Category Archives: Technology

More on the distraction-free smartphone

Recently, I came across a blog post by Jake Knapp who also experienced the distractions caused by having a smart phone. So he decided to try and tweak his iPhone to make it distraction-free. And now, more than a year later, he’s still using it – without a web browser, without email, without social stream apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. As he says, “I want a sensible phone, not a smart phone.”

It sounds quite similar to my mock-up for a zenphone – but without all the hassle of having to hack the operating system of the phone to make it distraction-free. If you’re interested, you can find Jake’s tips on how to make your iPhone distraction-free here.

 

 

Quit your smartphone

Today I have an opinion piece in the Danish national newspaper Politiken. It’s a much shorter rewrite of my blog post about filters in the age of distraction, called “Drop din smartphone.” 

UPDATE: The piece has been posted on the Politiken website. Unfortunately, they’ve changed the title to “The smartphone has taken over our lives”, which is not exactly what I’m saying. But so it goes.

Below, you can find the full, uncut draft of the opinion piece, which goes into a little more detail than the newspaper allowed for.

If you’re curious to read more, you can also read:

Drop din smartphone

Smartphones har fået en stor udbredelse i Danmark. 3 ud af 5 voksne danskere har fået en. Og de ændrer vores måde at være sammen på — men ikke til det bedre. Efter tre år med smartphone valgte jeg at gå tilbage til en gammel Nokia for at genvinde kontrollen over mit digitale liv.

En dag gik det op for mig, at jeg brugte alt for megen tid på at være online. Hver gang jeg tjekkede min e-mail eller Facebook eller Twitter, var det ikke længere, fordi jeg havde et dybere formål med det. Jeg kunne bare ikke lade være. For hver gang jeg så, at der var nye, ulæste e-mails eller nye kommentarer på Facebook, fik jeg et lille kick: Hvad er der sket, siden jeg sidst tjekkede?

For vores hjerne er gearet til at reagere på forandringer. På nyheder: Hver gang vi ser noget nyt – eller forventer at se noget nyt – så udløser det et lille skud dopamin i vores hjerne. Dopamin er et signalstof, som vores hjerne er udviklet til at reagere på: Aktiviteter, der udløser dopamin, er noget som den efterstræber nærmest af sig selv. Kort sagt: Det er vanedannende.

Vi får dopamin af at spise mad, dyrke sex eller motion, men også af alkohol, stoffer og … nyheder.

Umiddelbart er der bestemt ikke noget dårligt ved at reagere på forandringer og få ny viden. Men online nyheder og statusopdateringer minder mest af alt om farvestrålende slik for hjernen: Man kan spise og spise, men man bliver aldrig mæt. Og man spiser uden at tænke over det, bare fordi slikskålen står på bordet.

Og det var det, som var problemet for mig: Med min smartphone i lommen kunne jeg tjekke min email, nyheder eller Facebook hvor-som-helst og når-som-helst jeg havde et par minutter til overs: I bussen. På toilettet. Foran fjernsynet. I en pause i en samtale. Til sidst var det nærmest bare en refleks at tage telefonen frem, når det så ud til, at jeg kunne komme til at kede mig.

Og det smittede af på mit arbejde: Der gik sjældent mere end fem eller ti minutter, før jeg følte trang til at tjekke min e-mail. Og hver gang jeg gjorde det, var det for at finde noget, der kunne distrahere mig fra det, som jeg sad og arbejdede på. Noget lettere. Noget med et umiddelbart og ukompliceret pay-off. Et hurtigt fix.

Men som oftest, så medførte fix’et bare flere ting, som jeg skulle tage stilling til: Nye emails, nye aftaler, nye invitationer til events, flere nyheder, som jeg skulle forholde mig til. Og smartphonen gjorde det kun værre, for når jeg var på farten havde jeg hverken tid eller tålmodighed til at forholde mig fyldestgørende til noget af det.

Der var mange mails, som jeg aldrig fik svaret på, fordi jeg læste dem på telefonen og tænkte over hvad jeg ville svare, men aldrig rent faktisk fik skrevet svaret. Der var flere møder og aftaler, som blev fejlbooket fordi jeg hurtigt satte dem ind i kalenderen uden at dobbelttjekke tidspunktet. Der var en masse invitationer til fester og andet, som jeg aldrig fik meldt til eller fra på. Mentalt var jeg allerede videre til den næste ting i en uendelig strøm af nye indtryk.

Jeg var fanget i en dårlig vane, der gjorde mig distraheret, ufokuseret, uproduktiv og stresset. Så jeg besluttede mig for at bryde vanen og prøve at genvinde et afbalanceret og produktivt forhold til internettet.

Når vi snakker om internettet, så er det let at skyde skylden på den overflod af information, som vi svømmer i hver dag. Men som internet-tænkeren Clay Shirky har pointeret, så handler det ikke så meget om mængden af information, som om hvordan vi navigerer i den. Grunden til, at jeg følte mig fanget i en vanedannende strøm af hurtig og let information, handlede mere om et nedbrud af mine informationsfiltre, end om mængden af information, som jeg havde til rådighed.

