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Michael Matheson Miller
28 Mar 2022

Escaping the Botnet: A Practical Guide

Ten steps for building a grid of your own.

Escaping the Botnet: A Practical Guide

The internet was originally a peer-to-peer network where everyone ran their own servers: email, chat, and social media lived on a box in every user’s living room. Being a user of this 1980s-to-early-1990s internet was hard work and required more than a little bit of technical acumen. As the internet’s uses grew, it needed to become more accommodating to people without technical savvy, and so we traded personal autonomy for convenience. The technical weeds were farmed out to professional internet pioneers like America Online and Google, and slowly but surely the peer-to-peer internet was replaced with the client-platform model that some disparage as “the Botnet.” Where we once were able to connect as autonomous peers, we now must do so through a few massive intermediaries that have interest of their own.

The story of digital technology, for all the previously unimaginable wealth and convenience that it’s brought, has also come with the growing issues of unwanted manipulation of our behavior, harm to our mental health, and threats to our security.

We’ve been sold a false narrative that privacy is over, that automation is inevitable, that the centralized vision of Big Tech is the only way to do technology; that we just should get used to being ruled by the machine. This is false. Privacy still matters. Centralization is not inevitable. And while technology will continue to disrupt our economic and social lives, human freedom will always matter. But we need to be sure that we control technology, and not have it control us and our children. The good news is that solutions are here today, if you choose to accept them.

Not too long ago I had dinner at an Amish family’s house. There were no phones or computers. They have opted out of digital technology. They are happy, resilient, and antifragile. While we could all use technology less, for most of us fully opting out is rarely possible. We depend on digital technology for work, school, and much of our social interaction.

But we can use technology better. We can take protect ourselves and get better control of our digital lives. Just as the COVID pandemic ushered in an age of remote work, allowing millions of people to decouple their work from centralized geographic locations, we can do a similar thing with digital technology. We can become operationally remote. We can decouple our digital lives from centralized Big Tech. 

Perhaps you’ve thought it would be nice to live in Italy, or on a beach somewhere for a time and working remotely. We also need to think about the inverse. We need to make ourselves operationally remote and decentralized no matter where we live. We may live and work in the same city, but we need to make our digital operations as decentralized and remote as possible. 

Here is a list of ten basic and reasonably easy things we can do right now to limit our exposure to surveillance, centralization, and data intrusion. Some are easy and can be done in under an hour. Others will take more time. These things are not just for the paranoid or the hobbyist. If you own a small business or just want to protect your data better, these are practical steps you can take. 1  It’s not going to make you fully operationally remote right away. But I suggest you get started right away. Remember the old Chinese adage: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”

1. Pay for your email 

Don’t use Gmail or any free email services

Avoid free services whenever possible. I know this sounds strange. But you pay your plumber and electrician. You should pay for your email. We have become accustomed to getting digital services free. But they are not really free. The price is time, 2 security, privacy, and intrusive data collection. As the digital age adage goes: Free services mean you are the product, not the customer. 

Why pay? When you pay for a service, you make a type of contract. You are in a business relationship. It is an exchange of one value (money) for another (service). And when you pay for a service, your provider doesn’t need to sell your data on the back end to make money. To be clear, while paying for services is important, this is not a guarantee of privacy or data-mining, so it is important to find an email service that is explicit about privacy. And in case you don’t already know this: never use your work email for non-work, personal email. The email belongs to your company, not to you. They have access to it so it is not private, and they can discontinue it when you no longer work there. 

It only takes a short time to set up a new email, but I realize that there are difficulties: letting contacts know your new address, archiving hundreds or thousands of emails you want to save. Don’t let that be an obstacle. Take your time with that and keep your old email address until you finish the transfer. But get a paid email right away and start using that as your main email going forward. There are a number of email services that focus on privacy. One I recommend is: 

Proton is based in Switzerland. It is easy to set up and I have paid versions for myself, my wife, and older children. Proton also offers back-end email service for your business or personal domain, which I also use. 

ProtonMail uses PGP Encryption between Proton users and provides PGP keys for sending outside ProtonMail. PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy. Here is a good article that explains how it works and a little bit of the history behind it. In brief, PGP uses a combination of a private key and a public key that is used to encrypt and decrypt messages so you can make sure that only the recipient can see the contents of your email. You can use PGP without ProtonMail but it can be quite technical. 

