How we used to use computers

The first computer our family had was a dirty grey Atari ST which we had to get out and connect whenever we wanted to use it. The only thing I can remember using it for was playing Chuck Rock with my sister. I was jealous of my friends who had a Nintendo NES or a Sega Master System. Sometime later I was given a Mega Drive for Christmas and after that the only place I used a computer was at school. A BBC Micro which we played a game called PODD.

At some point my parents bought a Windows computer, set it up in the middle room and connected it to the phone line so we could go on the internet.

Sometime before that I had developed an interest in the legend of King Arthur and Camelot. My dad – who had access to the internet at work – used to print pages of information about it. I would get excited every time he came home and handed me a pile of A4 paper with printouts from whatever website he’d found.

That’s how I continued to use the internet when we got it at home. With dial-up you couldn’t really spend long reading while connected (and on low-res screens you wouldn’t really want to) because there was a time limit. The connection would reset after an hour, or someone would pick up the phone and start shouting about the funny noises they could hear. It was inconvenient.

Now we have computers that are many times more powerful than that old Pentium III in our pockets at all times. We have constant high speed access to a vastly richer internet wherever we happen to be.

It is tempting to call this progress and be done with it, but lately I wonder if that is true. A part of me yearns for the simplicity of a single point of access. A methodology that requires a quick dip into the information stream to retrieve the things we want for later perusal away from the screen.

I don’t think this is a genie we can put back in the bottle on a large scale, but for the individual it may be possible. Once I have an office I intend to sell my iPad (my only “computer”) and buy a desktop machine. Using software such as Freedom I will put restrictions on when and for how long I am able to access the internet.

Perhaps this is all nostalgia but, as the rise of internet addiction becomes a bigger problem, I ask myself how many people were spending 36 hours a week online when all that had were slow dial-up connections and clunky desktop PCs?

The Scary Future of Technology

As a millenial, I am one of the last generation able to look at how the internet and smartphones have changed the world.

There are many benefits to both, but I am coming to the conclusion that the negatives may outweigh the positives. It is almost certainly mobile technology that has created the biggest negative. When the only way to get online was at a desktop computer the impact was minimal. This may just be nostalgia, however, it is possible that we will look on this era of smartphones with similar fondness in years to come.

Capitalism demands constant growth and, as the sales of smartphones plateau, the AR/MR/VR revolution seems inevitable. I see this as an apocalyptic scenario compared to what we have today.

People will no longer even have to take their phones out of their pockets to access the internet, it will be beamed straight into their eyeballs.

We are already being prepared for this world with smart watches, smart earphones and AR phone tools. It is only a matter of time before technology and business aligns. First there will be mainstream adoption of AR glasses, then contact lenses and one day we will no longer be able to tell what is real and what isn’t.

Part of me is excited about this because I’m an addict as well and the technology is undeniably cool. But I am struggling to retain enough perspective to be horrified by what the world will look like when all of this comes to pass.

Not Quite Dumb Phone

I have been interested in the “dumb phone revolution” for a while now but I don’t quite have the conviction to go through with switching to one. It’s not, I think, because I would struggle. It’s because it would inconvenience other people in my life too much.

I like the idea of my phone returning to the same priority in my life as it was ten years ago. A time when I would have left the house without it and not given it a thought. Now, although I do frequently leave the house without my phone, it feels like a rebellious act.

As a compromise in the past I have switched my phone to grayscale and and made my smartphone “dumb” I even switched to a budget Android phone for a while.

There were advantages to all those things, but there was still something compelling about the phone. I wouldn’t say I was addicted (it has been years since I’ve used social media or played games on it) but phones hold a level of importance in my life that I’m not happy with.

I have been using a work phone for the last six months but as I start to take on more freelance work, I have been looking at getting a personal one again. I didn’t want to spend much money. So I ordered a second hand iPhone SE and received it yesterday.

I noticed the difference immediately. Not in the sense that the phone was slower or worse in any way (it will be years before the minimal number of things that I use a phone for are too much for the device). It is a well made phone and, considering it’s second hand, remarkably well maintained. No, the big difference I noticed was the size of the screen.

The iPhone 8 has a 4.7 inch screen and the iPhone SE has a 4 inch screen. It is amazing how much difference 0.7 inches makes.

The screen is more than big enough for me to do everything I need to use it for. Which is mainly sending iMessages and making phone calls, but also includes listening to audiobooks and sometimes music. But it’s just a little bit too small to browse the web. Or most of the other things that would have caused me a problem in the past. At a stretch I could use it to watch videos, but I almost never do that.

The SE is smaller than my work issued iPhone 8 so I barely notice when I’ve got it in my pocket. It is robust enough that I don’t feel the need to use a case and it has a headphone socket, which I was surprised to find I missed on the iPhone 8. Although I don’t expect to use it as often as I was using the 8, for many reasons, I prefer the SE.

