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10 March 2021

You using technology

Some ideas and suggestions to keep you using technology, and not the other way around.

We live in a new kind of wild west. Computers have been around long enough to take over huge parts of our lives, but not so long that we have learned the right ways to use them. The signs are everywhere. They’re in our screen time, our meme stocks, and our energy-hungry cryptocurrencies. They’re in the push for phones with five cameras and 5G networks. They’re in the political power built and broken on social media, the increasingly frequent attacks frothing up the South Cyber Sea, and the string of new tech companies with funny names and astronomically high valuations that all promise to revolutionize some industry or another.

Of course, the computer horde’s reckless world conquest has benefited us immensely as consumers. Life has never been more convenient. Anything we could possibly want – Chinese products, endless entertainment, a date for Friday night – is just a click or tap away. But we’ve paid for this convenience by giving up understanding and control in the aspects of our lives that go digital.

Most of us have no idea what our computers are actually doing at any given time, and we’re limited in our ability to modify their hardware components and software programming. This means tech companies have absolute power over the digital world. If Excel made the use of negative numbers a premium feature, financial analysts everywhere would have little choice but to pay. And if LinkedIn decided that users with the same first name could no longer connect, the Johns and Mohammads of the world would have no recourse.

At their best, computers are tools that amplify human ability without replacing it. Our current digital infrastructure enables us to do all kinds of incredible things – but we often use it in ways that make us less capable and self-reliant. For example, it’s hard to overstate the utility of GPS navigation, but if we rely on it completely, it degrades our understanding of our surroundings. People should be able to get around their neighborhoods or take a friend in need to the hospital, even when their phone is dead. Online reviews, while helpful for sifting through piles of badly made products on Amazon, hurt real-life experiences by stifling serendipity and making the world more uniform. The massive body of information freely available on the Internet is, to my mind, one of the biggest wins of computing as we know it. If, however, our first and only instinct is to go online to learn, we weaken our ability to discover important things that can’t be found there. Your grandma’s recipes probably aren’t on any cooking site.

On a personal level, much of our work, play, leisure, and socializing now happens online, and we’re rarely more than a few feet from a device that connects us to it all. While the ability to connect is a boon, constant connection – and the associated expectation that we’re plugged in and available at all times – breeds anxiety and makes it hard to slow down, relax, and live engaged in the present moment. We also spend a lot of our screen time on social media platforms, which are currently designed to consume as much of our attention as possible, at any cost to our health. We can’t put our devices down, even when they make us more anxious, more distracted, and less happy.

In this digital wild west, we don’t have anyone but ourselves to look out for how technological trends affect our wellbeing and quality of life. If we aren’t careful about how we use computers, we may be the next thing to get disrupted.

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I don’t mean to give the impression that I dislike computers. Like many of my generation, I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember, and for most of that time I was a popular-tech enthusiast. The clunky desktops that appeared in schools and homes in the late ’90s made great toys for a little kid. I created KidPix masterpieces and guessed my way through educational JumpStart Adventures games that were way too advanced for my grade level. A few years later, I was downloading software with reckless abandon on my hand-me-down Dell laptop – the kind that was as thick as a textbook. I spent hours chatting on AOL Instant Messenger and burning CDs while saving up for an iPod. I grew up on early installments of the Warcraft, Halo, and Call of Duty franchises. I was barely a teenager when smartphones became popular, and I had mastered T9 texting on my beloved Motorola Razr, but I upgraded as soon as my parents let me. My MySpace page was meticulously customized, and I lied about my age to get a Facebook account when it still had separate networks for high schools and colleges.

When I was fifteen, I saw a classmate, now one of my best friends, programming in the computer lab after school. I asked him to show me what he was working on – an app that let you control your computer’s desktop from your phone – and I was hooked. I started taking computer science classes and working on independent projects. I liked how powerful computers were; the creativity, beautiful design, and rigorous thought that can go into programming them; and the fact that they enabled me, even as a high school student, to feel that I could build things that would be useful in the real, outside world. I thought tech companies and startups were universally awesome. When I left for university, it wasn’t a hard decision to major in computer science. I spent my first couple of summers doing tech internships, and later co-founded a small tech company of my own.

