stop sending software updates after 5 years? Apple and its attention to detail is superfluous. Even if Apple phones were shoddy products starting this September, people will continue to buy them because it confers social status. The myth of “the Apple product” has been built over 15 years of nearly constant propaganda; this myth precedes the product in the mind of the consumer. Nation states would be put to shame by the overarching ads that Apple releases each year. Memorably satirized by The Onion: “I will basically buy anything if it is shiny and made by Apple.” AirPods Generation 1, anyone?

I am glad to see the latest generation of teens scoff at the origin stories of these large tech giants. Their reaction seems to be, “Google was started in a garage? Umm, okay. Is that supposed to be impressive or something?” and I like it a lot.

They seem to know something that I did not. I was enamored by Google’s ability to go from a small company in a garage to where it is today. I was an ardent follower of the “Steve Jobs myth;” the founding, the firing, the return, the iPod, the laptop comes out of an envelope, the iPod + phone = iPhone talk: Sign me up for all of it! If this ain’t entertainment, I don’t know what is.

I continue to admire Zuckerberg’s meteoric rise, his intention to keep control of a company that has changed culture. (Maybe I should not admire it though, because the change has been pretty bad in every case.)

This phenomenon of products being marketed as amazing and paradigm-changing when they are launched and becoming outdated and boring a year or two later is everywhere. This is true with the ultra fast-fashion brand Shein. On Shein, consumers buy clothes as fast as Shein can produce them or as fast as they go viral on TikTok. These two businesses tie into each other. Consumer choices are now controlled by how fast trends change on an online platform that is known for dizzyingly fast trend cycles.

Subscriptions for Everything

There are subscriptions for movies, music, sports, gyms, and cosmetics now. But it doesn’t stop there. In each of these cases, perhaps you are paying for a service or a good that is not already in the hardware that is “yours.”

New versions of old software are trying to convince you that they are somehow completely different from whatever came before them. Microsoft Office is a good example of this. For decades now, Office has remained basically the same and I am grateful it exists because it has simplified computing for a lot of people. There have been a bunch of new features which power-users use, but if you are using Office to write something, print it, and then have people sign on it, the product has remained unchanged.1 Even Office is now different. Instead of selling a software license, Office now wants you to buy Office 360, the Google Docs clone from Microsoft. Why? Weren’t most users of Office happy to write things into Word files and then send them around on old-fashioned email? (Email is one of the last surviving inter-operable communication technologies.)

The subscription model has caught on like the last raging wildfire somewhere in the world. BMW and Mercedes are now selling subscriptions for hardware that is already inside their car. Everyone wants you to buy a subscription.

I recently found out that PocketCasts introduced a feature which enables users to put podcasts into folders and categorize them. This feature is available only to premium users. And how much does Premium cost? $1 a month. Does this make any sense? I don’t get it. Why can I not just purchase the Folders feature for life? What is the service that PocketCasts is selling when I buy the Folders feature? I like PocketCasts and I recommend it to everyone constantly. But seriously, what is the feature that I am subscribing to?

Goodbye, Data

Data subscriptions were an amazing find for Google. Google Drive sells storage in the cloud. You can upload a lot of data and forget what you uploaded. When you “run out of space,” Google will prompt you to pay for more (as a subscription, of course) and you will have little choice because the initial 15 GB of data that Google gives you is so much that you would have used it with abandon and you no longer know what is in Google Drive, Dropbox, and One Drive.

If you are unwittingly using Google Photos, then your photos are being backed up all the time. If you set up a new Android phone recently, the default is to “backup” all your photos to Google Photos.

Of course, all of this is designed to make moving out of Google incredibly hard. Here is a hypothetical scenario:

  1. If Google were to decide that they are going to stop iPhone users from uploading photos to Google Photos, how many users would switch to Android in the next few days? I would guess that a lot would. Using iCloud instead is possible, but to get the advantages of facial recognition on Google Photos, you would have to continue using it and not switch products.2 If Google is allowed to lock out iPhone users, they would almost certainly be able to prevent users from exporting their data.
  2. Governments have “anti-trust” proceedings which can probably stop Google from doing this. But Google has a distinct advantage. There are about 200 countries in the world, and there would have to be suits in every single country against Google. In some countries, the legal process might be quick and Google might be forced to comply within a few weeks. In other countries, legal proceedings will drag on and on for at least a decade. While people wait for the “landmark anti-trust ruling,” they will buy Android phones and send even more data Google’s way.

I don’t think that any of this will happen. We live in the age where a change is defined as good or bad by the outrage that it generates. So, Google will not want to do this. However, a user of Google Photos will almost certainly consider good integration with Google Photos a major feature of any future hardware that they buy. If a Linux / Windows / Apple computer can not integrate as seamlessly with Google Photos as a Chromebook can, they will go for the Chromebook.

This kind of scenario is playing out in a few different arenas; not just cloud storage of photos.

The example that is closest to my heart is Kindle and Amazon. Amazon is known for large fundamental changes. Kindle is a one-stop shop for nearly all books right now. I have a library inside of Kindle, with books that I have already paid for. If Amazon were to stop sending software updates to my Kindle and then they claimed to not support my Kindle version for books that were published after today, then I would be forced to buy the latest Kindle.3 Already, there is the “supported devices” list on Amazon’s website. From an engineering standpoint, it should take little effort to prevent anything published after a given date from being delivered to any device that is older than a given version. This decision might not even be made in bad faith; it might simply be because newly published books have some cool feature and the effort required to make the book backward compatible is not justifiable because the number of people using these old devices is few.

There are more and more real-life scenarios which will affect physical things, and not just the connecting tissue between software and hardware like our screens. Internet of Things devices like Google Home are configured to integrate with the lights in a house and its security system. If the security system does not integrate with Amazon Alexa, tough luck. You will just have to stick with whatever you already have.

Personally, I want to stay away from these kind of services. But I recognize that I will be in the minority, as I have started feeling in the smart speaker boom. When I was buying home appliances, the campaign at the electronics store gave away Google Home smart speakers to anyone who wanted it and was buying something else. It is hard to ask people to refrain from taking something that is being given to them for free. Certainly, high-minded arguments about privacy will not work. The simpler economic argument that there is no “free lunch” is slightly more effective.

If the metaverse is where the entertainment of the future is going to come from, people will have little choice or say in the matter. Much as the television and the Internet changed society without a vote, the present status-quo will change and future technologies will all appear without any debate. The lack of technological progress is only going to be seen as a failure.

We don’t need and should not use “upload and forget” one-click solutions. We need tools that whose operation is familiar and configurable:

What we need … is tools–not colleagues or friends. And yet technology companies learned long ago that their products are far more appealing–and more profitable–when humans manage to bond with them. As robots increasingly come to replace humans in retail and food services, these humanoid touches begin to seem especially sinister. Walmart, one of the companies that recently began using robots in its stores, is already implementing training programs to help their employees transition into other sectors, knowing that the number of retail positions will soon decline as machines take over.

– p.112, God, Human, Animal, Machine (O’Gieblyn, Meghan)

  1. Some might argue that the product has actually become less easy to use in the past few years. 

  2. I had the chance to see this feature in action and I am stunned by how good it is at identifying pictures of babies and matching them with adults. When it worked with nearly 5 years of photographs, I could not identify a single mistake in its recognition. This feature really made me feel like I was missing out on something big by not using Google Photos. I can see the power of a Photos product which can identify people and tell you about them exactly when you are thinking about them. 

  3. I maintain a separate list of books locally. And I export all my notes to CSV files and store them myself. So, I am not worried about losing the notes or the library’s list of books. But I am worried about losing the books themselves.