Consumerism and Anti Consumerism in Tech

Tales From The Dork Web #3

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Malvina Reynolds wrote some wonderful songs, but my favourite was Little Boxes. It’s still relevant to this issue’s theme of consumerism now as it was when she wrote it.

Obey, Consume - Reflections on They Live

They Live is John Carpenter’s classic cult film featuring Rowdy Roddy Piper as a drifter who discovers an alien conspiracy to keep people divided and distracted. It’s one of those films that many agreed shouldn’t have been green-lit back then, and probably wouldn’t be now. As is with the best movies, it cuts pretty close to the bone. From a John Carpenter interview with R.A. The Rugged Man:

‘They Live’ was my fuck you to Ronald Reagan and everybody in the ’80s loving that old wrinkled piece of shit. He fucked up everything.

Yes he did, John. Yes he did. But what would the world of They Live look like today?

Hal Hefner made a fantastic art series called CONSUME exploring the world of They Live as seen through modern sunglasses, if not modern phone screens. From Solo: A Star Wars Story of Consumerism to a naked President Trump looking at a laptop covered in excerement, nothing is sacred.

Since the introduction of the iPhone and iPad, your rights, control and privacy have chipped away. We’re bombarded with signals telling us to buy new and shiny tech.

What was the last thing that made you think, “Wow, this is way more useful than what I had, this upgrade was so worth it”? I want to know, tell me on twitter. For me it was retina displays, which came out in 2010. Many of today’s upgrades we get (rather than ask for) are driven more through planned obselescence than innovation.

Products end up in drawers or landfill joined by the shiny boxes belonging to the shiny things that replace them. This isn’t by accident, it’s been by design since Edison. If a product fulfils a need now, it’s harder to develop the need required to sell you a slightly better product at full price next year. Don’t believe me? Honestly ask yourself, “Does my new phone do enough to justify the price paid to replace my last one?”

“Is it worth it” is a different question. Does a new $1000 phone provide an additional $1000-worth of impact on your daily life?

Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis explores the roots of consumerism in his epic series, The Century Of The Self. Part 1 looks at the workings of Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR and the architect of consumerism. For an understanding of its effects, I’ll refer you to George Monbiot. Some readers might dislike George. If he’s wrong it won’t matter in about 50 years time. If he’s right, we won’t.

Throwing (On) Shades

What if hardware was designed to be modular and repairable? What if we commoditized it differently with standardised replaceable parts?

The Fairphone 3 is a phone with an expected 5 year supported lifespan. It’s designed to be repairable and as ethically sourced as a phone can get. Drew Devault wrote up some thoughts about the more open but less ethically sourced PinePhone.

The Librem 5 is Librem’s attempt at as Open Source a phone as we can get until open basebands are a thing. The MNT Reform is a laptop using the same SoC as the Librem 5, but looks aimed more at the Fairphone’s sustainability market.

I use a 2 year old OnePlus 5T with a custom Lineage for MicroG build. It coincided with a shift in the relationship I have with my phone. I plan to keep the phone till at least 2023 although I might replace it as a primary phone down a year or two before.

I use a 28-year-old Commodore Amiga 4000 for some day to day computing tasks. The 50mhz 68060 CPU flies with software mostly designed for a 7mhz 68000. Planned obsolescence never hit the Amiga because Commodore’s management never had a plan to begin with.

Many computers start fast and slow down because we add bloat. Older software works, so drop a version and enjoy the speed. People still run Windows 98 and 2000 on XP-era computers. Many platforms have can be brought up to mostly modern standards. Archives have still-useful old software to play with.

If you’re a Mac fan, the 170Tb Macintosh Repository has plenty for Macs, Apple IIs and even the Lisa. Get your magazines, books and drivers from Vintage Apple. Don’t forget a decent Screensaver.

I’m not suggesting you do anything sensitive on an old computer. Filesystems corrupt, apps crash and there’s plenty of security issues waiting for you on the Internet. Using old computers with fewer distractions are great for focused attention. Upgrading older platforms has never been cheaper, providing the all the speed with none of the bloat.

Things You Might’ve Missed

Sure, Amazon mistreats staff, siphons taxes off workers and generally acts shitty. This piece on just how Amazon screws over small businesses has a few new beats.

Matthias Ott’s loveletter to personal publishing space resonated with me. There’s a whole world of amazing personal spaces for you to discover outside of Social Media. Reddit is making it harder for unmonetized visitors to access it. Neil Patil writes about the side effects of an unfinished Internet, while Latacora tells us to stop using encrypted mail.

Dmitrii Gerasimov is obsessed with optimizing his existence. He’s written detailed thoughts on personal search infrastructure. His github has some other nice stuff too.

Where are the hacking simulators?”, asks Alex Tiniuc. I thought that was the Internet? Speaking of hacking simulators, this Jupyter Notebook to Web App converter is simultaneously cool and terrifying. Dave Kerr collated a handy list of Hacker Laws, while Timothy Mullican decided to break the Pi calculation world record.

The Fomu is a tiny USB FPGA device designed to simulate RISC-V. If you felt like learning FPGAs, RISC-V or even how to port Micropython, this looks like fun. On the subject of tiny USB devices, every USB-C charger has a microcontroller but could you fly to the moon on one? Chris Garry has put the complete Apollo 11 AGC code up on Github, but it may be a little late to accept pull requests.

Ever want to learn assembly language but find modern Intel architecture a little intimidating? The VIC-20 is a simple 6502-based computer from the 80s. Grab an emulator and this tutorial will get you beyond the BASICs in no time. If you’d prefer to stick with BASIC, the BBC Micro Twitter Bot is the 8-bit BASIC cloud you never knew you wanted.

The missing semester of your CS education is a series of 11x 1-hour lectures on all the dumb stuff we’re doing wrong on our computers. LibreLingo is building a self-hostable language learning platform. Explorable Explanations is a hub for learning through play, and Regex Crossword is as painful but addictive as it sounds.

Jang Ji Sung lost her daughter suddenly and never had the chance to say goodbye to her, until now. Exurb1a asks, “What if sleep is just death being shy?”, while Zach Haigney writes of lemons and FOMO in psychedelics.

Of course, I can’t reference John Carpenter without at least one piece of music by him.

A final thought from Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are:

“There must be more to life than having everything.”

I hope you liked this issue. The next issue is a big one all about cyberpunk. If you could share the post and heart The Dork Web on Substack I’d be eternally grateful.

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