Confessions of a Luddite

OR: The day I started covering my laptop camera with electrical tape.

My relationship with technology has evolved over the years.

When I grew up in the early 80’s, smack in the middle of rural Ohio, “technology” was generally rare. The only place one could even obtain technological devices of any sort was RadioShack. Fortunately for me, my parents were unusually drawn to cool gadgets and had access to numerous credit cards (which RadioShack gladly accepted). So, I happened grow up with a dual top-loading VCR, multiple-CD player, Commodore 64 computer, and dot matrix printer.

Still, back then, tech was mostly occasional entertainment. I played plenty of video games (actual Pac-Man and Centipede), watched movies (mostly campy comedies), or listened to music (which was either Whitney Huston or Footloose, our only 2 CDs). Most of the time, however, I was outside watching tadpoles in the stream behind our house, or experimenting with various art materials in the basement. My only real interests in life were discovering and creating new things.

It wouldn’t be until many years later that technology itself become more important to me than a Walkman or aftermarket car stereo.

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After dropping out of college, where I had been pursing a degree in Fine Arts, it dawned on me there was another way to be creative without being a starving artist: Become a Graphic Designer. After asking my parents to buy me a Mac and some design programs, I taught myself how to type, code HTML websites, and troubleshoot dial-up modems.

By this time we were living in Northern Virginia, a fast emerging hub for technology companies and design agencies to serve them. Within a couple of years, I landed my first real job as a design professional at a small creative shop in Fairfax. There, I continued to learn things, like how to actually design, manage thousands of proprietary fonts, or prepare files for print vendors. Armed with the latest Mac G3 and an enormous 17” monitor, I was responsible for real accounts, real clients, and real money.

While lightyears beyond my childhood experiences, my understanding and appreciation of technology would only grow exponentially from there… mostly because technology itself began to evolve exponentially.

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Nearly a decade later, my career as a pure Visual Designer ended while working for a big creative agency that designed digital technology solutions for clients around the world. By this time, billions of people had access to the web (hundreds of millions of which had access to reliable high-speed internet services), and virtually all of them were already on Facebook. Instead of webpages and brochures, clients cared about scalable web-based services, targeted social media campaigns, immersive digital experiences, and, of course, mobile apps.

Needless to say, tech had come a long way, and I wanted to solve deeper, more interesting problems than just the visual ones. Therefore, I successfully transitioned from a Visual Designer to an Experience Designer before leaving the agency world for “Product”.

Ironically, this was also the inflection point in my relationship with tech, since moving product-side only brought me that much closer what’s actually going on under the world wide hood.

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Nearly four years later, even more has changed. Now I do a variety of things for an open-source web software company based in Germany, including building prototypes, mapping out user journeys, scheduling meetings, and writing functional specifications. My primary work machine is faster than most of my previous laptops combined, and only has a 13” screen. There are no more clients and vendors (just users and stakeholders), and technical implementations are far more important than fancy presentations.

More importantly, the kind of things I worry about today are completely different than those I worried about a decade ago. That’s because I don’t just know more about technology in general, but also about how the web works, specifically, including the vast exchange of user data and programmatic ad buying that powers its economic engines. Considering how the web underpins nearly all of the new technology emerging today, knowing such things evidently changed me.

Because today, I’m not learning about typography, adaptive layouts, or how to design a frictionless credit card payment flow. Instead, I’m learning about a world where virtually everything about us is collected, stored, and shared via API’s every second we spend online. Instead of reading about the latest social media trends or next iPhone, I’m learning how to better protect users data in the products we build. And instead of keeping up with the latest techniques in agile software development, I’m worrying a shit ton about privacy in an increasingly mobile, insecurely networked world.

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15 years ago, I was the artistic kid that grew up into an bonafide design professional — dress pants and all. Whenever somebody showed me new trends (like all-Flash home pages!), I eagerly incorporated them into my designs. Technology was something I avidly consumed, and only sought the newest, latest gadgets to satiate my credit card-financed appetites. The future was bright with possibilities and endless opportunity.

Today, I’m almost a middle aged man who wears hoodies, avoids social media like radioactive waste, and covers his laptop camera with electrical tape. My mobile phone requires fingerprint authentication and runs a VPN at all times. I refuse to buy a new gaming console because they’re capable of recording every word and action, which an AI could analyze to serve me targeted advertising. And I always keep some cash in multiple currencies locked in a safe at home, just in case financial markets ever shut down.

What the fuck happened?

Explosive technological advancement happened, and not all of it positive.

More people have access to advanced technology than at any other time in recorded history, just as technology itself continues to grow exponentially in scale, scope, and complexity. In this hyper-connected world of mega data we’ve created, it’s finally impossible to live in the modern age without the web — and yet we have failed to address its most serious flaws and vulnerabilities, and in the process have completely lost control of all basic individual privacy. Even worse, we’ve given nearly all that control (and valuable user data) to a handful super-powerful American corporations, or to government agencies in the name of “national security”. It seems more than likely that all the data we’ve generated, floating out there in the “cloud” or stored in massive data centers, will one day come back to haunt us.

The very world I have helped create no longer seems so… positive.

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For now, I plod forward. I care less about aesthetics and more about substance, meaning, and core purpose. I do what I can, creating products that make a positive difference in the lives of ordinary people while, hopefully, making the web a better place for everyone. To this day, my overwhelming desire is to discover and create new things — for the benefit of all — and there is no better time to do just that than right now.

But in the end, it’s hard to feel optimistic. I fear the worst case scenario because I understand the potential for real catastrophy. The future isn’t a threat, per se, but it does appear more and more threatening every day. So, as a result, I cover my cameras and stay away from social media.

Maybe I’ll fall in love with technology again one day. Perhaps I’ll be forced to terminate our relationship completely. Until then, I currently prefer to keep our relationship strictly casual.