Estimated reading time: 11 minute(s)
I recently published an article that reprinted and discussed 1922 remarks drafted by then-Vice President, and future U.S. President, Calvin Coolidge. The subject of Coolidge’s remarks was the importance and meaning of the home in American society – an altogether fitting and proper subject for what was to be the Better Homes in America Demonstration Week. Rather than limit his discourse to policy, Coolidge veered into an almost-philisophical exploration of the importance of home, with ideas and insights worth contemplating separate and apart from the event that prompted them. The timeless lucidity of Coolidge’s most rhetorically forceful passage dawned on me when it made me think of what home means in today’s digital age – something that Coolidge, who died on January 5, 1933, had no familiarity with.
The purpose of this article is to contemplate the meaning of Calvin Coolidge’s ideas of the home in the context of the challenges that the substantial centralization of big tech creates in our contemporary, digital age. Below, I undertake that purpose.
For those who are interested in seeing Coolidge’s full remarks without any additional commentary, I created a PDF version of them for your reading ease and uploaded it here.
The instant essay was inspired by one particular passage from Coolidge’s 1922 remarks on the home. Below, I present the first half of the pertinent passage:
The genius of America has long been directed to the construction of great highways and railroads, the erection of massive buildings for the promotion of trade and the transaction of public business. It has supplied hospitals, institutions of learning and places of religious worship. All these are worthy of the great effort and the sustained purpose which alone has made them possible.
That is, these public works were perhaps necessary for the general welfare. But the general welfare itself, while necessary, was not, according to Coolidge, sufficient for human flourishing. He continued:
They contribute to the general welfare of all the people, but they are too detached, too remote; they do not make the necessary contribution of a feeling of proprietorship and ownership. They do not complete the circuit. They are for the people, but not of the people. They do not satisfy that longing which exists in every human breast to be able to say: ‘This is mine.’
Public works “are for the people, but not of the people.” This keen insight of Coolidge carefully, and correctly, distinguished the general welfare from the conditions necessary for the flourishing of individual people and communities. Flourishing, or the Good life, is not merely an amalgamation of material things, but something more intangible. One such intangible, highlighted by Coolidge, supra, is the desire to own something, to be able to say “this is mine.” While the primary focus of Coolidge’s essay was the home, its wisdom extends beyond the walls of a family home or a small community of family homes.
The digital world becomes a larger part of the lives of millions of Americans with each passing year. Lines that once distinguished the text and images behind computer screens from real life have blurred. Corporate entities turn to Twitter, rather than to real-world customers, to make important policy decisions.
Many people rely on the digital world to fulfill functions that preexisted the adoption of computers in the home, much less pocket computers masquerading as phones. Social media and related services are used to stay in touch with family, friends, and acquaintances that exist only online. Search engines and social media serve as portals to news and other important information, including from one’s own government representatives. Precious memories are stored in online clouds run by large, centralized entities, instead of in physical formats in one’s own home. Contacts, notes, and tasks are, for many, managed entirely with services provided by Google and Apple.
The ethos of big tech is efficiency. If there is a problem in need of a solution, or a solution in search of a problem, how can it be dealt with in the most efficient manner? The answer, often in this world, is through large entities providing centralized services. The efficiency benefits are two-fold. The entities providing services can most easily monetize those services (and turn users into commodities for advertisers) through centralization. Users can expect that they will be able to access centralized services from all of their centralized devices.
If one avoids looking behind the curtain, it is hard to argue that the push for centralized efficiency does not make life more convenient. But is that conducive to human flourishing? Do Coolidge’s insights apply in a world he could not have envisioned?
The result of the domination of a select few big tech companies in areas of life that are becoming increasingly impossible to avoid is a distinct anti-ownership worldview. One does not own his or her social media presence, but merely rents space from entities such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest in return for his or her data – which can be monetized. As we have seen often, that which is rented can be taken away by the renter. With that can go human and digital connections, access to common pools of information, and access to ancillary online services that rely on having accounts with centralized services.
