Reclaiming the Screen

Growing up, my mother had a blue kitchen timer that she would dial back to the thirty-minute mark anytime my siblings and I plopped down in front of the TV to duke it out on the PlayStation or Wii. She maintained the importance of resting our eyes and on the need to not be a couch potato. Much to her credit, my relationship with large screens—especially ones with game consoles attached—became pretty regimented. Something just feels off about sitting on the bean bag for prolonged periods of time. It’s as if I can feel my mom’s disapproving footsteps echoing down the hall upon hearing TV noises after the alarm had gone off—Timothy! Time’s up, turn your game off… No, I don’t care that you haven’t saved the President yet. If you couldn’t save him in thirty minutes, he’s probably dead already. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to realize that somewhere deep in my brain, a switch was flicked, triggering some Pavlovian instinct to limit TV time. Ironically, the same couldn’t be said of mom’s quest for more “Tasty!”, “Delicious!”, and “Divine!” announcements from Mr. Toffee, Candy Crush Saga’s diligent cartoon mentor and guide.

A few weeks ago, while procrastinating on writing an essay by staring at the spinning refresh wheel on the top of my News Feed—hoping that by the time the wheel stopped something exciting would have happened in the social world (nothing happened, it was 2 AM). It occurred to me that, somewhere between my abortive attempts at retaking the White House from Russian soldiers and my mom’s endless candy journey, our relationships with our devices have gone horribly wrong.


With the topic of digital addiction back in the public conscious and media circulation, developers have also been pushing out different apps promising to curb time spent on our devices and largely fall into three categories:

  1. “Removing” addictive elements: Feedless—the newly launched poster child of the first category—literally removes the feed from platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, claiming to help users “take control of [their] time, and say goodbye to mindless scrolling.” Grayscaling has also been a popular method to make device screens less appealing by stripping away color.
  2. Bundling notifications: Apps in the second category bundle notification alerts so as to limit those constant and alluring “dings!” until we are able to look through them all at once.
  3. Providing users with more information: Moment acts to deliver users more information on their digital usage with metrics such as total time spent on device and time spent per app.

However, these tools are not without their flaws:

  • Feedless: It only works on Safari, and not on the Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter app. In removing the addictive feed, it also destroys the user experience of the social media platform. While the feed certainly is populated with a lot of unimportant elements, I’m not convinced it justifies a scorched earth tactic.
  • Grayscaling: If left permanently on, people get used to the black and white.
  • Notification bundling: It aggregates notifications and unleashes it all on the user when prompted… won’t people feel overwhelmed when confronted by a sudden flow of messages, emails, and app alerts?
  • Information-providing apps: They don’t make it easier to put the device down. While it gives us you a good idea of how we use our devices, it probably will only be effective for the most disciplined among us.

Despite these deficiencies, the mentioned tools still offer better alternatives to native settings found on our devices. Good intentions and design aside, none of the apps are multi-faceted enough in their approach as they all only seek to mediate one particular aspect of addiction. Traditional addiction treatment, after all, does not seek to lessen addictive properties of the substance/action in question but to build personal responsibility. However, while the indispensable nature of our devices certainly requires us to make them less addictive, the more important goal for any app will be to nudge users towards a behavioral change. That is, regimenting relationship with devices so that while we can (and should!) enjoy and use our devices to their fullest capabilities, we should also be able to know when to set it down.

So no, current apps aren’t very good at helping us develop a healthier relationship with our devices, but a combination of certain elements from each could do the trick. In thinking about what features an ideal app would incorporate to accomplish the intended behavioral change, I determined that they would need to satisfy the following requirements:

  • Be able to nudge the user off the device without impairing underlying functionality
  • Have a way to keep the user from picking up the device again
  • Include more information about device use for self-monitoring
  • Parental controls
  • Have a curated coaching plan with concrete steps and principles to guide the user through a slow but purposeful process.

There are many ways to go about fulfilling these requirements, and I have outlined below a preliminary sketch of what this app could look like.

The Nudge

As I mentioned, setting the device in grayscale removes attention-grabbing color and replaces it with bland black and white. Here’s a short clip from the new Wreck-It Ralph 2 trailer with the right in original color and the left set in grayscale:

Animated GIF

Note how much more grabbing the colorful side is compared to the grayscale side. Color’s a powerful thing. However, having our devices set permanently in grayscale means that we become accustomed to the banality or as a friend put it eloquently, “Instagram looks like crap, but I still look at it.”

