In 2005, Big Finance was at the top of the world. Due to financial innovation and advances in mathematical modelling, Big Finance was highly profitable despite operating at low levels of risk. By 2008, it became clear that all this was an illusion. Then Fed Chairman Bernanke has stated:
So out of maybe the 13, 13 of the most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two. (Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) report, page 354)
It appears to me that Big Tech today is in a similar situation as Big Finance was in 2005. Giant companies Alibaba, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Tencent (in alphabetical order) dominate the markets in which they operate. They also seem to suffer from the same kind of hubris that destroyed Big Finance a decade ago. The risk of catastrophic litigation risk (of the kind that battered the tobacco and asbestos industries a generation ago) looms ever larger. A change in fortunes could be as fast and as brutal as was the case with Big Finance a decade ago.
Prudent risk management today demands that individuals and organizations take steps to protect themselves against the risk that one or more of the Big Tech companies would go bust or shutdown their services for other reasons. But nobody that I talk to seems to take this risk seriously. Both individuals and organizations are very happy to let Big Tech become the monopoly provider of their information technology services.
Moreover Big Tech is Big Risk in another equally important sense – privacy. Big Tech is free because it monetizes our privacy, and if we want to defend our privacy, we have to find a way around it. Two and a half centuries years ago, when William Pitt launched his famous tirade against warrantless searches, privacy was all about defending the citizen against the state:
The poorest man in his cottage may bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may leak; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
Today, the biggest threat to privacy is not the Big State (grave as that threat is), but Big Tech and its model of surveillance capitalism. Most people seem to be inadequately concerned about the risk that Big Tech poses to their privacy.
I have neither the desire nor the ability to change the world, but I do have the desire to derisk my digital life. I am not planning to give up the conveniences that Big Tech provides; the goal is to get the same convenience with only minimal dependence on Big Tech. I fully realize that this will be costly and difficult, but I also believe that it must be done.
Beginning with this post, i intend to document my journey towards digital independence from Big Tech and Big Risk. I expect this to be a long series of posts each covering one step of the process. The set of Big Tech services that have become near indispensable is very long, and I have to find replacements for all of them:
- Email: My work email is provided by my employer and I do not care about whom it depends on for this; that is my employer’s business continuity planning (BCP) problem, not mine. But I certainly need a personal email address that will survive the failure of the email provider. In India, we have a system of mobile number portability that works quite nicely. If my telecom provider goes bust, I can move to another provider without losing my number. I seek something similar for email.
- Cloud storage: How do I replicate the benefits of DropBox and Google Drive?
Calendar: How do I manage my schedules, appointments, reminders across multiple devices without dependence on Big Tech?
Website and Blog: Currently, my employer hosts my website, but I also host/mirror my blogs on WordPress. At some point, I need to take control (and responsibility) for all this.
Social Media: Thankfully, this is a non problem for me, as I am not an active user of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other social medium. I use automated tools to push my blog posts to Facebook and Twitter for the convenience of those readers who rely on them, but that is about all.
Search: Search is dominated by Google, and thus represents a single point of failure that needs to be derisked. Another closely related service is that of translation and other natural language services that is also dominated by Google.
Maps: Again dominated by Google.
Software and Ecosystems: Microsoft is a relatively small problem for me because I shifted from Windows to Linux about eight years ago, and also gradually eliminated practically all proprietary software from my desktops and laptops. Currently, my most important dependence on the Microsoft ecosystem is GitHub.
My phone is Android and so I am more or less outside the Apple ecosystem. But that does not mean that I have no work to do. While Android is described as open source, that description applies only to the bare bones AOSP, and not to the rest of the Android system (particularly Google Play) on the phone.
A moment’s reflection shows that I need the cloud to give me many of the above services. If I am not going to use the (largely free) cloud services offered by Big Tech, then I have to build a personal cloud. That is neither easy nor free, but without that I cannot even get started. That is the topic of my next post.