Smartphone hell (filters, part 6)

A couple of months back I got my first proper cellphone, upgrading for the first time since 2011. My old phone was sort of a smartphone, but not really, compared to what is standard today. It was running android 2.2, and most apps were beyond it.

The power of my new phone is disturbing. The thing just does so darn much. The utility is seductive.

I’ve spent years coming to grips with the distraction of social media and the internet. But this was something else.

The first month was extremely disruptive and unpleasant. And the addictive reality is clear. Other than reverting to a simple txt and call cellphone, finding a way to constrain it seems the best first step.

As a result, I have learned and adapted, and instituted some protocols/rules of thumb in self defence against the device.

1. no smartphone use in bed, at all.

2. smartphone not to be kept by bed at night.

(These are simple and obvious, but also the 80/20 in terms of effectiveness, and removing the greatest laziness danger zone.)

3. smartphone not to be used until after morning routine and most important tasks for the day are completed – basically, it is a luxury and a toy and it comes after what matters.

(Also simple, and the rest of the 80/20.)

4. smartphone not to be used while reclining on couch.

5. smartphone is to be used while standing.

(This is maybe getting paranoid. But the principle is to keep it in use as a tool, keeping it mobile, in motion, rather than getting comfortable and the brain switching off.)

Another experiment I am considering is to leave it on airplane mode most of the time, only allowing incoming calls, txts, and internet distractions at certain time periods.

Strange that so much of our time these days is spent wrestling our technology to allow us to be functional.

Having a decent camera is cool, though.



Positive effects of blocking Facebook news feed (Filters, part 5)

(Another in a very occasional series across the years about interacting with technology and its effects on the mind, and strategies to deal with information overload: here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4.)


A few months back I started using MindTheTime, a Mozilla extension, to track the time I spend online and where.

A bit over a month ago, I started using KillFBFeed to block the Facebook news feed.

Coming up to the end of this month, I now have a full month of data to compare with previous months.

Total internet use this month is down to about 2/3 – 3/4 of what it has been in prior months.

Facebook use this month is down to 1/3 – 1/2 of what it has been in prior months.

A small element of this could be seasonal – midwinter months had slightly heavier internet use – but the change seems significant.

The main reason to block “newsfeed” was to bring an end to mindless internet trawling. This has been a qualified success. I can still access specific lists on facebook to track close friends, and I still use Facebook as an email and events service. One side effect is I am spending more time on my Twitter mutants feed, which is a much higher quality curation of content.

Another intent of the switch was to pop my filter bubble, and especially to escape that rampant 2016-nausea. This appears to have been successful. I caught up with some people at a cafe the other day. When talk turned to a swirl of Trump, I had no idea what the latest godawful details of stuff out of my control were, but everyone else did.

In other news, I am engaging with my own creative projects more.

So, on the whole a successful experiment, and one I will continue. I would recommend similar practices to others.

internet addiction (filters part 4)

Two months into the internet restriction protocol, here is a report.

The short version? It is great, a clear and definite improvement.

I have more time, more focus, and am getting more done. Of course, I have made other changes in my life which help with that, but this is definitely a factor, and a big one.

I am noticing old habits creep back a little – I check email more than I need to, that is for sure, though I do not touch my busiest account. Unsure if it is confidence that the habit is broken, or that it is just habit reasserting itself, and that I need to formally rededicate myself to the protocol. Writing this post is part of figuring that out.

Some longer rambling observations:

There is something weirdly addictive about the sense of power and control that comes with the internet, and using a computer in general.

For example, clearing my email inbox after a week away. I make decisions, little decisions, reading some, deleting others. Moving things around. Controlling the little world of my desktop. Arranging files. It as as if I am doing something real. And I am, in a little way. Organising information so it is where it needs to be for what I want to do next is an adjunct of organising my physical space to be the way it needs to be. Useful to the extent that it is necessary – creating a functional environment – but negative when it becomes obsessive or redundant – as with OCD cleaning.

On the days I access the internet, I want to check again, an hour after I just checked. Even though most of what was there for the last week was not essential. There is something addictive. Research indicates that irregular reinforcement schedules – never knowing when you are going to get another hit of whatever you are addicted to – is the most addictive timing, and email is that par excellence.

Once a week re-exposure to the flood of trivial information Facebook provides is addictive in its own way. It is easy. It never ends, the page will scroll down forever. Not quite a sugar hit. Not quite food. More conscious than breathing. Popcorn? Moreish even when you don’t want or need more. Even when it is rarely any better than it is, rarely rates more than a vague “Oh?” It turns out I have missed a couple of incidents in my wider community, but nothing it feels catastrophic to have missed; and surely some announcements of insight or life redirection have slipped by unnoticed.

(The one cheat I allow myself with Facebook is to occasionally log in just to send someone a message if it is the only way to get hold of them, but not look at anything else. I think directly communicating with people, and the ability to do that, is such a powerful thing it is odd to limit the ability to act on it when it is a conscious choice; the difference is in not checking obsessively for a reply, or just in case. There are many avenues of communication, and perhaps a thirty second phone call is the answer to many prolonged email waits.)

So I need to shore up the habits and restate the boundaries. It is about using the internet more consciously, and I feel like I have managed that. It is a powerful resource and tool, the trick is to corral it to just that; the danger is it can be an endless drift of youtube clips and pointless linkbait lists and sort of vaguely interesting articles, a gossip magazine collectively edited by your friends.

The biggest challenge in a way is finding something else to do. It is almost embarrassing. The internet is such an easy default. It is our generations television. Instead of just sitting down mindlessly with the remote and starting to flick, we sit down mindlessly in front of the internet and start to click.

