An information era decalogue
4 February 2018
Every so often scientists, academics, writers and philosophers in the past have set down rules to help us accomplish certain goals. These may be personal in nature or targeted at society in general; but they all commonly deal with dynamically shaping our culture and practices against an evolving background. At one point this evolution was philosophical, at another, industrial, and at yet another—now—heavily information-oriented.
The trend seems to be that we constantly make new devices that are designed to help us escape reality. In Socretes's time it was the writing habit, around Gutenberg's time it was books, in the late 20th century it was computing devices and GUIs. More recently we seem to have stopped making an effort to hide this trend: we have virtual and augmented reality capabilities in both dedicated gadgets and our handy smartphones.
This is an attempt to set down ten rules that must guide our culture in an age where distractions are a dime a dozen and reality is becoming one of many possibilities—perhaps even the least attractive of them. This is not a dictation rather a set of suggestions following which may make our lives richer in a sense that will actually make a difference to us, not right away, but decades down the line.
1. Set aside time daily to abstain from using any gadgets.
While abstinence might be a strong idea to use in the same breath as technology it is increasingly appearing to be more apt than any other alternative. Our constantly dying batteries are proof that we are overusing the technology we have access to to the point where we seek reasons to use gadgets around us instead of seeking gadgets to use for existing reasons.
Ideally, try to keep early mornings and late nights free from screens. This should give you a great start to your day—throughout most of which you will likely use various iterations of technology—and a sound end that leads to a sound sleep. Spending time away from gadgets becomes a particularly important part of your day if you inevitably spend most of your day with them, say, at your job.
2. Debate, never suppress, opinions; always shun passive agreement.
In a more connected world there is bound to be more disagreement. With every passing day we seem to be inching closer to another war
and this has been largely due to assumptions. There have been assumptions of greatness, assumptions of identities being threatened, assumptions of lost pride. Most of these are vanity.
Diplomatic talks solve problems most of the time; they solve problems in all of these cases. And in a connected world technology enables not world leaders to speak but citizens of various countries to interact as well. Regardless of what a closed group of powerful people want, therefore, the mass voice can realistically hope to survive in today's world so long as we engage in respectful debate, make space for opinions that go against our own and, most of all, stop agreeing to things we do not really stand for.
3. Recognise that what you see is almost never the whole picture.
Rather ironically, our interconnected world has led to a lack of connection on one term: reality. Once upon a time the idea that what one sees is not the whole picture was philosophical; it was meant to help people reflect on the fact that everyone has a story and that everyone's actions are a consequence of their story. It was a motivator of empathy.
Today what one sees online, particularly on social media, is literally not the whole picture. It is often a set-up that shines a positive light on things that are, in reality, dull or even outright negative. An entire stream of such pictures that showcase handpicked moments of people's lives becomes a motivator of negativity in the viewer born of the basic human need of comparison. But, as Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Do not envy of the happiness of those living in a fool’s paradise’. What you see on the web, more often than not, is a fool's paradise. That is not to say there is no reality; recognising reality
among set-ups is an important skill both online and off.
4. Write your responses in a book; put it away for at least a day.
The trouble with modern-day life—and one of the reasons why millennials are often accused of being ‘entitled’—is that the bar for the swiftness of asking and receiving is set by our gadgets and gadgets are designed to respond instantly. This often spills onto other aspects of life where people expect to be given something in exchange for little. Have a question? Google it. No idea what a word means? A dictionary app exists on your phone
. Back in the day this required patience and considerably greater efforts. And results were not guaranteed.
The trouble is when this breakneck pace of living comes to individual communication: it becomes so easy to send off a curt response or to overdo it (e-mails, messages, calls etc.) when you do not instantly receive replies that you will quickly find yourself regretful. Of course hindsight can often mean regret but this particular issue can be avoided by adopting a simple old practise: write your first response and keep it in your drawer (or wherever convenient) for at least a day, then read it again and see if you still want to send it
5. Keep phones off the dining table.
Spending time in idle conversations is often seen as a waste of time—perhaps with good reason too. Consequently the only time a group of people do spend together is whilst at the dining table. Making dinner the social affair it is, without polluting it with faux-social media, can do wonders. Not using your phone while among a crowed of less than ten is the new rule replacing the old cry to ‘always take your hat off indoors’.
Just as you would not dictate a letter to someone while dining or have parallel work luncheons stop working on your phone as though you have not already spent enough time with it. And even if you have not, try to allot time for that work later, sufficiently long before dinner. If you have nothing to say read a book.
6. ‘Stay right at home in Boston and keep them.’
Here is an anecdote about Mark Twain from The wit and wisdom of Mark Twain, a little booklet you should flip through sometime—
A hypocritical businessman, whose fortune had been the misfortune of many others, told Mark Twain piously, ‘Before I die I intend to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I want to climb to the top of Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud.’
