Why I don’t like Technology, or, (convenience) = -(quality) -(choice) -(privacy) -(humanity)

Technology isn't always positive, or a benefit.

Often people are surprised when I tell them I don’t like Technology, especially Big Tech (the FAANGs – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) and also the Gig or “sharing” economy (Uber, Airbnb etc.). I don’t subscribe to any streaming services (music or video) – no Apple Music, Spotify, Netflix or even cable TV.

“But …”, people often say, I “seem to know a lot about technology, and immerse in technology” and I “always have all the tech toys.”

Well, both statements are true.

I do talk a lot about technology, and I spend a lot of time learning and understanding technology, and keeping to date with trends and developments. But that’s my job – I am a management consultant, and one of my specialities is technology strategy. I help clients map out a strategy and roadmap for using technology as part of their business, or supporting their business. But that doesn’t mean I like technology, or want it as part of my personal life. Indeed, there are many reasons why I avoid technology in my daily life, as I will explain later.

And yes, I own a lot of “toys” (or, as I prefer to call them, “tools”). At last count, I own 3 MacBooks (the 12″, the 13″ Pro and the 15″ Pro), 3 iPads, an Apple Watch and 2 iPhones. At home I have an extensive setup with multiple NAS units with over 100TB of storage, and several Macs. I am into photography and own half a dozen bodies from Sony, Nikon, Leica and over 50 lenses. I am into audio/video and have two home theatre systems (both supporting 4K and 3D) with the latest technologies. I have my own music studio with a stage piano, a keyboard, electric and acoustic guitars, a pad drum, several mixer consoles, mics. I have 5 Sony Walkmans ranging from the high end (WM1A) to the latest and smallest (A55). I have more headphones and headphone amps than I know what to do with. All these toys, sorry (cough) “tools”, are heavily technology based.

However, I didn’t buy them because of the technology – I bought them because they are “tools” that assist me in my creative pursuits. What I am truly interested in is being able to appreciate what others have created, and also create. I enjoy reading/writing, viewing/creating art/photography, listening/playing/composing music. All the above technology tools help me realise my interests. I didn’t buy them because of the “technology”, and indeed if I have a choice I prefer tools with less technology, not more.

My favourite MacBook is the 12″, because it is the lightest and smallest. My favourite iPhone is the SE – again because it is the smallest and lightest. My favourite camera is the Leica M10 which is a manual focusing rangefinder, and my favourite lenses are all manual focus lenses with no electronics embedded. My main audio/video system is mostly analog – I have an analog preamp, and 4 pairs of discrete dual-mono amplifiers. My favourite source is an analog turntable (the Linn Sondek LP12) and I prefer listening to LPs rather than digital sources. I avoid using digital acoustic room correction, I align my speakers manually and avoid any post processing (including equalisation).

My favourite writing tool is a fountain pen, and I have an extensive collection of pens, inks and types of paper. I also prefer drawing using pencils and brushes than on an iPad using Apple Pencil.

In other words, whenever possible, I prefer analog over digital, and the least technology to achieve my goals.

Why?

Fundamentally, I think over-reliance of technology dehumanises me, gets in the way of my interests, and sacrifices quality, choice and privacy for the sake of convenience.

Or, to express it as a mathematical equation …

(convenience) = -(quality) -(choice) -(privacy) -(humanity)

This may not seem obvious at first, and perhaps it is helpful to rearrange the equation as:

(convenience) + (quality) + (choice) + (privacy) + (humanity) = 0

In other words, it’s a zero-sum game and optimising convenience trades-off other aspects of an experience, or activity, or outcome.

Let me illustrate this through a few examples. Let’s start with streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify.

Why are streaming services bad?

On the surface, the value proposition seems self-evident and unarguably positive. Listen or watch anything you want anywhere on any device for a low subscription cost. Never buy physical media and wondering where to store them. How can anyone not want that?

For starters, is it really the ability to watch whatever I want? Consider these stats showing the size of Netflix’s online catalog of video by country:http://unogs.com/countrydetail/

You will find that the size is typically around 5000 items. For reference, my personal video collection (DVD, Bluray, UHD4K) is well over 2000 and possibly close to 3000. In other words, I have a collection that’s roughly equal to about half of what Netflix offers in any country and any given time. I can guarantee I absolutely want to watch every item in my collection (again and again), that’s the reason I bought the items in the first place. Whereas, I doubt that I would be interested in more than say around 10% of what any streaming service would be offering at any given time.

