27 Aug 2019

Going cold turkey on big tech: Kashmir Hill

From Nine To Noon, 9:28 am on 27 August 2019

New York Times journalist Kashmir Hill cut the “frightful five” tech giants out of her life for six weeks.

Acting on the notion that if you don't like a company's product you don't have to buy them, Hill decided she could live without Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple – but it turned out she couldn’t.

Hill was in Wellington this week as a keynote speaker at the Identity Conference Te Papa this week.

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Photo: Supplied

Hill says she went cold turkey for her experiment and soon ran into trouble.  

“It wasn't just me deleting my Facebook account or avoiding Amazon, I worked with a technologist to build a special tool for me, that kept me from being able to communicate with the tech giants’ servers.

“So, I wasn't just blocking myself from accessing their products, I was blocking all the invisible ways I was encountering them.”

That meant all sorts of services that she had come to rely on became unavailable to her.

“So Amazon, for example, the sacrifice wasn't giving up the retail product, it was giving up Amazon Web Services, or AWS, which is a huge cloud provider for the rest of the internet.

“So about a third of the websites and apps I used, just stopped working. Even Amazon's competitors like Netflix, which competes with Amazon in the realm of Amazon Prime, their website stopped working, we couldn't watch movies, because Netflix uses AWS.”

Another time, running late for work, she realised the reach of google maps.

“I had planned to take the bus but I said I'll just call an Uber or a Lyft, but when I opened the apps and tried to load them, they just they wouldn't load and I couldn't enter my destination and it turns out that they're both dependent on Google Maps.

“When I started looking around, I found out that something like 90 percent of websites, if they have a map, they're getting it from Google. I just had no idea that Google was that dominant in the area of digital maps.”

So what were the upsides for Hill?

“I spent more time playing cards with my husband and just being with the people in my life rather than mediating my relationships through a screen.

“So in that way it was really nice to take a step back and kind of reassess my own relationship with technology.”

Unsurprisingly there was little point having a smartphone, she says.

“Apple and Google have a duopoly on the smartphone market, you can only really get an iPhone or an Android.

"So I had to go back to using a Nokia 3310, which some listeners may remember, it still has the game snake on it.

"But it is a very basic, dumb phone that you use to call and text. It does not really have functional internet and it has if people remember T9, where you're just texting with numbers, and texting was a horrible, horrible exercise.”

So she called her friends instead.

“It was really lovely to connect with people that way, just because I think that you have a deeper conversation with people in person or on the phone than you do by text or by posting an update to Facebook.”

Hill also started to realise how pervasive her smartphone had become.

“When I was forced to step away from it, I realised I didn't like that the first thing I did in the morning was pick up my smartphone from the bedside table and start scrolling through it.

“And that was the last thing I did at night. And that I wanted to have more time where I was really away from the internet and away from that device.

“So I started turning off my phone at night around eight or 9pm and not turning it back on the next day until I was ready to plug back in. And it really made me so much happier.”

Nevertheless, Hill is now back to using her old tech friends.

“I was trying to find out whether this was possible and the answer at the end was that it was not possible. You can't really function in the modern world without using these companies, with the exception of Apple. And so that was my answer - you can't avoid them.”