Which means we have to use this tool selectively, only deploying it when we want to get off the screen. Perhaps something like this:

Animated GIF

Now the question becomes when exactly do we turn on the grayscale? Certainly, every time we pick up our devices we have a different intention in mind and spend a different amount of time on the device. Therefore, we’ll need user input and direction at the beginning of every session to determine when they want to be reminded that “time’s up”.

iPhone 8-6

Or maybe we could even set a gesture limit to keep us accountable for how many swipes and scrolls we allow ourselves on our favorite time-killing social media platform. Instead of limiting what shows up in our feeds—as Feedless does—we constrain the infinite scroll. What we want is to get off the device and removing content just results in a frustrating experience. We want less friction and more control over what we get to see and how much we see, not the opposite.

iPhone X-2

Regardless of what the final metric is, this will be the most important governing factor of how we use this tool to help us get off the screen. Ideally, another parameter could be video count. For example, prior to a Netflix or YouTube session, we set a video limit of three, then at the conclusion of the third video, grayscale is switched on to remind us to turn the device off.

Lockout

This one is pretty straightforward. We succeeded in getting off our device and now we just need to stay off. iPhone 8-4

During our grayscale limit selection, we could also decide to hold our future selves accountable and place a five-minute moratorium and go take a bathroom break or a two-hour lockdown for a deep work session.

Apple Health for Screens

Extra information on how we use our devices may not be an effective deterrent in of itself, but in conjunction with other elements, it could be insightful and allow us to hold ourselves to more realistic standards when setting our grayscale and lockout limit parameters. Furthermore, if paired with a digital twelve-step program, the extra information could help us curate a better plan.

Component

Why limit ourselves to only time on screen? Maybe tracking our time on device when in grayscale could be helpful too.

Component-3

We would also want more granular detail on exactly which apps we are spending the most time on. This particular view is also informed by separate sessions as noted by the timestamp. (I now realize I should have logged the Facebook block as two different entries to make this more obvious)iPhone 8-3

Ideally, these could potentially incorporate as much detail as we think could be useful. How exactly did I spend all that time on Facebook? Was it video? Messenger? Stalking an ex? Though unlikely given that our usage data are Facebook’s most valuable assets, it would be more effective in targetting specific behaviors on Facebook than wholesale scrubbing away the News Feed.

Parental Monitoring Unit

With any app claiming to moderate digital usage comes the massive market of concerned parents—sometimes kitchen timers and mothers are not enough. Much like how a parent could monitor data usage on the mobile family plan, there can be something similar for screen time.

iPhone 8-2

Now, what kind of parental monitor system can come without a hard cap on total allowed screen time?

Component-2

Potentially, parents could implement a time limit on specific apps. Say, time spent on Khan Academy can be unlimited while NBA 2k18 is only allowed to be open for no more than fifteen-minutes a day.

We should also incorporate functions such as a lock on all devices during meals, family movie night, or homework time. My mom would want that.

Sub Me In Coach!

At the most foundational level, we need a coaching program that helps us slowly build a habit of staying off devices. Now, I don’t profess to know enough about the psychological steps involved in the development of something like this, but I do know that habits must start small and slowly—very slowly—build up to something bigger. Perhaps we could gamify the process to make it more fun and in turn motivate people. We could set achievements and milestone markers similar to ones found in video games.

Only checked Instagram twice in a day! : 10 points

Less than 30 minute total screen time! : 25 points

Spent fifteen hours straight on Netflix 🤨 : -50 points

Whatever the method, it is important for the system to recognize that new habits are hard to develop and easy to destroy. To start successfully changing behavior, we must be unafraid to set small—even laughable—goals and aim for quick wins that inspire us to keep going. Regaining responsibility over our digital habits is the long goal, the coach must keep us focused on the little things so that many weeks or months down the line the changes will be so gradual that we wouldn’t necessarily notice our growth.

We must reestablish the rules for what and how we use these devices in our lives. We must realize what the fundamental relationship our devices have in our lives, indispensable but not omnipresent.


Thought experiment aside, there are obviously severe limitations to what can be currently done on OS’ due to the security and incentive structures in place. Apple absolutely wants you to spend more time on your phone downloading apps and playing games—they made $11.5 billion in 2017 from the App Store—just as Facebook and Google depend on your infinite scrolls to rake in that sweet sweet ad revenue. Moreover, while there has been a lot of hype surrounding a drop in user engagement following Facebook’s most recent tweaks to News Feed—roughly 50 million hours every day—spread across all users, this only amounts to about 1-2 minutes less per user per day.