And Netflix’s choice will inevitably reduce over time – in the future Disney will limit it’s content to it’s own streaming channel and they will no longer be available on Netflix. To truly get choice, one would need to subscribe to multiple streaming services, greatly reducing the value proposition. For me to get to roughly the equivalent to the choice I have today in my personal collection, I would probably need to subscribe to multiple services, use VPNs to access content in different regions (I have a multi-region player at home). Over a period of say 50 years, this cost exceeds the cost of me acquiring my personal collection, so it’s not cheaper.

I can make an even stronger case for music streaming. I have over 500 LPs in my collection, over 500 hi-res albums (SA-CD and DVD-Audio), and over 5000 CDs. Some of the LPs contain music long out of distribution and never digitised.

So, streaming services => reduced choice.

What about quality? A UHD4K disc allows me to watch content with a bandwidth of up to 100Mbps, and it supports not only 4K but multi-channel uncompressed quality audio. By contrast, 4K content on Netflix probably streams at about 15Mbps maximum.

Music streaming does not support full CD quality resolution, let alone hi-res audio formats or analog audio. Yes, there are some services that claim to offer higher quality, but I note they are specialised services with far less choice and usually the audio quality top out at CD resolution.

So, streaming services => reduced quality.

Privacy? Do I even need to explain this? The reason streaming services exist is that Data is the New Oil. By harvesting what, when and where I am consuming these services, these services can on-sell the data for advertising targeting purposes.

What is the harm of that? At the very least, I should be compensated for the use of my personal information (although one can argue this is factored in the subscription cost, however I believe I should be compensated a lot more). At the worst, it is a compromise of my privacy.

Why is privacy important? Apart from it being a basic human right blah blah blah …, Edward Snowden expresses it better than me:

Privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

Nobody needs to justify why they “need” a right: the burden of justification falls on the one seeking to infringe upon the right. But even if they did, you can’t give away the rights of others because they’re not useful to you. More simply, the majority cannot vote away the natural rights of the minority. Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.

So, streaming services => reduced privacy.

Finally, humanity. This is more difficult to explain. Maybe I can start by saying what makes us unique and “human” are the sum total of our experiences, our values and belief systems, our sense of self and empathy for others, amongst many things.

Streaming services can shape our experiences and what we experience. Recommender systems that suggest what music or video we should watch next based on what we have watched previously influence, guide and limit what we experience.

Many have commented on the ability of social media to create “filter bubbles” – it makes us more opinionated and less tolerant of other viewpoints because it creates an environment where we are surrounded by people and viewpoints similar to ours, and makes us more inclined to view opposing viewpoints as aberrant.

The same thing occurs for viewing content on streaming services. Increasingly we are “encouraged” to view content that are “popular” or fits into our personal preferences, and closes the rest of the world from our eyes. Over time, we become less and less human and more and more programmed by the technology that was supposed to serve us.

So, streaming services => reduced humanity.

Why are Uber and Airbnb bad?

This is a lot easier to explain these days than a few years ago, when people would literally look at me as if I am crazy when I told them I do not use Uber or Airbnb.

Again, the hypothesis initially seems to be more choice, convenience and low cost, plus a feel good factor about helping others and sticking it up to the “evil” establishment (taxi industry, hotel industry).

But I think we now realise Uber has a history of being “evil”, and is about less quality (the risk of getting molested or raped), less choice (choice depends on your rating), less privacy (of course) and less humanity (Uber is creating a sub-class of disadvantaged people working for the gig economy with less rights, plus they will get replaced by self-driving vehicles eventually … maybe).

A similar argument can be mounted for Airbnb.

Besides, I prefer catching public transport and taxis. I like the anonymity, and the fact that I am not judged by previous experiences. I like the hotel experience, and I prefer to trust a reputable brand than an unknown property and unknown person. I have heard many horror Airbnb stories, and whilst I have had unpleasant hotel experiences, more often than not that is redressed by discussing my issue with management, and more often than not I have been rewarded for a bad experience that more than compensates for the lack of satisfaction in the first place.

Why are FAANGs bad?

This should be obvious by now, but let’s summarise:

  • Facebook: filter bubbles, fake news, privacy breaches … need I say more?
  • Amazon: killing off the retail industry and turning a pleasurable activity (shopping) into clicking buttons on a web page
  • Apple: people in China selling kidneys to buy an iPhone …
  • Netflix: already discussed above
  • Google: best illustrated by a few quotes from Eric Schmidt (former chairman of Google/Alphabet):

Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are.

We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.

So, next time you meet me, don’t be surprised why I hate Technology.