Should (and could) you ditch Apple, Google and Microsoft?

By Kitty Knowles 4 January 2016
Image: iStock/erhui1979

Does your technology reflect your ethics?

Faddy diets. Dry Januarys. Positive personal promises and entrepreneurial aims.

By now millions across the world will be getting to grips with the challenges of their New Years resolutions.

Last year, American journalist Dan Gillmor explained why he was “saying goodbye to Apple, Google and Microsoft”. Now, as we move into 2016, should you – and could you – ditch the big tech brands too?

Why leave the Apple entourage behind?

For Gillmor shaking off the tech giants is about putting trust “in communities rather than corporations”.

Corporates like Apple, Google and Microsoft “destroy our privacy, limit our freedom of expression, and lock down culture and commerce,” he explained on Medium‘s Backchannel.

He calls out Apple for becoming control-freakish, a danger to the future of open networks and user-controlled technology. He describes Google and Facebook as using surveillance as a business model, stripping away our privacy in return for the great convenience they provide.

“Too often, we give them our permission—trading liberty for convenience—but a lot of this is being done without our knowledge, much less permission,” he says.

“We are losing control over the tools that once promised equal opportunity in speech and innovation—and this has to stop.”

The replacements

Despite being an early Apple advocate, you will no longer see Gillmor tapping away on this supposedly superior brand.

He now uses a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop, with GNU and Linux software; he’s swapped Microsoft Office for LibreOffice; he doesn’t use Gmail but Mozilla’s Thunderbird; and, despite considering the iPhone the best on the market, he uses an Android handset with the Cyanogenmod operating system.

He experiments with other free software  via the “F-Droid” download library and hardware companies are breaking free too, he says: Dell, once seemingly tied to Microsoft, now offers a Linux laptop.

It appears that the range of alternative choices is growing.

Should you ban big brands?

When it comes to making decisions based on our values, of course people will have differences of opinion. How you choose to use the technology in your life will very much depend on how you feel.

Gillmor compares his decision to quit the mainstream, to how others might adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, act to reduce their carbon footprint, or only do business with socially responsible companies.

It isn’t easy or clear cut. You may still require some interaction with one of the big three (Gillmor cannot give up Google Maps, for example). But you can still make a difference.

The challenges

As a millenial, I have grown up using technology for most elements of my life. I’ve long used Facebook to message my friends: I use it to stay in touch with people and for planning events, but it really has also become a meaningful part of my daily dialogue.

Many aspects of my job go through Google Apps – I use and share docs regularly, and benefit from the perks of linking my personal and work email addresses.

I have a smartphone (obviously), although I actually only just switched from Android to Apple. I did this without much thought. I’ve no real loyalty either way, but with Apple it seems I can borrow a charger from almost any stranger if I run out of juice.

To many in my generation, giving up your details to a company in exchange for a service is simply the norm.

A rallying cry?

Gillmor is a self-confessed “nerd” with a love of technology and computer science, but many people still find the idea of fiddling with new software off-puttingly daunting.

I like products that just work, and when the MacBook Air I bought with my student loan still runs smoothly, to swap it in for an alternative brand seems illogical.

It’s a problem that Gillmor recognises.

“I wish all this was drop-dead simple,” he writes. “It is getting better: easier, more reliable and certainly good enough. But regaining some control still takes work.”

My generation narrowly missed out on learning more complex computer skills in schools, but perhaps new rounds of socially-aware, software-savvy twenty-somethings have the technical ease to make different decisions that skew away from the norm.

We are a fickle bunch after all. You only have to look today’s teenagers who, beguiled by the popularity of Facebook with their parents, have embraced underdogs like Snapchat and Whatsapp instead in the face of gobsmacked critics.

For me its only the past year of hacks that has seen my non-tech peers start to take security more seriously, but it can take a long time for abstract headlines to translate into real life decisions. Maybe in time we will feel more moved to prioritise control over convenience, maybe we won’t.

Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich. Pic: CreativeCommons.

If we don’t Apple, Google and Microsoft will rule. The question is how much does that bother you.

Last year, Gillmor said that as a society we’re increasingly learning “about the drawbacks of the bargain we’ve made.”

“Someday we may collectively call it Faustian,” he added.

If this is the case I’ve well and truly done a deal with the devil. The question is, is it too late to undo the pact?