With all the news about Big Tech's missteps, it can make you wonder whether online tech is a lost cause, having turned into a morass of surveillance machines, soulless slot-machine apps, and dark patterns, all fueled by "the weaponization of UX," as Evan Selinger put it.

But there's hope. Small teams on the edges, most of them nonprofit, are beginning to create better tech that actually tries to benefit users, rather than exploit them. Some are more established, while some are just starting out, but they represent a new beginning, which we badly need.

Here's what I'm seeing so far:

DuckDuckGo instead of Google
FastMail or ProtonMail instead of Gmail
Diaspora instead of Facebook
Mastodon instead of Twitter
Framatube instead of YouTube (Framatube is one of several services from France-based FramaSoft)
• Good Todo instead of Google Tasks (full disclosure, Good Todo is my own service)

...In addition, there are platforms like Civil and Tim Berners-Lee's Solid that promise to decentralize the Web.

Do you know of others? Post a comment below to let me know.

A number of people recently have suggested that Facebook - by profiting from the social harm it causes, yet denying its culpability - is acting like the tobacco industry in the 1990s. While there undeniably are similarities between the two, I think there's a better analogy.

Facebook isn't cigarettes, it's asbestos.

Asbestos, of course, is a dangerous carcinogen that was used as insulation in buildings for many years, before its harmful health effects became widely known.

Consider how asbestos sounds an awful lot like Facebook:

• Initially promising - and it was good at its stated purpose - it turned out to have toxic effects that far outweighed the advantages.

• Immediate harm to an individual is hard to detect at first, but long-term effects are visible; and society-wide, it's terrible.

• People in poorer countries tend to be stuck with it, while wealthy industrialized nations are waking up to the danger, and ripping it out.

• And you do have to rip it out. You can't gradually peck away at the thing, since it's installed down at an infrastructural level. It's a pain to get rid of, and expensive, but it has to be done.

• Once a society is educated to its danger, it is socially unacceptable to let your loved ones - especially your kids - live with it.

Perhaps this will be a helpful metaphor as we discuss what to do about Facebook.

- - -

For more:

Subscribe to my Techtonic podcast, my weekly WFMU radio show on technology.

• See also the featured New York Times personal-tech piece this week: How to Delete Facebook and Instagram From Your Life Forever.

This month marks 20 years of my writing the Creative Good email newsletter (after starting this blog in '97). I've seen a lot along the way: boom & bust cycles, buzzwords, trends and fads, so many things that have risen up and faded away. But along the way, the internet has permanently changed the world. For better and, more recently, worse.

Throughout, I've tried to maintain the "creative good" ideal, the belief in products that do good, in platforms that actually treat users with basic human respect, in services that actually benefit people in the long run. I've tried to show how it actually does work, if companies create good experiences, rather than exploiting people for short-term gain.

Recently it's been a tough idea to hold onto. The rise of Big Tech and its business model of surveillance, manipulation, and monopoly - undergirded by techno-chauvinist arrogance - have brought about some disappointing outcomes, to put it lightly. And until recently, it hasn't shown signs of fading away.

I've been wondering: where does it go from here? Is there still a place for people who think systemically about creating good experiences? I don't mean designing an interface to more easily, say, share a toxic post on social media. I mean designing products that people actually want, and can gain value from - see Customers Included - rather than tricking them into psychological addiction loops.

But things do seem to be changing, a bit. For example, this appeared on Twitter a few days ago:

"Facebook is starting to feel like those last few years of Blockbuster." -Mark Normand

Ahh, late-stage Blockbuster. I remember it well from the late 90s. In those days, everyone rented movies from Blockbuster not because they liked it, but because it was the only option (beyond the odd indie rental place, and most were odd, in a good way). The company was fueled by punitive late fees: you had to bring back your movie in two days, or else. The experience was disappointing, if not outright hostile, to customers.

Then Netflix launched. Those little red envelopes started arriving into mailboxes everywhere, with no late fees, and in that moment, Blockbuster ceased to exist as a viable proposition. The end of Blockbuster's dominance can be traced back to one single factor: the improvement in the experience, as offered by a competitor.

Consider the parallels between Facebook today and Blockbuster in the late 1990s. Just about everyone uses Facebook today - not because they like it, but because it's the only way they know how to keep up with friends and family.

And yet, most people can sense that something about Facebook is a bit "off." Every week brings new revelations that the company has deceived its users - or enabled others to do so - for financial gain. Meantime, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have repeatedly been called to Congress to apologize.

