seanlunsford.com

Technology

Occasional nerdy thoughts about tech

Missing Out: a response to “Look Up” and the argument that my iPhone is evil

So this post is a bit different from what I usually write here, but I’m feeling the need to get on a soapbox about something I’m seeing a lot of these days. It’s probably not what you might think. It’s about attitudes about our use of technology, and people’s fear of it turning us all into zombies at worst, or poor wretched souls with no life who will one day die alone, at best.

(Disclaimer: I’m feeling more sarcastic than usual.)

There’s a video called “Look Up” going around. Its point is that we’re too absorbed in our screens and we’re missing out on life going on around us. That “social media” is making us antisocial. Sound familiar? The more ubiquitous Facebook and smartphones become, the more I keep seeing videos, tweets, and blog posts telling us to sign out of Facebook and Twitter, turn off our phones, and live life. (Also a little ironic.) But the more I hear this message, the less I agree with it.

The sentiment is valid. It’s entirely true that we can spend too much time looking at our screens. There’s the classic scenario of a group of people sitting around a dinner table, all looking at their phones and not talking to each other. And yes, this happens—probably more often than it should. But I don’t think that makes our phones bad. Or social media. Or the internet. I think it’s healthy to keep our use of these things in check. I’ve taken steps to do that myself. But I think these videos, and this one in particular, can take the message too far.

The fact is, you can have too much of anything good. The fact that gluttony and the obesity caused by it are rampant, especially in the developed world, doesn’t make food evil. It’s entirely necessary to life itself. The other half of the world is suffering and dying from a lack of it. (Another huge issue that I’m not about to tackle in this post.)

Now, I can’t make the case that technology is necessary to life. It’s not on the same level as food, anyways. But technology is enabling so much life. It’s bordering miraculous what we are able to do these days because of technology and the internet. If we traveled to a couple decades ago with an iPad, it would blow people’s minds. (The time traveling probably would, too.) If people from a few hundred years ago saw us with our iPhones, they would think we were sorcerers. And lives are being saved every day by technology.

The human race, contrary to what these videos are saying, is more connected than ever. And the entire sum of mankind’s knowledge is available to us literally at our fingertips, almost anywhere on the planet—even to people orbiting it. And startups from Silicon Valley to Germany to India are coming up with apps and devices every day to solve problems and make life better for lots of people.

My friends and family are scattered across the globe. But because of Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, and iMessage, I can stay in touch with them in a way no generation has been able to, ever. Gone are the days where you send a letter to another continent by ship and get a reply months later. Now, if we coordinate time zones (technology hasn’t quite fixed everything yet) I can see a friend in the mountains of Asia face to face, and talk to them in real time.

The video goes on to make a distinction between being alone reading a book, painting, or doing something else “productive”, and being alone on the internet. Saying that reading a book is enriching and constructive and surfing the web is not. Because there’s nothing at all worth reading on the internet (including this post), and no mindless trash has ever been published in the form of a book, ever. (That was sarcasm, by the way.) And how are kids learning to code at a young age, learning the critical thinking and problem solving skills needed for it, and creating their own apps, not being constructive? Or children with autism who, given iPads, are able to express themselves and show creativity in a way they never could before? (True examples. Google them. The information’s at your fingertips, remember?)

The second half of that video tells the story of a chance encounter, where a guy asks a girl for directions, and they end up going on a date, and then getting married, and all about them becoming parents and then grandparents, and blah blah blah. But the guy would’ve missed all that if he’d been using his iPhone for directions. Come on, really? Keep that in mind next time you ask someone for directions. You might end up marrying them.

I’m tired of being told that all this technology is making me more disconnected from the people I care about, when I know for a fact that the opposite is true. I’m tired of being told I’m going to miss out on life because I have an iPhone and use it. Not only have I made lots of memories hanging out with friends, but technology has made it easier than ever to plan those times, coordinate meeting up, and capture those moments to remember them. I’m tired of being told that technology is bad when the world is so much better off because of it. Going back to the developing world—if the right technology could be made accessible and affordable in developing nations it could have a huge impact. I’m not talking about everyone being able to watch cat videos. I’m talking about being able to solve real problems.

