Essays on Technology and Culture

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.