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

I’ve got a nagging suspicion that how we behave behind the wheel is a pretty good indication of how we act otherwise. Sealed away from other people—excluding stink-eye—we are quasi anonymous and tend to let our true nature come out. There are the benevolent ways like singing broadway tunes at the top of our lungs or waving at dogs… but then there are the uglier sides of ourselves.

January 1, Austin, Texas outlawed holding devices while we drive. I know, ’bout time, right?! We’ll see how the enforcement of that unfolds, but I am most fascinated by the reactions I read about in the paper and on social media. They generally go like “it is totally unreasonable that I drive from A to B without checking my phone! I need to be in touch!!”

What hits me about this idea is both its prevalence and how illogical it is… when you really break it down. As I often joke, unless you are an organ courier or a high-stakes stock broker, when do you NEED to get any call—much less a text? Think about it. Let’s consider a worst case scenario: driving to work and stuck in traffic, you get a text that your kid is really sick at school and you need to come as soon as possible. Or your sibling was gravely injured in an accident and the in-laws need your advice. Or the cops are at your house.

Wouldn’t these people call if they needed action or an answer right then? Or if they decided to text, isn’t it reasonable that you could just react/respond when you got to where you are going? I have a child with type one diabetes (a condition which has a risk of severe low-blood sugars leading to coma or death) and I don’t feel compelled to check every text immediately. Again, if it is urgent or life/death, I know I’ll get a call.

One of the initial and recurring realizations of cutting out a lot of the alerts and constant distractions of my phone is that most of those notices are really not that important. It doesn’t matter that I was just mentioned on Twitter or that a celebrity just died or that a client is upset or that our bank balance is low. I mean, some of those things matter later, but they are not truly time-sensitive. We tell ourselves (and each other) that they require swift action, but I have found that urgent is as urgent does. The world does not stop if we don’t answer a text. It does, however, slow down.

What I mean by that is the boomerang effect of interacting on messaging or social media channels drops off when I am not pushing the food pellet lever. This goes back to my theory about car habits and our true selves. If we get behind the wheel and are self-absorbed to the point of compromised safety for ourselves and others (oh, I HAVE to reply to this), then we need to take a long, hard at our priorities.
And by we I also mean me. I won’t lie… when the law went into effect, I thought to myself, “now it’s time to truly stop”. Mostly I have been disciplined about not using my phone while driving, but I had been taking calls in our older car without a speakerphone set-up and occasionally would start or finish a text while driving. I know.

For me, this self-assessment also goes beyond the phone. Am I driving in a way that is safe and is a good example for my son? Am I letting people merge in moments after I am furious that someone wouldn’t let me in? Aside: one has to wonder if early merging and late merging is a predictor of other behavior. Overall, what much of our digital bad habits point to is our low resistance to new social norms that make us increasingly selfish. Something about technology has a way of out-sizing its own importance. This is apparent in the “I’m on the phone!” attitude when people are, in fact, driving or in line someplace. Being on the phone is a secondary or tertiary luxury, not an inalienable right. The optimist in me believes people want to be a part of a civil and compassionate society. Then the pragmatist in me reminds the optimist to look around.

So, while this new hands-free law slowly becomes the new world order in my town, I am wondering about the logistics of a citizen’s arrest. But I am also wonder about where this road is taking us. In the rear-view mirror is an old-fashioned sense of ‘a time and place for such behavior’ and up ahead is probably more legislating people into good sense decisions. In the end, each of us has to decide how we want the world to become and if risking people’s lives is worth just one… more… Tweet.

Tweeting from Glass Houses

There’s something that seems to be happening more and more—and it’s pissing me off. Broadly speaking, they call it “cyber bullying” but more specifically, this is somewhat of a local phenomenon. Hyper-local-cyber-bullying? Or is it just bullying?

A few years ago as belligerent blog/news commenters became the norm, there was a new, growing, troubling trend of people not only airing their grievances about local businesses online, but primarily or exclusively doing so and using their chosen platform as a bully pulpit. Think Yelp. Think #GamerGate. Think The Oatmeal. Certainly, the anonymity and distance that the internet provides us is a convenient way to say a bunch of things we wouldn’t otherwise say—in a way we wouldn’t otherwise say them. More and more, I’ve sat by and watched people become shittier and shittier to one another. It was one thing when it was ‘society’ in general. But then it was people I knew.

