What tech does to us

I was interested to read this piece from The Guardian, called ‘Unplugged: what I learned by logging off and reading 12 books in a week’. The author went offline for a week and read a big stack of books, which sounds pretty good, but there was more to it than just reading – she had the chance to think about our relationship with tech.

This passage jumped out at me:

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in the context of a perfectly designed reading experience, it was easy to avoid distraction. But too many of the arguments about social media “addiction” pay no attention to context when they should. Many of the ostensibly “addicted” social media users are always working, trapped at our desks or in our cars, eyeing our phones, perpetually on call. Like coffee, the little dopamine hits of a “like” or “fave” are an affordable pleasure in a world of constant work.

The bit about context is important, and I think this hints at why I’ve felt that something is a bit off about the current narrative regarding social media and its dangers. This is an incredibly popular subject at the moment – the evil deeds of Facebook and Google are very much in the spotlight. However, I think the focus is far too narrow. Too much attention is being paid to precisely how and why Facebook is doing what it’s doing, and not enough attention is being paid to the bigger issues.

What are the bigger issues? I’ve only just begun to ponder this, but I’m starting to think that toxic social media is just one facet of a deeper problem. Perhaps it’s both a symptom and a contributing cause, an exacerbating factor, part of a feedback loop. Technology is making us work more, and increasingly we’re the ones being controlled by our tech, not the other way around. Social media can act as part of that great big machine of stress and overwhelm. Right now the press is focused on precisely what Facebook et al. are doing to our brains, but it’s my hope that over the coming months or years more people will begin to question the digital universe we’re building, and ask where it all went so badly wrong – and how we can put control back into the hands of users.

Entangled reads, 7 December 2018

Digital minimalism, #O2down, Enlightened wall chargers, and if only the iPhone had a menu bar…

Social media reform

Facebook discussed cashing in on user data, emails suggest – it keeps getting worse for Facebook.

The problem with studies saying phones are bad for you – this piece makes some important points.

Technology and humanity

My New Book: Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport has a new book out! I’ve been looking forward to this.

Six Years With a Distraction-Free iPhone – I highly recommend this approach. It’s the only way I can use a smartphone and remain sane.

Millions of smartphones were taken offline yesterday by an expired certificate – the Entangled world in which we live.

Design

RavPower’s tiny 45W gallium nitride charger almost sits flush with your wall – this appears to be a good example of Enlightenment technology, not Entanglement technology; that is, the new thing has many tangible benefits without causing new problems.

Proof That iOS Still Hasn’t Gotten Undo Right – this critique of iOS interface design is well worth reading. I’ve long believed that the now-defunct Palm OS, with its Mac-style menu bar, had a far better and more intuitive interface than the modern iOS. Gruber says: “iOS user interface conventions are so shallow, so widely and wildly inconsistent, that an app proclaimed by Apple as the very best of the year has to start, as the very first thing you see when you launch it, by teaching you how to use Undo. That’s a sad state of affairs.”

Header image © lchumpitaz / Shutterstock

Entangled reads, 30 November 2018

Another astoundingly bad week for Facebook, time is different now, minimal surface nirvana, and new icons for Office…

Social media reform

UK Parliament seized internal documents related to Facebook’s privacy and data decisions – Facebook is imploding even more rapidly than I thought it would. Amazing to watch this play out in real time.

Is Facebook the AOL of the 2010s? A Skeptical Examination of Social Media Network Effects – ‘In 2018, joining a network like Facebook enables you to connect with or monitor the status of people you know using digital networks. Unlike telephones or Ethernet cards, however, you don’t need a private network like Facebook for these benefits.’

Fake news inquiry: Facebook questioned by MPs from around the world – ‘The problem is Facebook, everything else is just a symptom.’

The big questions that hang over Facebook’s future – ‘If there is not going to be a change of individuals then there must be a change of outlook. Facebook has to become more open about how it uses our data. It must explain this in a way that is accessible to normal users and is not hidden away in the T&Cs.’

Technology and humanity

Time is different now – ‘Flattening current events into a stream means living in a perpetual present, where events are disconnected from their antecedents and where history is counted in minutes and days rather than in months and years.’

Flickr’s Big Change Proves You Can’t Trust Online Services – whether or not you agree with Flickr’s shift to a more ethical business model (I do, FWIW), this article makes an important point. When you put your work into the cloud, you’re giving up personal control over it.

Design

Minimal surface nirvana – this is an intriguing take on the ‘disappearing computing hardware’ phenomenon by Riccardo Mori.

Privacy

Google accused of GDPR privacy violations by seven countries – Google’s dodgy approach to location tracking was a factor that led me to switch from Android back to the iPhone in 2016. Despite my many frustrations with Apple, I still wouldn’t go back to Android for privacy reasons.

