“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
The corporate, high-tech struggle to earn money and thrive means a campaign to drag us all into technological entanglements. But if we are too busy doing something that matters, and if we carefully pick and chose what to dabble in, we won't be overwhelmed.
There is something to be said for a sense of technical minimalism in one's life. There are technologies all around us, and the exploration can be fun, but in the final analysis, when it comes to living one's life, choices have to be made.
Minimalism, as I'm thinking about it, is the idea that there is good work to be done, and there is only a proper, considered subset of all the available technologies out there that are required to get any specific job done. Put another way, Apple provides a great number of features, facilities and services, but not every customer needs to engage in every one.
The art of choosing which technologies are essential to get something valuable done, whether it's service, research, teaching, writing, medicine or governing is a delicate one. On one hand, we're often enticed by the lure of interesting and exotic technologies that look like fun, but in the end, they don't serve us very well for what we want to achieve.
For example, there are plenty of social media services that alert us to the fact that a friend may be nearby. If you're in a mode where you may need that service, say attending a professional conference at a giant hotel complex, then it can be great. But if you're in a downtown loft, writing a novel, an alert to friends passing by on the street every few minutes will only serve to distract from the task at hand.
So not only do we have to select technologies that promote what we want to achieve in life, but we need to be able to turn them off and on in the proper setting.
I see this attention to minimalism over and over again amongst certain very accomplished technical professionals. They're doing research, teaching or organizing for some worthwhile project. They often exhibit a remarkable ignorance about their computers and phones. We think to ourselves, how could they not know that? Of course, it's because the level of energy and effort that it takes to do something amazing means they can't fiddle with the intricacies of a smartphone as deeply as technical columnists do.
In my case, I never got much into Apple's Photo Stream or Ping because I never perceived that these services would help me with my goals as a writer. On the other hand, I tend to know a lot about writing tools on a Mac and Internet writing resources.
Another problem arises when one doesn't create a useful subset of tools from all that are available, and that is maintenance traps. When we delve into some technologies, we often are faced with creating accounts, building and maintaining hands-on knowledge, and then maintaining the service.
Inevitably, things go wrong, and then we have to clean up the mess. When too many things go wrong and need attending to, we're pulled away from doing something more fundamental and valuable, whatever that may be. Our time is frittered away.
It's a fine art to balance creative play with an instinct for minimalism so that we can free up time to do what we think is important. And that leads to...
There are fundamental technologies that we need to be able to function in this Internet age. We need to understand browser security and how to construct proper passwords for Internet activities. We need that so we can function as citizens.
On the other hand, there are technologies that are intended to amuse us or entertain us which may or may not be useful in the long run and which don't contribute to our technological learning. For example, minimum competency on the Internet may mean being able to check a bank balance, pay for a hot chocolate at Starbucks with a smartphone or watch a movie on Netflix. But becoming the mayor of a local restaurant on Foursquare may well be a passing fad that doesn't contribute to a long-term personal technical development. These are just examples, and your needs may vary.
So not only do we need to pick and chose those technologies that serve our purpose in life to do something worthwhile, we also need to select or deselect technologies that will keep us on track to move forward with the tide of technology. Every startup and every Internet service starts with the idea that it's a solution to a problem, but it may not be a solution to any problem we have -- even if we fancy that suspecting it might be is a lot of fun.
Just Say No
Apple along with every other high technology company like Amazon, Google, H-P and Microsoft desperately needs to lure us into its ecosphere and keep us there so that our credit card on file becomes a valuable and enduring revenue source for them. To achieve that, they need to keep us involved and engaged in ever more interesting new technologies and services. Every release of iOS or OS X has dozens or hundreds of new features.
That tide of technology, however, must always be secondary to what we want to personally achieve. When Apple provides us with those tools, for example, this MacBook Air I'm writing on, then that's wonderful. If, however, something new that comes along doesn't support our needs and goals, then a proper sense of minimalism dictates that we make a note of it and move on.
As Tony Blair once said, the art of leadership is saying No.