all posts tagged 'digital life'

How to fix the internet

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I swear my blog isn’t going to just be links to think pieces about why the internet sucks these days.

It just so happens that there was a wave of these pieces published last year and I’m finally getting around to them in my Instapaper queue.

Two pull quotes stood out to me:

“Humans were never meant to exist in a society that contains 2 billion individuals,” says Yoel Roth, a technology policy fellow at UC Berkeley and former head of trust and safety for Twitter. “And if you consider that Instagram is a society in some twisted definition, we have tasked a company with governing a society bigger than any that has ever existed in the course of human history. Of course they’re going to fail.”

I’ve seen a few good posts about the difficulties of content moderation at scale.

On the one hand, most of the abundance and privilege we’ve built for ourselves wouldn’t be possible without the massive scale that large conglomerates can achieve.

On the other hand, if something gets so large that we are unable to keep your head wrapped around it, maybe that’s the point where it’s okay to let it collapse in on itself.

The destruction and collapse of large entities is awful, with very real consequences for people.

But it’s out of the ashes of these organizations when we're presented with an opportunity to take the lessons we learned and build something new. We get to try again.

The fix for the internet isn’t to shut down Facebook or log off or go outside and touch grass. The solution to the internet is more internet: more apps, more spaces to go, more money sloshing around to fund more good things in more variety, more people engaging thoughtfully in places they like. More utility, more voices, more joy. 

My toxic trait is I can’t shake that naïve optimism of the early internet. Mistakes were made, a lot of things went sideways, and there have undeniably been a lot of pain and misery and bad things that came from the social era. The mistake now would be not to learn from them. 

Keep the internet small and weird, my friends. ❤️

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Why the Internet Isn’t Fun Anymore

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Posting on social media might be a less casual act these days, as well, because we’ve seen the ramifications of blurring the border between physical and digital lives. Instagram ushered in the age of self-commodification online—it was the platform of the selfie—but TikTok and Twitch have turbocharged it. Selfies are no longer enough; video-based platforms showcase your body, your speech and mannerisms, and the room you’re in, perhaps even in real time. Everyone is forced to perform the role of an influencer. The barrier to entry is higher and the pressure to conform stronger. It’s no surprise, in this environment, that fewer people take the risk of posting and more settle into roles as passive consumers.

The overall message of this New Yorker article is that the internet isn’t fun because big tech platforms have turned the internet from a place you stumble upon quirky and novel content into a machine designed for no other purpose than to capture your attention and keep you hostage for as long as possible.

I feel like that’s so defeatist. Everyone keeps wanting to create “the next Facebook”, but what I’m looking for is “the next single topic, PHPBB-driven message board with ~400 regular posters.”

When I got my UMN email address in May of 2006, the first thing I did was sign up for Facebook. It was so cool to join a place where everybody was.

In the ten years that followed, though, it turned out that being in a place filled with everybody was pretty terrible.

I think in order to make the internet feel like it did in the early 2000s, we need to shrink, not grow. Specialize, not generalize. Be more digital nomads rather than live in untenable metropolises.

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On Disruption and Distraction

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Value-driven responses are not as immediately appealing as finding a hyper-charged digital escape, but these latter escapes inevitably reveal themselves to be transient and the emotions they’re obscuring eventually return. If you can resist the allure of the easy digital palliative and instead take on the heavier burden of meaningful action, a more lasting inner peace can be achieved.

I’ve been finding more and more ways to become detached from my devices the past couple weeks1, and believe it or not, it has been an unbelievable boon for my mental health.

Here is a short list of things I’ve done:

  • Turned on grayscale. I wanna find a way to wire this up to my shortcut button on my iPhone 15 Pro, but (a) too much work and (b) see my next bullet point.
  • Steeling my nerves to activate my Light Phone 2 that I got for Christmas. It’s a pretty big commitment to switch off the iOS ecosystem, but I’m getting close to trying it for a month or so.
  • Deleted most apps off my home screen. Everything is a swipe away anyways, so why not just have a barren screen that messes up your negative muscle memory?
  • Used a content blocker to block Reddit and LinkedIn. I can’t tell you what a relief it has been to not go down the politics rabbit hole this cycle so far, and that’s all because I blocked Reddit. LinkedIn is just as bad for me, and if I am going to keep building my network over there, I should try to be strategic about it and not mindlessly scroll it all day.

Tech is so, so cool, don’t get me wrong. But I, for one, am sick of being addicted to the allure of social media.

I’d rather spend my tech time building goofy websites and writing stuff.

  1. Except for the last three days, because I installed the Delta emulator for iOS and cannot stop playing Dr. Mario.  

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Happy 20th Anniversary, Gmail. I’m Sorry I’m Leaving You.

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I am grateful — genuinely — for what Google and Apple and others did to make digital life easy over the past two decades. But too much ease carries a cost. I was lulled into the belief that I didn’t have to make decisions. Now my digital life is a series of monuments to the cost of combining maximal storage with minimal intention.

I have thousands of photos of my children but few that I’ve set aside to revisit. I have records of virtually every text I’ve sent since I was in college but no idea how to find the ones that meant something. I spent years blasting my thoughts to millions of people on X and Facebook even as I fell behind on correspondence with dear friends. I have stored everything and saved nothing.

This is an example of what AI, in its most optimistic state, could help us with.

We already see companies doing this. In the Apple ecosystem, the Photos widget is perhaps the best piece of software they’ve produced in years.

Every single day, I am presented with a slideshow of a friend who is celebrating their birthday, a photo of my kids from this day in history, or a memory that fits with an upcoming event.

All of that is powered by rudimentary1 AI.

Imagine what could be done when you unleash a tuned large language model on our text histories. On our photos. On our app usage.

