Simplifying my digital life

I’ve been slowly and (somewhat) deliberately trying to simplify my digital life. I’ve never had a serious problem, e.g. Internet addiction or anything like that, it’s just that constantly checking various feeds, keeping on top of things, having everything running and synced, has been a constant source of low-level stress. In addition, now having a child to care for means my personal free time is scarce and increasingly valuable. Hence, I think more carefully about how to use that time in the most meaningful way.

These ideas are definitely nothing new, I’ve been partly inspired by people like the Minimalists and Cal Newport, in particular Cal’s book on Deep Work.

Another motivating factor has been my growing concern about digital surveillance, for example as pointed out by Edward Snowden. Anything digital, and especially things in “the cloud”, are almost too easy to collect, track and analyse. It’s unlikely that anyone would like to spy on me in particular, but mass surveillance and profiling of people en masse has many scary uses. Read for example François Chollet’s article “What worries me about AI”. Having a smaller “digital footprint” is definitely one way of alleviating this problem.

So, what have I done so far?

No Google, no syncing

I’ve been out of the Google ecosystem for a long time already. I don’t have a personal Google account1. Instead I keep my email on Kapsi, a local non-profit organisation that provides various Internet-related services to its members. For calendar and addressbook syncing I long used a self-hosted instance of Nextcloud. While Nextcloud is definitely a nice piece of software, it’s still some work to keep it running, and as with any calendaring system there are always some synchronisation issues between different clients, etc. Also there is always some stress involved in hosting a publicly facing web server.

Since about a year ago I don’t sync anything, instead I use:

  • An old fashioned paper calendar. Marking things with a pen is faster, and there’s a lower threshold to mark uncertain or “trivial” things. The only drawback is that marking repeated events is a bit cumbersome, but that was never that smooth even with an electronic calendar (especially if there are many exceptions).

  • Separate local address books on each of my devices (all backed up naturally). It turns out that I don’t really need to have them synced as my work and personal contacts are quite disjoint. I keep emails on my computer, and phone numbers on my phone (I don’t use email on my phone, more on that later).

  • Syncthing for moving files between my computer and my phone. It syncs automatically client-to-client when my laptop and my phone are both connected to my local home LAN. No servers are needed (publicly facing or otherwise)!

Nice and simple. Less stress, and a smaller “attack surface” for surveillance. Basically the only thing I have to worry about is having backups, but that’s inevitable with any computing system.

Dumbed down smart phone

I used to obsessively check various feeds on my phone any time I had even a short dull moment. I would pick up my phone and kind of mindlessly open various apps and refresh them. I would often catch myself, for example reloading my emails, even though I had just done that a few seconds ago. I know it’s all about the dopamine kick of finding something unexpected and rewarding.

Now I’ve removed anything feed-like from my phone, like social media and email. The only two exceptions are Signal, which I use as a secure SMS replacement to communicate with my relatives, and a podcast client. I’ve turned off audible notifications for any messages. You have to call me to get my immediate attention.

Now when I pick up my phone I quickly realise it’s pretty boring, and there’s nothing to get a dopamine kick from!

By the way, my phone is a Fairphone 2 running the android-based Fairphone Open operating system and using F-droid as the app store. No Google, and no Play Store.

No Play Store also means that I don’t have access to most of the apps that are promoted everywhere days, unless they are free and open source software and thus can be made available on F-droid. This is deliberate, as I don’t want to run proprietary software on my devices, as I can’t know what they are doing behind my back.

Online presence

I no longer host my own web server or maintain any publicly facing web servers2. While these have been mostly easy to run, it has always been a source of stress for me, as I had to keep an eye on security issues and updates. And who knows what security issues are still out there, perhaps already being exploited?

I also recently deleted my Twitter and Facebook accounts. While, I haven’t exactly been very active on those, it’s still a relief to be completely rid of them. (Of course, especially in the case of Facebook there are plenty of other good reasons to quit.)

I still maintain an account on Mastodon, as I feel that project is very important for the future of the Internet, and I also like the community itself. I typically check in only once per day from my laptop.

I also maintain this personal web page, which I think is very important as that’s the one place that I truly own online. Currently it’s hosted by Kapsi, but since I own the domain, I can easily move if I’m not happy for any reason. Perhaps I’ll also try to blog more, as that’s a more persistent medium than social networking. This web page is simple static HTML generated with Jekyll.

Luddite or just a curmudgeon?

Some of my friends consider me a kind of a Luddite, but that’s not entirely true. In many cases I’ve been an early adopter of technology, but sometimes I’ve come to the conclusion that the old way was better. Unfortunately new technology is often adopted just for the sake of being new. I think, in general, we should be a bit more skeptic about new technology, and in particular about its effects on society, and carefully consider the pros and cons. Of course in many cases the pros outweigh the cons, but not always.

Naturally, it’s also about getting older and more conservative. I no longer switch Linux distributions every other month, I’ve been quite happy with running Debian stable for many years now. I’m still fascinated by technology, and I especially like programming, however, I try to use it more thoughtfully in my daily life, and leave some time for other important things.

  1. I do have a work-only account that is not connected to GMail. It’s used only for accessing Google Docs which unfortunately is necessary for my job. 

  2. With the exception of my site which is shutting down in August

Posted by Mats Sjöberg.

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