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.

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.

The Wile Fallet

In an Entangled age, be like the Wile Fallet

The Entanglement is a pretty complicated subject – I’m still grappling with understanding it myself – so I want to tell you a story about the Wile Fallet.

In 1993, my dad took early retirement from his job in local government. When he left, he brought a bunch of surplus office supplies home with him – mostly 315gsm Manilla Foolscap wallets, branded ‘10″ WILE FALLET’.

We ended up with dozens of these Wile Fallets in various different colours. I remember them as an integral part of my childhood. They were used for everything, from storing home files to homework. I got so used to seeing the ‘10″ WILE FALLET’ sticker that to this day I’m unable to say ‘file wallet’ without it sounding wrong.

Wile Fallets have followed me everywhere for 25 years. I took a stack of them to university, by which point they were already at least 12 years old. I took some up to Glen Coe. When I moved to Lincolnshire, I brought the first draft of my first novel back in a Wile Fallet, and I used more for storing paperwork since.

We live in an era when information is terrifyingly vulnerable, stored on bewilderingly complex machines thousands of miles away that are beyond our personal understanding

Slowly, one by one, my store of remaining Wile Fallets has dwindled. They’re pretty hard wearing, but they aren’t immortal; after heavy use over many years, they tend to split at the seams. (I managed to destroy one Wile Fallet over a mere three-year period during my degree, but that was a disappointing outlier.)

I’m down to my last two.

One has been in continuous use for at least 10 years, and is in great condition. The other has mostly held paperwork in drawers for at least as long and looks about the same. The colours have not faded, and the metal binding clips have not rusted.

Until today, I hadn’t noticed my Wile Fallets, not really. They were just objects that had always been there, like pencils. I hadn’t even really thought about the fact that these document wallets date from my early childhood. I certainly didn’t feel sentimental about them. But then I happened to look at the phone number for Sabell Birmingham on the label and realised it dated from before ‘01’ was added to UK phone numbers in 1995. Then I dredged up a hazy memory of the house suddenly being full of paper and document wallets when my dad retired in 1993.

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I’ve looked up Sabell. They still make Wile Fallets. The website is utterly charming and a beautiful example of how the web used to be before it all went downhill. The copy on the Wile Fallet product page even sounds like I’d imagine a Wile Fallet would sound, if they could talk:

Forming the basis of our standard range of files the Wile Fallet is made from 315gsm manilla, giving a lower cost file whilst still providing a quality exceeding that of the light weight massed produced files.

This gives a longer lasting file more suited to the rigours of office life that does not crease and tear as easily as the cheaper alternatives

How charming is that?

I think there is something reassuring in such permanence. We live in an era when information is terrifyingly vulnerable, stored on bewilderingly complex machines thousands of miles away that are beyond our personal understanding and controlled by corporate demi-gods. Our information is under constant attack and could be leaked to malign forces (or annihilated) at any time. Sometimes marketing even convinces rational people to pay money for the privilege.

Information storage today is a perfect example of almost everything in the era of the Entanglement: some old problems have been solved, but vastly more have been created, and we have lost virtually all personal control of the information. We have to negotiate with our technology now for it to yield any value, while constantly dodging the vast and terrible threats created by its rampage across the world.

The Wile Fallet is not a product of the Entanglement; it is a product of the Enlightenment. The Wile Fallet does only one thing, and that is store information in a safe, stable place for decades, assisting your lifelong quest for knowledge. Until entropy destroys its physical structure – a predictable and observable process – you are in total control of it. It cannot be weaponised by criminals on the other side of the world or used to personalise ad content against you. It won’t suddenly erase itself, change how it works for no good reason, or charge you a subscription fee to access your stuff. Its contents won’t become unreadable if you fail to upgrade to the latest model.

In an Entangled age, be like the Wile Fallet.