As the news continues to pour in about the risks posed by Big Tech, I’m often asked about alternatives: what should we use, if we don’t want to feed the monopolists?

Here’s my short list of alternative services that I recommend:

• Search: Instead of Google, use DuckDuckGo – a search engine that doesn’t track you. I use it as my default search engine and it works great.

• Email: Instead of Gmail, use FastMail – a fast, well-designed email service that isn’t owned by Big Tech and doesn’t depend on surveillance for its business model.

• To-do list: Instead of using your inbox, or nothing at all, use my own Good Todo – a simple to-do list that doesn’t track you. It also allows you to email your to-dos to the list, helping reduce inbox clutter.

• Calendar: Instead of Google Calendar, use BusyCal (on OSX), and sync your calendar with Apple’s iCloud – or the calendar in FastMail.

• Browser: Instead of Chrome, use Firefox (or Safari) with the DuckDuckGo privacy extension installed, explained more here. (See also my interview with DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg on my Techtonic radio show.)

• Music: Instead of Spotify, listen to WFMU. I’m serious. This independent, listener-supported radio station – where I run my Techtonic show – offers an unmatched collection of human-curated, non-algorithm-driven shows and an unbelievable treasure trove in its archive, all available for free. (Actually right now is WFMU’s annual fundraiser, and you can donate here. More info below.)

• Social media: Don’t use Facebook. Or at least minimize your usage. As Matt Klinman put it in this outstanding interview, “every time you scroll through content on Facebook, you’re depriving independent media of a way to exist.” To reach your community, just send email. I recommend Campaign Monitor, which I’ve used for many years to send out this newsletter.

I’m hardly the only one advocating for a new approach. Here are more voices on Big Tech:

• On Facebook: Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram writes that as Facebook increases its control, “they’ll decide which brands they are going to elevate and which they will filter out..Facebook effectively decides which media outlets survive and which don’t.” Read the full article.

• On Google: The NYT’s Charles Duhigg wrote The Case Against Google. Nailed it. And Jason Kint writes that Google continues to obfuscate its numbers.

• On YouTube (owned, of course, by Google): Zeynep Tufekci writes in NYT about YouTube, the Great Radicalizer.

Pay attention.

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You need to pay attention to China:

– China will soon pass the U.S. as the world's biggest economy (if you're not familiar with the trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project, you really should be)

– New tech emerging from Chinese companies will affect you sooner or later (AI and facial-recognition systems, smartphones, solar panels, etc.)

Big Tech in Silicon Valley is already partnering closely with the Chinese government (see Apple's Tim Cook speaking at the Internet conference in Wuzhen, which showed new surveillance and tracking tools)

– China's government is using tech in new, Black Mirror-ish ways (see the social credit system), and the U.S. government is no doubt watching to see how those play out.

Discussing China on my radio show

On my Techtonic radio show this week (listen to the show, read the show notes, or download the podcast) I interviewed Yong Zhao, founder of Junzi Kitchen, a new Manhattan restaurant featuring modern Chinese cuisine. We had a wide-ranging conversation about China and its emerging use of technology.

Yong Zhao was very straightforward: he said China's rise is inevitable, and that our best hope – for the good of China and the rest of the world – is to foster friendship, rather than enmity. As for the social credit system, which Yong acknowledged can seem creepy, he said it was the natural progression for China's economy, which never had widespread credit cards or credit scores – and the system also fits the Party's goals of authoritarian control.

Finally, I'll add that Big Tech has been in China for some time, forming and expanding partnerships with the government there. Did you catch Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, at the opening ceremony of the Chinese Internet conference? This is the event where the New York Times said, "The technology enabling a full techno-police state was on hand." For his part, Mr. Cook extolled the conference for "developing a digital economy for openness." Around the same time, Apple removed over 600 apps from the app store in China, at the request of Party officials in Beijing. Whatever you think of these developments, they're increasing and accelerating.

The tech industry, right now, is laying the groundwork for how users (citizens, students, consumers, patients – everyone) will be affected by tech in years to come. And China will play an increasingly central role in all of this.

Pay attention.

Here are some articles I'd recommend reading:

On the Belt and Road Initiative:

The New Silk Road (TIME, November 2017)

A New Silk Road – photographs by Davide Monteleone (New Yorker, January 2018)

How China's Economy Is Poised to Win the Future (TIME, November 2017)

On Apple in China:

Apple CEO backs China's vision of an "open" Internet as censorship reaches new heights (Washington Post, December 2017): Apple's CEO Tim Cook stood up and celebrated China's vision of an open Internet. . . "The theme of this conference – developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits – is a vision we at Apple share," Cook said, in widely reported remarks. "We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace."

Apple's Tim Cook: Internet must have security, humanity (Boston Globe, December 2017): "Cook made the comments at the opening ceremony for China's World Internet Conference in Wuzhen – an event designed to globally promote the country's vision of a more censored and controlled internet."