Despite the limitations, there are workarounds to be found as shown by the current suite of anti-addiction apps. I’d rather have apps like those than nothing at all. Which is not to say improvements and integration can’t be had. If my ideal vision is little more than an improved and medleyed version of current apps then I contend that it can be built, perhaps not as streamlined or powerful, but built and hopefully useful nonetheless. Our smart devices have augmented our daily routines and interactions—but they won’t take it over. And as tech evolves, developers, designers, and bored college students will evolve along with it.

Six Bullet Saturday (2/24/2018)

What I’m playing with: After a few frustrating nights, I finally figured out how to work with FCC Form 477 and Census Block data. Great success for someone who’s scared of numbers and a baby still learning the ABCs of computer languages. Managed to put together a terrifying map of the Cleveland broadband situation:

Cuyahoga BlockMapFrame.pngClearly, something fishy going on here. The data is broken down by advertised download speed in Mbps as displayed on the side legend—dark is fast, light is slow. While the three dark red blocks are the most obvious, I think the white cluster on the top right of the map is most troubling. East Cleveland is the poorest neighborhood in the county and has noticeably worse access than its neighbors.

Hopefully, I get to explore with more of these in the coming weeks—partly for school, but mainly because I’m a nerd and this is fun. And yes, I know the National Broadband Map exists and has all the same information. But I didn’t sleep for two nights dammit! I’m proud of this little thing I created with bloodshot eyes, Stack Overflow queries, and many cups of tea.

What I’m listening to:Black Panther: The Album. Kendrick Lamar curated… need I say more? While definitely not his best project—Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, baby! —it is incredibly well produced and considering its purpose of supplementing the eponymous movie I’d say that the TDE crew did a phenomenal job. Favorite tracks: Opps (Vince Staples!), Bloody Waters, and Big Shot.

Instagram post of the week:

I still can’t believe ol’Musky decided to build a giant net on the back of a boat so that he can catch a piece of falling space rocket. But I guess given that this is his decision-making process then there should really be no surprise at all. What a madman, I love it.

Podcast episode of the week: Networks, Power, and Chaos – A Conversation with Niall Ferguson. It’s known that Niall is not the most well-liked person on either side of the political divide, but his conversation with Sam Harris provided an interesting and dispassionate interpretation of the 2016 election and Trump. Even if you’re not a fan of the network science stuff, the Donald analysis is still worth a listen. Main takeaways: networked phenomenon is nothing new, the Internet just scaled up the effects. The whole Russia interference/collusion thing? Not really the most important issue, nor will it lead to much (unless Mueller unearths some extremely incriminating evidence against Donald himself, which given what’s been revealed so far, probably not going to happen). The historical grounding of these issues should dispel some of the feelings of uncertainty/anxiety people are having with the president. It’s hard to view the world through an impartial lens but focusing on the fundamental factors driving trends can be more enlightening than the repetitive and self-reinforcing news articles that most of us are exposed to on a daily basis.

Highlight of the week: 12 Maroons dinner. The Student Alumni Association at UChicago held a few dinners bringing together two faculty members, an alum, and nine students to just have good conversation. And boy, this has been by far my best experience in college, this is exactly the sort of conversation, curious energy, and fun I came to Chicago for. We had some deep discussions on freedom of speech, blockchain, and the word “space” in addition to a wonderful recounting of the school’s history and administration dynamics. There was some pretty juicy stuff, but although I didn’t have to sign an NDA, I probably won’t talk about them here.

Commonplace book entry of the week: My grandparents could probably have told you how many electric motors they owned. There were one or two in the car, one in the fridge, one in the vacuum cleaner, and so on, and they owned maybe a dozen total. Today, we have no idea how many motors we have (or even how many are in a car), but we probably know how many things we own with a network connection or some kind of digital intelligence. There’s a phone, a tablet, and a laptop, and the TV, and… but again, our children will have no idea. It won’t be an interesting question. “How many smart devices do you have?” will be like asking how many incandescent light bulbs you have. — Smart homes and vegetable peelers, Benedict Evans.

In this thoughtful post, Ben explores the structure of the burgeoning home IoT market given his observations at the most recent CES. And I just love this preface, given the ways technology gets deployed I’ll eventually become the old man on the sofa scratching my head trying to figure out why I can’t find the box score for the Patriots game—obviously still quarterbacked by a youthful eighty-year-old Brady.

