The act of converging technologies is one of the great feats of the 21st Century. It’s evidenced by the meme that tends to show up in the slide decks of semi-knowledgable speakers at conferences. You know the one. There’s a desk full of objects. A calculators, a stack of books, a notepad, an alarm clock, a typewriter. In the next image, it’s a single Macintosh computer.
Having two separate devices for different jobs that share similar silicon has always been an inconvenience. And one that engineers have endeavoured to fix. Remember those combined TVs and VCRs? I had one in my bedroom when I was a kid. Go a little further back and there are those combined alarm clocks and tea-makers. Whenever a new thing combined two previously separate things, we were living in the future.
The computer is the classic example. But the smartphone is where we’ve peaked. We carry more computing power in our pockets than we used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. We’re carrying the world’s most popular camera in our pockets, along with an always-up-to-date GPS, a full set of the world’s maps (at every level of detail) a way to see anyone, at any time, and a way to look up anything instantly.
There’s no denying the allure of having every piece of essential 21st Century technology in your pocket. The everything machine goes with you everywhere. It’s in your hand more than anything else in a given day. It’s likely the first thing you reach for when you wake up. And the last thing you touch before you fall asleep. Few objects in the history of time have received this privilege of intimacy and trust.
But the technology we use is exactly that. We choose how we use it. And that usage shapes up. Over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the everything machine in my pocket and what it’s come to mean to me as an individual. And I think I’ve decided I don’t want an everything machine in its truest sense.
I’ve been a fan of technology for as long as I can remember. And while I’ve never had the means to always have the latest everything machine, I’ve been fortunate enough to never be too far behind. My first iPhone was the iPhone 4. One of Apple’s best in terms of its industrial design. Save for the whole antennae-gate thing.
Before the iPhone, I’d mostly had Nokias. And while I loved their simplicity, I often felt frustrated that they couldn’t do everything an iPhone could. So, when I got my ideal everything machine, I went all in. I spent more time than I care to recall finding the best apps, wading through settings and menus and finding ways I could mould this device to best suit the things I wanted to do.
Of course, I had the Facebook app. I loved Facebook. And why wouldn’t I have it on my phone? The same went for Twitter. And then Instagram came along. That caught my imagination in a way that Facebook and Twitter hadn’t. It was a platform that emphasised creation over consumption. At least for a little while.
My first job as a journalism graduate was writing for a technology magazine. It was a dream come true. I got to put this weird hobby of mine to greater use. And Apple gave me free phones for a while. I never got to keep them. But for a short period of time, I always had the latest everything machine in my pocket.
It was around this time that people around me would find themselves in the company of someone who retreated to their phone at every available opportunity. I’ve always found myself to be an introverted person, and I’m fine with that, but my solution to this was to bury my head in a screen. And what better screen for it than the one where I could do everything?
At this point, for me at least, the everything machine went from being a means to an end, to the end itself. Instead of using it to achieve some greater goal, the goal was to spend as much time consumed by this palm-sized slab of metal, glass and silicon as possible. And it was easy.
As I’ve started to question my relationship with technology. I’ve begun to realise it’s not as mutually beneficial as I first thought. For a long time, spending hours in apps on my phone felt like a righteous cause. I’m socialising! I’m learning stuff! I’m having fun! I’m keeping in touch!
But taking a step back, it feels like being able to do all of those things almost simultaneously isn’t the right approach. None of us can truly multi-task. But we feel like we can. Everything machines are fast. And they let us switch contexts at an alarming rate.
As a writer, I know I do my best work with an intense focus on the job in hand. And I’ve tried to set up my environment to help with this. I use iA Writer, in dark mode, full screen, with a monospaced font. There are podcasts playing in the background. The TV is off. The only noise is ambient, constant and reassuring. Save for a few short breaks, I’ve been staring at this same screen for over an hour now.
