Kieran Setiya on Projects and Processes
11 April 2024 | 6:40 pm

Kieran Setiya is a Professor of Philosophy and author of several books on how to live a good life. He looks for the practical, positive application of philosophical ideas in our daily lives.

I recently re-listened to a podcast interview with Kieran and became particularly interested by his explanation of two ways of looking at purpose, time and progress, namely by dividing up the things we do into two categories: projects and processes.

Setiya refers to teleology in his discussion. Britannica tells me that teleology comes from the Greek roots telos, 'end,' and logos, 'reason.'1 So teleology is all about how we look at the reasons behind our activities and end goals.

Context of the discussion

In the two-hour interview, Kieran Setiya focuses on the differences between being happy and living well. He argues, for example, that the process of grieving for a loved one or a relationship that has ended is crucial to living well, but has little overlap with happiness. Happiness, therefore, is secondary to living well.

At one point, Setiya explains that it is his mission is to examine:

...what the project of self-help might look like if it was inspired by the philosophical approach to ethics (20 minute mark)

Kieran and Sam argue that philosophy's initial focus of living a good life has become lost over the years, replaced by intricate language games and other more technical approaches to thought and reason.

All of this was interesting and worth listening to. But what I found most relevant to my blog and privacy journey, was Setiya's discussion of telic and atelic processes.

Projects and processes

Telic activities have a clear end goal that we work towards. Once we've reached the goal, the telic activity is finished. Setiya refers to telic activities as projects.

Our lives are full of projects that keep us busy. This sometimes leads to stress and feeling like we can't keep up. There is also a certain dissatisfaction once a project is completed, because there is not much more you can do with it.

Atelic activities are ongoing, basically until we die. We can think of atelic activities as always being in the present moment. To me, it's a bit like the idea of 'leveling up' in a video game. Setiya refers to atlelic activities as processes.

When I'm not working on this blog, I am a teacher. The idea of projects vs processes resonates with me immediately when I think of my profession. Each academic year is a repeating cycle where I teach different groups of individuals. Our most immediate aim is to get through the year and tick the boxes. This could be, for example, being fully prepared for an external exam, or attaining good enough grades to pass the year.

The academic year is a telic activity, a project. Every teacher knows the strange, empty feeling when a class finishes the year and moves on. Focusing on the telic aspects of teaching can give you a helpful drive and motivation, but leaves you with an ambivalent, unsatisfied feeling at the end of the academic year.

Being a teacher, however, is an atelic activity. It's never static, and I'm constantly reflecting on what worked and didn't work. It's meaningful far beyond finishing the academic year, and not tied to specific classes. I might instill a love for my subject in one or two students, or explore a new topic within the field myself with my groups.

Setiya uses the example of having a child and being a parent. Deciding to have a child is a project, a telic activity. It has a start, and and some point (I'm learning now!) a type of ending, when your child leaves the family home. But being a parent is ongoing and meaningful, because you can always improve and also reflect on your progress, your mistakes, and how you corrected them. You are still a parent when you children leave home; it's your role and responsibilities that change.

The Privacy Dad project

I'm coming up for post #100 soon—this is #95! Coincidentally, I'm also coming up to the point in recounting my privacy journey where I decided to write this blog.

These milestones stimulate reflection. Should I stop describing my own journey at the point where I began writing the blog and call it a day? How and when does a blog project end?

The Privacy Dad blog is a telic activity, a project. It is meaningful to write and publish articles about privacy and to engage with reader responses. Sometimes people I look up to and respect refer to my blog on social media. It's hard to describe that feeling, having started as a consumer of the content around privacy.

But projects come to an end at some point. I'm not sure when that will be for this blog, but I am sure that this is a project.

