Is This Better? 🌔 January 25 2014
Our species' success is due to an unmatched predilection to better our lives & environments through tool making. With the current exponential progress we're experiencing though, I wonder if we've outpaced our ability to examine and edit our tools- especially those we perceive as essential. If we can't cleary remember how life was before the tool, how good are we at answering the question, "Is this better?".
I’ve been wrestling with this question (and resulting ones like, “am I a Luddite?”) a lot recently. Below are two cases studies in which I gave up tools generally accepted as essential in our culture.
## The snooze button A bit of historical perspective: As old as alarm clocks are, the snooze button is a relatively new invention. The first snooze alarm was the 1956 General Electric Telechron. Three years later the Westclox Drowse popularized the concept. In 2000 the "drowse" button was renamed to the snooze we know of today. In my lifetime, a clock without a snooze option has been a rarity.I've had an unhealthy relationship with the snooze button for years. If given the option, I’ll hit it every morning. The self induced sleep limbo leaves me groggy and wastes 5-30 minutes every day. I’ve seen products like fitbits and mobile apps that offer fixes. But none have made my mornings significantly better. I asked myself, "what if I disabled the snooze button?". Or, an even more radical idea, what if I removed the alarm altogether? My logic being, the safety net of control I feel from the alarm is what fuels the habit. Without the alarm, I won't be able to snooze. But would I be able to wake up on time? If so, how far could I push myself? I stopped using an alarm for two weeks to find out. I wrote down the time I wanted to wake up before falling asleep. Upon rising, I recorded the actual wake up time. Here is the data: **It worked!** Every morning I woke 3 to 30 minutes before the desired time. Twice I was able to do this with less than 5 hours of sleep. This surprised me, and so I researched the biology behind what seemed like an internal alarm clock. I found this study, which held the explanation to my data. "The body is essentially a collection of clocks," says Satchindananda Panda, an associate professor in Salk's Regulatory Biology Laboratory. Panda and other researchers discovered the protein JARID1a, which is responsible for activating human's internal alarm clock. It doesn’t explain the near precision I found in my experiment, but they do note in the study that JARID1a degrades over time. If I continued the data collection, it’s likely I’d see more varied results over time.
## Facebook I'd argue that the leading tool for social connecting in the digital age is increasingly making us more alone. I thought the tool made things better or easier, but we're getting a watered down version of reality at best and a poisoned one at worst. For a social connection to be made, there needs to be an exchange of recognition. Facebook facilitates this with likes, comments, and messages, but I would posit that these exchanges are in the minority and that most "connections" are one-way and passive. This is hurting both parties. The onlookers glean a false sense of connection, while the looked upon (with no likes or comments) are sharing into the perceived digital void. Of course, you can always pay for more people to see your posts and hopefully reach out. I think a bit of digital voyuerism (see also: stalking) is fine, but I realized that I was spending hours a day using Facebook. I wondered if this was the best use of time. 7 months ago, I deleted my account. For the first few weeks, I would navigate to facebook.com unconsciously. Every day I'd have moments when I thought, "What do I do now?". I reached out to old friends. I spent more and more time building things. I began reading for fun again. It wasn't the easiest transistion- I found I didn't have many of my friend's phone numbers or emails. Maintaining relationships took more effort, but with that effort came quality. If Facebook is to exist long term it need a massive shift in purpose and execution. (It launched Paper while I was writing this. I'm intrigued, but reserving judgement till I use it). Alternatively, it can become an acquisition machine, riding the social media ouroboros.
## Closing I'm now wondering often how many other tools fit in this box. Which ones should be given up? Which have good intentions but fail in their execution? As a designer I've already begun to examine not only the products I use, but the ones I spend time making. If you decide to try out either experiment or know of other examples, I'd love to hear from you: email@example.com. Related Links: Phones and the Culture of Distraction Genesis of the Snooze Button