Chris Alexander

On Engineering

New Year digital detox

2nd January, 2018

Seven or eight years ago, I closed my Facebook account. Four years ago, I stopped reading the tech press; last year I stopped reading the motorsport press, and I recently switched to the new Firefox.

I believe that all of these steps, in addition to other reasons, have contributed significantly to making me much happier on a day to day basis! So what shall I do this year?

One of the reasons I had no problem deleting my Facebook account was that even 8 years ago, they were engaging in a creepy level of tracking. The growth of the FB “Like” button, apparently a marketing no-brainer for just about every website on the internet, gave them unprecedented amounts of data about internet users (whether they had Facebook accounts or not), and since then their practices have only become more invasive. As we saw with the last presedential election in the US, Facebook hasn’t done enough to mitigate its self-reinforcing, self-amplifying echo-chamber effect on social groups and has served as a polarising force generally in society.

(I have a new Facebook account now, for use in promoting our band only. I’m not very good at it! The account is for page management and has no friends - I only use it in incognito windows in an attempt to mitigate the tracking effects).

I certainly couldn’t say one way or the other whether deleting my Facebook account has made me happier overall, as I have had other ways to communicate with friends and family. But it’s certainly reduced the number of creepy ads I see - and hopefully I’ve reduced my monetary value to these companies too!

While I was working in a tech startup, I eventually consciously decided to stop reading the online tech press. In my experience at the time, what they were commonly writing was either almost completely unfounded and unjustified opinion, or had no real basis in any facts. One of the key jobs of a startup founder is to make their company sound good to the press to get PR and funding; this fuels a self-expanding cycle of unrealistic boasting and dilutes any potentially reasonable content to the point of complete futility. I suppose a good example of just how toxic it was is that one of the TechCrunch writers at the time is now peddling political extremism in the US.

For certain, abandoning the tech press at that time, and continuing to do so, has made me significantly happier. Not reading every day about how you appear insignificant or not worthwile compared to others is certainly something that nobody needs to hear.

After I changed industry into motorsport in 2014, I continued reading the motorsport press, as I had done when I didn’t work in the industry. After a few years, this press began to have the same effect on me as the tech press had when I was in a startup.

Ignoring the motorsport press has certainly improved my happiness significantly, and I don’t need to waste my time on it now I have excellent first-hand sources!

Towards the end of 2017 I also switched from Chrome to Firefox. Firstly I’d like to say this hasn’t got anything to do with Google specifically - I don’t have a problem with Chrome or any tracking to that effect. However, the new Firefox has a number of tracking advantages included from the ground-up. It also has a lower memory footprint than Chrome, which I was struggling with significantly at the time!

Firefox have a cool Android app out now called Firefox Focus, which allows you to easily completely erase your browser details - a massive plus for privacy. Once I have got 1Password set up with all my sites (not a short process), I am considering switching to that permanently.

So these are the steps that I have taken over the past few years to make myself a bit happier. What’s the next step?

My current plan is two-fold with an enforcemnet mechanism. I am planning to vastly reduce the amount I use Twitter, and reduce the amount of news I read online. I’m going to do this through enforcement on my phone!

I think Twitter is beginning to suffer from similar problems to Facebook; an echo-chamber nature, nurturing extreme views (especially politically) and fostering hate rather than establishing community. Maybe you just can’t connect up all of humanity to one network and expect it to come out nice… I looked at my Twitter profile the other day and thought “Wow - twenty seven and half thousand nuggets of garbage!” which would have been a nice tweet, other than the obvious irony. So I’m going to take a bit of a break from that for a while and see if it also makes me happier.

I’m also going to read less news online. I have been doing it almost obsessively, and it’s probably not good for me, even though I largly stick to the NYT, BBC and Guardian. I also turned off the Google news feed on my phone as that kept feeding me Daily Mail, the Sun, and other similar click-bait.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m going to try and enforce this a bit on my phone, which I will hopefully discuss shortly in another post. But for now, let’s hope these changes make me a bit happier on top of all the others so far!