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kottke.org posts about Kashmir Hill

Life Without the Everything Store

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 25, 2019

Kashmir Hill is a remarkable and inventive reporter. She came up with a great concept called “Goodbye Big Five”: one by one, she’d try to cut out the biggest digital companies in the world from her life (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft). She started with the toughest: Amazon.

Amazon is not just an online store—that’s not even the hardest thing to cut out of my life. Its global empire also includes Amazon Web Services (AWS), the vast server network that provides the backbone for much of the internet, as well as Twitch.tv, the broadcasting behemoth that is the backbone of the online gaming industry, and Whole Foods, the organic backbone of the yuppie diet.

Keeping myself from walking into a Whole Foods is easy enough, but I also want to stop using any of Amazon’s digital services, from Amazon.com (and its damn app) to any other websites or apps that use AWS to host their content. To do that, I enlist the help of a technologist, Dhruv Mehrotra, who built me a custom VPN through which to route my internet requests. The VPN blocks any traffic to or from an IP address controlled by Amazon. I connect my computers and my phone to the VPN at all times, as well as all the connected devices in my home; it’s supposed to weed out every single digital thing that Amazon touches.

How’d it work? Well, things got rough.

On the second morning of the block, I hear my daughter in the living room with my husband screaming “Alessa, Alessa!” They forgot that the voice of the Amazon Echo, Alexa, has been banished from the house. The block is especially tough on my one-year-old daughter, Ellev, both because the Echo provides the sole source of music in our household and because Ellev is obsessed with three movies (Coco, Monsters Inc., and The Incredibles), all of which we usually watch either through Netflix or through videos purchased via Amazon.

Ellev is not happy about my experiment particularly because my long-winded explanations about why she can’t listen to “E-I-E-I-O” or watch “Incwedibles” make zero sense to her. The low point of the week is when she cries for the Incredibles for a solid five minutes one afternoon, though I manage to distract her, eventually, with puzzle pieces.

It’s not just entertainment, though; a good deal of fundamental communications tools run on AWS, including Signal and Slack. Hill soon discovers, though, that there are some benefits to being less online.

My husband and I break our habit of watching shows on Netflix at the end of the day, opting to read instead or indulge our newfound obsession with cribbage, a card game I had assumed was boring until I started playing it. Also, since we mostly use Signal to text each other, I find myself sending him fewer texts and instead talk to him about things IRL.

We also wean our daughter from much of her screen time, which means quality time playing with her or taking her to a playground rather than giving her a “movie treat.” I go running outside rather than doing my three miles on a treadmill watching Netflix. In general, having access to fewer parts of the internet makes me use technology less, which is increasingly my goal in life.

Less internet also means less surveillance—from coworkers (via Slack and other tools) and from Amazon itself, which could be mining the sheer amount of data it manages for insights into consumer and commercial usage, both individually and in the aggregate. In short, Hill concludes, Amazon’s indispensability is itself tremendously troubling.