At its current state, it doesn’t seem that Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri are going to achieve the same lock-in power that Google has on search or iOS and Android have on mobile. The marginal difference between the voice assistants is not as dramatic as Google over MSN Search or iOS and Android over the Windows Phone. Furthermore, voice still functions as a supplement and is tethered to the smartphone or speaker—acting more as a friction-removing intermediary to use IoT devices. Finally, accessories such as smart fridges, door locks, and toilets don’t have the same network effect that Facebook, Amazon Prime, or the iPhone have. The switch to these new physical assets requires a greater commitment than signing up for an online service, and really, how much better can the Samsung smart fridge be than your current dumb one? Lord Bezos’ world domination plans are on hold in the consumer IoT space… for now.

Six Bullet Saturday (2/3/2018)

What I’m reading: The Way to Design by Steve Vassallo. This was such a fun little book (its free! and only a little more than 100 pages) that revolves around how design can/should be integrated into projects, decision-making, and building culture.

For Vassallo, design is not merely another rung on the ladder for a product to climb before being shipped out for sale. No. Design is omnipresent across all silos and levels, from the company’s first hire to iterating the next flagship launch. Furthermore, good design incorporates systems thinking—unearthing the underlying relationships and assumptions causing specific phenomenon—to encourage more cycles of virtuous feedback or neutralize suboptimal behavior. I found that Joe Gebbia’s quote on building culture best summarizes the importance of good design: “Culture doesn’t make the people, it’s the people in your building that makes the culture. Which means spend as much time up front to get it right, to get the right people in, because it is much easier to mold concrete when it’s wet than to chip away at it when it’s dry.” It is easy to get caught up in the excitement and whirlwind of priorities but spending time during the early stages of any project to thoroughly think through the long-term consequences can pay exponential dividends down the road. Also, sorry people, there isn’t a price you can pay for consultants to “improve corporate culture”.

What I’m listening to: It’s been an odd combination this week of Nina Simone, OutKast, and Frank Sinatra. Take Care of BusinessSpottieOttieDopaliscious, and Wave headline this weeks mix.

Podcast episode of the week: Cal Fussman’s interview with Kobe Bryant. One of the world’s most intense competitors talks about his post-basketball career—which has already yielded an Oscar nomination—conquering fear, and the virtues of life-long learning.

What I’m (going to be) watching: Super Bowl 52. Go Pats!

Favorite video of the week: Someone strapped an 8K camera to the bottom of a LearJet, flew around, and got some wonderful bird’s eye view shots of the earth. Love the fractals.

Tweet of the week:

All hype and no bite.

Six Bullet Saturday (1/27/2018)

What I’m reading: An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. I found this book accidentally while browsing online for the original Odyssey by Homer for class. Through exploring the text together—first when his father attends an undergraduate seminar taught by the author, then on a Mediterranean cruise—the author is able to chip away at the mystique surrounding his closed-off father. I’ve only had the chance to go through the first chapter but am enamored by the complicated dance taking place between two family members who have difficulty opening up to each other. All wrapped-up in New Yorker-style prose, of course.

What I’m listening to: And the Beat Goes On by The Whispers. Funky.

What I’m watching: Nothing much, just the new Grand Tour episode—Jeremy Clarkson & co. being brilliant as always. Oh, and old reruns of The Office, because procrastinating is fun.

Cool thing of the week: Metro line colors of the world, also bonus comment:

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 7.40.59 PM

Tweet of the week:

But seriously, what Amazon doing is quite amazing/scary. They aren’t afraid to spend a lot of capital and give up short-term gains in exchange for future dominance. Plus, people love them, a real head-scratcher for regulators.

Commonplace book entry of the week:

During the Netflix earnings call this week, Chief Content Officer Theodore A. Sarandos said something pretty remarkable in response to a question about Bright’s lack of critical success:

“So, the way to reconcile it is, that critics are an important part of the kind of artistic process but are not — they’re pretty disconnected from the commercial prospects of a film.”

