Kids own too many gadgets

I’ve been resisting writing this, as I know it’ll get up some people’s noses. I know there’s a danger I’ll come across as fairly sanctimonious – and definitely an Old Victorian Arse. But you know, along with getting a bit older is a certain dontgiveashitness, so here goes.

My contention is this: things have gone badly awry in a world in which our kids (and by “kids” I’m focusing on 7-15 year olds) own their own gadgets, expect their own gadgets and spend most of their time glued to gadgets. As parents we should be thinking harder about this, and not resting on our arses quite so much.

Why (apart from the fact I’m a grumpy old git who thought the world used to be a better place when we were kids) do I think this..? Funny you should ask..

#1: adults are spreading their addiction

We have a problem. All of us. Me, you, that bloke over there. We go to the pub with our friends, and sit there looking at our phones. We walk down the street bumping into people because we’ve just seen another narcissistic fuckpump posting a picture of how beautiful they look in their carefully curated, manicured, beautiful Facebook world. We feel more naked leaving the house without our phone than we do leaving it without a key. We “don’t work in the evenings” but, sure, we read our work emails.

Our relationship with mobile devices is badly, badly skewed. And we’re passing it on blindly to our kids.

#2: the money is really badly fucked up.

I see kids, and we have friends, who own an iPad, an iPhone and maybe also a laptop as well. This is, what, £1500 worth of kit? And £600 of it they’re carrying around in their pocket. To school. To town. To the beach.

Stop and consider. And, unfashionable though it is, think about what things used to be like: what you had in your pocket when you were 10. For me it was all about spark plugs and springs and unidentifiable gadgets I’d pulled out of the back of radios.

The idea of a 10 or 11 year old kid owning something – anything – worth this much is, frankly, utterly insane. Not only do kids break shit all the time but they lose it too. And, to be honest (and much as it pains me to say it, as I run screaming from the room as my boys lose another shoe/Lego model/book/bit of homework/etc) – losing and breaking stuff is a kind of childhood right of passage. It’s that losing, breaking thing which teaches you not to, well, lose and break things. But, FFS, learn that stuff with a bit of broken radio and not the latest iPhone..

#3: kids owning gadgets = totally unnecessary.

Just to take an example from an – albeit slightly geeky – household: our two kids have access to the following: a PC, a laptop, a Macbook Pro, an old Macbook, an iPhone, an android phone, an iPad mini and a Hudl. Oh, not forgetting a few Raspberry Pi’s for good measure. They seriously aren’t wanting for gadgets.

The difference is these gadgets aren’t theirs, and so they have to ask to use them – and their time is limited when they are allowed. (Hint: sometimes they aren’t allowed. I know, crazy, huh?).

Also (really heading into “In my day…” territory now..) – we didn’t have phones when we were kids and we didn’t get murdered / lost / in trouble (alright, maybe a bit), so I’m really not sure that the “they need a phone for safety” reason washes. We all accept (with the exception of SHOUTY DAILY EXPRESS HEADLINES) that life isn’t any more dangerous now than it was then. So why do our kids suddenly need phones? And if they really do need to get in touch then why not a £4.99 Nokia dumbphone rather than a £600 iPhone?

#4: owning gadgets almost always means “unrestricted web access”

Most of our friends with kids aged 7-15 have totally unrestricted access to the web. Yes, you might foolishly believe that your ISP can provide complete protection from All The Bad Stuff, but we hopefully all know (we do, right..?) that this is total fiction.

The problem gets worse when kids have gadgets that they own: they install stuff, they go online whenever and wherever they want – and you as a parent lose visibility of what account they’re creating, what apps they’re using, who they’re talking to and when.

I have a problem with this. It’s great that kids get to go on the web. Is it great that they get to see the whole, unfiltered, crazy-assed tangle that’s out there without their parents having a scoobie what they’re doing? No, I don’t think it is. This isn’t about spying on our kids – it’s about slowly introducing them to the world out there so that they can cope with some of the subtleties we adults live with all the time. How do we know that source X is to be trusted? Should I click that link? Can I install this app safely?

