‘Travel without a phone’ and ‘travel without social praise’

This morning, I took a little time to catch up on the excellent blog of Derek Sivers, and came across two pieces that resonated with me: ‘Travel without a phone’ and ‘Travel without social praise’.

The first might be considered an extremist tactic, but he does make an interesting point:

Where you are is partially defined by where you are not. When you’re somewhere, you’re not somewhere else. But when you use your phone, you’re everywhere.

Smartphones have made travel easy, but they have also eroded that sense of travel, because when you carry a smartphone you carry your own collection of other places around with you – and it’s easy to slip away there if you get bored or anxious.

My own experiences have confirmed that travel does feel richer and more rewarding when I don’t have an internet portal in my pocket. Partly that’s because I have to be more intentional; partly it’s because I notice and experience more, and interact with more people. It’s been a long time since I travelled anywhere without taking photos, though. I’m not sure I’d go that far (although I do favour a real camera over a phone camera).

To carry no phone at all is an uncompromising, purist stance, and probably has more drawbacks than advantages. But, as someone who has found the experience of travelling with a basic dumbphone very positive, count me officially intrigued.

In ‘Travel without social praise’, the author wrote:

We go places we think would be impressive to other people. We take photos that will make our life look wonderful when we share them. We want that praise — that social reward.

Do we really want to do this thing, for its own sake? Or do we just want the praise?

This is something I thought about a lot in July-August 2019 when I hiked the Pyrenean Haute Route. Several times, I asked myself whether I would still do this big walk if I could never tell anyone about it or publish my experience in any form. I had assumed (hoped) that the answer would be an immediate ‘yes’, but to my surprise I found my honest response was more nuanced than that, and came with qualifiers and provisos. It took a week or two for my reply to become a firm ‘yes’ with no ifs or buts.

I actually asked one hiker I met a few times this exact question. His response: ‘Hell no. I do it for the ‘Gram. I’ve gained thousands more followers this week alone. What would be the point if nobody ever found out about this epic shit?’

I thought about that a lot too.

Weeks later, I thought about the words of Robert Frost in his poem Mowing:

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

‘Why your Instagram isn’t growing’

I noticed an interesting new post on PetaPixel about Instagram, which starts with the premise that ‘it isn’t you, it’s Instagram’. It also makes it blindingly clear that Instagram has absolutely nothing to do with photography, if you hadn’t already figured that out, and everything to do with consumerism and the attention economy:

There are so many people on Instagram, and the organic, chronological order news feed is sadly a thing of the past. These two things alone mean the beginning of the end for any social media platform, because they mean that the platform is prioritizing advertisers over users…

And:

The average user spends around 53 minutes a day on Instagram; are you getting a return on your time investment into that platform? Are you making an hour’s wage daily from Instagram? If not, then I say leave the app behind and focus your time on something else.

Nicholas Carr wrote that digital content is often not as engaging as the enclosing medium or interface, and that – in many cases – the content itself becomes irrelevant. Scrolling through Instagram is all about staying in the machine zone of no-time, not about appreciating photography. (Don’t believe me? How long do you spend looking at the photos in your feed?) He also wrote that ‘Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like’.

Final thought: is it better to reach a small number of people with something of genuine value, or a large number of people who don’t care with trivia?

To decarbonize we must decomputerize

‘Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.’

‘Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.’

This is the central argument behind a superb piece by Ben Tarnoff, published last week in the Guardian, which bears the provocative title ‘To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution’. This article, which is well worth reading in full, makes the following claims:

  • As more areas of life come to rely on computation, AI and machine learning, the energy footprint of the cloud’s physical infrastructure is rapidly increasing, and is already vast.
  • Much of that energy comes from fossil fuels. It is unlikely that attempts to push for ‘green AI’ will provide anywhere near enough energy to meet demand, which is increasing exponentially.
  • Therefore, digitization is a disaster for the climate.
  • On a human level, although ‘digital enclosure’ is widely regarded as progress, in reality it provides a means for big tech to exert greater control over individuals and populations. (The word ‘Entanglement’ is not used, but this is a classic definition of the Entanglement.)
  • Although resistance is increasing, in order to make a difference we must do more than resist: we must offer a vision for the future we want.
  • Luddism allows us to approach technological developments with intention, considering them from a human-centric viewpoint.
  • ‘We should destroy machinery hurtful to the common good and build machinery helpful to it.’

