So there’s this thing called Medium, and I thought I’d use it to see if it’s a good, well, medium. I’ve posted a couple of things there, and I’m not planning on deleting them or anything, but I’m not planning on writing anything else there. A lot of what I’ve seen up on Medium (or, at least, what gets promoted to the top) hasn’t been as a good as the design. I like the design. And it has all these high hopes and aspirations that I think aren’t being fulfilled. Part of me is grossed-out (for lack of a better word) by this post and it’s proximity to this. But I’m not saying you shouldn’t use Medium because of a philosophical disagreement. That sort of ethical purity is hard to maintain in practice.
One thing I did write on Medium was about my desire to turn off notifications. That experiment has failed. It failed in part because some programs make turning off notifications damn near impossible (I’m lookin’ at you Facebook). But it also failed because it didn’t really stop me from being occasionally distracted.
This has become especially clear to me over the last couple of weeks. There have a series of Big Damn Deals happening in my life (both personally and professionally), the kinds of things that cause you send anxious emails to people at odd hours of the day because some of those people are in your same time zone and some aren’t and some issues need to be dealt with, like, yesterday, and some are just dramatic, blah blah blah. Nothing too serious, of course; I’m a pretty boring guy in my personal life, and my job isn’t exactly brain surgery. But when you send an email out at 5:38 p.m. on some random Tuesday and you know the response will dictate how irritating Wednesday morning is going to be, no matter how much you’d rather walk an imaginary dog up and down your hallway with your two-year-old daughter, you’re going to be obsessively checking your phone.
Two things I’ve learned: (1) notifications serve a function; and (2) it’s my own damn fault.
On the first point, here’s the deal. If I actually do need to check my email while walking an imaginary dog, if I had notifications turned on, all I’d need to do is turn the phone on an see whether or not I’ve got one of those bright red numbers in a circle. No number, no email. Put the phone back in the pocket and pick up that invisible leash. Without notifications, there’s the whole business of actually turning the phone on, opening the app, etc., etc. It’s more time consuming and more distracting. Notifications can actually be useful. Sometimes.
On the second point — and I can’t believe I find myself saying this because it seems so obvious and stupid — it’s just a fucking phone. It’s a tool. A piece of technology. It is not surgically implanted into my head. No one is forcing me to use it. I actually am in control of my life, and if there’s no reason to be checking email, phones can be set aside in favor of invisible animals and tea parties. It’s called will power. Or self control. Or, oh, I don’t know. Being human.
There’s two things that have been on my mind of late, neither of which I really have time for, so maybe this will serve as the basis for later posts. First, there’s the way many commentators throw out phrases decrying “kids these days” and their Facebooks and their Twitters and their whatchamacallits as a too-easy dismissal of changing culture and technology. The dismissal, apart from reeking of old-man agism, suggests that all these new-fangled technologies are, by their nature, not only negative but the root cause of all our social ills. No. Technology is not blame. An iPhone is a lifeless collection of glass and plastic. It has no agency. Only persons have agency. Technology is not the problem; people are. And dismissing technology lets people off the hook.
Second, there’s this thing that Don Slater pointed out — like fifteen years ago! — about the distinction we make between “online” and “offline,” and how this distinction leads to the sense that “online” is a “place,” a location, a world to which we go that has its own rules and culture. This is weird, because the Internet is just another collection of technologies and tools that we use. But rather than extending the metaphor of the tool to, say, Reddit, we extend the metaphor of place. We don’t talk about social media in the same metaphorical sense the way we talk about other types of media like the New York Time, for example. We use the metaphor of place for social media. Social media spaces are locations we visit whose inhabitants are playing by different cultural mores than those we play by in meat space. This distinction seems dangerous to me. Again, briefly, I think it lets people off the hook for ethical behavior and self-control by suggesting that who they are online has no connection to who they are offline. Which is patently absurd.
There is no offline. Just ask this guy.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my imaginary tea is ready. Mmm, tasty.