Episode [] MSP66 [] Never Gonna Give You Up: Can You Live Without The Big 5 Tech Companies?

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Episode [] MSP66 [] Never Gonna Give You Up: Can You Live Without The Big 5 Tech Companies?

What would it be like if you cut Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google & Microsoft out of your life completely? 

We knew it would be a living hell and never had the nerve to do it. Kashmir Hill, a writer at Gizmodo did. We discuss her experiences and their implications for the world we live in.

            

Show Links:

https://gizmodo.com/c/goodbye-big-five

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/17/almost-impossible-to-function-without-big-five-tech-giants

https://securitytrails.com

 

Episode Transcript

 

These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.

 

What would your life look like if you cut the big five tech companies out of your life? Is it possible to live without using Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft or Apple at all?

 

With a statement like that, you might think that MSP’s Matt Armitage has embarked on some kind of giant and heroic experiment. Well, sorry to disappoint you. He hasn’t.

 

So, Matt, you want to talk about cutting the tech giants out of your life without actually cutting any of the tech giants out of your life? I know you said that 2019 is the year we should embrace the hypocrisy, but isn’t that pushing the limits; even for you?

·      We’ve done a lot of shows on MSP based on the creep and spread of the tentacles of companies like Amazon and Google.

·      For many of us we associate these companies mostly with one or two products:

o  Apple is the iPhone

o  Google is search and maps

o  Microsoft is windows, and equally, office

o  Facebook is, well, Facebook

o  And Amazon is what people do instead of going to the mall..

 

But that public facing aspect is really only a tiny part of what these companies are and do?

·      Especially when it comes to the cloud, which Amazon, Google and Microsoft all control huge chunks of.

·      A lot of us are using 3rdparty services that rely on these companies, simply by buying a cup of tea in a café that uses a POS sitting on a cloud run by one of these companies.  

·      A lot of our interactions with them are seamless and invisible, which is why the idea of living without them is at once v intriguing and impractical.

 

This is something we’re increasingly seeing right across the tech landscape, isn’t it? This spread of function, and acquisition of other companies that operate in neighbouring spaces?

·      There’s nothing new about it.

·      Mergers and acquisitions is how the world of commerce works.

·      What’s different when you relate it to tech, is the speed of the rise of some of the bigger players, and the sheer amounts of money they have to fund themselves or buy themselves into new market sectors.

·      So their growth – in terms of scale and function – is quite amazing.

·      Especially as the technology evolves so fast. 

·      What we aren’t even imagining today, is something that is a daily use necessity tomorrow.

 

How does that bring us back to life without the Big 5?

·      It’s an experiment I’ve been really interested in for a long time.

·      Can you consciously decouple yourself from these companies?

 

But not something you were interested enough in to actually try?

·      Every time I ran it as a thought experiment, or tried to figure it out in terms of practicalities, I quickly realized that I couldn’t do it.

·      For example, just to do these shows. 

·      Can I do them from paper? Yes, I could make my notes by hand.

·      I could research with an independent like Duck Duck Go, if I got myself a computer with Linux.

·      But the computers running the studio sit on MS Windows. 

·      The podcast is syndicated through Apple and Google’s services.

·      God knows where the podcast servers sit, or my website host.

·      All of that would grind to a halt for the sake of an experiment.

 

I can’t imagine you telling your clients you were giving up your smartphone for a couple of weeks.

·      I could stop using all the productivity tools and accounting software packages that are backed up to AWS.

·      But my entire business is built around services provided by these companies. 

·      It’s not like me saying to an employee, go live off the grid for a fortnight and you’ll still get paid.

 

Basically, if you’re off the grid, essentially there is no company…

·      Exactly. And this isn’t the kind of thing you can try for a day or two.

·      To do it properly, it has to be progressive.

·      But luckily for me and everyone listening, someone else has put herself through the torture of testing the viability of living beyond the reach of these companies.

·      So, today, instead of me doing the usual thought experiment stuff, I thought I’d do my usual thought experiment stuff and pepper it the very brave experiences of 

·      A Gizmodo writer, called Kashmir Hill, who decided to experiment for 6 weeks to see if was possible to live without these monsters.

·      Her results are published as a series on the website that came out in late January entitled Life Without the Tech Giants. 

·      Links will be on the Mattsplained FB page

 

Your links about living without Facebook will be on Facebook?