#5: “….but my daughter has to have an iPhone because all her friends have iPhones“.

Peer pressure isn’t going to kill anyone. It didn’t kill us as kids when we wanted that Grifter and our mum couldn’t afford it, and bought us a home-painted racing bike instead, and it won’t kill our kids now.

The thing is, Life is this place where some people have things and some people don’t have things – and actually: this is ok. And – more importantly – the sooner kids get used to this and realise there are other paths to happiness than rampant materialism, the better.

Finally: “No” is a thing.

You’re a parent. And as such, you have the power to say “no”. You have the absolute right to say – “no, I’m not buying you that tablet for Christmas” or “not in your room” or “not now, you have homework to do” or “I’ve turned off the WiFi, read a book”. It’s your house, your rules, and you’re a responsible adult with the means to absolutely define how some things are going to be done.

Your kid may cry or stomp their feet or shout at you or run screaming from the room. But that’s OK. You’re a parent. They don’t have to like you all the time. That’s part of the journey, too.

I know. I’m a sanctimonious Victorian twat.

The life project

My good friend @bealers just posted “Make life a side project” and it got me thinking.

My first reaction was something along the lines of shutup-you-crazy-person but now I’m veering slightly more to ah-i-think-i-kinda-see-what-you-mean. But not much.

The main thing that I reacted to was this notion of “sideness”. Putting life (yeah, we need to talk about what we all mean by that in a mo..) into a box marked “side project” seems to me to do something that’s potentially quite dangerous: It makes life “just another activity”, one which can be stalled, cut down to the minimum, fitted in around everything else, somehow made efficient.

I try* to think of this shit in a different way, a way that is a bit more redolent of Buddhist ways of thinking. I tend to think of us as being submerged in our lives, in life – and that the other shit that comes along: money, stress, illness, death even – are momentary interference. Another way of putting it: we float in life, and these things are ripples, tides, storms – but passing, not enduring.

There’s another complication here – one which Tolle alludes to when he talks about “life situation” – he famously said “Forget about your life situation and pay attention to your life”. This distinction between life and situation is crucial, I think, and “making life a side project” seems to miss this point.

* I say try above – because I am, like many of my peers – struggling a bit right now to keep things on the straight and narrow. Work balance, life balance, ill parents, moving house, finding time for the important things – this stuff can be a bit of a battle, and I’m not at my most shining at this moment.

But if there is one thing that I’ve taken away from all the reading, meditation, study and listening that I’ve done over the past ten years it is that things aren’t going to get better – by that I don’t mean fuck this shit, it’ll never get better but the notion of future-me-is-a-BETTER-me (or it’ll-all-be-great-as-soon-as-I’ve…) is a mind construct full of deceit. Those highlight reels on Instagram, the 18th new Javascript framework that just came out and YOU JUST GOTTA LEARN IT TO BE COOL, the new way of working, the smarter office you’re dreaming of, the future when business just ticks along and you get to spend time with your family on your yacht – these are all ok things to aspire to but as soon as they start running your life, you’re sunk.

The truth is this: you’re you, and life is now.




Instant is not now

So it’s that time of year again – December crawls to a close and a new year looms just beyond an enormous mound of mince pies, bad tv and terminal flatulence.

There’s something strange about the arrival of a “new year” – after all, it’s just another day but one with a randomly assigned new label on it. The switch from “2010” to “2011” means nothing apart from the fact that we’re all – I suspect mostly without exception – sitting around thinking about how we’re going to get fit, how we’re going to rise in our careers, how we’re going to make our fortunes, be better people, or otherwise seek out happiness. But not until the 1st, right? Then things will be betterwhen I get fitter, when I win the lottery, when I land that new job, when I’m nicer to my kids…

A near constant putting-off is the modern way.