In addition to encrypting messages between users, the body of your emails are encrypted on ProtonMail’s servers, meaning that even individuals with physical control of the servers can’t read your inbox’s content. Subject lines, however, are not encrypted.

ProtonMail features another layer of security by housing their servers in Switzerland, which has some of the world’s strongest privacy laws. This makes them less susceptible to data requests by the state. You can try ProtonMail for free to see if you like it, but get the paid version.

One caveat: Google does have a paid service called G Suite for business that I and many people have used. It can be used as the back end for business mail or websites. You may need to keep Google for some reason. Maybe your school or business uses the Google platform, so there is no way to avoid it. In that case my suggestion is use it for work purposes only, and when possible use another service. I have a paid Google account that I sometimes need to access a Google doc someone sends or participates in a Google meeting. But I don’t send emails on it. If you need to use Google, get a paid Google account, and use it as little as possible. There’s value to Google – they are world-class engineers. But it comes at a price: They take your data, ostensibly cooperate with the Chinese Communist government, and increasingly shut down people who hold non-fashionable opinions. 

Takeaway: 

  • Pay for your email. 
  • Quit Gmail.
  • Find an email provider you like that respects privacy. 

2. Use secure text messaging

If you use texting to discuss work, family, or other personal topics, it’s important to have a secure text messaging service. Apple’s iMessage works well, it’s encrypted, and they claim they don’t track or identify as much as others. The problem with text messaging is that is that AT&T, Verizon, Apple, and Google can track your texts. They also link a lot of data back to you. So does WhatsApp, which is owned by Meta, formerly Facebook. Meta collects incredible amounts of data from its users and does not respect your privacy. WhatsApp is part of Facebook. It collects data and metadata and shares it with Meta and a lot so a lot of data including location, purchases, and other identifiers are linked to you. I would not use a Meta application for messaging.

The messaging service I recommend is Signal which states that it does not collect data or link data to you. It uses end-to-end encryption which means that your messages cannot be read if they are intercepted. Signal does not use ads, or trackers, or collect your data. Signal is free, which goes against my earlier advice, and I wish there were a paid option, but they are a non-profit 501c3 and state they have no connection to large tech companies and won’t be acquired by one like Facebook acquired WhatsApp. Signal also offers encrypted group messaging, encrypted voice and video calling as well. For what it’s worth, Edward Snowden and journalist Laura Poitras endorse it. 

Signal gives better privacy, but it is a platform you have to join and get others to join with you. This is less convenient than phone texting which can go number to number regardless of the service. 

Other private options include 

  • Telegram 
  • Wire has personal and business accounts and has paid versions which I like. 
  • There is also a new chat application called Pravica, that is built on blockchain technology that I am testing. It is still a bit rough, but promising. 

Remember this: There is no perfect privacy. Signal, Telegram, and everything else can be hacked. Every application and digital technology have trade-offs.

Still, the lack of a perfect solution doesn’t mean we should do nothing.

3. Use a virtual private network

This may sound complicated but it is quite simple to set up. You create an account, download to your computer and phone, and you are ready to go. You can get your VPN going in less than a half an hour. 

What is a VPN and what does it do? 

When you use the internet, your computer has an internet protocol (IP) address that is trackable and traceable. Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) masks your computer’s address so it cannot be traced as easily. 

VPNs are essential when you are using a public network like those at a coffee shop or airport. These wireless networks can easily be hacked. Sometimes you cannot tell if you are using the coffee shop’s actual network, or if a hacker set one up with the store’s name to fool you. A hacker can set up a wireless account with a fake name – such as the name of the coffee shop you are in. And you, thinking it is safe, access the internet through the hacker’s wireless network, who then takes your data. 

VPNs are also important at home. While you most likely don’t need to worry about hackers tricking you, it doesn’t mean your online activity is private. Your internet service provider like Comcast or AT&T can collect your searches and online activities and use or sell your data to advertisers. So even if you are using a good browser, search engine, and mail service that respects your privacy, you still want to use a VPN at home. 

Finally, you’ll want to use a VPN on all your devices including phones, and tablets. Anything that connects to the internet should be done through a VPN. 3

There are several companies that provide the service.

