If Only It Had Ever Worked…

Modern technology is a con and we are the marks.

©2019 Joe Haupt, Attribution-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

I have a Samsung Android phone. It gives me all sorts of advanced features. I can configure it so that when I set it face down on the table next to my bed, it won’t issue notifications and disturb me while I sleep. I can configure it to not log me out while it is at my home or when it is on my person. These are all cool and convenient capabilities.

If only any one of them had ever worked.

Have I complained to Samsung or Google about this? Of course not. Neither of them could care less about my disappointment. They know full well that my only other option is Apple which changes its user interfaces in fundamental and confusing ways every year and which makes music and videos available only as rentals. When the phone gets old, the iPhone will, at Apple’s request, slow down. The Android also slows down because updates tend to be sloppy or because cached data is not properly cleared. The point is that both options slow down until you are hard-pressed to trash it and buy another phone. You thought you bought the phone, but the two semi-monopolies make it clear that you may only rent a smart phone.

When we bought our Tesla Model 3, it was brilliant. The Tesla app would track the car in near-real-time as my spouse drove down to Boulder, Colorado. I knew that she was safe and I knew roughly when she would be home. Now, two years later, the app has been “upgraded”. The display shows the vehicle in thirty to sixty second “snapshots”, it is sometimes oriented sideways as if in a collision, and it takes up to four minutes to find the car in the first place. The car has a built-in garage door opener and as I approach my home, it can be configured to open that garage door without my needing to locate the icon on the screen. The fewer distractions, the better, for a driver. If only it had ever worked. It’s a minor thing but, for heaven’s sake how difficult could that be to implement.

There’s a bigger problem here, of course. Tesla is the only provider of Teslas. That means that Tesla is the only provider of Tesla software. That means the monopoly on the software for your Tesla is absolute. If you don’t like it, there’s nothing you can do. If you loved your Model 3 yesterday but the recent update made everything suck (like the 2021–12–24 update), what are you going to do? Go back to gasoline?

The Tesla provides “free” access to the Internet, certain entertainment venues, maps and routing. These are made available to each driver for the fixed price you paid for the vehicle even though every minute of that network and computer time costs money. How does that work?

How about the time you bought a fancy Internet radio. It doesn’t do anything you couldn’t do with your notebook computer; but, it looks like a radio (cool). Later you discover that your purchase price didn’t cover the contract the manufacturer had signed with the company aggregating the signals (which went out of business). You discover that the manufacturer will sell you another “radio” that talks to a different aggregator but it won’t “fix” yours. You didn’t own the radio, you had only rented it for a few years. It should become obvious to us all that, under our current rentier capitalist system, our only option is to rent even though no one will tell you that.

It’s All Crap

Your phone is just a data gathering system. Your car is just a data gathering system. Your credit card is just a data gathering system. You yourself are merely someone else’s source of valuable data.

Insecticides have killed our songbirds while reducing crop diversity. Monsanto’s Roundup kills bees which are essential to the long term success of future crops and Monsanto’s litigious approach to their genetically modified air-borne pollen has made it impractical for modern farmers to grow corn, soybean, cotton and various other seed crops from natural seed. Modern pharmaceuticals, mostly developed in federal government labs, have been turned over to wealthy oligarchs to distribute as they see fit, for their own profit.

Your behaviors, your skills and your beliefs are all commodities and the function of technology is simply to harvest those commodities for our wealthy overlords. As you drive in your Tesla, you are temporarily valuable to Elon Musk, because he honestly believes that by gathering data from your vehicle (and this requires the kind of connectivity that gives you access to real-time maps and routing) he’ll be able to sell full self-driving vehicles. It’s a ridiculous notion, and when that becomes clear to him, your maps and routing will go away. You may love an old program from the 1970s and watch it regularly on Netflix, but when you’re one of only a hundred people doing that, Netflix will take it away. You are only renting and the landlord decides what is available. Yes you can still buy DVDs, but soon, your favorite films will only be available for rent. Besides how can you fit books, records or any other physical things into the tiny apartment you can barely afford now?

Your digital notes, your eBooks, your shared business documents go into “the cloud” where they are available to you anywhere until that particular “cloud” runs out of money or is hacked-and-locked or your information isn’t yielding the data that company can sell. When your information is not stored locally on your computer, it belongs to someone else. Privacy and sharing policy? Have you read it? Do you believe it? Is any criminal justice agency enforcing it?

In time, to actually own something will be an astounding rarity.

A Technical Computer Example (skip past if that seems dull)

For some while, I’ve held the open-source computer operating system, Linux, in high regard. My family’s entire home computer network consists of nine vintage Thinkpad notebook computers purchased from eBay.com running OpenSUSE and CentOS Linux with all open-source software. Our spreadsheets and our latest writing projects are automatically backed up every evening. The software I write is stored in a Mercurial repository and our favorite videos are served up to video displays throughout the home by our Minidlna (now ReadyMedia) video server (another Thinkpad). I write books and provide the body text and camera-ready artwork to professional book printers using Libreoffice and Scribus. I create audiobooks using Rezound, an open-source sound manipulation program abandoned by its creator; but, since it’s open-source, I down-loaded it and ported it to my vintage computers. It works great!

