“You basically won’t do any work,” my wife said.
“How will you live?” my 24-year-old stepdaughter asked.
Exactly. Both responses speak to the point of the exercise.
These four tech companies are now so huge, so powerful, and so integral to our lives, that I was curious to see what 24 hours without them would be like.
What prompted me specifically was the recent news that the Justice Department is opening a broad antitrust review into whether dominant technology firms are unlawfully stifling competition. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple are almost certainly the companies in the crosshairs.
Even decoupling from Big Tech takes work
To be sure, my tech-free day is just one person’s story, but I still think Attorney General Barr should take note.
So what was it like not to use Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple for a day? Difficult and clunky. I survived, but it wasn’t fun and I was relieved when it was over.
I’ll get into the bumbling, tick-tock in a second, but first a little context.
It would be simple just to go off into the woods for a day and not engage with these companies, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to do a full day of work (and some play). And of course some people are more dependent on the tech giants than others, which is usually a function of your preferences and what you do for a living. I think I’m somewhat representative of a typical professional. As Scott Fahlman, professor emeritus of computer science and artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University says, “I could not unplug very long and keep doing my job.”
First thing to know is that even just decoupling takes work.
Breaking up with each company entails varying degrees of difficulty. I’ll go from easiest to hardest.
FACEBOOK: Simply means not using Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Yes, along with 2.3 billion others I use all four of them, the first three regularly. Still this was relatively easy, except for some FOMO (fear of missing out) issues I’ll get into.
APPLE: This was difficult for me as I’m an Apple person. I use a MacBook Pro, an iPhone 7, an iPad, AirPods, and an Apple Watch. To prepare for my day, I had borrowed a Dell Latitude 5580 laptop, and a Kyocera flip phone (I couldn’t use an Android OS phone, see below.) It wasn’t easy to find a flip phone, by the way. As for importing contacts, forget it. I also had to buy an alarm clock, pick up a book to read, and make sure my wristwatch was in good working order. Whew!
GOOGLE: Not easy at all. As noted above, purging myself from Google meant that I couldn’t use a droid. Also forget about Chrome, Docs, and Maps. And Gmail. And Google search! To prepare, I made sure I had Edge browser loaded on the Dell (I could have used Internet Explorer or Firefox), and that I could access Yahoo and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bing for search. And I went looking for good old Mapquest. (No Apple Maps allowed either of course.) My company has stopped using Microsoft Office, so I checked out free word processing software, Apache OpenOffice, but I ended up not trying it. Mail was a problem, as my work and personal email are both Gmail. So I put messages on both accounts saying they would be inactive for a day and directed folks to a Yahoo account or told them to call or text me on my flip phone.
AMAZON: Deceptively hard. Yes, no online shopping there, and no watching anything on Prime. And I shop at Whole Foods, so none of that either. But the real problem was AWS, Amazon Web Services, which powers a huge swath of websites. I couldn’t go to the likes of Reddit, Pinterest, Expedia, Etsy, Airbnb, Autodesk, Adobe, Flipboard, Foursquare, Intuit, PBS, Newsweek, Yelp, DropBox, and thousands more, which use AWS. I could only visit non-AWS sites, which meant using for instance, Azure powered platforms, (Azure is owned by Microsoft.) Fortunately there are enough non-AWS websites to function pretty well.
Ok, with all that as preparation, I was ready...
I missed Big Tech right away
My day began with loud clanging. The alarm clock! The day was only two seconds old and already I was missing Big Tech — in this case, the soft chirping birds from the alarm on my iPhone.
I got coffee and booted up my Dell (DELL) for email and news (took a while). Not many people had bothered to forward me emails, which I’m sure meant I was falling behind at work. I also hadn’t used a PC in a while, so I had a tough time navigating around (but of course that’s just because I’m a Mac person). As for news, I was careful to stay at Reuters since it uses Azure, so that was fine.
I texted and emailed some people, but it seemed like not all of them went through. Oh well.
On the way to the subway, I remembered that I forgot to check the weather — and then realized that I couldn’t do that on a flip phone. Actually I tried to, but I was directed to a Google search page. Yikes! I quickly closed the phone.
Usually on the train I work on my iPhone reading email and sending messages, but today I read Nick Lemann’s new book, “Transaction Man.” This was actually a nice change. I asked a guy sitting across from me to take my picture with the flip phone and he noted the poor quality of the shot. Yup.