Inside China's Big Tech Conference, New Ways to Track Citizens (NYT, December 2017): "The technology enabling a full techno-police state was on hand, giving a glimpse into how new advances in things like artificial intelligence and facial recognition can be used to track citizens – and how they have become widely accepted here."

Apple's Tim Cook: No Point Yelling at China (WSJ, December 2017): "Tech exec defends pulling 674 apps at Beijing's request, says change can't happen from the sideline."

Apple says it is removing VPN services from China App Store (Reuters, July 2017)

Apple moves to store iCloud keys in China, raising human rights fears (Reuters, February 2018)

Why the iPhone Is Losing Out to Chinese Devices in Asia (WSJ, February 2018): "Apple's market share is stagnant or declining in Asia, paving the way for other smartphone makers."

The "social credit" system in China:

Inside China's Vast New Experiment In Social Ranking (Wired, December 2017): "The aim is for every Chinese citizen to be trailed by a file compiling data from public and private sources by 2020, and for those files to be searchable by fingerprints and other biometric characteristics. For the Chinese Communist Party, social credit is an attempt at a softer, more invisible authoritarianism. The goal is to nudge people toward behaviors ranging from energy conservation to obedience to the Party."

China's Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone (The Atlantic, Feb 2018): "The country is perfecting a vast network of digital espionage as a means of social control - with implications for democracies worldwide."

Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens (Wired UK, October 2017), an excerpt from Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart, by Rachel Botsman. "For now, technically, participating in China's Citizen Scores is voluntary. But by 2020 it will be mandatory. The behaviour of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity)in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not."

China's Social Credit System: AI-driven panopticon or fragmented foundation for a sincerity culture? (TechNode, August 2017): "As a means of avoiding responsibility, or of hiding behind machine decision-making to avoid individual responsibility (or governmental responsibility), AI poses a danger to the integrity of any system that would so 'wash their hands' of governance."

On AI and other tech in China:

As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent (NYT, Feb 2018): "China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence and create an industry worth $150 billion to its economy by 2030."

China's All-Seeing Surveillance State Is Reading Its Citizens' Faces (WSJ, June 2017)

China's Stopchat: Censors Can Now Erase Images Mid-Transmission (WSJ, July 2017)

In Sign of Resistance, Chinese Balk at Using Apps to Snitch on Neighbors (WSJ, December 2017)

From this week's news...

China Moves to Let Xi Stay in Power by Abolishing Term Limit (NYT, February 25, 2018): "China's Communist Party has cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely, by announcing Sunday that it intends to abolish term limits on the presidency."

About to Break the Law? Chinese Police Are Already On To You (WSJ, February 27, 2018): "High-definition cameras, security checkpoints equipped with facial recognition, and police patrols armed with hand-held smartphone scanners blanket the region’s cities and villages."

...and one closing provocation:

Will China Impose a New World Order? (WSJ, February 2018): "When Pax Britannica gave way to Pax Americana, the transition was peaceful. A repeat is unlikely, says the author of ‘Safe Passage.’"

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Oh, and you should check out other past episodes of my radio show (or just get the podcast).

Below, sign up for my email newsletter:

Hosting a weekly radio show, I have the privilege of speaking with creators and thinkers on the edges of where tech is headed. (My show, Techtonic, is a weekly live radio show on WFMU, 91.1 FM in New York on Mondays at 6pm Eastern. You can also get it as the weekly Techtonic podcast.)

Recent topics I've covered:

Tech addiction: Earlier this month I spoke with Nir Eyal, the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, the "book with the yellow cover" that I've written about before. (Click "pop-up player" on this page to listen, or find it in the podcast.)

Nir and I had a friendly conversation, though not without disagreement, about what we should think about tech addiction – indeed, whether it even exists on broad scale. Nir reassured me that only a small percentage of people are actually addicted, and besides, Facebook is benign. "It's not heroin," after all. Nir suggested that the best way to guard against addiction is to read his book. Really, listen to the interview - it was fun. It's here or in the podcast.

Net Neutrality: My Nov 27 show focused on net neutrality, which of course has since been voted down by the FCC. Scroll down on the playlist page to see resources both pro- and con- on the issue. I am firmly pro-Net Neutrality, but - especially in a divisive, polarized moment - I think it's important to try to see the other side and have civil conversations (see above).

Google's neural implant and many other possible tech developments came up in my conversation this week with Steven Levy, technology journalist and author. Click "pop-up player" on the playlist page or find it in the podcast. (Steven is also pro-net neutrality, and he describes why in the interview.)


Skeptech 2 report!

Watch the Skeptech 2 video here. To follow up on my previous post – Tech has a disturbing new direction – which announced my second Skeptech conference in October: we had a great time at the event. Author Jon Ronson, Crisis Text Line CEO Nancy Lublin, and comedian Aparna Nancherla all gave stellar talks. And now there's a video with highlights from the evening, interspersed with some tech-rants from your humble host.


Other Creative Good news

We've had a great fall at Creative Good, with...

• Brisk sales of my book Customers Included – perhaps teams are beginning to return to the idea of listening to customers as humans, and not just data points?