Writing this blog is one component of my own privacy journey, which began before I started writing and will probably continue for the rest of my life. My personal privacy journey is the atelic activity, the resilient, meaningful process. The Privacy Dad blog is a constituent of that process, motivated by the call from people like Seth for Privacy and Nathan from The New Oil and Henry from Techlore to actively contribute to the conversation, rather than remain passive. But ending this blog, for whatever reason, would in no way mean an end to the process of my own learning about digital privacy.

Final thoughts

I realise this is an unusual post. I'm not reviewing a privacy tool, or describing one of the steps in my own journey. However, when I first heard the interview with Kieran in 2022, I remember being struck by this idea of looking at the things we do in our lives as either projects or processes. It not only gives me a clear framework for this blog and my own privacy journey; it is an idea that can be applied to all aspects of life, and help take the pressure off of failing or succeeding at specific projects, and encourage enjoyment of growth and learning instead.


Philosophy and the Good Life: A Conversation with Kieran Setiya Sam Harris Making Sense, episode 295, 9 September 2022

Kieran Setiya's website

Atleic vs Telic

Deleting my Facebook Account—my first post, 22 October 2022.

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  1. Britannica

What Is the Cloud?
21 March 2024 | 12:39 pm

Let me begin by quoting from a recent episode of the podcast Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons:

And the cloud, as we like to say, is a fancy term for someone else's computer.

It can't be stated more clearly than this. There is no cloud. When you upload a photo to your social media, or to an online drive, like Google Drive or Dropbox, you are sending that photo, via your Internet connection, to someone else's computer, where that photo is stored for you to access later.

Bad metaphor

I have always felt that 'the cloud' is a terrible metaphor for how our data is stored. It suggests a fluffy, ethereal place high up in the air, barely visible. It suggests that when I upload my photos and documents to the cloud, they sort of hover in a pretty no-man's sky, mixing with other data, waiting float back down to me when I need them.

I stopped teaching high school recently (too many meetings), but I used to ask this question to my students every year: What is the cloud? I would be met with blank stares. Attempts at answers would lead to the false imagery the metaphor of a cloud suggests: a space out there, where our data sort of floats.

I would follow this up with another question: When you upload a photo to your social media, what do you think happens with it? This usually led to a better conversation about file storage and computers/servers, which helped to dispel the misdirecting cloud image.

I do believe in the power of metaphors (although 'privacy journey' is worn very thin these days, by me as well). When I try to think of better metaphors to visualise data storage, 'the basement' comes to mind, or 'the warehouse'. It needs to be a heavy, grounded metaphor, because that is where our data sits: on the earth—perhaps even under— and inside machines that require electricity to keep them running.

First hand experience with servers

This is not my first time referring to this book, but Brian W. Kernighan's Understanding the Digital World helped me grasp some of the facts about the Internet and computers as a non-programmer.

But what really opened my eyes was setting up my own server. This project came about from finding my old (old!) PC in the basement, and looking for a good use for it. A server is a computer that you can connect to remotely and use, for example, for storing your data.

I must admit that this was not an easy journey, and I went through several stages of server building on that computer before I got it right and found a simple method, namely by running a programme called Nextcloud.

Once my own server was functioning as a storage space for my friends and family members' data, I began to recognise how incorrect the cloud metaphor really is. I can hear my server computer when it's processing things, because it is sitting on the floor by my feet where I work.

I also learned that a server administrator has a surprising amount of elevated privileges. I even figured out how to take a peek at user data.1 I promptly warned all my friends and family members not to put sensitive data on my server.

The problem

If the cloud is not an open space between computers but a misguiding metaphor about hardware, and if the administrators of those computers have elevated rights, then, logically, you are putting your data and into the hands of the administrators that manage those computers.

The bottom line is that—unless your build your own server—you are going to have to trust someone with your data.

While it is possible to trawl through difficult-to-find privacy policies for every company, it might be simpler to start by thinking about the services you currently use, and how they earn money. Written policies from large, well-established tech companies can be misleading or ambiguous, and promises about anonymisation of data often turn out to be false—listen to the podcasts The Surveillance Report and Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons if you want to get a sense of how commonly data is de-anonymised. Unless you are a researcher, it is not worth your time reading those types of privacy policies.