In the meantime, popular technology took an even more dominant role in my life. College brought mountains of people to meet, groups to join, and events to attend, and we organized almost everything on social media. Classes communicated via email and virtual learning environments. Most coursework, even for non-computer-scientists, involved a computer. Luckily, we had Netflix and YouTube to facilitate procrastination. In the wider world, more businesses and services went digital, social media became a dominant platform for pop culture and world affairs, and even real adults got addicted to screens. I welcomed these changes without thinking much about them. I would check my phone first thing in the morning before getting out of bed, last thing at night before drifting off to sleep, and reflexively every fifteen minutes or so, even if I hadn’t heard a notification. At any given moment, if I wasn’t actively engaged, there’s a good chance I would be messaging multiple people and browsing various feeds in the background.

Eventually I became tech-fatigued. The memes were great, but I was spending way too much time thinking about people, companies, news, and work that had disproportionately little impact on my real life. I could feel the lost time and mental bandwidth eating away at my ability to think clearly, live mindfully, and pursue my interests. It had even stopped making me feel good in the moment. Social media, which consumed much of my non-obligatory screen time, bothered me especially. I saw firsthand how, as its operators acquired users, importance, and advertising dollars on the path to becoming the world’s premier information brokers, they changed their platforms to give us less control over the content we see and to take up more of our time. I was disappointed that they used their considerable power to prioritize short-term profit over making useful products that respect consumers’ wellbeing. It would be so easy, from a technical perspective, to make better design choices.

I wanted to spend less time on my devices, but I was addicted. I tried and failed to make sweeping changes. I would do alright for a day or two, then fall back into old habits as soon as I got busy. The fact that it’s hard to survive in the modern world without using a computer at least a little bit each day also limited the possibilities for drastic action. I began to experiment with subtler, gradual changes that made it slightly more difficult to spend unintentional time on my devices. At first, I was more anxious with less screen time. I often caught myself yearning to check for updates, to feel connected. Eventually, though, the urges faded, and I enjoyed more freedom and less mental clutter. After about a year of experimentation and progress, I deleted all of my social media accounts. That was also a difficult change. Friends got annoyed when, in the early days of the transition, I would ask to borrow their phones to check what was happening online. But, again, I quickly noticed some significant benefits. My relationships with close friends and family got better, because, rather than passively consuming their updates, I had to make a conscious effort to connect with them. I was genuinely excited to see acquaintances, because I wasn’t pretending not to know when I asked them what’s new.

For all my efforts to reduce their presence in my personal life, my interest in computers didn’t fade. After college, I decided to pursue a master’s, then a PhD, in computer systems and security. I still worked on computers for most of the day, just more healthily. People often asked me, usually after discovering I had no social media presence, how a computer scientist could be so anti-tech. I would tell them I love computers – I just don’t like using them. Really, though, I’m okay with being a user. It’s becoming a usee that I want to avoid.

The following suggestions represent my most successful experiments: the changes I found most helpful in getting my relationship with digital devices under control. They are not strict rules, even if they’re presented that way for ease of expression. Please take what you like from them and leave what you don’t. You may have developed your habits long before all this craziness, and never felt the temptation of computer dependence or screen addiction. You may be happy with the way you currently use your devices – then who am I to tell you to change? I hope you find the ideas interesting all the same. And, if you do want to be more intentional about your computer use, I hope they provide a good starting point.

Segmentation Fault

Avoid using the same devices that you use for communication and web browsing to manage non-digital aspects of your life. If you depend on a single device too much in the physical world, you’ll frequently get sucked into the digital one.

Imagine you’re enjoying a book in the living room of your smart home. It’s starting to get dark, so you reach for your phone to turn on the lights. A pile of notifications immediately captures your attention. A group chat is blowing up because your friend broke their nose in a freak wakeboarding accident. A co-worker asks whether you remembered to follow up with that important client. A dating-app match tells you they can’t stand pineapple on pizza. Reflexively, you tap off some quick replies. You hope your friend feels better soon, you did follow up with that client, and, what a coincidence, you don’t like Hawaiian either. Fifteen minutes later, you’re all caught up with recent Instagram posts, but your living room isn’t any brighter. What were you doing again?

One way to mitigate this kind of assault on our attention is to separate the devices we use for digital communication and the tools we use in the real world. Here are some concrete suggestions about what this might look like in practice.

Get a real alarm clock. At home, I have an antique-style one that ticks and rings bells, and I take a small travel one with me on trips. Both can be bought cheaply. It’s so easy to use a phone as an alarm clock, but even if you put it into airplane or do-not-disturb mode, you’ll still have it in your hand first thing when you wake up. The urge to check notifications is hard to resist. Try to do some things in the morning before picking up your phone for the first time: shower, eat breakfast, go for a walk, commute to work, or talk to your housemates.

