Why We Must Vote With Our Feet

"your vote counts" badge
In an exit option democracy, the only vote that counts is a vote with our feet.
“Everyone has a choice – at least theoretically – but only a few have a say” (John Weeks, 2004: 138.

When I first stopped using Google, I got the strangest questions. How do you stay in touch with friends and family? How do you get directions? How do you do anything on the internet? Do you live in a cave? I was baffled at first, but over time I've started to see them as a dangerous signpost. A sign that we have left behind a world of free choices and entered the pathological state: that of the "exit option democracy."

The "exit option democracy" is premised with the idea, “if you don’t like it, you can just leave.” It suggests there is a free market in which there are plenty of options available to us by virtue of individual choice. Don’t like your job at Bank A? Then leave and go to Bank B -- and if you don’t like it there, try Bank C, and so on down the chain.

Organizational ethnographer John Weeks proposed this turn of phrase two decades ago when studying a company with a dysfunctional culture. Dysfunctional, because what the exit option democracy conceals are that companies who trumpet individual choice are busy trying to limit your choices at the same time. They're consolidating, wage-fixing, undermining your networks, setting up walls and extra hoops for you to go through should you wish to exercise your right to choose.

Maybe the manager at Bank B is friends with the manager at Bank A so they won't give you a counter-offer. Maybe Banks A, B, and C are all part of a corporate chain so there is no functional difference between them. Maybe you can't pay your rent or your kids' school fees if you wait for another job, or you're worried about the sunk costs of leaving and startup costs of starting afresh. They say you can "just leave" whenever you want, but they make you feel like there isn't a choice. There end up being many reasons why individuals are actually unable to walk away.

In an exit option democracy, Weeks says, “Everyone has a choice – at least theoretically – but only a few have a say” (2004: 138).

Defeating the Exit Option Democracy

Exit option democracies are not real democracies, because only a few people have a say. They're also not a true market, as they discourage true choice. They dissuade alternative choices so people can't vote with their feet, or feel discouraged if they choose differently. This sets up a vicious cycle where you may feel uncomfortable or even lost if you try to start afresh.

The open market, as we understand it, depends on consumer choice.  As soon as you stop exercising that choice, the market is no longer open, and we’ve collectively produced a monopoly. That works for the big technology companies – but it doesn’t work for you. A true exit option democracy relies on your ability to vote with your feet. We have to recover this option in order to truly opt out.

Unfortuantely, our only option in an exit option democracy is to vote with our feet. We must send a powerful message that enough is enough. It's not just that the conditions are terrible; it's also that we don't have a say in their improvement, Absent any other voice, departure is the only mechanism that matters, the only metric that counts.

But how do we do that when the exit option democracy is busy closing down your options, making you feel like you don't have a choice, and shouldn't take the chance on something different?

Shine the light on their ruse.

No matter how difficult tech companies make it seem to leave, these difficulties are manufactured. Some of them are walls they have erected, some are simply illusory. Either way, they are designed to keep you captive. Seeing these rationales, techniques, and technologies for what they truly are -- a ruse -- can help give you the personal ammunition you need to walk away. Just like knowing how a magician actually accomplished a slight-of-hand, it's empowering to be able to spot these ruses in advance, to call a spade a spade, and take courage in turning away

As our options in the exit option democracy disappear one by one, opting out is more important now than ever. It is not enough to rail against big tech on Facebook, to demand that the government break up Meta, or to Tweet angrily about Twitter. The exit option democracy only works if we reject these false rationales and take matters into our own hands.

The False Narratives

1. I don't have a choice

The exit option democracy thrives on making sure that individuals feel that they have no choice. But, amazingly enough, you do have choice. There are thousands of products on the app and hardware market. For every mainstream product or service there is at least one open source alternative, a DIY option you can figure out, or a few smaller platforms and companies that are trying their hand at the game. Many people are trying out Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter, and taking their first crack at a decentralized, non-corporate web as a result.

Those choices offer some interesting alternatives. Some of them differentiate themselves by not slurping and analyzing your data as you search, surf, or buy. Some of them differentiate themselves by allowing you to take control of your data: storing it on your own machine, for instance. Some of them offer other options besides. In reality, there are many, many options to choose from that might better suit your needs. And if not, the miracle of code is such that you can always build your own – or ask someone to build it for you. So yes, you do have choice. Use it or lose it.

2. The progress narrative

For too long, tech companies have sold themselves to us on the idea that technology equals progress. The metaverse is the future. So is social media, blockchain, biotech, AI and whatever is the latest hype for investors these days.  More technology is always better, we will always improve with the use of these tools. No one in today's day and age wants to be called a Luddite! 

This is a powerful sales pitch, as who wants to resist the future? But it's just that: a sales pitch. In the meanwhile, these companies have built us a digital dystopia, and trapped us within it. But there are lots of ways that we can build technologies. There are many tools that are better for us than the ones we have been sold.

Their technologies are optimized to enrich their investors, not to enrich our lives. It's a bolder future out there without them.

