Two Steps Forward, One Step Backwards
The promise of technology
There was a time in my late teens/early twenties when I was enamored by technology. I had swapped out my Windows laptop for a Macbook Pro. Every week, I eagerly awaited the new episode of the Mac Power Users podcast. While waiting for the new episode, I would work through the backlog.
I was fascinated by what were called “workflows” and how different apps could be automated and pass data back and forth between each other. This was achieved using applications like Automator, TextExpander, Hazel, and Alfred. These apps came with a semi-hefty price tag (at least it seemed so for a teen that worked at Subway), but it was a one-time price, so if you bought it, you owned it forever. Sometimes upgrades to major versions cost money, but you could opt out and still use the old version.
Spotlight indexed everything on the computer, so I could search and see my Evernote notes right next to my emails and Pages documents. Apps like Picasa and iTunes also indexed your photos and music, respectively. You had all your data in your control, and you could use a Time Capsule and/or Carbon Copy Cloner to seamlessly make sure if something happened to your computer, you wouldn’t lose your files. (I used both and also Carbonite for off-site backup.)
Dropbox came out, and it was like magic! You could sync all your files between devices. You still maintained full control over them. Mobile apps would connect to the Dropbox API, so it would even (sorta) work on your phone and tablet.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve lost almost all of that fascination with technology. I work on the web, so I am at a computer more than ever before in my life. I switched my laptop back to Windows partly because I refused to pay the “Apple tax” and partly as a protest against Apple’s ethos of a walled garden.
I don’t buy a new phone every year anymore, either. I’ve had the same phone for three years, and I’m hoping to get at least one more year out of it.
There are quite a few reasons why my feelings about technology have changed. Some of them are personal, and some are because of how technology evolved.
I’ll start with some positive reasons. It’s kind of simple: I’ve matured as a human being. I am more thoughtful about how I spend my money. My three-year-old phone does basically all that a new phone does. It has a good camera, and people still give me compliments about how good the camera is. Unless it breaks or you have something significantly different to offer, why would I upgrade? (I have been tempted more than once to buy a foldable phone because it is extremely different than what I have.)
I also want to spend less time on technology. I don’t want to be identified by technology. I don’t want to be either “the guy who’s always on his phone” or “the computer guy.” (Not really positive that I’ve succeeded in this, but I’m trying in some ways.)
The Internet changed everything (and not all for the good)
Going back to talk about the tech itself, everything is different because the Internet has gotten so much more powerful. You don’t need to have your laptop do a bunch of automation stuff anymore because everything is done on the web. In fact, as things move to the web, there are some things that are no longer possible to manipulate on a computer. Companies like Twitter and Facebook have changed how their APIs work, so what can be retrieved from them is limited. We have online-only file formats such as Figma that can’t be accessed without the Internet.
Instead of controlling your data and syncing it with a service of your choice, companies all have their own proprietary ways of managing your data.
Because they have control of your data and you can’t easily access it without the company, they can charge money each month for you to be able to access your data. (Is it an exaggeration to call it ransomware?) Every service charges for their one little utility, and at even $2.99 a month for a service, in less than a year, it is much more expensive than most of the one-off apps you bought for the laptop. Surprisingly, even though they already charge a subscription price, many also sell your data to advertisers.
There is web automation in the form of IFTT and Zapier, but they don’t really match the power of Hazel and the like.
Not to mention, web stuff seems really buggy. It is never finished, so it seems to be in a constant flux of features being added that also add bugs.
Making new promises
All that said, I haven’t given up on technology. I may not like where it is, but I am hopeful for what it can become. The web is powerful, and it opens up possibilities that weren’t available when things stayed locally on our separate computers. It’s going to take time for things to be as seamless as they felt on local computers because things are a hundred times more complicated on the web. There are issues of security, scale, and interoperability. And, yes, these things will take time and effort to figure out, so there will need to be a constant stream of money to make it progress. (Exactly how and to whom this money should be directed is a large discussion in itself.)
I still listen to technology podcasts (and read blogs and books), but the focus isn’t on using existing tech and apps. But it is on how we can make better tech that solves these problems. There are many smart people looking to solve these problems. They want to help the web reach its potential.
I am starting this blog because I want to bring more notice to the people working on these things and also add my ideas to the conversation.