Yeah it’s possible, but would I like it?

Woke up way too early this morning with uncomfortable dreams. Rather than fight sleep, I decided to pick at my phone.

Yesterday my family had a good discussion about the invasive contact tracking that seems to be heading towards us all like a loaded freight train. We’re considering our options (Light Phone is the current front-runner) but in addition to the potential security gain, there’s also the quality of life gain and that’s what I was considering as I lay there, not sleeping, this morning.

Our phones have become useful companions over the last decade or so, but are they really meant to be companions? Additionally, has society shifted significantly enough to make going offline an extremely radical choice? Is that a choice I want to make?

In thinking about these questions I decided to start rearranging all those little icons on my own device (currently an iPhone 6s). This generated new questions that I tried to answer in this experiment.

What does the Light Phone provide out of the box?

  • Phone (includes Contacts)
  • Clock (includes Alarm functionality)
  • Texting (plain text only)
  • Calculator

I moved these apps to the pinned items bar. These are what I would have if I switched right now. This is a workable, usable device. The only hurt I feel within what’s available here is not having rich media texting. My family and friends make significant use of the ability to send photos.

What are the Light Phone folks planning on adding?

  • GPS
  • Music
  • Notes
  • Calendar

I moved everything else off of the home screen at this point. This honestly fills a LOT of my daily use, though it doesn’t match my personal workflow. All of these apps could be replaced relatively simply with analog equivalents. Having them available is just handy and make it possible to leave the house with just wallet, keys, and phone without much inconvenience.

What else does the iPhone provide out of the box (or nearly so) that I actually use?

  • Reminders
  • Camera
  • Voice Memos
  • Mail
  • Photos
  • Podcasts
  • Safari
  • Weather

Now we’re looking at some meat and potatoes apps that I would genuinely miss. I was surprised to find that if I were to delete every single 3rd party app on my phone I would still feel like I had a very useful, dare I say magical, device.

Along with the others mentioned above, I truly do use every single one of these apps on a daily basis. Some of them, such as Reminders and Voice Memos, have significantly improved my quality of life as an autistic person. Others, such as Camera/Photos and Podcasts, genuinely spark joy.

What 3rd party apps do I genuinely use on a daily basis?

  • Habitica (todo list)
  • Trello (project planning)
  • Bear Writer (all my personal notes)
  • Slack (work and side project communication)
  • Recycle Coach (because holidays muck up the pickup schedules)
  • Clue (reproductive systems are weird)
  • LastPass (login all the things)
  • Threes (game as fidget spinner?)
  • myNoise (meditation and focus)
  • Workouts For Women (7 minute stretches)
  • Duolino (Sprichst du Deutsch?)

Yes, for the most part I don’t need to have 24/7 access to these things. When I’m out of the house some of them won’t get any use or they’re only touched a couple times a month or when a spontaneous question or thought comes up. They wouldn’t get replaced. See caveat two below.

What would be highly inconvenient to go without when I’m out of the house?

  • Bank and Car Insurance apps
  • Take out ordering apps
  • Additional GPS tools
  • Goodreads (I track stuff I want to buy when going to the bookstore is possible again)

I won’t keep listing all the apps in detail. We’re into truly utilitarian territory here. But this is the stuff that makes the difference between having a smart phone and a simple phone. These are the “hey I have the tool, might as well use it to its full advantage” apps.

What the hell else do I have on here?

There are about 45 additional apps I have on my phone. Social media, some more games, media and streaming players, some self care stuff, and various other tools. I shoved these all into folders on the last “page”. This is the stuff I could remove and probably not notice they were gone once I break the habit of using them.

Okay, so what have I learned?

I could definitely be content with a Light Phone with a couple caveats. The tools that are currently available for it fulfill a surprising chunk of my needs when I’m out of the house. When I’m in the house I have a laptop and don’t need a phone much.

Caveat One:

I would need to carry more analog tools until the other apps the Light Phone folks have in development are completed. A GPS for the car, my old iPod Nano, a paper notebook and calendar would all get added to my bag.

In addition, to get back functionality I find vital, I would add a camera, voice recorder (or leverage my iPod), a puzzle book, and fidget toy. (or that old Gameboy I bought last year)

The only thing I would really feel I was missing that isn’t covered by this caveat is Reminders. Perhaps the coming calendar and the existing alarm would fill that void?

All in all, that’s not really too bad. This could all easily fit in a decently small bag. So what about the other apps I’d be losing in the move?