• A new mobile video game we developed for a media client, based on in-person listening labs we conducted across North America. (Great project. Drop a line if your team needs research.. or a game!)

• Presentations and workshops for Columbia Business School, NYU Stern School of Business, a private legal summit, and various companies. If you have a conference or event coming up, and want an engaging and thought-provoking experience for attendees, drop a line.

All of us at Creative Good wish you a very happy holiday! See you next year.

(Update 10-26-17: Skeptech is tonight, Thursday! Livestream video is on this page starting 7pm Eastern / 4pm Pacific.)

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I recently had an unusual encounter on the New York City subway. I was riding the A train, reading a bestselling book about how to create addictive apps. (It’s the one with the yellow cover. I’m not giving the title, but you may know it anyway.)

Somewhere around 34th Street, a young woman boarded the train and sat down next to me. Her eyes lit up. “I love that book,” she said, catching my eye and gesturing to the book.

“Do you build apps?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m in a startup and everyone on the team has read that book. We all love it.”

She was nice enough to strike up a conversation, so I didn’t want to come right out and say that I find the book objectionable. It presents addiction as an aspirational goal for app design, even pointing to slot machines in Las Vegas as a positive case study. (The very next example cited is Twitter.)

“That’s cool,” I said, “but – well – what do you think about the ethical considerations of trying to addict your users?”

She blinked. Then all of a sudden she looked sheepish. Finally, she shrugged. “Well,” she said, “I have to eat.”

It’s disappointing to see the tech industry lose its capacity to empathize with users as human beings. Tech has been leaning in this direction for some time - I wrote a column back in January about the changes I’ve seen across 20 years - but the incident on the subway, to me, signalled a new moment. My new acquaintance was from a startup, not one of the Big Four; located in New York, not the bowels of Silicon Valley; and the whole team, not just a growth-hacking CEO, was enthusiastic about addictive design. And throughout all of it, she could give no justification for an ethical compromise.

Just this: “I have to eat.” In other words, “I’ll use any means necessary – dark patterns, slot machine-style payouts, false promises – anything to hook users on my product.” 

I know this doesn’t represent everyone in the tech industry. I’ve met plenty of individuals, usually on a product team in a larger organization, who are trying to change how the company relates to users. Sometimes they invite me in to talk to the team about my book Customers Included, which shows how treating customers with respect actually makes more money in the long run. But my book isn’t the bestseller. The addictive design book is.

Still, there are those of us left who believe in the promise of technology to respect, serve, even elevate its users. And that’s why I’m convening Skeptech, one week from today, to organize a conversation about tech. (Back in May I ran the first Skeptech event as a mini-Gel spring event; this is the 2nd Skeptech in the series: a fall mini-Gel!)

Here’s the deal...

Skeptech: Tales from the Dark Side of Tech
Thursday, October 26, one evening only
WFMU’s Monty Hall, 43 Montgomery St, Jersey City, NJ (see map)
Doors open 6:30pm, show goes 7pm to 9pm
Sign up here.

• JON RONSON (author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Men Who Stare at Goats, and host of the new Butterfly Effect podcast)
• NANCY LUBLIN, Crisis Text Line founder and CEO
• ...and yours truly hosting, as usual.

It’s up to us to start a conversation that will lead to more positive outcomes.

If you’re in the New York area, I want to see you at Skeptech. By attending, you’ll join the community of people who want to make tech better. (We’ll also have a livestream, for those of you out town: I’ll post a link to it, evening-of, on my Twitter feed.)

Sign up here for Skeptech: coming up one week from today – Thursday, October 26. 

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P.S. You can also help by sharing this post on social media. just copy and paste this, below, into your favorite social media account:

Tech has a disturbing new direction. @markhurst is running Skeptech to turn it around:

Apple’s launch of the iPhone X last week was notably different from its original iPhone launch in 2007, as I said in the intro to my Techtonic radio show on Monday evening.

Here’s how I put it on Twitter:

• Was the home button irritating users?
• Did users hate the kind of metal Apple was using?
• Did users want their faces scanned?
• Is this for users?

In other words, the features Apple touted about the iPhone X – face-scanning through FaceID, the edge-to-edge screen without a home button, and (my favorite) “surgical-grade stainless steel” – are all impressive technology, but I’m not sure they solve users’ primary pain points or unmet needs.

Compare this with the original iPhone launch from 2007, in which Steve Jobs demonstrated a complete revolution in how people would use smartphones. The iPhone solved chronic problems in smartphones of the time – managing contacts, three-way calling, accessing voice mail – while adding a number of other benefits. There simply was nothing else like the iPhone when it launched.

Going further back, compare last week with twenty years ago, in 1997, in which Jobs made the famous statement about Apple’s new strategy:

You’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to sell it.

I wonder what Jobs would have made of the surgical-grade stainless steel, the face-scanning, and the rest of the iPhone X features. Did this launch focus on the customer experience, or did Apple perhaps “start with the technology” and then try to sell it?