Essays on Technology and Culture

The First Push

I’m writing this while short of breath and in a bit of pain. I just finished a brief, intense, workout using FitStar.I bought the app back in August of 2014, and then forgot about it, but after reading Federico Viticci’s amazing piece on using his iPhone to get back in shape after cancer treatments, I was inspired to give it another try. I’m hoping it sticks this time. After all, if Federico can get back into shape, if not into better shape, after beating cancer, by using apps on an iPhone, surely an out-of-shape, overweight, but otherwise healthy 31-year old guy can, too. What do I have to lose by trying?

I found Federico’s piece inspiring, but I was also intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between Federico and ordinary consumer technology for bettering his life. It’s true that you don’t need an iPhone, a fitness track or a smartwatch, and a suite of apps just to get into shape. You need willpower, and a plan of action. This is true for so many things, but it sells short the power and potential of these tools to change our lives. Federico notes early on in his essay:

In the back of my mind, I always knew that I was the kind of person who would be interested in a daily exercise routine and healthier lifestyle with kind encouragement and the ability to visualize data and progress. That was the perfect motivation to get into the world of fitness tracking and lifestyle apps that was flourishing around the iPhone and the App Store.

It’s one thing to know what you need to do to get in shape. It’s another to know how. Awareness of the ecosystem of apps and services around fitness on the iPhone offers the potential for direction. As someone who’s struggled with fitness and being overweight his entire life, I can sympathize with Federico’s motivation. A few days ago, I was looking up exercise programs—not apps—and thinking about enrolling in a gym again. After reading up on several programs, ostensibly for beginners, my eyes glazed over and I began to smell burnt toast. The last fitness program I followed to completion was Couch to 5k, and only because the instructions were simple: run for a while, walk for a while, repeat, and eventually reduce the amount of time spent walking. [1]

The problem with getting into shape for a lot of people is that building habits, especially ones around physical fitness, is hard work. It often takes a huge amount of effort just to get started. Technology can help us clear the initial hurdles, and give us the first (and second, and third) push to get moving. There’s no shortage of ways in which we can use the tools we use daily to change how we live and our habits. Part of the sales pitch for Apple Watch is its role as a fitness tracker that tries to instill good habits, including spending less time seated. Since I already use a fitness tracker, having the tools I use to build a fitness habit coach me and adapt to what I’m doing (or not doing) would be insanely useful.

Of course, this goes far beyond just physical fitness. I’ve been trying to find for the technology I use each day to help me build other habits. Taking inspiration from Sean Korzdorfer’s explanation of how he uses, I’ve started using gentle reminders in Due to nudge me to do things I know I should to, from taking out the trash every few days, to brushing my teeth at night. My system isn’t a tenth as involved as Sean’s, but we all have different needs, and respond differently. There’s a million apps and tools that can help us accomplish what we want to accomplish, if only we take the time to find them and use them.

All too often, we take a passive role in our relationships with technology we use every day. Our devices are going to beep and buzz, and we are going to be at their command, while still thinking we’re in charge. This leaves so much untapped potential that only comes when we take the time to think about the raw power in our pockets can be used to help us do the things we really want, or need, to do. Fitness and habit building are one way in which we can have a truly symbiotic relationship with our devices. Encouragement of seeing the numbers go up, or down, guidance in what to do next, or avoid, and the full picture of what we’re trying to change for the better—these are things that become that much easier with the tools so many of us already have on our person. The potential is there for amazing things, we just need the first push.

  1. The nine-week program took me the better part of four months to complete due to things like injury and travel, but I did complete it! And then proceeded to fall off the wagon, entirely.  ↩

The Bubble of Self

I have a super power—the uncanny ability to be in someone’s way without realizing it. When it happens, and it happens at least daily, I get out of the way as best I can, flush with embarrassment, and apologize. Maybe it’s a symptom of Attention Deficit Disorder, or maybe it’s something else. Either way, it’s exacerbated by wearing headphones in public. I just end up stuck in a bubble of my self, lost to what’s around me, and it’s something I can slip into at a moment’s notice. I’m not the only one, either. Some of us are better than others at avoiding it, but day in and day out, we spend a big chunk of our time caught in our bubble of self.

And I’m not going to lie, those little screens in our pocket don’t help at all. You don’t need a little screen in your pocket, and a pair of speakers in your ears to get lost in your bubble of self, but they’re not making it easier to avoid it. Case in point: the inspiration to write this came during a morning commute on the subway, while a pair of men watched a loud, and profane stand-up comedy bit on their pocket screen, without headphones. I can be certain the only two people on the train who wanted to hear some random stand-up comedy were those two men, and yet they were inflicting it on the rest of the passengers. If they’d thought, even for a moment, about the fifty other people in the car, they might have opted to put on headphones, or at least wait until later.

