“Smart” homes are dumb.

tech

UPDATE (11/16/2017): Steven Aquino provides a helpful reminder: smart home devices provide accessibility benefits that easily outweigh the finicky quibbles I raise below:


Smart devices are all the rage. You can buy an internet-connected version of nearly every home appliance and gadget: light switches that respond to your digital assistant’s commands. Shades that automatically open or close, depending on the weather forecast. Power outlets that switch on your lamp as you pull into the driveway. Light bulbs that match their color to what’s on your TV screen. Thermostats that lower the temperature when you leave the house. Deadbolts that unlock when your phone draws near.

Gadgets like these are fun; I’d love to play with some smart bulbs or a robot vacuum at some point down the road.

But beyond that? I don’t really understand why anyone would install a semi-permanent smart device in their house.

On the one hand, there’s the “faux-convenience” factor. With many smart home gadgets, you’re trading a device that’s simplistic but predictable for one that’s “advanced” but finicky. Consider: if a dumb light switch stops working, there’s a very limited number of things that could have gone wrong—basically, either the wiring came loose or the circuit breaker blew.

But with a smart light switch, you have those potential problems, plus many others. Maybe the device’s firmware is buggy. Maybe the manufacturer hasn’t updated their app for your new phone hardware. Maybe the smart home platform itself is half-baked. Maybe the trigger service (e.g. IFTTT) is offline. Perhaps the automation you programmed failed to anticipate the fall time change. The list of potential troubleshooting steps goes on and on.

You may be just nerdy enough to enjoy debugging your house. More power to you. But do the other residents of your home feel the same way? Chances are, your roommates, significant other, guests, or kids would prefer that things just work. What happens when you’re away for the night and your spouse can’t turn on the lights? You’ve basically extended the problem of over-complicated home theater set-ups to your entire house.

And what happens when you try to sell your “smart home”? Most buyers won’t be interested in inheriting your complex network of domestic devices. They may not share your penchant for tinkering, and they may view your smart gadgets as a maintenance nightmare, rather than an automation dream.

Even if you plan to stay in your current house forever, you face the problem of longevity. It’s not unusual for “dumb” devices to last for decades—even generations. When’s the last time a manual light switch or doorknob in your house just stopped working?

A smart device is a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time until the a) heat, dust and age render the unit inoperable or b) the device is deprecated by the manufacturer or the home hub vendor. An innocuous-looking app update could render your light switches inoperable. By installing smart devices, you’ve condemned yourself to upgrading the unit every decade (if not more frequently).


Computer miniaturization has led to remarkable quality-of-life improvements. A smart phone is infinitely more capable than the spiral-corded kitchen handset I grew up with. But that doesn’t mean that every device in my house deserves its own CPU. For basic home operations, rock-solid reliability is the only feature that matters. [Edit: that may be true for me, but not for everyone. See preface above.] Give me basic functionality over whiz-bang capability—at least when it comes to flicking on the lights. ■

Why Apple’s retail stores make me nervous

apple / culture

I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a city with an ignominious reputation as a place where the rich abuse the poor. There are two infamous examples: first, a devastating, deadly flood in the 1800s, literally caused by the negligence of wealthy country clubbers. Second, the calamitous collapse of Johnstown’s manufacturing economy, caused by the steel industry’s decline. Tens of thousands of local workers lost their jobs.

As I was growing up in the 80s, Johnstown’s steel mills were shuttering en masse. Robbed of its primary industrial driver, the town imploded in slow motion. Retail decay was everywhere: once-bright storefronts patched with plywood. A deserted downtown. The closest grocery market transforming into a half-empty thrift store. Everywhere you shopped, things felt old and broken. Dingy, cavernous, fluorescent-lit spaces became the norm.

Uncomfortable luxury

Maybe that’s why Apple’s luxurious, meticulously-maintained retail spaces make me nervous. Its outlets resemble high-end, big-city fashion boutiques, more than they do the Rust Belt K-Marts of my youth. For lower-middle class consumers (like me), the Apple Store is the ritziest retail experience they’ve ever encountered—let alone shopped at.

Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate a carefully-designed space like Apple’s new Chicago store. It’s gorgeous, thanks to its riverfront location, its two-story window wall, and its premium materials (e.g. a carbon-fiber roof and the familiar bleached-wood product tables).

But every time I visit an Apple retail shop, I feel guilty. I can’t help but think, “I’m paying for this experience. Apple’s charging me extra so that they can afford their premium real estate, massive video walls, and all-glass staircases.” That luxury feels like a waste and makes me second-guess my unswerving brand loyalty. “Maybe,” I think, “These products aren’t meant for people like me.”

