The Opt Out: How to go analog
"Just stop using the internet" is definitely easier said than done.
By Sandra Gutierrez G. | Published Jul 27, 2023 9:00 AM EDT
You are more than a data point. The Opt Out is here to help you take your privacy back.
THERE’S A LOT you need to be careful about if you want to prevent tech companies, governments, and hackers from getting hold of your information. So much, in fact, that it can be tempting to just delete all your accounts, ditch your smartphone, and go off the grid.
If you’ve ever considered the possibility of going analog, you’re not alone. But is that even possible in our highly interconnected age? Depending on your lifestyle, your location, and how much money you have, it can be. What it’s not, though, is convenient. In fact, going analog can be so inconvenient that it’s totally impracticable.
As a thought experiment, though, let’s go over analog living in increments: from giving up your social media platforms to buying stuff only in person, with cash. You may find you can’t forgo technology enough to even live a day of analog life, and that’s OK. It doesn’t speak ill of you as a person, but says a lot about us as a society and how convenience doesn’t come for free.
Don’t be deceived by the name: Going analog at any level isn’t just about using less technology, it’s akin to swimming upstream. This is because a lot of experiences today, like banking, are built around you downloading an app and managing stuff directly from your phone.
At the most basic level of going analog, the main goal is to cut back on your reliance on the internet. Although this is the easiest version of an inherently difficult task, it will cost you some money, and some of the experiences you’re used to—like having platforms that fit your device’s screen—may be gone for good.
Let’s start simple: Choose services and platforms that put your privacy first. This is as easy as using Firefox, Opera, or Brave as your default browser, dropping your Outlook account for a ProtonMail inbox, and searching the web with DuckDuckGo instead of Google. If you have easy access to a public library near you, you can also limit your online activity to the computers you find there.
[Related: Proton Mail tips that might convince you to ditch Gmail]
Switching to a more private browser won’t be much trouble beyond the time it takes you to learn the ropes of the new program. Switching to ProtonMail, on the other hand, may cost you money. Free accounts there only have 1GB of storage, which—depending on how many messages you get or the types of files you receive—might fill up pretty quickly. From then on, you’ll have to pay for more space, starting at $4 a month for 15GB.
Getting a basic phone (or a “dumbphone” as it’s sometimes called) won’t just immediately reduce your screen time but will also cut back your internet use overall. These devices have limited or no app support, but most have built-in browsers you can use to go online if you need to. Be warned, though: Your user experience will probably suffer as you run into less-than-optimized mobile sites and even usability restrictions.
If you’re old enough, you probably have a basic phone lying around somewhere, but you can also get one manufactured in this decade. Basic phones are having a moment, and brands like Nokia are bringing classic models back for as little as $50. If you’re looking for something with absolutely no app support, like the Light Phone 2, you can find those for sale online or in stores as “minimalist phones.”
Getting a basic phone will limit your communications, as most dedicated messaging platforms, including WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, require you to use their mobile app (and therefore a smartphone). A potential workaround is to use Apple’s Messages. This platform won’t work on a basic phone, but it’ll allow you to seamlessly communicate with iPhone-wielding people from a Mac or iPad, which we’re not taking away just yet.
If you don’t have an Apple device, you’ll have limited options as to what types of communication you can use. You will have to stick to phone calls, emails, and SMS text messages, the last of which is, unfortunately, not the most private form of communication. You can also communicate on social media platforms (if you keep any), but know that end-to-end encryption and other privacy features like self-destructing messages are usually not available, turned off by default, or not an option for browsers. So use these services with caution, or, better yet, avoid them altogether.
The broadest piece of this first level of analog living requires giving up everything that is not essential or can be replaced with a physical solution or less invasive alternatives. So drop all streaming platforms and digital services—Grubhub, Instacart, Disney Plus, Spotify, Hulu, Amazon Prime… you get the gist. You want to prevent these apps from living on your devices along with the rest of your data, gathering information about what and how you live your life.
To watch movies and TV shows, you’ll have to either nourish your own personal video collection or subscribe to a DVD delivery service. Though you’ll still be revealing what you watch, these services won’t get any specific data on how you consume the movies and TV shows you rent, and you can use a P.O. box to avoid giving up information about your exact location. There are a number of options out there, such as CafeDVD and GameFly.
When it comes to other media, like newspapers and magazines, you’ll need to change your subscription to get a physical copy. Mind you, these tend to be more expensive and are sometimes not even an option—a lot of publications now live exclusively online. Getting your news from the paper, though, comes with the caveat that you’ll always be late to breaking news. You can counteract this delay with AM/FM radio, which can be particularly useful during national or local emergencies.
All social media also has to go, but you can make exceptions for any platforms you use for business or direct communication with people abroad. Texting and making calls to other countries is usually more expensive, and you’ll really want to have an alternative to emails and physical letters if you have a large community abroad.
