These days, there are all sorts of high-tech and digital tools designed to cater to essentially every dimension of our lives.
If you’re not using an app to track your finances, you’re probably using one to track your to-dos. Or, maybe you are using a purpose-built app or web service to track your gym sessions, plan how much weight you should lift next week, and to keep an eye on your dietary macronutrient intake.
Our professional lives, of course, are no less dominated by these sorts of tools than our private lives. Many companies are completely dependent on their preferred group communication software, CMS programs, and integrated calendar systems.
Of course, one side effect of the meteoric rise in popularity of these tools, apps, and services, has been that a large degree of scepticism has grown up in certain quarters. Cal Newport, computer scientist, professor, and writer, for example, has argued in his book “Digital Minimalism” that an overreliance on these sorts of tools causes excess stress, and robs us of our ability to do deep, skilful work.
Other writers have made a point of noting just how addictive some of these tools and services seem to be, or have raised questions about privacy.
Here are a few tips for controlling your tools, instead of them controlling you.
Research how your tools, software programs, and apps actually work
Okay, so you don’t have to become a dedicated software engineer or master coder, but it’s important that you do at least a bit of cursory research on how your tools, software programs, and apps actually work.
At the very least, it’s useful to read up on subjects such as The Apps That Secretly Eat Your Data Allowance Revealed, for directly pragmatic reasons, if not for anything else.
In fact, though, you’ll quickly learn that many tools, programs, and apps actually behave in ways that you might not appreciate. For example, virtually all data these days is stored in the cloud – which means stored on servers far away, and out of your sight. Are you happy for your data to be kept in those servers? Have there been significant data leaks, or privacy complaints, related to the company in question? Are human supervisors at the company empowered to look through your data?
Social media platforms have been selling people’s data to advertisers for a long time, but many people remain unaware of that fact. As a general rule of thumb, if a tool, software program, or app seems too good to be true, you should assume it just might be.
Only use tools that really have a distinct benefit, without a corresponding downside
This is perhaps the core point raised in Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism,” and it argues that every tool and technology that you are going to use should first be weighed up and assessed in light of its overall benefits versus its overall drawbacks.
The bottom line is that every tool and service provides some benefit – otherwise it wouldn’t be able to justify its existence. But, those benefits aren’t necessarily things that you actually need in your life, and what’s more, those benefits are often outweighed by less readily apparent downsides.
Social media, for example, has the benefit of allowing you to communicate with friends and relatives around the world, and to keep track of events in your area. But according to researchers, people who spend more time using social media are more likely to be depressed and anxious, and it’s well known that social media platforms have often been implicated in privacy scandals.
Additionally, many commentators have had things to say about the way in which different social media platforms have helped to drive animosity and partisanship across a broad range of social domains.
So, would something like social media be “good” or “bad” if the whole balance was taken into account?
The idea of digital minimalism is that you should only use tools that really have a distinct benefit, that you actually need, or that can sincerely enhance your quality of life, and that isn’t counterbalanced by an equivalent (or worse) downside.
Avoid anything where the clear objective is to get you hooked
In his book, “Irresistible,” the writer Adam Alter looks at examples of ways in which Internet technologies are often engineered, intentionally, to be as addictive as possible.
Among other things, Alter notes that many of the companies behind these platforms and technologies have specifically hired experts from the gambling industry in order to ensure that their users are as likely as possible to become hooked, and to spend the maximum possible amount of time engaging with the services in question.
Due, among other things, to the highly psychologically manipulative nature of many of these tools and systems, a good rule of thumb is to avoid anything with a clear objective of getting you hooked.
This can include various online videogames, social media platforms, and more.
Don’t be too dependent on one service or ecosystem
Most digital apps and systems these days are developed as part of all-encompassing ecosystems, run by a handful of major corporations.
One consequence of this is that, if you aren’t careful, it’s very easy to become completely dependent on one company, if not one service. This is completely understandable given the fact that, within a given ecosystem, all the different apps and services will generally integrate extremely well with one another.
Ultimately, though, when you are completely embedded in a particular corporation’s digital ecosystem, you are essentially at the mercy of that corporation – maybe for as broad a range of things as tracking your to-dos, managing your emails, maintaining a calendar, and searching the web.
If, at any time, the company decides to make a dramatic change, or to cancel one of its services, or to revise its policy in such a way as to disadvantage you, you will be left with little recourse and will most likely just unhappily stomach what’s on offer.
The more options you have, the more autonomous you are, and the less dependent you are on any one service, ecosystem, or company, the better.