A quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life.

Subjective Ethics

Do what is right.

Seems simple enough when I’m contemplating this question to myself. But as I’ve moved through life, it seems the definition of ‘right’ has become increasingly subjective. It’s both troubling and fascinating. Why and how do we see something that is so absolute to each of us… so differently from one another?

I grew up in a house where I felt like the difference between right and wrong was pretty clear. My mom referred to the Bible from time to time when looking to back up her case on morality, although we were never particularly churchy. She is a good person and her belief system seems to be based on what her parents taught or demonstrated—by extension, we were to follow her example. In any case, it was hard to follow as a kid.

My dad was what I would consider extremely principled. By no means infallible, he certainly had my respect and in the years since his death, I’ve reflected back on why. I think it is because he knew who he was and what he needed to do and there was simply no doubt. What was right was obvious and the whole world revolved around that. It wasn’t so much spiritual as it was just fact—like science—one abided what was right because it was. The end.

As I’ve grown up, vegetarianism, courtesy, and even The Off Switch are to me demonstrations of doing what I believe is right. They are their own reward, and often living in support of their tenets brings hardship, but they are still worth it. As an example, I consciously limit my use of technology because I believe the unbridled use of technology is wrong. It can supersede other people’s needs, my needs, and clouds my judgement in many situations.

This week, I’m participating in a panel organized by a group called the Austin Emerging Arts Leaders on “Ethics and Conflict Resolution”. When I agreed, I thought that I might have something to say about those things, but didn’t give it a lot of consideration. As the event got closer, however, I really started thinking about it.

I came up through nonprofits before starting a business with my wife. As anyone that has ever run their own company knows, it is a path fraught with peril, harrowing decisions, and myriad opportunities to tuck away one’s scruples for the sake of profit or survival. Over the past 8 years since we opened our doors, I’ve learned some hard lessons. Key among those are about ethics and human nature.

This may sound horribly pessimistic, but I really just mean it pragmatically: I’ve come to believe that most people do not operate from a concrete sense of right and wrong. Rather, the majority of people I encounter seem to rearrange the universe or situation according to 1) what they feel like they should be doing due to appearances, 2) what they can get away with, and 3) what makes them feel good about themselves. Sometimes they rationalize behavior based on religion, business or organizational rules, or even precedents, but my observation is that they actually boil down to the aforementioned drivers. Certainly, people want to think they are doing what’s right, but rarely see people do what is ethical if it doesn’t uphold one of the above points.

Furthermore, and this totally relates to this blog’s core purpose, I see people’s sphere of obligation (that’s what I call the distance around us in which we feel responsible for preserving other people’s rights and considering their needs) shrinking to the point where it’s practically arm’s length. Think about it. It used to be when you were out in the world, it was Society with a capital S and that meant you spoke with certain people, left others alone, and you belonged to those with whom you were sharing space. Cut to present day, we’re all so wrapped up in our devices, we have come to disregard those standing by us. If they don’t like us bumping into them, talking loud by them, ignoring them, and generally being absorbed… well, too bad.

By extension, and maybe even as a correlation, we are not mindful of boundaries when it comes to ethics . This is troubling as a business owner in that I try to treat people right and always be ethical in my dealings. That most people do not reciprocate is disappointing, but not a deterrent. You’d think that I would give up, but to me there’s no pleasure or meaning in getting ahead in business or life if you’ve done so by cutting corners on ethics (—so I guess my motivations are as selfish as any).

Doubly troubling is a lack of ethics in the nonprofit realm, where there is a reasonable expectation that people act as stewards of public, donor, and stakeholder trust. Everyone involved is purportedly there for the mission. That’s what I thought when I went to work for my first nonprofit in 1999, but quickly learned that nonprofit staffs are often split into two, roughly equal camps: those who are upstanding, ethical people there in the service of the mission and those who are in nonprofits because of less than benevolent reasons. It’s a dicey dynamic to be sure, because while the latter group isn’t actively cheating, they are a little looser with the do’s and don’ts of nonprofit ethics. Often times there’s a sense of “eh, nobody’s going to notice so let’s just let it slide.”

This dovetails with conflict resolution (the other half of the panel’s topic) which is another aspect of our work lives muddied by technology. How many times have we written or read something in an email that is contentious that never would have been spoken face to face. Or what about the ‘cover your ass’ mentality of putting something in writing vs. agreeing face to face. We’re all guilty of it, but it’s a real problem—in business and in life. To the extent technology keeps us from doing what is right, we should not be leaning on that technology.

