Some Of Them Want To Use You

There’s this thing in chess called Initiative. When a player has the initiative, they make a move, and the other player has no choice but to respond. The player with initiative controls the game.

When you interact with a physical tool, like a screwdriver, you have the initiative. There’s a job you want to get done, you pick up a screwdriver and you use it to get the job done. When the job’s done, you stop using the tool and the interaction is over.

Single-purpose software tools, such as phone apps, can be like physical tools in this respect. I have a job I want to get done — order a takeaway, get across town in a hurry, book a table at a restaurant — and I fire up an app, use it once, and then the interaction is over. I retain the initiative.

Other software tools are different. Email, for example. Sure, I can use email in the same way I’d use a single-purpose tool : I want to send a message to someone, I fire up my email app, write a message, and close the email app.

Except it doesn’t ever quite work like that with email, does it ? I open my email app, and the first thing I see is a notification telling me how many unread messages I have. My sense of duty is such that I will often forget the job I had in mind and get down to reading and responding to those messages. It doesn’t even matter if those messages are less urgent or important than the job I wanted to do — I’ve forgotten what the job was, anyway !

Now the tool has the initiative. It’s using me.

A while ago, I started an experiment where I removed from my phone all the tools that had the ability to use me in this way. Email, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, even Safari — all were banished to my laptop. The theory was that I would stop responding to micro-boredom events (waiting for an elevator, say, or being in a momentarily-less-than-entirely-enthralling conversation) by diving into my phone, and thereby become more present and thoughtful, or at least not quite so much of a douche.

And it worked, after a fashion. I stopped responding to micro-boredom events by immersing myself in my phone; instead, I’d allow myself to be bored, and my mind would start to entertain itself by wandering. My phone usage dived from 8 hours per day (I kid you not) to under an hour, most days.

My laptop usage ? Not so much. Sure, I’d use my laptop for work during work hours. But slowly, inexorably, my laptop usage outside of work has climbed to match my previous phone usage. The user experience is better, for sure, and I waste time more efficiently — but I’m still wasting precious moments of my life that (it’s beginning to dawn on me) I’m not going to get back, I’m not in control of it, and crucially, I’m not enjoying it.

So I’m going to try another experiment.

In Island, Aldous Huxley described a utopian island populated by a group of talking mynah birds that would fly around saying things like “Here and Now !” and “Attention !” — the purpose being to force people to focus on the moment.

So I’m going to rig up a repeated timer on my laptop that goes “ding!” every 15 minutes. And when it goes ding, I’m going to ask myself this one simple question :

Am I using this tool, or is this tool using me ?

And if I answer the latter, I’m going to close the lid and go outside and just, you know, like, be, man.

I once made the mistake of letting other people use my software; the result was Now I’m trying to figure out how to fix what’s really broken.

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