Tidligere var der en masse informationsfiltre, der begrænsede mængden af information, som vi let kunne tilgå. De fleste var økonomiske og teknologiske: Det er dyrt at trykke information på papir og distribuere det, og det er tilsvarende bøvlet at finde, købe og læse. Men der var også sociale filtre: Der var en masse information om folks liv, som vi kun kunne få ved at snakke med hinanden enten i telefonen eller ansigt til ansigt, hvilket var med til at begrænse mængden af information du skulle forholde dig til.

Med internettets nye sociale tjenester er mange af disse informationsfiltre brudt sammen. Vi har mulighed for at følge med i alting hele tiden, og flere og flere af os oplever, at det kan vi ikke rumme. Og derfor har vi brug for at udvikle nye filtre.

Nogle af disse filtre kan udbedres gennem bedre teknologi, men andre kræver, at vi udvikler nye sociale normer omkring den måde, vi omgås information på. En slags digital Emma Gad, om du vil.

Vi har været igennem den samme udvikling med mobiltelefoner. Og vi har efterhånden tillært os nogle normer for, hvornår vi kan tillade os at ringe til folk (omend det er sværere at finde ud af, hvor hurtigt vi kan forvente, at de ringer tilbage). Men forskellen på telefon og email er, at telefonen er passiv: Du bestemmer ikke, hvornår den ringer. Hvorimod email er aktiv: Du bestemmer selv, hvornår og hvor ofte, du vil tjekke den.

Men mobiltelefoner har også et teknologisk filter, der understøtter disse normer: Du kan sætte den på lydløs. Men du kan ikke sætte din email på pause: Hver gang du slår op i din email for at finde en gammel korrespondence, et telefonnummer eller en adresse, så bliver du konfronteret med alle de nye beskeder, der er tikket ind siden sidst.

For at genvinde kontrollen over mit digitale liv besluttede jeg mig for at prøve at lave mine egne informationsfiltre. Og jeg fandt ud hurtigt ud af, at jeg havde brug for at starte på en frisk. Så efter tre år med smartphone gik jeg cold turkey. Jeg solgte min smartphone og gik tilbage til en gammel tryk-knaps-Nokia. For på den måde kunne jeg simpelthen ikke lade mig friste til at gå på nettet hele tiden.

Uden en smartphone kan jeg kun tjekke min e-mail på min computer. Det betyder, at det er meget lettere for mig at besvare e-mails med det samme. Og for at undgå, at email kommer til at fylde for meget i min arbejdsdag, så prøver jeg at nøjes med at behandle min e-mail én gang om dagen. Jeg gør det om morgenen, ligesom gammeldags post.

For at dette kan fungere, så har det krævet, at jeg løbende afstemmer folks forventninger, så de ikke forventer at få et øjeblikkeligt svar fra mig. Derfor  har jeg opsat et e-mail-autosvar, der forklarer, hvor ofte jeg tjekker min e-mail, og hvornår man kan forvente svar. Den korte version er: “Hvis det er presserende, så ring til mig eller send en sms. Ellers får du svar i morgen.” Og til min glædelige overraskelse, så er det meget få ting, der haster så meget, at folk ikke kan vente til dagen efter. Og langt de fleste er godt tilfredse med at få et svar inden for 24 timer.

Disse tre informationsfiltre har gjort, at jeg ikke længere behøver at bekymre mig om email eller om at komme til at spilde tid online. Jeg føler ikke længere den tilbagevendende impuls til at tage mit smartphone frem, hver gang jeg er bange for at komme til at kede mig. Det har givet mig mere ro, og jeg føler faktisk, at jeg er blevet mere nærværende og eftertænksom af det.

Jeg ved godt, at dette meget let kan lyde både helligt og teknologi-forskrækket. Og jeg vil på ingen måde benægte, at der bestemt er smartphone-funktioner, som jeg savner af og til, så som touch-skærm, kalender-integration, GPS og et lækkert kamera. Og jeg kan sagtens forstå, hvis du ikke har lyst til at opgive alt det for at gå tilbage til en gammeldags “dum” mobil.

Men det gode ved informationsfiltre er, at du selv bestemmer hvor langt du vil gå. Så lad mig slutte med et par lette forslag, som du kan prøve af. I værste fald har du fundet ud af, at de ikke virker for dig. I bedste fald vil de gøre dit digitale liv lettere at holde styr på, og dermed gøre dig mindre stresset og mere fokuseret:

Afmeld dit data-abonnement. Du vil stadig kunne bruge din smartphone med wifi rundt omkring, men det vil være lige lidt mere bøvlet. Og dermed vil det mindske din tilskyndelse til at tage telefonen frem ved den mindste anledning.

Indgå en smartphone-pagt. Et let socialt filter er at lave en pagt med dine venner: Når I er ude og spise eller til fest, så læg alle jeres telefoner med skærmen nedad i en stabel på bordet. Den første, der tager sin telefon fra stablen skal give en omgang til bordet. Igen en lille ting, men det kan være med til at gøre jer bevidste om, hvor meget I piller med jeres telefoner i løbet af en aften.