As I think about this panel and I think about business and as I think about being an adult in general, I marvel at how with so many motivations and senses of right and wrong—and as each of us struggles to survive and to find our place in things—we manage to honor one another at all. I suppose it’s a natural evolution of our caveman days to the Wild West through mutually assured destruction:

Be as good as you need to be so that something bad doesn’t happen. We all just have a different tolerance for “bad”, I guess.

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September marks 4 years of The Off Switch and 4 years of my quest to curb the role of technology in my daily life. A lot has happened in that time—personally, with technology, and in public sensibility—and with Apple’s announcement of the Apple Watch this week, it seemed like a good time to look back and to look forward.

The first year of this journey was marked with a lot of big changes for my tech configurations. I dumped the iPhone, dumped the laptop, got a data-less QWERTY-phone, stopped doing work nights/weekends, and severely truncated my online activity near sleepy times. The change for me was instantly rewarding.

As the months and years have come and gone, I’ve adapted my plan. One example: after finding that I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get basic information like contacts and calendar info on and off my new-to-me “dumb-phone”, I switched back to the iPhone but still without data. And I’m spending more time than optimal online in the evenings. But what hasn’t changed is being offline when out and about and largely unavailable to work emails after hours.

Current set-up is a desktop at work only, an iPad Mini, and a neutered iPhone 4.

A long-time friend of mine and I have a long-running tradition: we watch Apple announcement events together and play arm-chair analyst. He lives in another state now so we do FaceTime or text while the news rolls out and speculate on how we would/will or wouldn’t/won’t be buying any particular device or service. Naturally, as I started The Off Switch, our opinions have diverged, but we both still enjoy speculating. He ususally gets the latest and greatest each time, by the way.

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When the Apple Watch was announced, and the details of how it would work were unveiled, our conversation went something like this:

HIM: That looks awesome! Don’t you want one?
ME: I want one, but I probably won’t get one.
HIM: I get it.
ME: Maybe… the bigger iPhone 6 Plus (the “phablet”) could replace my iPad and my phone and my wallet.
HIM: Right!
ME: And I guess the Apple Watch would keep my phone put away such that I could do most of the limited things I take it out for now (calls, music, text, and directions).

Quickly my mind went to my wife’s phone, how she could get the new iPhone 6 and maybe I could take her iPhone 5, use it with no data, pair it with the watch, but then that wouldn’t change the iPad Mini…

Old habits die hard.

While the impulse to rationalize and upgrade is powerful, it’s really more of a fun diversion. I doubt I’ll be making any changes soon. But I have also been known to change my mind if I think a new set-up will improve the distractions and simplify. The bigger thing I am pondering right now is this idea of wearable tech, specifically a smart-watch. Generally, I don’t like having more devices on my person—with the beeping and the buzzing and the hey hey hey. Certainly, settings could eliminate a lot of that, but then it would essentially be a really expensive wristwatch. And I don’t wear a watch.

And if one’s goal is to have less distractions, interruptions, and needless bother, then is it preferable to have a phone tucked away that rarely comes out with a watch playing as the notifier ON YOUR BODY. Or is it better to just have the phone tucked away. I tend to think the latter.

Okay, upgrade avoided. An Apple Watch doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense for me. I’ll still have to think on the big phone as single device idea. Since I don’t spend a lot of time on my phone currently unless I’m reading or blogging like I am now, the goofiness of holding a huge phone up is not as much of an issue. But then I have to consider, does it make sense to fork over $500+ for a no-contract phone when I have no intention of using most of it’s features. Seems kind of gratuitous.

In any case, 4 years in and no plans of stopping for me. I’d be curious to know in what ways you limit the role of technology in your life… if any. Let me know in the comments.

Selfie-Serving

Going along to get along. This is something I have a problem with. I’ve got a lot of personal rules and standards that I stubbornly refuse to yield on. To me, it’s sticking to my own sense of propriety while stemming the tide against our shrugging, go-with-the-flow culture of whatever. To people I’m close with, I think it can be really annoying.

Last night, my wife and I went out for a really nice meal at an uber-hip sushi place. We stopped for a drink beforehand then made our way to the restaurant to claim our reservation. This place is beautiful with the very best and knowledgeable servers, an environment that is thoughtfully put together, and food that is the stuff of last meals. We were relaxed and feeling fortunate to be there.

