lessons learned from some time offline

Today was the last day of a short holiday, where we spent some time away from home, and away from pervasive internet access. It was really good to have the break, and see what a difference it would make to the way we relate together as a family. It feels like there’s lots to catch up on (I skimmed through over 700 things in my feed reader today), but it was helpful to have a perspective on how much my smartphone is driving my consumption habits, rather than the other way around.

I’m hoping to reflect on it further: much harder to do so with easy access to mobile internet.

rather die than change

Around ten years ago I read an article on heart attack survivors that proved people would rather die than change – given simple lifestyle changes to make, that would literally save them from having another, this time fatal, attack, the majority of people were unwilling or unable to make the change.

Changing (especially after a certain age) is tough.

I was talking to a friend about our respective social media intake. Lately I’ve found myself spending more time sourcing articles to read from Facebook, going beyond what I need to look through for work, flicking through in search of the latest fix of information. It quickly becomes a habit, and a tough one to break. Such is the genius of Facebook at some level: giving a gamified cookie to the people who continue to scroll through, like and comment on things, helping Facebook sell more ads.

While there is the occasional exception, and something of more significance will filter through, it can be tough to change gears from soaking up the shallows of the average social media post, to reading something longer and more in-depth.

My friend talked about the need to deliberately curate what goes into your mind. Instead of listening to the (unhelpful, or at best unexamined) habits that you’ve picked up, and doing what they say when choosing what goes into your mind, spend some time thinking carefully about what you want to be thinking about.

On the rare occasion when you bump into a friend who you haven’t seen in a while, will you have anything to say to them? Or will their Facebook feed have taken the place of small-talk, leaving you less connected than you might have been.

There are a number of risks with a sustained social media diet. Taking time to think about what it is you want to be thinking about, rather than always chasing bite-sized bits of new information. It will see you in a better frame of mind, and will pay dividends in years’ time that an unexamined consumption of everything you see.

Bedtime stories

One of the joys of reading bedtime stories is, through repetition, seeing the evolving ways the kids interact with stories. Tonight we read The tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, a story about a good natured but simple duck who is (spoilers) unaware that her fox landlord is preparing to roast her for dinner. 

The story is written in such a way that a very young child only notices what the duck does – even as the narrator points out the culinary implications of the fox-provided shopping list. As the kids get bigger, they can see what is going on a little more clearly, though still with a wonderfully innocent take. “Where did the fox go? Did the dogs just chase him away? Will he be back?”

There is much to learn about storytelling from the classics. 

Customer service

I had another reminder of the gap between my own understanding of what constitutes a simple user experience, and what a less-savvy computer user might deem simple.

We still have a long way to go, but I’m continuing to learn. 

When helping someone use a computer, as in many things, listening is more important than talking. If one person can tell you their mental. Ideal of a proces, it’s a safe bet that others will have the same way of looking at things. 

humans are the future of wearables

I was chatting about technology and futurism today, and the topic of Google Glass arose. Google Glass makes a little more sense in the context of the Apple Watch – two different technologies (I’ve used neither one, so take all of this with a grain of salt).

The difference? Glass attempts to sit in between the interaction two people are having. Watch attempts to interrupt as discreetly as possible, and then let the interaction recommence.

For wearables to improve the communication that is taking place between two people, they need to be able to recede. Communication technology – at its best – is about facilitating the human interaction, not replacing or subverting it.

Taking better zoo photos

  
We went to the zoo today as a family. It was a good day, and we had (for the most part) good access to look at the animals. Which is, after all, the point of going to the zoo. 

There were some people, though, who seemed to be there to take photos of the animals. People who had spent a significant amount of money on camera gear, and would go up close to the glass, or the edge of the enclosure, and try to get the clearest possible photo of just the animal, clearly, in focus, the sole subject of the photo. 

That’s a laudable goal if you’re on safari, but if you’re just visiting already captive animals, how many of these photos are you going to go back to?

When I go to the zoo, I try to capture what the kids were doing, and interested in, while we were there. I vary between taking photos and taking videos, and I try to avoid having the camera out at all, unless I have a plan to capture something. I want to actually have some memories of being present with what I’m doing (and seeing) not just a selection of things I saw through my smartphone while I was walking through somewhere, disconnected from what was going on. 

This isn’t just limited to zoos, but that was today’s example.

Remember why you’re doing whatever it is – probably to spend time with the people you have brought with you. Do that thing, and if a photo suggests itself, take that photo framed in a way that you will want to revisit. Then put the camera away.  

paul ford on coding

Paul Ford’s epic Bloomberg piece on coding is the kind of article / teaching piece / tutorial that people will be talking about for years to come. It’s a long read, and the amount you learn from it will depend on how much experience with programming you’ve had.