·      That’s kinda the whole point, isn’t it?

·      How difficult it is to operate without going back to these services.

·      No one is going to rewind the podcast of this show back and forth as I spell out hyperlinks.

·      They want somewhere they can go just to click and consume.

·      Incidentally, Gizmodo is owned by Univision and not one of the big 5. 

·      But, ironically enough, their websites do use AWS. 

 

How did Kashmir’s experiment work?

·      Each week she cut herself from one of the big 5 and at the end she went cold turkey from all five at once. 

·      And she wanted to do it far more thoroughly than I would ever do. 

·      For example, she had a VPN built that would prevent her from communicating with any IP addresses that link back to any of the big five.

·      And that’s where I got a big shock.

·      We think of these companies in terms of scale but even then, sometimes the enormity of that scale stands up and slaps you in the face.

·      I didn’t realise, probably because I’m too lazy that Amazon controls over 23 million IP addresses.

·      Microsoft was the stalking horse, coming in at 21m. Apple at 17m and Amazon controlling a meagre 9m addresses.

·      Facebook is the surprise, considering how we often look at the company’s scale and scope, with a mere 120k or so. 

·      Collectively, that’s around 70m IP addresses she barred herself from.

·      That’s a small percentage of the billions of IP addresses out there, but even so. For 5 companies, that’s some impressive cyber squatting.

 

Where do we start? Alphabetically or by market cap?

·      Given the volatility of the markets over the last couple of years, Apple could be worth a dollar 50 by the end of the show.

·      Let’s stick with the alphabet, letters may have a little more longevity.

 

Assuming we’re Googling rather than Alphabeting, let’s start with Amazon.

·      Now, sitting where we are in Malaysia, Amazon feels like much less of a colossal force.

·      We don’t have a local Amazon store, so out purchases tend to be specific rather than general.

·      We use the service more to plug gaps in what goods are available in Malaysia rather than for everyday items like toilet cleaner.

·      Plus, data linked services like Alexa and all the linked Echo devices only function here with a lot of workarounds. 

 

But that doesn’t mean we’re cut off from the company’s reach…

·      Not at all, even MSP is partly reliant on the company.

·      Little Mark and Polly, my AI show companions, reside on AWS.

·      Spreading their sociopathic tendencies through the company’s servers.

 

Don’t you have to be a human to be a sociopath?

·      That’s for another show. 

·      Look, now we’ve run into the break. I can only get back to Amazon after these messages…

 

BREAK

 

Welcome back to MSP. Before the break Matt accused me of stopping the show from progressing. Which we all know is a lie. But we were talking about Amazon.

·      Incidentally, I wonder if any of the ads or links in the break were linked to the Big 5 in some way.

·      It wouldn’t surprise me if they were. 

·      But that comes back to how huge these monsters are.

·      Where were we? Right, Kashmir Hill’s attempt at living without Amazon.

·      So she kind of divides this up into sections.

 

AWS and Amazon and the sites it owns?

·       Yes, so as we said Amazon.com is more deeply ingrained in the lives of people in places like the US, Europe, and I guess increasingly in countries like Brazil, India, Singapore and Australia where the company has also recently launched.

·       But then there are the scores of companies it owns.

·       I’ll admit, I spend a great deal of time on IMDB, which Amazon owns. I’m sure plenty of our listeners are avid Twitch users.

·       And of course, there’s Prime Video which we do have in Malaysia.

·       On a personal level, I would be lost without Audible and its audio books. Plenty more are Kindle addicts.

 

But AWS is where the meat is?

·      Yeah. Block AWS and routing companies it owns like Cloudfront and you cut off a huge chunk of the Net.

·      Even messaging apps like Signal, which users like for its secrecy and independence, use AWS.

·      Your Netflix streams are on AWS. Airbnb. There is literally no point reeling off a list there are so many.

·      Harris found that her VPN prevented numerous apps from loading on her phone, as well as dozens of websites she regularly uses.

·      And what do you do with something like Washington Post? Do you include personal holdings of the owners of these companies? 

·      Or physical holdings they have, like the Whole Foods supermarket chain?

·      In short, it was practically impossible for Harris to remove all Amazon services from her life.

 

Can you find out if a site or app uses AWS or a particular tech company?

