Overconnected : When your world shrinks into a very tight fit.

Nov 16

It is somehow fitting to sit down in he middle of a medieval square in the city of Carcassonne, to write this little piece. Ancient walls of stone surround this fortified village that has seen countless ebbs and flows of war and piece. Plastered on the window of the little cafe where we are the obligatory patrons, in exchange for good but expensive coffee, is the universal WIFI sticker. Its white and grey contrast forming a beacon for all those road warriors parched in the dessert of dis-connectivity. "Come here and quench your raging thirst for information" it seems to call out. I ponder to toggle my "Wifi Settings" to on, but choose not to. I am, as a matter of fact, still on holiday.  Holiday (or Vacation) depending on what part of the Anglosphere you sprout from, means being "	away" from you normal routine of life, exchanging it for a temporary relief by alteration of activities, location or both. In my case it is both. Work is left behind and so are the roaming fields of Flanders. After a 11 hour drive we end up in a place we can only refer to as our "second home". The city of Carcassonne. But even its succeeding circles of reinforcements are no match for the progress of technology.
For a flick of a switch is all I need to make to instantly open up the floodgates of connectivity. All i need to do is "hook up" to the open access point and the entire concept of a vacation can be taken away from me. "I am a citizen of the world" I frequently announce as I recount tales and adventures from the world of cyberspace. I travel  without moving and span the globe at the click of a mouse. But that also means .. that the opposite is true. Where I can connect to the world from anywhere .. the world can also connect to me.  For a the flick of a switch I am teleported back towards my "everyday life" ( Not actually a location nor a true state of mind ) and the physical and geographical reality that comprises my "vacation" will cease to exist. Connections, emails, communications, messages, thoughts, impressions, queries and troubles ... all of them will come flooding back and there is nothing that can stop the evaporation of the 'sea of tranquility' that is my state of mind.
Connectivity shrinks your planet down to a mouse click. And that is an awesome feeling. It gives you the power to span the planet with a single wrap of the keyboard ..  Ubiquitous connectivity takes away your place to hide. No matter where on the planet you are, your communications and digital interactions are right there with you. Both a blessing and a curse. For if we are always connected we change only the scenery around us as we travel. In the end we are still sitting behind our computer, plugged into the net. Only when we stare up from the screen, we see that the wallpaper called reality .. has changed.
So when I'm on holiday  .. I switch off. Sure, I miss my "information drip". As I stand before a statue or want to know the number of inhabitants in Andorra , my dopamine craving will have to wait a little as "instant information" is not available. But on the other hand .. I can always ask somebody .. Sometimes they even know the answer.
So we have crossed the apex of my personal connectivity. We have gone beyond the threshold of what I can have vs what I really want. For what I really want right now, is to step down from the over-connected platform of my everyday life and enjoy the stone walls of the ancient city. Enjoy talking to my beloved wife, uninterrupted by the next wave of tweets , DM's, emails and instant messages.  For once , the information and communication junkie wants to be deaf, mute and ignorant .. just to be in the know of the beautiful thing around him .. Called reality

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Do we still need a phone ?

Nov 13

Ring Ring …  Ring Ring … to be quite honest, I can’t remember when was the last time I heard a “real” telephone make that sound. Sometimes, when I’m watching some old movie ( I like old movies ) you hear the characteristic sound of a ringing telephone as you see one of the characters dashes across the room to pick it up. Its been ages since we had a phone that made that sound .. and come to think of it , its been quite a while since MY cellphone rang either. There used to be a time when I could not leave the house without my trusty friend. Before the coming of the internets and mobile broadband, your phone was your only ‘link’ with the rest of your life once you where out and about. One would never leave without ones phone .. feel naked without ones phone.  Yet last monday I noticed that I had forgot to recharge my smartphone for the last 5 days. After rapidly connecting it to a charger and checking if I had any voicemails .. I wasn’t surprised that I had … zero missed calls. 