Ingen email på telefonen. Lad være med at sætte din email op på din telefon. Hvis du først har email på telefonen, så er det svært at lade være med at tjekke den i tide og utide. I stedet kan du nøjes med at tjekke din email på computeren, hvor du let og hurtigt kan læse og besvare dine mails.

Ingen mails udenfor arbejdstiden. Alternativt kan du foreslå din chef at ændre indstillingerne på jeres mail-servere således, at I kun kan modtage emails i arbejdstiden. Det har de ansatte hos Volkswagen i Tyskland gjort — og ledelsen er gået med på den! På den måde er det blevet muligt for de ansatte rent faktisk at holde fri, når de har fri. Det har betydet mindre stress — ikke mindst fordi, at virksomheden på denne måde har kunnet sætte en fælles norm for hvornår og hvor hurtigt man kan forvente at få svar på en email. Måske I kunne gøre noget tilsvarende på din arbejdsplads?

Hold telefon-fri. Dette begrænser sig sådan set ikke til smartphones, men til alle telefoner: Afsæt et bestemt tidsrum hver dag, hvor du holder telefonfri og i stedet fokuserer på at være til stede her og nu. Hvis du har små børn kunne det f.eks. være de tre-fire timer fra du kommer hjem fra arbejde til børnene er blevet puttet. Når først telefonen er slukket, vil du opdage, at du er meget mere til stede, for du fokuserer ikke længere på telefonen. I stedet kan du lade dig fordybe i øjeblikket og i de sociale relationer, som er vigtige for dig.

For det er i virkeligheden det, som al denne snak om informationsfiltre handler om: At gøre det muligt for os at genvinde kontrollen over vores digitale liv, så vi ikke lader os styre af teknologien, men i stedet selv bestemmer, hvordan og i hvor høj grad, at vi vil lade teknologien forme vores liv.

Distraction filters on the smartphone

Some time ago, I wrote about how I ditched my smartphone and returned to an old Nokia “dumbphone”, started a tight Inbox Zero regime, and began checking my email just once a day. All in an attempt to regain control of my digital life.

The problem is that smartphone is such an incredibly powerful and sophisticated tool, and that we don’t seem to be able to selectively use just some of the functions it offers. If we can check our email and Facebook on it, we will do so. It’s awfully hard not to, because we quickly become accustomed to that little dopamine kick that such news offer us.

The solution, of course, is to develop filters that limit the stress and distraction of such unwarranted information flows. And in that regard, ditching your smartphone is perhaps the most extreme filter short of leaving the Internet altogether.

I’ve had lots of positive responses from people who have been inspired by my approach. But very few people have been willing to take the drastic step of giving up their smartphones. There are simply too many neat features that they’ve come to love and take for granted: The touchscreen, the seamless calendar integration, GPS and maps, the high quality camera, and so on.

So, that raises the question: How can we construct distraction filters on the smartphone itself?

There are already a slew of such distraction filters available for the desktop — like Freedom, which severs your internet connection for a set amount of time, or SelfControl, which allows you to block a certain set of websites for a set amount of time. But as far as I can see, the only thing similar to smartphones is a pretty half-assed app called Self Control for Study available for Android phones.

Right now, we have dumbphones and we have smartphones. But as tech writer John Pavlus notes, the killer app for smartphones would be to make them able to emulate dumbphones.

So, what we need is a third kind of phone. One which combines the simplicity and lack of distraction of the dumb phone with the power and grace of the smartphone.

Introducing: The Zenphone

The zenphone is the smartphone simplified. It is the effortless smartphone, which gives you all the tools you need without distracting you from the tasks at hand.

Technically, it is an android launcher similar to the Home launcher that Facebook released recently.

A launcher is the software that presents the home screen of the smartphone and is responsible for starting other apps and widgets. In practice, it’s just a overlay on top of the smartphone’s own operating system, designed to emphasise or de-emphasise certain features. For instance, the Facebook Home launcher is designed to be a drop-in replacement for the existing home screen on an Android device that turns the whole phone into a big Facebook app.

The zenphone launcher pretty much uses the same technology to do exactly the opposite: It filters the apps and functions available on the phone to a chosen minimum, thus limiting the ways you can use the phone to free your mind to focus on what’s important.

For instance, you can define that your zenphone can use Google Calendar and Google Maps, take photos, receive phone calls and text messages. But that it can’t access the email application, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or Youtube.

Installing and un-installing a Android launcher is easy: It’s just a matter of installing it from the Google Play store, and then rebooting the device to use the new launcher. So, if you need access to one of the filtered apps, it’s just a matter of rebooting your phone. But the point is that the hassle of rebooting means you’re less likely to bother, and thus less likely to be distracted. In short, the zen phone adds a little extra friction that you need to overcome if you want to distract yourself. And just that little bit extra will often be enough.

The beauty of it is that you decide for yourself which apps, widgets and websites that you don’t want to be able to access on the zenphone. It is not an extreme either/or solution. It can be tailored to fit your needs.

Now, I haven’t actually built this launcher. Right now it’s just a concept and an illustration.

