I’m happy that computer technology (for the purpose of this post, I mean any device with a computer in it, not a traditional desktop or laptop) has become ubiquitous. An individual who wants a computer no longer has to buy a kit and solder it together. Instead they can go to the store and pick up a device that will be fully functional out of the box. This has lead to a revolution in individual capabilities. Those of us who utilize computers can access a global communication network from almost anywhere using a device that fits in our pocket. We can crank out printed documents faster than any other time in human history. We can collect data from any number of sources and use it to perform analysis that was impractical before ubiquitous access to computers. In summary life is good.
However, the universe is an imperfect place and few things are without their downsides. The downside to the computer revolution is that there are, broadly speaking, different classes of users. They are often divided into technical and non-technical users, but I prefer to refer to them as users and used. My categorization isn’t so much based on technical ability (although there is a strong correlation) as by whether one is using their technology or being used by it.
Before I continue, I want to note that this categorization, like all attempts to categorize unique individuals, isn’t black and white. Most people will fall into the gray area in between the categories. The main question is whether they fall more towards the user category of the used.
It’s probably easiest to explain the used category first. The computing technology market is overflowing with cheap devices and free services. You can get a smartphone for little or even nothing from some carriers, an Internet connected doorbell for a pittance, and an e-mail account with practically unlimited storage for free. On the surface these look like amazing deals, but they come with a hidden cost. The manufacturers of those devices and providers of those services, being predominantly for-profit companies, are making their money in most cases by collecting your personal information and selling it to advertisers and government agencies (both of which are annoying, but the latter can be deadly). While you may think you’re using the technology you’re actually being used through it by the manufacturers and providers.
A user is the opposite. Instead of using technology that uses them, they use technology that they dominate. For example, Windows 10 was a free upgrade for users of previous versions of Windows. Not surprisingly, Windows 10 also collects a lot of personal information. Instead of using Windows 10, users of that operating system are being used by it. The opposite side of the spectrum is something like Linux from Scratch, where a user creates their own Linux distro from the ground up so they know every component that makes up their operating system. As I stated earlier most people fall into the gray area between the extremes. I predominantly run Fedora Linux on my systems. As far as I’m aware there is no included spyware and the developers aren’t otherwise making money by exploiting my use of the operating system. So it’s my system, I’m using it, not being used through it.
Another example that illustrates the user versus the used categories is online services. I sometimes think everybody on the planet has a Gmail account. Its popularity doesn’t surprise me. Gmail is a very good e-mail service. However, Gmail is primarily a mechanism for Google to collect information to sell to advertisers. People who use Gmail are really being used through it by Google. The opposite side of the spectrum (which is where I fall in this case) is self-hosting an e-mail server. I have a physical server in my house that runs an e-mail server that I setup and continue to maintain. I am using it rather than being used by it.
I noted earlier in this article that there is a strong correlation between technical people and users as well as non-technical people and those being used. It isn’t a one-to-one correlation though. I know people with little technical savvy who utilize products and services that aren’t using them. Oftentimes they have a technical friend who assists them (I’m often that friend), but not always. I would actually argue that the bigger correlation to users and those being used is those who are curious about technology versus those who aren’t. I know quite a few people with little technical savvy who are curious about technology. Their curiosity leads them to learn and they oftentimes become technically savvy in time. But before they do they often make use of technology rather than be used by it. They may buy a laptop to put Linux on it without having the slightest clue at first how to do it. They may setup a personal web server poorly, watch it get exploited, and then try again using what they learned from their mistakes. They may decide to use Signal instead of WhatsApp not because they understand the technical differences between the two but because they are curious about the “secure communications app” that their technical friends are always discussing.
Neither category is objectively better. Both involve trade-offs. I generally encourage people to move themselves more towards the user category though because it offers individuals more power over the tools they use and I’m a strong advocate for individual power. If you follow an even slightly radical philosophy though, I strongly suggest that you to move towards the user category. The information being collected by those being used often finds its way into the hands of government agents and they are more than happy to make use of it to suppress dissidents.