First off, I should begin this post off with an admission.
The above title is merely a thinly veiled attempt to satisfy my desire to reference a Phil Collins song in a blog post.
Whew!!! Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I would like to draw your attention to an article written by Dan Gillmor over at Medium. The post, “Why I’m Saying Goodbye to Apple, Google, & Microsoft”, documents Dan’s journey across different computing platforms, and why ultimately he decided to go with Linux route. While many of us base our computer (and smartphone) choice on more common considerations, like price, design, and convenience, we would all do well to pay more attention to Gillmor’s concerns. Namely, Gilmore speaks to the erosion of choice, privacy, and expression that has taken place within our digital tools as large companies have expanded their influence in the tech world. It’s great that Google provides such a broad expanses of useful services, but they simultaneously limit users options to use their tools with other offerings. They also create a “choke point” for the user – a gate through which the user must pass through in order to do almost anything with their data. It wasn’t always like this. At the beginning of the computer revolution, the primary objective of bringing computers to the masses was to free individuals from such gate-keepers. Computers were meant to empower the individual to do and make things that once were only possible through large companies. And for a while, computers did just that. As Gillmor points out in his post, the proverbial Empire has struck back. We have largely traded in the freedom that computers once brought us for the convenience that all-encompassing services, much like what Apple and Google provide. We put our full faith in these companies, in the hope that they will not abuse their position as sole keeper of our data and primary curator of what we see and access on the Internet.
While this is the compromise most of us have made, Gillmor has chosen the other route. He has made the conscious choice to “trust communities instead of corporations”. By this, Gillmor means that he has decided to go with open source platforms, such as Linux (for his computer) and the lesser-known CyanogenMod OS (an open-source variation of Android) for his smartphone. These operating systems are open-source, meaning that they are created, updated, and maintained by a volunteer community of software developers and enthusiasts. While these OSes may be off the beaten path, and may require a bit more effort than the easily accessible alternatives from major corporations, they do offer freedom of choice and control to the end user. Users have more control of who has access to their data and what details of their online activity gets shared.
Gillmor’s position declaration of independence from Big Tech isn’t unheard of. There is a nascent, but growing chorus of voices who are questioning our single-source dependence on large companies for our computing needs. Indeed – if we now live in the Information Age, and data is its currency, is it wise for us to hand all of our data over to one entity? Shouldn’t we work to maintain ultimate control of our own valuable resources?
Christians should be especially concerned about this, since we are “a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9), whose motivations come from our Creator (Colossians 3:1-4). That means what we want often differs from the desires of the rest of society. If our choices – what we can and can’t do – become limited to what is deemed best for “most people”, it is only a matter of time until our digital tools begin to impinge on our ability to be the “salt of the earth” Jesus asks us to be.
For more on how this topic applies to Christians, check out the previous Bytes & Belief post, “Installing the Digital Veil”.