Am I insulating myself?

I continue to use my phone without Google services, and I like it. I finally feel free. But now I’ve started to wonder.

I remember watching “The Matrix” for the first time back when I was 15 or so…and I remember thinking about the nature of what motivated the characters and why. “Freedom” is a word that gets thrown around alot, but there is a part of me that, even back then, seemed to resonate with Cypher, the one who negotiated with Agent Smith to get plugged back into The Matrix in exchange for giving up Morpheus. Now sure, the betrayal part wasn’t cool, but wanting to get plugged back into The Matrix? That made a whole lot of sense to me.

Cypher was having a steak dinner. Not really, but it was real to him. What was everyone else having? One nutritional supplement. That’s it. For the rest of your life. Neo found love in Trinity, but Morpheus never did. If Cypher was looking for female companionship, there were no options on the ship after Switch died. They spent their days constantly on the run from the Sentinels, they never saw daylight, there was nothing they got to truly own…the list of drawbacks continues, while the list of advantages of not-being in The Matrix doesn’t. We root for Morpheus and Neo and Trinity because they’re fighting the good fight…but in practice, was Cypher really so off base for wanting to live out his life back in The Matrix? I don’t think so.

It’s been about a month since I’ve been using this phone completely Google-free. I can take pictures, but not nearly as good as the photos I can get using the Camera app from OnePlus. SwiftKey is still inferior to Swype. Visual Voicemail barely works. Frost, my Facebook replacement, acts strange and has trouble loading pictures sometimes. I can’t be sure that it’s truly software related, but my 5G performance is generally worse than LTE…and that’s just the things I know.

I don’t use TikTok.
I don’t use Craigslist.
I don’t use Snapchat.
I don’t use  Youtube (except in a browser).
I don’t use SoundCloud.
I don’t use Twitch.
I don’t use Office.
I don’t use a Fitbit or other fitness band.
I don’t use Teams or Slack or Monday.
I don’t use CashApp or Zelle…though I do use Venmo and it works.
I dont use Discord.
I dont use Spotify.
I don’t use Pinterest.
I don’t use Walmart or Target or pretty much any shopping apps.
I don’t use Google Docs or do much in the way of document editing on my phone, unless you count this blog.
I don’t use Uber Eats or Doordash or pretty much any food ordering app.
I don’t use Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri.
I don’t use Ring or a security DVR.
I don’t use Neighborhood or Next door or Everyblock.

The list goes on and on…and I’m starting to wonder if the experiences I eschew to spend my days on a command line on my desktop are worth it. People are finding things they like, buying and selling things amongst local people, ordering new foods, chatting with the people it’s been a social taboo to meet, and I’m sure there are hundreds of other things that mobile apps are doing, but I’m not.

There is most definitely a part of me that feels a bit like Ariel… Wanting to be where the people are and finding myself  wondering if my aversion to echo chambers and endless online accounts means that I have simply made an echo chamber of my own. I sit, wondering whether the nuance of the liberty I feel is a technicality in that I spent a massive amount of time and effort to simply custom build my own prison.

Google collects a metric truckton of data from everyone, and yet, the world turns. Nobody else gets concerned if Google has all their contacts; nobody in my contacts list isn’t in someone else’s phone that is uploaded. My texts are synced on someone else’s phone, and even if my location is only partially traceable based on the amount of disabling I have implemented, my work phone remains on my person with far fewer limitations.

Why am I fighting this battle? What am I fighting for? “because I can”? Because I’m somehow sticking it to “Big Tech”? Because I’m worried about my data being accumulated and monetized while also using Facebook and doing nearly all my shopping with a credit card?

Maybe all of this effort is just me spiting myself. If Google turns on the billion people that already have Android phones and somewhat-consensually sync all their data, then I’m very unlikely to be “spared” from whatever happens. I’ve got friends who expressly opt into giving Google data in pretty much every possible way… And they seem happy.

Betrayal aside, maybe Cypher was right: the steak he ate wasn’t real, but the experience of eating it was, and it was an experience he could have inside The Matrix that he would never experience as long as he was “free”. Maybe my quest for a Google-free phone is little more than a quixotic waste of time, and I’d achieve greater happiness by going back to the phone’s original software from the manufacturer, leaving my phone modding days in the golden age of the HTC HD2 or Galaxy S3.

Or maybe, freedom is ownership…and even if “freedom” boils down to constructing my own prison, at least it’s mine.

4 thoughts on “Am I insulating myself?

  1. Elizabeth

    I can understand your frustration with wondering if all your efforts are worth it. I say that if you went through the trouble and did the research to have your devices be as un-trackable as possible, there was a reason for it. It was something you believed in and you felt it was worth it.

    It’s not very different from the person that researches what’s in their food and products. They read the labels, look up what things mean (like BPA free, or 70% organic). They spend hours reading books, articles and research what items can cause different types of cancer. They don’t shop the same as people who just throw TV dinners and hair spray into their shopping cart because it’s on sale. At the end of the day they probably also spend a lot more money than most. But they feel a sense of satisfaction in knowing what chemicals are in their soaps, plastics, and food products.

    Another group of people who can relate to you are the off griders. I’ve watched multiple videos and am fascinated by folks who put in the time and energy to do it. They truly believe it’s worth the hard work to live almost entirely (and sometimes entirely) off the grid. They built things like food cellars where they store everything they need to survive for months at a time. They learned how to pickle and preserve different things and what temperatures to keep them from spoiling without refrigeration. They plant and harvest their meals and often use the barter system with their neighbors. Some even keep livestock and/or learned how to fish and hunt.