Consider recent Facebook news:

Pew Research just reported that over a quarter of American adults 18 and over have deleted the Facebook app from their smartphone in the past year. And Business Insider reported that "time spent on the social network has fallen by almost 7%."

• Facebook's harmful effects around the globe are getting higher-profile media coverage. For example, read this BuzzFeed News article about Facebook's explicit and strong support of the Philippine dictator Rodrigo Duterte. Another recent piece covers the role of WhatsApp - a Facebook property - in a series of lynchings in an Indian town. And then there's Facebook news from Myanmar, Germany, and elsewhere.

• Zuckerberg himself is getting more scrutiny, as in this new profile in the New Yorker, which reveals Zuck's bizarre fascination with Caesar Augustus (he named his second daughter "August" after the Roman dictator). Meantime, other celebrities in the news are swearing off any connection to Zuck's apps - like Michael Stipe announcing he's done with Instagram - which is owned, of course, by Facebook.

• Calls for anti-trust action, to break up Facebook into its component parts, are gaining momentum. Here's author and Columbia professor Tim Wu writing in The Verge: It's Time To Break Up Facebook.

I'm hopeful that with time, and what I suppose will be some strong anti-trust action, Facebook will eventually fade out, or at least get regulated into some shape that is not so egregiously toxic. The larger question is, does good experience still win the day, online? Or are we stuck with Big Tech pushing for ever-more invasive and ethically compromised products, while citizens hope for anti-trust regulators to save the day?

As I begin my third decade writing this newsletter, I certainly hope it's the former. I'll continue to advocate for products and teams that create good, that include customers, and that set their sights on long-term benefits. And if you're on board, thanks for sticking with me. Onward!

- - -

Interested in more? Get my podcast Techtonic on WFMU, or drop me a line.

- Mark Hurst

Neal Sedaka sang it first, in 1962. Breaking up is hard to do.

And yet. Difficult though it may be, it's time to break up Big Tech.

(Need a second opinion? OK, here's the Boston Globe: "Break up Google.")

Some people throw up their hands. "It's too difficult. Someone else should do something. What difference can I make, anyway?" That's the attitude of technofatalism, and we have to fight it.

As tech historian Marie Hicks writes, "Technofatalism isn't logical; it's a highly destructive failure of imagination and unwillingness to resist the status quo. It's the sullen twin of technophilia. Both assume tech can and will determine society. It's not that simple. We have a fighting chance. But we have to fight."

Below, my recent material on doing something to fight Big Tech and get back to creating good with technology. Enjoy. And drop a line if I can help your organization. -mark

- - -

My recent interviews on my Techtonic radio show on WFMU:

(Tip: Listen either in the podcast or on the pages below, click "Pop-up Player".)

- Felix Salmon, financial journalist: Listen (click "Pop-up Player"):

- Meredith Broussard, author, "Artificial Unintelligence" (incl. why self-driving cars are way more dangerous than you expect): Listen

- Andrew Keen, author, "How to Fix the Future": Listen

- Brett Frischmann, co-author, "Re-Engineering Humanity": Listen

- John Keating, director of the new documentary on esports, "Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon": Listen

PODCAST version: Get these interviews on the Techtonic podcast.

- - - - -

Google:

Break Up Google, says the Boston Globe: "Never in the history of the world has a single company had so much control over what people know and think . . . [and] Google’s power is bound to grow still more. Last year, it spent more on federal lobbying than any other company. By tweaking the way information appears on search pages, Google can already promote its own websites and banish competitors to digital oblivion."

Google’s Selfish Ledger Is An Unsettling Vision Of Silicon Valley Social Engineering (The Verge, May 17): an "internal video from 2016 shows a Google concept for how total data collection could reshape society." Nightmare material, courtesy of Google.

Alternatives to Google: past Techtonic guest Gabriel Weinberg (listen to the show) and his search engine Duck Duck Go are featured here: This Search Engine Is Profitable Without Tracking You Online. And Google and Facebook Could Do It Too. See also this list of non-Google services, by David Pierce (May 8), published of all places in the Wall Street Journal.

- - - - -

Facebook:

• It's not too late to delete your Facebook account: easy how-to at deletefacebook.com.

"Zuckerberg lied to Congress," says David Carroll, professor at Parsons. My suggestion is that we just charge them the $3.4 trillion they owe for violating the consent decree (see Jason Kint's calculation), liquidate the company, and use the proceeds to build a citizen-owned, non-addictive, democracy-respectful social network.

• Speaking of which, project I need to look into: Platform.coop, supporting platform co-ops.