I’m spending a fair amount of time reading about Buddhism at the moment, either directly through the works of people like Stephen Batchelor or indirectly through writers like Eckhart Tolle. The interesting thing for me is that all of these approaches have a very clear practical and not-dissimilar direction of travel to them. They all – yoga, Tai Chi, Zen, the writings of Tolle – have at their heart a focus on self, awareness and balance. They also all – importantly – point the consciousness towards “the now”, encouraging practitioners to move away from the memory of the past or projection into the future and instead focus on the present moment.

The thing is that as Westerners, we’re pretty much entirely programmed to not think this way. We’re really bad at stopping, looking around us and taking in what we have here and now without thinking “just a little bit further – THEN it’ll all be much better” : this just seems to be how we think.

This makes the ever-increasing arrival of INSTANT EVERYTHING an interesting proposition. You’t think on first glance that INSTANT is NOW. Actually, and as someone who spends his life being distracted by – well, pretty much everything on the internet (and many things off it..) – I know this isn’t the case. In fact I’d go so far as to say that there isn’t a more powerful opponent to true now thinking than INSTANT EVERYTHING.

INSTANT EVERYTHING promises you the time you need to live your life – but what it actually does is to splinter your thoughts and attention into a million different directions. Quiet time – without it being set aside as being special – becomes punctuated with tweets, blog posts, pop-ups, emails, phone calls, IM messages – a million miles away from the true now.

Being overwhelmed by life (particularly, but not only, technology) isn’t new, but we’re far from having an answer. Ultimately, it is about self-control and discipline. I have no intention for example of turning off my Twitter account – I tried that before – but at the same time I don’t think I have got to anything resembling a balance. I’m not 100% signed up to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (and he was disappointingly unconvincing when I saw him speak) but I do think he has a point. When you get to the stage that you can’t read a book without tweeting about it, can’t have a conversation without looking something up on Wikipedia, can’t walk down the road without sending a picture to Posterous – then things are probably getting a little bit out of hand.

So for 2011, I’m planning on doing a little bit less, and seeking out the quiet a little bit more. Nothing radical, just a gentle tipping of the balance. I suspect – judging by the conversations I have with many of my friends – I may not be alone.

Have a goodun.

Falling out of love with Twitter

Dear Twitter

It’s been a week or so since I last spoke to you.

I’ll be honest, right from the start. I’ll just come out and say it: I’ve suddenly and pretty much completely fallen out of love with you.

I don’t know what this means. I don’t know if I’ll get my love back, and I don’t know that if I do I’ll feel the same way I used to. I think it’ll happen, but I don’t know when. It might be now, when I push “publish”, or tomorrow, or next week. It might – although I very much doubt it – be never.

I’m not sure why this happened, although I’ve got a few ideas, which, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll write a little bit about here.

While I’m being so honest, I’d also like to say this: In the last week I’ve missed you, but only a tiny little bit. It hasn’t hurt nearly as much as I thought it might. I’ve popped my head in, sent a DM or two, checked that no-one is being too rude about me, but for the most part I’ve been out of the loop.

While I’m really laying my cards on the table: I’ve actually felt relieved for the most part. Relieved, and quiet, and more in touch with the stuff going on out here in that thing they apparently call the real world.

As you know, Twitter, I’m a Scorpio, which apparently means I’m either all or nothing. Personally, I think the alignment of the planets has diddly fuck all to do with anything, but in this particular aspect the magicians with the big hats and big hair have got it right. I’m an “in or out”, “up or down”, “violently agreeing or not” kind of guy. I always have been, I always will be, and I’m way past being able to change this. I know it makes me a bit of a wanker at times, but that’s just me.