I’d love to do more with this, but I don’t have an Android device nor the skills necessary to adapt one of the many open source Android launchers to build a zenphone launcher. So, instead I’ve written this blog post. In the terminology of the Cult of Done, this is a “ghost of done.”

But if there’s anybody out there who’d be interested in making something like this, please get in touch.

The web as ecosystem

I recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s book Future Perfect. Being in the know as one of the “peer progressives” he lauds in the book, I found many of his points to be familiar. And all in all, I didn’t enjoy the book that much.

But there was one part that stuck with me. It was Johnson’s description of the web as a productive and interconnected ecosystem:

Ecologists talk about the “productivity” of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth.

A productive ecosystem, such as a rain forest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, such as a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information.

(..)

The overall increase in information productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years.

Think about it this way:

Let’s say it’s 1995, and you are cultivating a page of “hot links,” as we used to call them, to interesting discoveries on the Web. You find an article about a journalism lecture at Columbia University and you write up a description with a link to the Columbia website that promotes the talk.

The information value you have created is useful exclusively to two groups: people interested in journalism who happen to visit your page, and the people maintaining the Columbia page, who benefit from the increased traffic.

Fast-forward to the present: You arrive at the lecture and check in at Foursquare, and tweet a link to a description of the talk.

Set aside the fact that it is now much easier to make those updates via your smartphone, compared with the cumbersome process of updating your website circa 1995. What happens to the information you send out?

It’s the same number of characters, with the same message: I’m going to this lecture tonight. But the ultimate trajectory of that information is radically more complex than it would have been fifteen years before.

For starters, it goes out to friends of yours, and into your Twitter feed, and into Google’s index. The geo-data embedded in the link alerts local businesses who can offer your promotions through Foursquare; the link to the talk helps Google build its index of the Web, which then attracts advertisers or the topic of journalism itself.

Because that tiny little snippet of information flows through a more dense and diverse network, by checking in at the lecture you are helping your friends figure out what to do tonight; you’re helping Columbia promote its event; you’re helping a nearby bar attract more customers; you’re helping Google organize the Web; you’re helping people searching for information about journalism; you’re helping journalism schools advertising on Google to attract new students.

When text is free to flow and recombine, new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.

That is as good an argument for a free and open internet as you’re bound to find, I think.

12 ways to overcome computer friction

Some weeks ago, we held a conversation salon about everday life (“hverdage” in Danish) here in Copenhagen, and one of the questions we touched upon was: Where do you find calm in your everyday life?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m not good enough at finding calm. I like to push myself to finish whatever I’m doing, and then I can have calm as a reward. But often, I’ll end grinding through some work with no creative spark whatsoever just to be done with it. And even I do take breaks, I often end up taking my breaks in front of the computer as well. I’ll check the news, work on something else, organize some files, whatever. But I’ll stay at the computer.

The computer is a very powerful tool of thought, but it is also shaping the way we think in quite powerful ways. This is because when you are at the computer, you experience a sort of tunnel vision. You focus on what’s on the screen and engage directly with it. It is a very powerful connection that is very good at inducing both the quick-fire reflexivity of partial attention and the flow of focused attention. This can make it quite difficult to close the laptop lid and step away from the computer.

There is a sort of sticky friction about sitting at the computer that makes it easier to stay than to move. Much like flow TV, you can end up in a click trance long beyond the point you planned to stop.

But this stickiness is doing more than keeping us at the computer and wasting our time. It is also limiting our ability to daydream, to provide empty space for new thoughts to float in. Tom Chatfield describes them eloquently in his neat little book “How to thrive in a digital age”:

The kind of thoughts that can emerge in ’empty’ time in our lives — on a train, in the bath, walking, glancing out of a window between turning the pages of a book — are impossible to reproduce either through dedicated digital planning or carefully arranged offline sessions. They are moments that steal up on us, most often, when life is not segmented down to the minute. They are idiosyncratic, individual and serendipitous…

These are the moments of everyday calm when the magic of unexpected insight happen upon us. The time for gut feelings, personal reflections and idle imaginings. And unfortunately, stressing busy and sitting at the computer is eating up these vital islands of calm.

Sharing my concerns with different people at the conversation salon, one conversation partner told to get better at taking breaks. Small rewards along the way that broke the monotony of sitting in front of the computer. Another conversation partner suggested I make a list of 5 things that I could do in my breaks to use my brain in a different way, to make room for that lost eccentricity.

I ended up with a list of 12 ways to overcome computer friction:

1. Dance
Put on your power song and go crazy for 5 minutes. Get some of all that energy out. Feel your body!

2. Eat
Reward yourself with a nectarine. Make a lovely sandwich. Go get an icecream.

3. Go for a walk
Maybe you need to expose your thoughts to some fresh air? Go outside, get distracted for a bit. Sit on a park bench.

4. Talk with someone
Share a thought with someone. Get some fresh input. Smokers have it easy, because their bodies tell them when it’s time to have a little social break outside. But the rest of us should have cigarette breaks as well. The clever thing about cigarettes is that it is very good way to signal that you’re on a break and that people can come and talk to you. Maybe we can have carrot breaks instead?

