Detox your digital life without giving up your digital life

We’re coming out of digital detox season, where newspaper columnists share the incredible insight that you can get a lot of stuff done if you don’t spend all your time dicking about on the internet. But as the developers of the excellent iA Writer app point out, taking a break is good but going offline permanently is hardly desirable or practical.

…you can’t escape digital culture as long as you live in a society that lives on digital fuel. If you block email you’ll have trouble holding onto most jobs. If you have no cellphone people just won’t get in touch with you anymore. Who calls landlines these days? However long your digital Sabbatical, you will inevitably get sucked back in. And so will your kids.

What you can do, they argue, is to make your digital life more meaningful. They use the analogy of being a tourist walking down a busy street in a foreign city: the people yelling to get your attention aren’t generally the people you should be paying attention to. As in life, so online.

The challenge when you are in is to not become passive. To change from consumer to maker, following to self-thinking, quoter to commentator, liker to publisher, but mostly, from getting angry about headlines of articles you haven’t read to reading precisely, asking questions, researching, fact-checking, thinking clearly and writing carefully.

These are the developers of a writing app, so they’re talking primarily to writers. But it’s sensible advice generally. It’s easy to fall into a passive role online, to consume only the content that’s pushed to you. In the era of social media that’s often the lowest quality content.

The article talks about blogs, and the changes to blogging culture that have seen blogs and blogging become very much a niche activity (incidentally, almost 20 years ago I wrote my first ever piece of published journalism about the then-new niche trend of people publishing online “journals”. It’s come full circle and is a niche once more).

One of the reasons blogging has fallen from favour, and there are many others, is that commenting – what used to be the lifeblood of blogging, the conversations that began when your post finished – became poisoned. Drive-by bullshit from complete strangers. Spammers and hackers trying to drive traffic to other websites. And marketing.

God, the marketing.

Even now, there isn’t a single day when I don’t get approached by somebody wanting to publish a guest post to my blog, or asking me to replace a dead link from a post I published in 2005 with a link to their site, or an offer of an infographic, or any of the other things that I say I don’t publish on the sodding contact page of this website.

So the comments had to go.

Comments were the first core function that got gamed. For trolls, PR companies using persona software, SEO blackhats, spammers, and dogs pretending to be humans the comments section was free sex. Commenting costs nothing. Managing comments sections is so expensive that even big media organizations can no longer afford them.

I also stopped blogging here for some time because I felt I was saying what I wanted to say on social media. But whether that was true or not, what I was saying wasn’t being read. Unless you upset somebody famous a tweet is just a drop in Twitter’s Niagara Falls, a Facebook post something that a handful of people will see if Facebook deems your post worthy of their attention.

iA again:

it’s writing as opposed to liking, thinking as opposed to reacting, owning your traffic as opposed to building up your Facebook followers that one day a Zuckerberg will take away from you when it suits his needs.

What I’m finding works best is to mix things up, to continue with short, sharp, knee-jerk stuff on social media and to post more interesting things by others here (as well as to post my own longer, more rambly thoughts). I still share the links on social media, but I don’t hand over the entire content to Facebook or Twitter: it remains here, where it can be discovered long after social media sites’ short attention spans have moved on.

Writing gets real when it is read. Before that, it is a dream in letters.

A dream in letters. I like that.

“My computer turned into a Nazi.”

The banality of evil: I married a white supremacist. 

As it turned out, becoming a Nazi was not unlike catching a common virus like the flu, and then having it spiral out of control as it hijacked your immune system and ultimately your common sense. As I tried to retrace my ex-husband’s descent into madness, my very Jewish computer became an alt-right conspiracy theorist whose new interests included obsessing over the “fake news” of the far left and praising President Donald Trump’s (then candidate Trump’s) candor and can-do promises which, as of yet, remain largely unfulfilled.

The villain of the peace: how online ads broke the world

Silent movie villain
(Is it me, or does this look like Jeremy Clarkson?)

As I write this there’s a scandal developing at Newsweek with District Attorney raids, all kinds of lurid allegations and staff apparently fired for investigating their own company.

Senior writer Matt Cooper resigned, and in his letter he wrote:

It’s the installation of editors… who relentlessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall.

Clicks at the expense of accuracy is a pretty good way to sum up not just online news sites, but all online media.

As the ever readable Farhad Manjoo writes in the New York Times, the internet’s central villain is the advertising business.

(As a writer for many ad-funded media outlets I’m aware of the irony in posting this.)

As Manjoo puts it:

the online ad machine is also a vast, opaque and dizzyingly complex contraption with underappreciated capacity for misuse — one that collects and constantly profiles data about our behavior, creates incentives to monetize our most private desires and frequently unleashes loopholes that the shadiest of people are only too happy to exploit.

It’s a severely broken and easily manipulated system that prioritises and rewards the worst of us: fake news over facts, scaremongering over science, horror over humanity. It’s a playground for bigots and propagandists, trolls and fraudsters and extremists of all kinds.