  • Express VPN
  • Proton VPN

I have used Express VPN and Proton Mail. You can get ExpressVPN for about $12 a month or Proton for $8 (+4 for email). 

The big thing is to get one and try it out. You can set up Express or Proton in several minutes. I promise. If you don’t like the first one you try, you can always cancel and get another one. If you are like me, you may hesitate because you are trying to find the perfect solution. Don’t do that. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted doing that. 

4. Be wary of “the internet of things

Turn off Siri and Alexa

Voice recognition services are convenient and can make driving safer. It is great to be able to tell your phone to place a call instead of time searching for a contact. Not to mention all the times I accidentally type the wrong letter, which makes it take even longer! But the convenience is not worth the price. When you use Siri, Alexa, or any other voice recognition software you are allowing large tech companies to listen in to your private conversations. 

When you say, “Hey Siri” or “Alexa” this is a voice command that makes the software engage. It does not turn on the voice recognition. That is on already. The software is listening all the time – that’s why it can respond when you say Siri or Alexa. 

Do you really want to have a “private” conversation with your spouse in a room with an Alexa device, a Google Nest, or an iPhone with voice recognition turned on? Do you want corporations to collect data on your emotional life and deepest fears and hopes so that they use that to more perfectly target you to buy stuff or manipulate you in other ways? 

Beware of Home Devices Connected to the Internet 

It’s not just voice recognition software that listens. Web browsers can do the same thing. Even if you don’t use voice recognition software, you may have noticed that after a conversation, you’ll get an advertisement for the thing you were discussing, even though you have never looked it up. There are digital listening devices everywhere – Smart TVs, Smart refrigerators, and all sorts of devices that are part of what is called the Internet of Things. Beware of devices that have microphones that can be used for data collection. It’s also not always obvious. For example, Google did not disclose that their Nest security system had a microphone built into it. 

As an additional recommendation, a product to consider is Sceptre TV. It’s the last “dumb TV” on the market, and they’re high-quality and low-cost. Every other smart TV on the market will record and broadcast your viewing activity, and some even have microphones.

I don’t want to make you paranoid, but I do want you to be aware that we are in a new world of digital intrusion. A colleague who is an IT professional explains it like this: in nature we are always within about three feet of a spider; in our digital habitat we are surrounded by listening devices that can be used to collect information. It’s hard for us to get our mind around the idea that our communication, texts, phone calls, emails, and internet searches can all be tracked; but it is the world we live in, and we have to protect ourselves. My hope is that we can have digital technology without intrusion, but that will require building decentralized technology and exiting the centralized, surveillance-suffused Google vision of the world.

5. Install a trustworthy browser and use a search engine that respects privacy 

Google and other services like Yahoo track your searches and online activity and collect data about you that it sells to advertisers. They do this both through the browser and the search engine. Google is not alone in tracking you, but they are the most widely used services for search and internet browsers.

Browser 

A browser is the tool that you use to access the internet and visit different websites. The search engine is the program/system you use to search the internet to find what you are looking for. Some examples of common browsers are Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, Brave, and so on. Common search engines include Google, Yahoo, Bing, Duck Duck Go, and Baidu. Because the browser is the thing that takes you to different places on the internet it knows where you go and what you do. It can use that information and sell to others. Your search engine records everything you search for, which it can use or sell. 

It is important that both your browser and your search engine respect your privacy. There is no perfect solution but the browser I use and recommend is Brave. The Brave Browser was founded by famous technologist Brendan Eich. Eich is the inventor of the programming language JavaScript, which along with HTML is one of the programming languages that the Web runs on. He was the co-founder of Mozilla which made the Firefox browser. Eich launched the Brave Browser in 2016 as well as an associated cryptocurrency, Basic Attention Token (BAT). 

Brave was founded to focus on privacy. While there are no guarantees, Brave claims that it does not keep a record of your online activity. It has built in blockers against invasive ads, tracking, phishing, and more. This helps keep your information private and saves on battery and data usage. Brave also uses a crypto token called Brave Rewards which allows for opt-in advertising and shared revenue. You can read Brave’s own comparison with Chrome and this review by Admir Tulic.

Also remember to keep your browser updated. That helps with security. 

Search Engines

I’ve used Brave for my browser and DuckDuckGo for my search engine for several years and they both work well. 

