A Practical Guide For Controlling Technology

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I’m an off-grid homesteader, which means I come from a pretty extreme end of the lifestyle spectrum (at least, according to my extended family). They know I heat my home with a wood stove, cook over a fire, and manually pump my water, and as such, they often look at me with a mix of curiosity, confusion, pity, and ample pepperings of “bless her heart.”  They think I’m ignorant of the benefits, utility, and necessity of modern technology.  The strange irony is, however, that I have spent the past decade closely studying technological trends, as you’ll see in this article, and it’s likely that I’m more informed about the progression of technology than they are.

Self-reliance is one of the foundational desires that led me to become an off-grid homesteader in the first place. The way I see it, modernity has sacrificed most forms of self-reliance on the altar of Technological Convenience.  My manner of protesting the inexorable and indefatigable invasion of technology into every facet of modern life, therefore, is to place barriers and boundaries around my existence so that there’s at least one small homestead in the Ozarks where tech doesn’t reign supreme.  To put it simply, I’m stubbornly unwilling to give up my privacy, information, and ability to do things for myself.

An Honest Look At Where We Are

Most modern textbooks just can’t say enough good things about the Industrial Revolution.  Much like the denizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we’ve been admonished to admire the assembly-line innovations for consistent production that replaced the traditional craftsman.  We are told of how medical, technological, and industrial advances gave us the advanced world we’ve inherited today.  To think back to pre-industrial times, we are programmed to shudder and imagine filthy streets, toothless peasants, and starving, disease-riddled babies.

And with that foundation laid, admiration for the subsequent Technological Revolution quickly followed.  Adults in their mid-thirties have never lived in a world without computers, and adults in their mid-twenties have never lived in a world without the Internet and smartphones.  Old-timers may remember a world where you used physical maps, called houses (rather than people), and played outside until the streetlights came on.  Almost entirely, however, that former world’s reality has been plastered over with the New World of app-ordered food that arrives on the doorstep, video chatting, the true dawn of widespread AI, and digital assistants quietly monitoring your words for orders.  Elon Musk has already declared that anyone with a smartphone is, by definition, “a cyborg.”  With that in mind, most know it’s not long until we figure out how to integrate the devices into our bodies so that we don’t have to deal with the “inconvenience” of physically carrying them.

Some of you may be excited about the prospect of transhumanism (the augmentation of the human condition with AI, genetic modification, and nanotechnology), and of the “singularity,” (the anticipated merging of human and machine), where we’re able, among other things, to augment our own bodies with implanted technology, upload our consciousness to the cloud, completely transform our means of living and hypothetically attempt to defeat death itself.  Some argue that this is the next stage of human evolution, and to fight against it is to foolishly fight against progress and advancement.

Others may find that dehumanizing and apocalyptic portrait of the future to be the stuff of nightmares and everything that we fight against to retain our freedom, sanity, and very souls.  I anticipate that those who are interested in self-reliance and living the backwoods are a little less willing to embrace the machine and a little more willing to embrace hard work, instead.  Sure, we live lives that are a little less “convenient,” but maybe that’s exactly the sort of life we want.

Of course, maybe you think I’m nuts, and that’s fine.  If you enjoy having the convenience of Alexa, the instant messaging of app-addled smartphones, and you just can’t get enough of ChatGPT, it is completely your right to choose how you want to live your life, and I would never endeavor to tell you otherwise.  Obviously, this article just isn’t for you.

But suppose you, likewise, are uncomfortable with the way tech is encroaching on your and your family’s life. In that case, I’d like to offer some tried-and-tested ways to hobble technology so that you can maintain some sense of non-cyborg human autonomy without its “assistance.”

Control Your Phone

If I could offer one, singular exhortation to those looking to maintain autonomy apart from technology, it’s to get rid of your smartphone.  I write that, however, knowing that my words ring about as clearly as a modern Kassandra’s—likely no one will take heed.  I’ve spoken to dozens of otherwise well-informed people about the necessity of this step, but have typically been given and endless array of excuses for why the device is exonerated and absolutely necessary in their lives.  Nonetheless, I’ll still offer the possibility to you, dear reader.