This is a result of something I have set in motion some years ago. Training my surroundings to use Email and other means of communication to get in touch with me. Last year I had shut down my phone for a couple of weeks. Callers would get a voicemail message that they could contact me via email and other forms of communication. Checking the voice mailbox every couple of days I would return the odd call, but if people would send me an email, I would reply instantly. Quickly enough the understanding grew : If you wanna get in touch with Knightwise : Email him. In truth I must say that I DID carry around my work phone during the day. Its “voice number” unknown to my social circles, but tied in to my “digital means” of communication through Email, Twitter and Chat.  The luxury was quite profound. No pesky calls of so called “friends” to fix their computers, no calls from distant relatives nagging about this and that .. but most importantly : The luxury to respond at ones one leisure. Think of it : The basic concept of a phone is that it makes an annoying sound ( That does not care if you are in a meeting, out on the street or on the very erge of kissing the woman you love ) Social expectations dictate that you ANSWER the phone at once. Leaving it to ring is of course also an option but the annoying sound the darn thing makes goes on and on. NOT answering in time gives the caller an ability to talk to your voicemail OR try ringing you AGAIN (hence the entire process starts over again). Whenever my phone rings I find myself RUSHING towards it to prevent the darn thing going to voicemail. Preferring to talk to the caller right away in favor of having to ring my voicemail , listen to the message and call him or her back. 

Streamlining my “other” forms of communication has become a little bit of a hobby for me. Back in the day when I used to get one of two emails a day, I would look on the internets for some funky sounds that my computer (or my phone) could make when an email arrived. But with the plethora of communications hitting my personal reception points ( A new word I made up to summarize Email, Im, Twitter etc ) I have found that the art lies in “discretion”. Low discrete buzzes and beeps now chime the arrival of a message. Since they arrive on several devices (who operate in several social situations) those notifications can vary from quite loud to silent. According to sender or source i’ve setup some rules that either announce or even ignore the arrival of said communication completely. 

The trick is once again : Have technology work for you ! In order to do this you have to step away from “the default” a situation where all communications at all times in all social situations are equal. Just like setting your ‘phone’ to ‘mute’ when you are in a meeting, you need to ‘trim’ your digital communications too. Lets take a look at classic “email” and give you some lifehacks on how to configure it for your PC, your tablet (if you have one) and your phone.

Lets say your email address is wiseguy@gmail.com and you get quite a few messages on there. 

1 : Start off by making separate mailboxes for your devices. 

wg_myphone@gmail.com

wg_mytablet@gmail.com

2 : Set up a bunch of rules that copy and forward messages from your ‘main’ mailbox to your devices. This way a lot of your traffic gets ‘filtered’ and ‘forwarded’ to the right locations. For example an email from your spouse might be important so you push it forward from your main mailbox to your cellphone. The “funny” email your mother sent you can probably wait until tonight.   People who put you in the .cc field might not want an answer right away so those probably don’t have to get forwarded either.  The trick with these rules is simple. The “bulk” of your email is caught in your “official” mailbox and with the use of some smart rules, your ‘digital agent’ forwards them to you based on sender, subject or importance. The trick is to evaluate what might be important and to asses in what matter you want to be disturbed. You wanna get 500 messages on your phone every day ? Go ahead. The chance that you’ll be able to be productive with all these interruptions is small, the chance that you’ll be able to interact with all of them is even smaller. (the “interface” is too small). 

3 : Have a fallback scenario : Configure your “mail mailbox” on all your devices but disable “push” or automatic syncing. That way you can still “check” your email box should you need to AND have the ability to ‘reply’ with your official “sender” address. 

4 : Deal with email when you want to , where you want to.   Tablets and Phones are awesome devices for quick and dirty communication. But ramming out 15 pages of poetry on your smartphone is a thumb-numbing experience that I do not wish upon you. So have your ‘TECH’ filter out your email and don’t let these distractions “interrupt” your day. Have you teck manage your communications.. Don’t have your communications manage the way you live. 

In this omni-connected world where many forms of communications change the way we experience life in general, we need to find new ways to deal with all of this . As another “pingwave” goes through the house ( the sequential chime of all of my connected devices that ‘ping’ as a single email arrives ) I’ve come to the realisation that we need to change the way we deal with all of this. With this simple hack i’ve been able to filter interruptions based on the device i’m carrying around and the situation that i’m in. Now I just hope my cellphone doesn’t ring. 

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Angry at Lion.