DuckDuckGo was founded with the promise of privacy and no tracking. You can make them your default search and get a browser extension for Brave. There are times when the results are not as good as Google. But sometimes they are better. DuckDuckGo’s value is that they don’t track you or sell your search data. I obviously cannot guarantee this and some have expressed worries about this. But DuckDuckGo claims their model is grounded in privacy, and the DuckDuckGo Blog has a lot of good information on privacy and how to be more secure including a Crash Course on Privacy that is worth reading. Whatever you do, as much as possible, stay away from browsers and search engines that are tracking everything you do. 

Swisscows is also focused on privacy and the search engine blocks pornography.

Covenant Eyes is not a search engine, but it another option for blocking pornography. You can sign up for the service and use it on several computers and phones. It enables you to create accountability and helps keep your children away from it. 

Limitations 

Brave Browser: I use an online service called Zencastr to record my podcast interviews. For a while Zencastr did not work on the Brave Browser and only worked on Chrome. When something like that happens what I do is this: I have downloaded a Chrome Browser that I open and use for Zencastr or any other service that requires it. Then I shut it down and go back to Brave and DuckDuckGo or Swiss Cows for my regular internet use. 

Private Search

Some of you may have noticed it is possible to do a private search on several browsers, but those aren’t necessarily private, and they can still track your activity. Brave has a private search function that uses TOR, but they are quite clear that you can still be tracked as well.

6. Own your own files 

Like so much else in Big Tech, convenience comes at the price of security and privacy. When you store your documents on Google, Dropbox, or a note taking app like Evernote, you can share large files, work with teams, and your files are reasonably secure and easy to access. But the reality is, your files and photos are stored on someone else’s server. This means they have control and access. It is like having all your files in a cabinet in someone else’s living room. They can see it. And don’t think it doesn’t happen. Google doesn’t just store your files, it manages them, decides what is acceptable and has locked out and blocked users from accessing their account. 

Currently I use a paid Dropbox account for sharing and collaboration and find it very valuable. DropBox Paper allows you to collaborate in real time just like Google Docs. It is also just one service, not a bundle which keeps your data in various places. I personally like it better than Google and find it easier to share with those who don’t have a Gmail account. But Dropbox is still someone else’s server. I am looking for better options for privacy including some applications built with blockchain protocols for storing files. 

There are several private options that fill this need:  

Proton is starting its own drive, which is out in beta. I have used it a bit and it works well. 

I have used Basecamp for many years for different projects and collaboration with teams. I like it and so do my colleagues. It does not work as well as Dropbox for storing and sharing files, but Basecamp does have this feature and it can work with teams. 

Storj is a newer decentralized storage option built on Ethereum blockchain.

No matter what you use, always pay for your storage. 

Personal Servers 

Another option is to set up a personal server. This is more private, but it is also more complex and requires you to pay attention to your own security. 4 

I think that personal servers and blockchain-based decentralized servers are the way we need to go. But at this point, it is more complex and requires attention to security and hacking. One of the benefits of Google, Dropbox, and other services is that they are world class engineers and help secure your data from hackers. But the price is that they have access and control of your data. You may not want to get a personal server, but at least get a service that respects your privacy. And because “the cloud” is someone else’s server, be careful with your most personal documents, encrypt them, and have offline backups. Any important documents, tax documents, passwords, or letters to family that you really want to be private, keep offline and don’t send digitally. 

Offline BackUps

Finally, it is important to have multiple offline backup drives and keep them in different places. You can have backups in the cloud, but unless it is your own server, someone else is guarding your data. Even Google backs-up to tape

RAID Systems

If you have a lot to backup, a RAID system can be helpful and provide extra safety. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. This means that your data is on multiple disks and one fails, you still have your data on the other disk drives. For most people, basic back up disks will be sufficient. But for those who want extra security, RAID may be a good option

Buy Physical Media for Things You Value

Having digital music, books, and videos is super convenient. CDs and DVDs get scratched and lost and having all your music instantly available on all your devices is great. Same with books. I don’t really like reading ebooks so generally I buy paperback or hardcover. And the result is that I have thousands of books that clutter up every room in our house. Putting half of them on an e-reader would do a lot for my wife’s sanity. But convenience, again, has a potential price. Books in digital format can be edited, changed, or even removed. For example, when you buy a book on Kindle, which I sometimes do, the terms of use state that you don’t “own” the book. You are licensing the book. If you really value a book, or movie, or music, then you may want to consider purchasing in physical form. All things are trade-offs, but if you really want access to a book or movie and you want it in the form you bought it – buy physical media.