I got rid of my smartphone in 2017, and I have, miraculously, survived to the present day!  Instead, I have a $20 not-smart flip phone that I take when I leave the house.  I pay $10 every four months for a minimal plan that can text and call.  We mainly employ this for the potential of away-from-home emergencies.  Most of the time, the cell phone is off and on the shelf.  For the majority of my telephone communications, I use a landline that runs off of our Internet.  We use MagicJack for this phone service, which costs $100 a year.

The benefits of forgoing a smartphone are more than just financial, however.  The most important gain this has offered me goes far beyond my wallet.

Since I don’t have a device on my person, I don’t have a constant distraction taking me away from the here and now.  Moments that are precious to me are fully experienced, not halfway lived while I was filming it.  No one can digitally demand my attention if I don’t want them to.  And most of all, I can be at rest, waiting in line at the DMV, or walking down the street without my gaze constantly averted to a screen.  I can function without constant entertainment.  The worst part about all this, however, is that I’m usually the only person “awake” in a room full of other people.  It’s a strange, isolating experience.

As a result, you should be aware—this singular change—having a “house phone,” rather than a personal smartphone attached to your singular person, will deeply affect every interaction you have with most other modern humans.  I have been told that I’m “difficult to reach” and “impossible to get ahold of,” simply because I don’t text people (they forget that I have a house phone, respond to e-mails within the day, and even still hand-write letters to the very people complaining about my inaccessibility).  Dealing with many companies is complicated, since they can’t use my smartphone to access my account, verify my identity, or use their app to complete my goals.  You will be stigmatized as weird, backward, and offbeat.  But at least you’ll be autonomous, and I guarantee you’ll be happier.  

Get Off Social Media

Though I think getting rid of a smartphone is crucial, perhaps it’s only really possible if you’ve already freed yourself from using social media. Now, I know this is a tough one, especially for those of us “in the sticks” and somewhat at a distance from our families and communities.  But for all its promises, in the few years that social media has existed, it has done nothing for human relationships but to cheapen and invalidate what all humans had for all of time—real, face-to-face interaction in a real time and real space.   But you don’t have to take my word for it. The evidence for social media’s harm on our mental, psychological, and spiritual landscapes has been declared by none other than the developers of the platforms themselves.  I’ll offer these three quotes (of many) as food for thought…

  • The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created {in social media} are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Chamath Palitapitiya, former Facebook VP of User Growth.
  • “Building these platforms was all about how can we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible….”That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [we] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.“’” Sean Parker, Co-Founder and first President of Facebook. (emphasis added)
  • The great danger of the current system [of social media] is that it creates a mass addiction, and we’ve had mass addictions in the past that were connected to commercial interests…the difference, in this case, is that the side effect is to disconnect humanity from reality.Jaron Lanier, Computer Scientist at Microsoft Research and one of the original founders of VR technology (emphasis added)

I could go on, but I’d rather direct you to a very worthy read—Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right NowMuch like Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Lanier’s book sounds the very real alarm of the damage being done to our social fabric and mental stability…that most won’t take seriously enough to actually act on.

But if you do, you’ll find that the world without social media is wonderful.  Without that constant need to check for updates, your attention is not constantly pulled away.  And without the need to constantly monitor your feeds, the “necessity” of smart tech really starts becoming unnecessary.

Also, though our connections may be fewer if we insist on real connections with people in our physical proximity—those we can call, send a letter to, or meet in person—we all know that those connections are much more authentic than the obligatory “Happy Birthday” message or impersonal “thumbs up” that you receive from your college roommate’s sister’s friend’s mother’s yoga instructor’s co-worker.

I believe you must practice what you preach, so I’ll let you know that I deleted all my social media accounts in 2014 and haven’t looked back.  I can personally attest that it is not only possible, but good.  I went through the last two election seasons and all of 2020 and 2021 without seeing my family’s status updates and posts, and let me tell you—that alone was worth it. 

