Increasingly more of our lives including work, education and entertainment are happening on computers and online. Most people have little to no control over the digital devices that they use, and this is not in their best interest. A computer which updates what it wants when it wants, installing whatever some faceless global corporation decides onto your computer should not be acceptable to anyone. Not just because this is a violation of your property on principle, but it makes it harder to get things done and it is not an enjoyable experience. If there is just one application on your computer which you are not allowed to uninstall then it is not truly your computer. You are more like a lessee or a serf merely permitted to use the device. One way to understand the free software philosophy is with a food analogy. Some people don't care what is in the software they use and they also don't care what it is doing. What if someone was trying very hard to get you to eat something but they wouldn't tell you what was in the food. You would probably be suspicious. Think McDonald's vs your local farmer's market.
A computer is a tool. It is a sophisticated tool for processing information, but it is a tool nonetheless. The more time I spend with computers the more convinced I become that what we are doing is a mistake. A tool is valuable when it helps you do what you are trying to accomplish and nothing more. Like a hammer, it helps me drive this nail and then it goes back to the garage. It does not make recommendations for which nails to buy or try to show me the top 12 epic hammer fails. Modern hardware and software venders work very hard to make these devices operate less as a tool that you control but as a tool which is used against you by them. An example in the present is your phone collecting millimeter accurate data about your position at all times and sending it to Google (yes, your iphone does this too) even when you turn cell service or location services off. This prevents you from using the utility but the data is still stored and sent to Google the next time you have internet access. How does this work? Apple and Google have mapped out the places where most people live by wireless networks so by knowing which wifi networks are visible to you and at what signal strength, they know exactly where you are. These devices have been purposely made to be as addictive as possible, the goal is for you to never put them down but to be programmed to keep swiping. Children are of course the most vulnerable and Robert Epstein has some of the most compelling research on the subject, as well as how this entity is interfering in elections.
The purpose of these devices is to control you, which is why they should be avoided whenever possible. This becomes more important looking to the future as modern computing devices will be implanted and interface with the brain directly. You do not want to have advertisements or political propaganda inserted into your dreams and you do not want to become an appliance that mines Bitcoin. You may not think this is something that people will actually do but you have to admit that some people will be willing to do it. You see, when cars were first invented they were a luxury for the wealthy. The cost came down and they became a useful tool, people could now live further from their work and over time you were just expected to have one. When cell phones were invented, again they were simply a luxury for the rich, costs came down and it became a useful tool. Some people were willing to get one which means you were forced to compete with the people that had this tool and were available to communicate at all times. Over time now you are expected to have a phone on you and to be on call at all times. The same pattern will occur with electronics which interface directly with the brain. Maybe you will not need to get one, but your children will have to compete with people who have it and the abilities that it gives them such as instantaneous communication and control of electronics. It will be faster data transfer than you could ever read, type or speak. It will be like having a computation coprocessor that allows you to do math and who knows what else at a superhuman rate. Unless the current trends change, this technology is coming and it will be widespread. And if you are someone who carries around a smart phone (especially if you like it), odds are you are the kind of person that will get one. The companies creating these technologies want them to take up more of your life, even giving them human names like "Alexa" and "Siri". This is an exploit of human psychology to get you to treat these machines as a member of the family, remember it is a tool and it is being used against you. To spy on you, to manipulate you and to control your access to information. If your children grow up with these machines that they ask for everything from playing music to controlling the lights and thermostat for some reason, that becomes normal. And the programmed simulacrum of a personality will be what they associate with the home. Teach your children about the true nature of these cyberdemons and use every technology for an appropriate purpose. Technology should save you time in accomplishing productive tasks, not suck you down a rabbit hole of perpetual monetization in the attention economy. If you need to make use of computers as most people in the modern world do, know what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
