my life in the woods has been ruined >_<

our first family computer was a macintosh color classic someone left at our laundromat in 1999 with a sheet of paper taped to it reading "FREE! WORK GOOD!" it did indeed work good. we didn't have an internet connection, but it offered more convenient word processing than the sears typewriter we'd had up to that point. my mom was completing a master's degree at the time, so she mostly used the macintosh to write papers, which she would then transport on floppy disk to the campus computer labs to print out. it also had a couple old games installed by the previous owner, which was about as far as it held my interest. it was the first digital device that we owned more advanced than an alarm clock, and it was a clear benefit. eventually we got ad-supported "free" dial-up and a computer that cost money to connect to it, and by the time i went to college, i had a mobile computer that was always online and fit in my pocket—the lg ally, still the pinnacle of phone design as far as i'm concerned.

i grew up on the trailing edge of the "digital divide:" we lagged considerably behind the middle class rate of adoption in home computing, home internet access, and later, "smart" phones. but this divide was transitory: as consumer technology got faster and cheaper (and it did so quickly enough that a computer sold for $1400 in 1993 could be abandoned at a laundromat in 1999), the rising tide would lift all boats. the clinton years saw a lot of optimism about the internet's equalizing potential. it would be an engine of economic mobility. in cyberspace, race and gender would be non-factors, as we would confront each other as pure rational minds—a digital "veil of ignorance," to cite the then-president's favorite book. a lot of this '90s optimism, whether it was spouted by slick willie, wired, or matthew lillard's character in hackers, is so obviously naïve now it's as if it was written to be repeated in knowing tones by adam curtis. (in willie's case, it was not naïveté, but a thin justification for cutting social services.) but a mood of inevitability prevailed: sooner or later, you would drive onto the information superhighway, and it would take you to a better place than you'd left. the socially transformative power of digital communications was considered self-evident as late as 2011, in the paternalistically named "arab spring:" where western military intervention failed in bringing democracy to the mohammadean orient, western technology would succeed!

the 2010s "techlash" was precipitated by a wave of centralized platforms and services that demonstrably and visibly made the world dumber and worse. as a latecomer to mobile platforms, most of the phone-first "apps" baffled me. the first experience i remember where i greeted a new platform with befuddlement was instagram. it was like flickr or photobucket, but it only worked on your phone? what was the point? snapchat i still can't imagine the usecase for beyond sending self-destructing nudes (which is a value-add, granted), and never bothered with. platforms based on endlessly scrolling vertical video i genuinely think shouldn't exist. they will doubtless be replaced by something even worse that i cannot yet imagine. this isn't a radical or novel opinion. expressing it gets you (fairly) eyerolls and mutters of "yeah, we know, everybody knows." even before we get to the hidden costs of consumer electronics manufacture, there is a clear sense of exhaustion with the ubiquity of screens opening onto a landscape of undifferentiated slop.

now that the mood has finally soured on the unqualified benefits of "social media" and "smart" devices, the median consumer no longer feels a need to swap out their phone every year or two, paranoia about bugging your own home with botnet gadgets is belatedly widespread, and we comfortable few are at least dimly aware of consumer electronics manufacture's human cost, from suicides in shenzhen to slavery in the congo, there is an uncomfortable inversion of the "digital divide." the question in the crystal palace is not "when will this new technology be available to me?" but "how can i escape this technological environment that seems inescapable?"

if you spend any time in online spaces dedicated to digital privacy, you'll quickly discover a small ecosystem of blogs by paranoiacs who suggest you move to the country in the grand american tradition of thoreau, emerson, and kaczynski. live an authentic, based, even "trad" life off-grid. buy land. grow crops. keep chickens and goats. convert to some austere denomination of christianity. abstain from masturbation. drink unfluoridated water. this is likely overkill, especially if you aren't the kind of person who uses "soy" as an epithet. there are legitimate reasons to do some of it—you can live cheaply this way with a lot of personal space, if you do it right (lots of "cheap rural land" is cheap for a reason; don't be a sucker). but to escape "technological slavery," as teddy k himself would tell you, it can be both too much and not enough. the frontier of "civilization" is often where new "security" technologies are first deployed, perhaps unsurprisingly: it's smart to first test possibly classified tech away from populated areas. for now this mostly means post-colonial slums and borderlands, but it periodically turns inward for the sake of ferreting out "domestic extremism" or routinizing other forms of it (think cold war "ufo" sightings, e.g.).

the mythology of the early internet, coming as it did from the US, was inflected with the mythology of the frontier, the homestead, the rugged individual carving out his own space in the wilderness. since the digital version has since been paved over and converted to suburban developments and shopping malls, a certain kind of millennial hobbyist has decided to enact the frontier fantasy in meatspace instead. as with all individualist fantasies of escape, it's a doomed proposition. (as an aside, a retreat to the woods to escape the "degeneracy" of city life is one of the sillier plans of meme fascists—it is almost impossible to overstate how much more common bestiality, incest, and practices that we would today recognize as child sex trafficking were in pre-industrial, agricultural society.)