So when I sucked on the crack pipe you offered me back in [whenever it was], it came as no surprise to me that some level of addiction would follow soon after. I tweeted on average – Christ, I dunno – 20 or so times a day. I used to check it way more frequently than that. That’s the beauty and the danger of being always connected. I got to the stage where I’d read a book and tweet about it every couple of pages. I couldn’t watch a film without checking to see if anyone else was watching it. I spent entire mornings having conversations about stuff I won’t give a shit about in 10 days time, let alone in 10 years. I’d look up and it’d be lunchtime. My concentration is shot to fuck. I can’t hold down a paragraph of anything heavy, let alone a chapter. This isn’t a Susan Greenfield moment, by the way: tiredness, an over-busy brain and life in general don’t help. But Twitter doesn’t, either, especially when you misuse it like I got into the habit of misusing it.

I loved you, Twitter. I will again. But right now, you just feel like too much noise, too much presence in the wrong place.

Don’t get me wrong. This is – as everyone says who takes part in a breakup – not about you. It’s about me, and the person I am. It’s also about where I am right now: busy, book in the offing, head full of stuff, wanting to understand who I am and where I fit; wanting to simplify, radically; wanting to reduce the damn noise and get at the good stuff, the meaningful stuff, the lasting stuff.

[“Clearly,” – I hear you say – “he’s getting old”…]

Social media – the big bad thing that we’re not apparently allowed to be good at anymore (since the inevitable tribes of wankers selling “social media guru” services arrived, with no clue about what it *actually* means to engage with people in meaningful ways) is one of the things I do, and one of the things I understand. I believed in it. I still believe in it, unfashionable though that is right now. I’m not selling out of social media, in my brief spell away: after all, I’m blogging this fucking post, like the social media twat that I am. I just happen to have gone too damn far, just like those fuckers with the astrological charts said I would. And, irritatingly, my response to that is just as predictable: a total break, not just a lessening. I don’t do lessenings, remember? I do extremes.

And that, for those of you who are asking (and thank you for asking), is that.

I started writing this thinking I might have something profound to say. Turns out I’m just saying “It’s all a bit noisy, I’ll be back” and in doing so, I just added another 700 words to the noise.

Maybe I’ll just tweet it instead.

is late

What if the hype is actually all hype?

What if someone in the press misheard an Apple employee talking, and did that – pretty normal – press thing of inflating it beyond all proportion? What if it became a pretty standard Silicon Valley / noomeedya / excited geek Chinese whispers kind of thing, no basis of truth whatsoever:

“…well there I was at the bar, and I said to him that – well, Wednesday 27th January is late for a product launch

I mean, it wouldn’t take much, would it? A crowded room, a misheard phrase. iSlate. Is late.

Maybe “An Apple spokesman said the company did not comment on rumours” actually means “there is no fucking iSlate“?

Maybe Jobs has spent the last week desperately trying to rustle up a product, an idea, anything that fits the hype which was created out of a false rumour? Imagine the board room scene:

Jobs: “What do you mean, we have NOTHING?”

Employee: “Sir, I’m sorry, we’re just all out of ideas”

Jobs: “Nothing at all?”

Employee: “Well, we just got these shots of an iPhone and – like – well, Photoshopped them a bit and it kinda looks quite cool…”

Jobs: “But you don’t actually HAVE one, right? There IS NO PRODUCT?”

Employee: “….well…er…not as such, no”


…just sayin’…

Simple ideas, well executed

Today, following a tweet and a link to this blog post, I went out on a post-Christmas, “balls to it” kind of whim (the kind your bank manager and wife hate) and bought myself a GPS travel tracker.

This is a small  (matchbox-sized) unit with a single button on it (on/off), and it basically does one thing – logs location data at a regular (user-specifiable) frequency.

Why would you want to do this? Well, apart from tracking cats or taking on board the subliminal message that you might want to follow your unfaithful husband or wife (the unit is called – rather nastily – “i-gotU”), one of the main reasons is this: you can use it to geotag photos automagically.

The nice thing about the unit is that you can use it with any camera, not just your fairly-crappy iPhone (already GPS-enabled) one. How? it’s really, really simple: you just sync the clock on the GPS unit to the clock on whichever camera you’re going to use. Bingo. The supplied software does the hard work of matching geo-location to time and then (here’s the cool bit), writes that data back as EXIF to the image. In human speak, that means when you upload your pictures to Flickr or import to Picasa, the location of the image is automatically logged. And that, ladies and gentlefolks, is cool.

