Essays on Technology and Culture

Don’t Shit In The Punchbowl

I want you to imagine you’re at a party. Not a great party, more like one of those dull work parties, where nobody is really thrilled to be there, but attendance is mandatory. And imagine, if you will, someone saunters in and takes a gigantic dump in the punchbowl.

What would you do? What do you do?

Bringing it up with a manager seems like a safe bet. So you tell the person in charge of the party that someone took a shit in the punchbowl. “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” they say. “We’ll get someone to take a look.”

So the party continues, with a big turd floating in the punchbowl. Occasionally, someone tries to get punch, ignorant of the turd, and is stopped by someone with enough sense to know you don’t drink from a turd-filled punchbowl. The conversation at the party shifts from work mundanity to why there’s a turd in the punchbowl, who shat it, and why nobody’s done anything about it.

“Yeah,” says Dawn in accounting, “I brought it up with the Office Manager an hour ago, and it’s still there.”

Now, it turns out, this party is actually being sponsored by one of your company’s clients. So, when the client’s guy shows up and sees the turd-loaded punchbowl, what happens then? They technically paid for that punch that nobody can drink.

Suddenly, now it’s important. Nobody at the party can drink the punch, the entire vibe is ruined, and nobody’s happy—but because someone with a financial stake in having drinkable punch raised the issue, now someone’s motivated to address it.

Any similarity to the above story to recent events involving a certain right-wing provocateur—by which I mean serial harasser—on Twitter, is far from coincidental.

It’s incumbent upon any organization that tries to be a space for social interactions online, that they both acknowledge someone’s going to try and take a shit in the punchbowl. It’s human nature. Someone’s always going to try to ruin the fun for everyone else. When this happens, you can’t just stand aside, tsk, and then fall back on some vague platitudes on “free expression,” or whatnot. Instead, you remove the turd, you dump out the punch, you clean the bowl—or just replace it completely—and kick the punchbowl pooper out of the party.

And that last step is not censorship. If someone shat in the punchbowl because they didn’t like the punch, didn’t like the party, or didn’t like the company running the party, it doesn’t matter. There’s better, politer, more constructive, and less disgusting ways to express your dissent. Ways that don’t ruin the party for everyone else, that don’t risk making everyone sick, and might actually make things better.

Let’s dispense with the metaphors for a bit.

Internet trolls and abusers love to make a false equivalency between their targeted campaigns of hate and simply “disagreeing” with what their victim is saying. This is absurd on the face of it, but I’ll explain why in a bit more detail that is inevitably going to read a bit like a Monty Python sketch.

Disagreement is an intellectual process, wherein you express a contrary view to someone and present evidence and reasoning to back it up. Harassment and abuse is insulting, threatening, and hounding a person with repetitive comments—even if those are attached to a valid disagreement.

To put it another way, disagreement is saying “I don’t agree, because of x, y, and z.” Harassment and abuse is saying “I don’t agree, because of x, y, and I will murder you and your family because of it.” The former of these is protected speech. The latter is a criminal threat, but good luck getting it prosecuted in a court of law.

And, while we’re on the subject, nobody online is obligated to get into a debate with you if you disagree. Even if you’re polite about it. Someone’s refusal to debate you is not even close to the same thing as being harassed or abused yourself.

As long as the trolls have free reign to shit in the punchbowl, everyone else is going to have a very unpleasant experience on Twitter. By banning one of the service’s serial punchbowl poopers, they’ve at least taken a major step in showing they care, just a little bit, about having punch that’s free of turds for all of us to enjoy.

My suspicion is, however, that they only care because the punch was paid for by someone who needs to have Milo’s latest victim using Twitter as part of the promotional strategy for the new Ghostbusters. Only by threatening Twitter’s ad revenue could Jack and his team decide that enough was enough, and give Milo a long overdue push out the door.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he’s gone. I just don’t have much hope that Twitter’s going to do much to prevent anyone else from shitting in the punchbowl. I hope I get proven wrong.

Context Collapse

I’m a user of the Getting Things Done 1 methodology for organizing my life and keeping my ADD-addled brain somewhat free from drowning in an inattentive fog. It works, for the most part. The core idea of GTD is that instead of your standard to-do list of giant things like “Do the taxes,” “Finish the Henderson Report,” and “Buy groceries” you break these all down into the individual, specific, concrete “Next Actions,” in the parlance, and do those. So, instead of those big, vague, difficult tasks, it’s a bunch of “Print out the W–2 form,” or “Email Bob in accounting for the Henderson receipts,” or “Get the reusable grocery bags.” Simple, right?