Before I wrote this I did a quick Google search to see if there is any documented relationship between phone screen size and phone use, but nothing came up. I suspect it would be difficult to prove any causation because the size of phones increased alongside other things. Speaking from personal experience, however, it looks like there must be a connection.

I still have all the same restrictions on the SE: no web browser and no app store, no social media or news sites. It’s already a cut down experience, but it is the perfect balance for me between smartphone and dumbphone. I have access to the apps that I want and none of the distractions. My only niggling concern is that there might not be another phone this size produced and that one day my phone will break. If / when that day comes I guess I’ll have to look at dumbphones again.

Digital Health

A new poster has appeared in the kitchen area at work.

According to this poster, people under 16 are spending 4 hours a day on their phones, people over 16 are spending 3 hours and 45 minutes. These figures seem low to me, but that’s beside the point. The point of the poster is that this is causing problems with people’s necks, backs, eyes and other things. It then goes on to give some simple stretching exercises and tips that can help alleviate these problems. Which seems like a very good thing.

But it seems disingenuous when you consider that I work for a telecoms company. A company that has a vested interest in people using their phones a lot.

There seems to be a trend for companies doing this sort of thing at the moment; Facebook launching studies about the risks of social media use, Apple and Google creating tools to help you track and manage the time you spend using their devices. It all seems… well, I’m not sure what word describes it best, but it reminds me that for years it was scientists funded by big tobacco who were saying there were no dangers to smoking, that it is the dairy industry that says adult humans should be drinking milk.

Although I do appreciate that technology companies are making this effort to help people manage their device use, part of me thinks that it would be better for everyone if Facebook (or whoever) just came right out and said, “We don’t care what this is doing to you, we just want you to spend more time on our service”. That would at least feel genuine.

The company I work for has put up a poster to help people deal with the problems that they have helped to create. An honest poster would probably say something more like “Stop spending 4 hours a day staring at your phone!” Then, if they genuinely cared, they would do something that might actually help people achieve that. As it currently stands they are doing the technological equivalent of getting people hooked on smoking and then telling them to open a window when they do it so their house doesn’t smell.

Encoding for Loss

When you encode an analogue music file to MP3, some loss of quality is unavoidable.* I believe that the same is true when you pick digital tools over analogue ones.

You may have picked up on my preference for notebooks and pens over computers and phones. In my mind this is more than a choice over which is more fun to use. I believe that using analogue tools leads to a better output.

There is plenty of research to back this up:

Pen and paper ‘beats computers for retaining knowledge’

9 Incredible Ways Writing By Hand Benefits Our Bodies And Brains

The Benefits of Writing by Hand Versus Typing

Clive Thompson “How The Way You Write Changes the Way You Think”

A good place to have bad ideas

There are, of course, benefits to using digital notebooks, but as I considered this over the weekend (writing into my pocket notebook) just because there are some benefits, doesn’t mean they make up for the disadvantages.

I want to be able to leave my phone behind for days at a time and that won’t feel possible if I’m using it for notes. So, despite the many advantages of using my phone as a notebooks, that one disadvantage is enough to make it a no go.

There are other disadvantages, but that was the big one at the weekend. And it’s an important one. Being able to leave my phone behind makes up for the occasional inconvenience of taking out a paper notebook, for those times when it’s not possible so I miss something. It makes up for a hell of a lot and when you add it to the other advantages (quality, peace of mind, memory improvements) then it just doesn’t make sense for me to switch.

The problem with a lot of digital technologies is that by using them I would be encoding for loss. I know from the start that they aren’t as good as analogue equivalents, so by using them I am saying that quality is less important that convenience. As I mention in Compromises that is occasionally a compromise that I am willing to make, but not always, in fact, not even often.

*Yes, I understand that there are “lossless” formats such as FLAAC, but I would argue that even when using those formats a certain amount of loss happens by not having a physical representation on the music such as a CD or record. In my experience, listening to music goes beyond the sounds that you hear when you press play. At its best it is a tactile experience.


Some thoughts on the internet…

I try to stay away from networked devices. It isn’t always possible. I work for a big technology company and that means that all the tools I use are connected. In my spare time I do copy writing and that often means I have to go online to do research. So what I really mean is that I try to manage my online use.

I have social media accounts but I don’t use them. Someone tried to contact me on Facebook Messenger and I didn’t find out about it until they messaged Tamzin to ask why I wasn’t responding. The responsible thing to do would be to close my account so that no one expects me to respond to anything they send there.

I subscribe to 22 RSS feeds but only a few of them post daily. Only one of them posts more than once a day and they are very short. None of them are technology related and none of them are “news”.

The internet is a powerful tool, but something feels broken about the way we use it. I don’t think that we should live there the way we do. Maybe that’s just an issue of nomenclature; maybe referring to a home page is what bothers me. But then I see reports about screen time and I ask myself is any time reasonable to spend online every day? Should the internet even be an every day thing?

I don’t have any answers. I’m trying to work it out. I think everyone should work it out for themselves because any answers I come up with will only apply to me.