3. The convenience trick

Calling things “convenient” is a great way to market to the contemporary middle class American consumer, someone who is working hard, blending work and home, working several jobs at a time, all the while trying to raise children, take care of aging parents and save for retirement. But convenience isn't a real, essential property of these digital tools. Many of these devices and tools only offer momentary conveniences, what I often call "micro-conveniences": two minutes shaved off your commute, $1.50 off at the till. They didn't relieve you of the actual inconvenience of the commute or the price of groceries. Plus, they're mainly a lure to get you to give away your personal data in the search for shortcuts through modernity.  (Read more about this in my article and post about evading detection at Disneyland)

I have a lot to say about this that will have to wait for another post, so this is just a teaser in the meanwhile.  Real change is complex and requires us to work together to actually have a voice: something we (conveniently, for them) can't do if we are mindlessly clicking and scrolling. Exercising your democratic option to exit these data-sucking technologies gets a lot easier once you stop falling for the simple “convenience” trick.

4. What about my friends/followers?

News flash: You can talk to your friends and share photos without Instagram. You can still search the internet and share documents, send pictures to your distant relatives, and cue up a playlist without Google, Spotify, or Shutterfly. You can still take photographs, juggle emails, and manage your online job cue. You can do all this online, with digital technologies. The difference is, you can choose the companies and services you want to do this with, all the while maintaining control of your data. I have lots of recommendations that enable you to stay connected while avoiding enriching platform companies fattening themselves off your data.

It is true that these companies have held us captive by (quite literally) capitalizing upon our relationships. Many of them started as "social networks" and built up their data mining capabilities from there. This makes us feel like we won't have access to our communities if we leave. But communities migrate all the time! If your favorite dance club is now under new management and you don't like the music they play anymore, you and your friends agree to meet elsewhere.  Sociologists know that social movements depend on an "abeyance structure" (usually a built facility like a church or community basement) where people can meet to discuss alternative views and build an opportunity to express their voice. In recent years, Twitter has been an "abeyance structure" for hashtag activism with movements like Black Lives Matter and the Arab Spring. But Twitter's underlying data ecosystem of capture-and-retain-all was never in activists' favor. And abeyance structures are often subject to raids, take-over, or invasion. When that happens the community just meets somewhere else. It's the same online. It's momentarily disorienting for the community, true, but there is no penalty for moving. Sometimes even more rewards are waiting in store.

5. It's culturally embedded

What's harder to evade are the cultural meanings built up around technologies. It can be as large as infrastructures like an entire social media department in your company, or as complex as understanding that chatting from a "blue bubble" instead of a green one on iMessage is a sign of lower social status. We have to work together to flip these scripts. Personally, I wear my blue bubble as a badge of honor, a sign that I have recognized the extreme and devastating problems with the personal data society and am busy opting out, choosing my technologies more wisely.

Humans are meaning-makers, and as a sociologist I won't hesitate to tell you that culture is important. But meanings can shift, and so can culture. It is up to us to make that change, in groups, collectively. Don't let a data-sucking company define your culture for you.

6. Community and identity

Don't let a data-sucking company define your identity either.  Interactions with other people helps us to build up a sense of identity. For many, connecting online is what brought them to like-minded communities who let them know it was okay to be queer, or curious, or differently abled. For others, online spaces like Facebook or MySpace were simply where socialization occurred. These systems placed themselves right in the center of a very human need. Then they perched in the background, like leeches, or maybe a nest of lethal spiders, feeding off our every interaction as we built up our sense of self. They also torqued what we saw in order to incite more engagement -- and enragement at the same time.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't use online systems to develop a sense of self: just not these systems. They feel like connection, but they're extractive. It is outrageous that we allow corporations to profit off your private experiences like recognizing your sexuality or finding a date for prom. It's time to leave, and take your party elsewhere.

7. But I'm a "digital native"...

Millennials and Gen Z'ers have been heralded as the first generations to be brought up truly digital. All their connections are facilitated online; they post and swipe with ease; and appear unfazed by new technical trends. But these connections have been facilitated by platform giants, facilitating the growth of a titanic industry with outsized influence and no regulation or ethical foundation. It's especially challenging for these generations to accept that the very systems they always relied upon--the systems whose facility and expertise gave them status among their parents, teachers, and coworkers--are actually socially undermining, causing evil and hurt in the world.

If you are one of these people, it's time to premise your identity upon different expertise. Entire courses at Stanford taught engineers how to hack the human perceptual apparatus for our continual attention and gratification. That's why even babies and monkeys learn quickly to swipe and click: companies engineered these systems to appear so entrancing and easy to use that we cannot help but give our data away (and not notice it in the process).  Companies conditioned you to think that faciltity with their user-friendly interfaces is the same as expertise, but you can do better. My own fearlessness with technology helped me to take the plunge and opt out, to discover new tools, communities and skills that expanded my technical horizons.  Use your technical fearlessness to try something truly new.

Exercise your right

An exit option democracy is not a democracy, and it's not a market. It's there to shut down the avenues you feel are available to you to send a clear message, to exercise your right to choose. This was purposeful, all part of the pursuit of platform monopoly capitalism.  But even the most ardent capitalists agree that monopolies are bad for markets. Just because they have made it difficult to leave and worked hard to close down our choices, doesn't mean you can't leave. In fact, it means that we must leave: or we have given in to their ruse and silenced our only voice.

Nothing lost, nothing gained. If anything, now is the time when the platform capitalists need to win our trust back.  Do not hesitate to walk away.