Technology and Compassion

Like many in our country, I have become more and more concerned about the division in the US. I realize that these divisions are nothing new. There have always been divisions. Black vs. white. Poor vs. rich. American vs. immigrant. Liberal vs. conservative. Old vs. young. But something is different today. We seem to have lost our compassion for those not like us. How did we get here? Could it in some way be related to technology? Let me explain —

Modern computers are binary. That means they work by turning on or off a lot of electronic switches. They only have one state or the other. This is most frequently expressed as zeroes and ones. Could this way of thinking affect the way we think about the rest of life? Take cell phones, for instance. Most likely the first thing you thought about was a smartphone, perhaps even thinking of an iPhone or an Android phone. This is another duality, but it is a false one. True, the two major smartphone systems are iPhone built by Apple and Android, a Google product. However, there are other smartphone systems. There were briefly systems based on the Ubuntu version of Linux and the Firefox browser. And Microsoft made a Windows phone. Yet the majority of conversation is between only Apple and Google versions. Are you team Android? Or team iPhone?

We see this played out in our politics. Are you team liberal or team conservative? Again, this is a false choice and divisive! There is an infinite variety of thoughts and opinions between and around these two choices. It’s kind of like the rainbow. Where does red stop and orange begin? There is not a stark dividing line between red and orange. Rather there is a subtle blending from red to orange. This is true in politics as well. Even the leaders of team red (Republican) and team blue (Democrat) cannot agree exactly what it means to be on their team. There is a spectrum of opinions on each team. And there are many other teams (and colors, and their shades) than just red and blue.

One final analogy. I once had a car with a radio that had a “notched” volume dial. It was a traditional knob but it did not rotate smoothly. Instead it had little individual stopping points; it bumped from one to the next. I found that one notch was a little too quiet for when I was driving. The next bump up was a little too loud for what I wanted. And because it was notched, there was no way to fine tune between those two spots on the dial. I found this very frustrating. But it seems we are “notching” much of our lives today in very similar ways.

Much of our day-to-day lives is governed by technology, especially our cars and phones. Many decisions are made for us in these spaces by manufacturers. They decide what gets made based on what they perceive will appeal to the most people. Perhaps this homogenization, or at least reduction, of our choices is leading to a lack of openness and compassion for those on the “other” team.

But life is not digital! In the physical, analog world there are a wide variety of nearly unlimited possibilities and ways of expressing ourselves. Life is infinitely individual rather than “this” or “that”. And in that world, the most important question may be “how” rather that “what”. “How” do we treat ourselves and others regardless of the team we are on rather than “what” we think about a particular issue. After all, no one ever argued someone into agreeing with them. That comes through seeing “how” the world looks through their eyes. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone, just understand that they have different thoughts and experiences that are as equally valid as our own. And perhaps this will bring more compassion and understanding, creating a better world for all. It’s a start, at least.

How I Took Back Control from my Smartphone

There was a time when I felt phantom phone vibrations. That’s when you feel a notification vibration on your smartphone, pull it out to check what notified you, and realize that it never vibrated – there is no notification. If this has ever happened to you, it might be time to scale back your use of your smartphone. Here is how I did it.

First, I turned off all the notifications on my phone. All of them – email, social media, games. Anything that pings you to look at your phone. All of these apps install with notifications turned on. The currency of these apps is our attention and they are all vying for it. So I took it away. When I want to look at these app, I will decide when I look at my phone, not the programmer of these apps.

Next, I removed all of the unused apps on my phone. There were a lot of apps that I downloaded to try out but didn’t use anymore. So I simply removed them from my phone. If they aren’t there, they cannot distract me or take up space on my phone.

I don’t use social media very much. When I do, it seems to suck me in like one of those bad movies that you just can’t stop watching. Wanting to gain some more control over my time and attention, I decided to remove all social media apps from my phone. If I want to look at Facebook or Twitter on my phone, I still can. I just need to do it in a browser. That little bit of extra work means that I really need to want to do it.

I also removed all the games from my phone. I realized that, like social media, they were just another time suck. When I was bored or didn’t know what to do, they would call to me mentally, drawing my hand to my phone and turning on the screen. Again, if the app isn’t there, it can’t distract me.

It’s amazing the freedom this has brought me. I am reading many more books now. I committed on Goodreads to reading forty books this year. I am ahead of schedule and expect to finish more than that by the end of the year. I no longer feel like a slave to my phone nor do I feel those phantom vibrations. My smartphone feels more like the tool it is – a tool that serves me rather than the other way around.

I got some of the ideas for this digital detox from a fantastic podcast called Note to Self, particularly the series called Bored and Brilliant which is also a book that is coming out soon. I recommend you check out the podcast and consider pre-ordering the book. Another great series from that podcast is the Privacy Paradox. And in the sidebar to the right is a list of other podcasts I listen to that you might find interesting, entertaining, or helpful.

Let me know in the comments if you find any of this helpful. I really appreciate feedback. It helps me get better.


P.S. Last week I ended my post by telling you that I would explain why you might want to use open source software. In preparing to write this week’s post I realized something important – nobody would care because it isn’t very easy to take action on for the average user. Since my goal on this blog is to empower the average user, I decided to skip it. If you are interested in learning more about open source software, take a look at Ubuntu or Libre Office. You can also contact me to ask me a specific question, if you’d like.