Is It Possible To Take Back Control Of Our Own Minds?


Sunday, 7.06am

Sheffield, U.K.

It would be too easy to say that I feel invisible. Instead, I feel painfully visible, and entirely ignored. – David Levithan, Every Day

I am starting to realize that for a decade or more I have steadily given away control of my own mind, surrendered my ability to think to a host of corporations that have skillfully made it easier and easier for me to retain nothing and depend on them for everything. I’d like to end that dependence, wean myself off, extract myself from their cloying embrace. But how can I do it, is it even possible and where do I start?

For most people this would be impossible. The technology we use has turned us into cyborgs, with smartphones grafted to our palms that connect us to the greater network, the organizations that feed us all we know. And it feels like a lot, it is a lot, because our brains have a limited capacity to process incoming information and the more bandwidth these organizations use up the less we have to think for ourselves until we eventually just give up.

Think I’m making too much of this? Well, for starters, do you still regularly bookmark web pages? Do you record interesting content in your own files with a reference to where you found it. Do you still keep any version of a commonplace book? I feel like I’ve done less and less of that as the years have gone on. I’ve abandoned the practice of having a memory and relied instead on being able to search and find what I want. And it has worked, but is it good?

What makes you viable?

This talk by Lara Boyd, which you can skim with the transcript here tells us that the brain lays down chemical tracks over time, as you build your memory, building and reinforcing the network that holds what you know. The Internet has a similar feel to it, with individuals creating pages and those pages being read and linked to and built on, until you have a corpus of material that is ever increasing but also decreasing as sites come to the end of their lives and fall away. Imagine for a minute, that network as a universe of shimmering strands, lit up, twinkling in the darkness of the night sky, like a galaxy slowly turning, everything you know and have learned over the decades of your lifetime.

Look at it again now, through the lens of a search engine, your access to that network moderated through a small box in a web page. Everything you see is not filtered and funneled through that box. The lights aren’t there any more, you have no idea of what exists. You just know that when you want you will be directed to the portion of the network that is deemed to be best for you. It will be convenient, it will be easy, it will almost always be right. But you will no longer be able to see the full picture, the night sky will, for you, be entirely dark.

When someone has their hands around your neck they control whether you get air or not, whether you live or die and the search engines that we use are making decisions on which people and organizations live or die, because they provide the traffic and visibility that is oxygen to a digital network. And it doesn’t take long to realize that isn’t a viable way to be. But is there any other way, what else can you do?

An experiment in liberation

It feels to me that having a choice is an important thing. There’s no point just giving up and seeing the world as it is. What can we do to take back some control – over our own lives and our thoughts. How do we break free from the embrace of the godlike creatures that have taken over our world?

It starts with community. You can’t do it on your own, you need others who think like you, who have the ability and competence to help and guide you, who build the tools to set you free so that you can continue to help to create a place to be. And let’s start with search, because the first thing you need to get started in the darkness is a light.

Imagine, for a minute, that you’re stood in a great city. The roads are full of people, the buildings are vast and high and gleaming. Everyone looks happy and healthy and content and are rushing about doing whatever they need to do. Looking down, you spot a grate and tug it open. You see an opening below and drop into the darkness. You’re under the city now, in the catacombs, and you don’t know where to go. Where can you find a light?

Peer to peer search engines

As I explore this world I’m going to avoid using the big search engines, the ones you all know. Instead, let’s start with a little help from our friends. YaCy is a search engine with a difference. Instead of a centralized search engine like the ones you are used to this is a peer-to-peer search engine, where your computer joins others in indexing and retrieving web pages. You can download and install it and then start to use it for searches. You won’t get the same results are you will using Google; as the documentation explains “YaCy will provide different and better results than Google, since it can be adapted to the user’s own preferences and is not influenced by commercial aspects.” I don’t know about the better, that’s probably not true and won’t be for a while. But it is different and it based around your preferences and it won’t sell to you.

Think of it as a match that you light in the darkness. It’s not the powerful torch that the commercial search engines are, but it works, it’s in your pocket and you can get started with it.

Finding shelter

The next thing you will do as you wander through the dark corridors, illuminated just by your flickering match, is come across rooms, some of which have people and perhaps even have light and warmth. These spaces have life and conversation and laughter, a place where you can stop and talk to others and see if you get on.

Let’s look at the website of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). What are the things that jump out at you? The FSF has a mission, to defend the rights of all software users. It uses only free software to do its work. It sponsors the GNU project, which provides free software. And then they have the LibrePlanet community, a space for you to join and engage with other individuals.

All this is made possible through the use of technology, some of which you may have forgotten existed. For example, in the days before the search engines there were things like forums and internet relay chat. I remember using them in 1998/99, which is a long time ago now. They still exist, you can join them now. Of course, if you don’t want to go through the bother of that and prefer social networking sites, those exist too. For example Fosstodon is an alternative social media platform that has an open license.

So, we have shelter and chat. This is a little like Maslow’s hierarchy for community building. Perhaps that’s a model worth building on as we explore what it takes to form a community, whether it’s offline or online. What are the equivalents for a group that are trying to come together. I did a similar analysis for businesses some time back so perhaps in the next post I build on this idea and see where it takes us.


Karthik Suresh

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