I have been thinking about the issue of being too dependent on technologies. A few months ago, I decided to be more independent. So I deactivated Facebook and experienced the world without it. The experience is totally worth it and I learnt a lot.
Life without Facebook
As soon as I deactivated Facebook, I felt a sense of loneliness, and I realized how lonely I actually am without all the friends constantly refreshing my news feed. But, this same realization entails another information:
I have always been lonely. The feeds on Facebook are not part of my life, they are part of my friends’ lives. I have become so dependent on Facebook to fill up my social life, and neglected the fact that I did not actually have one.
I lost all contacts on Facebook. This made me realized that I didn’t have contact information of some friends outside Facebook Messages. This would be unthinkable a few years back. We are friends but we couldn’t contact each other without using an account from a social media?
I was also surprised that I have lost things that were not exactly related to Facebook. The most important one is my Spotify account. I registered my Spotify account with Facebook sign in (which I would never do again) and it is forever being tagged as a “Facebook account”. Even though I have access to the email address listed in my Spotify account, I could not log in or retrieve any information of my account because I have deactivated my Facebook account.
The software engineers in Spotify probably treats this as a rare case and didn’t pay attention to it but it says a lot about today’s world:
When things become so tightly integrated, one thing breaks another and triggers chain effects.
Loss of Spotify account affected my daily life as I could not get back the entire library of my favourite songs and I could not re-build that exact library again. Interestingly, it also showed how dependent I was on Spotify.
Problems with dependencies
Facebook and Spotify are just two examples. In life we often depend on many more technology-enabled services, such as Google, Twitter, Gmail, iCloud or even Adobe CC. These services are designed to make you depend on them, but there are reasons why you do not want that to happen.
1. Social sign-ins
Many of these services offer an option to sign in to one site using your account for another site. This removes the “tedious” process of typing email address, checking email and clicking verification links. But perhaps more importantly, it replaces your emails with your XYZ account as your online identity. As illustrated in my Facebook example, once you lose your social media account, it will affect your all other accounts. And now I am scared to imagine what happens if I lose my Google account, as it is tied to so many other things. There might be some ways to unlink your account but in the case of Spotify there is none.
2. Shutting down and migration
Personally I have experience the close-down of my previous blog on Baidu Space. Although I have migrated my most important posts to my new blog, all the links to blog post became invalid and I lost many valuable memories in the comments.
List of services shutting down and affecting people:
- Baidu Space, a popular Chinese blogging platform, shut down in April 2015.
- Parse, a popular service was closed down in January 2016, potentially affecting many mobile apps that were no longer actively maintained.
- Google’s old Web Search API was officially depreciated in May 2016, to quote a comment from Hacker News:
Additionally, there are probably going to be big repercussions to the web/average person’s browsing experience as a result of this. A massive number of sites (and programs, bots, etc) were using this API because of its simplicity (and absence of registration/authentication).
Every shutting down and migration means loss of data, loss of memory. That is the price to pay when you depend on something.
3. Service disruptions
We are experiencing more and more service disruptions as we adopt more and more services into our daily routes. When a school module uses GitHub to host and track our progress on projects, we become dependent on GitHub. A service disruption of a few minutes may not affect the course so much, but how about a day? Maybe you have faith in GitHub, but their recent disruptions are not a good sign. We live in an unpredictable world, while companies like Google and GitHub has done everything to minimize service disruptions, we can never guarantee that Google will work in the next second.
Related news on service disruption issues:
- Left-Pad breaking entire JS ecosystem – NPM & left-pad: Have We Forgotten How To Program?
- Firefox bug disabling all extensions – All extensions disabled due to expiration of intermediate signing cert
This topic is getting more and more attention thanks to the exposure of various government surveillance schemes. No matter what the companies promise, they cannot change the fact that they have your data, and they have total control over your data. You can encrypt it, you can set password, but you can’t take the data away from their hands. They can move it from one data center to another. They can “review” your information if you have been “flag”. Because you are dependent on them, you are at the mercy of them to protect your privacy. If they choose to give up to another party, there goes your privacy. If they make a mistake or become a target of hackers, there is nothing you can do to protect your privacy.
Related news on privacy issues:
5. Sudden Termination of Account
I did not realize before reading this news on Google accounts being terminated suddenly due to violation of ToS and people who have similar issues. This is scary. To illustrate the effects, I quote from the article directly:
The account closure includes all of Google’s services. The people affected don’t have access to Gmail, Google Drive, Google Voice, or anything from Google. They don’t have any access to gift cards, bills, travel confirmations, work documents, etc that were saved in their Gmail accounts.
Worse yet, emails that are sent to their Gmail accounts are being bounced back as undeliverable. Even if Google relents and reactivates their accounts they will never know what emails they missed while the account was locked.
Some people had family photos saved in their drive that are now lost. It’s the 21st century version of losing priceless mementos in a house fire.
If I had to choose the most compelling reason why you should not depend on services such as Google, this one takes the crown.
Other incidents of sudden termination of account (list updated from time to time):
- Digital Exile: How I Got Banned for Life from AirBnB
- G Suite Horror Story
- MailChimp deleted my account with no warning or notification
- Slack closes account of an ethnic Iranian user living in Canada
- Why I Can No Longer Recommend Google Fi
- Google completely terminated our new business via our Google Play Developer Account
6. Security (Section added on July 2018 following the eslint incident)
Dependencies like node packages ultimately rely on trust. You will need to trust every single node in the dependency graph, from the npm/yarn servers, to the publisher of the packages. From the eslint incident, it is clearly far from a robust system to put trust into.
Solutions to dependencies
Now we look forward. We recognized the problems of dependencies and we want to become more independent. It might be a little late for some, but better late than never.
This, I believe is the easiest and fastest solutions to “removing” dependencies. Technically, it does not “remove” dependencies, but rather, offer you more choices to depend on instead of having a single point of failure and hence mitigating most of the problems that come from single dependency.
For tech people who don’t have it yet, get your own server (VPS, cloud). Get control over your own data. Deploy Gitlab on your own server instead of relying solely on GitHub or bitbucket.
Add your Facebook friends to your mobile phone contacts. Better still, meet them in person and set up regular hang outs in the physical world.
Start backing up data in different ways. Don’t just dump everything to Dropbox or Google Drive. Use an external hark disk. Use a flash drive to store your most important documents.
Breaking off (at least temporarily)
By stop using a service for a while, you start to appreciate how dependent you are on it. You don’t need to completely remove it from your world, but make sure you are able to live normally without it, at least temporarily. This forces you to find substitutes and replacements and makes you less dependent on it. This process is almost like treating drug or cigarette addictions. Eventually you may realize that you do not need it anymore and it makes you wonder why you were so obsessed with it in the first place.
Instead of relying on a centralized service, such as GitHub or npm, we could use the new blockchain technology to implement the services in a decentralized manner, like how bitcoin works.
An example of developing decentralized service based on blockchain is the Ethereum Project.
Apologies if I made those services sound too evil. As a matter of fact, I believe they are built with every good intention and we should use them to make our lives more meaningful and enjoyable.
The problem is with human nature. As soon as we find something good and start using it, we become more and more dependent on it til the extent that we cannot live without it. Sometimes we just need a break and embrace the great old world without Facebook.