Slowing down

I came across this the other day and it’s been forcing me to think — and rethink — how I view the internet and all those things that bleep and boop and pop up that are sent through some web service.  You can watch the whole thing, I’ll wait.

(You can also read the transcript here, if you like reading better — but Joe’s delivery is really good, so I recommend just watching the video.)

First: a bit of context.  Joe Kraus isn’t just some guy talking about the web and the internet fostering a culture of distraction — he actually co-founded Excite.com, which was one of the early search engines back in the day when we really didn’t know what we were doing online, so search engines became a sort of hub and roadmap for doing things and finding information online (now it’s become so second-nature that we only use search engines when we’re looking for an answer to a question — if we don’t just jump to Wikipedia.org directly).  So, I’d say he’s Kind Of a Big Deal.  Coincidentally, Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress and Automattic) posted about the same talk on his blog and included the foreword of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, written in 1985 that talks about how it wasn’t George Orwell’s dystopian future we needed to worry about — it was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that would be more dangerous.

The Microsoft phone commercial he plays at the beginning is as funny as it is telling.  It’s funny because it’s telling, because as you watch it, you nod in agreement.  Yep, I’ve seen that.  You may not have seen two runners on their iDevices plow into each other while on their run, but you are familiar with the image of a group of people, heads down, poking at their phone.

I like to think that I’m above such things.  I smile smugly as I read tales of people doing “a week without the internet” social experiments on themselves and think how that doesn’t really accomplish or prove anything.  I tell myself that I’ve mastered the internet and all its distractions and come out the victor.  I have convinced myself of this, in part, by disabling notifications that pop up and spending more time focussing on a single task rather than trying to do a million things at once.  Those things help.

After watching Joe Kraus’s talk, though, one thing spoke to me more than the others.  It wasn’t the joke that our ancestors who didn’t turn to look when they heard a rustle in the bush are no longer our ancestors or that girls between the ages of 13 and 17 average a colossal 4,000 texts a day — although those things obviously stood out.  It was the idea that this culture of distraction atrophies our creativity that made me think.  And worry.  Not just for us as a culture or for my kids who in 10 years will be in that terrifying 13 – 17 age group but for myself, personally.

In high school, one of my life dreams was to be a writer.  I could sit down with a notebook or a stack of paper and spit out a short story without any prompting.  I didn’t need inspiration, I didn’t need special circumstances, I didn’t need anything.  I could just sit and write.  These days, it’s months, if not years, between writing attempts, and the most I ever get is a few pages in before it dissolves.  I have big plans for stories, but no ideas of how to get there, and I end up going back to things I started writing but never finished and try to work on that stuff, only to have that fall apart as well.  It’s as if I can’t concentrate and focus on the topic at hand.  Maybe for one sitting, but not for several.  The last thing of any length that I wrote was more than 10 years ago and that was never finished, either.  A few months ago, my wife started writing.  A story/novel/something without a name yet — it doesn’t really matter because she was writing.  Sitting down, putting a pen on paper, and crafting a story.  And I’m supposed to be the writer here (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself).  When was the last time I’ve designed something that wasn’t a website?  Years (like ten).  And the last time I’ve done a web design that I thought was particularly unique or creative or innovative?  I can’t remember.  It’s been a while.

So when Joe is talking about how we’re working out our “being distracted” muscle and letting our other muscles (creativity, ability to focus on a single task without being distracted by some tangent) atrophy, it feels personal.  I feel like that’s where I am now.  And I don’t want to be.

I’ve been reading The Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series and the Inheritance cycle and watching A Game of Thrones which is based on George R. R. Martin’s epic series and wanting to write something that had the same kind of scope and all-encompassing world that is a complete reimagining of the world we know or something totally new and different.  At one time, conceptualizing something like that would be easy — I love worldbuilding, and in high school I wrote a sci-fi/horror short story that merged a Battletech-like high-tech barren wasteland world with a dark fantasy one with wraiths and monsters and another story that was partially told by a disembodied brain in a jar in some science lab dreaming fantasies of escape and destruction.  That stuff should be easy, but lately I’ve got nothing.

