okay fine, smartphones can be cyberpunk
I have a contentious relationship with smartphones. They're not pleasant to use, they're part of a horrifying ecosystem of engineered obsolescence and treadmill upgrades, the standard app experience is riddled with exploitation and psychological manipulation... it's a bad scene.
But I have to admit, my phone is a cyberdeck. I have to be pretty dang careful what I do with it, and of course it is ultimately a government surveillance tool that will be a liability should I come under state scrutiny for my political beliefs, but for now, I'd rather have to put up with its shortcomings than not have it at all.
I got complacent at my last job, a small local company where not only was I fairly confident our computer use wasn't being monitored, there was an understanding that employees would use the internet during downtime. There could be a lot of it, and the management understood that we weren't going to sit and stare at the wall when it wasn't busy. As long as we did our jobs, and didn't do anything that reflected badly on the company, (which I've always excelled at, since I've never identified my employer in any of my online activities) we had fairly free rein1 to use the computers however we like.
Which is part of what made the transition to my current job so jarring. My last job was stressful, but I was good at it, and I still had time to work on personal projects. Moving into another public sector job has been a big adjustment, because I had to go back to a presumption of hyper-surveillance.
Consequently, I've come to appreciate having a pocket computer more. At my last job, it was essentially just an mp3 player I'd use on the way to work and back. It sat charging and unused most of the time. But now, I appreciate it for its cyberdeckish qualities.
Yeah, it's nowhere near as cool-looking as the fantasy cyberdecks in sci-fi, or the real-life DIY projects inspired by them, but when you're doing illicit computer activities, it's a good idea to be inconspicuous. What's less conspicuous than the exact same boring black rectangle that everyone else has—a rectangle, I might add, small enough that I can easily conceal it in my pocket?
"Uhh, nothing. Just normal computer stuff. Why?" [youtube source]
Okay, "illicit" is a stretch, but I can use the internet without being monitored by my employer. I can connect with people and express myself. I can consume and create agitprop. I can get millions of books instantly from the greatest library in world history. I can hang on to a little bit of my humanity during the 35% of my life I'm obligated to sacrifice to the machine. I think that's pretty cyberpunk.
I know my situation isn't the norm. Most people's experience with smartphones is a lot more harmful than mine, and I'm aware that the tech literacy needed to mitigate the harm is a privilege not everyone enjoys. All I can do is share my experience and hope others find it helpful.
Even if a phone can be a liberatory tool, it's important not to fetishize it: if the time ever comes that I need to defend myself against state violence, I know it's nothing but a plump juicy truffle for the pigs to sniff out. I wish more people understood this. I hear too many stories of protestors and rioters throwing their lives away because they just couldn't bring themselves to leave it at home. They didn't see what the big deal is.
With these dangers in mind, as long as I'm somewhat careful with my pseudonymity and am conscious of when security through obscurity is no longer enough, I'm going to use it as a tool of self-actualization to whatever extent I can.
getting the most out of android
- Get a phone with an sd card slot, replaceable battery, and headphone jack
This will at the very least ensure it'll be a useful media player until it physically breaks. They do occasionally still make phones like this; mine is a 2017 samsung xcover 4 I got on ebay for <$100. I don't know if there have been any since that one that satisfy all three criteria. I know there's been a new model of xcover since then, but I believe the new ones have a permanent battery, which is a drag.2
You may have to get one that's a few years old, but that's fine for what you want to be doing with android. There's so much e-waste floating around out there, the last thing you want to do is buy a brand new phone.
You can load a lage SD card up with plenty of audio, video, and texts to make it a useful media device in just about any situation. A headphone jack means you're never dependent on another battery-operated device, and a replaceable battery means you should be able to use the phone for many years to come. You can carry replacement batteries so you can go longer without needing to recharge (and you know the dread of 2% left on the battery meter isn't cause for alarm.)
- Turn off every kind of tracking google allows you to disable
You can't opt out of surveillance capitalism entirely, but you can mitigate some of its nastier effects. Go to the "data and privacy" section of the google account settings, change everything under the history header to "paused", turn ad personalization and search history tracking to off. Make sure your profile and location tracking settings are as private as possible.
- remember that your OS has an expiration date
Eventually, your carrier will push an OS update that breaks your phone. This is because they want you to buy a new one and extend your contract. Your phone will update one day, and suddenly begin behaving slowly and erratically to make you feel like your phone is "old" and it's time to upgrade. This is bullshit. No one's needed a new phone in at least a decade. There is no meaningful difference between an android phone in 2022 and one in 2012. This is why they keep pushing phones with pointless or hostile gimmicks like curved or foldable screens, multiple cameras, lack of bezels, biometric scanners, etc. We've reached a plateau of actually useful technology but the system is desperate to keep us spending.
Smartphones are usually the opposite of cyberpunk. [full comic—💜 Simone Veil]
At some point, you'll need to either stop accepting OS updates (which may or may not be possible depending on your device and OS version) or root your phone and install some sort of custom android variant like LineageOS.
Whether it's safe to stop updating is controversial. Personally, I think a lot of the supposed dangers of running an out of date OS are overblown FUD. If you're concerned about it, I won't tell you you're wrong, but I've yet to hear anyone explain a threat model I'm going to lose sleep over.
I know nothing about custom OS rooting. If you go that route, good luck and let me know how it goes.
- Avoid the play store like a sadly all-too-relevant cliché.
There are a couple good programs in there, but it's mostly just apps that shit in your brain. Install the f-droid app store and get apps from there whenever possible.
I go over most of what I use in all about apps. There are a couple I got from the play store but most of them came from F-droid. The only thing that's changed is that I stopped using Google Keep (I discovered that the notes aren't always available offline, which for a note taking app is asinine) and have switched to Simple Notes.
Some omissions and recent additions:
I didn't include newpipe, which is absolutely essential if you want to use youtube. You can avoid ads and download videos when you have wifi, to watch or listen to at your leisure. I think I omitted it because it seemed to be broken more often than not; I've since learned that the trick is to install it from the APK on the github instead of the F-droid version, which is often out of date due to the rate at which the newpipe team has to respond to google's deckchair-arranging. With the version on github, you can update from within the app itself, no app store required.
The bandcamp app now lets you download your albums to listen offline, so it's been upgraded to recommended 👍️. Bandcamp is the only legit way to buy music while supporting artists—well, other than buying their CDs in person at shows or something—so I'm glad the app is useful now. (They just need to let you store downloaded music on the SD card. Hopefully that's coming soon, but if you don't have a ton of internal storage, it may be better to keep downloading your albums manually.)
DiskUsage is an excellent, tiny, fast app that gives a good visualization of what's taking up space in your storage. Does it better than any of the file managers I've seen.
Pocket Paint is a good all-purpose image editor that will unfortunately not make your images beautifully cybre but will be good for redacting sensitive info from any photo you take or obtain.
So, if I want to unlock the full potential of my cyberdeck, it's clear what I need to do: learn how to make android apps. I can't rely on the kindness of others forever, at some point I need to contribute if I want to help keep the cyberware ecosystem vibrant.
Fuck yeah. Now we're computing, my droogs. [code]
You can expect Divisor Finder on app stores everywhere as soon as I figure out how to add cosmetics and loot boxes 🦝
I always thought it was "free reign", as in "I'm the ruler of my own destiny", but I looked it up and apparently it's "free rein", as in "fuck you I'm a horse". Neigh!↩
I looked this up too, and mea culpa! It's a little difficult to find information since they're not the big flagship phones samsung wants to push, but the xcover pro and xcover 5 both seem to have all three features.↩