Lessons from a Year of Covid

No surprise, Yuval Noah Hurari does an excellent job of summarizing this year of Covid pandemic in his article: Lessons from a Year of Covid.

Some key takeaways for me:

“If it is not too complicated to start monitoring what you do — it is not too complicated to start monitoring what the government does.”

“…we need to safeguard our digital infrastructure. It has been our salvation during this pandemic, but it could soon be the source of an even worse disaster.”

“…each country should invest more in its public health system. This seems self-evident, but politicians and voters sometimes succeed in ignoring the most obvious lesson.”

“…we should establish a powerful global system to monitor and prevent pandemics.” 

Any current or aspiring politicians out there looking for action items need look no further.

‘Renegade’ and The Authentic Moment

Neuroscientist/Philosopher Sam Harris tells a story of walking on stage to give a talk somewhere and upon seeing that there was bottled water on a table next to the podium he did what so many of us do and thought to himself, “oh good, they put some water there.” He then asks – why is he thinking that and who is he thinking it to? He sees the water there – his brain registers it, he already knows it’s there, but why is there this internal monologue or voice that reaffirms it to ‘himself’ when really, ‘himself’ already knows the water is there?

We all have this internal monologue or voice and it’s uniquely ours. It speaks in language and tone and with colloquialisms and slang that indeed often only we know and recognize. It’s an infinite loop of inside jokes with ourselves.

Saturday morning I was sitting in a grassy clearing behind a subdivision watching the sun come up. There wasn’t much to watch actually, it was an overcast day. I watched the world around me get lighter. At the edge of the clearing there were some deer grazing that I don’t think had really noticed me sitting there – the grass was pretty tall and I was hidden.

When I stood up to leave, they froze a bit and realized I was there. Inside my head, my internal voice said a line it uses all the time in these situations, “the jig is up, the news is out – they know I’m here.” The first part of that, “the jig is up, the news is out” comes from a line in a Styx song that I first heard so long ago I can’t remember when. It often pops into my head in instances like this where it fits. Why it does is a totally different blog post, because I’ve never even really been a Styx fan or listened to one of their records all the way through. I will tell you it has something to do with that ancient technology, radio.

I don’t usually listen to music when I’m riding my bike, but I chuckled at this opportunity and dialed up the song on my phone in Apple Music, set my speaker volume as loud as it could go, a proceeded to tear through the gray suburbs of Fredericton’s North Side with it playing 3 times in a row.

I didn’t see anyone. It was very early on a Saturday, but I bet some folks saw or maybe even heard me through sleepy, coffee-fueled gazes out of kitchen windows. Maybe some dog-walkers heard strange noise a block away but couldn’t quite pinpoint it as it was moving. Some guy up early to wake-n-bake in his backyard probably thought, “whoah this is some great shit, I think I just heard Styx.” I enjoy doing my part to keep Fredericton weird.

It occurred to me that the whole transaction – from that moment when I thought of the lyric through to fishing out my phone, searching it up and hitting play – that is what digital companies are trying to capture and ultimately monetize. That’s the hook.

The voice in my head is uniquely mine, but science has basically determined that – leave arguments about the true nature of consciousness aside for a moment – those thoughts, my internal monologue (or dialogue, since it seems to be two-way with someone) is merely electrical impulses zapping through my brain that I quite literally have no control over.

The March of Technology continues to advance. I’ve heard discussions on podcasts and elsewhere about the eventual availability of ‘neural nets’ – the mess of wires and transmitters that measure brain activity you see in the science shows – potentially in the form of wearables like hats or headbands and coupled with devices and apps to read your brain activity. Most of the discussions I’ve heard are about the beneficent use of this tech – say for example an app to help you quit smoking that can read your brain activity faster than you can even think and then prompt you via an app or otherwise with a behavior or thought that works counter to the craving.

Ostensibly, one day there will be surgical implants that can be placed into your head, connected to your brain to then connect with external devices – such as a phone – but then again, at some point, there’ll no longer be a need for the external device. Everything will happen right inside your head. Your phone calls, reminders, music – all right there.

In the case of my Styx example, the process would change from a clunky physical one – thought of the song, reaching for phone (or even asking Siri to play it) – pressing button – to simply thinking of the lyric and then thinking “oooo, play that,” and my head will ring with 1979 era rock. I guess the downside is that the neighborhoods I ride through won’t be able to hear it – which ruins most of the fun.

More ominously though, if our internal monologue/dialogue is just electrical impulses, then eventually, the technology will exist for the implant in your head to be 2-way. It will no longer just ‘listen and monitor’ – it will respond or prompt. And the response will indiscernible from your own thoughts. It will speak to you in that same voice and language that you’ve known your whole life. The device will – of course – be connected to external sources via wi-fi, bluetooth, and/or whatever new invisible data transfer technologies are created between now and then. At some point it will be very lucrative and very compelling for advertisers, organizations, causes, or anyone really – to be able to get into your thoughts – and you won’t even know it.

So it begs the question, at what point will your experience of the moment become inauthentic?

Because I know you’re wondering, Sunday’s ride soundtrack was The Bosstones. Now you’ve been inside my head, no fancy gadgets needed.

iPhone Xr

So after all the hype and final shutdown of the Light Phone Experiment, since I was due for an upgrade of my iPhone SE, I went and pulled the trigger on the Xr – well, 4 of ’em actually – as my wife and 2 kids were all due for upgrades too. Got a screaming good Black Friday* deal on them, I’m ashamed to admit.