When my spouse or I log in to our individual notebook computers, our “folders” are provided by our home directory server, the Thinkpad upstairs that keeps track of this information and routinely backs it up. When we go to a coffee shop, we type “away” on our notebook computers and that home data is copied to our Thinkpad’s local disk. We work at the coffee shop and when we return, we type “home” and everything we did over coffee is transferred to the upstairs computer where it will be backed up that night. When I record a portion of an audiobook, that audio data is made available from the studio computer to my notebook computer where I can edit it and submit it to the build system that compiles my books into paper, eBook and audiobook formats. Linux is fantastically versatile,

or…

it was.

Recently, I decided to upgrade to the latest version of Linux. I found that OpenSUSE Linux had been acquired by the private equity company EQT Partners. Their goal is to make a lot of money off of Linux which makes open-source free software look a little suspect. I found that Red Hat Linux was purchased by IBM, a company that sells very different operating systems and is not used to giving things away. I also found that Hewlett-Packard and Apple have freely “contributed” loads of new tools and architectural changes to Linux.

Ubuntu and Debian seem to be reasonably free of the capitalist profit motive but even in these releases, the software that used to work doesn’t anymore. The basic Linux tools (i.e., KDE, init.d, nis, nfs, automounter), that apply well to paying customers but are rarely used by amateurs, simply do not function the way they used to. I’m still working on it; but, so far they appear to be so changed that only a paid consultant can configure them. Apparently, you now have to pay for the useful stuff, and that useful stuff is basic to the way our home network functions.

Oh well, we were just renting Linux anyway.

In Other Words…

Let’s stop pretending that technology is helping us (the average person). Technology is spying on us by keeping track of our location and all of our financial transactions. That data is being used to market to us and to influence our political choices. Technology on a global scale is being used to limit our future options and lock us into faulty products we do not need. It is being used to assure that we each remain a positive boon for pointlessly rich people who will never be rich enough to satisfy their insatiable greed.

Whether a farmer, a driver, an average person trying to avoid Covid or a basic citizen, no actual new features or fixes are required for your cool new tech. Your technology already provides all of the capabilities that the owner needs; and, in every case, for all of the new tech, for every fancy product you purchase: you are not the owner.

A Culture of Ownership

The U.S. Constitution is intimately tied to the notion of property. Individuals may possess property for their own use. They may maintain and repair that property. If cared for in a competent fashion, this property may last a very long time. In the 1950s, automobiles, watches, radios, televisions, wall clocks, lamps and record players could be maintained and repaired. Indeed, there were small businesses called “repair shops” scattered through every town. Now, when the phone doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, we just put up with it. When the television fails, we throw it out and buy a new one.

Others recognize this problem and there is some hope. From the standpoint of repairability, there is now a notebook computer that can be maintained and repaired. The Framework notebook computer allows you to fix or upgrade it as you wish. The Tesla is generally only repairable at a Tesla service center but the Aptera Paradigm is being designed to allow repair by any owner or competent mechanic.

In Europe, there’s a repairable smart phone company called Fairphone with replaceable/upgradeable parts and a five year warranty. Unfortunately, they don’t sell it in America. In the U.S., there’s still a decent option: the TERACUBE smart phone comes with a four year warranty and a replaceable battery. It’s not the Fairphone, but it’s better than we’d expect in this American capitalist enclave.

There are even pockets of innovation promoting ownership of the company by the workers! Worker owned co-ops (WOCs) are a growing movement. As a worker in a WOC you don’t own something tepid and irrelevant like you do on the modern stock market, you own a part of the actual company in every way that makes sense. You elect the leadership and you vote on important next steps in the company’s future. You have real control over your future and your company’s. Yes, an ownership culture extends even to your employer!

So there are some options for beginning to extricate yourself from the rentier capitalist economy and to actually possess things that may have some value over time. When it comes to the massive technologies that are threatening the planet, you can take your decision to purchase sustainable possessions as an inspiration to start paying attention to what politician is owned by what energy, pharma or financial company and vote for their progressive and unencumbered opponent. If there is no opponent, be the opponent. Smart amateurs are entering politics every day. Run for school board or town counsel or state legislature. The world depends on our serious participation.

Act locally, vote globally. Make your vote one to shut down the capitalist profit motive. Free yourself, bit by bit, from the control of the amazingly wealthy. Elect candidates, from the local to the federal, who don’t take corporate money. Remind your friends that those ads calling your progressive candidate a pederast or a terrorist are coming from organizations with a forty-year pedigree of effective lying; organizations hired to defend the insatiable greed of the wealthy elite. Tell your friends that they should put some effort into verifying that there is no evidence to support those claims.

Promote and vote for a world of quality innovative tools that we can own and from which we may benefit.

Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
Available at or orderable from your local bookstore.
Rediscover real browsing at your local bookstore.
Also available in ebook and audio formats at Sockwood Press.

This work represents the opinion of the author only.

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Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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Julian S. Taylor

Julian S. Taylor

Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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