5. Sleep
Crash. Have a power nap to clear your head. You’ll feel much better after a 15 minute lie-down. It’s much better than coffee. And maybe you’ll even dream something brilliant.

6. Do something practical and immediately rewarding
Get up and accomplish something that is immediately rewarding. Chop some wood, do the dishes, mow the lawn, pick some berries, clean your desk, weed the garden, shoot some free-throws, hit a punching bag. Anything that can you an easy sense of accomplishment. Remember: Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s cheating.

7. Have a brainstorm
Spend 5 minutes exploring new angles of a well-known issue. It doesn’t have to be brilliant — just put everything down. The change of pace will do your brain a lot of good.

8. Meditate
Sit down, empty your mind and focus on your breathing for a bit. Just be. You can also do some restorative yoga exercises that lets your body work in a restful posture while your mind rests.
Once you’re done, you can experiment with chanting three OMs to finish. It’s a very good way to check in and recenter yourself.

9. Draw something
Pull out your notepad and fiddle about, sketch, doodle and see what comes out. Keep going and you’ll end up with something unexpected. Don’t worry. It’s not a contest. You don’t have to show it to anybody. Just give it a whirl.

10. Look up, look out
Lie in the grass outside. Look at the clouds. Look out of the window. Go look at the ocean. Look at the wind in the trees or people walking by. Don’t look at anything in particular. Just look and see what happens.

11. Test your balance
The floor is made of lava! Walk carefully, you might fall 100 metres into the gaping and gulping volcano. But you have to walk across this narrow bridge to the other side. Balance you chair, walk a line. Get excited.

12. Do something completely unexpected
This is a bit of wild card. It can be anything. I’ve heard good things about Sebastian Overgaard’s book SNYD DIG GLAD, which supposedly is filled with clever exercises and insights on how to be happy in a hurry.

So, that was the list. But one thing is having all of these ideas, and it is quite another to actually use them in your daily life. One way to use them is to time yourself. Work for 25 or 45 minutes at a time and then have a break. That’s the essence of the Pomodoro Technique.

But I must admit that I find working to a clock a little unsettling and structured for my liking. I’d like to have something like a wheel of fortune where you’d spin the wheel whenever you got stuck, and it would suggest a random break activity to get you thinking again. Like this:

Would somebody be interested in making something like that? Let me know…

UPDATE: Came across this little list of Seven things that can make you happier in seven seconds, so I thought I’d add a couple of those things here:

  • Think about something you love. Imagine how you would feel if you lost it. Now be happy you have it.
  • Hug someone.
  • Share the best event of your day with a friend or partner and have them do the same.

Developing filters in the age of distraction

Online distractions are tiny thrills in our every day. Every time we check our email or Facebook or Twitter, we get the thrill of the new: What has happened since last I checked? Every time we see that there’s new unread email, we get a little kick. Dopamine is released into our system. It is addictive. It feels a little like this:

At one point not too long ago, I realised that I spent way too much of my time online. I used my smartphone to check mail and Facebook on the go without really having the time or patience to reply on the phone. Whenever I sat at my computer to work, every five or ten minutes I would feel the urge to check my email.

And I realised that every time I checked my email, I was hoping for something to distract me from the thing I was working on. Something easier, something immediately rewarding. But most of the times, I just found more stuff I needed to do. And so, my to do-list grew, and I got more stressed, the more things I tried to keep in my head at the same time. At one point, I realized that I was stuck in a bad habit, and I needed to make some rules for myself in order to kick it.

As internet theorist Clay Shirky has pointed out, we’ve not suffering from information overload, but rather from filter failure. We need to develop better filters to manage the flow of information that we meet every day. It’s a well-recognized problem. In fact, the whole GTD movement is all about getting rid of distractions and Getting Things Done.

So, I’ve been giving this some thought. And I’ve been looking around, and sought to develop a set of filters to limit the stress and distraction of unwarranted information flows. This is what I’ve ended up with so far:

1) Inbox Zero
The first step was to empty my inbox. I try to follow the rules of Inbox Zero. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty simple: You should be processing your email instead of checking it. Checking email just means looking to see what’s new. Processing email means actually converting each email into concrete actions. So, for every email in your inbox, do one one of the following:

  • Delete — if no other action is required on your part
  • Delegate — pass the task or information on to whoever should have it
  • Respond — if you can reply to this in a few minutes, send your reply — straight away
  • Defer — if you cannot reply or delegate (e.g. if you’re waiting for an answer from someone else before you can reply), defer the email for now
  • Do — if the email represents a concrete task, go ahead and do it — straight away

If you do it right, you should end up with an empty inbox on a regular basis.

2) Quit the smartphone
Having a smartphone made it very difficult for me not to distract myself every time I had a minute to spare. In the end it was literally a physical reflex. Whenever it felt like I was about to be bored for just a second, I’d pull my smartphone out of my pocket. So, I decided to sell it and revert to an old Nokia. That way I can’t stress myself out by reading emails that I won’t be able to reply to when I’m on the go. The only things I miss about having a smart phone is the Google calendar integration and the full touch keyboard.