If you’re looking to work with programmers in some capacity, or you’re trying to understand what a career in a programming discipline might entail, it’s worth at least a skim read.

the end of the Late Show with David Letterman

In the lead up to (David) Letterman’s final episode, there were a lot of best-ofs, tributes, excerpts from the show going up on YouTube and some widespread melancholia. I think I started down the rabbit warren watching a tribute song performed by Adam Sandler, and then went much broader, watching different videos and reading a host of pieces that were each searching for a fresh angle on the same story, the one that everyone wanted to tell.

Different late-night TV hosts followed on with their own tributes – Conan, memorably, told his audience  when to switch over to Dave’s final show (and asked his viewers to record his show, and just watch the ads a few times each).

I even managed to watch some of the final show as it was broadcast on free-to-air TV here in Australia: it was on when I returned home from some meeting or other. It was clearly something that would become and important TV memory; and the final Foo Fighter performance which was overlaid with a montage of moments from the show was particularly poignant.

But a couple of things were missing from the show, and danced around by the various armchair experts.

Retirement is a chance to reflect on mortality. As much energy as he might still have, the amount of effort involved in being a Tonight Show host is incredible, and can only kept up for so long. As beloved as Dave is, the next chapter is going to be smaller than the last at least in overall reach.

The end of Letterman (the show) marks an inflection point on the way that we consume recorded TV-style content. Terrestrial, free-to-air TV has more or less had its day. It will continue on for a while, but the kinds of shared cultural moments that marked the end of a show like M*A*S*H are going to be things that need to be explained to the next generation of viewers.

rethinking the ownership of the web canvas

I still read a lot online; mostly through a feed reader, which I pay for. Part of reading through a feed reader is not seeing the content in its original context, except for those sites that encourage the user to click through to read something.

If you’ve been online for a while, you will be deeply familiar with the way that online advertising generally works. The banner ad itself is over 20 years old. Immunity to online advertising is called banner blindness: the particular structures that appear on a webpage are often not noticed by seasoned readers of the web.

This led – over many years – to an escalation of online advertising: becoming more and more difficult to avoid – full-screen pre-roll pages, site takeovers: all kinds of things.

I wouldn’t normally comment, but the Next Web, May 2015 (I’m including the date in case you need to find it in the wayback machine) did something I haven’t seen before, and appeared to change the relationship between ad and content.

On this site, when it loads, you’re presented with the site’s top nav, and some social media buttons, and a small “show article” link, but the article itself has floated off to the right of the browser window, so only a small sliver is showing. You know you’re on the right page, but the message is a new one to me – this is the advertiser’s space, and we’re just going to place the article over the top of it, because we know that’s important to you.

It made me think “I should pay more attention to this ad” – admittedly, for products I’d already heard of, and with really beautiful design – in a way I haven’t seen for a long time.

The ability to shape the experience of a visitor to your site should not be underestimated, even as there’s perceived pressure that “no one reads your site” anymore.

There is still a strong tendency among the people who build the web to think of it as a “page” first, and to limit their output to the constraints of print and paper. Admittedly, of responsively designed paper, but paper nonetheless. The capacity to communicate a sense of home and place, a hierarchy of interactions between stakeholders, has barely been tapped.

I expect to see even more innovation in the content-publisher space, even as the giant sites like Facebook move to bring more of the web’s content within their walled garden.

addressing the challenge of staying present

Anyone who has owned a smartphone for long enough will know how much it taps into your attention span. Put your smartphone down for a while, and go for a walk: see how many times you feel the twitch to pick it up again, whether it be to check the weather, look up the answer to a trivia question, take a photo, jot down a note or a calendar entry, check social media, or have one more tilt at a particular game you’ve installed.

This is not such a problem when you’re by yourself.

It’s something of a problem: being able to direct your attention from one task to the next is something you would want to control, but the smartphone device tends to win more attention battles than it loses.

How can you stay present? Here are some ideas, in descending order of severity.

  1. Leave the phone behind altogether: hand it to a trusted friend
  2. Set the phone to “airplane” mode to reduce its capability, and to screen out a lot of the notifications.
  3. Turn off notifications on the phone, so the onus is on you, not on the device, to decide its schedule of interruptions.
  4. Delete apps from your phone, to limit the scope of distractions it can offer
  5. Deliberately schedule the time that you’re going to spend on particular tasks, rather than reaching for the phone 

What about when there are other people around you? This is where staying present can be even more challenging. Even if you’re succeeding in leaving your phone in your pocket (or bag), the person you’re with may be checking their phone. And if they’re not going to be present, why should you? 

But no-one wins this kind of battle. If someone you’re with produces their smartphone for whatever reason, stay present. There are situations where sharing on the smartphone can support what’s being discussed: – either illustrating something that’s being discussed (here’s a photo of an entertaining creature in my life) or answering a question (who was the director of the film we’re discussing?) – but if the risk of distraction is too high for you or for the other person, then it’s not worth introducing it.

For me, I struggle to put down the phone again after producing it, and it’s easy to be distracted and go back to some other task than to return to the moment that you’re sharing with the other person.

Best to keep the devices away as much as possible. What’s your strategy?