Week 5: Apple
When I first conceived of this experiment—cutting the tech giants out of my life one-by-one—I hadn’t thought to include Microsoft (because I use very few of their products) or Apple (because I use so many of theirs).
I have two MacBook Airs, one for personal use and one supplied by my work. I have an iPhone that I nicknamed “tech appendage.” My husband and I have a shared iPad2 that I use at the gym and that we rely on to keep our 1-year-old daughter happy on flights and long car rides.
Apple is my gateway to almost all things digital. I am physically touching an Apple device for the majority of any given day. Being asked to remove Apple from my life was like being asked to remove a part of my body that was incredibly useful but that I could live without, like a finger or an eyeball.
Why cut Apple from my life? Yes, it’s an incredibly valuable and powerful company, the world’s most valuable company according to the stock market most days, but it’s generally thought of as a good guy as far as the big tech companies go. Beyond tax avoidance schemes, questionable labor practices abroad, its problematic business in China, the iCloud downpour that led to the Fappening, and, most recently, the great FaceTime bug of 2019, Apple has generally evaded negative press.
In fact, Apple has become a kind of privacy regulator for the rest of the tech industry. It recently punished Facebook and Google by rendering their internal iOS apps unusable after the two companies abused special all-seeing powers to spy on iPhone users for “research,” illustrating just how powerful Apple is, with the ability to control what code people can run on their own phones.
Apple makes its money by selling hardware (and taking a generous cut from app sales), not by selling its users’ data or running ads (at least, not anymore). Its CEO, Tim Cook, is going around putting other tech giants on blast, making speeches decrying the surveillance economy, lambasting the “data industrial complex,” and calling for federal privacy legislation to rein in bad actors.
Now, this may well be posturing for marketing purposes, but Cook’s smack talk rankled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enough that he asked his executives to stop using iPhones, according to reports, though Facebook says it just encourages employees to use Android because “it is the most popular operating system in the world.”
While Android is used by the majority of people in the world, I’m one of the Macheads. Gizmodo editors were not sympathetic to my reliance on Apple, however, and insisted I include the company in my experiment to live without the tech giants.
So I cut the ‘tech appendage’ off this week—and damn, it hurts.
In addition to abandoning all my iProducts, I am blocking myself from interacting with Apple in any way, using a custom VPN designed for me by technologist Dhruv Mehrotra. The VPN prevents my devices from communicating with the 16,777,216 IP addresses controlled by Apple, rendering iCloud and any Apple apps defunct—though I won’t have much occasion to use Apple apps as they’re not, for the most part, available on non-Apple devices.
I immediately run into a pretty big problem: What phone am I going to use? I can, of course, use an Android phone, but I’ll soon be blocking all the tech giants at once, so I’d rather get a phone I can use for the last two weeks of the experiment. Unfortunately, the smartphone market is currently a duopoly. It’s basically impossible to get a smartphone that is not part of the Android or Apple ecosystems.
Windows phone bit the dust. Firefox phone? R.I.P. Even Blackberry runs on Android now. I visit a T-Mobile store in downtown San Francisco asking if they have flip phones or anything that isn’t Apple or Android. They don’t and recommend visiting Target.
Gizmodo’s managing editor, Andrew Couts, tries to help me. He reaches out to a company called Sailfish, an independent smartphone operating system out of Europe, but it doesn’t respond to his emails until too late. I reach out to a European nonprofit called Eelo that espouses “freedom from data slavery.” The founder, Gaël Duval, made it his mission in 2017 to leave Apple and Google, but the nonprofit doesn’t have a phone I can buy; it is still a DIY operation for developer types. Duval says he can send me a prototype Eelo phone, but it too doesn’t arrive in time.
So when the Apple block starts, I don’t yet have a phone, and I am freaking out.
I do have a computer, one that I can use for the final two weeks of the experiment: a Librem 13, made by a company called Purism that is fiercely opposed to the tech giants, avoiding them like the plague in a self-proclaimed “liberation effort.” The bulk of my job can be done online, use a browser and some browser-based apps. I can also use it to make calls, video chat, and send texts over messaging apps like Signal (which only works when I’m not blocking Amazon, as it’s hosted on AWS). So a laptop is all I really need to get by—theoretically, at least.
