More from The New Oil's Nate Bartram
Do you use Signal? Or ProtonMail? Maybe you go a little more hardcore and use XMPP or self host your own email provider. Did you build that server from scratch? How “scratch”? Did you simply order the components, or did you go dig the minerals out of the earth and refine them yourself? Did you build the code for the email software? Or write your own encryption standard?
At a certain point, I’m being hyperbolic. There’s a certain point at which it’s just unrealistic for people to do certain things. But why? The same people in the NASA control room in 1969 were no different from the men who stepped foot on the moon at that exact moment, and there’s functionally no difference between myself and the same people who mine the components for a smartphone or wrote the AES encryption standard. None of those people were literal superheroes like Superman or Captain America. So why not?
Moment of honesty: I have immense respect for Mike Hughes. Mike Hughes, for those who missed the memo, was a serious Flat Earther who decided to build his own rocket to get high enough to see the curvature of the Earth to prove for himself once and for all if the Earth was really flat or not. (Spoiler alert: the rocket crashed and he died.) I don’t think the Earth is flat, and I’m genuinely concerned about people who really do, but I respect that the man was like “you know what? I’m gonna find out for my self instead of relying on what others tell me,” and I respect that he didn’t let his lack of knowledge stop him. As I said before, the people at NASA aren’t superhumans. You, too, can learn how to build a rocket and launch one by yourself.
So am I saying anyone could build a rocket? Well, kind of. In theory. But we all know that’s not entirely true and kind of misleading. You know what makes the guys at NASA different from me? Education and experience. LOTS OF IT. As someone who works in a specialized industry, I understand the value of those things. The first time I showed up to an audio gig purely in an operator capacity, I felt very weird. The entire conference was already set up. My job was to show up with my coffee, make the client feel happy, make everything go off without a hitch, and go home. No physical labor on my part whatsoever. But the first time something went wrong – or rather, didn’t go wrong – I understood why I was getting paid so much to do so little: the experience. I knew what to troubleshoot, I knew what to look for, I knew how to stop the problem from getting worse and correct it, 99/100 times before the client even suspected there was a problem. I remember the first time I ever helped an experienced sound guy check a microphone EQ. I stood on stage and talked, and he went “that sounds like maybe, 400 hertz?” He made the adjustment and like magic, the microphone sounded good. I was awestruck. “How on earth did he just do that WITH NOTHING BUT HIS EARS?” Ten years later, I can do that exact same thing with about a 90% accuracy and very little effort. And that other 10% of the time, I’ve got techniques and tools to help me get it right.
Where am I going with this? Let me circle back to technology and privacy. Do you self host your own email server? That’s cool. Did you do that on day two of understanding the value of controlling your data? Or on day one of learning how to code and program? Absolutely not. My first Nextcloud server was basically six months of “don’t trust it cause it’ll break,” and even then I broke it doing a routine update last month. The fact is, this stuff takes experience and education, and often resources. And often, when we scoff at “normies” for relying on questionable services like Signal or Tutanota rather than self-hosting or using a more technically-complex service, we’re discrediting that. We’re also discrediting ourselves.
What I do as an audio engineer isn’t hard, but I’m kind of cheating myself when I just say “nah, it’s all EQ and compression really.” I mean, sure, sometimes I say that out of humility and it’s also pretty true, but if anyone else said that about me I’d be pretty offended. “Oh f*cking really? What’s your drum dynamic chain look like? Name your plugins. Nah, let’s even go before that: what’s your mic placement? What’s the perfect snare placement? How do you dampen your heads? What brand do you use? What mics do you use? Let’s talk about the room next...” When you act like people are dumb for not self-hosting or using a user-unfriendly service, what you’re really doing is insulting yourself and all the work you’ve put into learning the skills to be able do those same things. Or the work you’ve put in to build a lifestyle where you have the time and energy to experiment with these things and put in the time to learn how to use them. Or the work you’ve put in to be able to afford resources like fast internet and your own server.
But that’s just one aspect. Remember at the top when I was being hyperbolic? “Why not go mine the minerals yourself? Or solder the circuit board?” You may laugh at how dumb that sounds, but somebody somewhere does it. Why not you? Sure, I can flash Linux onto my computer, but how can I verify the hardware is secure? I can build it myself, but how I can verify the chips aren’t compromised? I can solder them myself, but what if the code is compromised? What if, what if, what if? We’re now moving into a different blog topic I plan to write in the near future, so put that thought on the shelf for now.
The answer is “convenience.” Yeah, I could learn how to solder my own circuit board. I already understand electricity and I know how to solder, why not combine the two and learn how to solder circuit boards? I already understand the basic concept of programming, why not program my own software for managing this, that, or the other? I understand the basics of encryption, why not roll my own? In some cases, the answer is obvious. Whether you trust them or not, Signal’s encryption will always be superior to my own because it has the benefit of years of experience and education, as well as numerous people, behind it. But in most cases, the answer is “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Now of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t expect the best out of a service, especially a privacy-centered one, and demand a high standard. This is a subject I’ve covered before. But what it does mean is that you should realize that not everyone is in the same position as you. For some people, learning how to self-host is just not feasible. In my own post for DT a while back, I noted that self-hosting isn’t hard, but I also noted that it does require a lot of energy to dedicate to trial and error. Are you telling me that the single mother working two or three jobs should find time to care for her kids AND work her jobs AND learn how to self host? As someone who grew up with a single mother, you’re point-blank wrong and out of touch if you said “yes” to that. It’s completely unrealistic. What about the person living in poverty who's lucky to have a cheap Android? Expecting everyone to have the same level of technical competency and resources as you is just flat out narcissistic and you should probably reexamine yourself, to be honest.
The idea of maximum effort also disregards the idea of threat models. As a semi-public figure, I’m not concerned about my accounts. I have them all using strong passwords with two-factor authentication and unique forwarding email addresses. On the other hand, I am quite worried about my real name and address. What about parents? As a non-parent, I’m not concerned about things like Roblox or child predators. Parents, on the other hand, will be very worried about these things. Telling me simply not to use TikTok or Fortnite is reasonable. Telling a parent not to let their kids use TikTok or Fortnite is laughably stupid and unrealistic.
All this is just to say that it’s important we remember that no two situations are identical. Not everyone has the same skill set or resources in terms of time, knowledge, and energy to go to the extreme, and we need to acknowledge that. Rather than urging those people to make the effort, maybe we should urge the companies to be more ethical and make the barrier to entry lower. It seems pretty weird to me that we blame the victims of Big Tech for their institutionalization rather than trying to foster a helpful environment and demand better alternatives. So next time you talk to someone who isn’t going far enough, stop to remember that you could be out there writing your own chat app, and then go from there. Sure, always gently push people to do better – my own readers hold me accountable and I’m eternally grateful for it – but remember that nobody is perfect overnight.
You can catch up with Nate and find more of his work on his website at thenewoil.xyz