Joe Kraus says that’s because we don’t give ourselves time to think because we’re filling up all those gaps with stuff: distraction, games, reading some article about something from some tweet or RSS alert, or just checking our email.  When was the last time anything in my inbox required my immediate and urgent attention?  I couldn’t tell you.  So why do I feel compelled to flip over to my other desktop and check my email every 10 minutes?  I don’t know.  Most of the time, these days, my Twitter window and my chat window are hidden behind other windows on my desktop — and since I’ve disabled alerts, I’m not bothered to look at either unless I make a choice to — and that’s pretty much okay.  I’ve been better at getting things done that way.  But it needs to be like that for everything, and all the time.  If I’m ever going to write that novel I need to allow my brain to let ideas come, and that means switching off sometimes.

I have made a conscious decision, therefore, to cut down on distraction and give myself more opportunities to let my mind be at rest.  I’m actually kind of looking forward to it partially because I might be able to actually read some books that have been on my reading list for a ludicrously long time, like the Sonja Blue series that’s been on my shelf, unread (by me, anyway) for more than 15 years (I’m not even kidding — I have the hardcover and it was printed in 1995, even granting that I got it from a book club, so maybe I didn’t get it until 1996, that’s still 16 years — about the age I was when I got the book in the first place).  I’ve disabled push notifications on my iPod (when has there ever been anything that really needed my immediate attention?), I’m writing this in WordPress’ distraction-free “zen mode” and I’ve been getting into the habit of trying not to idly check my computer or surf the internet when I’m done working for the day.  We’re planning on making Saturdays a computer-free day, and I’m starting to take the dog for walks in the morning rather than just taking him outside to poop and then right back in again.  Being a parent, it’s probably impossible to expect to live entirely distraction-free, but, as much as possible, I’d like to get my brain back to where it was before the Internet took over the world, before I had a computer, when I wrote with pen and, occasionally, a typewriter.

I like the idea of SlowTech, but I’m afraid that it’s one of those things that will end up as a great idea that never comes to anything, like the program I got to remind me to take a break every xx minutes or xxxx characters typed and do exercises to get up and out of my computer chair.  But I’m terrified of a world where 4,000 texts a day is a low number, and the only way to start working on that is with myself.  I’d much rather my kids be the smart ones who don’t own a mobile device when they’re 13 than to be the ones you have to poke to get them to look up from their Angry Birds game.  And, actually, I’d kind of rather be that person myself, too.

Why are Google Apps users treated like second-class netizens?

Google+: Great Walled Garden
Google+: Great Walled Garden
Original photo by Neil D'Cruze

Hey Google.  Remember me?

I was there when you launched Gmail.  I got one of those first beta invites a couple of weeks after you launched the platform.  I immediately dropped my Hotmail account and switched everything over from a crazy [email protected] (at the time it was fibonacci_jazz), to a more professional sounding address using my initials and last name @gmail.com — then, a symbol of l33tness.

When you released Gtalk, I was all over it.  I downloaded the client, and it is still the main messaging platform I use, eschewing frilly and ridiculous, ad-ridden messengers like MSN Messenger, AIM, and Yahoo!.

When Apps was first released to the public, we all thought it was cool, even if we didn’t know exactly what we’d do with it.  Moving everything to the cloud was a hard pill to swallow, but swallow it we did, and started sharing documents across the interwebs.

Since then, our relationship has gotten a little rocky.

You launched Google Apps for Business.  Okay, so you’re trying to take on Microsoft — a lofty and noble goal, even if it is a bit delusional.  No one is going to dump years worth of Microsoft Office in favor of a free, web-based platform, surely.  And you created a free version for us normal folk.  We weren’t entirely sure why we would need Google Apps on our own domain — outside of being able to use a Gmail interface for our own personal domain, which was pretty cool — but we all signed up anyway.  We wanted to be part of the cool club, and just saying “I’m using Google Apps for my domain” was pretty cool.

But you shit on us.  And I don’t mean that figuratively.