Fluff and nonsense

Microsoft’s new Office icons are part of a bigger design overhaul – these new icons look nice, but it isn’t as immediately obvious what the applications do. They’re even more abstract than the previous versions – which were already pretty abstract.

Beijing to Judge Every Resident Based on Behavior by End of 2020 – the most dystopian thing I’ve read this week.

Header image © Radiokafka / Shutterstock

Time is different now

This essay from The Verge is on point. It articulates something I’ve felt for a while:

…many of us are now seeing a glut of news from around the world faster — and more ubiquitously, because social platforms are also where our friends live — than ever.

I know my perception of time has been totally skewed; something that happened last week has flattened into things that happened in the past… Flattening current events into a stream means living in a perpetual present, where events are disconnected from their antecedents and where history is counted in minutes and days rather than in months and years.

Because social networks are built to maximize engagement, the global news economy — which has again moved to those same platforms — is just another product that boosts time spent online. The churn flattens and packages human lives and human misery into something that’s easy to parse and easy to become apathetic to.

Entangled reads, 24 November 2018

I’ve missed a week, so even more links for you this week: emojis in business, discoverability in UI design, how Facebook threatens democracy, and more…

Technology and humanity

Technologists should abandon their craft – a great read. ‘To address the human cost and correct course, we need people who understand the technology world to do more than just build more technology.’

Deep Work and attention

Google Maps will let you chat with businesses – I don’t understand why this is necessary or even desirable. There are already a gazillion different ways to contact businesses. Giving them yet another inbox to monitor will not improve anything for anyone, and will only further train users to expect instant responses.

Gen-Z Employees Don’t Do Email – this article made me facepalm all the way through reading it. Rather than pandering to nosediving attention spans, why aren’t we trying to do something about it? Not everything can be conveyed through a string of emojis.

Design

The iPod click wheel was the pinnacle of purposed hardware design – the click wheel was a masterpiece, and I think it’s a shame that hardware is becoming so homogenous. Nice article.

Amazement at iOS cursor movement shortcut says a lot about discoverability – there are many hidden gestures in iOS that cannot be discovered intuitively, and with the iPhone X’s gesture-based control system the situation is getting worse. They’re fine once you learn them, but early GUIs (such as the original Macintosh) were significantly easier for beginners to get to grips with. Even the modern Mac has a far more discoverable interface than iOS.

Social media reform

Flickr’s new boss, not the same as the old boss – Riccardo Mori makes a compelling case for why Flickr’s new business model is trying to do the right thing.

YouTube CEO calls EU’s proposed copyright regulation financially impossible – ‘YouTube has gone on the offensive over the last month to garner support in opposing the EU’s copyright directive.’

There’s more evidence Facebook can make you feel lonely – ‘our experiment strongly suggest that limiting social media usage does have a direct and positive impact on subjective well-being over time, especially with respect to decreasing loneliness and depression.’

Facebook threatens democracy, says Soros-backed foundation – hard to disagree with this assessment. It’s becoming clearer all the time that Facebook is causing damage in multiple areas.

Instagram will now let users shop items from video posts – Instagram is deteriorating rapidly. Called it.

Despite its flaws, Facebook still holds my memories, and giving that up is hard – another good piece from the Verge. It’s not just the data, it’s the metadata.

Automation

You Already Email Like a Robot — Why Not Automate It? – ‘We can be sure of only one thing that will result from automating email: It will create more of it.’

Privacy

Plans to microchip UK workers spark privacy concerns – this is the most dystopian thing I’ve read this week.

Google ‘betrays patient trust’ with DeepMind Health move – patient data may remain under the patient’s control for now, but who knows what will happen in the future?

Another Meltdown, Spectre security scare: Data-leaking holes riddle Intel, AMD, Arm chip – an important part of the Entanglement’s definition is that as complexity increases, problems and bugs will continue to proliferate. This is what we’re now seeing with massive CPU-level flaws coming to light.

Fluff and nonsense

ReBirth: Pre-internet technology – this is pretty cool. A designer has imagined web-era services and platforms as hardware gadgets from 80s or 90s.

Header image © Alex Gontar / Shutterstock

The anxiety of the inbox

When communication is constant and ubiquitous, switching off becomes more and more difficult – with potentially dire consequences for our mental health.

Like every knowledge worker, I’m a slave to my inboxes, and I have a few of them now:

  • Email. I have three accounts, one theoretically for work and two for personal stuff, but people who want to contact me rarely bother to make the distinction.
  • Social media. For some reason, the Silicon Valley tech wizards have seen it fit to put a messaging system in every single social network. This means that if you just signed up to a new social platform, your number of inboxes is now n+1.
  • Slack. Slack was invented to solve the problems of email, yet somehow it’s ended up being yet another collection of inboxes.
  • Trello. Colleagues can and will @ you on Trello too, and assign work tasks to you on there. This can be more efficient and less intrusive than email, but it’s still another inbox.