3) Reply to email in bulk
Not having a smartphone means I can only check my email on the computer. This means it is very easy for me to compose my replies straight away, making it a lot easier to process my email. So, I’m practicing answering emails in batch mode. Because of Inbox Zero, I know that the emails in my inbox are the only ones I need to worry about. One good GTD tip is that if it takes less than 2 minutes to do something, do it straight away. As it turns out, it won’t take more than two minutes to reply to most emails.

4) Process email once a day
This may sound radical, but being self-employed I can push the envelope on this. Inspired by Tim Ferriss and Elizabeth Grace Saunders’ routine of answering email within 24 hours, I try to just check my email once a day. I do it in the morning, like regular snail mail. I find that nothing is really that urgent anyway. And answering emails within 24 hours is still considered pretty good going by most people. The most important part of this is managing people’s expectations, so I’ve set up an email auto-responder to let my contacts know how often and when I check my email:

Thank you for your email.

Please note that I only check my email once a day, usually in the morning. I do this in order to minimize the amount of time I spend on email, and to free up the rest of my day for other things. You can read more about how and why I do this in this blog post.

If you need an immediate reply from me, you can call me or send me a text message.
cheers,

Andreas

I’ve also added this text to my Contact page on my website, as well as in my email signature. The short version of it is: “If it’s urgent, call me or send me a text message. Otherwise, I’ll reply in the morning.” Processing email in the morning is an easy way to start the day, and it stops my compulsion to check my e-mail throughout the rest of the day.

5) Limit access to social and news websites
Whenever there’s a natural break in my work (or I’m about to work on a difficult task), I tend to take my mind off work by skimming social stream sites like Twitter and Facebook and news sites like Reddit. Since these sites are updated all the time, they offer the same dopamin fix as email (and I probably check them more often because now that I don’t check my email). Having unfettered access to these sites makes such procrastination almost instinctive. It’s way too easy to open a new browser tab to check what’s new instead of focusing on a difficult task at hand. Just like with the smart phone, it can become so instinctive that I don’t even think about it before I realize I’m procrastinating again.

So I’m experimenting with using a Chrome plugin called Chrome Nanny to limit access to these sites. I simply add sites to a list, and define the amount of time that I’m allowed to access these sites each day, and the plugin will block access after I’ve spent that amount of time. I’m considering blocking access to these sites completely. But I find that because my friends and family use Facebook so much, it’s very difficult to stop using it all together. It’s by no means a perfect solution, but it helps a little. I’d love more feedback on how to handle this.

6) Read articles offline
I follow a lot of blogs in Google Reader, and quite a few people on Twitter. This is my two primary sources of day-to-day reading in addition to my morning newspaper. And I’ve been trying to adopt the same batch approach to these services as I use with email. But instead of reading all of it in one go on the computer, I use the brilliant Readability extension for Chrome to send the articles to my Kindle so I can read them whenever I want, offline and away from the computer.

These self-regulatory rules are a work in progress. I believe that as we grow more accustomed to the new digital technologies, we will come to adopt various ways of managing the constant flow of information and distraction that has become available to us. Designing such self-regulatory filters, limitations and norms will be one of our big challenges in the coming years.

Open Source Villages

Today, I came across a presentation called “How to Build a Post-Scarcity Village Using Existing Technology“, which introduces a project called Open Source Ecology.

The people behind the project argue that we already have the technological foundations needed to ensure a sustainable and pleasant standard of living, and that with some effort, these technology can be made available at the cost of “scrap metal + labor”. They’re currently experimenting with easy-to-make prototypes of what they consider to be the technology necessary to bootstrap such a village. The goal is to make a “Global Village Construction Set” with open sourced blueprints, documentation, permaculture designs and descriptions that will enable a small determined group anywhere in the world to build such sustainable communities of their own.

As an example of what such a future of resilient communities might look like, they point to a piece of speculative fiction called The Unplugged. In this future, the unplugged are a group of people who voluntarily leave society and the main economy behind. They build on the idea that if we save up enough money, we can all live off that wealth for the rest of our lives (This is the classic capitalist dream of “getting off at the top”, cashing out and living like you want to for the rest of your life).

Unplugging inverts this notion to some extent by offering the opportunity “buy out at the bottom” and build an independent life-support infrastructure and financial architecture – a society within society at the cost of just three months of wages to get started. Of course, then you’ll have to learn how to live such an unplugged life, and work everyday to ensure your own survival – but you’ll be living sustainably and independently.

I find the whole notion of Open Source Ecology to be fascinating, but it seems to me that the people involved in the projects are more interested in the technical and agricultural aspects of building a sustainable village than in the social aspects. In their presentation, they appear to be aware of this themselves as they’ve sketched out a sort ofsocial contract for their experimental village. Though its rough and unfinished nature is apparent in statements such as “can people simply get along?”

I expect they’ll discover that the hard part about building a replicable sustainable village won’t be the technology part but the getting along part.

Visualising computer memory

Green letters flowing

Did you ever see the Matrix and wonder just how all of those green characters of weird computer code flowing across the screen corresponded to what was represented on the screen inside the matrix?