The Purism is pure black with the company’s white square logo appearing only on a single key on the keyboard and hidden on the bottom of the computer. It’s made of brushed aluminum like a Mac laptop, but the company anodizes it because “Apple has a monopoly on raw aluminum,” says Purism founder Todd Weaver. (Not an actual monopoly, but in the perception sense.)
The 13-inch Librem (which means “freedom book”) has a GNU/Linux operating system, an Apple-level price tag of $1,399, and a lot of privacy-and-security bells and whistles—some of which throw me: I can’t get the camera and microphone on my laptop to work for a video chat one day, because I don’t see that the computer has a tiny kill switch for them, and that they’re switched on.
Purism is a new player in the computer hardware space; it registered as a social purpose corporation in 2017, meaning it considers company mission when making decisions rather than just profit maximization. Its 50 or so employees work remotely. (One of them is Eugen Rochko, the lead developer of Mastodon, a Twitter-like social network hosted by its users that I failed to take to when I was blocking Facebook.)
About a month before the Apple block started, Weaver met me in downtown San Francisco to lend me a Librem and to show me how to use it. I was apprehensive because when I think “Linux,” I think of hardcore programmers and imagine data streams flowing down the screen a la The Matrix, but Weaver showed me that I didn’t need to know command line language to operate it.
“Convenience is the root problem to solve,” Weaver tells me. “You have to go out of your way and inconvenience yourself to avoid these tech giants that are enslaving people’s data. We’re trying to give people your experience but without having to do the research.”
Weaver is a serial entrepreneur who has been a computer geek since the 1990s. Like other technologists I met during this experiment, he’s part of the free software movement, people who feel that all tech should be interoperable and open to review, and who feel that users should have the right to own and control their own data.
This group of technologists tends to dislike Apple because it is a walled tech garden that uses its own operating system (iOS), its own software (a song you buy on iTunes isn’t easily listened to on a non-Mac device), its own screws (so that people can’t easily open the innards of devices they own), and its own hardware, powered by (always changing) chargers that work only for Apple devices. Hell, it’s the company that eliminated the headphone jack. In Weaver’s ideal world, you wouldn’t be stuck in individual companies’ ecosystems.
“Society is now realizing we’re under the control of these big tech companies,” says Weaver. He tries to come up with a real-world analogy for what it’s like to use Apple devices rather than an open source device. “In the physical world, you can own your home, which means you have the keys. In the digital world, Apple controls the keys to your device. You are renting it, like you rent a hotel room. They control the keys, so they can do anything to your device whenever they want without your consent or knowledge.” (As iPhone-using employees at Google and Facebook now well know.)
Computers once sat only on desks, and we would be away from them for days and hours at a time. But then they became mini-computers we held and carried with us. And then they became even smaller computers that we can wear, nestled directly against our skin, pulsating gently against our wrists when there’s something we need to know. “Computers are moving closer and closer to our brains,” Weaver says. “So I pose the question: Would you in the future like a brain [chip] from Google, Apple, Facebook, or some other big tech company, or would you like to control your own brain [chip]?”
Weaver’s worry about the path of the tech industry increased after his two daughters were born. He imagined the harms they could suffer as a result of rampant data-mining. He thinks his daughters may well get chips in their brains one day, and he doesn’t want the data on those chips to be owned by a tech company. So in 2014, he started working on what would eventually become Purism.
Purism could have been my one-stop shop for tech-giant-free products had I waited a bit. It plans to start selling a smartphone soon, but unfortunately for my experiment, it’s not slated for release until this spring.
It’s now been a month since I picked up the Librem, and I haven’t used it since then. That turns out to be a problem for my Apple block: When I boot it up, it asks for my decryption password. I remember my username and password to sign into the computer, but that password is not working for this initial decryption.
Most Librem users have two different passwords, one for decryption and another for log-in to make them as secure as possible. I can’t remember whether Weaver set up the password for me or if I had set it up. Either way, I hadn’t recorded it or written it down, and now I’m fucked: I don’t have a working phone or computer.
