I’ve been thinking lately about what is and isn’t working for me in my technology use, particularly when it comes to social software. Talking with Finn a little while back, I hit on an idea for dialing back my technology use to see if it made me feel any better about how I’m relating to other people.
What if I could just dial back my technology use to an earlier time in my life? I mused to Finn. Like the Colonial House/Frontier House/1900 House series on PBS, where people live for a while under the technological and material conditions of an earlier era. Not to be a total luddite and give up technology entirely; that’s draconian, bad academic sportsmanship, and stands to alienate me from my friends as much as it might give me transcendentalist-grade insights about Being and Nature and whatnot. The -House series on PBS never goes back to the Stone Age, and I notice they don’t appear to have made it back to medieval times yet.
So, could I just dial it back to a particular year? Would it still be possible to do so when, say, so many people I’d like to stay in touch with use Facebook as a primary means of socializing? Finn agreed this was an interesting idea.
But what year to pick, if I was going to try this strategy? 1999 would lose me my blog. 2001, my cell phone, much less a smartphone (my first acquired by accident in 2006, I think it was). There’s a fine balance of baby and bathwater. With so many technologies appearing thick and fast in the past few years, dialing back a year when one unwanted technology appeared might also lose me another really useful one. Perhaps it’s best to think about particular technologies, then, and what they win or lose for me.
2003 was the year I started grad school, and also a watershed year for spam (as we’ll hopefully all soon be able to read in Finn’s to-be-published book on the topic). I could really stand to dial back to before that particular garbage influx happened. Both the command-line account I still used for my primary personal email reader (Pine) and my blog were crushed beneath an influx from a spam-production system whose tools seemingly went from crude stone handheld things to an unthinkable number of self-replicating nanobots in what can’t have been more than a year. It took a year for spam-fighting technology like Akismet (which works wonders) to catch up. Certainly wouldn’t want to dial my blog back to a date between 2003 and 2007, I’ll tell you that much.
Those were the years I slowly and reluctantly began to ease off my reliance on my friends’ server, and move my activity to the cloud, primarily through GMail (which appeared in 2004). I’d be loath to part with GMail’s threading, searchability, and ubiquitous access; they’re net wins for me. The advertising I could do without, but it has generally not been too intrusive in GMail, so even that I don’t mind much.
Then there’s phones. I’ve written about phones recently, at least the voice side of them. Even my new device isn’t great at providing high-quality sound. I’d really rather have a land line for actual conversations (without adding to my already astronomical phone and cable Internet bill). Even despite my dissatisfaction with phone sound quality, though, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to have more phone conversations. Hearing other people’s emotions and being able to interrupt (yes, interrupt, including interrupting onesself) and otherwise respond immediately are important. Skype’s and Google’s video chat capabilities are doing some lovely work towards restoring communications resources which were traditionally unavailable through voice-only communication.
Considering the smartphone is a slightly different thing than considering cellular phone speech quality. There are few downsides I can see to having a tiny ubiquitous computer, aside from how heavily I rely on it for maps, contacts, and other affordances, purposes my brain and handwritten notes used to serve — a reliance which could get problematic in a genuine crisis situation where big networks go down. (And did, in that one horrifying time recently when Google Maps made me badly late to a consulting gig by locating my destination a dozen blocks further north on Broadway than it actually was.)
I’m writing part of this post on my phone on the subway, something that might previously have involved transcription. I like that I can do more writing in transit. I use almost no location-based services (the downside of advertising and surveillance culture outweighs the very slight possibility that I might randomly use these features to spend time with friends, in my opinion), but my phone has introduced me to the idea that I might bookmark restaurants I liked on a map, and use that feature to plan future meetups, a function that pleases me immensely. I can compose chiptunes on my phone, follow RSS feeds, find a less-weighty substitute for books, carry a camera without carrying an extra device – mobiles have finally gotten to the point I wished for in about 2003 when I found myself carrying around a half-dozen little gaming and recording devices. All good stuff.
So I’d like to have a lovely-sounding landline back, and then a cheaper tiny mobile computer; cloud access to my email (though I’d rather not have that dependent on a system which exploits my email for marketing); and my blog, liberated from the tyranny of spam-producing botnets.
What, then, about “social” technologies? Social networks? How about Twitter?
There are many ways in which I’d like to dial these two technologies back out of my life, or at least twiddle their dials until they work better than they are right now. This post is already getting tl;dr, so I’ll save that for my next post.