Does one not like a turn that his or her cloud storage provider or payment processor took? He or she may have the best of luck navigating many menus and concepts with which he or she is unfamiliar to move data elsewhere or pay for other products and services differently.
The push for efficiency has led to anti-ownership outcomes with regard to devices. Phones with replaceable batteries and other necessary components are becoming harder to come by. One will have difficulty repairing an Apple product without taking it to Apple itself. E-readers are a wonderful thing, but do any come without the continual cost of the user’s information, interests, and habits?
Coolidge’s thoughts on the home are distinctly applicable to the challenges of centralization in the digital age. Services provided by entities such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Dropbox, and many more are undoubtedly convenient, and many have benefited from them. But is there not still that yearning to be able to say “this is mine”?
Is it best that digital identities, which often have more currency than non-digital ones, exist at the pleasure of rented space on proprietary big tech servers and services, and at the cost of marketable information about the purported customers?
Can it be the case that the precious photos and memories of families are best stored – in many cases solely – with external providers?
Would one argue that it is best that Google and Facebook serve as the dominant gatekeepers to the wealth of information online?
If one purchases a computer that he or she genuinely needs for a number of reasons, is it best that it comes at the cost of having his or her personal information harvested by the device and/or its operating system after he or she paid for the privilege of owning the device and/or operating system?
I could go on.
It is possible to assert varying degrees of ownership over digital functions in one’s own life. I have written about several of these methods at The New Leaf Journal.
For example, if one decides that it is not to his or her benefit to consume news primarily through Facebook or a Google newsfeed, he or she may undertake to use an RSS reader that delivers news from sources that he or she chooses.
If one decides that using a single search engine controlled by a single entity is not a good way to consume content online, he or she may use a selection of search engines or host his or her own meta-search engine.
What if one decides that YouTube should not be the only place to consume videos online? For both creators and consumers, there are alternatives.
In addition to choosing transparent services that do not treat end-users as primary products, there are numerous tools available to self-host one’s own services. For example, if one does not want all of his or her precious family photos and documents stored with a single big tech provider, there are numerous alternative solutions that put power in the hands of users.
Everything that I wrote in this section is true. But is the existence of alternatives a solution in and of itself? Is it enough to tell people who complain about the current environment to do it yourself? I turn again to Coolidge.
I quote another incisive passage from Coolidge’s essay on the home:
It is of little avail to assert that there is an inherent right to own property unless there is an open opportunity that this right may be enjoyed in a fair degree by all. That which is referred to in such critical terms as capitalism cannot prevail unless it is adapted to the general requirements. Unless it be of the people it will cease to have a place under our institutions, even as slavery ceased.
One may counter my suggestions in the prior section by asserting that if people do not like some or all of the things or services I described, they are free to choose alternatives. To be sure, that is technically true. One can replace some or all of the services I have noted – as I have in my own digital environment.
I counter that hypothetical counter.
As Coolidge observed, to state that “there is an inherent right to property” is to state a fact, but not an effect. The right exists, but the existence of the right does not necessarily mean anything material to ordinary people. In order for the right to meaningfully affect the lives of normal people, “this right [must] be enjoyed in a fair degree by all.” Fair is crucial, for Coolidge was anything but a communist. In the context of home ownership, he believed that it should be possible for ordinary, hardworking American families to own a home and have a pleasant community on a normal salary – or even with meager means.
It is true that Americans have the right to build a digital home, but what does that mean in reality? Is this right “enjoyed in a fair degree by all”?
There are numerous practical barriers that prevent many Americans from properly contemplating, much less actually building, a digital home.
Schools today provide children with computers and tablets run by centralized providers that view users as renters at best and products at worse. There may be many valid reasons that children grow up using these devices and operating systems, but the effect is that they grow up accustomed only to those products.
With regard to alternative software and services, many people who might be inclined to try alternatives to Google or Bing may not be aware that such alternatives exist. To the extent they have heard of alternatives, it may not be readily obvious that there are many web browsers that replicate the key functionality of Google Chrome for ordinary users. People with jobs and real lives only have so much time to research these alternatives.
