How to Be One of the Good Guys

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I don't know who the Good Guys are anymore in the tech world, so maybe I just need to become one myself. I announced on Twitter that I had had it with corruption, exploitation, and general evil in the business of technology: I was going to design and build my own artisanal smartphone, constructed from sustainably harvested titanium alloy and running code written by African villagers supported by GrameenBank microloans. Maybe there is no ethical smartphone now, but there will be when I'm done!

More seriously: for those of us who want to be responsible actors -- supporting the Good Guys, shunning the Bad Guys -- in today's commercial environment, the biggest impediment just might be the pace of change. How can you support whom you should and shun whom you should when those roles keep changing?

Take Apple, for instance. I bought the original Macintosh in early 1985, and have been a Mac user ever since. Deeply ingrained in my mind is the belief that Apple is a marginal company, teetering always on the edge of financial collapse, surviving only because of the fanatical loyalty of a relative handful of long-time customers -- customers like me. And now Apple is the largest company in the world? To quote a famous Sicilian genius: Inconceivable!

Similarly, I became a serious Amazon customer when the company was far from turning a profit and business forecasters regularly predicted its inevitable demise. Buying from Amazon, in those days, seemed like a way to support an interesting and exciting but highly precarious future.

But now, it seems, in buying from those two companies I am encouraging worker exploitation both overseas and here at home. This is not good. So what should I do?

Well, I could follow the example of the free software guru Richard Stallman, whose only computer is open-source all the way down and who refuses to own a cell phone at all. But I think I'm going to try another strategy: waiting.

What goes around comes around; what goes up must come down. Microsoft has been gradually drifting to the margins of our tech consciousness; Google is scrambling to find a way to compete with Facebook. Everything moves faster in a wired world, including the pace of change in business. AT&T may have dominated American communications for a century, but now economic shifts are happening at Koyaanisqatsi speed. A decade from now the landscape of the technology business will sure look very different than it does today. Maybe by 2022 Apple and Amazon will be marginal companies once again -- underdogs that I can feel good about supporting.

So I'm going to play the long game. That's my plan, and I'm sticking to it.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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