Caveat Two:

I would likely switch everything else over to my iPad. There’s a lot of stuff that I use my phone for that I don’t need to have all the time but I do like having. All those tools like Habitica and Trello and Clue do have desktop OS counterparts, but I work as a programmer and sometimes I want to get away from my desk. Sometimes I want to sit outside on a park bench, just for the fresh air. Or I want to curl up on the couch. Sometimes I work on paper but use those digital tools for references. For various reasons, it’s just nice to have the option. The other nice thing about this option is that the iPad can stay home.

In Summary

The result of this experiment is pretty straightforward. Yes, I can use a Light Phone. Yes, I can switch to using analog tools for the stuff it doesn’t provide either currently or ever. Having solidified the hypothesis here, I also don’t have to wait to try it out. I can move everything optional off my phone now, strip it down to a simulated version of a Light Phone and see how it goes.

One thing I kind of knew already but was truly shown in this process was that, most importantly, yes I can make my choices about screen time more intentional than they currently are. Reducing trackability may have been the spark behind this exploration, but the outcome is that I’m thinking more about how I use my technology and ways I can reclaim some personal power and intention in my usage of it. It is a tool and should not be using the user.

On Upgrades

I’ve got my 2015 Macbook Pro set up next to my beloved Weathertop (running Linux for programming and Windows for gaming). It’s running iTunes and Tiny Desk concerts and basically acting like a media center right now. I also write all of my fiction on there and use it to run almost every aspect of Luna Station Quarterly.

I’m looking at this miraculous device, all aluminum and crystal and circuits and I’m realizing it’s perfect as it is. I’m able to accomplish everything I need (including programming when I’m away from my desk), it runs all the programs I need, it’s able to play music for days and days. It fulfills every need and gripe I had with my earlier machines. It is, quite simply, enough.

My phone is a little slower than I’d like (and I’m upgrading that next year because it’s showing its age) but it functions fine and does what I need of it as well. I can connect with everyone I want to, play some games to entertain myself, and remind myself of literally anything I need to do.

At some point in the last couple of years I’ve stopped craving innovation in my devices. What I have does exactly what I need it to do. The dissonance with this realization is in navigating the upgrade path that is so relentless in both hardware and software. The need of companies to create perceived value without actually doing much in the way of impactful innovation for the end user is a symptom of larger problems, of course. Still, it creates a challenge that I have to address from time to time.

The one personal advantage, I suppose, is that when I am required to update a device, I have the opportunity to assess my options with a relatively clear perspective. I can make choices based on my needs, because I know what they are or can list them relatively easily. Stepping back from the annual cycle means I feel less tied to the microimprovements year-to-year and can find the best tools for me at the time, hopefully with enough room in the lifecycle to keep from having to go through the process again anytime soon.

For now, that will have to suffice, though I can’t help feeling that there is a better way. Though other options I think about mostly involve accepting a certain amount of obsolescence that I’m not sure is viable, considering my career and personal work. My default moving forward is much more likely to stick with the old until it is no longer not just viable, but livable. When the situation with my technology breaks down from doing what I need of it, only then will I assess and upgrade.

Evolving Interactions

On a slack I frequent daily, someone asked a question in the #watercooler channel we use for general conversation.

Genuinely curious to hear others’ experiences: is there a subset of tech Twitter/Mastodon where the dynamic is more conversational and less, uhh… “/dev/null with likes”? Trying to suss out for myself whether I should treat it mentally as more of a news feed or an interactive environment.

It was good timing for this because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my presence on social media and how I use the internet in general.

I’m one of those folks who’s basically off Twitter unless someone sends me a specific link and I don’t have a personal Facebook account. As for Mastodon, I use it a lot like a microblog a la Tumblr. The instance I’m on has a 10k character count limit so I can get a whole, fully-formed thought out (mine posts average around 500 characters). I do indeed talk about tech stuff and I do have cool conversations with folks on occasion. It’s more measured and slow due to the nature of the platform, though that suits me just fine. I’ve muted all the shitposting because that’s not why I’m there. In other words, there are definitely pocket universes where real conversation still happens on the internet.

Mastodon in particular doesn’t have any dark patterns (or any algorithms for that matter) that work to keep me sucked in and feed any FOMO I have. This makes it easier to close it down when other things need to be in focus. These days I find myself interacting with Slack folks (like we used to do on forums), using Mastodon for microblogging (hello LiveJournal and Tumblr), and putting long form thoughts out via blog (I see you hanging in there Blogger) and pretending it’s all an improved UI on 2000’s era functionality.