‘I have a better idea’, suggested Twain. ‘Why don’t you stay right at home in Boston and keep them?’
Besides being hilarious, Mr Twain's response is deeper than it appears on first glance. When things mean something to you you will want to work on them without showing off your work all the time. Social media is designed to make us show things off regardless of whether we sincerely worked on them or not. We are fooling ourselves and, to paraphrase Richard Feynman, we are the easiest people for us to fool.
7. Spell properly; a rule formerly centred around saying please and thank you.
When letters were being written spelling properly was a no-brainer; saying please and thank you had to be taught. Today, the former is a chore and the latter is fast becoming a relic. Texting lingo is all about mindless speed, a parenthetical to point four above. In achieving speed we are mis-shaping language.
Some might say this argument is two-sided: language changed spelling and grammar and has been doing so since Shakespeare's time, so texting lingo is nothing new. Except the changes that occurred back then took place over centuries (or at least decades) which meant they worked themselves into the language and settled down. By contrast this is nothing more than a trend that will, with improving typing suggestions and autocorrect, set itself right. The real threat might appear to be emoji but they too shall pass
. So remember always to spell properly, or at least use autocorrect or dictation, both of which are becoming increasingly more accurate on our devices. And yes, please say please and thank you as often as necessary. Thank you
8. Recognise that online platforms have their own etiquettes.
There are some new rules that are universal e.g. always give spoiler warnings, keep formal e-mails short, give unbiased reviews, vote up or down responsibly, actually read the link you are sharing before you share it etc.
On Twitter, for example, quote, retweet and reply as appropriate, do not mix them up. Try to use LinkedIn for professional conversations because that is most likely what others will be using it for and you do not want to flood their stream with gifs of cats playing whack-a-mole. Do not ‘humblebrag’ because things like that are easy to do online where you are not standing face-to-face with others; and all those passive-aggressive posts people put up that are clearly targeted at one individual are not half as inconspicuous as they would expect.
9. Manage and respect time and space.
While on the face this might appear to be advice to respect others’ time and space it is as much about your own. Your e-mail inbox is not a junkyard so categorise, file, discard and organise your e-mails appropriately. Likewise keep track of your messages and your IM chat threads. And it goes without saying that you should keep your tone consistent depending on who your are conversing with.
Equally important, when you converse with someone can depend on the mode of communication and the nature of it. Business conversations are best kept between 9 am to 5 pm on telephones or messages; earlier than 9 am but no later than 8 pm is ideal for e-mails. Calendar invites need responses well before the event itself, not in the last minute. And generally, try not to have work conversations during vacations unless absolutely necessary.
10. Hold doors open, pull chairs, walk on the street-side of a pavement.
These old school values have not gone anywhere even if it sometimes seems like they are lost. Hold doors open to people: when the door opens towards you, hold it and wait for them to walk; when the door opens away from you, walk in first and hold the door open for others. Pull chairs for women, seat them in cars first and do not let them have to slide across their seat, all when appropriate of course. Walk on the street-side of a pavement exposing yourself to traffic—this is true with children too—and walk with handbags and other costly items between the two of you. All of the old ideas of being a gentleman hold true to this day.
This is all not about chivalry and it certainly is not about helping under the assumption that the other person cannot help themselves. This is about being kind and caring and making others comfortable around you—because that is what it means to be a gentleman. This last point is a gentle reminder that even in a world with gadgets certain classic etiquettes will continue to survive.
There is undoubtedly a lot more I could add to this list. There are a lot of offline etiquettes that apply even today, which is what point ten above is a stand-in for. So this list is by no means exhaustive but serves as an excellent all-round director for etiquette that is particularly important—and often sadly missing—in the context of our information-filled, gadgets-driven twenty-first century. Of course, feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter if you have more to add to this list.
- The fact that such sentences are written in earnest these days is alarming enough. ↩
- Wikipedia, for instance, is more reliable than most people think. And networks that allow anonymous users but are moderated well can often be truer in their expressions and more respectful in their discussions e.g. reddit, but this sword is double-edged e.g. 4chan. ↩
- If you do not carry a dictionary around on your phone, do so henceforth. ↩
- This is no different from when someone asks you to count to ten when you are angry. Unfortunately this clever piece of advice is often taken literally—actually counting one to ten does nothing—while in earnest it is simply to ask you to take time off before responding. ↩
- My prediction is that once the sheer numbers of new emoji overwhelm people there will be a bid for minimal emojis as a result of which it becomes fashionable to express yourself with as few emoji as possible. Call me a texting luddite but in time words will prevail and fads will pass. ↩
- Those thanks were satire of course: say them as often as necessary, never overdo things. ↩