Utilize Dumb Devices and Physical Media

The computerization of tools, vehicles, and devices has mostly served to make them inaccessible to the layperson.  Tractor owners have found this the hard way—the hardworking machine that used to be able to be serviced by the farmer is now, in the modern day, impossible to fix without involving the manufacturer.  Furthermore, data about the machine’s use is also reported, with or without the user’s consent.  Though there’s been pushback (as you can see in this link), the trend is revealing.  If you want to be able to handle your machines and tools on your own, without them recording and reporting user data about you to the highest bidder, the way forward… is backward, to devices that are “dumb.”

Finding dumb devices is getting harder and harder to do, but you can often find decent used devices on your local Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace (if you’ve listened to my earlier point, it’s possible to make a “burner” Facebook account—one that you don’t actually use for any other reason—to interact with sellers).  Ebay is another good place to find old-style, in-box kitchen appliances that aren’t part of the Internet of Things (smart objects beyond phones and computers).

In the same vein, I would also advocate that, if there’s books or media that you particularly hold dear, you should endeavor to own a physical version of it that you can put on a shelf and hold in your own hands.  The reasons being, any media that you only own digitally…isn’t actually yours.  What more, since it’s accessible to any company that has an Internet connection, it can potentially get bowdlerized, “updated,” or even erased.  Let me give you three recent news stories to prove the point.

Playstation users have recently discovered that many of the Discovery Channel shows they purchased through their devices will be removed by the end of this year (2023) with or without their consent.  Though they paid real money for access to those shows, the shows will be removed from their “ownership.”

Several well-known books have already been quietly rewritten for modern audiences, including works by Mark Twain, Road Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Hugh Lofting.  Though some may applaud the removal of “offensive” terms, the fact that written works are being altered from their original states is, in this author’s opinion, a very slippery slope towards far more serious forms of censorship.

Consider this last example—one most apropos for this conversation.  In 2009, folks who had purchased a digital copy of George Orwell’s 1984 and stored it on their Kindle devices found out, suddenly, that “their” book had been erased completely without their knowing.  Though Amazon cited that the contested version of the book had copyright issues, the fact remains that they were able to infiltrate and remove something that customers believed they had rightfully purchased while said customers were unaware.

Owning physical media and using dumb devices means that you remain in the driver’s seat and that the texts, music, or films you value don’t get changed behind your back.

Stay Informed

I still use technology, obviously—how else could I write this article on a computer and e-mail it in to be published?  But I like keeping the relationship minimal.  It ever remains a tool that I can turn off and walk away from.  I insist on being the one controlling technology.  Technology must not control me.

The only way to do this, however, to truly stay ahead of the ever-changing world of modern technology is to stay informed.  I have a large range of websites that I check with weekly frequency to keep up with trends and newsworthy technology events, and I have listed several of them in the resources below.  Of note is the site, which keeps a special eye on the ways that technology are being used in invasive or freedom-infringing ways.  Though some may find that site to be “fringe,” it is nevertheless very informative and undeniably well-researched.  You may notice, however,  that I have made a point to cite mostly “mainstream” news sources in my citations, hopefully proving that paying attention to the way technology is changing us as humans is not a partisan, fringe or “conspiracy theorist” interest.

Now, the so-called “barriers” I’ve listed in this article are just a start.  To live in a way that confronts modern technology and demand autonomy is to go against the grain—something that those who choose to live in a self-reliant way are already well accustomed to.  We’re not doing this jut to be contrary…but to live a better, more meaningful life.  As Mara Cary said in her book Basic Baskets, “Slowly we are carving a new lifestyle.  To some, it might seem to be the one that is looking backward, for it cherishes the homely, the rude, the unpackaged, the unmechanized, the careful.  We do not think of it as a blind shutting out of any visions of the future,  but rather, for us, the right way to face the future.  The carving is not easy.  It is often painful.  But in it are the seeds of sanity, of joy.”

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  • I LOVE this article!!!! I do not own, nor do I want a "dumb phone". They are rapidly turning people into robots and if you look around people are so busy staring at their screens that folks don't even talk to each other anymore. Let me also add that these devises are full of radiation!

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