When buying electronics, you should opt for hardware which is as open as possible. This can certainly be a challenge, because open hardware is not the default and it is often not an advertised feature. The reasons for open hardware are freedom and quality of life. What will you do if the smart TV you just bought won't let you watch DVDs anymore because you should subscribe to a streaming service? What if your smart TV starts showing you ads over the things you are already watching even if it is something you own? This is not hypothetical, Samsung, LG, Roku and Sony already do this. They are not hardware vendors anymore, in 2020 Toshiba made more money selling customer data gathered from smart TV's than they made from actually selling TV's. Vizio makes twice as much money by using 'smart' TVs to sell their customers' data than by selling televisions. On a brighter note, most laptops feature a bootloader that allows you to install another operating system, this is the bare minimum of hardware openness that you should ever accept for any computer. While a handful of android phones allow you to install a newer (or different) operating system, almost all of them do not or at least they make it very difficult. This makes them obsolete whenever the manufacturer says they are obsolete, forcing you to buy a new one. CONSOOM. The ability to install linux (or anything else) on your device saves you from this trap. The gold standard is a device which allows you to flash a new BIOS. There are several devices for which this is possible, the old thinkpads can have libreboot installed which is an open source bootloader that disables the Intel Management Engine. Intel Management Engine is malware on the CPU architecture level. Most modern CPUs have this or something very much like it (Platform Security Processor). An exception to this is uboot, which is an open source bootloader mostly found on ARM systems. Pine64 devices use the uboot bootloader on their pinebook and pinephone devices. The ultimate future for computing would be the maturity of something like riscv, a completely open source instruction set architecture. We are a long way away from this being a viable option for most people, however exciting progress continues to be made in this space. For example, SiFive makes a computer called the HiFive Unmatched which has impressive specifications. It sports a spunky 4 core CPU with 16GB RAM, gigabit ethernet, M.2 storage and the possibility of PCIe expansion. The most exciting feature is that schematics for the entire Mini-ITX machine are freely available. For now riscv is a development architecture, but it is easy to imagine running your daily driver machine on riscv in the coming years.
If there is code running on your computer which you are not allowed to read, then you can not feel safe or secure in the system that you are using. This is because you do not know exactl what the system is really doing. It is not going to show you everything that it is doing. For this reason I recommend running an open source operating system as the first step to securing your freedom and privacy. This can be linux but doesn't have to be. A BSD distribution, Qubes, Haiku, ReactOS, ArcaOS, Hurd or any number of other operating systems will work for this purpose and respect your freedom. The reason I recommend linux is because it has the lowest barrier to entry. There are many linux distributions to choose from and all of them are a better choice than Mac, Windows, iOS or Android. If you don't know where to start, you can look here and there are many videos on the internet showing you how to boot and install an ISO. Most of them have feature rich graphical desktop environments and lower resource requirements than the proprietary software equivalents. KDE, XFCE and Gnome will use less RAM and CPU than Windows or MacOS and so installing linux can be seen as a way to extend the useful life of your devices. Contrary to what some may think, you don't need to know how to use a terminal to install and use linux. In fact, you don't need to know much of anything. If you do know how to use a shell terminal, you have a very powerful terminal available to you. It may be worth learning in order to use your computer in an efficient way and better understand what it is doing. Keep in mind that if you have never used a system like linux that it is a different system. To get the most out of it, you should adapt instead of doing things the way you are used to. Instead of going to some random website to download the program you need, the preferred way of installing software on Linux is using a package manager. You can think of the package manager as a software store for the operating system, except that it doesn't suck. Most commonly used software can be installed as a package from the repositories, curated by the package maintainers for your distribution. This is a very efficient way of installing software. You can install 100 pieces of software at the same time and each separate application can share dependencies. You usually have a graphical frontend (point and click) for the package manager, but everything can also be done from the command line.
