It’s almost U.S. Independence Day — the day we celebrate freedom. And, for those of us in the tech community, it’s also a good time to reflect on the ways technology gives us freedom.
It’s easy to think about all the ways tech entraps us: the tyranny of the inbox, the inescapable web of social connections mediated through advertising-supported networks, the ubiquity of the smartphone.
I don’t think those traps are inherent in technology, though. Instead, it’s up to us to figure out how to use technology to liberate ourselves, instead of becoming slaves to it.
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A New York Times story that got passed around a lot this past weekend laments the “busy trap” that many of us find ourselves in, swamped by a “crazy busy” schedule that’s actually entirely self-imposed.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness,” the author, Tim Kreider, writes. And it’s easy enough to let technology give you a sense of importance and urgency.
That’s not the only way technology works, though. And despite what Kevin Kelly wrote in his ambitious recent book “What Technology Wants,” tech doesn’t “want” one single thing. It’s up to us to use it in ways that increase our freedom, not our dependence.
My friend Brian Lam, who runs The Wirecutter, has the right idea: He uses technology to make a good-enough living on his own terms, sometimes living in a van in the desert and sometimes spending months at a time in Hawaii, surfing and generally enjoying life.
He’s a believer in making technology work for you, instead of the other way around. That means knowing how to focus and concentrate your work, instead of letting it take over your entire week. He and I had a conversation about this earlier this year, during which he pointed out that you can sometimes get more done in three intensive 12-hour days than you can in a whole week of ordinary, full-time work.
If you’re not always online, you can get more utility out of the times that you are plugged in. Having some downtime increases creativity, too, by giving you a different perspective on the world and by taking you outside of your well-worn digital paths. The trick is knowing when and how to set limits.
Sometimes this requires a serious effort, like keeping yourself from checking email when you’re taking time off. I try hard not to check email when I’m at home with my family in the evenings, but I’ll admit it’s not always easy. Staying offline during vacations is a serious challenge for many people, including myself, but it’s worth it.
Sometimes it’s a simple hack that does the trick. For instance, I moved my phone charger into a separate room, instead of having it on my nightstand next to my bed. Now the phone isn’t the first thing I look at when I wake up, nor is it the last thing that I look at when I go to bed at night. I’m not spending 10 or 20 minutes just sitting in bed scrolling through messages, either.
Other times, you just need to use technology to get control of technology. Email filters are an essential tool for dealing with inbox overload. Using Google Voice’s forwarding rules can ensure that your phone doesn’t ring in the middle of the night. Facebook’s new “Close Friends” feature helps you zero in on the handful of friends who you really care about, making the network a more meaningful experience. Twitter’s lists, while under-used by many, can work the same way.
What are the ways you use technology to increase freedom? Send your best ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Tech for Freedom” in the subject line, and we’ll publish our favorites tomorrow, July 4. Be sure to send them in by midnight tonight!