So yes, don’t be a jerk to your friends and spend the whole evening playing with your phone. But if you do, that’s your problem, not your phone’s. What I don’t want us to miss out on or take for granted is the huge potential in those phones, and the way they—and all the technology we have available to us—are making the world a better place.

Unplugged (Sort Of)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about God, it’s that he likes to throw monkey wrenches in our plans, and substitute his own. To disrupt us if we start to get too comfortable—not because there’s anything wrong with comfort, but because if we’re too comfortable for too long we start to get stagnant.

A week ago I shared my intention of delving into technology on this blog a little more. I specifically said that I was going to start with a review of an app called Moves, and that I was going to write said review this weekend. I actually started it this afternoon, and wrote for a little while until I had to go to 130 Jackson for sound check and band practice before the service. Once we’d gone through the sound check, and I’d got the mix about where I wanted it, I pulled out my phone and picked up where I’d left off (the beauty of cloud sync) while the band practiced.

Then the service began. [nlcf] is doing a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, leading up to Easter. Last week we started with Pride, and this week was on Gluttony. Jim defined gluttony more broadly than it is commonly used, to mean an unhealthy over-indulgence of anything, to the point of waste, and to the point of turning our focus away from God. At the end he brought up Lent, which begins on Wednesday, and encouraged us to think about something we could give up for the forty days, that could make room in our lives to grow closer to God. He gave a few examples of common fasts, including chocolate or Facebook. Even while he was still talking, I knew. I’m going on a technology fast.

I mentioned in last week’s post that my biggest time waster is technology blogs. It may not have come across in what I said there, but I’ve been realizing over the past several weeks that this is a big problem. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with them, but because they suck away so much of my life.

In addition to the Seven Deadly Sins series, over the first four weeks of the semester, at [nlcf] we’re focusing on listening and hearing from God, and freeing up time to do so. That is, we’re spending the four weeks looking at it in depth—particularly in our Engage Groups, but enmeshed with everything we’re doing—in order to become a congregation that practices it habitually, setting the tone for the semester and beyond. A major aspect of it that we’re taking on is time management. This is something that has plagued me…probably as long as I can remember. But God’s been turning the heat up on this issue for me recently, and now that we’re honing in on it at [nlcf], it’s something that I really want to tackle head-on this semester. Not only to free up time for God (although that’s the most important reason,) but also to stay on top of homework better, so I’m not getting it done late at night when it’s due the next morning, and to have time to do other stuff that I just can’t now. All that stuff that falls under the umbrella of “being a good steward of my time.”

Part of this has been looking at things we can prune back. The amount of time I spend on tech sites (or their app counterparts), YouTube, and the like, jumped quickly to my mind. So I’ve already been thinking about ideas for regulating my time spent on non-school-related or unessential surfing. But after Jim’s sermon tonight, I’ve decided that for Lent, I’m going cold turkey.

My plan is to only use my iPhone, iPad, or laptop to do the things I actually need to do. It’s unrealistic to unplug from email, texting, or even Facebook, because I need to be able to stay in touch with people, and all of those are necessary for that at some point or other. So I’ll launch the Facebook or Facebook Messenger apps if I get a notification, I’ll take appropriate action, and close them. (Historically, wasting time on Facebook has not been a huge issue for me like it is for a lot of friends. I have other issues.) Same goes for email—I’ll open it when I get an email, respond accordingly, and move on. (More on email below.)

It’s unrealistic to stop managing my schedule and to-do lists in their appropriate apps. (Well, technically this one’s probably doable, but I don’t think it’s necessary or beneficial. I’ll still be carrying around my phone, so I may as well use the calendar and task management apps. I’m not about to go out and buy a paper planner. I really think that would just make it harder to be effective with my time.)