I would therefore avoid any direct2 cloud solutions offered by Big Tech companies. Once I learned how cloud storage works, I removed all my files, photos and videos from Google Drive. It was inconvenient, as Google offered so much free storage space at the time, as well as excellent online tools for managing and sharing my files. I had to look for privacy-respecting alternatives, test them out and compare costs. And yes, I did read privacy policies from these cloud providers, and studied reviews from sources I trust.

The (partial) solution

So, what should I look for in a cloud service?

  • zero knowledge and end-to-end encryption

If your data is encrypted (scrambled and encoded) on your computer and on the company's computers, then the owners of those computers cannot read your files or see your photographs without the key required to unscramble the data first.

When a company claims to have 'zero knowledge' of your data, they are referring to a deliberate decision on their part to set up their systems in such a way they can never own the encryption keys to your data.

  • privacy policies

While I suggested earlier that there is no real point in reading, for example, Google's privacy policies, because their business model—earning off your data—is apparent, I would argue for carefully reading the privacy policies of companies that claim privacy is their main focus, before starting a trial and then possibly a subscription with them.

If you have questions or require clarification, you should contact these companies. I have found many privacy-focused software companies respond to my questions quickly, transparently and honestly. Privacy and trust are their main selling point, after all. And if a company doesn't respond to your questions, then you know not to bother with their product.

  • local laws

It is a misunderstanding to think that a provider of private email or storage will play the role of privacy super hero, circumnavigating legal government intervention on your behalf.

While it is true that organisations have resisted unfair or secretive attempts by governments to force backdoors to your data, a company like Tuta, based in Germany, is never above German law. This is a misunderstanding you will sometimes see on privacy forums, where people show disappointment with a company's compliance with the law.

What you can do is research local privacy laws, and in doing so, you might find that a cloud provider that has its computers in Germany will benefit from these laws more than a server in the United States does.

  • teachers and forums

By visiting a handful of privacy-focused forums and listening to some of the great online teachers out there, you will quickly develop a sense of the criteria that software products are judged on in the community, and you will begin to notice the same three or four company names keep popping up for each type of product. I use this organic cross-referencing a lot and it has helped me feel confident about making decisions. You can also join the forums and ask for advice or user experiences there.

The problem of trust

In the end, if you are going to entrust your personal data to someone else, there is a limit to what you can do to be 100% sure it's safe to do so. This is why we have the concept of trust.

But making intelligent decisions about who to trust makes a lot more sense than dumping all your personal data with the first company that promises they'll look after it for free, and make your life easier to boot.

Lastly, zero knowledge means that the company managing your data will not be able to help you out if you lose your encryption key, usually a master password. It is therefore important to make safe and redundant storage of your cloud passwords and local backups of your data a priority.


Firewalls Don't Stop Dragons podcast, episode "Mitigating AI Risks" from about 55 minutes on

Author Brian Kernighan's books

The Surveillance Report podcast

Parents: Are Your Kids Backing up Their Data? (Recent post on cloud storage for kids.)

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  1. By making a copy of the protected data and then changing the access privileges to the copy.

  2. Indirectly, it might be very difficult to avoid Amazon, as so many companies buy storage space their data servers for their products.

Parents: Are Your Kids Backing up Their Data?
14 March 2024 | 4:15 pm

Most children and teenagers will not back up their data, unless they are prompted to do so. Even if they are taught how to set up automatic backups on their school devices—in my experience this is either covered in a single period, or not at all—it is worth checking whether or not backups are happening at home.

Data backups become important when your children start using software for school projects, or for hobbies, like playing Minecraft. Many creative pursuits also require digital file storage.