·      As Harris points out, you can use a tool like securitytrails.com to see where a website’s servers are located.

·      But because of traffic routing services like Cloudfare and Cloudfront, those results may not be 100% accurate.

·      And that’s not because anyone is hiding anything, it’s just the way Internet traffic works. 

·      If your traffic is routed through these services, their servers may show up on as your server results rather than those of the server that your data originates from. 

 

So, if we’re online, then we pretty much have to accept that Amazon is part of our lives? What about Apple?

·      Before we go on to Apple, there’s also the question of whether you want to exclude a company like Amazon.

·      And that depends very much on how you view it.

·      I’ve said plenty of times before – I can see how far and wide the company is spreading, we have plenty of reasons to be wary and to watch how it operates. 

·      Yet, despite those reservations, I use its sites and service all the time. As I said, I rely on Audible.

·      I spend as much time inside IMDB as I do watching shows on Netflix.

·      I use Amazon for purchases I can’t make here because no one stocks the product, or because it has a regional sole distributor who charges two or three times the open market rate. 

·      So it’s hard to figure out who the bad actor is in those situations. 

·      You might think Amazon is putting retailers out of business.

·      But at a time where people’s lives and incomes are under great pressure, it enables customers to save money and time. millions of satisfied customers. Every day.

 

And long may your Amazon stock appreciate. What about Apple?

·      Apple is surprisingly easy to bypass.

·      Apple is the Marmite of the Big 5, despite being the most valuable of them all. 

 

The Lord of the Rings?

·      Thankfully, the company is a bit more respectful of your data and your privacy than Sauron.

·      The chances are that if you’re an Apple freak – like me – you can’t live without it.

·      Unless you have an Apple device, then you don’t really have any business with the company at all.

·      As most people are not using Apple’s platforms, their lives don’t intersect with the company at all.

·      It makes most of its money from hardware but exerts considerable control over what you can and can’t do once you’ve bought in.

·      Even down to oddly shaped screws on the devices to make them harder to tinker with. 

 

If you were a hardcore mac user: computer, phone, tablet, watch, how easy would it be to walk away?

·      For starters, if you are an Apple head you probably wouldn’t want to. 

·      For all the issues I have with Apple and the price of its products, I’m still wired in. 

·      It would be a colossal expense to move to another platform.

·      And you can all argue with me, but the ease of use of Apple products still makes most everything else look like un-sandpapered wood.

·      But before anyone else switches the dial to another station, let’s go to Facebook.

 

Sarcastic:HEY MATT, WHAT ABOUT FACEBOOK?

·      Like Apple. It’s quite easy to avoid Facebook from a technical perspective.

·      Its servers don’t route huge chunks of non-Facebook traffic, so you really can disengage from it by avoiding the social network and sister companies Instagram and Whatsapp.

·      Unsurprisingly, Harris found that her biggest issue here was emotional and psychological, whereas avoiding Amazon had been a practical one. 

·      Plenty has been written and reported about the way people feel detached when they’re not on Facebook so we don’t need to detail it here.

 

It’s a case of using the service because everyone else is using the service?

·      Yeah, if you want to track and chat with friends and colleagues remotely, there aren’t a lot of other ways around it.

·      I mean, you could call them or chat face to face, but how gross is that?

·      But it’s an interesting comparison. All the big 5 tech companies hoover up data about us.

·      But I think of all of them, Facebook is the only one where the pressure to use is almost exclusively emotional.

·      And that tells you a lot about the company and its power over us.

·      You don’t use Google search because your friends do. You do it because its search results are accurate.

·      You’d be a very odd person if you had an emotional attachment to MS Excel, or missed good old Clippy.

 

Does that make Facebook an anomaly amongst the other Big 4?

·      I don’t know if anomaly is the right word.

·      In a way, it has pretty much perfected the use of crowd dynamics.

·      You won’t leave Facebook, because I’m still on it.

·      I won’t leave it, because you’re still on it.

·      It’s like mutually assured destruction.

·      Though it sounds simple, when you look at that across 2bn users, that an impressive feat, irrespective of whether you view it as positive or negative.

 

Shall we Google?

·      Yes, or rather let’s not Google.

·      Google’s had a lot of self-inflicted bad press of late. 

·      Potential data issues at Google plus.

·      Building a censored search engine for China.

·      Going after defence industry contracts. 