For the first time in my weeks-long experiment, I have to admit utter failure. I boot up my MacBook Air and email the Purism team asking for help. After a suggestion that I try “Password” doesn’t pan out, the company graciously sends its chief security officer to my house with a new Librem, though he has to drive in from Petaluma, so he won’t arrive for more than an hour.
I am feeling very frazzled, but this seems like a good time to head to Target and get a phone. Luckily, I know how to get there without a mapping app.
Ironically enough, the day before the Apple block started, my husband and I had bought a pair of new iPhone XSes as early Christmas presents to one another. It came to $2,800 total for two phones, each with 256 GB of storage to hold the glorious photos they can take with their “Neural engine”-enhanced cameras. (Apple takes the bite out of the price tag by offering people no-interest loans from Citizens Bank so they can space payments out over two years.) The process of moving from one iPhone to another iPhone is incredible. You use your new phone to take a photo of a bunch of swirling dots on your old phone and Apple moves most of what you need from one phone to the other like magic. The transfer, like the new phone itself, is sleek, smooth, and effortless. You don’t even have to type a passcode into the new iPhone; you can set up Face ID so it just opens up when you look at it.
Eighteen hours later, however, I have abandoned that glorious piece of the future and am buying its opposite: a phone with a shitty camera, a ‘keyboard’ that consists only of number buttons, no touch screen, no voice dictation, and no apps.
My only choice at Target for a non-Apple, non-Google phone is the Nokia 3310, a device originally from the early aughts that was re-released in 2017—almost, I think, as a joke. The Target clerk, whose tag reads Jacob L., but who tells me his name is actually Jacob Day, seems very excited that I am going to buy this phone, as if it’s an event that doesn’t happen often. He tells me how Nokia keeps making the 3310 because of memes about how indestructible it is.
The Nokia 3310 4G is incredibly light, slightly larger than my palm, and encased in bright orange plastic. It comes in a tiny box covered in bright pop art featuring a snake, which is a shout-out to a pre-installed game on the phone that evokes nostalgia in countless people I talk to this week who played the game on their Nokia phones a decade ago. It costs just $60, or $1,340 less than the phone I bought the day before.
It’s not an easy transition. Figuring how to get my SIM card into it requires more research on my banned MacBook Air and a trip to a T-Mobile store.
Typing on the device is excruciating. It has 15 buttons: 0-9, *, #, left, right, and enter. If you want to type “c”, you have to press 1 three times. (Or you can turn on T9 predictive text, which I do, so that I can press 1-1-8 and have it guess that I mean “act,” “cat,” “bat,” or “abu,” in that order.)
It is basic as hell, but incredibly you can access the internet on it, very slowly, via a browser from Opera.
As I leave T-Mobile, I send my husband, Trevor, a text; his is the only number I have memorized, and the new phone doesn’t have my contacts. “Hello from my new phone” is exhausting to compose, and I have to stand still while I write the message. I can’t believe people actually wanted to text rather than call when texting was this hard to do.
Trevor doesn’t text me back. Rude.
I try to explore the phone while walking home, but it’s so hard to do without a touch screen that I almost turn my ankle twice on the sidewalk before I give up.
When I get home, I find out why I haven’t gotten a text from Trevor: There are two iMessages from him on the notification screen of my (now banned) iPhone. Apple still has iMessaging turned on for me and is automatically routing text messages from people with iPhones to its own messaging service.
Still using my damn MacBook Air, I Google “how to turn off iMessaging.” I turn it off, but it causes problems for the rest of the experiment; some people’s texts just don’t get to me, particularly if they are sent to group threads in which all the people have iPhones except me. It’s harder to get out of Apple’s ecosystem than Google’s.
While I have the iPhone out, I manually enter some of my most important contacts into the Nokia, as there doesn’t seem to be another way to quickly move them.
At noon, Purism’s CSO Kyle Rankin arrives with my replacement computer. I show him my new Nokia, lamenting the iLoss.