Linux is a great option for x86 based computers like laptops, desktops and workstations. However, the device which collects the most information about you is the one which also has the fewest options. A handful of Android phones will allow you to run an open source userspace on top of libhybris, and this is dependent on Google libraries. Technically Android uses a 3 year old version of the linux kernel with a lot of proprietary Google software baked in. This does not mean that Android is Linux. To my knowledge if you want to run mainline linux on a smartphone, there are two devices which will work. These are the Librem 5 and the Pinephone. (Sailfish on the Jolla phone gets an honorable mention however Sailfish OS is not completely open source, some components are proprietary and closed source such as hardware-specific kernel modules and other software licensed under commercial terms.) Sailfish has the advantage of being able to run Android apps, as do 'degoogled' ROMs such as CalyxOS and GrapheneOS. I can't recommend the Librem 5 at the price and feature list compared to the Pinephone. I personally run a Pinephone and it gets the job done, however it is not ready for mainstream use as the software ecosystem is very immature compared to that of proprietary smartphone options. There are many things left to be desired such as battery life and camera functionality not being what you would expect. On the other hand, the Pinephone is easy to dissassemble and repair, and presently there are 20 different choices of operating system on the device. I have had good experiences with manjaro arm and mobian on the pinephone. On the laptop/desktop, the experience is so much better on linux that it is not a sacrifice in the least. Once you have used an open source operating system on a computer, you can not go back. It just works better. It does what it is told, it stays out of your way. There is no clutter or corporate popups for next thing. It is a tool that does its job.
The next layer of independence you should have over your digital data is the application layer. Most distributions will bundle a group of applications together, such as kde, xfce or gnome. These are desktop user interfaces which run on top of the operating system. There are many choices including the before mentioned as well as mate, cinnamon, lxde, i3, dwm and many more. People argue over which desktop is best to use and I don't care which one you use. One of the most important things we do with computers is communicate with others. There is zero expectation of privacy for phone calls, SMS and MMS communications. Google reads your emails. You shouldn't say anything over these protocols that you would be upset being public knowledge. You may use a proprietary application such as Telegram or even Facebook Messenger to talk to people. This is a very bad idea. This software does not end to end encrypt your messages. The things you say are not private and could be leaked in a data breach at any time. Furthermore, your data will be used build an advertising profile to sell things to you at all times. All messages are being analyzed algorithmically at all times. If you have messenger installed so is location data, microphone, position, and accelerometer. Facebook is an advertising agency first, because that is the part of facebook that actually makes the money. The same is true for Google. Do not install proprietary code that was made by a marketing agency, don't use an operating system that was made by an advertising agency. These big tech firms were founded by the CIA with the In-Q-Tel project and it would be naiive to think that the true nature of the relationship between these companies and intelligence agencies is public knowledge. Whatever you are thinking of, the truth is probably worse. Don't install malware on your device. Surveillance is a tool of totalitarianism, and any time it has existed it has been used to crush dissidents. For years, the Communist Party of China has forced citizens to install mandatory malware and even arrested people for not using their phones enough. So why would you agree to be spied on for free when nobody is forcing you? For those who remember a time before smart phones, is it really making your life better? Is it worth it? Your communications should be carried out in person. Much of human communication is nonverbal and text based communication eliminates tone and visual cues. This is one factor leading to antisocial behavior like we see on social media, it is easy to not think of your communications as being to a person but just information on a screen. I believe road rage is a similar phenomenon, you are mad at the car because you do not see a human. In both cases people will say and do things they would not if they were speaking to a person face to face. Adding the incentive structure of gamified interactions allows these companies to further manipulate its users to any number of behaviors. A good example of this is Tik-Tok in the US encouraging kids to fixate on vapid dances, social problems and vanity while the same app in China encourages engineering, work ethic and nationalism. However, being able to communicate electronically over long distances has its advantages. If you must, it is better to use an open source application with end to end encryption. Decentralized infrastructure is a good idea, but not as important as open source security and end to end encryption. Even though you probably won't read the source code, the fact that it is available for the community and the whole world to read makes it safer, because sunlight is the best disinfectant. The easiest way to get all these features is with matrix/element. There are other good options, xmpp is better in some ways but is far less user friendly. In order to gain mass adoption, a communications network needs to be as easy as downloading discord or telegram, Matrix and Jami are.