Then my wife wanted to take a selfie of us standing in the middle of the restaurant.

Drag the needle across the record. I told her plainly that I didn’t want to do that. It took about 30 minutes for our date night to recover. In her view, she was just trying to have fun and I was crapping on her parade. In my view, taking a photo in a really nice eatery is not something I do. Even though lots of people were distracted on their phones or taking group photos, I believe that I should be respectful of other people’s evenings and the owner’s attention to detail and to my own sense of this being a special occasion.

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My wife says I was an asshole about it. Maybe she was right. Perhaps I has snippy about it. I can’t really remember. Aside from our interpersonal dynamic, I feel like the use of a smartphone unless you are by yourself should be done in deference of those around us. “Mind if I check my phone?” “Sorry, do you mind if I take this call?” “Do you want to do a selfie right now?” We wouldn’t whip out a laptop or a DSLR camera in a really nice restaurant, so why is a bright-screened phone okay?

For me, it goes back to that sense of forced interruption. It’s one thing to have the option to get the phone out for whatever made-up reason. It’s another thing entirely when you are having an experience and technology is thrust upon you.

But this is where I wonder… should I have just gone with it? It would have taken 5 seconds to pose and be done with it, making my wife happy and probably nobody would have noticed or cared. Furthermore, my insistence didn’t mean anything to anyone but myself. It is not as though somebody else was going to stand up and start a movement. “You know what? That guy is right. What are we all doing with our faces in our phones when we should be soaking up this fabulous meal. Come on everyone, let’s put our phones away!”

As with most things, the answer is probably someplace in between my standard and reality. I could have said “sure, let’s go out front” or maybe I should have just grabbed her and kissed her and told her that I just want to remember this moment.

There’s something that’s really been bothering me and I need to get it off my chest. And let me preface this by saying that I don’t think this is particular to me and my idiosyncratic, self-imposed tech boundaries. This seems to me to be a matter of basic manners, once you give it some thought.

In the world of professional (and possibly personal) communications, there’s some new conventional wisdom that goes something like this: if an email gets too long, pick up the phone. Or: if you’re emailing something you wouldn’t say in person, don’t email it, call or meet. Today, I want to add one: texting is not an appropriate mode of communication for contentious or stressful messages.

Think about it. Someone calls you, and you’ve got the opportunity to let it go to voicemail or to answer it depending on if you want to have that conversation. Someone emails you and you choose when you are on email and if you want to read that email right then. But someone texts you and BOOM you are reading the message. It’s just the nature of texts. Ready or not, they pop up and tell you what they are.

SO USE THAT PRIVILEGE SPARINGLY AND THOUGHTFULLY.

Most sensible people wouldn’t just burst into a room or but into a conversation to start telling you a bunch of stressful shit. Rather, the thing to do is to say, “hey, is this a good time?” or “let me know when you can talk about something.” This involves about 20 more seconds of your time, but saves the recipient the moment-derailing interruption should they not care to hear about it.

Meanwhile, even though texting is a way my wife and I communicate about childcare and his diabetes management during the day, I’m strongly considering trying to alter my text app settings to filter out work messages or to have them not pop up. Either that or I’m going to have to stop giving our my cell phone. Because it seems like what should be common sense has become a blurred line.

After all, why wait for a reply to an email when you can just text and get the answer right this very second.

Yesterday, I went over to Google News for my daily perusal to find that the top story was “‘Handsome’ mug shot of California felon goes viral”. The top story. This punctuated a sense that I need to find a new way to get my news.

It is a troubling trend, the Buzzfeeding of our information. It seems that in the past several years, our appetite for longer form news or even short form news of substance has diminished to the point where we half pay attention to animated gifs and top lists, giving them our precious clicks/taps, which tells advertisers and editors that this is what we want: crap. Seth Godin tied a bow on it in his blog post this week: In Search of Meaningful.

For all the reasons Godin points out, it makes sense how this has happened. But I am left contemplating what will be the longterm outcome. Sometimes I feel like a majority under 50 or so are lost to their smartphones, to Facebook, and to junk news. Gazing, sharing, up-voting, re-playing, and on and on. We’re losing our sense of perspective, hierarchy, and even of factuality. The result seems to be that we all amble around knowing the trending viral videos and sensational headlines of the day, but not the news or even what’s based in verified reporting.

As with most things, I try to focus on what I can do rather on what others can’t. Like the movie Idiocracy, is coming true and it is frightening. So I’m working to change my settings.