Self-hosting, while perhaps optimal, is demonstrably inaccessible to most ordinary people. There are valiant efforts underway to make self-hosting more accessible, but those efforts have a long way to go on all fronts.
There are free, libre, and open source alternatives to centralized proprietary social media platforms. However, in addition to the general applicability of all the barriers to entry that I listed supra, what use is social media if one cannot convince his or her real friends and family to join in a new adventure? Here, the barrier is not only single, but also communal. Let it be said that I am privy to the same problem with respect to messaging services.
I resolve that it is desirable that, so long as the digital world is a central part of today’s world, individual people should be able to build their homes on land they own in that world. In the alternative, it is desirable that people should at a minimum have realistic alternatives to the largest players in the digital landscape – alternatives that do not subsist primarily on information harvested from their purported customers. If a physical home of one’s own or a community is part of the life lived well in the real world, so to should it be in the digital world, so long as that world is a feature of the real world.
However, it is evident that at this place and time, the right to build a digital home does not give rise to an open opportunity to do so, fairly available to all. The purpose of this essay is not to explore potential solutions to this dearth in opportunity in depth, but it is in the interest of the comprehensiveness of the inquiry that I should at least suggest some.
In an earlier New Leaf Journal essay, I cautioned against treating productivity as an end in and of itself. That is, the right and proper end of productivity is production. Productivity divorced from its end becomes its own end, and that end has no substance.
I offer a similar note of caution with regard to the instant matter. Delivering digital services in the most efficient manner possible is a more proper end than productivity for productivity’s sake, but that does not make it a well-conceived end. The digital realm is no longer a mere collection of products and services, but instead a central part of American life. It brings benefits and misery in almost equal parts.
In considering the digital, we must contemplate it with respect to the effect it has on society and individuals. To that effect, our concerns cannot solely, or even primarily, be related to efficiency.
In his Better Homes speech, Coolidge believed that making home ownership more accessible was an important goal, but not the only goal. That is, his concern was not only construction and economic efficiency. He was also concerned with the aesthetic:
It is time to transfer some of the approbation and effort that has gone into the building of public works to the building, ornamenting, and owning of private homes by the people—attractive, worthy, permanent homes.
Coolidge was concerned with the quality of homes. All homes are dwellings, but not all dwellings are homes. The production of digital software and services is important, as is making them accessible. But we must be concerned with their aesthetic qualities and whether they harm or hinder the desire of individual people to live well.
Below, I list some brief notes and ideas on areas of focus for facilitating the building of aesthetic digital homes.
Choosing alternatives to centralized, data-mining software and services can improve ones ownership of his or her place in the digital realm without self-hosting. Alternative services must be accessible and there must be channels for presenting them to ordinary people in an accessible way.
There is no more powerful alternative to centralized services than decentralized protocols. Many people are unfamiliar with these terms, but familiar with the ubiquitous decentralized protocol – email. Building software and services on decentralized protocols allows people to own their online presences while still communicating with those on other platforms.
There are myriad challenges in promoting alternative social media. The most significant challenge is that social media is inherently social. No matter how much one may want to try an alternative to Facebook, it matters not unless one’s friends and family are willing to move with you. Therefore, we should prioritize making it easier to host social media while re-imagining social media as something built on local, real-world contacts and interactions, first.
The adoption of alternative chat services that put users in control faces similar challenges to alternative social media. With that being said, the barriers can be more readily overcome by persuasive advocacy.
Finally, we should want to see more creators take an interest in owning their online presence and identities. Why focus on a centralized platform that makes creators the product over solutions that remove the middleman? We have our own answer to this question at The New Leaf Journal. If more creators take this idea seriously, more opportunities for creators and consumers will be created.
This essay is an exploration of ideas rather than a catalogue of solutions. In Coolidge’s remarks about the home, we find many ideas that are amenable to being applied to our digital age. Just as Coolidge was concerned with ensuring that ordinary Americans would be able to build and own quality, aesthetic homes, we should be concerned with extending his ideas to the real world. The alternative, I fear, is that the vast majority of Americans are resigned to being mere tenants in the digital realm, which will become more, not less, intertwined with innumerable areas of real life.