I have watched more media – am I just replacing internet with TV downloaded from the internet? Certainly, discovering live streaming of the cricket world cup sucked some time. I am reading less at the moment since I am writing, so that is out as a distraction.

So yeah. Interesting and useful so far, will be an ongoing process of tweaking the protocol and observing the feedback.

internet restriction protocol (or Filters: Part Three)


Time and attention are two of the most precious resources we have, and the always on internet is one of the worst things for draining and disrupting those resources. (This is something I have been thinking about for a few years now.)  Most of the great thinkers, innovators and so on of the past had one thing in common – their ability to focus on what they were doing for hours at a time. This type of thinking is crucial to certain types of breakthrough and productive work. (I have a faint terror that the current generation will never even develop this capacity for extended focus.)

So I am embarking upon an internet restriction protocol. This is based on the observations I made a few years ago when I went and lived at the beach without internet, television or phone, and came to town only once a week at which point I checked email etc, and my dissatisfaction with my current experience of online mediated reality.

The protocol is essentially this: I am going to stop checking my email and social media accounts except for one day a week – Fridays. (I will likely check my business email address more regularly.) Within the protocol I am allowed to use the internet consciously, as a tool, in recognition of how embedded it is in life. (eg) internet banking, buying stuff, research, Skypeing. But then get offline once I am done using it as a tool.

The key is to avoid general browsing and mindless clicking on things that leads to more clicking. I like the idea of checking my /mutants list on Twitter once a week for an hour as my information gathering phase.

The goal is to be offline as much as possible; to shift that fundamental practice, to realign my sense ratios, and re-engage more consciously with the world. After spending a week lying under trees at Kiwiburn, I realised again that I don’t miss most of the online world. I acknowledge it is somehow important, but hypothesise that this importance can be successfully and accurately valued within the confines of one day a week.

I suspect that one day a week is enough to stay informed/connected in terms of email and social media. If anything really important happens I assume someone will call or txt.

I do plan to spend some of the time freed up hanging out with people in meatspace, pursuing a better quality of connection.

I anticipate getting more done in general, writing more in particular, and being happier overall.

I may blog from time to time about the results of this experiment in attention and filtering. I invite anyone else who feels inclined to join in the experiment.

Filters, Part Two: sense ratios, and observations on 2 months without internet

(being part of an occasional series thinking aloud about our interactions with information and technology)

Marshall McLuhan came up with the idea of sense ratios. Essentially, every technology extends us in some direction, and reduces us in another; it gives and it takes away. (The wheel is an extension of the foot.) Thus each technology we interact with changes the ratio of our senses – it changes how we are in the world.

Here are some observations based on two months alone at the beach without TV or internet, which, for someone who has been pretty connected for longer than most, was pretty fascinating.

* I felt way more connected to myself at the beach. Whereas online I am scattered across the world, and through people’s lives; a thinning of the self. An example of sense ratios in the most basic sense – I was returned to my body and senses.

* I did not miss the internet. To be more precise, I occasionally missed practical things – the ability to find an answer to a question, and the “third arm effect” (the ability to do some things by remote which I have become accustomed to) – but in no sense did I miss any of the communication side of things – email, blogs or social media. Yet this is where the bulk of my time online goes – and apparently where the bulk of most people’s time goes.

Yet I did not feel any less connected to people; if anything, more so, as people were certainly in my thoughts. (This is also partly a reflection of psychological type.) And the brief times I was around people were sharper and more focused. There was no time for frippery, only content.

* I am happier being online less.

* The contact I get from people online is less fulfilling than the contact I get in person. I obviously feel a clear need for social interaction and contact, but social media for the most part does not supply it; it grants a poor facsimile, which mostly serves to frustrate by highlighting precisely that absence.

I want more from my people than a status update – I want real connection. But a flood of status updates gives the illusion of connection. And that is where it is damning. Like sucrose or aspartame, it tastes sweet but is no good for you. Or perhaps, a better analogy, like the empty calories in wine, which don’t give useful energy. We think we are getting our fix, but we aren’t. So we scavenge for more, and engage in further online behaviours which paradoxically take us further apart.


Back to McLuhan – tech gives and takes away. And it does give a lot. There are doubtless people I would have lost contact with altogether without the web. Things like Chat or Skype are a fantastic technological boon for communicating with those on the other side of the world.

It is kind of awesome, but yeah, we have not tweaked our delivery mechanisms… we need better filters. Filters are where we can massage the details of what tech gives and takes away. As a simple example, Facebook would gain a thousand times more functionality if there was an “Actually Important” flag you could tag an update with; because people do slip actually important information into the stream, but it is lost among the majority of stuff which is just chatter. (People would abuse such a flag, sure, but it is a self policing mechanism – everyone yell at them for being dicks and they will stop polluting the stream – or have a “not important” flag readers can use. In this way we can introduce feedback to train our information systems.)

There is a lot wrong with Facebook besides that, that is just an example of what I mean by filter – we have access to too much information, and need efficient ways to get the relevant information.

Which again begs the question, what information is relevant? Answering this is key to setting our filters – and this answer will be different for each of us.


So on the whole I am pretty sure I want to radically reduce internet time in general. Like, maybe check email twice a week, and leave it at that. Maybe trawl for news and information an hour a week – the once a week spin through the sunday mutants seemed functional. Because really, an hour here, an hour there, throughout the day, gives shockingingly poor returns. Used unconsciously, the internet is no better than television. Filters can take many forms – this is exercising a filter in time. By removing the time for anything but the important, the signal to noise ratio hopefully improves.

(But part of the power of communications tech is immediacy – some information is time sensitive. So ideally filters would be integrated into real-time – letting me know things that matter to me when I want to know them – which is getting closer to something like an AI monitoring my incoming data streams and filtering things for me. RSS feeds etc are a “dumb” form of this.)