7. Own your contacts

A lot of us use social media for business and advertising. Maybe you’re a real estate agent or plumber, own a construction business, or are a writer, illustrator, or filmmaker. You probably use some combination of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram to advertise and get clients. These have been valuable tools for growing businesses. I am not suggesting that you get off social media, but you should make sure that you are not completely dependent upon them.

If something goes wrong with Facebook or your social media platform you don’t want to be in a situation where all your materials are there, and you don’t have any way to contact your customers. As Thomas J. Bevan explained well

“Twitter is a flyer, it is not the gig. Don’t give them any more than you have to. They won’t thank you. They won’t love you back.”

Email Contacts 

What would happen to your contacts if Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn shut down your account? How would you contact your customers, followers, and connections? 

If you have a large Facebook or Instagram following, you don’t want to lose your means of communication with your followers because someone at one of these companies decides they don’t like your views on some religious, political, or philosophical view that may have absolutely nothing to do with your business. So try to get direct contact with your customers through email. 5 If you get de-platformed or denied service because you hold the wrong opinions you can immediately start up again. 

If you have email addresses already and use CRM systems like MailChimp or HubSpot, Salesforce, Oracle, etc., be sure that you have backups and full access to them. Again, if one of your providers decides to deny access because your religious or political views are not acceptable to them you don’t want to have all your customers locked up in their service. Make sure you have offline backups exported to .csv or Excel files so you can import your contacts into another service or be able to contact your customers and subscribers immediately. 

There is some work being done on the issue of data portability, especially in light of the EU’s GDPR rules. Hopefully this will get easier, but for now you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. 

  • Work on building your email list for direct communication and keep backups. This is good business anyway. 
  • As much as possible export your connections from other platforms so you have them available. 
  • LinkedIn has a way to export all of your connections to a spreadsheet, but only a very few of them have email addresses attached to them. So while you at least have a record of your connections, if you have 1,500 to 2,000 connections but only fifteen emails, it is not super helpful. Again, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use LinkedIn. I use it. But we need to make sure we build more robust email contact lists.

8. Own your platform

Following the point above. Social media and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are important tools for business and advertising. They enable small businesses, artists, and writers to take advantage of network effects and get access to people they would otherwise be unable to reach. Again, you don’t have to stop using them. Just be sure you understand the privacy risks, and most important, do not be beholden to a company who can cancel you at any moment. Don’t trust Big Tech to have your best interest in mind. Make sure you control your content and own your own platform. 

Control Your Content 

First, for any important video, writing, or sales content you have, make sure it is not only housed on Met, YouTube, or Vimeo. Have your copies of it on your own site and on offline hard drives. You don’t need to store every short, timely video you make, but for anything that is central to your business make sure you have it. If you get de-platformed for any reason – you can start up right away.Think of it this way. You want to have a hard drive back up of your most important content. If your computer gets wet and breaks down, you need a backup drive so you can get a new computer and back to work immediately. Same with your online, cloud-based systems. Have a backup.

Build your own site

If you have a small business of any kind and you don’t already have your own website. If you already have a site, great. If not, you should build it right away and use that as the main hub of your activity where you can host all your most important content so you control it. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using social media like Facebook or Instagram to advertise or connect with customers, but you should not be dependent upon it. Often, I will look for a service and find that they use Facebook as their website. This is not a good idea for many reasons. It can be difficult for people who don’t use Facebook to access. And if Facebook has a problem or suspends service like it did in the Australia blackout, your business is totally dependent upon them. Get your own site and encourage customers and readers to sign up at your website. As numerous people have noted, a Facebook or Twitter follower is nothing compared to an email address. 

You can build a site reasonably quickly on Ghost, Squarespace, or WordPress, and there are services that can help. 