A few months ago, my teenage child, who is deeply into Minecraft, lost several months' worth of collective world building. The save file that contained all that information disappeared during an update (we looked, and looked some more), and Microsoft's own file syncing for Minecraft hadn't worked properly. This was an upsetting experience for my child, who bore the responsibility of hosting the world and all the work put into it by friends as well; it was a hard lesson about the importance of making backups.

Even if you are not completely confident about how backups work yourself, I want to encourage parents to take a look at how your children are saving their work on devices used at home. You could start by asking them, and perhaps yourself, the following question: What would happen to your save files if someone spilled a glass of water on the keyboard, or if we lost the laptop?

What is a backup?

A backup is a copy of a save file that is stored on a different device. This could be, for example, a USB drive, or another computer. Cloud storage is essentially storing a file on another computer (over the Internet), usually one managed by the company that provides the storage. The benefit of keeping backups of files is that if a specific device is lost or if it breaks, your data is kept safe.

A bit of terminology:

  • a backup saves data in one direction, usually from the local device to the cloud
  • an automated backup needs to be set up one time; backups are then periodically updated automatically
  • synced files work both ways; a change or deletion locally will be carried out in the synced location, and also vice versa. This means that you could accidentally delete local files by making changes in the cloud.
  • a physical drive is a hard drive you can put inside the computer, or attach to it externally, usually via a USB port
  • a cloud drive is essentially the same thing as a physical drive, but the drive is in a different location (Google's servers somewhere in America, for example), and the data is backed up over an Internet connection instead

Using backups (instead of synced files) will probably work best for your children's data.

How can I check how my child saves their data?

You can check how your child stores files by sitting with them, and asking them to show you their work flow. I have done this with all my children, and, when I was a high school teacher, with many of my students. It takes time, but because every person has their own system of organising files, sitting with them is the only way.

You might start by asking them to show you where they store school work. While this is now often done on online school management systems (which usually means the files are safe), some school projects might be created on your child's laptop, for example. Seeing their specific school-related workflow can give you some insight in how your child sees the operating system and how they handle data and files in general. You may have to brace yourself and look hard for method in the madness.

You might learn that your child just saves everything to the desktop. Another possibility is that they might be saving files to the operating system's dedicated folders (Documents, Pictures, Videos, etc.) on the local hard drive. And a third possibility is that your child just saves files where ever each individual application saves work by default. In that case, it might be best to open a specific project, select 'save as' and see where that application saves work.

In all of the above cases, it is highly likely that files are saved on the device only. You may have agreed to some form of automated backup, for example, to Microsoft's OneDrive, or Apple's iCloud Drive, when first setting up the operating system on a new device.

If you know how to look into your operating system's backup methods to see if backups are already happening, then do. If you don't know how to do this, then it might be best to work on the assumption that files are not being backed up.

A note about smartphones: While phones are ubiquitous among school-aged children, I am not as familiar with cloud saves of actual files on mainstream devices, as I have not been using them. This article will focus on PC and laptop saves. In my own household, social and fun things are done on phones, and work is done on laptops.

How should I back up my child's data?

Any form of backup is better than having no backup at all. Automated backups are best, because we are human and will eventually forget to do the boring task of creating regular manual backups.

The statement that any backup is better than no backup goes against the philosophy of this blog, which is all about data privacy. However, if those backups are stored in Google Drive, Dropbox, or any other proprietary or data collecting option, I would argue that that is better than allowing your children to risk losing their data altogether.

Of course, once you and your children have familiarised yourselves with backups, I would encourage you to start looking into methods that don't gather your children's data. More about that later.

There are simple ways to set up automated data storage. If you have a free or subscription-based cloud storage app, it should appear in your file manager just as another folder (usually on the left of the file manager) you can click on and open. Anything you store in, for example, the Dropbox folder, will be copied to Dropbox's own computers, where ever in the world they may be.

Another simple method, and one that might be easier for kids to remember to use, is to set up automated backups of each of their user folders: Documents, Pictures, etc.. Cloud storage apps should have a simple option for automating this type of backup.

