I like to think of myself as something of a principled person. But I do have my limits.
I go out of my way to do things what I consider to be the right way. I try to be pretty conscious not only of my actions, but of the consequences therein. But I think there is a breaking point to some of this. Or at least, a point of diminishing returns. I am also increasingly convinced that I have put into place a certain minimum of precautions that are keeping me safe in certain regards.
Let me get into the specifics.
In 2018 I was in the market for a new laptop. I knew there were a couple of factors affecting my purchase:
- I wanted it to be a linux based laptop
- I was pretty broke, but I had some Bitcoin burning a hole in my pocket, so I wanted to pay for it with that
Thus I started looking for something that met those criterion. And I found something that really knocked it out of the park. I won’t nominate it here, because I am not that much of an asshole, but anyone familiar with that subculture will know exactly what I am talking about. And what a brand it was, at least on the surface. Privacy focused laptops for people who keep up with industry paranoia. Best of all, the laptop is literally just a black book, with no branding on it whatsoever on it whatsoever.
The software on it was security focused. This meant that all things like web-browser were created with no script and cookie blocking built in. But, this also meant that your standard nuts-and-bolts web browsers weren’t supported. Firefox wasn’t at first (when I first got the laptop), and things like Brave and Chrome never were. You had to install them, the hard way, on your own. This isn’t too much of a problem, until you end up working for an organization that uses Google Drive for everything, exclusively. That’s when some problem comes up.
It’s also annoying when the default browser the manufacturer sets up looses support, and they uninstall it on your machine without your knowledge or consent during an update. And you lose everything you are working on. In the middle of a work week. The only other browser that they at the time supported wouldn’t ever run on your laptop, even right out of the box. So now you really have to scramble to get something else fucking installed.
I don’t need this.
I at first thought all of this was great (except for the installation bit), but I soon found that the laptop was slow to do a lot of things. It would often struggle to connect to the internet, even on my home network. I also found that the laptop itself was compatible with certain hardware devices (like wifi adapters). The people who managed the laptop expected you to be all in on what they thought was best practices for cyber-security.
I understand that they were probably right, but at the end of the day I cannot always afford to be a more expensive off brand device from a distributor that delivers slowly when I need something urgently.
Fast forward two years and the laptop is having some serious issues. Nothing that is the manufacturer’s fault – just the kind of errors the build up in a laptop over time. Something on the software side was causing spontaneous system crashes. I tried to solve the problem, but at the end of the day I am a Linux dilettante, and I could not manage it.
Neither could they. I reached out for their support.
So after dealing with the spontaneous crashes for nearly a month, I finally lost my patience and did a system reinstall. It was in the middle of a work week, and as I was trying to get everything back on my system I found that the newly installed system could not reach the software repository. In other words, I installed the OS, but I could not install any software on it in an easy way.
Fresh out of the box, clean install, and it wasn’t working. Mind you, this was a clean install of the latest version of their OS as downloaded from their website. I fiddled with it for an hour or so, and then asked myself why I was bothering. I broke down, installed Linux Mint (a much more stable OS), and got everything up and running in half the time.
Because I just don’t have time for this shit.
It is now pretty much accepted knowledge that Google is an evil horrible no good corporation. I do not know to what extent this is provable, and I am not sure I care. Here a larger point: I miss google. Google is, whether we like it or not a superior product. I learned a bit about this in China, when I was trying to do things with Bing and Baidu. I recall how frequently in China I would be out and about in the city, trying to find some information and just not getting the results I was after, so much so that I would ultimately cave in and turn on a VPN just to use google.
I have been having similar experiences recently. When I reinstalled Linux Mint on the laptop the default everything was anti-google, and I went that route for about a month. It was terribly inefficient. I would try to look something up for work, and I was simply never getting the results I wanted. I would reach a frustration point and ultimately abandon DuckDuckGo for google. Google gives me exactly what I am looking for on the first fucking search. At the end of the day, if I am busy with things I just can’t use a tool that makes five minutes of a task that should just take a few seconds.
Someone told me that all search engines are the same. This flies in the face of what I have seen.
But here is the thing: I cannot say why this is occurring, but it has become increasingly obvious that the ads google serves me up are just plain fucking wrong. I am starting to develop mountains of evidence for this. Over the past few days Youtube updated and is currently circumventing my ad blocker (this happens every few year, and will at best last a few more days), and as I was pulling up a clip from the TV show The Atheist Experience it gave me commercial for the Israel Bible Fellowship.
I laughed. Then I flagged the ad as inappropriate.
It came up again a few days later.
I am reminded of something similar that was happening a few years ago or so. I think it was around the time I got my most recent phone, and I was discovering the side bar where google populates news stories they think will be relevant to you. I followed some of those news stories, and because they come up on an internal browser and not my installed, ad free version of Brave, stupid ads started to come up. Many of those ads were in support of Donald Trump, whom I wouldn’t vote for even under the threat of castration. I’d sooner vote for fucking Beelzebub. But funnier yet was the ad the featured a picture of a smug looking Beto O’Rourke with the caption reading something to the effect of “He is coming to take your guns!” I laughed, and thought to myself good. Take the fucking guns.
Now, this proves nothing. I have been using ad blocks for so long now that it might just be that the algorithm almighty doesn’t have all that much information on me. We can take the first example I brought up and interpret the result in a number of ways. It would be best to apply a sort of agnosticism. But it does lead me to believe that, until there is evidence to the contrary, I am doing enough to keep myself secure.
Should we be paranoid? Well, yes. The evidence that we are being spied upon is pretty much fact. But as I said above, I feel like that I have already done enough to protect myself, and I will reasses that when I start getting ads for the Freedom from Religion Foundation. But there is something else I have thought about over the years. If we go into a complete Max Tegmark science-fiction supposition of what this technology would be like at its ideal, I am not sure it would be a bad thing. Let me explain: Imagine an omniscient AND omnibenevolent… something. Lets just imagine a computer program for now. And let’s imagine it collects all your data for the purposes of knowing what products you are going to buy in the future, and it feeds this information into the supply chain so that a correct amount of certain products is created, so as not to create waste.
Yes, that is science-fantasy, but if that is your argument against it than you didn’t understand my use of the adjective ‘Max Tegmark’ in the paragraph above. Do I think we are there? No. Am I even convinced we are heading in that direction? Not really. But it is a nice possibility to dream about. And I think it is the kool-aid silicone valley drinks.
At the end of the day, I don’t think these people and algorithms are actually all that competent. And I mean this about the ‘good’ as well as the ‘evil’ players. I now have a choice to make – should I be principled, or should I be pragmatic? For the time being, I am going to go with Pragmatism.