I’m sure I’ll come up with more over time but here’s the quick and dirty I’ve got so far:

  • Big phone, but I guess this is the way things are going
  • Big phone does make for nicer reading experience with iBooks
  • I like the FaceID feature way more than I thought I would
  • Because of the repositioning of the on/off button, I keep taking a screenshot every time I go to lock the phone
  • Retina display is really nice
  • Like that I have space for an additional row of apps and can still only have ‘one screen’
  • Works flawlessly with my Air Pod Pros – which I’m digging – perhaps more on those in another post

*It’s a strange world when one reaches a point where your family has so many phones that one has to set up a spreadsheet to compare all the various options, deals and service plans before making any purchases or adjustments to your mobility plan. Perhaps theres a market for an app for this.

The Light Phone Experiment That Wasn’t

So if you’ve been paying attention to my posts at all, you’ll know that I was planning on running an experiment based around using a Light Phone 2 provided by a buddy of mine with the intention of seeing what it was like to be ‘smartphoneless’ for some given period of time. Well, that idea has crashed and burned or perhaps more accurately, fizzled.

First off, it was taking awhile for the Light Phone folks to ship their product – a not-unexpected occurrence – given that this was an Indiegogo thing and these things take time. Not an un-ironic comment on how our everything-immediately-on-demand world has influenced our expectations and perceptions of time. Still, the length of time it was taking started to sap interest in the desire to play around with the device. Steve – the guy who was going to loan me his version of the phone – and I remarked on this a few times in our correspondence. Still, I remained committed to giving it a shot and he still felt I was a good candidate to put it through its paces.

When the phone finally shipped to Steve, once he received it, decided he wanted to give it a temporary spin so set about trying to get it up and running with his cellular service provider. He hit some snags though, and then decided to try using the Light Phone’s own SIM plan and ordered up a card – only to have issues with getting the SIM to be recognized once it arrived. Last we spoke, he still didn’t have the thing up and running.

In the meantime, I had my own circumstances change in that I agreed at the last minute to coach my kids’ hockey team this winter. Based on my previous experiences coaching, the prospect of trying to run the team as well as coordinate with parents and league staff all without a ‘smart’ phone (one with a calendar and access to a web browser and email) seemed like an exercise in futility and one that would only make life miserable. Due to the time it was taking to get the Light Phone into my hands, my interest in the experiment as it was initially formulated had waned. Being faced with this new organizational challenge – I told Steve I wasn’t really interested in it any longer – at least not at this point.

I will say this though, that the whole idea wasn’t without it’s upsides. Through the process of thinking about the phone and preparing to use it, I went through several phases of evaluating and thinking about what apps I have on my current phone and how I use them. That process has led to a major cull in both apps on the phone as well as phone usage/screen time in a way that has been overwhelmingly positive. Probably the largest single change has been the elimination of email from my phone. While I did, initially re-install it after agreeing to coach, I uninstalled it after only a short while realizing that the several months prior of having no access to it on the phone had taught me I don’t need it and I was able to pretty much manage things by sticking to the routine I’d established of basically checking email once a day, intentionally, at a regular time.

One screen to rule them all. Still.

In closing, I’m still glad that I went through the whole process, even though things fell apart at the end. The result is I’m still using a phone that’s about as ‘light’ as I can get, and the apps that are on it I’ve given a lot of thought about whether I want to give my time and attention to and if they’re of real value in my day-to-day. This idea of considering how we use the technology we have very intentionally is something Cal Newport talks about at length in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life in a Noisy World . Although I’ve actually only just started reading this, I had inadvertently already begun what Mr. Newport calls the ‘Digital Declutter’ without even knowing it. When I wanted to reevaluate my relationship with the technology in my day-to-day life, it just seemed to be the sensible way to do it. That said, the book is great so far and I highly recommend it if it sounds like something you’re interested in or are considering.

For those interested/playing along – I’ve stuck to my initial plan of keeping my phone to ‘one-screen’ of apps. Each one has had to ‘earn’ its real-estate there (exception being the un-installable apps, some of which I wish I could nuke). I also didn’t cheat by putting apps I can’t remove in a folder to give me more space on the ‘one-screen’, so I really had to think hard about it. Interesting note – I’m up for an upgrade of my iPhone SE and I notice that even the smallest of the newer iPhones is larger than this one. While I’m not excited about that – I like a small phone – I think it does mean more screen real-estate for apps, I guess I’ll have to see how that goes.

The Phone Foyer Method

Cal Newport talks in his latest post, A Piece of Advice I Wish I’d Included in My Book about leaving your phone in the foyer of your house once you get home.

The Phone Foyer Method: When you get home after work, you put your phone on a table in your foyer near your front door. Then — and this is the important part — you leave it there until you next leave the house.

Several months ago, I started something similar, only, my dresser is where the phone stays. This also happens to be where I charge it. I come home, empty my pockets and leave the phone there and don’t carry it with me around the house or out into the garage or the yard. It’s been great. Very liberating.

Naturally since we’ve all become accustomed to being ‘connected’ all the time, at first there where those pangs of ‘what if I miss a call or a text?’ If I’m inside, I can still hear the ring and go answer if I want, same with a text. If I’m outside – there’s voicemail.

I’ve experienced all the benefits and good mojo Cal mentions in the post in spades. Sometimes, I even put my phone there and – gasp – turn the ringer off.

What’s funny is when my kids or my wife notice it vibrating or ringing and come and find me in a panic – “your phone is ringing – making noises! You’ve got a text!”

“Yep. That’s what it does.” is what I usually say.