Category: Technology

Are You Paying Attention? On ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher’

I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.

The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.

The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.

Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.

Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)

The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.

Diving into the divine milieu

Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.

He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.

Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.

That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)

Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.

My toddler teacher

A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.

Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.

I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.

I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.

I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.

Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.

My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.

You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.

Camcorders and the quotidian

Two things my wife and I are really glad to have are a camcorder and a digital SLR camera.

We got both of them several years ago, the camera as a wedding gift and the camcorder from my mother-in-law. Mostly we wanted them to be able to document family get-togethers, trips, and our nieces growing up. But they became especially nice to have after our son arrived.

We could easily record his cute laughs and squeaks and developmental milestones on our smartphones, and often do. But keeping some high-definition clips in the simple SD card of the camcorder somehow feels a tad sturdier. It’s a self-contained archive that is built for one purpose, that isn’t connected to The Cloud or needing constant updates or competing for storage space with apps of questionable value. It does one job really well.

We look back at what we’ve recorded just as often as most people do with their smartphone recordings—which is to say, not very often. But that’s OK. The benefit of home videos is in their slow and steady accumulation.

Our own parents took hours and hours of home video of us as kids, first on tape and now converted to DVD. Some of it is the expected banner moments you’d expect parents to record: soccer games, concerts, holidays, graduations. The rest is the small, everyday stuff between those highlights that comprise most of one’s life: playing at home, playing at grandma’s house, running through the sprinkler in the summer. (At least this is what we did in the pre-internet era.)

All of it matters. And when you play it back, everything blends together into one stream, a confluence of the capstones and the quotidian. Such is life.

My favorite notetaking apps

C.J. Chilvers wrote about the pros and cons of popular notetaking tools. Out of the four he features—Apple Notes, Evernote, Ulysses, and Bear—I have used two previously, and none currently. So, having already examined my favored podcasts and newsletters, here’s a look at the tools I do use and why I use them.

Paper

The once and future king of all notetaking apps. I keep a plain, pocket-sized Moleskine in my backpack for odds and ends, a larger journal as a daily diary and scrapbook (previously a Moleskine classic hardcover and currently a Zequenz 360), and a good ol’ composition notebook for my filmlog.

WorkFlowy

Dynamic, lightweight list-making with blessed few bells and whistles. Perfect for hierarchical thinking, tasks, and anything else you can put into a list. It’s built for marking tasks complete, but I use it mostly as an archive for reference, split between Work and Personal. Plus a To Do list at top for quick capture of tasks.

Simplenote

Good for taking quick notes in plain text. I often use it for first drafts of blog posts, taking book notes, and whatever else I need a basic text editor for. Helpful when trying to remove formatting from text you want to paste cleanly elsewhere—”text laundering” as I call it. Clean, simple, works well on the web and mobile.

Google Drive

For when Simplenote isn’t enough. Good for collaboration and as a document repository. Among other things my Logbook spreadsheet is there, as are lots of work-related docs, random files shared with my wife, my archive of book reviews, and my Book Notes doc filled with (at present) 121 single-spaced pages of notes and quotes from 108 books.

Apple Reminders

Used mostly for sharing shopping lists with my wife, because it’s easy to regenerate lists from completed items. Unfortunately it doesn’t sync well between devices without WiFi, which is a bummer when we’re out shopping.

Google Calendar

Google, don’t you ever get rid of Calendar. I mean it. Some former Google products had it coming, but you’re gonna ride or die with Gmail and Calendar, ya hear?

Dropbox

Essential for quick and easy file backup. Through referrals and other incentives over the years I’ve accumulated 5.63 GB in free storage on top of the 2 GB default. I’m using over 95% of it.

How to help someone use a [insert frustrating digital device]

Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:

  • Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
  • You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
  • Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
  • Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
  • Be aware of how abstract your language is.

As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.

Agre has advice for these situations too:

  • Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.

Oh boy, can I criticize a bad interface…

DuckDuckGo to Apple?

From Macworld: Apple should buy DuckDuckGo and make it into Apple Search:

Yeah, Apple could start from scratch in building its own search engine, but why? Buying DuckDuckGo would give Apple several years’ head start on building core search technology and a huge index of the whole web along with a talented team of engineers that share Apple’s privacy priorities.

And buying DuckDuckGo is the fastest and likely most economical means of bootstrapping a hypothetical Apple Search. It would even be good for DuckDuckGo fans, as long as Apple keeps it available on the web and to other web browsers, not just to Apple device users. It would mean at least an order of magnitude more users and a huge boost in development resources (both money and talent), from a company that has the exact same privacy stance as DuckDuckGo. It’s a win-win.