Ghost

I have used both WordPress and Squarespace and am moving one of my sites to Ghost. I find Squarespace much easier and more intuitive than WordPress, but WordPress has adopted some new elements that make it easier to use, and it is a solid platform. If you like WordPress, then use it. Ghost is also reasonably easy to manage, though at least for me not as intuitive as Squarespace. But Ghost has built in services to help collect subscribers and more easily monetize content. For example, instead of adding a Patreon account to a Squarespace site, Ghost has its own version of Patreon. Balaji Srinivasan has some helpful guides to setting up Ghost.

Squarespace

I use Squarespace and I like it and find it easy to use, but Squarespace can also arbitrarily deny service to users.

What about Substack? 

You may have noticed a lot of people moving to Substack including some bigger names like Glenn Greenwald, Rod Dreher, and Bari Weiss. My friend Luke Burgis is there.  So is the Dispatch, a conservative online news group, and Scott Alexander.

The idea with Substack is that instead of communicating through other platforms, with Substack people can subscribe directly to your newsletter, pay you money, and you have their address and direct communication. Substack states they’re not going to de-platform people. Many people have controversial views and Substack seems okay with it, but I would watch people like Rod Dreher who holds orthodox Christian views on marriage and sexuality. This will probably be the real test. 

So Substack seems to be a good option now. I tend to think it is better to have your own site and domain rather than a substack.com address. Ghost has the same subscriber function, and you can add subscriber function to Squarespace and WordPress with plugins. But people really seem to like it so you may want to look into it. Whatever you do, there is always risk using any service, so make sure you have as much control as possible 

The big take-away: Own your own content with the longer-term goal of moving things to decentralized applications so you can be operationally remote and harder to cancel.

9. Secure your mobile devices 

Since most of us use phones or tablets as much or more than we use computers, securing your mobile devices is an essential part of guarding your privacy, protecting you from surveillance, and behavior modification.

We’ve already discussed the importance of using a secure text messaging service like Signal. Many of the steps for your computer apply to your phone:

  • Always use a passcode 
  • Keep your phone up to date
  • Use ProtonMail or a paid service that respects your privacy. 
    • Proton has an app for mobile devices 
  • Use a VPN
    • Proton, Express and other VPN services work on your phone and are included in your subscription
  • Use the Brave browser 
  • Use DuckDuckgo or Swisscows for search – Swisscows has a mobile app
  • Don’t store private information on your phone unless it is essential
  • Keep your wifi and Bluetooth turned off unless you are using it 
  • Use two-factor authentication 
  • Manage permissions for each app
    • Don’t give the company more information than they need
  • Turn off Location Services unless essential
  • Use Apple’s Screen Time to pre-decide how and when you will use your phone 
  • Be careful about your biometric data and health information 
  • Be careful with the apps you install – only use what is necessary 
  • If you have an iPhone use the “ask app not to track” function to keep your data more secure
  • Try to delete your social media apps from your phone and instead use it to read, listen to books, or podcasts 

In general, be as careful with your phone just as you would be with your computer. The reality is that our phones are the place where a lot of our time is wasted, where our data is collected, and where behavior modification happens. Don’t just secure your computer. Secure your phone.

10. Embrace digital minimalism

Finally, practice what Cal Newport calls “digital minimalism.” Use only the technology and software you really need. And use it sparingly. 

Cal Newport, is a professor at Georgetown, with a Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT. He’s written several excellent books on technology use including Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. Deep Work is superb, and I’ve recommended it to many people. Digital Minimalism presents a practical way to limit our use of technology to the most essential. 

A key part of limiting our exposure to the internet and behavior modification is to use the internet in a minimalist manner. I spend too much time on Twitter and looking at the news. Those are hours I won’t get back. Reducing our time on the internet makes us more productive, gives us time to read and learn other things, helps us have longer attention spans, helps us be more present to our families and friends, helps us avoid being propagandized, and is better for our mental health. 

We live in a world with digital technology that shapes and forms us. Except for full opt-out, there is no avoiding it, so we need to be thoughtful about our use. To deny that digital tech affects us is like the teenager who says that music doesn’t affect him: “I don’t listen to the lyrics.” Sure, you don’t… But even if that were true, the lyrics are the least subversive part! Technology shapes the way we see the world more than we realize. Neil Postman and Jacques Ellul wrote about this in detail. Technology also has impacts just out of view on the horizon. As Amara’s Law states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” 

There’s much more to say about limiting our use of digital technology and social media: stop or reduce your use of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Avoid platforms like TikTok. We don’t need to post every experience, thought, photo we have to the world. Facebook and Instagram are convenient and can help grow our business, but there are better ways to share photos with your friends. If we think about it, we don’t really need network effects for most of what we do online. Social media platforms can be helpful for advertising but in most of our lives does it really matter that 3 billion people use Facebook? 