What I want is less news, less of the time, and only news that actually matters. It seems as though even the newspapers of the highest standards have turned their websites into the content equivalent of KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combos. Most days I read my city’s paper on the iPad… the print layout digitally. At least this saves me from the bulk of the junk that fills most news sites. But I do want other perspectives. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for a new news portal that isn’t all celebrity gossip and click-bait.

And for my part, I’ve stopped clicking on the crap. It may be fighting the tide, but at the least it spares me the inanity.

One of the more challenging, thusly rewarding, parts of The Off Switch is when a contentious communication happens right before I leave work. Since I turn off work email everywhere when I leave the office for the day, I just have to wait and wonder until the morning when I get back to the office.

Of course, that is exactly what everybody did before email and before smartphones especially. We all turned if off and while we may have gone over it in our heads, there was no action. Cut to now: while I may shut down, others don’t and so I am left wondering what I will awake to in the morning.

Like many Buddhist-ish pursuits, a discipline such as limiting technology is its own reward. While I still may be mulling a response in my head, I am not sending it. I’m looking into the face of my child, reading news, and otherwise not being hasty. And that’s good.

For me, it is an exercise in knowing what I can control and what I cannot. It also circumvents expending a bunch of time and energy that are ultimately fruitless.

Incommunicado…

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I’ve come to the conclusion that constant access to devices, the internet, and social media is not making us stupider… it’s making our stupidity more readily evident. Certainly, many are losing the mental agility to reason or to summon up things from their memory, but I’m talking more about fundamental world views, ideas about fellow man, etc.

How many times since the rise of Facebook, for instance, have you had a face-palm moment about a childhood friend or family member espousing an abhorrent religious-based or politically charged opinion? It’s so disappointing to discover that loved ones we assume are enlightened or at least tolerant are actually not only harboring hateful or self-serving/righteous views, but they are unashamed to proclaim them online.

I do think it is worth considering the merits of our lives and the internet reflections of our lives not becoming too silo’d. It is for that reason that I have put off unfriending or hiding the feeds of Facebook friends that “love the sinner, hate the sin” for instance or who border on racism with a vitriolic hatred of Barack Obama.

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This came to a head for me a few months back, when a cousin who lives a decidedly more country life than I, posted a photo of that Duck Dynasty fellow saying that she supported him. I was in bed sick, and not thinking all that clearly, but I was hurt and angered nonetheless. I commented, that I loved her and her family but that I supported both my brothers and my brother’s 20+ year partner, her sister, her sister’s longtime partner, our late aunt, and on and on – tagging them all. It was immature and punitive. I was pissed and wanted to call her out.

By the morning, she’d deleted the whole post with my comments, unfriended me and my brother’s partner, and posted a string of “marriage is one man and one woman” crap. I was incredulous as were many others in the family. I was called upon to make up and to make sure my aunt wasn’t angry. I just waited.

Before social media, texting, or even email, how would this have played out? I would have had to call or write her a letter to express my displeasure. My tone would have been much softer, if I had even spoken up at all. But of course, I would have likely never been privy to her views on the subject. Not only that, but she probably developed a lot of her views on Mr. Duck Dynasty and the idea that he was “expressing his faith” on social media.

I thought on this a lot. Especially as another cousin posted something vaguely bigoty a month or so later. While I do think it is important to speak up on the big issues that affect social views and our society, I also weigh this against the pointlessness of alienating those we wish to influence or enlighten. Had I not used Facebook to lob a flaming bag of shit into her post comments, she wouldn’t have shut down. What I should have done was to pick up the phone and told her that I loved her and that I know she loved our gay family members. Then we could have had a conversation rather than a pissing match.

About 4 months later, I emailed her an apology – not for disagreeing with her but for hiding behind the internet to embarrass her. She accepted my apology and her reasoning for the post was very telling and I am still trying to process it. She said that she was just trying to raise her kids according to the teaching of the bible. I am no biblical scholar, but I wonder where it says to forsake half a dozen family members in favor of a reality TV personality looking to drum up publicity.

She’ll probably never read this post, but if she does, I hope she knows that I respect her instinct to protect her family. And while I disagree with her viewpoint and hate that the Duck Dynasty post drove a wedge between us, I am thankful that it caused me to reflect on my own lazy habits. Trolling the internet and bullying people is just as ugly no matter what your agenda.

Lesson: sleep on it then pick up the phone. It might just change a mind and save a relationship.

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