Most of our obliviousness isn’t that high-profile. It’s just a good example of bad behavior caused by our bubbles. The only solution is to actively try to pierce our own bubbles, and be aware of the world we’re in. It’s something that is hard to do, but is made easier with practice. Call it a form of mindfulness, or whatever you’d like, but without that practice, without that effort, we can easily slip back within our bubbles, and damn the world around it. Piercing that bubble, just being aware of the people around you, and how much—or how little—you may be affecting them goes a long way towards empathy and other skills that make us better human beings.

Keeping Score

In The Circle, the titular company is huge on quantification. This is best illustrated by the project to count the grains of sand in the Sahara, simply because they can. Mae, the protagonist, is tracked relentlessly, her ranking in the company calculated by scores from customers, her activity on social media, the amount of product she moves on recommendation, and even how much she interacts with people on campus. Like the best dystopian science fiction, it’s not a huge leap to The Circle levels of quantification from what we have now. Our scores are self-reinforced for the most part: follower counts, retweets, favorites and likes—but also the numbers in our bank accounts and on our pay stubs. This goes way beyond just wearing a FitBit.

The risk we take when we try to keep score and compete on numbers with anything in our lives is losing perspective. It’s so easy to focus on relentless improvement and quantification in some area that something else falls by the wayside. If we’re focusing on improving our standing at work, it can be detrimental to our relationships at home or our physical fitness. If we focus too much on the surface indicators of physical health, it can be detrimental to our mental health. Concentrate on juicing our follower counts and Klout scores, and it can damage our work and personal lives, too. And to say nothing of the mental stress.

I’m guilty of this as much as anyone. A couple high-profile links to this site this month have spiked my stats to ridiculous levels that I’ve never seen in my entire history of blogging. I want to keep that up, and even in the back of my head, I know I can’t expect to have 1000 page views per day, every day, I look at the numbers, and see the drop off, and disappointment sets in. “I’m doing my best work, aren’t I? Where is the love, the social shares, the invitation to join The Deck or Fusion Ads?” But I’m the only one keeping score here. I have to recalibrate my expectations, and my determine that my worth isn’t based on any number of other people. Yes, it feels great when the numbers all match what I want to feel, but if they don’t, it doesn’t reflect badly on me.

Myke Hurley and Casey Liss talked a bit about this on their new podcast, Analog(ue), and it echoes Myke’s sentiments in a guest post for 512 Pixels he wrote about a year ago. Namely: “Audience Quality > Audience Quantity.” It’s harder to put a number value on the quality of the people I’m reaching—hell, it’s almost impossible. I’m just glad I’m reaching some, and have the opportunity to talk to them, and bounce ideas around, and communicate. I don’t want to put a number on that. Doing so makes it less valuable.

Adulthood and “Manliness”

Though I’m a man, I can’t say I’m a fan of the push towards some modern idealized sense of “manliness.” Part of this is that “manliness” often both a parody of itself and a new form of consumerism. What irks me most about the new masculinity movement, however, s the prominent undercurrent of regression that flows just under its surface. For every article about how to properly dress and shave, how to take up manly hobbies, or learn to be a better father or husband, there’s a forum posting about wanting women to take up equally “traditional” roles as homemaker and sex object, being afraid of gays and transmen, or espousing political views just to the right of the John Birch Society.

Far be it for me to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s still a lot of good, practical advice on places like The Art of Manliness, and the most public of these manliness guides tend to keep the seedier aspects of the movement quiet. I’m sure there’s plenty of people, even a majority, who are looking back to traditional manhood for answers of how to handle the modern era without getting sucked up in the regressive aspects, but those regressive ones are the turd in the punchbowl. This is a large part of the reason why I’m more interest in defining myself not as a “man,” but as an adult.

Adulthood is learning how to be in the world and of the world, to take care of yourself and those close to you, and to deal with adversity in constructive ways. It’s about both self-reliance, and knowing when you’re in over your head and to ask for help. Its learning how to accept uncertainty. You can find a lot of stuff about this on manliness websites and communities, but these aren’t concepts that are exclusive to any gender. They’re what we should have learned in school, or from our parents. Maybe we were taught them, but we didn’t listen. It’s certainly not an excuse to hurt others, and act like we’re the rulers of the world simply because we have a Y chromosome.