• Conclusion: We need to break up Big Tech, starting with Google and Facebook. Axios reports that the left (and the right) are turning up heat to break up Facebook.

- - - - -

Amazon and surveillance:

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson has unplugged his Amazon Echo. "If anyone in our house is uncomfortable with devices listening to our conversations, I don’t want to subject them to that. . . This raises a broader question about these voice devices which is whether the value they offer outweighs the creepiness they create in the home. For us, the answer has been a resounding no."

Amazon’s Facial Recognition Fans Big Brother Fears (WSJ, May 22): "The retail giant has been selling the technology as a means to help authorities identify suspects in surveillance footage . . . The ACLU and other civil-rights organizations sent a letter to Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos expressing 'profound concerns' about the potential misuse of the technology, which Amazon calls Rekognition."

Alexa listened to a couple's conversation and sent it to the husband's employee without permission (BoingBoing, May 24): Complaint from a Portland woman that Alexa "listened in on a conversation and sent it to a random contact of theirs – one of her husband's employees. . . When KIRO-7 questioned Amazon, they responded with this: 'Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.'"

How to make sure your Amazon Echo doesn't send secret recordings (CNN, May 25) - almost unbelievably, CNN actually suggests that you "live like everyone's watching": "You can unplug them all until you are confident in the tech industries [sic] privacy protections, or you can go about your daily life avoiding doing or saying anything embarrassing (or illegal)." Thanks, CNN, we'll try to be more compliant from now on!

Above: rental car shuttle or prison bus?

- - - - -

Fun Stuff:

Inspiring video of an 8-year-old drumming to Led Zeppelin

A very special soccer goal

Spot-on video about Facebook from The Daily Show, imagining Facebook as a bar.

Is it just me, or are things with tech these days going a little sideways?

Just a month ago people were shocked, shocked that Facebook would allow third-party vendors to make off with their private data. “Trust us,” Facebook responded, “from now on we’ll keep all your data secure [that our surveillance gained and will continue to collect].” Facebook’s share price has since recovered and people are using Facebook more than ever.

I wonder if most people are paying attention. Or want to.

I spoke with someone last week who wasn’t aware, until I told her, that Instagram is owned by Facebook. “You might like my radio show,” I said. “No,” my acquaintance said, “I might be too scared of what I’d learn.”

Who can blame people for wanting to ignore what’s happening? The reality seems too big to grasp, and the necessary change – breaking up Facebook and Google, for starters – seems out of reach.

But! There’s good news. Consider:

• Both left-leaning organizations and some right-leaning politicians are looking at breaking up Facebook, a rare glimmer of bipartisan agreement.

• Guests on 60 Minutes last night argued that Google is a monopoly in several industries. Google needs to be broken up: our best hope to get the ball rolling is EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

• I’ve featured several guests on my Techtonic radio show with good news about change in tech. Listen to the shows on WFMU or via podcast. David Sax (“The Revenge of Analog” author), Anya Kamenetz (“The Art of Screen Time” author and NPR reporter), Corey Pein (“Live Work Work Work Die” author), and Len Sherman (Columbia Business School professor) all suggest ways we can live better in – and make change to – a world dominated by Big Tech.

• Finally, with a nod to Bruce Schneier (“The primary business model of the internet is built on mass surveillance” – source), I present you with a song I wrote about surveillance, set to “Camptown Races.”

“Building a Surveillance State”

Listen to the song here. I played it during a recent episode of Techtonic.

Lyrics, for your sing along:

Building a surveillance state
Google, Google
Privacy is what they hate
All Google day

It’s Facebook, too
They’re spying on you
We’ve got to change before it’s too late
All Google day

For more reading about Google…

How to Keep Google From Owning Your Online Life, by David Pierce in the WSJ (May 8). Interesting that the Wall Street Journal is offering alternatives to Google services.

Who Has More of Your Personal Data Than Facebook? Try Google, writes Christopher Mims in the WSJ.

Google’s New Voice Bot Sounds, Um, Maybe Too Real (NPR, May 9): “On the first day of Google’s annual conference for developers, the company showed off a robot with a voice so convincingly human that it was able to call a salon and book a haircut – never revealing that it wasn’t a real person making the call. CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated the new AI technology on Tuesday at the Google I/O conference.”

Google insiders claim that “the final version of Duplex, the stunning AI bot that sounded so real it fooled humans, may be purposefully made less scary.” (Business Insider)

What Google is doing with your data, by John Rolfe in the Queensland Times (May 14): “Experts from Oracle claim Google is draining roughly one gigabyte of mobile data monthly from Android phone users’ accounts as it snoops in the background, collecting information to help advertisers. . . . The information fed back to Google includes barometric pressure readings so it can work out, for example, which level of a shopping mall you are on. By combining this with your coordinates Google knows which shops you have visited. . . . Only turning off a phone prevents monitoring.”

