The device you’re reading from right now—the laptop, phone, or tablet that’s displaying this article—what made you pick it?
What about the web browser you used to load this website? It’s probably Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. Why did you choose it over one of the others?
When you need to create a document, do you open Microsoft Word? Google Docs? Apple Pages? Something else?
Digital tools—both hardware and software—are essential to our daily lives. I’m using them to write this post, and you’re using them to read it. While we spend many of our waking hours interacting with them, most people don’t have a governing philosophy when it comes to choosing one digital tool over another. This is a problem, because over time, these choices can affect our lives in surprising ways.
Let’s look at how digital tools impact our lives and the advantages of using simple digital tools whenever possible.
Tools, time, and records
Three quick points to provide context for my argument.
First, let’s define a digital tool as any device used to carry out a specific function which works by manipulating and storing a series of ones and zeros. Computers, tablets, and phones are digital tools (hardware), and so are apps (software). A simple digital tool is one that’s basic, flexible, and time-tested.
Second, let’s stipulate that life accumulates. Like tiny snowflakes forming a massive snowdrift, our individual days form months, years, and decades. A single day may be insignificant, but the behavior patterns that emerge over many days don’t just affect our lives—they are our lives. And we use digital tools all day long, which makes them a major part of our lives.
Third, let’s agree that as our individual days accumulate, so do our hours spent using digital tools. And these tools leave digital records:
- emails from friends and family
- photos of loved ones
- text messages from your partner
- tax records
- audio files
- your senior thesis
- 20 years of professional graphic design work
- your novel/symphony/memoirs
Like the tools that created them, these digital records are major parts of our lives. They have to live somewhere, whether we think about them or not. And most of the time, we don’t.
But what if we did? What if we took a moment to consider the thousands and thousands of hours we spend using digital tools and the massive personal archive we’re generating as we go about our day-to-day lives?
In this new light, two hidden priorities emerge: attention management and future-proofing. And in both of these areas, simple digital tools come out on top.
Attention management: are your tools trying to use you?
Our attention is precious, especially when considered in aggregate (i.e. minutes wasted in a year vs. minutes wasted in an hour). Deploying focused attention is how we do things well, from writing a year-end report at work to playing with our kids. Since our attention is so important and we spend so much of our lives using digital tools, it follows that we should use tools that respect our attention. How do we know if a digital tool respects our attention? By answering one question:
Is this tool trying to manipulate me into using it more?
Answers will fall on a spectrum. Microsoft Word does not care how much you use it. The calorie tracking app on your smartphone cares a little bit—it sends you alerts if you haven’t tracked your lunch. Facebook cares a lot—everything about it is engineered to capture and manipulate your attention.
Here’s where simple tools come in: the simpler the digital tool, the less likely it is to capture more of your attention than it deserves. Facebook is great for communicating, but text messages are a simpler technology that’s more respectful of your attention. Phone calls, even more so.
When possible, lean toward simple digital tools. You, not your tools, should get to decide what you focus on.
Future-proofing: who’s got the keys to your stuff?
To let someone encrypt your data and not give you the key is silly.
— Jack Scholfield, in a 2002 opinion piece for Computer Weekly
Five years ago, I screwed up. Here’s a chance to learn from my mistake.
I’ve been using Google Docs and Google Sheets extensively for over half a decade. I love the ease of use, the search-ability, and the fact that I can access my documents from any computer. There’s only one problem: only Google’s own software can open my stuff. When it comes to personal documents, I’ve become locked into Google’s ecosystem.
My documents are stored in Google’s proprietary file formats (.gdoc, .gsheet), and no other programs can open them. At first glance, this is no big deal, as Google Docs and Google Sheets are free and Google itself is not going anywhere any time soon. When we consider heavy use of these apps over time, though, the problem becomes clear: I don’t really own the key to my own data. Google does—they’ve just given me a copy of that key. I was obviously not thinking long-term when I began using Google for nearly everything.
By contrast, the .doc format is close to an open format—it’s the de facto standard for word-processing and has been for decades. Many, many programs can open these files, and while Microsoft technically owns the .doc file format, they have promised not to sue others for using it.
Proven programs like Microsoft Word and Excel (and open-source equivalents like LibreOffice) can’t match Google Docs for convenience, but for long-term document storage, they’re a much safer bet. Data scientist Enrico Bertini puts it nicely in an excellent post on Medium, “I bet only on technologies that are infinitely flexible and are going to be around in ten years.” While it’s obviously impossible to know the future, a good indicator of future longevity is past longevity: whether the tool was around ten years ago. To extend the tool analogy: hammers will still exist in a decade (and they’ll be largely the same). So will Microsoft Excel.
And for text documents, there’s an even simpler option that’s about as future-proof as any technology can be: plain text (.txt) files. Any computer on earth can open them, and that will always be true.
Simple digital tools tend to respect your right to your own stuff, and that’s a more important consideration than most of us (including Past Jonathan) realize.
Evaluating your digital tools: 6 questions to ask
So, what to make of all this? Here are six questions to help you evaluate about your own collection of digital tools.
- What am I trying to do with this tool?
- Is this tool trying to manipulate my attention?
- When I create something with this tool, who owns that thing? Who controls access to it?
- Is this tool trying to lock me into a single company’s ecosystem?
- Will this tool be around in ten years?
- [If you don’t feel great about the answers to #2-5] Is there a simpler tool I could use instead?
This all comes down to ownership, really—ownership of your attention and your work. Our choices of digital tools directly affect these two factors, and therefore our lives as a whole. So when possible, choose tools that are simple, time-tested, and even a little boring. They’ll help keep you in the driver’s seat.
(photo by Negative Space)