Practice

Choose Your Own Techventure

Je suis tres desolée.

Every once in a while I fire up my Google Reader, where I have taken years to collect the “feeds” of various authors and sites and cartoonists whose work is consistently inspiring or interesting. It feeds my lifehacking addiction. It can be, at times, a gravy hose, though far more often it has been a source of deeper thought and laugh-out-loud and “Wow, I’ve got to share this!” moments. I’ve tried other sources like Feedly and Newsgator and the only one that I even remotely like is Flipboard, but that’s only on the iPad. For just plain “I want to read content” I have used Google Reader for years. It’s the equivalent of the newspaper my grandpa used to read in his chair.

So of course Google is shutting it down. Why, I’m not sure – probably because the company is about to come out with something even more awesome. I’m not too excited about it, though, because I actually like Google Reader. I will be sorry to see it go away.

At the same time, this is a useful lesson. This is not the first time that a company has gotten people hooked on something and then, suddenly, pulled it out from under them – from the small (What? No more Twinkies?!?) to the big (What? No more Enron?!?). While we can certainly take something away from this in regards to non-attachment and the ephemerality of all things (not to mention 1st-World Problems), that’s a little too woo-woo for a Practice post.

Instead, I’m going to quote from a speech given by Phil Windley at the New Digital Economies conference last week:

We probably don’t really have a choice about whether a $0.03 wireless sensor platform will exist. Technology marches on.
But we do have a choice about how it will be employed…blaming companies and short-term pressures is too convenient… people pursue short-term goals all the while hoping this better world will somehow magically emerge. It won’t. Not unless we build it. We have to build it.

If you work in tech, you have an ethical responsibility to build the world you want to live in. Simple as that.

With Great Power Blah Blah Blah

I found this article in relation to that same situation about Google Reader – one of my heroes, Cory Doctorow, mentioned it on Boing Boing (which happens to be one of the sites I follow on Google Reader, to give you a nice Ouroubourosesque feeling). He (and others) pointed out that while yes, Google has a policy of “Don’t be evil“, the old saw about “if you’re not paying to use a service, you’re being sold” applies. Namely, Google pays attention to the things I read, and how long I read them, and uses that to target advertising at me.

As it happens, I don’t care much about that – frankly, I sometimes find it useful, and my own philosophy about the internet happens to be Privacy? Get over it! Not having much disposable income to begin with makes me a bit less cagey with people knowing that I shop at cheap stores and buy bargain goods. But Cory has a point: the release of control, even of my viewing habits on reader, can be the start of a slippery slope that ends up with…well, perhaps something a bit less than the dystopia portrayed in Wall-E, but really not by much. I have a pretty comfortable recliner already, and a nice subscription to Netflix…

So how do we take back some control? Cory suggests that one way is to make the demise of Google Reader into an opportunity. Not an opportunity to subscribe to a different “free” service, but rather, to take advantage of the power of the First World and be responsible for my own newsfeed. I host this blog on a webserver, and that means I have more computing power at my fingertips than it took to go to the moon. Why shouldn’t I use it to create my own newsreader, with control over who sees what I read and when?

Luddite or Lazy?

courtesy See-Ming Li, flickr CC
I wish it was Greek to me. I have a Greek dictionary.

Because it’s hard!” is the answer that probably comes to mind – or it’s complicated or I just don’t get that tech stuff or something like that. I get where you’re coming from – I know just enough about computers and servers to be terrified of the command line (for those who don’t know what the “command line” is, it looks something like those screens in the Matrix with the pretty waterfalls of complex symbols, only not quite so intuitively comprehensible).

But at the same time…the internet is full of geeks, and they have laid out, in several places, how to do it. Step-by-step, and any step you don’t understand (what’s MySQL? What’s phpMyAdmin? How do I unzip a tar?) you can find out in other places. In fact, there are so many places to find stuff out that your problem isn’t answering the question, it’s finding which explanation works the best for your learning style.

Geeks want you to know how to do this stuff. They’re more than willing to explain to you, to help you, and more. They may even be willing to do it for you, but honestly, that kind of takes away from your power. You have to ask yourself: are you letting them do it (“them” being Google or your nephew or your grandma) because you really don’t have time? Or is it something else, like you’re scared of feeling stupid, or simply lazy?

I know what it is in my case: laziness. I’m used to feeling stupid, and I’m used to a learning curve – the first time I installed WordPress on a server, for example, I was nervous and fumbling and constantly re-checking to see if I was following the directions right. Now I can do it in about five minutes, and have even designed entire templates for corporate clients. I don’t feel stupid anymore!

Even so, when I first set up this blog, I went with Dreamhost’s “One-Click Install” because that five minute setup seemed too much. As a result, I was one of many sites that got hacked last year. Lesson learned, as I painstakingly restored the site, installing “from scratch” and even, on occasion, using the dreaded CLI (Command-Line Interface).

The result is the blog you are reading now: more secure, and a wiser Gray to boot.

Control is a Muscle

So while I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been watching the upload of “Tiny Tiny RSS” to my server, and I’m about to configure it and take control of my newsreading habits. I can already tell you that it’s not easy for me – there have been several frustrating glitches setting up the MySQL databases, and discovering that unzipping was more complex than I expected.

The thing is, most of the difficulty is not that things are complicated – it’s that I’ve not been working “under the hood” of my website for a while. It’s like knowing how to change the oil of your car but forgetting where the latch is to pop the hood in the first place. I’m having to try and remember passwords and navigate unfamiliar file directories, and there’s really no excuse. It’s not complicated. But my ability to control has atrophied because I haven’t bothered to exercise it.

So that’s my challenge for you this week. Take a look at somewhere in your life where you’ve let someone or something else make it “easier” for you. Somewhere that you’ve released control. It’s not a bad thing, mind you – progress is made by lazy people finding easier ways to do things.

But it might be worth it to take back just a bit of that control, to familiarize yourself with how the dishwasher works, with how your checkbook balances, how to rotate your own tires, how to navigate using a paper map rather than a GPS. Just so that you remember who is ultimately responsible for your life, and so that the things you give away are conscious choices.

“Build the world you want to live in.” It’s not just the tech people. It’s all of us.

1 thought on “Choose Your Own Techventure”

  1. Sooo tempting, although I too am afraid of the time sink effect and spending several hours swearing over it. Although, I started posting to my site specifically to regain control over content I’d been posting, and switching GReader over to a hosting account I pay for would certainly fall under that purview.

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