Entangled reads, 26 October 2018

Hello and welcome to my first weekly roundup of Entanglement-themed links from around the web. I have run a similar column on my main site for some time, and it’s proven popular. The concept is simple: every week, I post a few links I’ve found relevant and interesting.

The World Is More Complex than It Used to Be – without actually calling it by name, this is a neat summary of the Entanglement problem.

Android’s new multitasking is terrible and should be changed back – I’m not an Android user, but I find it infuriating when things are changed for no good reason. Muscle memory is important.

Gates, Allen & Yesterday’s Terabyte – “If we need to fight the scourge of fake news, we need systems of record — Google, Facebook, and Twitter — to shift from being dominated by a time-based news feed to a contextual information system. It is the only way to find facts in this world dominated by half-truths and even more half-lies.”

Gamified life – this is fascinating.

Apple News’s Radical Approach: Humans Over Machines – I’ll happily criticise Apple all day long, but they are taking the right approach here.

Header image © Shutterstock / Dario Lo Presti

Digital Wellness is a trap

Apple, Google et al. may present the appearance of caring about the mental health of their users with the current ‘digital wellness’ trend, but it’s a trap. Here’s why.

Here’s something I’ve come to realise lately: digital wellness has little to do with humane technology and everything to do with consumerism.

Like many things that have subsequently been assimilated by whatever flavour of consumerism they originally opposed, digital wellness began as an authentic counter-culture. Ever since computers have been in everyday use, people have been figuring out ways to stop them from butting in to their lives quite so much. As networked technology has expanded its sphere of influence into ever-increasing areas of our lives, people who found their productivity, creativity or happiness negatively affected have come up with new ways to cope:

  • Switching off notifications, either at certain times of day or entirely.
  • Not looking at emails or social media at evenings or weekends.
  • The so-called ‘digital detox’: self-enforced periods without networked technology.
  • Experimenting with going back to dumbphones again.
  • Quitting social media altogether, or (perhaps more commonly) quitting one or two platforms while remaining active on others.
  • Etc.

This counter-culture against the negative aspects of the Entanglement has grown rapidly. There are now many books, podcasts, blogs, and – ironically – social media channels devoted to it. And here’s the thing about authentic trends: they’re highly marketable. Witness the hipster aesthetic that seems to have infiltrated every coffee shop in the world. This example teaches us that not only is authenticity highly marketable, but the authenticity is destroyed when it’s assimilated by the market – and becomes just another tentacle of the octopus of consumerism (there’s an image for you). Perhaps more accurately, it becomes a simulacrum of its former authentic self, and people can’t always tell the difference.

Digital wellness may have started out as an authentic counter-culture, but its rapid adoption by the tech industry is just a way to make us even more dependent

You might be wondering how this relates to the anti-Entanglement counter-culture. I’ll tell you. We’re at the point where tech companies – especially Apple, Google, Facebook, and hardware manufacturers – have figured out how they can profit from this while trying to convince us they’re looking out for us.

It’s a trap. Digital wellness has been weaponised and is now part of the attention-harvesting infinity machine it originally opposed.

How the tech giants have adopted ‘digital wellness’

In 2018, both smartphone platforms introduced software updates with features ostensibly designed to put users back in control:

  • The iPhone has Screen Time. This looks great at first glance: it lets you track phone usage in great detail, set time limits for any app or website, and schedule downtime away from the screen.(1)
  • Android has Digital Wellbeing, which is pretty much the same thing.

Then there are all the lucrative hardware products on this particular bandwagon:

  • The Apple Watch. As well as a health platform, this is positioned as a device to free users from their phones. Recent models can even work on a cellular connection so you can leave your iPhone at home without being disconnected (think about that for a moment).
  • Modern dumbphones such as the Light Phone and the Nokia 3310 are expressly marketed as devices for people who want to escape from smartphones.
  • The new Palm phone takes this a step further – it’s positioned as a more minimal companion to your main phone, so that you can be a little bit less immersed and distracted from time to time… by spending time with a different phone. Again, think about that.(2)
  • You can even buy ‘distraction-free’ writing devices that claim to solve the problems of digital distraction on modern computers. Products such as the Freewrite pair a simple text editor with a high-quality keyboard, a monochrome screen, and more than a hint of hipster aesthetic.

