We are beholden to a few Big Tech overlords for much of our digital lives. We can be more conscientious about it.
In the morning, you check email. At noon, you browse social media and message friends. In the evening, you listen to music while shopping online. Around bedtime, you curl up with an e-book.
For all of those activities, you probably used a product made or sold by Google, Amazon, Apple or Facebook. There's no simple way to avoid those Big Four. Even if you subscribed to Spotify, you would probably still be using a Google Android phone, an Amazon speaker or an Apple iPhone to stream the music. Even if you deleted Facebook, you might still be using the Facebook-owned Instagram or WhatsApp.
Being beholden to a small set of companies that touch every corner of our digital lives is precisely why lawmakers summoned the chief executives of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple to testify in an antitrust hearing this week. The tech titans were grilled over whether their companies have become so powerful and far-reaching that they harm rivals and all of us, too.
So what can we do if we want to break out of the stranglehold of Big Tech?
At first glance, there may not seem like much we can do to escape. "It's not like you can start shopping at local bookstores and put Amazon out of business," said Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, a Chicago-based company that offers productivity apps.
But the more I thought about this, the more I realised that there were some steps that we could take to better support tech's little guys, too. We would do ourselves and smaller businesses a favour by staying informed on alternatives, for one. We could change our consumption patterns so that we were not just buying new products from the tech giants. And we could show our support for indie developers who make the apps we love.
As Fried put it, "We can do things to change our own conscience." Here's how.
When possible, find alternatives
Step One to becoming a more conscientious consumer is doing some research.
While Google Chrome may be the most popular web browser, there are alternatives that collect less data about us. And while all of our friends are on Facebook, there are also smaller apps or methods we can use to stay connected with them. The key is to read news sites and tech blogs to learn about options.
"You have to read and be informed," said Don Heider, chief executive of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "Otherwise, you're not going to have a clue of where to go and what to pick and what the impact is."
Heider pointed to a few examples: Instead of Google Chrome, people can download great browsers, including DuckDuckGo, Brave and Opera, which focus on stronger privacy and security protections. Instead of Facebook, we can tell our friends to hang out with us on social media apps like Vero and Mastodon, which are both ad-free, he said.
The same goes for Amazon. Instead of ordering paper towels and hand sanitiser on Amazon, consider picking up those items at a local store. Instead of ordering a new dog collar on Amazon, consider buying a custom-made one from an independent merchant on Etsy.
Fried says he rarely shops on Amazon, takes cabs instead of Ubers and finds books via IndieBound, a resource for buying titles from local bookstores. "When the default is just Amazon, Amazon, Amazon, you're just feeding the flame," he said.
Why buy new? Buy used
Speaking of alternatives, there's a different way to buy tech hardware altogether: Purchase gadgets used or refurbished.
When you buy a new phone or computer, your dollars go directly to the tech giants who created the products. But when you buy used, you are supporting a broader community of small businesses that repair and resell equipment.
Many of us generally shy away from used electronics because we fear the products may be in shoddy condition. The reality is that resellers work with technicians who restore products to their former glory before putting them up on sale — and the gadgets are often backed by a warranty. Reputable vendors of used goods include GameStop and Gazelle.
Buying used also contributes to a broader mission: the so-called right to repair movement.
Unlike car mechanics, small electronics repair shops have limited access to the parts and instructions that they need to service our smartphones, tablets and computers. Public advocacy groups and the repair community have pushed to pass legislation that would require electronics manufacturers to share all of the components and information needed to fix our gadgets.
If more people opt to buy used or refurbished goods, that will show that there is demand for repaired products. That, in turn, puts pressure on manufacturers to make repair more accessible to independent technicians and consumers, said Carole Mars, director of technical development and innovation at the Sustainability Consortium, which studies the sustainability of consumer goods.
"It comes down to accepting refurbished and demanding refurbished," Mars said. "That will lead you to ask, 'Why can't I get this product used or fixed?' It's because the company locked it down."
So try to make this a habit: Whenever you are shopping for an electronic online, check if there is a used or refurbished option. If there is one in good condition, go for it and save some bucks.
Support indie developers
A lot of what we do with our devices is made possible by smaller companies that produce our apps and games. One way to show our support to David rather than Goliath is to have some patience and empathy for the indie developers.
People often get frustrated when an app or game they love gets a big software update and charges another $3 to $10 for the new version, for example. Try not to get irritated — these are small outfits trying to survive, not big corporations trying to milk you — and be willing to pay. It's the same amount of money as a cup of coffee or a sandwich, and you're polishing a piece of software that you love.
"If you can pay for software that you like," said Brianna Wu, a game developer, "you probably have an ethical responsibility to do so in the same way that you'd have the ethical responsibility to tip a waitress. The reality is that most of the time when you play an indie video game, that group of people have bet their entire company's future on you paying for it."
Keep in mind also that small app developers lack the huge marketing budgets of our tech overlords. They rely largely on all of us to do grassroots marketing in the form of written reviews or word-of-mouth, said David Barnard, founder of app studio Contrast. So when you love an app, tell your friends about it.
I'll close with an example: My favorite piece of indie software for the Mac is Fantastical, a calendar app, which does a better, more reliable job organising my online calendars than Apple's calendar app.
It was an expensive calendar app — $50 — but it's kept me punctual, which makes it worth every penny.
Written by: Brian X. Chen
Photographs by: Glenn Harvey
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES