Tech Veganism

“One place where the veganism metaphor breaks down is that, although nearly anyone can be a vegan, tech veganism is mostly practiced by those who are expert enough or privileged enough to learn the elaborate workarounds to avoid the GAFAMs of the world. Setting up an Ubuntu laptop, a LineageOS phone, a Fastmail account, and wiring it all together so that you actually get calendar notifications is no easy feat. You will probably have to get your hands dirty on the command line.

I find that there’s a bit of a ‘let them eat cake’ attitude among tech vegan boosters, because they often discount the sheer difficulty of all this stuff. (‘Let them use Linux’ could be a fitting refrain.) After all, they figured it out, so why can’t you? What, doesn’t everyone have a computer science degree and six years experience as a sysadmin?”

-Nolan Lawson, “Tech Veganism.” nolanlawson.com. May 31, 2019.

Reposting my comment here:

The point that a lot of people miss is that there are two tech revolutions going on.

On one end, there’s the application, end-user technology that is designed to fit some specific need and be easy to use. Ideally, it’s just tapping buttons on a screen.

These tend to follow direct physical analogs of specific, single purpose tools: Search/Keep replaces the file cabinet, Maps replaces maps, YouTube is mobile television, Play is mobile board games, News replaces the newspaper, Gmail is mail, Contacts replaces the Rolodex, Drive replaces the suitcase, calendar replaces the Day Planner, Translate replaces the foreign language phrase book, Photos replaces the photo album, etc.

They do one thing. They do it well. They are useful. And they are all being combined in one device. But, they aren’t the standard by which every tool needs to be judged.

Some tools are general tools that can be applied to a wide variety of problems. Any idiot can pick up an arc welder or write a Python script. But, it takes time to learn how to use these general purpose tools well. They’re never going to be easy in the way that using email is easy. And there is no need to use Python or an arc welder on your phone.

Should TeX be compared to Word? It’s apples and oranges. How much does that Venn diagram overlap, regardless of definition?

Emacs is as different from a word processor as a word processor is from the legal pad. There’s inherent capability that doesn’t reduce down to the level of a pull-down menu or button. As soon as you make ease of use the defining feature, you narrow down capability to what a pull down menu can handle.

Most people aren’t solving problems that require training A.I.s, collaboratively writing programs with a tool like Git, making CGI movies with Renderman, etc. So, they have no need to learn these tools, and these tools do not need to simplified to suit them. They are what they are. OpenBSD is about security, not being “user-friendly” to the novice user. If you want “user-friendly,” use what everyone else uses.

“Tech vegans,” as you describe them, have different needs and different values. Some day, it would be nice if a LineageOS device were available at your telephone carrier’s store, Google didn’t mess with ad blocking extensions in their browser to make more money, and so forth. But, the incentives are what they are. Opting out of the default is hard by design. That’s not only a technology problem. It’s also an economic one.

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

Installing LineageOS on a Samsung Device

LineageOS is an alternative operating system for your phone. It’s what Android looks like before the device manufacturers and phone carriers start adding software. Installing it is also an interesting exercise in how taking more control of technology often means taking more responsibility and risk.

Note: Installing alternative operating systems like LineageOS on your phone is a great way to learn more about how it works. You are going to make mistakes. You may brick your phone. If you are interested in attempting it, use an outdated phone you already have on the LineageOS list or get one from eBay to learn on. It’s okay to mess up, just don’t attempt it on a device that is important to you until you know what you are doing.

Installing LineageOS on your phone is relatively painless. The major difficulties are twofold: 1) being careful about installing the right files for your device and 2) getting Heimdall, the software on Linux to flash the bootloader TWRP to your phone, to work. Heimdall doesn’t work out of the box when installed with a package manager like apt-get on Debian.

Note: If you are on Windows, Odin sounds easier to use than Heimdall. I didn’t use it, so I do not know if this is true. I can say Heimdall does not work as expected on Linux.

  1. Download TWRP (most recent), LineageOS (nightly for the device) & OpenGAPPS (ARM, same version as LineageOS, pico) for your device and put them on the root directory of your phone’s sdcard. To transfer to your sdcard, enable developer mode for your device (in my case, going to Settings, About Device, and tapping on Build Number 7 times) then select USB Debugging in developer options. You will then be able to connect your phone to your computer, agree to connect on your phone and use any file utility to transfer the three files transfer rather than ADB, the android debug bridge. USB Debugging also needs to be enabled for the next step.
  2. Install Heimdall from source. There is a bug in the version v.1.4.1, which is what currently installs from apt-get. That version always throws off error messages when trying to flash the bootloader TWRP using software from apt-get. Try an apt-get install.
    $ sudo apt-get install heimdall-flash

    Then, check your version with:

    $ heimdall version 

    If you get v.1.4.1 (or if you cannot get Heimdall to work), try compiling from source.

    Compiling from source and using the heimdall-frontend solves that problem. I never got it to work from the command line. Install the required software to compile from source.

    $ sudo apt-get install build-essential cmake zlib1g-dev qt5-default libusb-1.0-0-dev libgl1-mesa-glx libgl1-mesa-dev 

    Make a bin directory in your home directory and enter it.

    $ mkdir bin
    $ cd bin

    Clone the source.

    $ git clone https://gitlab.com/Benjamin-Dobell/Heimdall

    Make a build directory and enter it.

    $ mkdir -p Heimdall/build
    $ cd Heimdall/build

    Build the software from source.

    $ cmake -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Release ..
    $ make

    Transfer Heimdall to the system directory.

    $ sudo cp bin/* /usr/local/bin 
  3. Start the Heimdall-frontend.
    $ heimdall-frontend

    Turn off your device. Boot into download mode, on my device (SAMSUNG) download mode was started by holding down Volume Down, Home and Power. Then connect to your computer using the USB cable.

    1. Go to Utilities tab in the Heimdall frontend.
    2. Detect Device.
    3. You will see Download PIT, which stands for Partitions Information Tables. Go Save As and save it on some location.
    4. Go to Flash tab.
    5. In PIT category, click Browse and select PIT file you downloaded from device in step 3.
    6. Click Add button.
    7. For partition name select where you want to flash it. BE CAREFUL! If you flash it on wrong partition you can perma-brick device. For most devices, the recovery partition is RECOVERY.
    8. Go Browse for file and select twrp.img file you downloaded in step 1. In Session, check No Reboot.
    9. Click Start.
    10. When complete, disconnect device from the USB cable, pull the battery and immediately restart into recovery. On my device, you can boot into recovery by holding down Volume Up, Home and Power. If you don’t, your phone will likely write over the TWRP file you have flashed, and it will look like nothing has happened.
  4. From here, it was straight-forward per the instructions on the LineageOS Installation Instructions for my device.
    1. Backup your device, so you can recover in the event you bork it.
    2. Wipe the Cache, System and Data partitions.
    3. Install LineageOS.zip first, then OpenGAPPS.zip (optional, but if OpenGAPPS is not there a lot of apps might not work as expected, or at all) second.

When done, TWRP will ask you to reboot. That’s it.

Good luck!