Saturday, November 29, 2014


Although the date of this post, “Small Business Saturday,” is mostly coincidental, I hope there is a certain appropriateness and coherence to this report on some changes I’ve undertaken lately in the tech-consumer-social-media elements of my life.

You might wonder, “Who cares?” and why I’m bothering to tell you about these things, dear reader. To me, this blog is a conversation as well as my “journal;” I’d be very interested to hear how you are navigating these various channels that are carrying us into and through the Brave New World that is still very new to all of us.

Here are some recent resolutions, changes, epiphanies, experiments having to do with my interaction with the internet and its wider context, with observations on why any of this might be important:

1. I now use only as a last resort. Two strands have led me to this resolution: One is the issue of Amazon’s treatment of employees. (One aspect of this is the basis of a case before the Supreme Court right now.) This op-ed piece by Paul Krugman is a good overview of the role Amazon plays in the economy.

The other strand is the common-sense realization that the presence of a local bookstore and other retailers enhances the quality of my community and my life, and I need to support them to keep them around. There are, alas, no longer any bookstores in Faribault (they departed while I was clicking away on Amazon), but nearby Northfield has a wonderful new bookstore, “Content,” as well as The St. Olaf and Carleton College bookstores. These are now my "first resort," followed by Barnes & Noble (both brick-and-mortar and online versions) and other online booksellers.

My resolution, “…only as a last resort,” may sound wishy-washy, but for me to say “I will never use Amazon again” is almost as unrealistic as it would be to say, “I will never use the power company….” For many years I have been (at least) a weekly Amazon shopper, and the one-click option became like the chicken-pecking-the-button-for-feed attraction at the carnival. At this writing, I have not ordered from Amazon for about two months. Surprisingly ( to myself), I haven’t missed it. I hope they’ve noticed.

2. For the same reasons of enlightened self-interest (I want these shops to stay around), I will “Shop Small and Shop Local” as much as possible. I recently had a problem with my iPhone. I was able to contact a real human being at the online Verizon site, and she was friendly and patient with me, but in the end wasn’t able to help me. I took the phone to our local Verizon store, and the cheerful, no-nonsense woman behind the counter solved my problem in about three minutes. She also corrected my mistaken notion that coming to the store or visiting the web site amounted to the same thing. “We’re actually in competition with each other,” she said. Brick-and-mortar Verizon is now my go-to site for most cell-related items and issues.

3. I have gone back to paper-and-ink as my primary medium for book-reading. I have nothing against e-books (except for that Amazon thing), and I read them quite enjoyably on my iPhone Kindle app, especially in a doctor’s waiting room, etc.
But I recently had two thoughts that led me to this change: 1). When our grandkids see me reading a book, I’d rather have them witness me reading a book and not staring into a screen. 2.) I like books. I like having them around.

4. I will happily pay a reasonable price for on-line content that is important to me. (Newspapers, music, etc). At the genesis of the internet age, most publishers and musicians were ensnared by the “I ain’t payin’ for nuttin’” attitude which was the ethos of those early days—and still hangs on. But of course It doesn’t make any sense. In the news business alone—to name one example—we’ve all paid the price for this stinginess by the cutting back of news coverage in general, foreign correspondents in particular, and the substitution of 140-character tweets for in-depth articles. (Again, nothing against Twitter—in it’s proper perspective. Here’s one of my recent tweets: “After hundreds of pre-school readings: I prefer early Berenstain Bears—when Poppa is a hapless doofus—to the later preachy-teachy tales.” Deep.)

5. I am taking the following initiatives against online data-mining and privacy invasion. (In the ever-changing internet environment, who knows if these changes are worthwhile or futile.)
  • I have changed my primary email from to Outlook claims that they do not read e-mail content for the purpose of ad placement (as gmail does). Outlook is a Microsoft product, so it’s hardly a feel-good mom-and-pop replacement, but they are up front about stating that they target ads only according to zip code. I’ll take that trade-off. I am a Mac user, but I like the Outlook interface, and the easily-ignored ads are part of a clean-looking page. (And I can get an ad-free Outlook for $20 a year.)
  • I have switched my search engine from Google to Duck Duck Go, an extension of my Safari browser. The Duck does not track web searches. It is serving me well.
  • “Ello” is a new social media site that is ad-free and does not follow or track users. I am joining it as a kind of experiment—it will only be as good as the number of friends that I can convince to interact with me on the site.  Like many of you, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It is useful, but I mainly don’t trust it. It is clear that, as has been often pointed out, we users are the Facebook product, to be sold to advertisers. Like many of my generation, I stay with it for grand-kid photos (and, okay, I use it to lob the occasional bon mot), but I can’t wait to get off it. A researcher in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, "The Fall of Facebook," reports, “In three years of research and talking to hundreds of people and everyday users, I  don’t think I heard anyone say once, ‘I love Facebook…’”
  • Just yesterday I discovered and installed “AdBlock,” another extension of my Safari browser. My Facebook ads are gone. My tastefully placed ads are gone. Data-miners are no-doubt still mining, but I don’t see the ads!

I continue to be mystified at how easily we have acquiesced in surrendering our privacy (I’ve certainly played my part in this). Germany in particular and Europe in general are taking a harder stand against the likes of Google and privacy infringement. As a result of a recent trial settlement, the court assigned a social media privacy expert to be a part of Google’s “team." In an interview on NPR, he said, “If I
walked into the neighborhood right now and went door-to-door asking, ‘Could I have photographs of all your children?’ I would either be arrested or physically driven from the house. And yet this is very close to what most of us are voluntarily doing online every day.”