Well, there’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. Another key part of the GTD methodology is that your Next Actions aren’t put on a big list with all the others. You divvy them up by “Contexts”. A “context” is a specific tool, or location, or even a person, that is required for you to do the task. It does you no good to have “buy milk” staring at you while you’re trying to put together the Henderson Report. You want that on your “Grocery Store” context.

Problem is, with few exceptions like running errands, the whole “context” thing has fallen down in the last fifteen or so years, since Getting Things Done was published. Now we have all these little pocket computers that keep us connected to everything at all times. Some of us work from home, either by choice or by fiat. You could crank out all your @email tasks at your desk, or on the john. The availability of what you need to do your job, or your hobby, or whatever, is no longer limited by geography or connectivity.

This is a huge pain in the keister, if you’re someone like me who does better with hard barriers on their time and attention.

I know I’m not the only one with this problem. A casual Google search brings up (for me) plenty of people thinking about contexts in GTD—thinking of new kinds of contexts that fit how they work, basing contexts on “energy level,” time intervals, streamlining it down to “Active” or “Maybe”, or just plain ditching the whole “context” thing in the first place.

These are all interesting ideas, and I’ve tried many of them at various times. For me, what seems to work is using contexts to divide all my actions and projects between my “@day job” and my “@personal” life. I can then, using my GTD tool of choice, OmniFocus, set up filters and Perspectives to see all my work-related stuff without my personal stuff mixed in, or vice-versa.

It helps, but only so much. I’ve got one of those Knowledge Worker jobs where I spend most of my days in either a text editor, or a web browser. I have a few contexts I use to keep things organized: @online for anything that requires the Internet to get done, @write and @design code for creative tasks, and @email for… email. One the one hand, having all these little subcontexts seems fiddly. On the other hand, if I were to use an @computer contexts for all my actions that use a computer… well, I wouldn’t need much in the way of other contexts.

This is all my manifestation of the problem, of course. Context collapse might manifest differently for you. It might be unwanted texts from the boss and pinging of work emails on your phone while you’re trying to eat a quiet dinner. It might be an inability to work on your side project because the same machine you code on is the same machine you use to play all those cool video games on. Whatever the case, the blurring of lines between our contexts can, without something to keep things neat, turn everything into a morass.

So far, my strategy of a device for work, a device for home, and separate views into the things I want and need to do, have helped a lot. It just feels like there’s more that can be done. As is often the case, I may not have answers, but I do have a lot of things to think about.

Mindful Tech: The Full Series

It’s been a long journey with a lot of unplanned pit-stops, but the Mindful Tech series has reached its conclusion. Here, I gather all the posts together for your reading convenience.

Mindful Tech, Part 10: Setting Your Own Terms

Part of the problem that leads to technological overload is that we tend towards use our gadgets on their terms, and not our own. How many people think to change the settings out of the box? How many people absent-mindedly tap “yes” to the pop-up dialogs of apps asking for permission to send notifications, access our personal data, track our location, etc.? Most of us will just take the path of least resistance, and when that path becomes crowded with annoyances, distractions, and frustrations, we’ll pin the blame on the gizmo, and not our thoughtless use of it in the first place.

Why does well-meaning technology get in our way? It’s a result of that well-meaningness. Default settings are optimized to please the majority of users, and notifications—when applied right—can be important and useful. There’s no world in which defaults will be the right fit for everyone, of course. If you’re the sort of person who thinks about your relationship to technology, you’re probably not in that majority of people.

Notifications, too, can be well meaning. We need to know things, like if our spouse can’t pick the kids up from school, when a sudden thunderstorm is bearing down upon our location, or a reminder to take our medication. This falls apart when some less well-meaning people tap into the same functionality to drive us nuts with ads, get us to take another turn in their mindless tile matching game, or some other nonsense.

Because online services cost so much to run, and because we users are willing to pay so little, our data is harvested to fill in the gap with relevant ads. That same data could be used to give us fantastic insights into ourselves and our habits. It could make information overload less likely, showing us what we need to know, when we need to know it. Sadly, those solutions are, like notifications, easy pickings for companies who want to catch us with the right ad at the right time instead.