As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson puts it succinctly, “Goodbye gatekeepers”. However, I think more than just media, Sarandos’ quote is a rather fitting summary of a trend that started in 2017 and is spreading like wildfire. The Larry Nassar trial—a chronological continuation of Susan Fowler’s incredible courage and the Weinstein scandal—fake news and misinformation, and even Amazon Web Services have shown the true power and ramifications of the Internet. In the media sector, no longer do traditional critics and production companies have sway over the success of content or an aspiring actor/actress. Powerful companies and senior leaders are no longer immune from accountability with regards to sexual harassment. News and information are no longer flowing through controlled channels of distribution, but rather, are so abundant anyone and everyone can find their perfect niche. AWS lowers barriers to entry; any aspiring small business can have direct access to enterprise-grade software and management services—yes, I know the Amazon aspect of the equation is still very problematic. But still, it is truly incredible to see what has been unleashed. Empowerment on the individual level walks in lock-step with the decline of expertise—and whatever that may bode for society. The very real tradeoffs come packaged whether we like it or not and comes with bright shiny warnings of how we should rethink about the fundamental relationships underlying problems such as misinformation. There is no easy answer to how we solve these problems, neither is there a blueprint on how to conquer future ones. The nature of tradeoffs precludes this luxury but also encourages us to do the kind of long-term thinking people preach but don’t really do—especially not in governance spheres. And so, we march on.

 

Six Bullet Saturday (1/20/2018)

What I’m reading: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi was awesome. The book tracks the divergent paths of a family from the Gold Coast of Western Africa through chapter-length short stories that switch between the perspectives of characters from successive generations. The narrative of the side of the family that moved—unwillingly, to put it nicely—to the U.S. was often times less compelling than the stories in Africa due to the somewhat forced attachment of certain African-American generational features onto characters. For example, Willie’s embodiment of the Great Migration, gospel music, and the brief flourishment of multiracial culture in parts of Southern labor towns felt unnecessarily constricting on her character growth. But, overall, Homegoing is a fantastic read that digs deep into issues of family and belonging and is a sobering reminder of ugly realities of the slave trade and its repercussions.

What I’m experimenting with: Toggl. Given my propensity to sit/stand idly in front of my laptop going through articles and videos, I thought it might be a good idea to start quantifying time spent. I’m only using the free, basic version of the app which simply acts as a timer to track screen time. The great part is that the app also keeps track of “idle time”—time without movement of the mouse or typing of the keyboard—so there won’t be an erroneous measure of laptop time when you take a twenty-minute bathroom break to watch five clips of Parks and Recreation on your phone. The end game for me is that I hope the daily tally will scare me enough to cut down on distractions, visualize how long it takes for me to complete certain tasks, as well as take care of my eyes better.

What I’m listening to (again): Strange Journey Volume Three by CunninLynguists. Dope album. In fact, it was my 2014 album of the year (2017’s was Big K.R.I.T.’s 4eva is a Mighty Long Time). Favorite tracks: South California, Innerspace, Guide You Through Shadows, Castles, Makes You Wanna Cry.

What I’m watching: Molly’s Game. A fascinating true story (spoilers!) of an ex-Olympic-caliber skier’s time running underground poker games for Hollywood and Wall Street elites. The movie is deeply thought-provoking—though a little preachy at parts—and I was particularly intrigued by its commentary on personal integrity and the dynamics between high-powered men and women.

Favorite video of the week: The New England Patriots’ Devin McCourty on Tom Brady’s hand injury.

Commonplace book entry of the week: “Train and bus stations were the sad places of the war, the limbs of lost souls. All those troops, far from their hometowns, and miserable-looking in their new uniforms, and the sad, young country girls, pregnant or holding babies, not looking around much, just standing, waiting. Lines everywhere. There was no place you could go that you didn’t have to stand in line first. Piles of duffel bags. And MPs with their white leggings and nigh sticks, patrolling, representing disciplines, being discipline in their stiff postures and their sharp uniforms. War could do worse things than this to plain people, but for a sense of the ordinary outrages of life in a country at war, the stations were the place to go.” – Samuel Hynes

How different a reality we live in today. As the longest war in U.S. history—Afghanistan—drags into its seventeenth year, this passage is a stark reminder of how good we have it today and how divergent civilian and military lives are. Yes, the scale and threat cannot be more different (uncertainty in the future of the world order vs. regional and ethnic grievances tracing back hundreds of years) but the harshness of war is in no way diminished. No wonder the yellow ribbon wearing crowds, NFL game ceremonies, and State of the Union stunts feel so empty. The men and women fighting a war with no tangible objectives are treated as cardboard idols for Americans to feel good about being American. Unsurprisingly, veterans returning home feel alienated, and the PTSD problem continues its destructive march, shattering lives and families. Civilians living in advanced societies—myself included—will never experience the very worst of human nature. The nature of modern war has negated our need to even taste hardship.