Digital Declutter

Digital Declutter

I try not to waste time online and generally prefer analogue tools to digital devices. However, over the last few months, I’ve found the digital creeping into my life in unintended ways. With that it mind, and inspired by Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport I have decided to invest some time and do a digital declutter.

This is going to take place over the next thirty days, with the following rules:

  • no websurfing
  • no RSS
  • no Reddit
  • no podcasts
  • no radio
  • no online shopping

Essentially I am going to remove all non-essential internet use. I am including radio in this list because I want to stay away from news about Brexit. I reserve the right to pick up a newspaper if I want to learn about what’s going on in the world.

The only thing that I am going to keep doing is writing this blog. I enjoy doing it and, the last few weeks where I’ve not been doing so, have coincided with my internet use getting out of hand. Maybe there’s no relation, but it’s something I want to explore.

My hope is that these thirty days will give me a sort of reset. I suspect that I will go back to some of it, and that’s not generally a problem for me. But I want to remove everything before adding back in the few things that are useful.

I’m sure I will write about it here again over the next thirty days, but if you’re interested then I highly recommend picking up a copy of Cal Newport’s book.

Photography

When I was at college I had a part-time job at a camera shop. It was just on the cusp of photography shifting from film to digital. We mostly sold digital cameras, but the vast majority of printing was still film. I suspect that, if I went into a camera shop now that would have completely changed and there would be virtually no film printing happening.

I don’t know enough to say whether that is an improvement or not, but I suspect there are plenty of people ready to argue for and against digital photography. But there is another issue that interests me.

The way we treat photographs now is very different to the way we used to. The only way to see what we had captured was to have them printed out and then you had a physical object in front of you which you could either put into an album or, if you were my family, stick in a drawer.

Now, I’m willing to bet, the vast majority of pictures are never printed. Probably fewer pictures are printed in total, which is staggering if you consider how many more photographs are being taken. We are all walking around with cameras in our pockets after all.

Most photographs never exist as physical objects. They have become ephemeral things that we see scrolling past us on news feeds, things that are only ever looked at on screens. They are temporary in a way that a physical print isn’t.

Back to the camera itself. I have done a small amount of research into getting hold of a film camera and already concluded that it isn’t worth the effort. The most popular ones now seem to be Polaroid-style instant cameras and they are too big and bulky to carry around.

Another option, the one that I have chosen, is to use a digital camera as if it is an analogue camera. What I mean by this is that I have a digital camera which I will use to take photos. Then, instead of loading them onto a computer (a step I wouldn’t even have to take if I used a phone instead) I will take the memory card and have the pictures that I like printed. I won’t delete the photos, the memory card will become something like a film negative.

The idea of using digital tools in an analogue way is very intriguing and it’s something I’m going to explore more in the future.

Television

Recently I’ve written a lot of pro-analogue posts and I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about something that I think has been improved with digital technology.

When I was younger, we had four television channels and quite often there was nothing worth watching. Even when there was there were adverts on commercial channels trying to sell you things that you didn’t realise you wanted.

Then cable and satellite television came along and went some way towards solving the first problem – it would usually be possible to find something worth watching – but if anything it made the problem of adverts even worse.

The first phase of digitising television simply created more channels, so that there was almost always something on to watch. Then we got DVRs so we could record things that we wanted to watch in the same quality they were broadcast and watch what we wanted when we wanted. This improved things a lot, but mostly you had to remember to record things and, even though you could fast forward through the adverts, that was often more trouble than it was worth.

Finally, once the internet was fast enough to allow it, we got services like Netflix.

Now I can watch what I want, when I want without adverts. I don’t have to remember to record something because it is always there ready to stream.

There are downsides to this: we no longer have the big “event” programs that everyone talks about the following day, but I often find that other people have watched the same shows as me and even if we’re a little out of sync, we can usually have a conversation about them.

Although I don’t particularly like streaming music, I don’t have the same issues with television. I don’t tend to flip from program to program in the way I have done with streaming music. If there isn’t anything I’m keen to watch, then I’m quite happy to not watch anything at all.

Sometimes I consider going back to a pre-digital version of television, although as all the analogue channels were switched off a few years ago that would be impossible. I could achieve something similar with Freeview, but I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

Digital is Frail

There are typewriters from a hundred years ago which still work as they did when they were built. There are notebooks from 500 years ago which can still be read. But try using a computer from just twenty-years ago, or opening a word document from ten years ago and see how well you get on.

Analogue tools lend themselves more to maintenance and care. With just a little bit of knowledge (which you can learn on the job) you could take apart a typewriter, clean it, mend it and have it working as good as new. The same isn’t true of a computer. You can’t easily switch a processor and, increasingly, it’s difficult to even swap out a battery when it fails.

A lot has been said about “planned obsolescence” but even if it isn’t planned, it is still inevitable. Digital tools degrade over time and one day, not so long from now, it will completely fail. No matter how well you care for it. If you keep up with firmware and software updates then eventually (just 3-5 years) your device will be slower. It won’t be able to do the things that newer devices can do, but, worse than that, it will be slower and more frustrating to use than it was when you bought it.

This seems to be an inevitable consequence of multi-purpose devices and may not be exclusively a digital / analogue divide; single-use digital devices (something like a camera or a DVD player) will probably last longer than a laptop or a phone, but they will eventually fail.

Over time digital devices get worse and there seems little chance that in a hundred years a computer bought today will function. There seems little hope that a document created today will be readable in 500 years. But a notebook you write in today might well be readable by your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren and even further.