Layers of reality2021-10-31 | aprates.dev
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None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. - Goethe
I started and stopped writing this text many times over the last few weeks. It took me a while to put all pieces together, to put at least some optimistic perspective together with useful advice and not just complain about issues of the modern society.
We all know that social networks as we know are not going away, not in the short term, and likely also not in the long term. More and more people join them day in day out, and there there's only so much we can do to prevent 'them' from exploiting our privacy to puppeteer our lives. But we can and should try!
So, who are 'they'?As mentioned by Edward Snowden , it's not really about who, but about the collective behavior of tech companies offering "free" service, where, in fact, we know our user data is the product. When I say 'they', it might sound like I am imagining things and drawing conspiracy theories, and actually, it would be very easy to point fingers…
██████ ▄▄███████████▄ ▓▓▓▓▓▓ ░░░░░░░░░░░░░░█ ▓▓▓▓▓▓ ░░░░░░░░░░░░░░█ ▓▓▓▓▓▓ ░░░░░░░░░░░░░░█ ▓▓▓▓▓▓ ░░░░░░░░░░░░░░█ ▓▓▓▓▓▓ ██░░░░░░░░░░░░█ ██████ █░░░░██████▀ █░░░░█ █░░░█ █░░█ ▀▀In the end it's really about where we are heading as a society. And I think it's more useful to understand and discuss the mechanics behind the phenomena, than accusing people and companies, so we can act in the direction of meaningful behavioral changes.
Of course tech developers, myself included, as well as researchers, have the responsibility about what they are putting on the table. But then other forces, like rules created by CEOs of 'big techs' and politicians more focused on their own benefit, together with mass behavior, generate the phenomena we observe as the (mis)use of technology.
Let's recap what 'they' doWe must start by recognizing that many of the technological advances in communication that we benefit from in our daily lives are thanks to the services created by 'them'. Not everything is bad, but we must realize that not everything is good either. And most importantly, there is no free lunch.
Neo didn't realize his existence served merely as a battery powering 'The Matrix' until he took the red pill. In a certain sense, we are watching a new chapter of Black Mirror or Ready Player One  unfolding in front of our eyes, being slowly cooked into believing that it will be for the good, possibly heading into a dystopian existence. But is it not about connecting with people? Or will it be again about new ways to use us as a product?
The risk, once hi-speed 5G access is everywhere, is that these platforms will blend more and more layers of virtuality into our daily life experience, sedating and imprisoning us in virtual bubbles. One of the main problems with that relies in the fact that we are not virtual beings, therefore, we enter the paradox of isolation: the more connect we are, the more disconnected we are.
Moral issuesThe whistleblower Frances Haugen has exposed The Files on The Wall Street Journal , where many facts come as no big surprise about what one of these popular platforms do. To name a few points, 'they':
- apply rules to all users, but some users are more equal than others
- use algorithms that create polarization
- know it causes psychological problems, specially on teenagers
- allow their systems to be used for illegal activities
- take little to no action against hate speech
- censor political movements, favouring a side
More of these same issues had been exposed on the movie The Social Dilemma, from Jeff Orlowski. You should watch this movie knowing that the director presses on the inks to prove a point, but I think it's a valid warning in an accessible language.
What is there for 'us'?I do believe we can fight this trend, by trying to be more educated about how to use technology, pressing companies to adhere to ethical choices, and letting more people be aware that these problems do exist in the first place.
MessengersThe platform's temporary outage on beginning of October was a good reminder of how these platforms try to capture and keep our attention to get us addicted. If we can't avoid it, at least we should try to diversify our dependency on communication services, instead of using the currently mainstream ones, Messenger and WhatsApp, which:
- are both owned by same company
- are closed source (who knows what is actually going on?)
- do not provide metadata privacy protection
- Telegram 
- Signal 
BrowsersChrome is known for having serious privacy flaws, and there isn't really a perfect web browser, but there are options, such as:
- using Brave ; or
- a hardened Firefox setup  
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Be mindfulAs things stand, there is no silver bullet that can provide us a 1-click solution. You might consider to expose less information on these platforms, and be careful about how much time you spend on it, as well as not letting ads be interpreted as a sign of the universe, or the lack of likes and followers let you down.
Many of these platforms, including search engines, allow you to customize how much data you allow them to collect, and by default 'they' will collect and suck every last bit of data they can from the user. You can take some time and visit the privacy configurations section of platforms you use, and try to decrease the allowances you give 'them' by adjusting these settings. It's too much information to cover here, but there are plenty of good guides about it all over the Internet. Same is valid for operational systems and software we use.
Aside from the systems I mentioned before, you could also try and replace entirely most of services offered by 'big tech' companies with smaller community driven open-source solutions. In the case of social networks there is Mastodon , as new kid on the block.
I hope that more alternatives will arise to give 'us', individuals, the power back, instead of giving it away to 'them'. In fact, as a final thought, there is no such thing "us and them", "after all we're only ordinary men". We are part of the problem and part of the solution as well.
References "Don't write about the name, write about what they do" @Snowden
 Ready Player One
 Frances Haugen Files on WSJ
 Brave Browser
 Firefox Browser
 Firefox Hardening Guide
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