·      Sexual misconduct claims.

·      employee walkouts.

·      And that’s before we get to the data the company grabs about you.

 

We know all that. But can you live without it?

·      I guess the first questions there are: do you use an Android phone?

·      Do you use Google Docs? Google Calendar? Chrome browser?

·      Where’s your email? There’s a fairly good chance that even if you don’t have a gmail account, your company is using Google’s business email services.

·      Do you have Google Drive? Do you use Google Maps. 

·      Even if you replace search with Bing or DuckDuckGo, what are you going to do without Waze?

 

How did Harris fare?

·      These services are not just physically woven into your life, they’re psychologically embedded too.

·      But while there are workarounds for a lot of the services – as long as you’re willing to jump through hoops and you’re happy to have a bunch of non-integrated productivity tools, it’s possible to replace what Google does.

·      But doing that showed Harris how great the company is at that tantalisingly intangible quality: innovation.

·      A lot of its products seem to be as good or better than competing products, and that’s before you get to the fact that most of them are seemingly free at the consumer end. 

 

What were the biggest blocks?

·      Two massive impediments, one you would expect and one you might not. 

·      The one you might not expect is Maps. Google and its API have close to 90% of the map related business.

·      You may think, so what? But the next time you open Uber, Grab, Lyft, a food or other delivery service, ask yourself where that map is coming from.

·      In most cases, it’s Google. Want to live without the company, there’s a lot of location specific apps that won’t let you.

·      Use them and you’re in Google central.

 

Google’s own cloud services are not so all-encompassing as Amazon though…

·      No, some apps and sites won’t be available to you. 

·      But it’s the Internet itself that is so heavily dependent on the company.

·      So many webpages bounce through Google before they load on our computer, especially those featuring adverts from Google’s networks and all sorts of other gubbins that a lot of sites get from the company.

·      Harris found that Some sites wouldn’t load at all, others slowed down.

·      We often don’t appreciate what happens in the background.

·      Google caches sites so they load faster on your computer.

·      And many many many sites use Google’s free fonts. Because – they’re free – but also because it can speed up page loading times.

 

Living without Google?

·      Impractical, but theoretically possible. 

·      You’d have to be happy live in the Internet age of the 1990s.

 

Finally, What would life without Microsoft look like?

·      I just mentioned the 1990s and for many of us, the image of MS, quite wrongly in fact, is rooted in that era when most of us banged our heads trying to get online with Internet Explorer.

·      Today, as then, it’s synonymous with Windows and Office.

·      Most people are surprised to learn that there’s only a hair in it between Amazon, Google and Microsoft in terms of mkt cap.

·      Despite the OS and the productivity suites, and LinkedIn, Skype and Github, MS is much less consumer oriented than we think.

 

You mean its Azure cloud services?

·      That’s one area of its business that is doing really well.

·      But Microsoft is really in the business of supplying technology to other businesses.

·      That ATM you’re taking money out of.

·      The POS system at the café. Or the petrol pump.

·      Transport management systems. All running on stock or bespoke MS systems.

·      And it’s ubiquitous. 

·      I’m doing the company a disservice by covering it so quickly,

·      The other companies dominate our online lives.

·      But Microsoft is quietly rooted in so many aspects of our real life, that like Amazon, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid.

 

We’ve used up pretty much all of our time and we haven’t found out what happened to Kashmir Harris when she tried to cut all of these services out at once.

·      That’s partly because I’m a windbag and partly deliberate.

·      We’ve already established how hard it is to cut out any single one of these companies, other than Apple.

·      You can only imagine how stressful and difficult it would be to try and cut them all out without living in a cave and eating roots.

·      So, if you want to know how stressful it gets, go to Gizmodo and read Kashmir Hill’s articles.

 

Can’t you just tell us?

·      No. My name isn’t Google. 

·      Also, because Kashmir’s Hill’s pieces deserve a read and I’ve done enough mansplaining for one day.

·      I’m pretty sure the stress of her experiences will probably put you off ever attempting this kind of experiment yourself.

·      whether you read the articles or not, it’s worth thinking about the place of these companies in our world.

·      I don’t want to make your mind up for you. 

·      You may be happy to fit into their vision of the future.

·      You may not care. Or it may trouble you and you may want to do something about it.

·      But whatever position you adopt, you shouldn’t take their power and presence for granted.