Keep a physical planner. I recommend using one in tandem with a digital calendar. Digital calendars are incredibly useful, but they also require you to be glued to your phone or computer to get a sense of what’s going on in your day. I keep one, but I only consult it to manage periodic events, and once a week to copy them into my planner. Physical planners, besides being nice to look at and use, are great because you can interact with them however you like: doodle, draw diagrams, scribble notes, put things inside, rip out part of a page to give your number to a stranger. And, at the end of the year, you’re left with a monument to your experience. If you adopt a similar system to mine, you’ll stop relying on your phone or computer for event reminders. You may also find that copying your schedule once a week and making more of an effort to remember events gives you a better mental model of how you spend time.

Don’t use your phone or computer to control household appliances. If you really need smart appliances, a reasonable solution is to use a dedicated device that lives in the home to control them all. But it may be worth asking whether smart toothbrushes and microwaves are really a good idea. A dedicated device at home is also a good way to manage music playback, especially if a record player isn’t your thing.

Fixed Points

Pick specific places in the home for laptops and phones to live. Their portability makes these devices extremely useful for getting things done on the go. At home, however, it’s a liability.

If you carry your phone or laptop around the house with you, you’re likely to check them reflexively and respond to notifications immediately. In addition to wasting time and interrupting the flow of your day with something that could have waited, this practice promotes restlessness. It makes you feel uncomfortable when your devices aren’t nearby. Untether yourself by leaving them in specific places when you aren’t using them. It’s harder to go into a different room to grab your phone than to pull it out of your pocket.

When you do use your phone or computer, keep them in specific places as much as possible. Anywhere you use them regularly will become associated with work, social media, and other online experiences that you may not want to give free reign over your living space.

If at all possible, avoid storing and using devices in your bedroom. It’s too easy to gravitate towards a phone or laptop when you’ve just woken up or are about to go to sleep.

When I’m at home, I usually keep my phone on a corner table in the living room. I charge it there, and I go there to use it if I want to send or check messages. If I’m actively having a conversation with someone, I’ll temporarily carry it around with me. My laptop normally lives plugged into an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. When I feel like a more social environment, or just want a change of scenery, I unplug it and bring it to the kitchen table.

When traveling, I store my phone and laptop as far from where I sleep as possible. If I can put them in a different room, even better. Another helpful practice when out of the house is to keep your phone in a small bag, like a backpack or purse, rather than a pocket. I’ve found that the slight decrease in convenience makes me much less likely to whip out my phone during an idle moment.

Cut the App

Download as few apps as possible. When you want to access an online service, and it’s possible to get a similar experience with web browser as you would with an app, a browser is the better choice.

The main reason to avoid apps is that they have greater access to your attention. For one thing, they reduce the friction associated with using a service. Apps are designed to keep you logged in, so it’s easy to open one and start scrolling without thinking. You can access the service more mindfully by using a web browser and logging out after each session. It doesn’t take too much longer to sign in the next time, but it’s just enough effort to make you think about what you’re doing and whether you really, intentionally mean to access the service. Apps can also send you notifications, which have a devastating effect on attention. Using a web browser as described above eliminates this concern.

Some services may try to force you into downloading an app by limiting the features or content available on the mobile version of their websites. This practice doesn’t reflect well on the service operator. You can get around these restrictions by configuring your mobile browser to request the desktop version of offending sites. Some services only have apps and don’t offer any kind of web interface – these are user-unfriendly at best.

Black, White, and Read All Over

Use screens in grayscale mode. Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of people suggest using device displays in black and white as an effective way to combat screen addiction. Colors on our screens, the theory goes, are so bright and vivid that, much like the loud, blinking lights that fill casinos, they deliver a dopamine rush. Muting them with a grayscale filter makes our devices less attractive and chemically addicting.

I was curious about the idea, so I tried enabling the grayscale filter on my phone. The screen was certainly less attractive, but I didn’t notice that it made the device itself any less addicting. I did, however, notice how impractical it was. Every time I wanted to interact with a photo or video, I had to dig through my phone’s settings once to turn off the grayscale filter and then again to turn it on when I was done. This lasted only a couple of days before I dismissed the idea as half-baked.

A few months later, I discovered iOS’ “Accessibility Shortcut” feature, which, on my old iPhone SE, allows you to configure an accessibility-related action to happen when you triple click the home button. I thought of the grayscale idea again and found that, with some fiddling, it’s possible to toggle the grayscale filter with the triple-click shortcut. On newer iPhones, you trigger the shortcut by triple clicking the side button, and other mobile platforms should allow you to map actions to shortcuts with much less trouble.