It’s easier and easier to give up our data, and harder and harder to know what we’re giving up, let alone what we’re getting in return. When all we feel we’re getting from our technology is stress, frustration, spam, and an uneasy sense of being overwhelmed, it’s time to adjust the terms of the deal to favor ourselves.

Throughout this series, I’ve offered ways to rethink aspects of your digital life. I’ve stayed away from specific recommendations and how-tos, with some small exceptions, because our needs all vary. There are some of us who need a constant connection to our job, or to our family. There are some of us whose preferred leisure activity exists in the same space as where they do their work. We are on limited budgets, have to deal with systems that are our of our control. There is no one-size fits all solution.

Now, it’s up to you. The first step is to identify the problem. What part of your digital life is giving you the most stress and strain? That’s where you tackle things first. Experiment with the tools available to you, as long as that experimentation doesn’t stop you from doing the thing you want to do. If there’s something you want to try, but aren’t sure if you can, then start Googling. I guarantee, you’re not the only person out there who’s frustrated and looking for a fix. And in the end, yes, the off-switch is there, if you need it. Just don’t expect the problem not to come back when you turn it back on.

Part of why I obsess a bit over technology, over workflows and setups, over people’s home screens, is that I want to know how they deal with the same issues I deal with. We have the greatest information sharing technology at our fingertips, and in our pockets. Let’s use it, and share our tips, our tricks, our solutions, and our failures. We’re all in this together, all struggling and coping in our own ways, but still together.

I want to know what you’re doing to use technology in a more mindful way. Get in touch.

Someone Always Pays

Slowly, but surely, New York City is rolling out free Wi-Fi kiosks on street corners. They’ll come fully-loaded with USB charging ports, VOIP calling, and an embedded Android tablet for those folks who don’t have a device to connect to it. Oh, and giant screens on each side to show ads to everyone. Ads based on “an audience profile algorithmically derived from the information the kiosks collect from their users,” to quote Nick Pinto in the Village Voice.

Rick’s article is a bit more… alarmist… than I would be in describing the LinkNYC kiosks. I’m no fan of ads that use my personal data to serve me something an algorithm considers “relevant.” This is partially because those algorithms are so regularly off base, and partially because I don’t feel these companies have the right to that data in the first place. Yes, even if I’m legally opting-in by connecting to the Wi-Fi in the first place. If you want to show me an advertisement, fine, but you don’t need to know anything and everything about me to show me one.

The point is, someone is always going to pay, one way or another. I can pay $50 a month to my local ISP for internet access, or I can pay in data for the local LinkNYC kiosk. (At least in theory. They won’t be installing them in my neighborhood until early next decade.) Sidewalk Labs is paying, but they want to make that money back, so they’re going to display ads. This shouldn’t be a surprise—it’s how the Internet works now-a-days.

What pushes LinkNYC into the creepy zone is that instead of the ads showing up in just my web browser, they’re going to be displaying on 55” screens on the street. I hesitate to call it propaganda like Nick Pinto does. It’s more just potential embarrassment if I happen to walk past my local kiosk and see an ad for men’s underwear, because I happened to be shopping for some the other night.

Of course, I can pay for internet service that isn’t going to chop up my browsing habits and spit ads out for every passerby. The ostensible goal of LinkNYC is to connect all those poor people who can’t afford high-speed internet access, or much of any internet access. If I’m going to assume my browsing with my pay ISP is secure and unmonitored—and there’s no reason to assume it is—but why should privacy be a luxury product?

And believe you me, Sidewalk Labs, itself a subsidiary of Alphabet, née Google, would like nothing more than for all of us to be hooked into their kiosks as the primary way we get online. We’re talking Gigabit speeds here. I’m paying out the nose for 60Mbps.

Last February, the FCC classified internet access as a public utility, akin to water, electricity, and phone service. I have to wonder how something like LinkNYC would work in a world where internet access was regulated the way we regulate electricity and water.

Yes, you have to pay for those, too. Either you pay yourself, or someone’s taxes pay for it via welfare programs and utility assistance, or you get your water shut off. The difference is that there’s no solution for ad-supported water in the home. Yet. (“Before you take a shower, you need to watch this 30 second ad for Geico.”)

In the meantime, the biggest concern most people have about LinkNYC is that homeless people are using them to watch porn, or have late night dance parties. I’m all for more people having better access to the Internet. I just wish there was a way for it to happen without trading privacy for the privilege. It’s true, someone’s always going to pay. And whoever is paying is going to want a return on their investment.