there are, of course, reasons to be paranoid. unless you live at the end of a country access road, you will probably always be on camera, courtesy of your local police department, convenience store, or busybody neighbor. if you carry a cellphone, you're always carrying cameras, microphones, and radios that continuously tie your location to your legal identity. if you conduct most transactions with card, your bank (hence advertisers and probably the state) know where you spend money, how much, and what on. if you tap to pay for the metro, especially in systems like seattle's where fares are adjusted to how far you travel, the city logs where you're going and when. etc. but much like it is better to have a sensitive conversation in a crowded bar than an empty one, you are afforded some protection by the fact that you are surrounded by noise, lots of other people sending out lots of other data. when you are "in the swarm," you are more likely to be caught up in population-level regulations, but less likely to be targeted specifically. this is a trade-off of a city.

before you retreat to a shack in the woods, try making some basic day-to-day quality of life improvements. you'd be surprised how easy it is to opt out of the more intrusive, psychically damaging parts of our brave new world:

  • you can simply not use social media. it isn't that hard. take the time to establish other channels of communication with the handful of people from twitter or facebook that you want to keep in touch with, then delete your accounts.
  • use a frontend for youtube as much as possible, and an rss reader for subscriptions. download or get physical copies instead of streaming, like you used to ten years ago. perhaps like me you are behind the curve, and you never stopped doing this.
  • as services like google and amazon decline in quality, it feels easier than ever to stop using them. use searX. run the occasional errand. get a library card. the loss of convenience is very marginal. migrating out of gmail is probably the biggest hassle, but it's worth it to set up a mail client with PGP, or at least switch to a webmail provider that doesn't scan your inbox to target ads. you can also set up gmail with PGP in a mail client, if moving email accounts is impractical.
  • firefox or chromium with a good content blocker and commonsense mitigations will offer good enough privacy for most purposes. that said, content blocking is about to get much harder in chromium with manifest v3, and if google twists mozilla's arm, firefox will follow suit, so the good times may just be over. there's always palememe with eta-matrix.
  • if your isp is known to sell user data to advertisers, you might benefit from using a vpn if you understand the trade-offs involved. make the decision thoughtfully; don't just pay for a vpn you saw in a youtube ad. it hopefully does not need to be said at this point, but vpns do not make you anonymous. if you need (something approaching) anonymity, use tor or i2p.
  • use a password manager, preferably local. if you're going to use a cloud-based one, use an audited open-source one like bitwarden, or just the one built into your browser, which will reduce your risk of entering passwords into fields you shouldn't vs. an extension.
  • basically any debian-based distro will work as drop-in replacement for windows, if this is what you're looking for. on the arch side, manjaro is ostensibly better for gaming, but i don't care about that shit so don't take my word for it. "user-friendly" distros tend to have more cruft and telemetry, but literally anything is an improvement over windows. if you're jumping ship from mac, try vanilla debian (that's what i did).
  • surveillance gadgets like "smart" speakers and doorbells are still, for now, opt-in unless you live in a bougie new development that preinstalls them (in which case you have enough disposable income to shop around for a place that doesn't). if you "own" a home on a thirty-year mortgage with an hoa or condo board that requires video doorbells, you have bigger problems. you're in debt peonage forever, and you're neighbors with hitler. you're going to go to jail for having the wrong kind of grass on your lawn.
  • buy used! buy used! buy used! not only will it be cheaper, but older devices are less likely to have baked in anti-features and more likely to be user-repairable and upgradeable.

the list is long and mostly too obvious to keep relating. you don't need me to tell you not to use tiktok—not because china is using it to brainwash you or whatever congress and hack outlets are saying this week, but because it will make you stupid, something just as true of its cornfed american equivalents.

the point is, "opting out" doesn't take much, especially if you've been "behind the curve" like i have. you probably already "opt out" of plenty. most of the stuff i don't do, i don't even think about, because it's less out of moral conviction than lack of interest. and in most respects living in a city makes it easier because there are lots of other options. this is why suburbanites went nuts during the pandemic: they live in a wasteland with all the disadvantages of the city (social control, surveillance, high taxes, etc.) and none of the advantages of the country (cheap housing, autonomy, nature). the suburbanite has nowhere to go besides department stores and fast casual chain restaurants, so when those closed, they really were "stuck in their homes." i wasn't! i hung out with my friends in the park.

if there's one thing we've all internalized over the last few years, it's that social isolation is not desirable, in times of crisis or otherwise. in a city, it's harder to be isolated. you get to know your neighbors by default when they live right there. you don't have to depend on delivery services when you live near shops, takeout restaurants, and library branches. nor is it necessarily expensive. the most i've ever made in a year is $35k (an outlier), and i've always lived comfortably. most north american cities are not new york or san francisco; they're not (yet) dystopian laboratories for social control and don't cost too much to live a decent life in. an unimportant midsize city with low cost of living is as good an option as moving to the country. when the shit hits the fan, it won't save you, but nothing will. the question is how to stay sanest in the meantime.