Creativity is not an app

Spend much time reading about writing and creativity online and you’ll come across the idea that creativity and efficiency are the same thing, that ‘better’ software can improve your writing. Writers love to talk about the new app that makes them more efficient, or about how they wrote 100,000 words in a month. As if quality can spontaneously arise from quantity and speed.

If this approach helps you, then don’t let me put you off – but let’s stop pretending that the quest for perfect efficiency in the writing process will improve the quality of what we create.

I think this idea arises from a widespread belief that all human endeavours can be understood in the same way as a computer program. As software dominates more and more of our affairs, it’s only natural that this idea should emerge. The busy office worker who replaces her to-do list with an app believes that a computer can effectively manage her workload – maybe even than it can do a better job. In some cases this belief is justified (although I know people who have tried a lot of to-do apps and failed to find one that works for them). In some cases it isn’t, and the computer model ends up being too inflexible, or certain UI design choices end up changing behaviour as the user adapts to fit the software’s quirks. We’ve all been there, right?

Sometimes this is no big deal, but sometimes the user finds the new method or app worse in numerous subtle ways. Maybe they tell themselves it’s fine because everything is an app now. Maybe they’ve come to believe what the world tells them, that computers are better than humans. This message is everywhere.

My point here is that software restricts choices and changes behaviours, because software that attempts to model some aspect of the human experience can only ever be just that – a model. The model may be good enough – or even better than what it replaces in several ways – but it’s always someone else’s idea of what you want to do.

This brings us back to the belief that the perfect writing app will make you more creative or improve the quality of your work. It won’t. Software always drives in the direction of greater efficiency, more features, more speed. These qualities may or may not be beneficial in some way, but they have nothing to do with creativity, because that comes from within – it’s an ineffable aspect of the human mind that can’t be modelled by machine. If you don’t believe that, then maybe you’ve internalised the idea that computers are better than we are.

I’ll finish with a personal example. Over the years I have used many writing apps. I’ve written novels in ClarisWorks and Microsoft Word, composed features in Ulysses and BBEdit. These apps are all absolutely fine – when you’re in a flow state and the words are coming, anything will do – but in the last year I’ve gone back to writing drafts with a pencil. Why? Because I have to pause every few minutes to sharpen it, and this gives my mind the chance to breathe and make connections. The quality of my work is always better when it starts with a pencil. Another reason is that I have to type it into a computer afterwards, which gives me another chance to improve my prose.

Of course, this may very well not apply to how you write – which is precisely my point.

Don’t let the world tell you that your creativity, your individuality, can be modelled by an app. This belief diminishes the standard of what it means to be human just a little bit. You’re better than that. Use any app you like, but recognise that quality comes from the human mind, not the machine world.

Childhood’s End

This superb piece by George Dyson is well worth reading – it covers a number of Entanglement concepts.

Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.

George Dyson, ‘Childhood’s End’

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