Thirdly, you could create a single folder—on your child's desktop, for example—and sync that folder to your cloud provider's backup service. When create sub-folders within that one synced master folder (School Work, Art, Game Saves, etc.) everything in those sub-folders will be backed up too. You will need to check once in a while your child is using the special folder.

You could also make their purpose more visually clear to your child by creating separate backed up folders on the desktop (Maths, Language Arts, Games, Photos...) rather than one automatically backed up master folder.

If you know how, you can add an extra physical storage drive to your child's computer. This will show up on the left side of the file manager. It is usually safer to store your data on a second drive, and not on the hard drive that runs the operating system. Systems, like Windows, can crash and this can lead to personal data being wiped. Should you experience such a crash, a new install of the operating system will automatically recognise the extra physical data drive, with all your data intact. A USB stick can function like an extra data drive too.

Finally, you could make regular manual backups of your child's data. If you know how, you could automate syncing to a second hard drive, or you can just buy a USB storage device and make a copy of all the user created data once a month. You could set a reminder to do this on your calendar.

What Cloud Storage Options Are There?

I stand by my earlier claim that any cloud backup system is better than having none at all. So if you are already familiar with Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox or other forms of cloud storage, and your child isn't currently backing up files, go ahead and set that up.

But this blog is called The Privacy Dad for a reason. I think it is better to store your child's data in such a way that their files are both backed up and kept private. Below are some examples of ways to do that.

Privacy-first cloud services

There are several privacy-focused cloud storage services out there. They usually offer a limited free storage option, and then a larger storage option for a monthly or yearly fee. Some offer family accounts, which means you can create several individual cloud storage users within your home at a reduced cost.

Here are the ones I am familiar with and would recommend:

I will add links to paid subscription information below. Proton Family looks like a great multi-user deal to me.

Self-hosted cloud services

This is not for everyone, but if you are a parent with some interest in computers, and don't mind spending time tinkering with open source software, you could try setting up a family cloud just on your home network. It's best to do this on a dedicated computer, and this can be an older PC with the older HDD type of drive. The software itself is free! I recently wrote about my own experiences hosting a family Nextcloud server.

Manual backups

As described above, you can make manual copies of your child's data on a USB stick, for example. This is a very private method, because you are not sharing any data with a company. You will have to do some digging to see where everything is stored, and for video game saves, this process can be more involved.

A tip if you plan to use this method: look into options for syncing data between the source file and the backup file, rather than creating a copy over the full data set each time. This will vary per operating system, but macOS, Windows and the different Linux desktop versions all have commands to set up this type of automated back up.


As mentioned, there are several ways in which human error can creep in, and your child could still lose some data even with a system for backups in place:

  • parents can miss or ignore reminders to create manual backups
  • Your child might forget to save in agreed places set up for syncing
  • updates to software can throw a spanner in the works
  • some cloud services might have upper limits to file size, which means bigger files might not be syncing after all
  • updates to your operating system and computer reboots might require you to restart the backups
  • backups on physical devices have the disadvantage of being kept in the same location (your home, usually), which doesn't prevent data loss due to theft or damage
  • syncing can work both ways: a deletion in the cloud may delete the file on the local device.
  • self-hosting comes with a bit of pressure; if you as the server manager make a mistake, your family could lose their backups


If your child is currently not backing up their saved data, I would urge you to get on it right away and find a method you are comfortable with to ensure files are backed up. Do it this week! Have transparent conversations with your kids about what you are doing and why backups are important. It's best to sit down and set it up together, though the success of that approach will depend on the interest and patience of the individual child (and parent).

By the time your children become teenagers and then adults, they will hopefully be familiar enough with backing up and syncing so they can manage their data responsibly themselves. If they've picked up something about data privacy along the way, that is a win.


My Family Nextcloud Server

The Compromise of Cloud Storage

Kids and Screens: Laptops, Linux, LibreOffice

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