5 min read

Fight for the Future's Holiday Wishlist

Ken, Ese, Hally and Sarah on the tech changes they'd really, really like this year

Hello team! We’re coming close to the end of the year, and the team’s thinking about some things are close to being good.

Cell phones are pretty good! But why can’t they send messages to each other? E-readers are so glow! But is it crazy to want to buy, not rent, a digital book? For a sideways holiday feature, we present this very modest wishlist for tech that sucks just a little less. Anything to add?

Hey girl

A phone that can message other kinds of phone —Ken

Android phones are so cool. You can buy a good, cheap Android phone, an Android phone that looks neat, or an Android phone that you can fix yourself. You can wipe the panopticon of an operating system that it comes with and install an alternative OS that respects your privacy. You can download a third-party app store and install cool open source apps. You can use Firefox with an ad blocker.

But there's one thing you can't do with an Android phone, and it just so happens to be the main thing I do with my phone. You can't send messages to iPhone users.

Well, I mean, you can, but the experience sucks. You have to meet the iPhone user in person, help them install Signal, and then find subtle ways to remind them that Signal is on their phone every time you see them (since you're probably their only Signal contact). Or you could go crazy and do the digital equivalent of screaming your message in front of a police station by sending them an SMS. But even then, the photos you receive in reply will be crunched down to the size of a postage stamp.

So, yeah, for Christmas this year I want an Android phone that can safely message an iPhone by default. I would love it if Apple and Google worked together on a cross-platform E2EE standard for this. I would like it if Apple opened up iMessage or at least shipped iMessage for Android. And I would probably settle for Apple not blocking third-party solutions like Beeper Mini. But come on, Big Tech Santas, don't make me go another year with a phone that can't even run Bittorrent.

The Most Sensible Route —Hally

Lately I’ve been trying to kick my reliance on Google Maps. I love getting to the point in a journey where I’m familiar with my surroundings and can jab that big red “EXIT” button on the bottom of my screen. It isn’t Maps’ voice that bothers me (it’s pleasant enough) or the constant interruptions (they’ve saved me from missing a turn more than once). As a Gen-X/elder-millennial cusp, I simply miss driving without somebody telling me where to go. Google could easily get me back on the Maps train, though, if they introduced something that’s been missing for far too long: The Most Sensible Route.

The Most Sensible Route may not be the fastest or the most fuel efficient. But The Most Sensible Route makes up for it in other ways. This route will never suggest 37 unnecessary turns down unpaved, rural paths. It won’t have surprises: I won’t have to screech to a stop on a highway in order to make a left-hand turn. It will keep me on well-lit, well-maintained roads for the duration of my trip (a recent concern since realizing my age is causing my eyesight to degrade at night. I don’t want to talk about it!).

I think there must be a happy medium between printed Mapquest directions and a state-of-the-art car phone—a trip assistant that’s smart, collaborative, and, most importantly, Sensible. Google engineers, once you’ve gotten the data privacy stuff figured out, this idea’s a freebie.

A fitness tracker that respects my privacy —Ese

Does obsessing over your heart rate, sleep data and step count sound great to you? No? Then definitely do not get a Fitbit for you or a loved one this holiday season. I work in digital rights, so you’d think I wouldn’t get roped into this one, but the Fitbit got its claws in me: I can’t go to bed until I get just enough charge to track my often very fitful (lol) sleep. Here are just some of Fitbit’s red flags; may listing them aid my recovery.

So, Fitbit is owned by Google. It collects tons of personal information—your name, email address, phone number, birthdate, gender, height, weight, location, IP address, and friends’ contact info. This is in addition to all the body-related data it tracks: steps, activity, sleep, stress, calories burned. Then, all that can be added to the data it scrapes from insurance apps, employee wellness programs, and third-party apps, including Facebook and Spotify.

Google says they won’t sell your Fitbit data, but they will use it to “improve or develop” their products and try to predict your behavior. They also might share your data with their advertising partners. Ah, the joys of being known by a corporation!

Here’s an anti-gift idea: replace your loved one’s Fitbit with a pedometer and a notebook in the dark of the night. We might kick and scream, but realistically, I think our sleep will improve.

An e-reader unfucked by monopolies and surveillance capitalism —SRG

Want to start an impassioned debate at the dinner table, but feeling leery of politics? Ask your friends and family if they prefer an e-reader or a printed book. If I happen to be your holiday guest, this’ll be my opening argument.

Let me first say that I love, love, love printed books. But ever since I lost most of my collection in a house fire (all the people were fine, thankfully), I’ve converted almost entirely to the e-reader camp—specifically, to a Kindle. Sure, I miss feeling a book in my hands, understanding its length by its thickness, and basking in its full-color cover art. But the Kindle’s portability, its library connectivity and its pleasant backlit screen have won me over. It’s helped my relationship—I can read at any time of night without waking up my partner. And while it may be cliche, one of my favorite things to do is to read on a beach. My Kindle adjusts perfectly under the glaring sun and lets me enjoy the ocean sounds in the background.

Unfortunately, my Kindle is also the child of Amazon, which is known for being both anti-library and a general surveillance nightmare. Digital book files are troublesome too: even if I buy an e-book directly from its publisher, I generally only get a license to read it. It’s hard to get the book itself.

As Fight’s Lia Holland and Jade Pfaefflin Bounds put it in a recent op-ed, “if there’s one thing we know about Big Tech companies like Amazon, their real product isn’t the book. It’s the user data.” So what I want for Christmakwanzakkuh this year is an e-reader unfucked by monopolies and surveillance capitalism. And if Santa can fulfill one more request, I’ll add that I want the Internet Archive to win its appeal, and ensure that libraries can permanently purchase digital books and carry out their traditional role of preservation.

Some Stray Links, from Anna