As a human, I know I struggle with intense focus for any great period of time. A couple of years ago I tried to develop a meditation habit. And while I can’t confess to have successfully stuck at it consistently since then, it’s hammered home the importance of focus on a single task. The clarity and calm that comes from focussing one the breath—and nothing else—can’t be overlooked. And it’s had a huge bearing on how I think about the technology I use.
While I tried to develop my ability to focus on a single task through meditation, I was simultaneously undoing all this work with my everything machine. In a heartbeat I could go from watching a Vox explainer on YouTube, to replying to a message, to posting a questionably funny Tweet, to reading a work email, to feeling anxious about the work email, to desperately wanting reassurance about my questionably funny Tweet via likes.
It all felt right at the time, but looking back, it feels off.
I’ve been undoing the everything machine for some time now. It started with removing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube from my iPhone. Now they live solely on my iPad (they’re available via the web browser on my Mac, too, but thanks to their mobile-first engineering focus, their web apps are far less appealing).
Now, if I’m on my iPad, it’s largely to check Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. My iPad lives at home, it doesn’t come to work with me, it rarely travels with me, it’s not in the queue at the Post Office, it’s not in the toilet at work. It’s not my everything machine. But it is the place I go to when I want to be completely unproductive on the internet.
The final big leap was email. I’m fortunate enough that I don’t need to check my work emails out of hours. I could if I needed to, but the need isn’t there, so I don’t. That left my two personal email accounts on my everything machine. And without social media, that was my go-to for time wasting. No matter how many times I hit unsubscribe, there’s always another newsletter or promotional email to read.
Every time I opened up my personal emails, I pulled to refresh and ding, ding, ding! Jackpot! One. Five. Three. Nine emails! Like a fruit machine. Yet none of this stuff was essential to me. People call or message me if it’s urgent, work never comes through to my personal emails. It’s all newsletters (which I love, but they aren’t life or death communications) and marketing. So I switched off these accounts on my phone.
For the first days, much like when I deleted social media from my phone, I found myself looking for apps that weren’t there. But over time, it felt like I’d reclaimed some time back. Looking for something that didn’t exist on my everything machine forced me to question why it was out of my pocket in the first place. Using my everything machine was no longer about doing the most all at once. It was about knowing exactly what I needed it for, doing that thing, then putting it away again.
This is the part of the story where I need to recognise my own privilege. Not everyone is in a position to have multiple devices for different functions and purposes. So, while the next part to this story might not be achievable for everyone, I think everything I’ve said above still applies. After all, if you’re reading this article, you’ll most likely be doing it on a computer or a smartphone.
For Christmas this year, my girlfriend bought me a Nintendo Switch. And my parents bought me a Kindle Paperwhite. Introducing two new electronic devices into my life when I’ve spent so long renegotiating my relationship with my everything machine might feel a little off. But these aren’t everything machines.
When I wake up my Nintendo Switch and play Mario Kart, I can only do one thing. Play Mario Kart. I don’t get push notifications about messages from friends, breaking news or emails. I just play the game that’s in front of me. That’s all the screen shows. Likewise, when I wake the screen on my Kindle and open up a book, I can’t switch apps and refresh Instagram. I can read a book and that’s about it.
These devices have a single purpose. But in many cases, they share the same silicon. For an engineer, and for our attention economy, that’s an issue. It’s an inefficient use of physical resources. And it means that when I’m done reading or playing games, I’ll put it down and move onto something else. You can’t sell ads off a single-use device (although Amazon’s Kindle offers make some effort to).
For me, removing some of the things that the everything machine can do feels like a better way to navigate my relationship with technology going forward. It can still do incredible things. It’s the best way to keep in touch with anyone beyond face-to-face chat. It’s the only device I have to help me navigate from A–B. And it’s still how I read a lot of stuff (thanks to Instapaper and Reeder).
But now, my everything machine isn’t about everything. It’s about the most important things I want out of portable technology. If I desperately want to do anything else, I can still do it. There’s just enough friction (downloading apps, logging into websites, etc.) to make me question whether now’s the best time to be doing it.