The problem with all these would-be solutions is that they don’t cure the underlying disease. At best they apply a temporary sticking plaster, and at worst they’re just new and more evolved ways to harvest your attention or your cash.(3)

The nature of the trap

Let’s take a look at some of the examples above:

  • Screen Time can be useful in that it provides hard data on the extent of your smartphone use. However, if you feel there’s a problem and decide you want to cut back, you’ll soon find that Screen Time’s restrictions are laughably easy to bypass. Unlike genuinely useful desktop anti-distraction tools such as Self Control, which makes it impossible to circumvent restrictions, Screen Time’s warnings can be bypassed with a tap. And the distracted mind gets what the distracted mind wants. Don’t forget: this is a system that has been specifically designed to bypass your willpower.
  • All the Apple Watch does is provide another, even more intrusive interface for the same stuff – yet another glowing screen to dick about with, only this one can literally tap you on your wrist when it wants your attention. Far from helping users to escape from their phones, the Watch will ensure that they can never escape (while conveniently opening up a new revenue stream for Apple).
  • Handsets positioned as modern dumbphones can be of benefit when used in certain ways. I have a 2017 Nokia 3310 in a drawer, and I sometimes use it for a few weeks or months when I feel the need. But let’s call these things what they are: they’re just crap smartphones beneath a thin veneer of digital wellness marketing to help convince a certain type of user to buy them. Virtually all of these devices can get online, and often have non-removable apps pre-installed such as Facebook, Twitter and even games. The one clear upside is that they’re so slow and difficult to use that going online is downright painful.
  • Devices such as the Freewrite don’t really solve the problems they claim to either. They can’t be used without cloud storage and a peripheral smartphone or PC to do something with your text files – they’re very much inside the system, not outside it. The original Freewrite doesn’t even have arrow keys, which proves this is not intended to be a serious writing tool. People need arrow keys when they compose digitally; I get that the whole point is to switch off the internal censor, but if you want to do that just use pen and paper and save yourself several hundred points.

It is not in the interests of tech companies to reduce the use of their products – and certainly not to do anything that investors could interpret as reducing demand for sales. Apple may claim otherwise, but think about it. They can only increase prices so far, and consumerism demands infinite growth. The conclusion here is obvious.

Simplifying and switching off will take you far – but you won’t see tech companies promoting this anti-consumerist message

Our reliance on networked digital technology is unprecedented, as is the growth of that technology. Tech companies are continually seeking to extract more value from their markets (us) and more data from their primary resource (also us). So when Google introduces a digital wellbeing tool or Palm launches a ‘companion phone’, ask yourself why. Is it a genuine move to help you break free from addictive technologies – and they’re addictive because they were designed to be – or is it a cynical, thinly veiled way to convert more of your time and attention into cash?

Digital wellness may have started out as an authentic counter-culture, but its rapid adoption by the tech industry is just a way to make us even more dependent. It will make us spend more money on hardware, it will entrench our positions within our tech ecosystem of choice, and it will soothe our wounds just enough to make us feel we’re doing ourselves some good – while in fact further enslaving us.

Digital wellness, as sold to us by tech companies, is part of the Entanglement.

So what can we do?

The Entanglement is all about increasing complexity and proliferating problems(4), so if you feel some aspects of your tech use are personally problematic, it’s a good idea to seek simplicity.

  • Switch on Screen Time by all means, but a better option is to delete apps you don’t need, deactivate all notifications, and switch the phone off completely from time to time. Do this while you still can; your next iPhone might not even have a power button.
  • Don’t buy an Apple Watch. You don’t need one. Nobody needs one. The only reason you’re thinking about buying one is that marketing has told you to do so.
  • Do not buy a secondary ‘companion phone’ (see above). If you want to buy a dumbphone, go into it with your eyes open – you might find that being without certain apps is a genuine disadvantage, and throwing money at the problem won’t solve it if you just displace the problematic activity to another device.
  • If participating in a certain social network or platform makes you unhappy, anxious or depressed, stop fannying about with content restrictions and scheduled downtime – delete your account. Not everyone can do this, of course. If your job relies on Twitter use then deleting your Twitter account would probably reduce your overall happiness (this is why you can still find me on Twitter!).
  • Distraction-free writing devices are a waste of time and money for most writers. You can improve your own computer by removing games and apps you don’t need, quitting your email program, and using a blocking app like Self Control. Going back to basics, nothing beats pen and paper. It may sound old fashioned but it’s actually close to perfect, and having to type it all up afterwards is a huge advantage because it gives you another chance to improve your prose. Fast writing does not always equal good writing.

In short, resisting the negative aspects of the Entanglement is something you can do without spending money. Simplifying and switching off will take you far – but you won’t see tech companies promoting this anti-consumerist message. So when Apple, Google or Facebook announces their next initiative to free us from our screens and help us ‘reconnect with what’s important’, look for the hidden agenda.


  1. I was originally quite enthusiastic about Screen Time based on my early experiences of it, but my opinion has since cooled. I‘ve also had more time to think and read about Apple’s approach to attention and device usage. My original claim that ‘Apple is not in the business of getting you to use your devices as much as possible’ doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
  2. Just look at it. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to Palm OS devices from previous decades, many of which were genuinely useful computing tools, and free from most of the problematic aspects of today’s technology.
  3. This is a constant arms race: “today’s weaponized attention is tomorrow’s ghost ad.”
  4. I have a working document that aims to build a definition for the Entanglement. It’s hazy at the moment, but the more I read the more I understand its scope.

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.

Screen Shot 2018-10-20 at 20.43.26.jpg

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.