It’s certainly unrealistic to stop using the apps and websites I need to do homework and stuff.

But other than the essentials, I’m unplugging. I’m not gonna read up on the latest iThing and everything it can do. (I think that’s gonna be the hardest part of this for me. What might Apple do between now and Easter, that I’m gonna miss? I’ve heard rumors of updated iPads sometime this quarter, and of an up-and-coming iWatch sooner or later. Of course, if they do something big, I’ll hear about it somehow or other. But I won’t get to read all the juicy details myself.) I’m not gonna browse the App Store looking for apps to experiment with. I’m not gonna play Letterpress or Angry Birds Star Wars. I’m going to resist the urge to pull out my phone anytime I’m standing in line or waiting around for class to start, just to fill the time. Or to reach for it when I wake up and spend the first minutes of my day reading a review of Blackberry 10.

I’m going so far as to rearrange my home screens to put the apps I’ll need on the first one. And not even go to the others. (This is actually a very strategic step. As long as my home screens look like they always do, I won’t think twice about tapping open my News folder and tapping one of the icons sitting inside it, before realizing what I’ve done. But if that folder is nowhere to be found on that first screen, I’ll remember that I’m supposed to be staying away from it.)

I’m even going old-school and pulling my old (imitation?) leather-bound Bible off the shelf. The one with pages and stuff. (The books I’m reading are stuck in iBooks, though, and I think it’s still worth reading those.)

And during these forty days, I’m going to be thinking long-term—about what boundaries I can set on myself in this area for once Lent is over, and about other steps I can take to manage my time a little better.

I will probably still be blogging some. Maybe even a little more frequently, because with more time to hear from God I’ll probably have more stuff to share. But if you were excited about hearing about apps, sorry. I’ll leave you with a consolation mini-review. (Last chance to plug an app here for a while—and this is actually relevant.)

Going back to email, I actually just started using an app that I think will really help in the battle of the inbox. It’s called Mailbox, and it conveniently just launched the other day, although I’ve been waiting for it for months. The basic premise is that the only emails in your inbox are the ones you need to address at this moment. The app badge actually shows the total number of emails in your inbox, rather than the typical unread count. You can archive or delete an email, move it to a list, or snooze it. This snooze feature is where the innovation really lies. You can tell it to snooze until later today, tomorrow, next week, or even later. It will move into a Later section (where you can still go to see the emails you’ve snoozed) and will come back to your inbox whenever you told it to, so you can deal with it then. Sure, it’s a fancy way to procrastinate, but it’s a good way to handle those emails that you’re leaving in your inbox until it’s a good time to take care of them. It makes me really think about each email—whether I can respond to it now, or if there’s a better time when I actually will. In the meantime, I can get back to “Inbox Zero.” Which feels really, really good.

They’re launching for just iPhone and Gmail and will expand from there. (In anticipation of this app, I set up yet another personal address over break, at Gmail, and have my previous email addresses (iCloud, etc.) forwarding to it. Virginia Tech mail is conveniently Gmail-based.)

They’re also rolling it out first-come, first-serve, slowly at first, but speeding up exponentially. I was fortunate enough to hear about the up-and-coming app back in December, from a blogger who got let in on the private beta and said it was the best thing since sliced bread. I got on the waiting list way back then, so I was only #18,728, and I got access to the app only a couple days after it launched last week. People getting in line now could be waiting a month. (While you’re waiting, the app shows the number of people in line in front of you and behind you. Last I saw, there were more than 600,000 behind me.) But I think the app is worth the wait.

If you’re an iPhone/Gmail user, you can read more about Mailbox at mailboxapp.com, and get it on the App Store here.

Back to Lent. Seeing as it starts Wednesday, I have a couple days to think about this some more, and see if there are any other ways I can unplug. (If you have ideas, drop them in the comments below.) In the meantime, I’ll probably start easing into the ideas I have so far, before going all-in on Wednesday. So there you have it. This could be an interesting six weeks. But I think it’ll be good. Really good.