Don’t forget Facebook…

Jaron Lanier speaking about Facebook and Google as “behavior modification empires” that “rely on behavior modification and spying” for their business models. It’s cheaper to pay them to ruin things than to make positive change. Perhaps, Lanier says, it’s time for subscription fees. (Hey, it worked for HBO and Netflix!) “I don’t believe our species can survive unless we fix this,” Lanier concludes. “In the meantime, if the companies won’t change, delete your accounts.”

Interview with Jaron Lanier in New York Magazine: “A lot of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley that has the utopian ring about creating meaningful communities where everybody’s creative and people collaborate and all this stuff — I don’t wanna make too much of my own contribution, but I was kind of the first author of some of that rhetoric a long time ago. So it kind of stings for me to see it misused. Like, I used to talk about how virtual reality could be a tool for empathy, and then I see Mark Zuckerberg talking about how VR could be a tool for empathy while being profoundly nonempathic, using VR to tour Puerto Rico after the storm, after Maria. One has this feeling of having contributed to something that’s gone very wrong.”

Techno-Fundamentalism Can’t Save You, Mark Zuckerberg, by UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan

The New Octopus, by K. Sabeel Rahman in Logic mag.

Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match, by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher in the NYT, about Facebook’s effects in Sri Lanka. “Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed — the primary portal for news and information for many users — unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks. … ‘You report to Facebook, they do nothing,’ one of the researchers, Amalini De Sayrah, said. ‘There’s incitements to violence against entire communities and Facebook says it doesn’t violate community standards.'”

Searching for a Future Beyond Facebook, by Jacob Silverman: “Facebook has accomplished a neat trick in the last fourteen years, draping itself in humanitarian intent while establishing a globe-straddling monopoly. In the name of connecting people, it has built the world’s largest surveillance apparatus, rivaled only by Google.”

• …oh, and Facebook had its earnings call. Here’s the summary, below, from Jason Kint:

• Nonetheless, Facebook’s share price has recovered. “Facebook wiped out all of its losses following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Shares hit an intraday high of $185.99 on Thursday.”

More on that consent decree: NPR, March 2018: “The Federal Trade Commission is looking into whether Facebook violated a [2011] consent decree by enabling third parties to access users’ information without their permission.” ($40,000 per violation.)

…and in other tech news:

Ticketmaster to trial facial recognition technology at live venues (VentureBeat; see also the WSJ article.) Don’t worry, says the article, it’s purely for the “‘development of deeper customer relationships’ between fans, artists, venues, and teams. Moreover, Ticketmaster touts the technology as boosting safety and security.”

Satellite Project Draws Airbus, SoftBank, Bill Gates as Investors: investors “propose to build and launch some 500 small satellites intended to provide unmatched video coverage of the globe.”

Silicon Valley Can’t Be Trusted With Our History, by Evan Hill. “We create almost everything on the internet, but we control almost none of it.”

Megan McArdle’s thread explaining “just how bad the economics of the media industry are” (see also the unrolled thread). “Subtitle: why you can’t have all the awesome free journalism you want and have come to expect.”

There will be little privacy in the workplace of the future, from The Economist’s March 2018 issue. Excerpt: “‘Every aspect of business is becoming more data-driven. There’s no reason the people side of business shouldn’t be the same,’ says Ben Waber, Humanyze’s boss. The company’s staff are treated much the same way as its clients. Data from their employees’ badges are integrated with information from their e-mail and calendars to form a full picture of how they spend their time at work. Clients get to see only team-level statistics, but Humanyze’s employees can look at their own data, which include metrics such as time spent with people of the same sex, activity levels and the ratio of time spent speaking versus listening.”

Code Red: Organizing the tech sector, by Alex Press in the spring 2018 issue of n+1, surveying the state of union-organizing in the tech space.

The Internet’s ‘Original Sin’ Endangers More Than Privacy, by Brendan Eich and Brian Brown (who run the privacy-minded Brave browser). “As much as half the data consumed on mobile plans goes to downloading ads and trackers, adding significantly to fixed mobile data plans. . . As much as 50% of mobile battery life is consumed by ads while browsing. . . The internet need not be characterized by predation and parasitism. It can once again be a place of infinite possibility. Innovation got us into this situation; it can get us out.”