Adulthood isn’t something you can fake by buying nice shoes, putting on a pocket square, and getting your hair cut by a fancy barber for $50. That’s half the problem. This may be why those great resources for being an adult often get wrapped up in some larger, more marketable concept that can be used to sell swag. Productivity stuff often falls into the same trap.

Few of the positive aspects of the manliness movement, if there is such a thing, are inherently masculine. Self-reliance, faith, responsibility, building healthy relationships—romantic and otherwise—are not just for men, nor have they ever been. Adulthood as a concept isn’t wound up in as much nonsense over gender, chromosomes, and what hangs (or doesn’t) between your thighs. Signifiers of gender are meaningless when it comes to defining the kind of person we want to be. Your fitness as a mate, as a parent, as an employee or businessperson, as an artist or craftsperson, none of these come from biological sex or socially defined gender. Tying up these things in gender only makes it harder for people who don’t fit those narrow molds. I’d rather be inclusive in how I choose to better myself. The more people we let in, the more support we all get.

Lifehacking and the Quantified Soul

An article by Evgeny Morozov for Slate on how “lifehacking is just another way to make us work more” has been making the rounds. It caught my attention as I’ve been, if not an adherent of lifehacking, at least an occasional visitor to its church. [1] I also picked up on Morozov’s reference to the book Autopilot by Andrew Smart, which is on the to-read list of my friend Patrick Rhone—a pretty winning endorsement. Finally, it reminded me of a piece of my own, on “The Un-Quantified Self” and the limits of what the QS movement can do. There’s plenty of overlap between Quantified Self-ers, and lifehackers for this to make sense.

Morozov notes early on that “[t]he original thinking behind ‘lifehacking’ was intriguing. Why not use technology to get things done more effectively and have more time for oneself?” If that was how it ended up working out, however, we wouldn’t have this article, of course. Case in point:

As “lifehacking” becomes an industry with its own blogs and book-length guides, a good chunk of the freed-up time often goes to fix, upgrade, or replace the very tools and programs that make lifehacking possible. Is there anything more self-defeating than using technology to free up your time—so that you can learn how to do an even better job at it?

First off, it’s not becoming an industry—it’s been one, which is part of why Merlin gave up most of the productivity crap five years ago, and (part of) why he quit the Inbox Zero book. [2] Lifehacking and related areas are big among nerds who already suffer a host of various issues resulting from being a-neurotypical—myself included. Any potential solution is going to be latched onto by us slightly broken weirdos if we think it’ll help us function like normal human beings, and the crazy thing is that for many of us, a lot of this stuff actually works. The parts that do work vary from person to person, but we can’t just throw out the baby with the bathwater here.

Second, and more importantly, if you’re using all your free time from your lifehacking to get better at lifehacking, you’re missing the entire point. [3] Thankfully, it seems Morozov and I agree on this. “What we want, to paraphrase Marx, is to ‘lifehack in the morning—in order to nap in the afternoon and criticize after dinner.’ What we get right now—to ‘“’lifehack the morning—in order to skip naps in the afternoon and work after dinner’—is a raw deal.” I just don’t think that a polarizing polemic against lifehacking as a practice or concept is the right way to get the point across.

I haven’t read Autopilot yet, so I’ll save any potential criticisms of that for when I have some. From Patrick and Evgeny’s descriptions of it, I don’t think I’ll have many. I’ve also not read 24/7, the other book Morozov talks about in the article, but I don’t know if the critique of “sleep hacking” holds water here. As someone who sleeps quite poorly, I’d happily trade my eight hours of crap sleep (including the hour or so I spend tossing around in bed) for six hours of quality sleep if I knew how to get it. I don’t know how well Morozov sleeps, but knowing people who’ve suffered with sleeping difficulties that put mine to shame, if something offered you a guarantee of x good hours of rest, you’d take it too. There’s nothing Taylorist about it.

Ultimately, though, Morozov and I are on the same page, though different sides of it. If you’re lifehacking because out of a genuine desire to improve your life: have more free time, sleep better, improve your health and your happiness, you’re fine. If you’re lifehacking because you are an over-achiever who wants to constantly live at your maximum potential, you may be making things worse for yourself in the long run. Like any tool, the applications of our lifehacks, and our use of the data from all our crazy Quantified Self are all in how we apply them. Even if we can’t quantify the effects, we know if we’re really happy. That’s the only measurement that matters.

  1. For values of church equal to Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders, one of the Ur-productivity blogs.  ↩

  2. To say nothing about how “Inbox Zero” has been misinterpreted by people.  ↩

  3. Here’s an explanation of that video.  ↩