Hello, CatskillsConf! This is the written version of my talk, given on October 20, 2018 at 4:00pm. There might be some slight differences between the written version and the spoken verison. All images are from Unsplash, except for the Hudson Valley image, which I took myself from the top of the tower at Mohonk.Read More →
The conversation retread familiar terrain from the book, but it's always worth a reminder. The episode focused mainly on the sociology of the smartphone, and I found two parts particularly interesting:
- The idea that we're losing some of the "thinginess" of the world by allowing so many of our interactions to be intermediated by abstract bits floating around a noncorporeal network. We used to carry so many things in our pockets: credit cards, photos of loved ones, access cards for buildings or public transit. Many of the artifacts we used for navigating the world have been replaced by a homogeneous set of gestures performed on the same screen. We read the news and check the stocks on the same device that we find love and hail a cab. Everything is taking on a bland sameness.
- The way we live is being shaped by a tiny group of homogeneous people in a handful of nonrepresentative places. Our new "normal" is being defined by young knowledge workers in Western tech hubs who assume that everyone needs things like constant calendar notifications, email in their pocket, news alerts, etc. It's getting hard to remember a time before those things were normal — it's now sort of assumed that everyone should run their lives like a Silicon Valley designer or engineer.
Fascinating, and worth a listen.
For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?— Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
This quote is about making food, but I think it goes for making anything: artwork, music, or even an app.
It’s easy to get caught up in the abstract side of what we do, but it’s so important to remember that behind every email answered, line of code committed, and pixel pushed are the people we’re doing it for.
I’ve been reading the book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and I thought this quote insightful, on how smartphones shape our lives:
It’s easy, too easy, to depict the networked subject as being isolated, in contact with others only at the membrane that divides them. But if anything, the overriding quality of our era is porosity. Far from affording any kind of psychic sanctuary, the walls we mortar around ourselves turn out to be as penetrable a barrier as any other. Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be a space for recuperation and recovery. Above all, horror finds us wherever we are.
I started reading the book a while back, but life got in the way and I’m finally picking it up again. It’s a breakdown of how nine different technologies are reshaping the world in invisible ways, from how the Internet of Things promotes a worldview of “unreconstructed logical positivism” (the belief that everything can be perfectly measured, and thus perfectly controlled, and human bias can be eliminated) to how smartphones make us nodes in a network, rather than discrete individuals.
Most books in this genre are either too optimistic or too pessimistic for my taste, but this one is neither technophilic or technophobic. Also unlike most books in the genre, it doesn’t read like a BuzzFeed article (“You won’t believe how these 9 technologies will make your life awesome!!!”)… it feels more like something Marshall McLuhan would write.
All-in-all, it’s been a lot to chew on, and I’m left with the feeling that it’s an important read. It’s certainly changing my understanding of the technologies that are coming down the pike. I’m a particular fan of the chapter titles, which sum up the thesis of each chapter and contain gems like:
- The internet of things: A planetary mesh of perception and response
- Digital fabrication: Towards a political economy of matter
- Automation: The annihilation of work
With a last name like Greenfield, it’s no wonder the author writes about high technology.
Reading is the best.
I grew up reading a ton — one of the benefits of being an only child, and of having been born in the days before YouTube and Buzzfeed existed to divert one’s attention — and loved the sensation of sinking into a good book. You’d open up page one, find yourself gripped by the story… and emerge hours later, unsure of where the time went. You’d have knowledge you didn’t have before, or empathy and understanding for minds other than your own. Books can change you.
My reading fell off in college; there are few things that can suck the magic out of a book like someone forcing you to read it. But the past several years, as I try to counterbalance the mental effects of working on the web, I’ve been reading a lot more and rediscovering the joys of a good book.
Here are some thoughts on how I read, why I read, and how I find books I’ll enjoy. Your mileage may vary.
How I Read
- I prefer paper books to ebooks, because I find my retention dramatically decreases if I’m reading on a screen. I suspect it has to do with the topography of the page — words on a physical page are tactile and have a location in physical space, whereas on a screen everything appears in the same ever-changing glowing rectangle.
- I make heavy use of the library, and generally only buy books that I think I’ll want to have in my personal collection. The exception is the two books a month that I get gratis from work (thanks, Dwell!)
- I use the online library catalog a lot, and hitting the “Request Book” button scratches the same itch as “Add to Checkout” on Amazon. Much cheaper, too.
I generally leave the library with three or four books at a time, with some diverse offerings to make sure that I can switch gears if I feel burnt out on any one book. I like to switch up the topics I’m reading about, too, so I don’t get caught in a rut. I know some people like to dive deep into a single subject at a time; I like to dabble, and see how connections form between the different subjects in my head. Maybe that makes me a dilettante; I prefer to think I’m just well-rounded.
Why I Read
There’s a difference between reading to read and reading to have read — in other words, reading for purpose vs. reading for pleasure.
Most fiction, I read to read. Much nonfiction, I read to have read. I’m trying to close the gap between the two — ideally, everything I read would be for pleasure, and not solely because I want to accumulate the knowledge therein.
