LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Facebook and Google and Amazon have become tech giants because they've made a science of being a part of everything we do, from shopping to taking care of our kids to connecting with friends and relatives. Despite the scandals and concerns about their practices, modern life is seemingly impossible without them - or is it? Kashmir Hill is a reporter for Gizmodo. She tried to cut Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple out of her life. And she joins us now to explain her experiment. Welcome.
KASHMIR HILL: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I got to ask you, first of all, how did this idea come up?
HILL: It was inspired partly by, you know, when people are criticizing these companies or complaining about how powerful they are, how privacy-invasive they are, people will say, well, if you - if you don't like the company, then just stop using their products. And so I wanted to find out if that was possible.
HILL: And spoiler - spoiler, it's not possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). It's not possible. Right, OK.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you took us to the end. But I want to hear about the process because I think that can be instructive to us all. You wanted to completely remove one tech giant from your life each week. It's sort of like - (laughter) - it's sort of like cutting down your alcohol intake.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me - tell me how how you got started.
HILL: Right. In part, I thought it would be too hard to go cold turkey. So I wanted to do it step by step. And I also wanted to go beyond just boycotting their products. I really wanted to completely stop all my data, all my attention and any of my money from going to the tech giants. So I consulted a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra.
And he did a little research and came back to me and said, you know what? I can build a network tool for you - a virtual, private network, or VPN. And you can connect all your devices to it, send all your network traffic through it. And I will block a tech giant each week - or all of them together. And I'll keep your devices from being able to communicate with their servers.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about Amazon because that seems like it's going to be really hard to take out of your life.
HILL: Yeah. When I started pulling stats about Amazon, I was shocked that, you know, they control 50 percent of online commerce in the U.S. That seems like so much. The crazier thing is that's not their most profitable business. Their most profitable business is AWS, or Amazon Web Services. They host websites. They host apps. And so by blocking Amazon and blocking AWS, I just took out a vast amount of the Internet. And so basically, all digital entertainment was wiped out for me.
HILL: But this raises real questions about just, like, how much data Amazon is gathering from the fact that it just controls the infrastructure of commerce and Internet activity.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The last week of the experiment, you tried blocking all five companies at the same time. God bless you. So how did that go?
HILL: So the hardest thing about blocking all the tech giants that last week was getting a phone. Google and Apple have a duopoly on the smartphone market. And so when I went out trying to find a smartphone that was not, you know, made or touched by either tech giant, it wasn't possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what did you do? You just didn't have a cell phone?
HILL: Oh, I had a cell phone. I had a dumb phone. I had a Nokia 3310, little, tiny, bright orange brick with t9 texting. It just had, like, the number buttons. And all it - all it basically did was calling, texting. And it had the Snake game.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You went back to the '90s.
HILL: I went back to the '90s. This - this experiment was a time machine.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So now that you've sort of come out of this, what did you learn? And did it have any lasting impact on your relationship with these companies? And what can we take away?
HILL: I mean, the big thing I learned is that it's not possible to navigate the modern world without coming into contact with these companies. They are unavoidable. It made me certainly sympathetic to some of the critics who are saying that these companies are too dominant in their spaces. You know, when I went off of Facebook's products, because Facebook bought Instagram, it controls everywhere where my friends are. And so by rejecting Facebook, I had to reject a lot of people in my life. And it was very hard to stay in contact with them.
But there were certainly benefits to rejecting the tech giants because it forced me to reject technology completely and in many cases. Like, I couldn't watch TV because we don't have cable, and Internet TV didn't work. And - and I think that was really good for me. I got out of some bad tech habits. And I'm just kind of looking at screens less. So if nothing else, I'm glad I did this experiment in terms of becoming kind of a healthier tech user.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kashmir Hill is a reporter for Gizmodo. Thank you so much.
HILL: My pleasure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one note - Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are financial sponsors of NPR.
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