Google Apps for personal domains was always last to receive the latest and greatest updates you were making to Google Apps for everyone else, and that included the improvements you made to Gmail.  Sure, you added an option to be on the bleeding edge of updates.  Later.  After the resentment of having been slighted set in.

Then, once we’d gotten settled in our new Apps domain, and started using our Apps email address for everything Google under the sun (and I mean everything, because we were still drinking the Kool-Aid), you pulled the big whammy on us.  This migration bullshit.  WTF, Google?

Okay, I get it.  I’ve worked in the IT industry and I understand the challenge of moving a bunch of users from an old platform to a new one.  But to us, it’s not really a new platform, is it?  It’s the same stuff we’ve used for years.  It’s the address we’ve had since the day we signed up for Google Apps for our domain and have used for every other stinking Google product including freaking YouTube.  Conflicted account, you say?  Conflicted how exactly?  It wasn’t conflicted when I set up a Blogger site to test templates I was developing.  It wasn’t conflicted when I was saving stuff in Google Docs on jazzsequence.com.  To us, this is just some crazy bullshit you made up.

From a tech perspective, it’s no better.  So you need to migrate thousands, if not millions of users over to the next generation Google platform.  So what?  Figure out the migration process and make it work.  Do this first, before you launch a new product, before you tell everyone that they will lose everything and need to create a new personal Gmail account, which is just bullshit.  A new Gmail account?  That’s the reason we set up Google Apps on our domain to begin with — so we didn’t have to use a Gmail (or Hotmail, or Yahoo) address.  How and when am I going to use another email address, and why would I want to have to switch accounts every time I need to use that stuff?  You’ve got 28,000+, highly trained, incredibly brilliant, motivated, well-paid employees and you’re telling me not one of them had any insight into making the transition more painless?

But the real slap in the face, Google, and the reason I am writing to you, is your latest insult: Google+.  When you first launched those +1 buttons, I was right there with you.  Yeah, I said, share content with friends and family, affect their search results and show them things that I think are cool — sounds awesome.  And I started using the +1 button and trying to figure out how I could add it to my website and the sites I built.  That is, until Google+.  All of a sudden, the +1 button required me to log in, and  I couldn’t log in because I was using an Apps account.  I’m surely not going to switch accounts every time I want to +1 something, and why bother getting set up on a new social network when I’m going to have to dump that account anyway if/when you do let the Apps people in.  This whole switching accounts thing is bullshit anyway — I thought you were going to make that easier.  Why can’t we, I don’t know, merge accounts?  Multiple email addresses and profiles that all feed into the same master address/profile that works on everything.

I can’t tell you how many invites I’ve gotten to Google+ at this point.  I’d love to be able to use it.  But you screwed me, Google.  I refuse to log into a crap account that only exists because you forced me to make it so I can get access to your pretty walled garden network and ogle over how glorious and white it is.  I’m not going to bother setting up circles and following people until I know I can do it with the account I actually use.

We’ve had a rough couple of years, Google.  My brief period of alone time from you made me realize how dependent I am upon a number of your products.  But I can’t buy into your bullshit anymore.  The “don’t be evil” thing — maybe it meant something a long time ago, but now it’s a joke.  You are evil, fueled by the profits you reap from harvesting all our personal data.  There’s some pockets of good in there, I’m sure, like the developers who work on the products you deploy that people can actually use, but I know you’re taking my Chrome browser and click history and storing it in your datacenters so you can feed me better ads (which I then block with a Chrome extension).

When Apps users are let into Google+, we’ll all be raving about how wonderful it is, I’m sure, but until then you’ve just made yourself look like an ass, Google.  Locking out the very people who were very probably some of the earliest of early adopters, people who have used Apps for years and stuck with it.  Don’t get me started on how badly you’ve nerfed Groups, and how Groups for Apps is a joke now.  Fine, whatever, I have to believe you’ll bring some of that stuff back.  And if not, well, I can live without, I guess.  But if you want me to be a megaphone for your new thneed, then you need to give me the fucking key.