This way of using the internet has been an evolution in my thinking and, in many ways, a reclaiming over the last year. Actually, when I think about it, the real sea change for me in my attitude about social media was after reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport followed up by my recent move that kept me offline by necessity. The book got me thinking and assessing and the time away allowed the perspective to see what I valued in my online time and where I really wanted to spend my energies.

At the end of the day, I’ve changed my default interaction with the platforms as output rather than input, quieting my feeds to a slow trickle. Because I have gotten responses from folks telling me that the stuff I write about hits important notes for them, I continue to share things, but I do what I can to put the whole thought together, provide context, and make it as meaningful to myself as it may be to them.

I’m pretty pleased with the changes I’ve made. The internet feels useful again, my time doesn’t feel wasted at the end of the day, and sometimes I am even of use to others who follow me. That’s really all I ask for in such a powerful tool.

On “Software Engineering”

There was an xkcd comic going around a couple weeks ago. It was funny in a disturbingly “it’s funny because it’s true” way. Further driving the point home was this article on writing software tests I read this morning, where Process Engineering practices used in industrial planning is compared with Software Engineering practices for building applications.

Much of software built today is created with some level of testing applied, at least on the back end. The front end has been slower to integrate testing, though the tools are just as strong. But in both the front and back end, testing is seen as a necessary evil at best, and an unnecessary burden at worst. A lot of this sentiment, from my experience, comes from a couple different sources.

First, is simple ignorance. The way many of us have entered the industry, through various levels of self-teaching, means there are gaps in understanding of best practices. As someone who came in this way, I’m hyper aware of these gaps and work to fill them. Testing is one of the most difficult skills to learn for a newcomer, especially if you’re learning on your own. I can’t speak for the bootcamps, having never attended one. I like to think they teach BDD or TDD as a matter of course.

Second is cost. Testing takes time. In the startup world of “move fast and break things” the things that break are supposed to be the old ways of doing things, opening up the opportunity for more efficiency and a better ways. When testing is sidelined in favor of pushing out a minimum-viable product, what often ends up broken instead is the code base, the application itself and the bread and butter of the business being built.

Third is, quite frankly, laziness on the side of the developers. Testing takes time. It means having planning in place. It means thought processes must be applied to ensure the functions being written do their job properly. This means that you can’t just dive in and start writing code, something most developers will tell you is the “fun” part. So there’s a big avoidance factor at play as well.

Mechanical engineers like my father chuckle about our industry’s use of the term “engineer”, and rightfully so. While there are many folks who work hard to plan and test, there are many more who prefer to dive in and start writing code without those practices. When the software does not work as expected, or becomes more and more difficult to maintain as the bug list grows, none of us should be surprised.

If we are to model ourselves after the aircraft designers and the building engineers mentioned in that xkcd comic, then we need to embrace their practices of testing and planning as well.

The software we write infects and effects the world around us. Algorithms rule everyone who touches the internet now. Software is dangerous, it’s a tool that can and is used as a weapon, a subtle knife used to stab more often than not. We have a duty to everyone on the planet to get our shit together as an industry. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing calling ourselves Engineers?

Pruning

I was thinking about my phone today. Eventually it will need replacing, but with what? Do I want to stay with the iOS ecosystem? Is there some better option out there?

I went through a little thought experiment where maybe I would purchase a basic, non-smart phone and get an iPod Touch for the stuff I use my current phone for. Getting away from iTunes (which I only use for organizing my music library) is a massive challenge and I’ve got quite a few games I’m pretty attached to.

In the end what I realized is that I needed to declutter my phone, make sure the notifications I get are minimal, and find a better option for a bedside clock.

I dumped most of the games I kept on there “just in case” I wanted to play them (I game a fair bit on my iPad, those games will be there instead). I moved my social media apps (Twitter and Mastodon, I don’t have a Facebook account) deep into a folder. I like the option of posting to them as needed, but burying them makes me less likely to read the feeds on there.

Everything on the homepage is daily use. Apps on the middle page are stuff I use pretty often but not daily, and utilities it would be a pain to have to download (the retail apps particularly) the few times a year I need them. The games I’ve left on their I use daily for brain breaks and I like variety in them.

All in all, I’m glad I went through this process. I feel like my phone is more of a tool again and will help me keep my daily practices more consistent and distract me just a bit less.