Computer science is not a purely technical, empirical field divorced from any philosophical or political concerns. Computer algorithms and programs are created by human beings with specific visions of the world. These visions influence their code whether they know it or not. And they are embedded into products and services that shape and form us, whether we know it or not. Google, Facebook, and other Big Tech leviathans have turned their philosophy into computer code. The more time we spend online and on phones scrolling through social media, checking the news, using software, and playing games, the more we are being programmed by digital masters who shape our thoughts, ideas, desires, and our view of the world. To paraphrase René Girard: we don’t get our desires from ourselves, but from others. The more we use the code of others, the more our lives are shaped by them. Do you really want your desires and worldview shaped by Silicon Valley engineers? 6

One way to think about computer code is analogous to music, literature, and architecture. Philosophers since Plato have been keenly aware of how music and art shape our souls. Bach and Mozart do one thing to us. The Rolling Stones and Snoop Dog do another. Literature and poetry shape our intellects and imagination. Beautiful architecture with harmony and proportion influences in one way; Neo-Stalinist or Bauhaus architecture shapes us in another. Architecture is like code. Florence is beautiful code, Brasilia is not. 

Computer code and technology also shape us. We need to write better code that reflects a better philosophy of the person and society. Too often those of us with non-materialist worldviews have abdicated our responsibility in this area which has led to distorted technology. The good news is there are people working to break free from the current model. The developments in distributed ledger technology (blockchain) are very promising and there is much work to be done here. But again, we don’t have to wait for the perfect option. We can start by using the current technology in a better way.

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It is impossible to completely stop tracking when using digital technology; even privacy experts struggle with it. Surveillance and tracking are baked in. It is hard to get our minds around the fact that there is so little privacy. When digital technology came around, we started using it under the assumptions and frameworks of the non-digital world. We knew it was possible for someone to read our handwritten letters or listen in on our conversations, but to do this was difficult and only happened in totalitarian regimes. 

Even this far into the digital age, the idea that we can be watched and tracked constantly by smartphones, TVs, internet browsers and our thermometers is hard to fathom. This, combined with the techno-utopian, libertarian rhetoric about computers as tools for freedom, distracted us from the lack of privacy and security, and we put way too much of our lives on to digital devices. There is no perfect solution to this problem, but following these steps starts the process of limiting Big Tech and gives you more control over your privacy and your digital life. It is the beginning of making us operationally remote and harder to cancel. And it creates the space for us to think and build better technology and better solutions to the problems that face us.  

The behaviorists, social engineers, and the technocrats are partially right: We can be manipulated. But they are wrong about the depth and mystery of the human person and our capacity for freedom and innovation. The bad ending is not inevitable. We have to build a human-centered orientation to technology and dislodge ourselves from the Botnet. The time to start is now. 

  1. IMPORTANT: There are additional threats related to cybersecurity – hacking, scams, identity theft, and other criminal activity that I do not address directly here, that you also need to be aware of.
  2. See George Gilder, Life After Google
  3. There are more advantages to a VPN than I can mention here. For more here are some articles on how a VPN works and why to use one. 1. https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-privacy-what-is-a-vpn.html 2. https://spreadprivacy.com/how-to-choose-a-vpn/  3. https://www.pcmag.com/how-to/what-is-a-vpn-and-why-you-need-one
  4. I have not done this yet, but here are a couple of resources 1. Urbit – Personal Servers 2. Essay on how to set up a personal server   https://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch001982.htm  3. Wired Magazine on setting up a personal server   https://www.wired.com/2010/02/set-up-a-home-server/
  5. There are a number of people including Pat Flynn and Jeff Walker who provide strategies and resources to build email lists.
  6. For more on Girard: Listen to my podcast interview with Luke Burgis on his book Wanting: The Economy of Desire and the Thought of Rene Girard and my podcast interview with Gregory Thornbury: an introduction to Rene Girard and the mimetic cycle.

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