A few weeks back I wrote about how my struggles with tech over the decades are nothing new for me. For more than 20 years I’ve been jumping from tech to tech in search of a perfection that simply doesn’t exist.
Given that realization it stands to reason that I’m looking for something, even if I haven’t always known what that something is. I’ve been putting a lot of thoughts into this idea over the last few weeks (and really the last few years, even if not formally) and, as a result, there are a few things I’m definitely looking for with the tech I adopt.
The following list is, for all practical purposes, what I would consider the perfect tech and, at least as of this writing, it doesn’t yet exist. As a software engineer, however, the drive to help move closer to perfection is what keeps me going day to day as these ideals have been a driving influence throughout my career.
Tech should be human
Technology should not be limited to users based on their background, geography or any other construct, real or imagined.
Another way of saying this is that ethics must be at the forefront of technology design and not a result of punishments or accidents. This idea permeates not just the individual products I use and build but the entire business model on which many technology companies I both buy from and contribute to are based.
Escaping the damage caused by technology, no matter how much you don’t believe it applies to you, is impossible. Given that, I believe it is up to those who can to do better and to help others escape toxic technology wherever possible. For me this starts with avoiding big-tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and others as much as possible.
Avoiding toxic technology is not all of it though, my goal for my own technology is to do good as much as possible. I want to contribute to helping make technology something that can empower all people, not just a few. Often in my case this is through education but, armed with the right tools, it means I can also help build real solutions and alternatives to toxic technology.
Tech should be sustainable
Piggybacking on the idea of tech being human, searching for sustainable tech is another attempt to exercise my values in the tech I use.
What is sustainable tech?
- Sustainable tech should be fixable. From replacing a screen to a key on a keyboard hardware should be as repairable as possible. The amount of waste produced with tech designed to be replaced as often as annually is unsustainable.
- Sustainable tech should sustain more than its shareholders. This means supporting companies that pay a livable wage as well as treat their employees with dignity including policies such as work hours, benefits and adequate time off for employees throughout their organization.
- Sustainable tech requires sustainable software. This means software that doesn’t require almost daily patches and can still be operated by users on older hardware and/or weak internet connections. As a tech worker I’m used to powerful computers and high speed internet but many people, including many people who have used the code I have written, do not have either. We must, then, push to build and support software designed to last for all users regardless of how they use it.
Finding companies that follow all of these principles isn’t easy, but it is getting easier. Phones such as Fairphone and Pinephone as well as many other hardware and software companies are already selling products that live up to these goals. There are more sustainable options out there than Google, Apple and Microsoft. Let’s put them to work.
Tech should be productive
The most sustainable and ethical tech might be great but, if it doesn’t do the job we need it to do it is still mostly worthless.
Given this, I am always looking for tech that doesn’t get in my way and, instead, helps me actually get my job done. Whether it’s a phone that runs the apps I need or a speaker that can play the music I want to listen to or even a home security system that works without false alarms or other issues using the right tech for the right job is important.
When people ask me why I still use Android or why I use Linux for most of my needs it comes largely back to this issue. Apple’s ecosystem is great, as long as you work the way Apple thinks you should work. The same can be said for any major ecosystem. As a result, whenever I’ve found myself deep in the clutches of a big tech ecosystem, I make many compromises in how I like to work to bend to the ecosystem.
I’m done doing it that way. Sure, I can use other apps and services for single tasks but they tend to stand out like a sore thumb. Today I do my best to build my tech stack around the best tools for what I need to know. That means Pop_OS for my computers, a [mostly] de-Googled Pixel for my phone and a host of tech for other users that well enough together and provides me a best-in-class tool for the task I need it to accomplish.
Tech should be fun
While not the most important feature I look for in new tech, I still want to enjoy what I get to work with. Lately this has been a major driver of setting up my own self-hosted services to replace Google and other big tech alternatives. At other times it has been setting up all kinds of tech, both hardware and software, simply to make them work. Frankly, this principle is often at odds with the principle of sustainable tech but, if done right, it doesn’t have to be. Regardless, though, if I’m not having fun with tech it is probably time for me to find both a new hobby and a new career.
Tech should be simple
Finally the hardest principle for me to reconcile with my tech is the desire to be simple. This means a few things. First, it means not collecting tech, software or hardware, for the sake of collecting it. Second, it means that tech should be able to quickly integrate into my stack when I need it and without hours or more of setup. Finally, it means that tech should solve a problem, not create one. Whether the problem is extra maintenance of the complexity of making it work with the rest of my stack or that of my wife, if the solution isn’t simple I’ll often run away from it.
This last principle is what has continually brought be back to the ecosystems of Google and Apple, even though they directly contradict every other principle on my list. The fact is, when going “all in” with either Apple or Google there is little I have to think about. It’s all just there without another account or without the decision fatigue of deciding on new hardware and the lure is hard to resist.
Throughout my life I’ve been largely a minimalist. That is, I look for ways to do without “stuff” including unnecessary tools and other solutions. Big tech offers this and offers it easily. I could go fully back into the Google ecosystem, for example, in about 12 hours including speakers and other hardware that would make everything just work together. I would have to adjust my own workflow but, I could do it and, frankly, I am often quite tempted to.
In lieu of big tech ecosystems, and with the search for tech I can enjoy, the result is simply less tech in my life. That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s still, however, hard to resist the siren song of the newest phone or laptop as well as the “simplicity” of music, podcasts, email and more all tied to a single account and packaged up in one nice easy to reach place.
Putting it all together
Putting it all together leaves me where I am today. I use Linux laptops, an Android phone and a largely self-hosted software stack that helps me support companies and technologies that are productive, sustainable, simple, fun and, most of all, human. It’s not perfect, no tech is. Instead it’s a work in progress and something I will continue to strive for both in my personal and my professional roles.