Set Your Defaults

Years ago I turned off the notifications on my phone. Today, except for rare moments when I’m waiting on a call or have an alarm set so I don’t miss a flight, those notifications stay turned off.

We don’t recognize, I think, how much power we have over the tools we use every day.

For many people, over time, these tools come to represent something other than what they are. They cease to be portals into a wider world, connecting us with knowledge and people to which we would otherwise be ignorant. These pocketable supercomputers are no longer thought of as always-accessible lines between us an our loved ones, regardless of where we happen to be in the world.

Instead, they’ve come to represent contracts and responsibilities. The exchange of our time for money, our energy for money, our youth for money.

Phones and computers and social networks and the internet and all the little bleeping, blooping devices that fill our lives are opportunities. They have the potential to empower, so long as we’re willing to see them as amplifiers instead of anchors. Dream-expanders, not dream-dampeners.

The best way to remind ourselves of this and establish a healthy relationship with our technology is to ask ourselves why. Why are we using these little gizmos? What’s the purpose of our interactions with them?

For some, it’s purely mercenary. I have a phone because work might call, a client might call, some other commitment, be it work- or relationship-related, might call.

For others, it started out as magic and became something else entirely.

We nearly wept with joy when modern technology became what it is, with intuitive interfaces and ‘it just works’ connectivity. For many, though, even those who once took pleasure in using these interfaces, these tools are no longer marvelous, they simply are. They’re convenient things that can entertain us when we might otherwise have to interact with our environments. Things that connect us to a wider network, certainly, but a network we fail to make use of beyond what we’re forced into. The expected exchange of likes, swiping our judgement of people left or right, sending DMs and pings and emoji-enhanced words to those outside our network, hoping to make a connection, struggling to regain some semblance of that magic we once experienced while plugged into this globe-straddling network of wonders that is now perceived as little more than a public utility.

I think it’s wonderful that these tools have become, in many societies, so ubiquitous that we can afford to take them for granted.

I also think it’s remarkable that they’ve become such an integral part of social interactions that it’s difficult to draw a line between ‘real world’ relationships and those that exist online, in-app, on-platform.

These tools give us powers, if we choose to acknowledge them as such. But in order to fully benefit from these heightened abilities, we have to set lay out guidelines. Set limits. Like any good relationship, we have to notice the big picture, take a good long look at ourselves, and be honest about what we need and what we don’t want. We have to identify which aspects of this cybernetic future make sense for our goals, for our next steps, and which are just gimmicks that keep us ‘engaged’ in measurable ways, so that some business entity can make more advertising revenue from your ‘attention.’

In practice, this means identifying how you’re currently interacting with technology and working through your options.

Chances are, your devices have all kinds of notification silencers and app-specific switches you’ve never flipped. On your phone, on your computer, on your tablet, on your smartwatch, explore these options. Throw some digital levers. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find at least one that stops your device from doing that annoying thing you’ve always felt too busy to figure out how to stop. You can play with other knobs and buttons while you’re there to see what options you have that you never considered before. Change your ring tone, turn it off, maybe. Set a time period each day for it to be absolutely silent. The robots haven’t taken over yet: exercise your authority over them while you can.

This is also a good time to assess what your gadgets could be doing for you that they currently aren’t.

Your devices can serve as gatekeepers for your attention, if you let them. Figure out which means of communication is the most practical and the least stressful for your day and demeanor, and make that the most ideal option for others to use.

I hate receiving phone calls, for instance. One way to keep people from calling you is to set up a voicemail box that makes it clear that you’re far more likely to respond to email in a timely fashion. Set your defaults and limits to something ideal, then allow the world to reshape itself around you and your needs, rather than the other way around.

It’s important not to let this sit by the wayside, undone. We have all of this power, much of it unused, and many of us are allowing it to eat us alive. We allow these augmented relationships we have with each other, with the world, with the whole of human knowledge, to shape us in ways that leave us rattled and scattered and worried that we’ll miss an important notification about whatever.

In almost every case, these notifications are not important. They don’t warrant the stress we’ve allotted them.

Do this now. Or make it part of a larger plan to reset to zero, if you have to. Either way, make yourself aware of your vast powers, assess which of your needs are not being served, and embrace the full scope of your cybernetic capabilities. Utilize your customization might.

There’s no reason these tools should be using you. Retake control of your digital life, and be a serf no longer to the authoritarian pings that have come to negatively sway your day.

Update: April 21, 2017

I still get weirded out by people who insist on calling me. I’m in the US Midwest right now, and that’s more prominent here than on the coasts or overseas. It’s seen as a personal touch. And I hate it. I haven’t answered my phone for any call except one that I know is coming for many years, and I love the lack of interruptions that have resulted from that policy.

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