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.

Energy Consumption & Books

What follows is an article completely free of scientific information and may well prove to be completely inaccurate. That said, I think it raises some issues that need to be considered.

Which is more environmentally friendly: reading on paper or digital?

A paper book means that trees have been cut down to produce it, and they are generally heavier than eBook readers so require more energy to transport. But once it’s in your hands, the energy consumption stops.

The same isn’t true of digital reading devices. I will concede that the cost of producing the book (but not the reader) is probably lower than a paper book and that getting it to you likely takes less energy. But with eBooks, that isn’t the end of the story.

If I buy a paper book then I can read it again and again without any additional energy requirement. With an eBook, even if I keep it on my device and don’t have to download it again, I still need to provide energy to the eBook reader whenever I want to read it.

Maybe over the course of a week, month, year, the eBook would still come out on top, but over a decade? Over a lifetime? Longer? I can lend my paper book to any number of people without any additional energy requirement, that’s not possible with an eBook. Even if you could lend the title, the other person would need to have a reading device.

And a low power reader is probably the best case scenario for energy usage. What happens when you factor in the people who are reading books on tablets and phones and laptops?

The cost of manufacturing these devices needs to be accounted for as well. Creating a paper book requires cutting down some trees (which can be replanted) but creating a digital device of any kind requires the use of raw materials that can’t be replaced so easily and assembly in factories that may have unethical working conditions.

EBooks are undeniably convenient and as we move towards renewable sources of electricity and more ethical factory conditions, they may become a better way to read. Hell, like I said at the start, they might already be. What I’m trying to get at is that the conversation needs to take these things into account. A paper book uses a finite amount of energy in its creation and distribution, a digital book has an ongoing energy requirement. That’s what needs to be considered.

Connected

Once upon a time, not very long ago in the grand scheme of things, it took effort to get online. If we were fortunate then we had a computer at home and it was connected to the internet. But not all the time. If you wanted to go online then you had to go through the process of connecting to the internet. So you didn’t do it very often.

Now it takes an effort to go offline because connected has become the default state. We have phones, laptops, tablets and televisions that are permanently connected to the internet. It takes barely more effort than picking up the device.

Is this progress?

Perhaps.

But who does it benefit the most? Where has the drive to have people constantly connected to the internet actually come from?

I suspect, although have no way of proving, that if you’d asked people twelve years ago whether they wanted to have their phones connected to the internet all the time, a good proportion of them would have said no. Yet here we are.

It rarely benefits me to have the internet in my pocket at all times, but it’s there. Collecting data on where I’m going, what I’m doing, what I’m searching for and who knows what else. Selling that data to advertisers or using it to build a profile of me.

That is who it really benefits. To me it is just a constant nagging distraction that I would probably be better off without.

An Hour a Day

An hour a day doesn’t seem like long to spend online. But if you do that every day for a year then it’s fifteen days. I got the internet at 13 and the current average lifespan is 79 years, so let’s say I have internet access for 66 years over the course of my lifetime. At an hour a day that would be 990 days spent online. More than two and a half years.

Things get even worse when you look at the waking hours. Then it’s 20 days a year, or 1,320 over the course of my life. Three and a half years.

Unfortunately, that’s not even the end of the story. The average time spent online is four hours a day. Which is 5,280 days over a lifetime. Almost fourteen and a half years of waking life spent in front of a computer.

Just think what you could do with almost fifteen years of extra life.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think there are better uses of my time than to spend them in front of a computer browsing the internet. So that is what I intend to do; to spend that time more wisely.

Limits as a feature

I have been an Audible subscriber, on and off, since 2014. Because I now spend two hours a day commuting, I have a lot of time to listen to books. Last year I started looking around for alternatives.

The main reason for looking elsewhere was because I didn’t want to keep giving money to Amazon. I had already switched to Kobo for Ebooks. When I looked into it there were two main alternatives: Kobo and Scribd.

The first one I tried was Kobo but I had a lot of trouble with the sync, which, considering I was only listening on my phone, so it only had to remember the last position on that device, was a deal breaker.

Scribd didn’t have those problems. In addition it had a different business model, allowing me to listen to an unlimited number of books in a month at no extra charge, compared to one a piece for both Audible and Kobo.

I only listen to audio books on my phone and I try to use that as little as possible. So, while I was quite happy with the content available on Scribd, I also had access to Ebooks, magazines and documents. Which was far from idea.

My self-control isn’t great and having access to so much content meant I found myself scrolling through magazines and adding books to my lists. In the end I was spending more time doing that than listening to audiobooks, which is primarily what I wanted it for.

Audible, by contrast, only has audiobooks. I can search for books to add to my list, but I can’t buy them, so the feature has limited appeal. It does have some “shows” that I can download and listen to from within the app, but because of the playback (stopping after every 20ish minute episode and needing me to access the app to start the next one) I haven’t got much interest in these.

So yesterday I cancelled my subscription to Scribd and went back to Audible. I expect to continue using the service for some time. I now see the limits of the app as a feature because they mean I no longer have to stress my limited self-control. When I removed the Scribd app from my phone I felt a great deal of relief.

It has started me thinking that limits are an often overlooked feature of analogue tools. When I am using a notebook and pen I don’t have to make any conscious effort not to ALT-TAB over to a website. When I am listening to a CD I don’t have to avoid the temptation of searching for another album or scrolling through other songs.

Perhaps these limits may make some things more difficult: finding a new book to listen, finding new music. But the one thing they make easier, focus, is worth the sacrifice of a few extra steps elsewhere.

Walden

Why should we live with such a hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.

I have been reading Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. It was first published in 1854, but there are parts of it which are staggeringly relevant to the modern world. It is interesting that 165 years ago there were already people asking questions about the effects on news and information overload. It makes me wonder what Thoreau would have made of the world we live in today.

Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?” as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.

After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast.

What would Thoreau have thought about the habit many people have of reaching for their phone the moment they wake up? Or in the middle of the night? Is there really anything so important that we have to know about it the moment we open our eyes? Now we don’t even wait until breakfast to find out. We sit in our beds and scroll through news websites and social media feeds, allowing the news and other people to set the foundation of our day.

Petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality.

The nature of news now is darker than ever. We hear about all of the terrible things that are happening in the world and that is all we hear about. There is more to the world than that, but if we don’t know about it, if we just keep pumping ourselves full of negativity, then it must have some effect on how we perceive reality. How much worse must that be now when we have access to constantly updating news websites, Facebook and Twitter, than 165 years ago when all they had was a daily paper?

Fortunately, Thoreau has some advice that could be understood as what we now think of as a Digital Sabbatical:

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.