AI is only as good as the data it is provided. We’ve been trusting our devices with our most intimidate and vulnerable parts of ourselves for two decades.

This is supposed to be the payoff for the last twenty years of surveillance capitalism, I think?

All those secrets we share, all of those activities we’ve done online for the last twenty years, this will be used to somehow make our lives better?

The optimistic take is that we’ll receive better auto suggestions for text responses to messages that sound more like us. We’ll receive tailored traffic suggestions based on the way we drive. We’ll receive a “long lost” photo of our kid from a random trip to the museum.

The pessimistic take is that we’ll give companies the exact words which will cause us to take action. Our own words will be warped to get us to buy something we’ve convinced ourselves we need.

My hunch is that both takes will be true. We need to be smart enough to know how to use these tools to help ourselves and when to put them down.

I haven’t used Gmail as my primary email for years now2, but this article is giving me more motivation to finally pull the plug and shrink my digital footprint.

This is not something the corporations did to me. This is something I did to myself. But I am looking now for software that insists I make choices rather than whispers that none are needed. I don’t want my digital life to be one shame closet after another. A new metaphor has taken hold for me: I want it to be a garden I tend, snipping back the weeds and nourishing the plants.

My wife and I spent the last week cleaning out our garage. It reached the point where the clutter accumulated so much that you could only park one car in it, strategically aligned so you could squeeze through a narrow pathway and open a door.

As of this morning, we donated ten boxes of items and are able to comfortably move around the space. While there is more to be done, the garage now feels more livable, useful, and enjoyable to be inside.

I was able to clear off my work bench and mount a pendant above it. The pendant is autographed by the entire starting defensive line of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings.

Every time I walk through my garage, I see it hanging there and it makes me so happy.

Our digital lives should be the same way.

My shame closet is a 4 terabyte hard drive containing every school assignment since sixth grade, every personal webpage I’ve ever built, multiple sporadic backups of various websites I am no longer in charge of, and scans of documents that ostensibly may mean something to me some day.

Scrolling through my drive, I’m presented with a completely chaotic list that is too overwhelming to sort through.

Just like how I cleaned out my garage, I aught to do the same to this junk drawer.

I’ll revert to Ezra’s garden metaphor here: keep a small, curated garden that contains the truly important and meaningful digital items to you. Prune the rest.

(Shout out to my friend Dana for sharing this with me. I think she figured out my brand.)

  1. By today’s standards. 

  2. I use Fastmail. You should give it a try (that link is an affiliate link)! 

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We Spoke With the Last Person Standing in the Floppy Disk Business

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Imagine it’s 1990, and you’re building a big industrial machine of one kind or another. You design it to last 50 years and you’d want to use the best technology available. At the time this was a 3.5-inch floppy disk.

Take the airline industry for example. Probably half of the air fleet in the world today is more than 20 years old and still uses floppy disks in some of the avionics. That’s a huge consumer.

There’s also medical equipment, which requires floppy disks to get the information in and out of medical devices.

The biggest customer of all is probably the embroidery business though. Thousands and thousands of machines that use floppy disks were made for this, and they still use these.

There are even some industrial companies that still use Sony Mavica cameras to take photographs.

I found some floppy disks at my parents house a few years back and was able to get nearly all the data off of them.

One included photographs taken by a Sony Mavica.

This whole article made me appreciate the impermanence of our digital lives, and is also making me consider getting some photo books printed.

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My awakening moment about how smartphones fragment our attention span

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I anticipated navigating other challenges, like how to deal with the cognitive dissonance of working for big tech. Could someone who worked for big tech use a flip phone? Yet I liked the idea, argued by Hari, Williams, and Newport, that we need to be aware of technology’s designs and ensure that tech is working for us rather than against us. I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to technical innovations, but I grew increasingly skeptical that my smartphone was working for me.

This whole article combines many disparate sources (like Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism and Rolf Dobelli's Stop Reading the News) into a cohesive manifesto for why we should stand up and reclaim our collective attention spans.

It actually motivated me to take some action.

Last night, I went through every app on my phone and deleted the ones I no longer use. I wasn't too picky though; if I had even a slight inkling that I might need it in the future, I kept it.

I went from 314 apps to 133.

133 still seems like too much to me, but just imagine the cognitive and infrastructural burden that 181 apps was inflicting on me and my phone!

All that wasted bandwidth to download updates.

All those wasted notifications attempting to get me to come back in.

My home screen went from this:

An iPhone home screen with tons of apps on it

to this:

An iPhone home screen with far fewer apps on it

It's step one of being intentional with my technology, which is subsequently the first step towards getting my attention back.

Comparing these two screen shots is making me excited to make more cuts. Some of these apps will go away after we wrap up with a client project in the next couple weeks (like Teams and Protect) or when I finish up physical therapy (like Medbridge Go).

Others (like Untappd or MN Beer) are ones that don't really need a front page billing all the time in my life.

More cuts to come in the weeks ahead, to be sure!

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What If We Just Stopped Being So Available?

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In all the texts, emails, and Slack messages I’ve sent in my life, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve apologized for my delay. But looking back, I can say that only once did I truly mean it: I was a full four months late in responding to a long and thoughtful email I had received from a reader. But here in this public forum, I would like to retract all of my other previous apologies. I am not sorry for my delay, and I don’t expect you to be either.

I’ve been getting better about not apologizing for delays in my messages, but after reading this post (and especially after reading the last paragraph I shared above), I’m going to stop apologizing for delays altogether.

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A historical change has taken place, and I've now realized it. Stuff used to be valuable, and now it's not.

After moving a half dozen times in the past couple years, I believe I've gotten better at not accumulating stuff. My biggest issue is getting rid of digital "stuff" (e.g. music I'll get around to hearing, full-res photos of dumb things I've done that I might use some day).

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