Making quieter technology

Technology's default mode is to constantly call for my attention. Attention is engagement, engagement is profit.

And thus a big chunk of the economy devotes itself to grabbing my attention by increasingly coercive means. It took considerable effort to get technology to just shut the fuck up.

This is what this post is about; making technology quieter, and building a healthier relationship with it.

What's wrong?

I want to use technology on my own terms, for my own ends. I want calm technology that respects the boundaries I set for it. This includes respecting my time, my attention, my privacy and above all my consent. I should be the user, it should be the tool, not the other way around.

A person's primary task should not be computing, but being human.

I no longer want to get sidetracked by deliberately addictive technology when I meant to sit down and do work. I want the computer to go back in its box when I'm done with it - like any other tool - so that I can do other things.

Silencing technology, bit by bit

For the last two years, I fought tooth and nail to achieve this. Every time the technology I use negatively affected me, I set up a countermeasure.

I did not throw my smartphone in a lake and retire to the mountains. I just excised the cancerous parts and preserved the good ones.

Basic tools

  • A good ad blocker: uBlock Origin. Enable the "annoyances" blocklists. They get rid of most cookie banners.
  • A good web browser: Firefox. The Android version lets you install uBlock Origin, and syncs your ad blocker settings between devices. It also has a great distraction-free reader mode.
  • A good search results filter: uBlacklist. It hides spammy websites from search results.
  • A good operating system: Mac OS. Windows has become so user-hostile that I refuse to get near it. Linux breaks the rule above: a person's primary task should not be computing, but being human.

These tools do most of the heavy lifting. They remove YouTube ads, Pinterest search results, GDPR cookie banners, and a ton of other annoyances.

Notifications

I turned off all notifications. Only phone calls, instant messages and bank transactions get through. My phone only vibrates for certain people, so a message from a business parter won't interrupt breakfast.

Most notifications are not urgent. I can acknowledge them an hour or two later. This is why they are silent.

Technology should require the smallest possible amount of attention. Communicate information without taking the user out of their environment or task. [...] A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back. The periphery is informing without overburdening.

In other cases, I added notifications, so that I don't need to monitor things myself. If my website goes down, or my backups stop working, I will know. I can sleep in peace knowing that everything is running smoothly.

Email

I turned off email notifications on my phone. On my laptop, I only get them during office hours. The paid version of Checker Plus for Gmail lets me set quiet hours. It's well worth the money.

I unsubscribe from unwanted emails as soon as I get them, so I get very few of them. I created filter to delete the few unwanted emails that get through. This includes status emails for things I don't need to be notified of, like Amazon receiving the order I just placed.

Now, I get 5-10 emails a day, and they're usually written by a human.

Calendar

I made my calendar louder to check my phone less. It vibrates like an alarm until I get to it. This makes it easier not to have my phone on me at all times.

Apps

Apps have repeatedly violated my trust, so I rarely use them. I prefer websites, because they have limited access to my device. They are subject to my ad blocker, and stop running when I close the tab. They cannot pry their way to the centre of my attention.

Social media

I can't delete social media because my job depends on it. I find a lot of information on Facebook and Reddit, and share professional updates on multiple platforms.

I just don't follow anyone. My feeds are empty. I wiped my profiles clean with Redact, then made them private. I no longer post personal updates there.

Social media websites see this as an affront, and keep trying to growth hack their way back into my life. Every few months, I must block a new "content you may like" or "people you may know" widget.

This had no impact on my social life. Zilch. Facebook was hiding my own mother's posts from me. My friends were either quiet or silenced by the algorithm. I was already missing out.

News and feeds

There were feeds on every website I used, on every new tab I opened, on my phone's home screen, and in my operating system's task bar. They were very distracting, so I got rid of them all.

Then I stopped drinking from the firehose of current events. The current muddles the veracity and the importance of things. I prefer a sip from the puddle a little away from the chaos, where the ripples settled and I can see below the surface.

So I switched to long-form articles. After the race against time subsides, the quality of the reporting gets markedly better. It's less important to be first, and more important to be right.

I also maintain a "things I don't understand" list. I pluck items from it once in a while, and queue up a few articles about them. They're nice bite-sized chunks of entertainment.

I use Pocket to queue articles and read them without distractions. It's okay, but not great. I read on a completely silenced iPad. It's disconnected from everything - a glorified e-book reader.

This has almost completely replaced scrolling in bed and at the breakfast table. My phone stays muted on my desk until I've had coffee.

I read more than ever in my life, and it's now a deliberate act, not an anxiety-inducing impulse. I have learned a lot more from those sources than from following the news cycle.

Reddit

I still use reddit, but a lot less than before.

I uninstalled the mobile app, and the mobile website is bad enough to keep me away.

On desktop, I use old.reddit.com. The old website is simpler, faster and quieter than the redesign. It feels more like a forum, and less like a dopamine casino. The Old Reddit Redirect extension enforces my choice. I hid a few of the remaining nuisances with ad blocker rules.

I filtered toxic content on the front page by blocking subreddits. A lot of subreddits. There are no more American politics, outrage porn or drama on my front page. I only follow a handful of hobby subreddits.

This is the default reddit experience, and my own:

A bit later, I hid the "next page" button. I get 25 posts, no more. This cuts mindless browsing by a lot.

Every other website

I use uBlock Origin to block a lot more than ads. I block practically all suggested content feeds, as well as many notification badges.

My own websites

I removed comments from the websites I run. Instead, I invite people to email me. This way, I don't have to deal with comment moderation, and all of my business happens in one place.

Looking at similar websites, I'm probably missing thousands of reader questions, but I do not owe them so much of my time.

I also design my own websites to be calm technology. I tend to forget that the unfiltered web is a lot louder than what I experience. To me, a calm website is just normal.

My own behaviour

I try to leave my phone out of the bedroom. When I go to bed, I put it in silent mode, and leave it on my desk in the living room.

When I wake up, I read articles I have saved in Pocket, instead of getting smacked with raw social media first thing in the morning. The iPad I read on is completely disconnected from the cloud and social media. It's a distraction-free device.

I used to go straight to the computer - still in my underwear - to continue something that started on my phone in bed. Now I have coffee and breakfast on the balcony, then catch up with the world.

I also post a lot less online. On one hand, the internet got much angrier during the pandemic, and on the other hand, I mellowed out. I don't get the same rush from engaging with internet drama. It was never worth it.

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

Result

The original draft of this article had a far more desperate tone. It was written by an alcoholic pouring his liquor down the kitchen drain. I was losing sleep over internet drama, and couldn't fully check out. You read the version rewritten by a sober man, about a year later.

I sometimes forget what the unfiltered internet looks like. A thin article wrapped in ads, topped with five layers of modals, and a video auto-playing in the corner. An inbox that's 90 percent noise. Two fifteen second ads before each YouTube video, and another one in the middle. Recommended content in every crevice of the user interface. It's unbearable.

Now it's all quieter.

Did all this effort unlock superhuman productivity? No. But it prevents technology from constantly hijacking my attention. It gives time well spent a fighting chance against instant gratification.

I spend less time on the computer. I don't get sidetracked as much. Internet drama does not phase me. I have more time to read, garden, and ride my bicycle.

The computer is a tool again, and now it's going back in its box.