When I got off the train and walked to work, I realized how much I enjoy listening to music on Spotify (SPOT) each morning. But I couldn’t do that — even if I could get it playing on the flip phone — because Spotify uses AWS.
Work was nearly impossible
When I got to the office, I pulled out my flip phone and the big honking Dell laptop — which elicited curious looks, snarky comments and a few questions from my team, mostly along the lines of: ‘What the hell are you doing?’
Work was slow, laborious, and unproductive. I got a bit faster with old-school texting, (remember how to press the number keypad for letters?) But I forgot to transfer my contacts to the PC, so I kept having to ask people for email addresses. Ugh. Plus the PC I borrowed wasn’t working well, (not your fault Dell), and I keep having to ask tech editor Dan Howley for help.
I realized I should have bought some newspapers to read.
I jumped on a 20-minute phone call and afterwards my arm was killing me. Dang! I forgot to use a headset. (Yes, flip phones have a port, remember?) I had another call coming up so I grabbed a headset off my desk and plugged it in, but NO, STOP, it was an Apple Earbud set and I was immediately busted by co-workers, who seemed to be watching my strange behavior pretty closely. Thanks team!
I could have gotten non-Apple earphones of course, but I didn’t bother.
The day went on...slowly. I tried to do more face-to-face meetings, but soon ran out of excuses to talk to people. I couldn’t do many emails as they required attachments and docs I left on my Mac
I also realized that I didn’t put an away message on my iPhone (I had to get a new number for the flip phone), or on Slack, our internal communications messaging. This raised my anxiety. What was I missing? A fair amount, as it turned out later...
My FOMO continued after work
And speaking of FOMO. Thankfully, the day wound down and I joined my family and friends for dinner at a restaurant. (I Yahooed the address and Binged directions.) We were all having a great time, until everyone began the usual picture taking and social sharing. ‘Ha, ha, ha, look at this…’ What’s so funny, I wondered?
At 8 p.m., my wife and I went to Madison Square Garden to see a John Mayer concert. It had now been 20 hours and I was deep in big-tech withdrawal. I have to admit, not being able to check my email and social media drove me crazy, which is understandable since I probably touch my smartphone at least 2, 617 times a day, according to a mind-blowing study by dscout. “There’s a fine line between convenience and dependence,” says Michael Winnick, a researcher there. Got that right, Mike. I tried taking pictures — like the other 18,000 people at the show — but the results were abysmal.
Meanwhile my wife’s phone was blowing up. Turns out a family member was having an issue that I needed to tend to and no one could reach me. (Of course this would happen.) At this point, I must confess, I failed. I sent a text on my wife’s iPhone. (And don’t worry, everything ended up being ok.)
John Mayer was amazing, but I couldn’t wait to go home — and for the clock to hit midnight, at which point my one-day experiment would be done.
Next morning I woke up (ah, no clangy alarm clock) and reconnected to the world, happy as could be. But wait, there’s fallout. First, I had hours of email to answer. And worse, I saw texts from my boss, reminding me that I needed to send her some info by end of day. That would be end of day—yesterday. (Of course this would happen, part two.) Fortunately it wasn’t the end of the world, but still…
What’s the takeaway from my day of techno-abstinence?
Like living without an arm — possible but not ideal
A few things, but first some caveats: Number one, being an Apple ecosystem guy made this harder, but I imagine it wouldn’t be easy even if you are a droid and a PC person, either. Second, if not for Microsoft — another tech giant — (with its Azure, and I could have used Windows) and I would have really been toast.
Bottom line is that my big tech free day showed me just how connected to and reliant upon Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple I am. Just cutting the cord from these babies is tricky. Granted this was just one day. I’m sure it would get easier and better and I know I could adapt and cope.
Ultimately though, I think living without these four companies (again as a professional) would be like living without an arm. You could do it. But you wouldn’t want to.
Does that make them monopolies in need of remediation? Not per se, but I think it speaks to the power they have over our lives.
Think, for example, of another category of companies and imagine not using them for a day.
Walmart and Target? Easy. All big box retailers? No problem.
Exxon and Chevron? Sure. All gasoline companies? For a day no worries, for a month, hard. (Unless you have a Tesla.)
Healthcare companies? Again, over time might be tough.
What about the electric company? Certainly it would be very difficult for most of us not to use our local power companies — at home and work— for even just one day.
But then again those companies are regulated utilities.
Hmm ... Maybe it takes going just one day without Big Tech to realize it's become as essential as electricity — and should be regulated accordingly.
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.