I'm sorry I've been slow to reply. I used to have a fast turnaround time on messages. Now I don't. I haven't been online as much. By my estimates, I used to spend about eight hours a day on an internet-connected computer. Now I spend two or three.
Why? I realized that I could be good, but slow, or fast, but worse. If I wanted fastness, I could sacrifice deep focus or I could sacrifice my non-working hours, and I chose neither. I took the privilege I have, to have the kind of job I have, and I cashed it in for slowness—more slowness than my peers have. But not more slowness than they seem to tolerate from me. I've gotten by so far.
What do I do instead? I work on paper more. I turn off my WiFi more. I’m learning to handle my computer the way one handles a sharp knife.
I'm allergic to productivity tips. This is not a recommendation. My goal is to live the good life—what that means for me.
Is time online at odds with the good life? Not for me. Excessive time online is, but I imagine excessive solitude would do my head in, too.
No. The purpose of my work is to foster meaningful, binding, and inclusive popular control over technology. At the core of this project is the idea that technologies can be good—if we control them. Yet I've felt machines have controlled me for a very long time. What irony! How could I speak about such a topic if I can’t address these problems where they’re dearest?
In undergrad, I considered taking a design certificate. I took an introductory class to test the waters. On the first day of class, an exercise had the group design the “specs” for an “ideal stapler.” The professor quizzed us on what we thought the specifications should be.
“How many sheets of paper should our stapler be able to staple?”
Confident I understood the trick, I said, “There should be no limit in the spec.”
I could see immediately I had taken him by surprise. “Well, there has to be some limit.”
I was surprised I surprised him, but now had to double down or become a corncob. “Of course, I mean, people only have finite quantities of paper to staple.” The class laughed, probably out of relief that I had seen the error of my thinking. Their relief was short-lived. “But if this stapler is ideal,” I continued, “we shouldn't pre-specify some upper limit now, right? That limit should emerge from the other specifications.”
Over the following minutes, I was overruled forcefully on this point by both the professor and the other students. The group insisted that limits exist and spec-writing time was the right time to specify them.
I've thought of this difference often. I see their point: envisioning design as something upstream of engineering, it is responsible and appropriate to pre-specify constraints so that others’ work (manufacturing, marketing, distribution) can proceed.
Is design about building things that work? Or helping people live lives they want to live? The answer is “yes,” but the commercial design of engineering schools (the class described took place in the Ford building) tends to start from the dollar and reason backward. My instinct has always been to start from the good life and reason from there.
What is the good life? As designers, how far should we go in pursuit of an answer?
I think we should go all the way. What else would we bother doing?
Here's a design provocation for you: what could you do to let more people live less online? Calm tech, but also non-tech. De-tech. Labor action. This is a wide-ranging question that touches on some of the oldest issues in labor and power. How can we grant people more control over their everyday lives?
I'll be curious to hear your thoughts. Sorry in advance if I'm slow to reply.
Thanks to Zeke Medley, Noah Saso, and Jake Hartnell for the encouragement. I didn’t make it through the design certificate—that first class was also my last.
Speaking of designing for quality of life:
“Learning to handle my computer the way one handles a sharp knife” 👨🏻🍳💋
How callous we’ve become to these deadly tools.