    Some would look at all these people and scoff at their efforts. It’s so much easier to just live the way everyone else does and not bother. But if what you are doing gives you the feeling of freedom,…then that is reason enough to continue. Just my opinion. 🙂

  2. Joe A

    We all know the one true way to completely cut off this rampant data collection is to just not use the internet, and in today’s society it’s impossible to do that and have any convenience whatsoever. Best you can do is limit the data haemorrhaging from your phone. Even if you COULD trust big companies like Google, who’s to say their security will never get compromised by a bad actor and have your data leaked?

    A couple ‘techy’ suggestions:
    1 . Data collection has a bottleneck – network connections. NetGuard (on Fdroid) is a good app to use as it will deny network access to specific apps via the internal VPN. Just deny network access to the OnePlus camera app and the data will have nowhere to go. Just be mindful when you reboot your phone it takes a bit for NetGuard to fire back up allowing any running apps to access the network beforehand. Also it won’t work if you’re already using a VPN.

    2. The removal of Google Play Services may seem inconvenient but it does wonders for battery life. Aurora Store on F-droid will allow you to install apps from Google Play via an Anonymous ID. Almost all the apps will complain about the lack of Google Services, but some will work just fine without them. If you need those apps, find a Lineage ROM that uses MicroG.

    As far as the true deeper meaning of this post goes, all I can offer is what I’ve been doing. I don’t have much of a social life these days so I don’t use Facebook. If people want to reach me they can text me, therefore I don’t really talk to anyone anymore, most people probably forgot I exist because I’m not popping up in their feeds.

    The temptation to re-join society is strong when you’re doing so much to minimise your digital footprint. I’m stuck in the awkward position where I’ve got one foot in the door and one foot out. I’m too paranoid to take full advantage of these corporate-run apps and services but too demotivated to go through an entire digital lockdown. I don’t keep all my data in any one ecosystem, I actually spread things out across different companies, emails, etc. It’s both good and bad for different reasons. I do different things on different web browsers, etc.

    At the end of the day you just have to look at every single app/service you use and ask yourself “does this really add value to my life or do I just think I need this for xyz reasons?” It boils down to being a minimalist. Ignorance is in-fact bliss, and highly intelligent people are some of the most miserable people out there because they understand things. We all think we need all these things for all the “what-ifs” that come up, but most of those what-ifs never happen, and when they do, we’ll never be prepared enough.

    My goal has always been to have a phone that makes calls, sends texts, plays MP3s, takes pictures, has a web browser if needed, a map, and literally nothing else. I’m using a work-iPhone with my personal number so that’s a no-go for now. The philosophy is that if my phone is the one device that’s always on me, I don’t need it to broadcast everywhere I go to advertisers. It’s got enough features to get me out of a jam, albeit with some minor inconvenience compared to just telling your phone to google map your way home for you. In the end your phone is a tool, don’t let it use you :P

    1. joey

      Hey Joe! Thanks for writing!

      I’ve actually implemented most of what you’ve suggested already; my OnePlus 8T is running the AOSP variant of LineageOS, free of the Google Play Services…and it is indeed nice to get nearly three days of battery life out of a single charge! NetGuard is installed (and donated; the author also wrote the excellent XPrivacy which I used for a very long time), the Aurora Store is fantastic (though I’ve been more successful at using F-Droid and APKPure), and asking myself ‘but why?’ before most app installs…which is why I have relatively few apps on my phone.

      The point of the blog post, though, was more on the philosophical side, rather than the technical one. I would submit that between your rib and your progeny, a library full of saved TikTok videos and Pinterest boards and a tablet full of assorted social apps would be a detriment. The real question, more so in my case, is what I have accomplished by working to reduce my digital footprint. What have I gained beyond some smug satisfaction that Google and Facebook have collected maybe half the data that they otherwise would have? I just don’t know what the cost/benefit analysis is here, and that’s what I’m questioning. Do I like being tracked? Not at all…but as much as my “because f’k you that’s why” reasoning has been good enough for me to desire to install countless custom ROMs and mods on my phones…it may purely be FOMO, but if there’s nothing on this side of the anti-tracking divide for me, I am wondering if I am simply spending my days tilting at windmills and believing that I am winning a war that I will inevitably lose, wasting time I can never recover, for a prize I cannot so much as articulate, let alone quantify…and if the only real answer at this point is “the joy of the journey”, well then, the journey truly is of no virtue.

  3. Joe A

    ^ To answer the more philosophical question, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’ve ‘gained’ in your efforts. If you look at just the anti-tracking side of things, it really does feel like you’re “winning a war you’ll inevitably lose” as you said. HOWEVER, when I made the decision to separate Google from my personal life, it was because I realized exactly how dependent I was on this ONE company for a lot of my digital life.

    The tracking war is really just a series of battles, you win the ones you can. The biggest thing you gain, however, is the freedom in knowing that your digital life isn’t shackled to any one company. In my case, I knew I had to de-google my life because if I somehow lost access to that one account, I was screwed. I may not be the most untrackable person to Big Tech, but at least I know if I lost an account I’d be able to move on with life feeling like I haven’t lost much.

    The general mentality I’ve heard people have lately is “they’re gonna get my info, but I’m not gonna make it easy for them to get it.” As far as tracking goes that’s about as good as it gets realistically. All I can say is, with that long list of services you don’t use, that’s a list of freedoms you have that others don’t. The less hooks Big Tech has in your life, the better off you are.

Leave a Reply