When it comes to storage, the cloud should also go out the window. You can back up your devices on hard drives, though this method comes with caveats. For starters, if you have a lot of files (or a few incredibly hefty ones), you may have to splurge on high-capacity hard drives, which are around $50 for 1 terabyte—1,000GB. You’ll also have to make a habit of transferring your data to at least two drives and keeping it organized, and you always run the risk of your hard drives breaking, malfunctioning, or getting lost or stolen. Encryption can help prevent people from getting a look at your lost or stolen data, but it won’t help you get it back.
Dumping your smartphone is only the beginning. To make your life more analog, you’ll need to further disconnect from the internet and, hopefully, cut ties with the five biggest tech companies in the world: Google, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, and Amazon, also known as GAMMA. This will help you shrink your online presence, which will mean you generate a lot less data.
In general, GAMMA doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to privacy, so ending your relationship with them is a no-brainer if you want to protect your data by going analog.
These companies are also everywhere on the web and in the real world, so giving them up will be more than complicated—you’ll be left out of a vast swath of platforms and experiences. For example, if you’re a gamer, you won’t be able to use Twitch, as it’s owned by Amazon, and if you’ve built a community on Google-owned YouTube, you’ll have to give that up as well. Avoiding GAMMA will require you to identify all platforms these companies own. This may require you to do research.
Perhaps the hardest tie to cut with a GAMMA company involves switching your computer’s operating system, as most people use either Windows or macOS. For some, learning an entirely new operating system like Linux, which is designed for fairly tech-savvy users, is too much trouble. Instead, you can just set up your computer without linking it to a Microsoft or Apple account. On a PC, skipping this step is not easy, but it’s possible if you use some workarounds. Keep in mind that Windows 10 might put up more of a fight than Windows 11. You can also set up a Mac computer without an AppleID account, but your experience will be limited—your Apple devices won’t communicate with each other, and you won’t be able to download apps or use the company’s other services, like Apple News, Messages, and Games Center.
At this level, your access to the internet should be strictly limited to communications and activities that don’t have an analog equivalent. If you want to talk to a friend, give them a call; if you don’t want to talk, use email, or—better yet—a letter. Your browsing should always occur on a secure browser, with a VPN, and you should always practice good cookie etiquette.
Everything you can replace with an analog option should be replaced. If you have access to a P.O. box and prepaid debit cards, you might be able to keep shopping online. Otherwise, you’ll have to limit your spending to in-person purchases only, ideally using cash. Banking should also be done in person at your local branch. Keep in mind that some bank locations have limited capabilities, so you may have to go to a specific one if you need to, say, deposit a check from another bank. That particular location may not be anywhere near you.
Depending on where you live and whether you have enough time and money, dropping online shopping and running errands in person will limit the type of products and services you have access to—sometimes to a truly impractical level.
Your days of doomscrolling Twitter (or whatever other platform you’re on) are over. At this level of the analog life, you’ll get your news and information from AM/FM radio, newspapers, and magazines—actual physical copies you ideally buy at a local store so you don’t have to disclose your payment information and address to publishers and distributors. This also applies to cable TV, which is why at this level you may enjoy only over-the-air broadcasts. Just make sure you’re using a device with no connection to the internet with a NextGenTV tuner—these are built into most newer TV models on the market.
[Related: Now is the perfect time to get an HD TV antenna]
You’ll be able to catch movies and shows on TV as in the days before streaming services: on a specific day and time. You can check listings online or subscribe to TV Guide, but since we’re trying to avoid both of those alternatives, you’ll be better off settling for whatever’s on when you’re in front of the TV. For on-demand content, you’ll need to opt for physical formats: CDs, DVDs, and BluRays. If you don’t have a way to play these, you’ll have to spend a few bucks to get the right devices.
We could go on to add another level of analog life in which you live entirely off the grid, find refuge in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, grow your own food, and hope that you don’t ever have the need for money or medical attention.
But the truth is that the internet and big tech companies have made much of our lives so convenient that trying to do simple things like buying a plane ticket or even booking a doctor’s appointment become terribly inconvenient if you don’t want to download an app or create an online account.
But this convenience is not free. In today’s world, opting out of your data being collected and stored at any level means opting out of the internet, and that comes at a cost. You might be able to pay that price in actual money or choose more expensive but more private services. But money is not the only cost of privacy: You’ll also have to spend time and effort—maybe driving for hours to buy a product you could’ve ordered online and received at home through the mail.
Needless to say, those who don’t have an excess of money, time, and the ability to make an effort—people who work long hours, have families, have disabilities or physical limitations, or live paycheck to paycheck—are often forced to pay for that necessary convenience with their data.
So no—a fully analog life is not a possibility for everybody. It’s a privilege.
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Sandra Gutierrez is the Associate DIY editor at Popular Science. She makes a living by turning those “Wait, I can make that!” moments she has while browsing the internet into fully-fledged stories—and she loves that. Contact the author here.
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