I find that there are three reasons I typically read a book:
- For pleasure — the mere enjoyment of reading.
- To grow my breadth of knowledge — to expose myself to something new.
- To grow my depth of knowledge — to expand my knowledge on a subject I already know something about.
Most books check at least two of those boxes. Some books — Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example — checked all three. That book deepened my knowledge of some ideas that I’d already encountered through Michael Pollan’s writing, introduced me to broader knowledge of sociology and anthropology, and was also a magnificent romp of a read. If I read it again, it’ll be for the sheer pleasure of it.
How I Find Books to Read
I keep a running list of books I’m interested of reading. It’s currently tracked in Things, using category headings to keep things organized, but anything will work.
It’s a flexible list — I add books liberally, remove occasionally, and feel no pressure to read everything on the list (good thing, too, since it’s got more than 80 items now). I just want a way to keep track of recommendations and interesting-sounding titles so I always have something new to read.
I also go off-list very often; if I see something interesting, I’ll read it. I don’t want to be one of those people who’s systemized every aspect of his life… that seems like a surefire way to suck all the joy out of it.
There are four ways I typically find books I’m interested in reading:
- Personal recommendations. If someone I know recommends something to me, I always put it on the list.
- Podcasts. If a podcast I like mentions a book, or has an interview with an author, I’ll often add it to the list.
- Other books. If a book cites another book, and I’m interested in going deeper on that subject, I’ll consider adding it to the list.
- A random walk through the library. Sometimes I like to just wander the library and look at the shelves. If a title or cover pops out at me — boom, new book to read. I’ll occasionally do this with a shelf I rarely visit, just to see if there’s some new subject I may be interested in pursuing. It feels like browsing the course catalog at college again — full of possibilities.
I try not to pay much attention to Amazon’s recommendations because I know they’ll be books that I like… which means they’ll probably be books that reinforce my existing taste. I’d rather broaden my taste by reading a wide variety of books than get into a rut by reading the same sort of thing over and over. I do have genres and authors I keep going back to, but I want to supplement those with non-obvious choices that no algorithm would think to recommend for me.
Bonus: A Few of My Recent Favorites
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt/Theodore Rex/Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Biography)
- Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (Geography, Sociology, Anthropology)
- Cooked, Michael Pollan (History, Food)
- Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (Science Fiction, Weird Fiction)
- Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (Science Fiction)
I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago. Before leaving, I removed Tweetbot and Instagram from my phone — anything with a feed, really, including Slack and email etc.
As expected, my mind felt clearer almost immediately. Without Twitter close at hand, I lost the constant urge to see what’s going on elsewhere. Without Instagram ready to go, I stopped unconsciously evaluating every moment for how well it would look on my Story.
Coming back, I’ve decided to end my relationship with Twitter for good. It’s been almost ten years — I started in college, quit after a little while, and then rejoined again. (All part of my usual love/hate relationship with all things social.)
Things were good back then. I followed lots of web people, and learned about things like web standards. There was less vitriol and more collegiality, less corporatism and more direct access to real, interesting people.
In many ways, Twitter kicked off my career. It’s how I discovered the people and publications that taught me my craft. It’s where I first connected with The Industry, which would be my first real contribution to the design community. It’s how I’ve found and referred work, and met people who’ve been influential in my professional life.
Part of the joy of Twitter was its openness towards third-party clients. Don’t like twitter.com? Use a different app.
I’ve been a loyal Tweetbot user for a long time. Even as Twitter switched to an algorithmic feed, and added Moments, and added advertising, Tweetbot felt like the old Twitter.
It was well-designed, chronological, and sane. Even before Twitter had built-in muting, I had robust filters on Tweetbot that would filter out almost anything political, histrionic, or otherwise obnoxious. It made Twitter feel more like the early days.
Of course, this story ends predictably — Twitter changed its policy towards API access, severely crippling Tweetbot and its ilk. No more automatic timeline updates, no more activity tab. They clearly want everyone to come back to their subpar first-party apps.
So with that, I’m done with Twitter. If it’s a choice between using Twitter in its current form — poorly-run, blood-pressure-raising, user-hostile — or not using it at all… well, I choose not using it at all.
There are other reasons. I don’t like what Twitter does to my brain. During periods when I’ve been using it heavily, I can feel a shift towards thinking in Tweetable phrases.
I want to think in paragraphs, not sentences. I want my brain to pursue complex trains of thought, not quips designed to maximize engagement.
For the foreseeable future, I’m turning Twitter on autopilot. It’ll publish links to my blog via a Zapier integration, but I won’t be posting or checking otherwise. I’ve pinned a link to my email newsletter, which I’m resurrecting for anyone who wants to still get updates from me.
Yes, this will shrink my reach a little (not that it was exactly huge to begin with). But better to have a handful of followers who truly care than a multitude who won’t notice if I’m no longer in their feeds.
I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d rather have my thoughts archived on a corner of the web that I own, rather than homesteading on some company’s land.
My priorities will never line up with Twitter’s. If I have something to say, then, I’d rather say it here.