Well, today I came across a tool on the BERG blog, which shows this correlation very well with real computer code:

ICU64 is a real-time debugger for Commodore 64 emulators. On the right is an emulator program emulating a virtual C64 machine. This virtual machine is running an old C64 game. On the left is ICU64 displaying the memory registers of the virtual C64 machine.

Tom Armitage on the aforementioned BERG blog does well to describe what’s going on:

To begin with, you can see the registers being filled and decompressed to in real time; then, you can see the ripple as all the registers empty and are refilled. And then, as the game in question loads, you can see registers being read directly corresponding to sprite animation. What from a distance appears to be green and yellow dots can be zoomed right into ?? the individual values of each register being made clear. It??s a long video, but the first minute or two makes the part I liked clear: a useful (and surprisingly beautiful) visualisation of computer memory. It helps that the computer in question has a memory small enough that it can reasonably be displayed on a modern screen.

Seeing how the individual memory registers of the C64 as it runs the game, you can get an idea of how the individual bytes all play a part in presenting the game. And as the video progresses, you get an understanding of how you can change individual bytes and thus change the game – in realtime. This is pretty much what Neo does in the Matrix films: He hacks the code of the Matrix on the fly to give himself superhuman powers such as the ability to fly or fight, thereby breaking the programmed laws of the game.

It is a beautiful visualisation of the relationship between the physical computer (the registers on the disk) and the information we see displayed on our screen.

Roles for the 21st century artist

Recently, I’ve been fascinated with Douglas Rushkoff, and I came across this presentation, in which he does well to sum up some of the main themes of his work. His style is earnest and passionate, and though some of his arguments are very generalized for easy consumption, he does have some very good points:

Talking to a crowd of DIY artists, Rushkoff focuses on how art is changing in the 21st century. He argues that the classic male sexuality curve of narrative with which we’re so familiar (tension, climax, release), and which can be in just about any Hollywood film or thirty second tv advertisement, won’t be the only narrative in town.

Rushkoff argues that the new interactivity and active participation that the Internet and the computer offers us, will lead to new forms of narrative. And he ends his presentation highlighting 3 new roles for the artist to take on to explore these other forms of narrative:

1) Call and response
Open up your narrative for audience participation. The audience is still uncertain of their own abilities, and they don’t yet want complete freedom. Offer them some freedom to participate, but continue to lead the narrative – like classic oral storytelling or protestant preaching. Eventually, they will supply the best ideas for leading the narrative forward.

2) Make tools
Create the tools and means for the audience to tell their own story. Here, the artist’s role is more like the role of the Dungeon Master of old D&D games: He may have absolute power, but he is continually bending the rules and shaping the scenery to create those story moments where the audience, the players can interact and create their own story.
That story is not a matter of reaching the climax and going to sleep. The point of the game is to keep playing the game. To keep the game interesting. The art – the process of playing, of creating the story – is a goal unto itself.

3) Play spaces
This is the hardest part: Creating free spaces where the members of the former audience all participate on equal terms, creating play, art and magic together. Temporary Autonomous Zones without leaders, where everybody is an artist. I wonder whether story club be an example of this?

Lucy Suchman on framing technology

This is a sort-of rough edit of my live-blogging notes for Lucy Suchman’s talk today at the IT University of Copenhagen. The talk was entitled “Human-machine reconfigurations – expanding frames and accountable cuts”

Lucy Suchman is an antropologist by training, and has worked at the legendary Xerox PARC research facility for many years. Suchman is here to talk about framing, and how we think about the way we frame technology. She presents a photo of a computer screen and an engineer’s hand pointing to something on the screen. This is an example of framing the human-machine interaction. Here, it’s just the hand – the body part interacting with the machine. This frame cuts out a lot of context in order to focus on the specific interactions.

What Suchman wants to draw our attention to, is the way that we make these frames in how we relate and think of technology and our interaction with technology, particularly in relation to research on technology: Where are we to make the cut between human and machine in a given research frame? How do we make those frames? How might we expand those frames? How can we take responsibility for the cuts we make?

She points to the cover illustration of her latest book “Human-Machine Reconfigurations” (2007). The illustration shows a “Device for washing hands” where the framing of the device blurs the boundaries between human and machine – which parts belong to whom?

Suchman says that this illustration is a good way to illustrate the word “reconfiguration”, which she finds to be a vital part of using technology. She cites Donna Haraway’s notion of technologies as ‘materialized figurations’ (from her book, “Modest Witness”). That is: Technologies take part of our activities and practices and materialize them. Configuring a tool to fit with a certain activity or practice.

Designing, then, is most of all a question of reconfiguring the relationship between human and machine, between practice and the materialized figuration of that practice. For instance, between the practice of drilling a hole and the specific drill matching the practice of drilling and containing certain assumptions as to how drilling works.

In all of this, the question Suchman focuses on is “how are persons and things configured and reconfigured in relation to one another? And how might they be figured together differently?”