That’s one reason I prefer buying my Apple devices online. It’s not just about convenience; it’s about willful ignorance. By skipping the manicured Apple retail store, I can overlook the ways that the Apple lifestyle grates against my childhood experience. ■

Apple Watch as shower speaker?

apple

Back in September, I upgraded from the Apple Watch Series 1 to the Series 3. Honestly, the user experience didn’t change all that much, but I’ve enjoyed one improvement in particular: the Series 3’s better waterproofing. It’s nice to be able to hop in the shower before work and still keep an eye on the time.[1]

A few weeks ago, I thought of another reason that a water-resistant wrist computer might be useful. I had finished a workout and needed to wash up, but I didn’t want to put down the podcast I was listening to. I had an epiphany: why not redirect that audio to the Watch’s speaker while I showered?[2]

To my dismay, I quickly discovered that this is impossible in the current version of watchOS.

Based on some lazy Googling, third-party apps have technically been able to implement this since watchOS 2, way back in 2015. But very few developers seem to have added the feature—perhaps because of WatchKit’s awful audio APIs.

Regardless, what I really want wouldn’t require developer support at all: Apple should surface the Watch as a system-wide audio target. It would show up just like standalone Bluetooth speakers or headphones do—just hotswap your playback device to the Watch using AirPlay. While we’re at it, let me force touch on the Watch’s Now Playing screen to redirect the currently-playing audio to the Watch itself.

Here we might comment on the sad state of my attention span. Why do I feel the need to distract myself during one of the few gadget-free moments of my day? Fair point.

But I want my stories in the shower, dang it! ■


  1. Yes, a $25 analog watch could serve this purpose. Why you gotta hate?  ↩
  2. You might be thinking that that tiny, tinny, waterlogged speaker would sound terrible. Maybe, but I’m not listening to high-fidelity music here; I want my spoken-word content: podcasts, the NPR news briefing, or the Penguins radio broadcast. Any of these would be perfectly listenable through the Watch.  ↩

Why hasn’t Apple prioritized podcasts on the Apple Watch?

apple

Nearly two months after my Apple Watch Series 3 review, my main complaint still stands: it remains prohibitively difficult to play back podcasts from the device.

The native iOS Podcasts app has no equivalent on the Watch, and the “big player” third-party clients don’t support transferring podcast episodes to the wearable device. Overcast removed this feature in the run-up to watchOS 4, citing critical APIs that Apple had removed.

There are several smaller podcast clients that try to work around WatchKit’s hamstrung audio APIs. I’ve tried both Watchcast and Watch Player. The latter app has made some strides recently by allowing direct podcast browsing and downloading on the Watch itself, but the entire process is very clunky. It’s a bad sign when an app’s first-launch experience includes a twelve-page tutorial packed with caveats and disclaimers. During a recent test, I was able to successfully download an episode, but actually listening to the show proved impossible; I would tap the play button, but nothing would happen.

Users shouldn’t blame third-party developers for the Watch’s podcast unfriendliness. The real question here? In the two-and-a-half years since the Watch first launched, why hasn’t Apple prioritized podcasts? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The Apple Watch is too resource-constrained to support podcast playback. It’s true; the original, “Series 0” Apple Watch was severely limited in both speed and battery life. But that’s no longer the case with the Series 3. In six weeks of daily Watch use, including frequent workouts, my battery hasn’t dipped below 50%—let alone dwindled anywhere near a complete discharge. And given how snappily the new model launches apps, it seems unlikely that CPU speed remains a concern.
  • Podcasts aren’t popular enough. Once upon a time, podcasts were a niche medium, beloved by nerds but foreign to everyday users. That’s not the case now. Podcast audiences continue to grow, and runaway hits like Serial prove the format’s broad appeal.
  • A related guess: Apple is simply engineering-constrained, and podcasts were low on the punch list. We’ve heard rumors that Apple shuffles engineers between projects to hit its deadlines. And many projects’ engineering teams are surprisingly small. Given these limited skilled resources, it seems possible (even likely?) that Apple simply hasn’t gotten around to building a legit podcast app (and/or serviceable public APIs) yet.

Whatever Apple’s reasoning, I hope the Watch’s podcast situation gets remedied soon. I’m tired of strapping on an iPhone fanny pack every time I go running. ■

Conspicuous consumption and the iPhone X

apple / culture

Tech pundits occasionally suggest that some gadget purchases are driven by conspicuous consumption. In this view, a device like the iPhone X serves as a status symbol—a way to assert that you have (and can afford) the best.

