Essays on Technology and Culture

Towards a Grand Personal Theory of Technology

It wasn’t that long ago, when I was bemoaning the complexity of my technology, wondering whether I should give up and strip down to a cheap computer and a cheap phone. That was about a month after an article Steven Levy on the new iMac dropped. In it, Levy explained what he called Phil Schiller’s “grand philosophical theory” of Apple products:

“Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line.”

This is eminently reasonable, and I’m kicking myself for missing it the first time. It’s a philosophy I’ve chosen to (try and) take to heart in the new year for my technological life. How does this play out in practice, though? Let’s start with the smallest device: the Apple Watch.

I would love to use my Apple Watch for more, but the combination of a fiddly interface and the slow speed makes me keep reaching for my phone. As I wrote in my six month update of life with the Watch: “If there’s been a theme… it’s figuring out what I want to get out of [the Watch], and dropping what it’s bad at.”

I’m still trying to settle on a set of core functions that I can do on my Watch easier and faster than on my phone. So far, that’s fitness, (some) contextual computing, and notification triage. [1] What it’s not is communication—too many friends not in the iOS messaging ecosystem. What I might have to do to get more out of my Apple Watch is insist on keeping my iPhone out of arm’s reach unless I really need it.

As for the iPhone—it’s my primary communication device, and my portable entertainment device. A huge chunk of my music library lives on there, along with audiobooks and podcasts. The way I use my iPhone hasn’t changed a great deal since iOS 7. The extension frameworks and improvements to multitasking and sharing have made life easier, but the fundamentals remain solid, which is fine by me. I haven’t gotten much use out of the “proactive” features in iOS 9, but they look like a solid foundation for more context-based computing.

My iPad is one of those devices where I’ve struggled to fit it in with how I use technology. Growing up as a traditional PC user—craving a mouse, a keyboard, a giant display—combined with the difficulty of doing (ugh) “real work” on an iPad creates a recipe for inertia. My iPad 3—that’s the first one with Retina, for those keeping track—was long in the tooth, and an upgrade was long overdue. I got myself an iPad Air 2 for Christmas. I know there’s an iPad Air 3 in the works that’ll likely have support for Apple Pencil, but meh. In a few days with the Air 2, however, I’m already making a conscious decision to use it over my Mac for a lot of things.

The new iPad is finding its niche for me as a lightweight, fast, easy way to do reading and writing. Split view and slide over apps are so good. My previous iPad felt so limited that there was almost nothing I could do with it beyond the occasional bit of writing, reading RSS feeds and comics, and plinking around in GarageBand. I don’t know exactly what else I’ll want to do with this thing yet, but I’m willing to give anything a shot. I’m also excited to see what iOS 10 has in store for the iPad with the sheer computing power of both the Air 2 and the Pro.

Finally, there’s my Mac. The Mac is where I get all my heavy lifting done, but also where I do most of my slacking off. Games, social media, writing code, writing text, you name it, I’ve been doing it on my Mac. When I work from home for my day job, I do it on my Mac. If I’m going to be doing more on the smaller devices, the Mac has to, of course, be the device I step back from. Now, it looks like I have a setup and an ecosystem that makes overcoming the inertia of being a traditional computer user worth it. We’ll see what happens as the year progresses.

  1. As for notification triage, one of the few notification focused apps I use is Due. It’s a wonderful app, but something about dismissing notifications in it from the Apple Watch has been broken since iOS 9. Very frustrating.  ↩