And this system, this terrible monster that’s poisoning so much of everyday discourse, is the one we asked for. It’s become the system that drives everything online – which means it drives much of real life too.

“Pay for stuff? Sod that!” we told the internet. “Mine our misery for money!”

It turns out that wasn’t our smartest idea.

As Manjoo concludes:

In 2015, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, warned about the dangers of the online ad business, especially its inherent threat to privacy. I wrote a column in which I took Mr. Cook to task — I argued that he had not acknowledged how ad-supported services improved his own company’s devices.

I stand by that view, but now I also regret dismissing his warning so cavalierly. Socially, politically and culturally, the online ad business is far more dangerous than I appreciated. Mr. Cook was right, and we should have listened to him.

Instant Pot, Instant Pot, how much do I like it? Quite a lot

I know what people want to read about: while this is supposedly a blog about me, bad jokes, technology and music, the most popular post I’ve ever published here is a post I wrote 13 years ago about a defrosting plate.

I laughed the other day when I saw a Kickstarter campaign for one, presumably by people who thought they’d invented it. No amount of millennial cool or fast-cut editing can disguise the fact that it’s the same block of aluminium you can buy for a tenner, albeit with some extra lime-green plastic around it.

Anyway. I like kitchen gadgets. You clearly like kitchen gadgets. And now The Guardian’s written about my very favourite kitchen gadget, the Instant Pot.

Emma Brockes writes:

the Instant Pot is to this decade what yogurt makers were to the 70s, SodaStream to the 80s and bread-makers to the 90s; that is, kitchen devices invested with magical, life-altering qualities.

She’s right. There are entire communities devoted to it, and food site The Kitchn has gone absolutely mad for it. But while the hype is a bit silly, it’s genuinely one of the best things I’ve ever bought: slow cooking without the slow, roast chicken without the roasting, all kinds of great food without a pile of pots and pans to clean afterwards. It’s particularly great if you live in a flat or have a small kitchen, because it replaces a whole bunch of devices: slow cooker, pressure cooker, rice cooker, enormous stock pot and so on.

Just one bit of advice: never pay the RRP. Amazon in particular discounts it all the time, and not just on Black Friday. I’d strongly advise using CamelCamelCamel to check the price history and make sure you’re buying it as cheaply as possible.

On the subject of Black Friday, I bought a Sous Vide cooker on the BF just gone. I haven’t actually used it yet, but I will soon and I’ll report back.

“When I arrive in Hell, the Devil will sound like a headline”

I’m indebted to my old friend, the inimitable Professor Batty, for telling me about this excellent essay on the internet and reality and our feelings and quite a lot of other things too.

Do it now. Fight the new pace of thinking designed to keep us in Facebook fights and make Facebook more money. Resist getting so wound up by every story that you accelerate off a cliff into apathy. Lengthen the circuit between a candid thought and your anticipation of how it will be received, a circuit constantly shrinking in fear. Try your ideas out with people you are not desperate to impress, so there’s less ego clouding your discussion.

Return of the son of ID Cards

It turns out that the national political parties don’t have a monopoly on bad ideas: ID cards, something the SNP were very much against when they were planned for the UK, may appear in Scotland as a result of a minor NHS amendment. Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group:

in Scotland, the idea is alive and well, and the idea of giving everyone a unique identifier – and placing every citizens’ name and address into a single database – has not been given up by civil servants.

There’s a detailed analysis of it here (thanks to Heather at Idea15 Web Design for the heads-up):

The intention is to transform the current NHS Central Register (“NHSCR”) so it can be accessed by more bodies, to increase the number of individuals recorded in the Register, and to use a Unique Citizen Reference Number (“UCRN”) for each citizen.

The NHSCR can then be accessed by well over 120 Scottish public authorities (including police, prison, national security, visas and immigration) and certain publically owned companies.

It’s well worth a read. There’s a public meeting about it in Glasgow next week, too.

All the small things: a little writing app that makes a big difference

In the old days, writing for magazines was easy: you’d write a piece, send it as a Word doc or a text file, and that was it. Now, though, everything’s online and in a CMS. Creating content for that is often a pain in the backside, especially if you use apps designed for print rather than pixels.

Hurrah, then, for Ulysses. It’s a genuinely great app that’s already saving me stacks of time – not just in terms of creating copy I don’t then need to tweak, but in terms of the massive time savings that come from the way it does things. At £31.99 it’ll pay for itself in no time.

Here’s the obligatory video.

If you need to write words of any kind, it’s a great app. There’s a free demo too.

Unintended consequences

Inevitable, but unintended: the same remote wipe tech that protects your data from thieves is being used by criminals to outwit the police. BBC News:

Asked whether the police felt that the issue had damaged their investigation, the spokeswoman said: “We don’t know because we don’t know what was on the phone.”

Really good things about the iPhone 6


on the bottom bit of the telephone there is a little rounded shaped button that hides a secret hidden fingerprint scanner that you can use to scan your wifes fingerprints while she is sleeping at night time to make sure that she is not wanted for any crimes.