This mindset is completely alien to me. Does anyone actually want to broadcast their buying decisions in this way? Both my wife and I hail from lower-middle-class families, for whom frugality is a (perhaps the) prime virtue. We pinch our pennies, drive our cars until the wheels fall off, and fix things ourselves—even when we’d be better off hiring an pro.

This thrifty mindset extends to gadget purchases. Our tribe takes pride in not carrying the latest and greatest devices. From that perspective, the so-called “stagnant” design of the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8 was actually quite appealing. Toss that device in a case, and no one else could tell if you were rocking a three-year-old handset (nice!) or a brand-new device (for shame).

Not so with the iPhone X. Between its bezelless screen, dual camera, and unmistakable notch, Apple’s flagship is easily identifiable. Even someone who’s only casually familiar with Apple’s handset lineup can pick the X out of a crowd of devices.

This “recognizability” was a reason I considered avoiding the iPhone X. A device this expensive serves as a negative status symbol among our friends and family. Most people know by now that the X is the “thousand-dollar phone.” Owning it sends adverse signals about your character; others may think you’re either flaunting your discretionary cash, or that you’re spending your hard-earned money foolishly.

So, given the choice, I’d prefer inconspicuous consumption over status shopping. Give me gadgets that feel luxurious but don’t look luxurious. I’d rather buy my iPhone in a cavernous, filthy, fluorescent-lit, bargain warehouse than the glass-walled, immaculate boutique of an Apple store. ■

On internet obscurity: analytics be damned

meta

At least five times in the past decade, I’ve started online projects, only to see them wither away from lack of attention.

Past abandoned blogs

Oh, I invest long hours at first: writing a mission statement, shopping for a WordPress theme, and hand-hacking the CSS. But once the actual content creation begins, I quickly lose interest. I may post sporadically for a month or two. But soon enough, I give up. Eventually, I surrender the domain name, and my “brilliant” concept vanishes from the internet.

Occasionally, these projects failed because I lacked passion for the niche. For example, I once founded a project called “The Outage”, which was dedicated to suburbanites who put down new roots in the mountains. It wasn’t a terrible website idea, but I soon realized that I was more interested in my own urban escape than in telling other people’s escape stories. The Outage died a slow death.

More frequently, I abandon my blogging efforts not because I’m disinterested but because no one else is paying attention. My posts generate nearly zero pageviews. My Twitter follower count barely budges. I put myself out there, and I’m met with dead silence in return: no engagement, no encouragement, no audience.

Obscurity kills creative drive, if you let it. Love me? That’s great! Hate me? Well, at least you’re following along. But ignore me? That’s the response that’s most difficult to accept.

Working in obscurity

Here’s what I’ve learned from these multiple abandoned efforts: when you’re starting from scratch—totally unknown—you need to find satisfaction in something other than audience engagement.

Imagine a wood worker, hand-crafting beautiful furniture on her homestead, high in the mountains. She’s miles from the nearest collector or customer, and there’s no chance of selling her handiwork—or even showing it off. No one will see the rear joint on that oaken cabinet. Nevertheless, the craftswoman spends hours sanding down its rough edges and carefully aligning the two joined pieces. She delights in the making, even when no one else will appreciate the end result.

I’m not kidding myself; this blog isn’t a work of art. But the metaphor works for me. If audience engagement were my only reward, it would be so easy to justify cutting corners. Half-ass the proofreading. Ignore that clunky paragraph. Skip posting for a day or two. Who cares, after all? No one’s paying attention.

From experience, that way lies surrender. When I stop delighting in the work for its own sake, I soon stop working altogether. When I let website analytics or podcast download stats serve as my primary motivation, discouragement festers, and I soon stop writing. It’s happened a half-dozen times before.

Analytics be damned

But it’s not going to happen this time. I’m determined to keep sanding down those joints, day after day after day. Despite feeling obscure and ignored, I’m going to keep making stuff. Rising before dawn. Posting every day.

That effort won’t be quickly rewarded with audience interest. In fact, I may never grow a sizeable following. My tiny reader and listener numbers may stay exactly where they are, and my creative efforts may never become anything more than a hobby. The analytics may never reflect my level of effort.