Nov 01

“Ghah !” .. An cry of frustration escapes my throat as I shove my mouse and keyboard away from me with an intensity that would make a Klingon blush. I sigh, push my chair backwards and walk away from my computer after its operating system has once again tested the very limits of my patience. We’ve all been there. That zone where we are at the peak of our productive or creative efforts and your computer decides it would be a good idea to go and mess with you a bit. For many years Windows was the main culprit in these cases. Leading to issues where charming innocent office secretaries would either burst into tears or swear like drunken pirates when there compuer “ate” their word document in a brilliant blue screen of death. Today however, not windows but OSX was the source of my frustration. This is odd. After switching from Windows to the mac (and to Linux) my Macs and their operating systems have been the pinnacle of my creative productivity for years. “If you want to get things done, Get a Mac” .. I would say. So why the Klingon exclamation this morning I hear you ask ? “Lion” i growl back at you … (as I sip my coffee and try to regain my composure and creative vibe. But to be honest , it will be at least an hour before me and my Feline nemesis will be on speaking terms again. I sulk in a corner, stroking my Ipad as I read through the funnies on Flipboard. “I hate Lion” … I grumble.

So why ? What on earth is wrong with Lion ? Most OSX upgrades have been eagerly awaited and appreciated at casa del knightwise. So why not Lion ?   I look for the right way to say this and give up. Here is the blunt version. “Its for dumb people”. Don’t gasp as if you are shocked by my exclamation. You know me better then that !. Lion IS for dumb people, or at least that is how it feels. Let me start by pointing out that Lion is not a ‘new and revolutionary’ OS. Lion is nothing more then a pimped up , dumb-down version of Snow leopard. Its ‘additions’ are just about as innovative and valuable then upgrading from windows 95 (v2) to Windows Millennium.  Puzzled ? Let me explain.

First of all : There is the ‘auto start’ function. Somehow somebody at apple thought it would be a good idea to “re-open” all of your open applications when you reboot. I fail to see why. I honestly do. The ONLY reason I “restart” my computer is to start off with a clean system. A fresh slate, a new start. After wrestling intensively with the digital world on the previous night and having a gazillion programs open, I like to “start anew” in the morning as I reboot my machine. But OOOH NO ! Somehow Apple thinks it would be more ‘convenient’ if I where to get ALL of that clutter opened up for me automatically. So instead of booting up and “doing something” I spend the first minute or 2 closing windows and applications just to get a look at my wallpaper and start fresh. One would say this “feature” (i call it a PITA) would be something you can switch off ?  But you can’t ! Why ? ? Is it not MY computer ? My Os  ? don’t I get to decide I would like to “start fresh” every morning ?

But once I get passed that and am finally in my digital Zen-zone I have to be super careful as I work. My trusty magic mouse has now become a digital minefield. Back in the day it was pretty cool to have a mouse without a scroll wheel (or without a crud-collection ever-jamming ball like the mighty mouse ) The little ‘touchpad’ on top of my magic mouse never jammed up. But ever since Lion came along, those little “strokes” can become the key to disaster. First of all Apple decided it would be nice to take “scrolling” into the mirror universe, where a ‘bearded spock’ gave them a piece of their minds. So now up (which has been ‘up’ for many years) is suddenly DOWN and vice versa. A fancy Apple sales guy gave a somewhat feasible explanation about this and now its called ‘natural scrolling’. Yeah. Like your face hitting my fist is more “natural punching” then the other way around.  But hey ! There is more. My middle finger is banned from the mouse forever. In its perpetual raised state (no pun intended ‘lion’) it does not DARE to touch the sensitive interface in fear of setting up another strange function like zooming, swiping or god knows what. These added functionalities triggered by ‘finger motions’ are Apple’s version of the secret handshake or something. Instead of just using my mouse, the critter has now become the digital surface on which I need to memorize the complete ‘apple sign language’ to access all the new features. Swipe left for this, three finger swipe for that , pinch for this, Triple-tap-snap-your-fingers-and-dance for that ..  Its like having to learn sign language ! But I must be a fracking retard ! Because Apple calls all of this ‘natural’. I frown and seriously question of Apple’s very definition of the word. Is it NATURAL that when i grab for my mouse and ‘accidentally’ touch it sideways, my entire desktop switches to a full screen ‘dashboard’ (another completely useless feature) ?  Is it ‘Natural’ that when I move my mouse sideways (and accidently stroke the surface sideways) my browser goes BACK a page  ? ( completely destroying the blogpost I had just entered into the web-form of my blog) ? I seriously doubt it. Yeah sure. You can turn SOME of that stuff off. But why aren’t all those fancies ‘opt in’ instead of ‘go figure how to opt out’. Call me old fashioned but i’m not a “stroking” and “gesturing” kind of guy. Nice productive features like expose have been killed off in favour of ‘mission control’ A deliriously stupid IOS menu has been added to the mix to make people feel ‘more at home’ after using a tablet … In short all the the productive tricks I had on my Snow leopard install are gone .. and some of them just won’t be coming back. Where I used to WORK with Snow Leopard, I feel like i’m FIGHTING Lion. In essence , The most appropriate finger gesture I would like to summarize my feelings towards Lion .. is NOT a multi fingered one. ( Lets call it an “angry bird” )