Taking all of these into account, I have about a dozen inboxes where people can and do contact me as often as they want. Most of these inboxes are open to the public. Of course, there are even more ways for people to grab me if they want to: phone, text message, snail mail.

The volume of communication aimed in my direction every day is a bit insane, when you stop to think about it – and I’m by no means Mr Popular. I go through quiet spells just like everyone else, and much of my work can be carried out with minimal communication for lengthy periods. I’m very average. This is not a boast about how busy I am, and it certainly isn’t a criticism of any of my clients or colleagues, most of whom are concise and considerate when it comes to emails.

We can never truly escape. Email never ends. Twitter is bottomless

Nevertheless, I have to deal with hundreds of individual communications in the average day, and most are completely pointless. For every email from a client or colleague discussing a worthwhile task, there could be 10 fishing expeditions from SEO ‘experts’, 5 press releases from brands trying to trick me into giving them free publicity, a similar number of collaboration requests from people who just want to churn out machine-optimised content of no value to anyone, and maybe 10 blatant ads. That’s not even counting the spam folder.

I delete most emails without doing more than skimming them, because otherwise I’d never get anything done.

On Twitter, it’s much worse. I manage one account that regularly gets as many as a thousand notifications a day. Every time I log in, I see the notification counter maxed out at 99+ in attention-grabbing crimson. I’d estimate that no more than 1 or 2 per cent of these communications are of value, relevance or interest, but the rest have to be waded through anyway. Fortunately direct messages on Twitter are a lot less frequent, but don’t be fooled – your @ replies list is an inbox too.

Notifications are not the answer

Smartphone notifications were supposed to make sense of all this, but switching on notifications for any of these inboxes feels a bit like thousands of needles being continuously fired into my brain. I switched them all off in 2014. Even back then, when work was pretty quiet, I found smartphone notifications a cruel and unusual form of punishment that annihilated any pretence at a work/life balance. Today I would find them intolerable; I suspect it’s no exaggeration to say that they would take years from my lifespan.

Our technological surroundings are designed to disrupt and confuse the linear mind, not nurture it

Notifications on your smartphone take the messages from all your other inboxes and put them in an uber-inbox that you carry along with you everywhere and never switch off. It constantly pings and chirps, interrupting what you’re doing and incrementally wrecking your attention span, creating false urgency for messages that are mostly irrelevant. No – smartphone notifications are not the answer, and will only make the problem significantly worse for most people who struggle with this.

What is the problem, really? The sheer volume of incoming communications might be easier to deal with if an escape were possible. Maybe that’s at the heart of it: we can never truly escape. Email never ends. Twitter is bottomless. Messages, demands, pitches and everything else continue to accumulate whether we’re looking at them or not, and they’re always just a tap or two away because software developers believe that everything should be efficient and easily accessible at all times, whether or not this is what our fallible human nature wants or even needs.

The email monster

We all have different ways of dealing with this, of course. Some of us try to partition email into specific timeslots with varying degrees of success; I usually fail at this because unread emails whose subject lines I have glimpsed will fester at the back of my mind for hours, contaminating my ability to focus on whatever it is I’m supposed to be getting on with (which almost certainly has nothing to do with email).

There are blocking apps that can work well, but require reserves of willpower and discipline that the harried and stressed worker, fighting to regain concentration, can’t always muster. There’s always the prospect of missing that truly important email that can’t wait, because an email that isn’t replied to in a timely fashion gets buried and forgotten about (one of the side effects of instant, effortless and free communication). There’s also the dopamine addiction cycle, which taints our inboxes as surely as it does our Facebook account.

At one point or another, most of us fall into the trap of monitoring our various inboxes semi-continuously, bouncing from one to the other, replying to messages as they come in (and hence training others to expect instant responses), unable to focus on anything of value and ending the day with a gnawing, buzzing sensation of restless tension and incompleteness.

Technology was meant to reduce our working hours but has only extended them indefinitely

That’s me on my worst days: overwhelmed by the tide of incoming communications, and even if most are soon deleted, I have to waste precious, finite mental energy deciding what to do with each one. It’s exhausting and a complete waste of time. It shatters my ability to concentrate on the skilled work that actually pays the bills: writing and editing, tasks that require long periods of intense, unbroken focus. Such a flow state is impossible to achieve under the oppressive glare of a rapidly filling inbox. Our technological surroundings are designed to disrupt and confuse the linear mind, not nurture it.