She uses the example that when roboticists are designing human-like machines, they are expressing their notions of what it means to be human – of human practices – in their design. Suchman wants to show a series of examples of such reconfigurations that she’s worked with while at Xerox.

She shows an age-old magazine ad from back when people still believed in “the paperless office”:

“Why do this…” (picture of paper napkin with the proverbial good idea scribbled on it)
“… When you can do this?” (picture of two persons sitting with a laptop between them at a lunch table)

The ad suggests that people would always prefer the laptop since it offers much more technological power. But rather than assuming the complete displacement of paper technology by digital technology, Suchman and her research associates focused on how to compare the particular affordances of these two media, focusing on the interoperabilities and incompatibilities between the two media. This proved to be a much more challenging and fruitful approach, partly because the relationship between paper and digital media was the central focus of the work at Xerox – it is the “Document company”, after all.

They learned that it is vital to focus on the social arrangements within which design takes place. If you want to change the way things are designed, you have to change the context, offering designers the opportunity to engage in meaningful relations with the potential users.

Suchman presents another example where the Xerox researchers were examining customer complaints in relation to a new xerox copier. The machine proved notoriously difficult to use, and they tried to map the issues people had with these photocopiers by hanging out by the photocopier, talking to users trying to make duplex copies.

But the problems regarding the machine proved too tricky to study “in the wild”, so they ‘captured’ the machine and brought it back into the lab at PARC to test it. So they got their colleagues to try out the new copier, filming their efforts on video. They filmed a memorable sequence of two famous computer scientists failing to get the machine to do duplex copies: “They theorized, and tried their best. Spending an hour and half making prints, filling the room with paper but unable to make a single two-sided print.”

This immense difficulty of using the device stood in stark contrast to Xerox’s own advertising, which remarked “all you have to do is push the green button.” Thus, “the marketing campaign tried to obscure that any learning was required to use the more advanced functions of the machine.”

In the end, Suchman did a careful mapping of user rationale against actual use against the design rationale of the copier to discover how differently the technology had been framed by the designers compared to the users.

Then, Suchman shows a short bit of video from a study of the work flows at ground operations centre at an airport (the place where they handle communication and coordination of aircraft once they’re on the ground).

They did a careful examination of which sources of information the ground controllers consult in order to gather the information necessary to coordinate planes: Video screens, flight tables, radio contact, talking to one another in the control room, and so on.

What they found was that this sort of utilizing different information sources is unremarkable everyday stuff to the controllers. This led to a new understanding of what an information system is:

– multiple, partial information sources
– assembled into a working system through the skilled practices of their use

Their conclusion was that it is only by having the professional knowledge to use a number of partial information sources in conjunction that these information sources became useful. In this way, the information system is a configuration of both information sources and the skilled practices of the controllers. As Suchman’s colleague, the eminent interaction analyst Charles Goodwin, noted in his later work on the study (“Professional Vision” (1994)):

practices … used by members of a profession [that] shape events in the domains subject to their professional scrutiny. The shaping process creates the objects of knowledge that become the insignia of profession’s craft.

A third story from Xerox. Suchman did participant observation at a big law firm in Palo Alto in order to explore how the lawyers used and stored paper records. She set up a video camera pointing at a lawyer’s file cabinet, and asked him to “please record what you do when you use your file cabinet.”

She shows a short video clip with the lawyer going through his file cabinet to find a specific kind of Non-Disclosure-Agreement for one of his colleagues.

Suchman found that the lawyer acted as a librarian, helping the other lawyer find and give context to the specific document that he wouldn’t have had, had he found it on his own in the company online document repository. They also studied the way that lawyers and temporary filing workers worked to code comparable documents.

She was surprised to find that the lawyers considered their coding to be better because it required ‘subjective’ interpretation and professional judgement. They considered the temporary workers’ coding to be poor because of they sought to be ‘objective’ and thus without the necessary interpretation.

In studying how both groups coded the documents, they found that all jobs contain elements of routine work and knowledge work, and it is impossible to simply separate the routine work from the knowledge work. Instead, it is a much more delicate process to find out how to best apply automation in relation to these elements.

As she ends her lecture, Suchman quotes Bruno Latour’s famous passage from Pandora’s Hope on the “gun in the hand”:

You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.

(Latour, Pandora??s Hope, page 179)

In short: We get different entities when we put technology and people together. She ends by quoting the feminist physicist Karen Barad (in her book “Meeting the universe halfway” (2007)):

Agency is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world.

– which obviously matches the points that she’s been making very well.

Q: What are the big challenges in your work today?
A: Still very interested in Artificial Intelligence, including the reconfiguration of military technology such as pilot-less aircraft and their interfaces. The military and entertainment complexes are growing together in this space.

Also: Remotely controlled robots for use in surveillance, sentry duty and so on. which poses the interesting AI-question: How do you determine whether a given person is a friendly or a un-friendly?
We won’t see the full-blown autonomous robot soldier anytime soon, but the remote controlled robots will certainly be possible and big part of the near-future.

Also: Wants to write about her time at XEROX Parc and what she’s learned about what innovation is based on her experiences there: What constitutes an innovation? She posits that it is all about the framing…