Ghah ! I say and walk over to my Linux laptop. Relieved by the fact that I am after all, a slider and can go from OS to OS.
So as I log into my Gnome2 desktop on my Linux mint distro, my hopes sink further as I browse through all the new features in the new Ubuntu and upcoming Mint distributions. My frustration with the Unity interface on Ubuntu, that drove me to Linux Mints classic Gnome2 interface.. are about to be rekindled. Progress demands me to make a choice between the Unity interface in the most recent Ubuntu release, or Gnome 3 in the upcoming Mint release. Development on the classic “Gnome 2 ” interface will cease and I”ll be forced in the direction of “progress”.

And even in Linux that “progress” is a less customizable, more “tablet” oriented interface like Gnome3 or Unity. A lifehacker article talking about their pro’s and cons add on the sad conclusion that Gnome 3 is “less bad” then Unity. “Less bad”. after 15 years using computers I’ll need to choose for the “less bad” option. And all of that because all of the Desktop OS manufacturers are pointing all their noses towards tablet interfaces. Well guess what. My desktop is NOT a tablet. Please .. Stop treating it like one !

As I gulp down my coffee and ponder whether or not to return to my computer , i’m starting to wonder if i’m getting old ? Perhaps its that ? I have no idea. Have I become that Cobol programming bearded guy that snorts at new “Graphical User Interface” and praises the “good old days” of the command line ? Am I still somebody that wants to customize his Interface ? That likes things ‘the way they where ? “. The thought scares me. I’ll turn 37 in a few days. And without kids and w
ith a super geeky wife, I have the blessing of being an eternal kid. Collecting Star Wars figurines, going to Cons, Tinkering with computers .. I’ve never noticed that I was going towards 40.. Perhaps my mentality about all these new operating systems is a ‘sign of age’.   It makes me shudder.  But as with all things, one cannot stop progress. Just like Dolly Parton in 9 to 5 we will have to embrace progress with its rattling matrix printers and monochrome terminals .. We’ll just have to ‘swipe and pinch’ our way through.

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Can you have too many friends on the internet ?

Nov 01

Imagine a room with about 1200 people in it. Its a pretty confined space with the special characteristic that everyone of those 1200 people is able to tap you on the shoulder at a moments notice. The room is pretty busy. A lot of talking going on and people are constantly wanting to show you the new toy they bought or  the fact that it just started snowing outside. Aside from this constant stream of chatter everybody has the instant ability to engage in direct conversation with you if they want to. Now imagine your office and your living room are in the middle of this giant room. The place where you work and live, surrounded by these 1200 friends. How would this impact your life ?

 