(Also, in case you were wondering—my iPad and keyboard only stayed in the trash can long enough to take the picture. I actually wrote this on that iPad, with that keyboard.)

Pivot

When I started this blog I said I wasn’t going to limit it to any specific topic, but that anything I think is worth sharing is fair game. So far, I’ve mostly written about matters of faith. Actually, that’s all I’ve written about, save the first paragraph of one post in which I got into a bit of a technology tangent. You probably didn’t notice, but I added a Technology category that I used on that post alongside my standard Christianity one. As I was writing that post, I had the thought that I just might get into that area a little more in the future. Now I’ve decided that I will.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a bit of a nut about gadgets and stuff. I keep up with happenings in the tech world (lowercase t, not to be confused with Tech, that is, Virginia Tech) the way normal people follow sports or politics, and with the same intensity. My biggest time waster is not Facebook but sites like Mashable, TechCrunch, and various individual tech bloggers. Which often include news about Facebook. So this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about doing some of my own tech blogging. I’ve never gone through with it because I didn’t really feel like I had anything to add. There are plenty of sites out there to get news. Mashable and TechCrunch are just two of them. The individual tech bloggers generally don’t break news but weigh in on it, giving their own insights, predictions, etc. But I didn’t really feel like had anything to add in that respect, either. Then the other night it hit me. Reviews. I enjoy trying out new apps, and when I can, new devices. And I can be very opinionated about what I like and what I don’t. Apple has left me with a deep appreciation for design—in aesthetics, functionality, and overall experience. As have many of the great iOS developers out there.

In the technology/startup world, a pivot is a company’s change in direction or focus from their original product or service. I’m blanking on an example right now. In the case of this blog, a pivot would be if I were to turn it into a technology blog. But don’t worry, that’s not what I’m going to do. What I’m doing isn’t really pivoting, in the strictest sense of the word. I will still be posting along the lines of what I’ve written on the blog before. That probably will remain my primary focus. I believe that matters of faith, of Truth, are the most important things I can discuss and share. That’s why so far that’s all I’ve written about. But I think there can be value in discussing technology as well.

So what you can expect in the future: as I said, I will keep writing about stuff God is showing me much, if not most, of the time. But I will also start posting reviews now and again. Unfortunately, unlike the tech blogs I read, I don’t have access to review units or the money to buy every new gadget that comes out. When I do get new hardware, I may decide to write a review. But I think the most valuable opinions I have to give in this area are on apps—specifically of the iOS variety. I’ve gotten comments about the number of apps I have on my home screens (although my brother beats me by a factor of…a lot.) (Update below.) Because most apps are free or cheap, I download new ones a lot to try out. Some become essential to my daily life, others find a place on my last home screen, so I can access them if I ever find a need for them. Others I get rid of. All that to say, I think it might be interesting for others out there to hear my thoughts on the apps I use, because we’ve entered an age where a significant percentage of the population of the developed world (and a growing number of people in the rest of the world) depend on pocket-sized computers that moonlight as phones, and on the apps that run on them. After all, smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales around the world.

This tech reviews thing might expand from here. It might get to a point where I decide to spin it off into its own blog. We’ll see. This is just another step in this big experiment that is this blog.

To whet your appetite a little: I downloaded a new iPhone app the other day called Moves. It’s basically an app that tracks your activity—walking, running, and cycling—as you go throughout your day. I’ve been using it the past few days, and while I have some initial impressions, the nature of the app is such that I want to get a good week of use out of it before writing about it—probably until next weekend. If you want to see it for yourself in the meantime, check it out on moves-app.com, and on the App Store. Stay tuned.

If you’ll excuse me, I have a Super Bowl party to get to.

Update: The results are in: my brother and I have compared numbers and it turns out I was wrong—more like using outdated information. I’m still pretty sure a couple years back he had a lot more apps than I did, but somewhere along the way the tables turned.