by Aileen Derieg (translated from German by Christopher Hütmannsberger)
Originally published in German in Versorgerin #139, 1 September 2023.
You are preparing a PowerPoint presentation for a Zoom meeting, but realize that you are still missing a few points in your Excel spreadsheet. You quickly google the missing information, so that you have the time to re-read the Google Docs once more in order to be well prepared for your Zoom meeting and you can present as confidently as possible.
If all those things are actually true, and you mean everything the way you say it, are you aware of the fact that you find yourself in a position similar to the one Frodo was in, in the cave of the giant spider?
There is nothing better for a multi-national company than for their brand to become a generic description of all similar products (e.g. Hoover). This means that the company has secured complete control of its market. Should it ever be the case that a few people come up with an entirely new, excellent, and sustainable vacuum cleaner, this vacuum cleaner will invariably be defined in relation to the Hoover: it’s like a Hoover, just better.
Every time someone uses 'to google' as a verb meaning to search for something on the Internet, the dominance of Google is further cemented, thereby making alternative search engines invisible. By referring to Excel every time you mean a spreadsheet, no matter whether it was created using the Microsoft software or not, there seem to be no alternatives. When PowerPoint is seen as the quasi standard of all presentations, then our collective imagination of what a presentation can be is confined to the PowerPoint format. At this point we find ourselves in the choke hold of big tech, and begin to forget that there are alternatives (Frodo, giant spider). This is very much intentional.
For decades we have been overrun by technological 'innovation', so much so that it is impossible for an individual to keep up alone. Simultaneously, we are being increasingly isolated and divided up into the smallest possible units so that we need technical help in order to complete every possible task on our own. How often do you have to check something on your mobile phone in your daily life? This technical help is propagated by the promise that we no longer have to waste what little time we have to think about how things actually work, as they are designed to be as 'user-friendly' as possible. This in turn means that we are increasingly dependant on companies that offer these technical services and thus they define our scope of action.
This dependency is exploitative and costs us dearly.
The strange argument that all online services – or maybe even the internet as a whole – can only function through advertisement revenues, has become all but ubiquitous. At the same time all commercial online services gather massive amounts of data that they claimto use to show us 'personalised' advertisements. This data is then sold to the highest bidder – advertisement companies or states. Without any accountability. And even though these data sets are sold for enormous amounts of money, there was never any intention to collect fair tax revenues for these transactions. We have no insight into the data that is being collected about us, and we have no control over who comes to what conclusions about us based on that data. Pushy advertisements that do not really fit are the smallest problem in this case. Anti-abortion groups in the USA have already bought geo-location data sets in reference to abortion clinics; something that can only be described as highly worrying in states in which abortion has been criminalised. It is not hard to imagine what conclusions insurance companies, the police, potential employers or landlords could come to on based on this sort of data.
As long as we are alone, individualised, and isolated, we cannot defend ourselves. Yet big tech companies are not without alternatives. Looking for these alternatives already begins in the way we speak about them. Google is not the only search engine, but as long as we continue to 'google', even if we use DuckDuckGo, Qwant, or any other search engine, we lose the perspective that there are many different possibilities that let us find various different sorts of information on the internet. In the same manner that we lose the perspective that the internet does not only exist in order to make a profit.
Making alternatives invisible finally leads to the fact that we assume that for-profit business models are a given and we take them on without question. Even in leftist, anti-capitalist circles the argument is all too pervasive that commercial social media platforms are a necessary evil in order to 'reach' as many people as possible. The highest number of clicks, likes, and shares become a standard of success. That this type of content is often entirely arbitrary can be seen at the very latest with the current slow demise of Twitter. Because outrage and anger lead to more 'engagement', content that creates outrage and anger is preferred. But if the content we want to put out is actually important to us, we have to asked ourselves if the business model of commercial platforms is really best suited
to us. Standing up for what we believe in and making it known needs other strategies besides simply advertising.
Is it really that much harder to say 'search' rather than 'google'? Is it that much more inconvenient to say 'spreadsheet' rather than 'excel'? Maybe. Maybe not. But inclusive language also demands being more attentive about not using language that erases marginalised persons. Luckily there are more and more people who are willing to take on this mental effort. An aware and attentive use of language says a lot about a person. Capitalist dominated and profit-hungry technologies are not on our side. If we truly want an alternative we have to say it.
Alternatives that are non-commercial, ethical, and focused on privacy, can be found here:
Aileen Derieg is a translator and media activist focusing mainly on free software with an emphasis on autonomous cultural initiatives. After decades of translating in the cultural field she retired in 2018 and has since intensified her work with initiatives such as servus.at, AMRO, Eclectic Tech Carnival, among others. Soon after having closed the chapter of professional translation, Aileen spent two years living in and working with the hacktivist collective in Calafou, Spain, before returning to Linz, Austria.