Resolve to Use Your Device as a Tool- And to Resist Being Tooled by It

Introduction

It’s that time of year: reflection and some soul-searching about what to do differently when we turn over a new leaf on January 1st. Let me offer a modest proposal.

The New Body Part

Everyone reading this post has a smartphone. (Ok, Jared Correia does not have a smartphone, but the rest of you do). And chances are you are not going back to a flip phone, a bag phone, or a rotary dial phone hanging on the wall in your kitchen.

These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy. — Chief Justice Roberts, Riley v. California.

And I know you have some legitimate uses for your device: very convenient to get things done at any time and wherever you are. Ridiculous amounts of computing power and broadband internet speeds and video and pictures and those GIF memes, emojis, etc., etc. I get it.

But I am pretty sure that none of us planned to be on our devices constantly, at least not in the way we actually use them. Be honest: when you are on your smartphone, how often are you doing productive things? And how often are you doing “unproductive” things intentionally?

I am not being a scold here. No one enjoys playing as much as I do. The question is whether you decided to play, or whether your device just happened to be there and you started swiping and typing.

Are You Using the Device, or Is it Using You?

Bright, shiny devices that are so easily accessible and so full of bells and whistles tend to hijack self-control. And left to our own devices (thanks, I will be here all week), we are likely to create our own little Skinner Boxes- with games, social media sites, and constant checking of all our information streams- all the while not knowing that we’re doing it.

Your attention is being sought and used relentlessly by those doing business in the online world.

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”. — Andrew Lewis.

Technology as a Servant, Not as a Master

And when computer tools are using us, we don’t get a chance to determine the ways in which we can use these technologies as part of our “extended mind”- allowing computers to perform tasks that free up our minds to do higher-level thinking. That higher-level thinking is what is going to enable work and workplaces to continue to evolve as automation advances.

In other words, if you are going to have your device as another appendage, then put it to work for you.

Train Your Mind-Try Meditation.

Headspace is just so easy to use. And you can use it anywhere. At anytime. Carving out those quiet moments may create the space for you to see the way your minds works, and how these technologies have commandeered your attention and created the idea that you are so “busy” all the time.

And I certainly am a proponent of getting quiet- whether through meditation, getting outside, exercising, or undertaking other pursuits- and away from devices altogether. But I don’t think it is an all-or-nothing proposition. The key is to have the space and frame of mind to discern what tools to use and when. And to realize who or what is being used.

Give Your Mind a Rest.

See above. In addition, stop keeping all these ideas in your head. Use Evernote or a similar program to memorialize and organize things for later use. If the device is going to be with you at all times, at least take advantage of that fact. As the late great Mitch Hedberg remarked:

I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.

Free Up Your Attention

Quit complaining that you don’t have time unless you have gotten smarter about the way you use your time. Try Boxed. Or Amazon Prime. The idea is to use your time and attention to do meaningful things. An afternoon of shopping and hauling things around is not meaningful in my world when there are available alternatives.

Feed Your Mind

There has never been a better time to learn new things. And these devices make myriad information sources available to you at any time. Below are just two examples.

Listen to Books. It has never been so easy to have great content literally at your fingertips. Consider a subscription to Audible, and listen while you drive, work out, walk, or otherwise have downtime. If you are looking for recommendations, click here.

Listen to Podcasts. See above. Long-form discussion. Topics directly related to your profession, interests, or entertainment choices. Always available. Pushed directly to your device. You don’t have to do anything but click and listen. Podcasts for lawyers? Click here.

Conclusion

The age of machines (artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, the blockchain) is only just getting started. The changes in the way we live and work are going to be significant (and arguably have already been significant). In order for humans to figure out where we fit in, we have to have lots of attention and figure out where to spend (pay) it. That means understanding these tools- their benefits and risks- and making sure we use them wisely and effectively.