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A Computer Scientist’s Guide To Dumping the Needless Tech In Your Life

CN: How we think about new technology like social media or smartphones differs from any other tool. Those technologies are presented as “It might be useful, so why not try it?” But if you’re a woodworker, you don’t go to Home Depot and think, “Look at this shiny new thing! I’m not sure what to do with this, but if I have it, it will help.” Woodworkers care about what they’re trying to produce, and the tools are subordinated to what they’re accomplishing. Minimalism is thinking of what you’re trying to do, personally and professionally, and asking, “What’s the best tool? What’s going to give me the biggest return?” Once you get into a craftsman mindset, you’ll say, “I don’t need a new iPad.”

Computer Scientist

PM: But we, generally, choose the opposite of that.

CN: It makes me think of this commercial for the Microsoft Surface with a roboticist, where this tablet enables him to create robots by dragging his finger across the screen. I don’t want to get too into this, but that’s an incredibly physical job. Roboticists spend years learning how to build material actuated things, using real tools and huge workshops. They’re usually master electrical engineers and structural engineers. But this tablet enables them to figure out how to do responsive locomotion. That idea epitomizes what’s going on now. This has a vague sense, “Just turn on Slack, and your office will improve.”

PM: And it’s not just that we’re beer sold on utility. New tech can be harmful if you don’t use it deliberately,

When the internet is consolidated into big private companies like Facebook, those companies think, “We gotta get users at all costs; we’ll figure it out later.” That’s when you get maximalism and engineered addictiveness. Things like the Apple Watch or Amazon Echo represent this mindset of not thinking of what problem the product solves. It severely underestimates the value of our time. For example, I’ve been a skeptic of voice assistants like Alexa. Tapping my weather app wasn’t holding me back from something important.

PM: There’s a section about solitude, defined as when you’re not experiencing ideas from other minds. What do you gain from turning off notifications or leaving your phone at home on a walk?

CN: The way our brains work is that thatyou also have to do a lot of processing. When bringing in information, I have had the privilege to spend time with the most theoretical minds in the world, and they spend tons of time just thinking. That also applies to self-realization, to understanding your life better. But even if you’re in a remote cabin or listening to a podcast, you’re not in solitude. You’re reacting. You’re thinking, What does this person mean? Do I agree with them? Phones activate expensive parts of your brain. Running them all the time is exhausting.

PM: You’re a computer scientist. Isn’t talking like this bad for business?

I see technology through this lens, where there are beautiful theories and computations. You can use logic and math to determine what you can and can’t solve with computing systems. But then, I look around and think, “I’m at the beginning of a long pipeline that eventually leads to big systems.” Technologies have huge impacts, a lot of them unintentional. That’s why I write about this stuff. I figure it’s probably good to have someone who’s deep inside this world doing some self-reflection.

Johnny J. Hernandez
I write about new gadgets and technology. I love trying out new tech products. And if it's good enough, I'll review it here. I'm a techie. I've been writing since 2004. I started back in 2012.