“[Apple] is like any gated community. It’s very beautiful and the produce is nice, but it’s hard to leave,” says Rankin. He compares switching devices to changing cars. “There are kinks to get used to but you know the basics. The gear shifter might be in a new place, but you figure it out.”
I agree. Using the Librem laptop over the week is like adjusting to a new car, but using the Nokia is different: It’s like driving a new car in another country where they drive on the other side of the road. It’s very hard to get used to, and eventually, I realize I’m being too hard on myself.
I don’t have to block Google this week, so I can just use an Android smartphone. I discover five (!) of them tucked away in various cupboards in my house; the peril of being a tech journalist is apparently accumulating Androids like other people accumulate conference tote bags. I choose the one that looks to be in the best condition: a Samsung Nexus Galaxy I last used in 2012.
I discover it’s super easy to export the few contacts I had entered into the Nokia to my Android—I send them in seconds via Bluetooth. But it’s far more complicated to get my contacts out of Apple.
I have to turn on my iPhone again, back up all my contacts to iCloud, sign into iCloud on the Librem laptop—which doesn’t work until I turn off the VPN—then export all the contacts from iCloud to a VCF file, plug the Android phone into the Librem computer, and finally, import that file to the phone. Apple’s garden wall is so tall it feels almost insurmountable.
I discover through this exercise that I have 1,528 saved contacts on my iPhone, which is ludicrous. Scrolling through the list of contacts, I encounter people I haven’t talked to in years, people I don’t remember, and one-time entries that I no longer need, like “Naim Has Baby Carrier” (an Uber driver whose car we left an Ergo in), “NYC Airbnb” (self-explanatory), and “Victor of Tulum” (I have no idea).
I whittle this vast list down to “people I actually talk to,” which turns out to be 143 people. That strikes me as funny because it is basically Dunbar’s number, or the number of people that we can really know and maintain stable relationships with, according to British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. Modern technology lets us rack up thousands of friends, but if you whittled your contacts down to the ones most important to you, you might find it’s close to 150 too.
I export the contacts for those 143 people to my Samsung Galaxy. For some reason, I find it comforting to have a manageable number of people in my phone even if it means I won’t have contact information should I suddenly need to get in touch with someone random. There’s something to be said for changing devices regularly, like moving houses and forcing you to reconsider what you really need.
After that, I’m finally set up in the non-Apple world and can put anything with a fruit logo in the cupboards that formerly held all my Androids. I’m happy to report that, unlike with the other tech giants, if you’re able to wean yourself off Apple’s products, you can avoid the company. Apple tries to talk to my devices 11,000 times this week, but a good chunk of those attempts are on the first day when I am rampantly cheating.
When you don’t use Apple devices, Apple doesn’t track you. But it does make it very obvious to everyone that you no longer have an Apple device.
“Are you using an Android?” asks my friend Katie in the middle of a conversation by text. When I text my friend Chiko—whose new baby I discovered when I brought my Facebook account back from the dead—to ask her how things are going, she’s alarmed.
“Are you traveling? Why is this green?” she texted back.
Apple makes it very clear who else has an iPhone; text messages sent from an iPhone arrive as blue bubbles whereas all other messages come in green bubbles. The blue messages are iMessages, and while it’s important users know that, because those texts are end-to-end encrypted while the green messages aren’t, it’s also become a cultural marker that signals your tech class. Blue is better. Videos that are sent in a blue bubble are clear and beautiful, whereas the ones in a green bubble are a blurry mess.
I am not blue anymore. I am now green. I am out of the gated community and I feel some weird technological shame.
I try to call Chiko multiple times over a few days and she doesn’t pick up (understandable, as she has a new baby). Then one day, she tries to call me back by Facetiming me, which I miss and wouldn’t have been able to pick up anyway. “I want you to hear my daughter crying,” she texts.
“Can you do a Google hangout,” I text back.
“I don’t have Google Hangout,” she writes. “When are you going to get your iPhone back? I don’t like this.”
Next up: Blocking all the tech giants—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple—at once. God help me.
This series was supported by a grant to Dhruv Mehrotra from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.