Essays on Technology and Culture

What Are Our Gadgets For?

I’m starting to wonder if I have too many gadgets. I have the Apple User Trifecta of a MacBook, an iPhone and an iPad—along with a Kindle Paperwhite, a Fitbit, and a bunch of related accessories. To give you a short list: an external keyboard, an iPad stand, a Magic Mouse, a Cosmonaut stylus, a Glif, three pairs of EarPods(?!), a laptop sleeve, and all the attendant hubs, cables, and power supplies. In fact, through no obvious fault of my own, I now have more iPhone charger cubes than I could possibly need.

What are all these things for? My iPhone is a communication device, though far too often only a one-way one as I dive into the various streams. My MacBook is my workhorse. I needed the power to chew on editing and producing hour-plus length podcasts, though with Crush On Radio on hiatus, it’s vastly overpowered for the tasks of writing in plain text, listening to music, and checking Facebook. I stare into this screen all the time, and when I’m not staring into this one, I’m staring into the smaller screen I keep in my pocket, or I stare into the big screen at my office, and occasionally the composition notebook sized screen of my iPad.

The iPad has had the hardest time finding a role in my life. What it’s settled into is being my portable writing machine, which seems a bit of a waste of $499. (At least I already had the bluetooth keyboard.) I take it with me once a week to a writing group, and I occasionally take it into the living room after my girlfriend has gone to sleep. If I’m not using it for writing, it’s a social media device, and maybe an occasional comic reader. That’s it. If I travelled more, it would be useful as a travel computer, but only because my MacBook is a giant 15" non-Retina model. I opted for that over the Air or Retina Pros because I still need to use an optical drive from time to time. If I had a MacBook Air, I don’t know if I’d ever need an iPad.

What are all these things for? So much of it is for everything. I remember in the days before the iPhone, when everyone was preaching about the Convergence of Devices, I remained skeptical that I could just carry one thing that would be my camera, my music player and my phone. This was because all the devices on the market in the early 2000s that promised to be all these things were both far out of the price range of a college student, and sucked at being any of the things they promised. I’d much rather ten tools that do one thing well than one tool that does ten things, but does them to mediocrity.

It’s why I’ve gravitated back to the Kindle for much of my reading. It’s a purpose-built device that sucks if you try to use it for anything other than reading books. A while back, Stephen Hackett ditched his iPhone for a flip phone. I’ve given thought to trying a distraction-free iPhone setup, just to free up the mental clock cycles I spend on Twitter and elsewhere, but I do use the darn thing for legitimate work purposes, which makes that difficult. [1]

A thought that has been running through my head, off and on, for over a year is: “How can I use technology better?” Part of the answer is finding the role of all of this in my life. Nick Wynja’s latest piece had me thinking a lot.

I won’t let a computer tell me what to do. I’m going to choose what I want to do with my life, thank you very much. Then I’m going to do it and not tweet about it and just sit outside with a beer and watch the sun set. Because I’ve missed too many of those sitting in front of this harsh, heartless machine.

One of the differences between Nick and myself is that I like sitting in front of this harsh, heartless machine. It’s how I’m wired. There’s an outside, and there’s experiences, and I can be there and of them, but I keep coming back to the machines because I like them. I like the Internet, and the social media streams, and occasionally diving into a Wikipedia or TVTropes K-Hole.

But, fundamentally, these machines are tools, and their job is to enable us to live the life we want to lead. If that life involves seeing more sunsets, then using technology better means using it less. I don’t care that much about watching sunsets, but some of the things I do care about might just mean using the technology less—or at least being mindful about what, how, and when I use it. The hard part is overcoming that Pavlovian training and the Fear of Missing Out, and use the tools instead of letting them use me.

What are all these things for? To use to our great ends.

  1. Testing responsive email designs, for one.  ↩