Like just about every internet user who is not on the payroll of a massive internet service provider, I am in favor of net neutrality. In the United States, there is a serious threat that net neutrality will be lost. It would be best to keep net neutrality, but if net neutrality is lost, it would then be good to reduce one’s personal dependence on the internet. And even if net neutrality is preserved, the internet still can pose various threats to personal liberty, which is another reason to limit one’s dependence on the internet.
And I love the irony of writing about this on the internet.
As followers of this blog know, I recently went on a really long trip, mostly in places without electricity or internet service. I did not carry any device which could connect to the internet, so I had even less internet access than most of the people around me – people who carry smartphones could access the internet whenever they stumbled on a place with a wifi signal, whereas I did not just need wifi – I also needed to borrow a device. That meant I, for the most part, did not have internet access at all, and when I did have internet access, it was because someone was doing me a favor and I was using a frustrating smartphone on a mediocre wifi network. This was an excellent exercise for figuring out how much I needed the internet.
My #1 use of the internet is email. I generally only spend a little time on my email account, but when my internet access is very restricted, email gets top priority. Yet most of the emails I get are not that important to me – in fact, I don’t even read most of them. What makes email such a high priority is a) when I was away from home, it was a means of contacting my family (though I could also use a phone) and b) WHAT IF an important email arrived? That was the main reason email was such high priority – chances are, on a given day, I’m not going to receive any important emails, but I have to check my email to make sure that I don’t have any important emails.
My #2 use of the internet was practical information/reservations. When I was on trail, I could get all the practical information I needed by talking to people, but it was sometimes nice to confirm by checking the internet myself. I did need to print maps when I was in Ashland, which is why I had to reserve a longer block of time on the computers at the Ashland public library. However, as soon as I got off the trail, I suddenly needed the internet more urgently to get information on accommodation + transit in Canada, as well as to make reservations (including my reservations for trains and accommodation in Seattle and Portland). I could have done this with a phone and printed guidebook instead, but I didn’t have a printed guidebook for Canada (or Seattle/Portland), so that was that.
During my recent travel, when I got internet access, my usage was usually limited to email and practical information/reservations. However, I occasionally got slightly better internet access. For example, once I was done printing maps at Ashland, I still had some time left over before I was required to yield the computer to the next user. And in Snoqualmie Pass and Vancouver, I had access to internet terminals most of the time at my accommodation. Thus, I could use the internet beyond the strict essentials (I was also allowed to borrow an iPad upon request from the hostel I stayed at in Seattle).
What was my #3 use of the internet when I had extra access? Blogs. I would catch up on blogs. I used some of my extra time in Ashland on reading blogs, I spent a good chunk of time reading blogs in Vancouver, and in Snoqualmie Pass, I even wrote a short post. It became pretty clear to me that, beyond the bare essential practical uses of the internet, blogging is what I value most.
In Snoqualmie Pass, that oasis of internet access (it sure felt like an oasis of internet access to me), after I had taken care of my email, done the practical things I could do, and caught up on as many blogs as I had mental stamina for, I had a ‘what now?’ moment. I had all of this internet access, yet I could not think of a way to use it. I was too used to not having internet.
I basically do not do social media, so that is a large chunk of the internet which I do not use (I have no logged into my Facebook account since January 2010, and I don’t even understand how Twitter works, or Pinterest, or a bunch of other social media sites). There is a social penalty to refusing to use social media, but because this is my long-term state, I have developed a social life which does not rely on social media.
Yes, I do sometimes watch streaming videos on the internet, but I don’t value that as much as blogging. If I somehow lost access to video streaming, it would not be a big deal to me – it wasn’t a big deal that I never streamed videos during my entire two months of travel. In fact, nearly all of the online activities which I value (except the rare occasion when I want to download/upload big files) would work okay at dial-up speeds. And if I could somehow make sure that I never got an important email during my travels (or if I was comfortable with allowing someone else to check my email for me), and had a setup where I did not need the internet to make reservations, I probably would not use the internet at all on my next big backpacking trip.
This reflects my current situation – at other points in my life, I valued various internet services differently than I do now. Many people have much greater economic dependence on the internet than I do. For example, I know that some people in rural parts of the United States rely on Amazon for many purchases because it takes them several hours to drive to a place where they buy things in person (this is actually a situation which existed before the internet; a hundred years ago many rural households in the USA bought many goods from the Sears & Roebuck mail catalog for the same reason). There are also many people who value services such as video streaming and social media a lot more than I do. I do not think I am morally superior to people who value internet services differently than I do (especially since the way I value various internet services changes over time).
In addition to the issue of net neutrality, there is also the problem that the internet is becoming increasingly dominated by a few corporations – namely Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Even if these companies are not behaving badly, I still do not like so much power being so tightly concentrated. Thus, I want to avoid using them (and being dependent on them). I don’t use Facebook or any of their affiliated services anyway because when I tried using Facebook I didn’t like it. Nowadays, I will only buy something on Amazon if I a) really, really want it and b) cannot find any other reasonable way to get it. This is why I have not bought or read any ace fiction books which are only available for sale on Amazon (I can buy ace fiction fiction books which are available for sale elsewhere). Years ago I switched to using DuckDuckGo instead of Google for basic search. I still watch videos on YouTube and use Google Maps, and I even will occasionally give the Google search engine a shot if I’m unsatisfied with the DuckDuckGo results (and I sometimes give Baidu search engine a shot too, even though it’s under Chinese censorship).
Luckily, I’m not personally dependent on any of these companies, and I want to keep it that way.
However, I remain worried about the broader consequences. For an example of how letting one internet company have a lot of power can lead to badness, I remind you of the books which were too gay for Amazon (even though the cause in this case is disputed, it still shows how Amazon can abuse its power). A similar and more example is YouTube restricting LGBT+ content, which also affected ace vloggers (heterosexual videos with explicit sexual content are totally okay for kids but videos talking about asexuality are ‘mature’ and should not be viewed by people under 18 … wait, how does that make sense?)
The less dependent one is on the internet for various services one values (i.e. being able to substitute internet services one values with offline equivalents), the less power the internet – the internet service providers, large internet companies such as Google and Amazon, governments who censor the internet (I occasionally use websites based in China, and I fear that there will be more censorship in the US-based internet in the future) will have over one. I realize it is especially difficult to reduce one’s dependence on the internet if one needs it for a livelihood, but I think it’s something to consider.