I’m okay with that. Screw the analytics. At least I will have made something. I will have tried. That’s pretty damned satisfying, in itself. ■

Never not connected: tracking gadget usage all day (and all night)

tech

Last week, I compared my own media habits to those of the “average American.” As I tallied the hours, I was struck by how much of my waking life is spent using gadgets. Here’s my average weekday, with the devices italicized:

  • 4 AM: alarm goes off. I immediately reach for my iPhone. I spend 30–45 minutes (sometimes as long as an hour) catching up on Twitter via Tweetbot.
  • 5 AM: morning restroom visit; I typically weigh myself and record the result using Vekt on my Apple Watch.
  • 5:05 AM: meditation practice; I time my mindfulness sessions using Headspace or Insight Timer on my iPhone.
  • 5:30 AM: writing. I typically draft my posts in Sublime Text 3 on my HP ZBook Studio laptop, then queue up each article in WordPress.
  • 6:30 AM: exercising (if writing doesn’t consume the extra time). I track my workouts on the Apple Watch, and I usually listen to podcasts using Overcast on my iPhone (since podcasts on the Apple Watch are a no-go).
  • 7:30 AM: shower and prep for work. This is one of the few gadgetless reprieves in my day, although I have taken to wearing my water-resistant Apple Watch in the shower lately. It’s helpful to know how long I have before I need to punch the clock.
  • 8:00 AM: workday. I work in communications for a commercial real estate firm). My typical day at the office involves writing, light graphics editing, and layout, all of which keep me tied to my HP laptop. I dock the unit and connect it to the three external Dell monitors that ring my makeshift treadmill desk.
  • 12:00 PM: lunch. I often listen to podcasts on my iPhone while I cook, then browse Tweetbot as I eat. When I can squeeze it in, I’ll record the daily Careful Tech podcast using my laptop during this lunch break, too.
  • 1:00 PM: work, round two. More laptop use.
  • 5:00 PM: dinner prep and family time. This is the only stretch of the day when I truly set aside my gadgets. We may play some music on the Amazon Echo in the kitchen (my daughter is currently enamored with the song “Monster Mash”) or snap a few photos. For the most part, though, we aim to be present to each other during these pre-bedtime hours.
  • 7:00 PM: with our toddler in bed, my wife and I collapse in front of our TCL Roku TV to enjoy an episode or two of our favorite shows. Programs we’ve recently binge-watched include Stranger Things, The Great British Bake-off, Silicon Valley, and Star Trek: Discovery. When one of us is away for the evening, we have our own personal favorites (I’ve recently gotten into Halt and Catch Fire). Regardless of what’s on the TV, our primary attention is directed to our phones; my wife gravitates to Instagram and Facebook; I prefer Twitter.
  • 8:30 PM: evening bathroom routine. Yes, I often brush my teeth while scrolling through Tweetbot on my phone. Honestly, the main reason I hate flossing is that I need both hands to do it—and that means I have to set the phone down.
  • 9:00 PM: bedtime. It only takes a few minutes of Twitter-browsing on the iPhone in bed before I start to nod off.
  • 9:15 PM: sleep. I’ve taken to wearing my Apple Watch at night for sleep-tracking purposes. Autosleep uses the wearable device’s accelerometer to record how much rest I get each night. I don’t use this data for much of anything, but it’s fun to track.

In summary, I spend my entire day (and night!) using one device or another in one way or another.

That realization is sobering. So much of my life is tied to gadgets! In particular, I’m troubled by the fact that Twitter has become my default way to kill time. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up. It’s the last thing I do before falling asleep. I turn to it at the slightest sign of boredom. At least some of that time could be better spent—even if it just meant I was more present with my own thoughts.

On the other hand, just because my entire day involves gadgets doesn’t mean it revolves around gadgets. We use these devices for everything now; they can empower intentional, productive activity just as much as they can enable pointless or self-destructive behavior. For example, my (iPhone-led) meditation sessions are certainly beneficial, as is the sleep- and exercise-tracking made possible by my Apple Watch. And I don’t feel guilty that my work life requires constant connectivity; that’s the norm for most knowledge workers these days. ■

iPhone X delights and gripes

apple
iPhone X

On Friday afternoon, UPS dropped off some new toys: a 64GB space gray iPhone X and an equivalent silver model for my wife. After setup and a weekend of normal use, I wanted to jot down some thoughts:

iPhone X delights

Camera quality

Ever since Apple announced the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus, I’ve lusted after its telephoto lens and Portrait photography feature. But I had no interest in carrying around a phone that bulky.

In the iPhone X, Apple has added dual lenses to a more svelte frame; for me, that was enough to justify paying such a high price premium (over the “normal” iPhone 7/8).