On my better days, I spend ten minutes reading and replying to email first thing in the morning while I’m composing my task list, I’ll check it again after lunch, and maybe once more before finishing work. On the good days, I have the energy to resist and find the focus I need. But it’s hard, and human nature is weak; after a few days of discipline, all it often takes is some unrelated stressor to break those defences down and leave my attention in bits again. I go through phases of being more and less able to cope with this.

A repetitive strain injury of the mind

I can only think or care about so many things in a day. The internet is infinite but the mind is not. I’m convinced that we simply aren’t capable of working at our best under such conditions – that easy communication via multiple inboxes is a curse, not a blessing, acting against our best interests and stifling our ability to perform work of real value.

My inboxes contribute to the constant anxiety I feel when online. It’s a low-key anxiety that with hindsight I now know that I’ve felt for around 15 years, but over the last couple of years it has begun to assert itself more strongly, and I’ve been able to recognise it for what it is. Matt Haig’s ‘repetitive strain injury of the mind’ is very real.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. I am actively trying to reduce the number of ways in which people can contact me. Maybe in an ideal world email would be rationed, by invitation only, or social media wouldn’t exist, but the true underlying cause is simply the overloaded and overwhelming nature of modern life. We all have to do so much more, and so much more quickly. Technology was meant to reduce our working hours but has only extended them beyond all limits. As David Graeber writes in ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant’, ‘technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.’

Slack isn’t the answer to fixing email. Slack is just another inbox. The problem is that everyone wants to contact you all the time, and you can’t get away from it for long. The problem is that communication is free and easy and therefore worthless.

How people react to this pressure depends on the individual and their role. I suspect most of us think we’re fine with it, even feel quite capable of handling the pressure much of the time. On the rough days, we convince ourselves that everyone else is dealing with it so we should just get our shit together – until stress, overwork, or one pointless email too many tips the scale too far in the wrong direction, and we realise that email, Twitter and all the rest are having a negative effect on our mental health. Maybe even our competence at doing the thing we’re supposed to be doing.

Most micro-communications are pointless and unnecessary. We can only accomplish a few tasks of real value in a day. I am convinced that most of us would be better able to face these tasks if we weren’t constantly pestered by trivia and irrelevant demands or queries.

So I’m afraid I don’t have any real answers, but if you find your inbox overwhelming and wish it would all just go away, you’re not alone.

Entangled Reads, 10 November 2018

Burnout and screen time, another reminder to switch your notifications off, a computer faster than its own OS, and deepfakes in mainstream politics…

Deep Work and attention

Why doctors hate their computers – a fascinating study on the relationship between tech use and burnout in medical workers. The conclusion: one of the strongest predictors of burnout was how much time the doctor spent staring at a computer screen.

On Physician Burnout and the Plight of the Modern Knowledge Worker – Cal Newport’s take on the above story.

The Three Scientific Reasons You Shouldn’t Check Your Notifications – I find smartphone notifications intolerable, and have kept them all switched off since 2014. If you hate your smartphone, or if it makes you anxious, it’s possible that notifications are the specific cause of this reaction. Without notifications a smartphone becomes a lot less needy.

What Boredom Does to You – this is a longish piece, but it’s worth reading if you’re a Medium member. ‘People who are bored think more creatively than those who aren’t.’

Hardware

Facebook Portal review: trust fail – I’ll say it again: if you buy one of these devices, you are a moron.

Faster than its own OS – Riccardo Mori takes a look at the new iPad Pro. ‘…a question that’s been nagging me – a question I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to – is this: All this staggering performance… to do what, exactly?’

7,000 UK households still watching TV in black and white – while most people will have replaced their TVs countless times to obtain ‘upgrades’ of questionable value, a few thousand holdouts are sticking with technology that just does its job. Fair play.

Information preservation

This Library Has New Books by Major Authors, but They Can’t Be Read Until 2114 – thanks to David Lintern for sending me this one. I love the idea of creating a book that won’t be read for a century. We need more projects like this.

Automation

Basic Income Won’t Solve Our Crisis of Meaning – I’ve often thought about this. As more and more jobs become automated out of existence, we’ll be creating a crisis of mental health the like of which the world has possibly never seen. These are not easy problems to solve, and I’m not optimistic that humanity is wise enough to solve them.

Google Night Sight and the Importance of Photography Limitations – another Medium Members story (sorry) but also worth reading. Google’s new ‘Night Sight’ (an implementation of computational photography that enables hand-held night shots that look clear as day) could erode a fundamental limit in photography. How will that affect our creativity?

Fluff and nonsense

The fake video era of US politics has arrived on Twitter – deeply disturbing.

Header image © Stock-Asso / Shutterstock