I first moved to Austin in 1980 as a kid and grew up here until high school, returning for college. Over the years, the quality I have most identified with this town is the friendliness. Sure, it has become less-so over the years—ever so gradually—but still, the more I go other places, the more I’ve come to appreciate how good most Austinites are to one another. Not nice in that bless-your-heart, Southern sort of way, but genuinely decent. Even to this day, I am affronted when someone does something dishonest or gross to someone. Call me old fashioned, but it just seems so… un-Austin.

I think that’s why it has bothered me especially that, over the past month or so, I have watched as people I know and respect are using social media to slam people and small businesses right here in their own city. The Strange Fruit PR debacle was a really good example. To sum up, a couple of hapless, local, young women stepped in it royally with their racially insensitive name—getting negative national attention in the media and on Twitter—and the collective response locally was… “serves them right.” I think partially it was because it was fun to pile on and partially because people were afraid to take a stand. It’s much easier to be on the side of the angry mob.

Right now, there’s another thing bubbling up between two people I happen to know. I won’t go into particulars but—in essence—the instigator has taken to social media to mercilessly lambaste something the other did. Purportedly, it is all done for the greater good. But if that’s the case, why all the slander and mud-slinging? If you care about a business, or a cause, or a principle… why not contact the person that you perceived to have crossed you or a line and work it out? ESPECIALLY locally, we should care enough about decorum (and having stones cast at us) to just reach out and connect. Then here’s a radical idea: keep it to yourself. GASP! I know, it might be unheard of to not broadcast a social slight or a retail turnaround saga, but it might just be the right thing to do.

Of course the reason people don’t do that is that their intentions are largely disingenuous. They want attention, free stuff, a perception that they are more savvy/righteous, etc. I’ve been tempted myself. Once I sent a complaint tweet about Bird’s Barbershop, only to get a direct message, email, then call from the manager and a complimentary haircut with all the trimmings. All because I didn’t pay attention to the policy and bitched about it. You know how it made me feel? Like an asshole.

So, the next time you are out in the world and you see/experience something that just sticks in your craw, here’s what I suggest you do: give the person or entity the benefit of the doubt and bring it up right then there, follow up with an email later, or just rise above it.

People that live in glass houses don’t want rocks thrown at them. They just want people to look at their every move.

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A black and white world…

Two months ago today, Apple killed the iPod. You probably didn’t read much about it unless you follow tech blogs. They are still selling a few other models of the revered music player, but the “iPod Classic”—the last in the line of iPods that started it all—is no more.

Scroll back to 2004 when, in my humble opinion, I actually think the iPod peaked, this i before they added a color screen. It may seem like a silly viewpoint, but it makes perfect sense to me. Let me explain.

We still have three old iPods lying around and they still get used. There’s a iPod mini in the kid’s room (which used to play lullabies but he now has by his bed with headphones), there’s an old Nano that’s charging up as I write this for the boy to start carrying around, and we use the 3rd generation iPod in the car plugged into the stereo. This one…

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While it’s been a decade ago, I still have strong memories of first using that music player. I was already into technology, but since I had no cell phone, I was not carrying anything around. Like most people, I had given up on portable CD players and tried a crappy MP3 player, but the iPod was—of course—a revelation.

Looking back, I realize how it was in many ways the perfect little device. I got the 40 GB one, so it held my entire music library. As you may remember, it had Contacts, Notes (read only), Calendar, and a few little Atari-like games, and a small two-tone screen. Still, the power of carrying around all that music was mesmerizing.

I had my first downtown job and would walk on my lunch breaks and just listen to music. I might fool with it a little to choose new songs, but since the screen had all the graphical appeal of an early Casio watch, it was not something one would gaze into… especially given that there was no internet on it. You put in the headphones and just soaked up the music. It was incredible.

Like many other gadget happy people, I wished for the day that Apple would make a phone so I could combine the cell phone my job eventually insisted I carry with my iPod. I even bought the Motorola ROKR because it had iTunes. What I couldn’t forsee at the time was that once the screens went to color and there were photos to look at and album art and then (with the iPhone) the Internet and apps—what was once so magical became a sort of trap.

Fast forward to today. On what was probably an unstoppable march towards more devices that do more and more, color and everything that came after it were product features that would sell and we would gobble up eagerly. We’d not only want these things but we would believe we needed the 1-2 new models of iPod per year, the iPhone, the next iPhone, the iPad, and next the Apple Watch.

They are neat devices that do a lot of cool things and some of them actually useful, but I can’t say that—for me—after the original iPods that they really added anything to my life. I thought they did, but they didn’t. The other features started subdividing my attention and making me want more than just music.

As people do when they get to a certain age, I find myself longing for a time before things got so complicated and out of touch with simpler times. Inevitably, I find myself longing for a black and white world… filled with only music.

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.

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