So far, I’m fairly impressed by the iPhone X’s camera performance. Low light photos are much-improved over the iPhone 7. Portrait mode (new to me) is amazing when it works well. On a hike yesterday, I was reluctant to switch out of that mode for a single shot. However, when I had the opportunity to view the results on a larger display, it was clear that Portrait mode’s blur masking is hit-and-miss on complex subjects.

Keyboard switching

Apple’s framework for third-party keyboards has some major limitations, but one in particular has always stood out: you can’t jump from a third-party keyboard straight to another third-party keyboard. Instead, you’re left pecking at the switcher icon to cycle through keyboards until you stumble across the one you want. To make matters worse, some keyboards style this switch button differently or even place it in odd locations.

Happily, keyboard-switching works better on the iPhone X. On apps optimized for the taller screen size, you’ll find a dedicated system switcher in the empty space beneath the keyboard itself. This feature offers two advantages: first, the switcher is always easy to find. Second, you can tap and hold the button to see quick shortcuts directly to each keyboard. For me, this simple change means that third-party keyboards are usable for the first time.

Alas, these keyboards are still less stable and responsive than the native UI. And third-party keyboard setup is still frustratingly unintuitive. Baby steps, right?

iPhone X gripes

Awkward edges

The X is easier to handle than the 5.5-inch Plus. But for one-handed use, it’s clumsier than the 4.7-inch non-Plus phones. My fingers have to stretch just a bit too far to hold the phone securely. And because the screen now stretches from top to bottom (notch notwithstanding), I’m forced to reach for the device’s extreme edges more often. When I do, the phone threatens to topple out of my grip.

Speaking of edges, the iPhone X’s swipe gestures are a mixed bag. The new ‘go home’ gesture (swipe up from the bottom edge) works okay (although the phone can feel like it’s perched precariously while you do it). Worse is the new gesture for Control Center (swipe down from the top right corner); this is a disaster for one-handed use. I can’t execute it without invoking Reachability, which slides the entire UI down. Plus, Reachability itself is tricky to invoke, too, thanks to its tiny, often-hidden touch target. Maybe that’s why Reachability is no longer enabled by default.

Activation nightmares

While my wife’s AT&T activation went through almost immediately, my phone couldn’t join the network for hours on Friday afternoon, thanks to overwhelmed carrier servers. I mashed the ‘Try again’ button hundreds of times, with mounting frustration. Even after the process went through, my problems weren’t resolved. My old phone (and SIM) hadn’t surrendered the connection, and my iPhone X couldn’t make calls or download data. I was eventually forced to open a support ticket to resolve the issue. Needless to say, if AT&T tries to stick me with an activation fee, I’ll be giving them a call.

As far as the phone setup itself, both my wife and I started from scratch this time around. Yes, it’s a pain to reinstall all apps, authenticate dozens of services, and re-tweak system settings. But our iPhone 7 battery life had gotten so poor by last week that we each wanted a fresh config on the new phones.

Setup went smoothly, with one exception: my wife had some trouble stepping through the FaceID registration process. Apparently, that “rotate your face” gesture isn’t particularly intuitive if you haven’t been watching iPhone X preview videos for the past two months.

Notch watch

Despite the months-long hand-wringing about the sensor housing, I never even think about the notch when using the phone in portrait orientation. Non-issue.

Landscape mode? Not so much. While you can zoom in and take videos full screen, I’d recommend against it. That mode lets the notch and rounded screen corners eat your content. If (like me) you abhor “overscan” mode on TVs, you won’t want to watch videos in fullscreen mode on the iPhone X.

Random observations (and niggles)

  • FaceID works well; I’ve had very few issues with authentication, and I’ve almost stopped thinking about logging in at all—except when I’m lying in bed. Based on some experimentation, FaceID fails in that context because I’m holding the phone too close. (At night, I often use my phone sans glasses, and I can’t read the screen if I hold it more than a few inches from my eyes.)
  • With the Home button gone, Apple moved the Siri invocation gesture to the side button. That, in turn, displaced the ‘power off’ gesture, which now requires that you hold down the side button and ‘volume up’ simultaneously. Unfortunately, that’s also how you trigger Emergency SOS. Early on Saturday morning, while trying to reboot my phone, I invoked SOS and jumped when my phone produced an ear-ringing alarm klaxon. How did this clear usability testing? 911 dispatchers will be receiving a lot of unintentional calls from iPhone X users.
  • Animoji are fun, and the face-tracking API holds a lot of promise. I can’t wait to see what developers come up with here. I was a little disappointed to discover that a full beard can throw off the tracking.
  • I refuse to carry around a $1,000 phone without any protection. So, immediately after opening the boxes, I applied tempered glass screen protectors to our iPhones. My advice: do this when the screen is on and white; otherwise, you’ll have a hard time getting the sheet aligned with the OLED screen edges, particularly near the notch. ■