Hadn’t thought about this possibility until reading this article, but it makes sense to me. As much as I enjoy DuckDuckGo’s privacy features and indie web ethos, Apple is the only company that could do right by it and its many users. (And Apple Search is just a better name, let’s be honest.)

Regardless of its future, try out DuckDuckGo if you believe in an open web. It’s not quite as robust and sleek as Google, but it’s certainly good enough for most things. And while you’re at it, use Firefox, don’t use Facebook, and start a blog.

Why I love Kanopy, Hum, and System Information

Want to give some love to three services I’ve enjoyed lately:

Kanopy

Kanopy is a free streaming service available through your public library. (If it isn’t, ask them to get it!) Abundant with titles from A24, The Criterion Collection, and other high-quality providers, it’s rife with a delightful array of foreign films, indies, and documentaries to fill the FilmStruck-shaped hole in the hearts of cinephiles. My watchlist expanded pretty quickly once I signed up, much of it classics and Criterion titles I’ve been meaning to watch and want to get to before my wife gives birth. In the last few weeks I’ve watched Three Days of the Condor, The Seventh Seal, 48 Hrs., Ugetsu, Battleship Potemkin, and The Wages of Fear, with more on the horizon. Get thee to Kanopy!

Hum

hum-songs

I’ve been using Hum for a lot longer than Kanopy, but only recently realized how much I love it. It’s the perfect songwriting app. Super easy to quickly record song ideas, gather lyrics, and add helpful metadata. Beautifully made and a joy to use, though I really ought to use it more. Since I recently released the songs that comprised my 20s, I’m excited to see what will become of the song ideas currently residing in Hum.

System Information on Mac

I rediscovered this function while trying to clean out some disk space on my wife’s MacBook Pro and make it run faster. Previously I used Disk Doctor for this job; it’s a fine app that costs $2.99, but System Information is built-in and provides a more granular view of your files. It also makes deleting them super easy and satisfying. It’s a bit hidden, but well worth the hunt. If you’re a file hoarder or haven’t optimized your Mac in a while, you’ll be shocked by how much cruft builds up. Also by how large iOS backups are! (Seriously, my wife’s storage space more than doubled after I deleted those.)

Code of Ethics for engineers (and everyone)

Not sure where I found this on the interwebs, but I immediately fell in love with it—not for the engineering and robotics aspect, but for how it can be used for any creative work:

Let’s call these the 10 Commandments of Creative Work. Just replace “robot” with your art of choice:

1. Be industrious. Build, test, repeat.

2. Follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

3. Ask questions. Always.

4. Try things you’ve never tried before. There are many solutions to one problem.

5. Don’t fall apart if your robot does. It’s a chance to begin again.

6. Keep tinkering even if you’ve run out of ideas. Building will bring you more ideas.

7. Save your best ideas in secret notebooks.

8. Read lots of books about other things. Things that are not robots.

9. Pay attention to dreams.

10. Remember: the best robots are the ones you haven’t thought of yet.

Browse eternal, shiny and not Chrome

Last month I got fed up with the constant whirring of my MacBook Pro’s fan, and its consistent slowness generally, so I tried a few things to try to improve it.

One was quitting iTunes when I wasn’t using it, and the other was quitting Chrome and using Firefox instead. I don’t know if only one or both of these things made the difference, but the whirring stopped immediately and the computer sped up significantly.

I’ve been a dedicated Chrome user since it was released 10 years ago. Initially I liked its clean interface and single-bar searching. Since I was already a dedicated Gmail and Google Calendar user, it just made sense. (Anything to avoid Internet Explorer.)

But based on this experience, there’s really no reason for me to go back to Chrome. Its privacy concerns alone warrant pursuing other options, though I’m still happy to use Gmail, Calendar, and Google Drive because at least they provide consistent and practical service without chewing up my CPU.

(Post title for the Mad Max: Fury Road fans out there.)

My home screen

I’m always intrigued by other people’s smartphone home screens. Which apps make the dock? How is everything organized, if at all? Do they have 10,000+ unread emails like a crazy person?

Here’s mine for you to judge:

Messages, Podcasts, Google Maps, Safari, and WordPress are probably the most used. Safari used to be in the dock until I decided I was using it too much. You’ll notice no app badges because I turned all of them off (except Messages and Phone). Snapchat is the only social media app I have, for the sole purpose of seeing pictures of my nephew. And I use the black background for the lock screen and home screen to make the phone as boring as possible.

You Are A Service, and other ads for smartphone addicts

Typecaster Rino Breebaart on what messages he’d put on bus ads for people who happen to look up from their smartphone:

These would work just as well, if not better, as digital ads. Or maybe as a service where you get one of these texted to you for every 10 minutes you’re on your phone.