The situation might seem pure science fiction, but in reality, its not.  If I start counting the number of followers I have on twitter, the number of friends on Facebook, the people that have circled me on Google plus and the odd number of people on IM services like Skype …  It adds up to this amount. Sure thing there are “dupes” in that list , so lets say 2/3rd of these people are unique : That’s still about 800 people. 800 people ! Aside from being flattered (because I haven’t counted in the people who shoot me regular emails ) that’s also a little bit of a scary number. Being in a room with 800 people who want to tell me stuff , talk to me or engage me in other forms of interaction is a pretty “crowded” scene to imagine. The question is : How does this impact my life right now .. and what is still to come ? Judging by the “rise” in online acquaintances over the years its safe to say our “virtual social circle” will only grow over time. You might have had only 5 friends on Facebook (including your mom) when you  first set up your account. Chances are that that number has grown over time .. and will continue to do so. And everyone of that ” Virtual Social Circle ” has something to share with the world, and every one in that social circle can interact with you.  This will probably turn your experience in ‘being behind a computer’ from a rather a-social experience into a very social experience .. But what happens when you turn the computer off ? With smartphones and permanent connectivity those 800 friends slide right into your pants (Yes, that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean) and you take them, their stories, their shared experiences, their conversations and their interactions … with you everywhere you go.
So in essence, we are never alone anymore. No matter if we walk through a deserted forest with no one in sight .. if you have data coverage on your phone .. : these people are along for the ride.  How do we deal with that ? People who yell : “just turn your phone off” might be right, but these days it just isn’t as simple as that. A lot of the services we use for our daily lives become more and more “cloud based” demanding constant connectivity AND interaction with the Internets. And turning off interaction with your social circle while still being connected to the internet is a pretty tricky feature to configure on your smartphone. Its mostly either ‘Completely online’ and ‘airplane mode’. And that is just the technological side of the coin. What about our mental one ? The human curiosity to “know” what lies message lies waiting behind that little muffled “ping” your heard your cellphone make while it was in your backpack… That dopamine rush you get while consuming yet another peace of ( fairly useless ) information about your American friend who just had a latte at Starbucks ? And what if those numbers in your circles start to grow .. more stories , more information , more interaction , more pings .. more dopamine ..  What will it lead to  ?
At a certain point you’ll reach an apex of what can only be called ‘social saturation’.  Where ‘the social web’ was actually built as a ‘filter’ to select valuable information from the fire hose of data called the internet by using social ‘ties’ as the selection criteria .. even that filtered feed is becoming a fire hose. Sure, just like with ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances ‘ there are different levels of social relationships in your life. It might even work to build in those ‘levels’ in your ‘main social media feed’ to kinda filter stuff out. But does it help ?
In “real life” interaction is mostly based on proximity. I don’t talk to my neighbor a lot because we don’t physically “see” each other every day. But online (since I follow her on twitter) its like she is sitting right next to me every day, sharing her every thought. So even if you filter down your social online circle according to ‘depth of relationships’ , the people on that level STILL have instant access to you and are no longer separated by any physical space. You’ve culled some , but these people are still going to the bathroom with you every time you take your smartphone along.

 The most dangerous thing here is that technology and connectivity are growing faster then our “social intelligence” does
. In other words : Tech is moving faster then our behavioural routines to deal with this. This all results in stress, difficulty in concentrating and loss in productivity. Looking at the fact that about 90 percent of all life hacking posts deal with ‘ how to concentrate ‘ , ‘ how to focus ‘ and ‘ how to be more productive ‘ , I can safely say i’m not making shit up here. The sheer fact that you are still reading this and haven’t wandered off to watch pictures of kitty’s online .. is worth a medal.Personally I watch my own behavioral patterns in all of this . To get stuff done , I shire away from my multiscreen desktop and “hide out” in the fairly low tech (and distraction free) surroundings of my  old netbook or my ipad. Screen blanking – stimuli suppressing apps like Ommwriter and Catlooking writer become tools of every day use. Screen real estate gets shrunken down to 10 or 7 inch screens to only allow single applications to dominate the screen. I purposely forget to charge my cellphone on a Sunday. I remove the ‘work email account’ from my personal smartphone…  In essence I feel that I try to look for that ‘Walden pond’ that is described in William Powers book ” Hamlets Blackberry” . That place where you disconnect your interactions with the outside and try to focus on your inner self .. to be at peace .. to be creative .. to write .. to read .. to step away from the information age . But to be honest .. I wonder how long we can keep this up. A few years ago I wrote a blog post of how my life would be when I would be “constantly connected” … Now i’m writing one on how to get “away” from it all. We live in a fast moving world. A world that I look at differently because of the wonders of the internet. But its also a world that never sleeps.. that never takes a break and that never sits back to contemplate the previous day .. ever forward .. ever faster.

But here I am .. Closing up the very article I wanted to write
. Feeling the satisfaction of being able to complete a task. Of being able to scratch a creative itch .. Of being ‘uninterrupted’ for a while. A certain peaceful feeling settles upon me as I proofread the article before posting. Another ‘creative task’ concluded. So in essence the most important person to talk to in this ever growing communicational omnisphere that is the internet … is probably … your inner self .

 

Links : “Hamlets Blackberry by William Powers”

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