My media consumption habits vs. the average American’s

culture

According to eMarketer, U.S. adults spend twelve hours each day consuming media; that amount has increased 24 minutes since 2012. These numbers may seem impossible, but consider that consumption sessions can overlap:

For example, an hour spent watching TV while simultaneously using a smartphone counts as an hour of usage for each medium, and therefore as 2 hours of overall media time.

Here’s how those numbers break down for the average American:

My only takeaway from these numbers, on their own: it’s amazing how much time the average American carves out for TV. I’m at least a little bit jealous.

Here’s my attempt to estimate my own daily media consumption:

Some notes:

  • My total consumption hours are almost exactly the same as the average American’s: twelve hours each day. I’m not sure whether to be alarmed or relieved by that.
  • My definition for each medium may not match eMarketer’s. For my purposes, “TV” is anything I watch on our big screen—i.e., it includes streaming media (Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime). In my “radio” bucket, I do listen to a bit traditional FM broadcast in the car (mostly NPR). But that category also includes Spotify (instrumental music is the soundtrack for most workdays), podcasts, and my voice-guided meditation app. My ‘radio’ hours are high, but is that because I’ve bucketed things differently?
  • Along the same lines, what counts as “consumption”? I use my devices all the time—literally from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. But for big chunks of the day, I’m making stuff: designing collateral for work, drafting blog posts, recording podcasts, composing emails, etc. I assume that eMarketer is making a similar distinction between active, productive work and passive consumption, but I’m not sure.
  • My media consumption on weekdays differs dramatically from what happens on the weekend. For example, during the week, I rarely watch more than one episode of a TV show before I get sleepy and stumble off to bed. On the weekend, though, I’ll often watch a movie or binge on Netflix for several hours.
  • Similarly, my smartphone use skyrockets on lazy weekend days; I’m far more likely to exhaust my iPhone battery on a Sunday than on the average work day.
  • Looking back, it’s astonishing how much my own habits have shifted in the past few decades. In high school, before I had easy access to the web, I would often spend my study hall flipping through the local newspaper. These days, my print consumption has dwindled to nearly zero—yes, we subscribe to the local newspaper, but I rarely get past the first fold.
  • Another big change since my teenage years? Back then, my media world revolved around the TV. Between traditional linear television and console gaming, I probably spent 5–6 hours each day planted in front of the boob tube. Now, I don’t game at all (I haven’t owned a console since the PS2). And even when the TV is on, it sits on the periphery of my attention. TV mostly serves as background noise for my #1 media consumption activity: browsing Twitter on my smartphone. ■

Read-It-Never: Instapaper and therapeutic self-delusion

culture

Apps like Instapaper were supposed to help us read more great online content. Too busy to scroll through that thousand-word thinkpiece? Click a button, and it’s queued up for perusal later on.

But, for me, “later on” never comes. Instapaper is a landfill, where I bury articles—permanently. I currently have 3,366 unread items in my queue. Yes, that’s thirty-three hundred and sixty-six pieces I never came back to read. Some of these date back years and cover topics long since made irrelevant by the passage of time. There’s no chance that I’d ever want to exhume them.

My recent realization? Clicking ‘read later’ isn’t about bookmarking great content. Rather, it’s my way of ignoring how little great content I actually read. It’s a tiny, meaningless gesture, a sort of therapeutic self-delusion. “I’m the sort of person who reads this,” I proclaim with every queued post.

But… I’m not. Not recently, at least.

Maybe that’s okay. After all, no one can read everything they stumble across on the web. If an article really intrigues me, I’m going to read it now. Read-it-later apps help me let go, to sift out the chaff and toss it into the wind. With Instapaper, I can set aside online content without too much debilitating self-judgment.

Still, although I seldom revisit my queue, I can’t quite bring myself to declare Instapaper bankruptcy; I can’t hit that ‘Archive all’ button. There’s some small part of me that still thinks I might eventually get around to reading those 3,366 articles. You won’t always feel so exhausted at day’s end, I tell myself. You won’t always be so busy.

(I’m a good liar.) ■