There’s a whole load of common sense here – common sense that is missing from the mainstream tech debate, which holds the view that handing all human affairs over to computers is good, that if we suffer because of it we’re the problem, and that the new way is always best because look at this futuristic shiny thing! It’s high time that the antihuman ideas of Silicon Valley get consigned to the dustbin of history. I see signs for hope, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A few choice quotes:

we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.

In the present tense … putting computers everywhere is bad for most people. It enables advertisers, employers and cops to exercise more control over us – in addition to helping heat the planet.

Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.

Luddism urges us to consider: progress towards what and progress for whom? Sometimes a technology shouldn’t exist. Sometimes the best thing to do with a machine is to break it.

Read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/17/tech-climate-change-luddites-data

Apple gets into the debt business

The same company that urges us to monitor our phone screen time, make healthier choices, and live better lives is now getting into the icky business of debt, incentivizing spending by giving users cashback on their purchases.

Vlad Savov, The Apple Card is Apple’s thinnest and lightest status symbol ever’

Full article here: https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/25/18281259/apple-card-credit-goldman-sachs-titanium-design-event-2019

Life Without the Tech Giants

Kashmir Hill is conducting a fascinating experiment: completely blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from her life, using a custom VPN. Turns out it’s a tricky process:

To keep my devices from talking to the big five’s servers, and vice versa, Dhruv built a virtual private network, or VPN, for me, through which I sent all my internet traffic. He then used the VPN to block my devices from being able to use the IP addresses owned by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and/or Apple, depending on the week.

On a normal day, as measured by the VPN, I tend to send two million data packets out onto the internet and more than half of them (60 percent) go to the tech giants. That meant that over half of my normal internet usage was going to grind to a halt—including virtually every way I communicate with my friends, family, and colleagues.

The first installment is about her attempt to block Amazon, which turned out to be impossible:

Ultimately, I learn that it’s simply not an option to block Amazon permanently. It’s technically impossible given the use of CDNs, and even if we could come up with a perfect block, it would wall me off from too many crucial services and key websites that I can’t function without for both personal and professional reasons.

This is a fascinating experiment that says something important about centralisation on the web. We like to think of the internet as this great big decentralised free-for-all, but it really isn’t – almost all power has fallen into the orbits of a few giant corporations. They hold more power over us as individuals than any pre-web organisations (or governments) ever have. Are we ok with that? I know I’m not.

I’ll be following the rest of Kashmir Hill’s experiment with interest.

All communication systems incorporate biases

An interesting essay from technology critic Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows:

In his books Empire and Communication (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), the Canadian historian Harold Innis argued that all communication systems incorporate biases, which shape how people communicate and hence how they think. These biases can, in the long run, exert a profound influence over the organization of society and the course of history. “Bias,” it seems to me, is exactly the right word. The media we use to communicate push us to communicate in certain ways, reflecting, among other things, the workings of the underlying technologies and the financial and political interests of the businesses or governments that promulgate the technologies. (For a simple but important example, think of the way personal correspondence has been changed by the shift from letters delivered through the mail to emails delivered via the internet to messages delivered through smartphones.) A bias is an inclination. Its effects are not inevitable, but they can be strong. To temper them requires awareness and, yes, resistance.

Signal v Noise exits Medium

I was interested to read this morning that Signal v Noise, the blog run by the people behind Basecamp (an excellent collaboration platform that powers the work we do at Sidetracked magazine), has left Medium:

Beyond that, though, we’ve grown ever more aware of the problems with centralizing the internet. Traditional blogs might have swung out of favor, as we all discovered the benefits of social media and aggregating platforms, but we think they’re about to swing back in style, as we all discover the real costs and problems brought by such centralization.

I have pondered this question long and hard myself. I maintain an outpost on Medium called View from the Pinnacle, which I use to publish some of my best long-form articles. These are published on my main website first, of course. Anyone who relies 100 per cent on Medium is a fool, but I came round to the view that there was no harm in also posting my articles on this centralised publishing platform.

However, I’m reconsidering that stance. Centralisation is not a force for good on the web. It’s tempting to just publish somewhere that lets you get your writing out with a minimum of effort, but in doing so you relinquish all personal control over your work, and the internet gradually becomes a less open, less diverse, more commercialised place. The medium is part of the message, after all.

I think that individual blogs, personal newsletters, and RSS are long overdue for a renaissance. These are some of the best things that exist on the internet today. Let’s help them thrive. Let’s not pour more of our effort into centralised, monolithic content silos than we absolutely have to.

Update 2019-01-20

I deleted my Medium account. Decided to put my money where my mouth is.