After some weeks of testing this more practical way to use the grayscale filter, I still didn’t find that it made my phone less inherently addicting. But it did make spending less time on my phone easier for a different, unexpected reason. Many of the useful things we interact with on our phones, like email, text-based messaging, and most websites, can be handled just fine in grayscale. On the other hand, much of the mindless, addicting content that we consume involves photos or videos that require color for full effect. The triple-click to switch out of grayscale mode is no problem at all when you want to take a picture or watch a video sent by a friend, but it’s just enough of a hurdle to give you presence of mind when you might otherwise have started idly scrolling.

I was happy to make using my phone in grayscale mode a permanent change, and I wondered whether I could do something similar on my laptop. macOS, like iOS, has a grayscale display filter, but it’s buried in menus, and there isn’t a straightforward way to map it to a shortcut. So, I made an app that lives in the status bar and allows you to toggle grayscale mode with a configurable key combination. I discovered, however, that this still wasn’t convenient enough to make using a laptop in grayscale practical. On a laptop, we tend to multitask by frequently switching between windows for different applications that are all open at the same time. We also use more applications that require colors to do useful work. Even with a keyboard shortcut, I had to manually toggle grayscale mode so often that it wasn’t worth it. Some time later, I came back to the problem and modified my app to have a default grayscale mode setting that can be overridden based on the currently active application. I now keep my computer in grayscale by default, but when I switch to an app like a code editor or a drawing program, the screen automatically switches to color. Just as with my phone, I now only have to manually toggle the grayscale filter when I want to look at a photo from a friend or a video on the Internet. You can download the app for free at https://github.com/brettferdosi/grayscale.

Do Not Disturb

Disable notifications for almost all of your apps. This is one of the simplest steps you can take to reduce your devices’ control over your attention, and it’s also one of the most effective.

Notifications are extremely useful. They allow us to have real-time text conversations without actively waiting for replies, and they keep us abreast of important things going on in the real world, like when there’s a flash flood warning or a flight gets delayed. In practice, however, they’re often abused by unimportant services making desperate appeals for our attention or money. Even if they don’t succeed in coercing you to open their app, they disrupt your train of thought and put your phone in your hand.

If we don’t take steps to manage our notifications, things can quickly get out of hand. Do we really need to be notified in real time about which stocks Elon Musk likes? And who on Earth gave Uber permission to interrupt our Thursday nights to ask whether we feel like ordering Thai food?

I recommend disabling all forms of notification for all but two kinds of app: apps for real-time communication, and well-behaved apps whose updates are valuable to know in real time. The only apps on my phone not for calling or messaging that can send me notifications are banking apps, because I want to know if an unauthorized transaction takes place, and apps for pre-booked transportation, because it’s useful to know about delays and itinerary changes as soon as possible. Apps for ad hoc transportation, like taxi or rideshare services, don’t need to send you notifications – they only have useful things to say while you’re waiting to be picked up or riding. It’s easy enough to check the app sporadically during those times.

If you’re afraid of disabling notifications because you may miss out on what’s happening online, you can set aside some times during the day to intentionally check the services that would have notified you. Even better, you can configure them to contact you by email, which won’t distract you with device notifications but will keep you in the loop.

Email is so important that it merits some additional discussion. For the most part, it doesn’t come with the expectation of real-time responses. We should fight to keep it that way, because while email isn’t real-time, we can turn off notifications for it. Good thing, too, because the number of emails we get each day is astronomical, and they come from all kinds of senders. With email notifications on, one minute we’d get an alert informing us that the New York Times daily briefing has arrived, the next that our coworker will be out of the office on Thursday, and shortly thereafter that our order of Yoga Mat Thick Essentials Fitness Exercise Easy-Cinch Carrier Strap has shipped. How would we get anything done? Disabling notifications and processing emails in batches a few times a day is liberating, and people will learn to contact you via instant message if there’s something that requires immediate attention. If making everyone wait for email responses isn’t realistic for you, you can use mail filters so that you only receive notifications for email from particular senders or about particular subjects.

* * *

Recently, after nearly four years without social media, I created some new accounts. While you’re unlikely to find me on TikTok anytime soon, not using any social media in today’s world comes with costs, especially during a global pandemic. Those costs were well worth paying as I tried to break my screen addiction, but I’m now able to enjoy the benefits of having social media without the urge to actually use it. I am constantly evaluating my relationship with technology and experimenting with new things to make it better. I try to keep an open mind.