None of this is rocket science (although as a kid I would have probably wet myself in excitement about a matchbox-sized Bond-style tracking unit..) but the cheapness, small size, simplicity with which this particular idea has been executed is pretty compelling.

Simplicity, as always, is a fine thing.

We need a new verb

Here’s one thing that we use daily that we’ve never had to use in previous generations: passwords.

With passwords comes that moment – you know the one – when you’re at someone’s computer and they need to login to something.

You make a big show of LOOKING IN THE OTHER DIRECTION, either by wandering away in as pointed a way as you can or by DELIBERATELY DOING SOMETHING ELSE. Whatever it is you choose to do, you do anything to make it look like you’re not staring over their shoulder at the secret combination of keys they’re tapping.

Watch it happening. It’s fascinating. Some people rub their eyes in a mock show of NOT LOOKING. Others make a joke of it: “I’ll just go OVER HERE while you do that”. Some people look up at the ceiling. Others check out their phone (phones are good for situations like this, or for that moment when the drunk person starts talking to you on a bus…)

However you do it, it seems clear to me that we need a verb to describe the action..

“I’ll just degaze myself while you do that”

“Sorry, let me chicago for a moment” (cmon 80’s kids, get with it…)

“You login – I’ll just offstare until you’re done”

Maybe some latin? Or rhyming slang?

Sceptic? Stupid and cowardly, more like

Climate change sceptic? You, sir or madam, are stupid. But more importantly, you are also a coward.

You’re stupid because you’re in denial of a vast wealth of evidence. Vast. But that’s not what really needs saying: the arguments are going to roll on with the leaked emails and the naysayers, the green camps, the marches. People like James “right about everything” (his words, not mine) Delingpole are going to carry on writing the kind of stuff we’ve seen recently, and you endless lines of people denying there is anything wrong are going to keep commenting and blathering and pulling other figures out and countering every argument that is put forward.

The fact is, if we had a form signed in blood by every scientist on the planet swearing blind that all the evidence was overwhelmingly supportive of man’s impact on global warming, you’d still find something or some way to deny it. You’d probably decide that science was in fact the wrong discipline to be basing Western civilisation on, that gravity didn’t exist and we should all start howling at the moon instead. Then if we got the moon to sign the form too, you’d move on to something else. That’s what you’re like, right?

Here’s the thing that you, Mr Sceptic, seem to fail to realise:

I, and the millions of others who are convinced by the overwhelming evidence (that’s the evidence that just keeps coming pretty much universally from scientists the world over):  we don’t mind looking stupid. In thirty years time, I’m actually going to be pretty damn pleased when my kids and their kids swing by and take the piss that “once upon a time, dad thought that the WORLD WAS GOING TO END! What a FOOL!”. I’m going to laugh at myself, too. Long and very, very hard.

If I spend the next thirty years turning off lights, cutting down my waste, trying hard to economise and re-cycle and minimise my impact as much as possible and it then turns out that actually there really IS a bottomless pit of oil and a corresponding hole in the ground into which I can pour all my plastic shit, I’m going to be delighted. I’ll be out there partying with the rest of you, burning a few tyres, driving my 4×4 round the block and running my dishwasher all night. Count me in. I’ll be needing to get drunk MORE than you lot because I’ll have been denying myself all this WASTE FUN that you’ll have been having for three decades. Fantastic.

But the thing is, Mr Sceptic, I’d really rather not take the chance. And there’s two points for me here. Firstly, it’s Tim O’Reilly’s post about Pascal’s Wager: if we’re right about climate change, we should do something. If we’re wrong, what have we got to lose? Argue your arse out of that one, if you please. I know you’ll try.

Secondly, and this is possibly as important to me: wasting things is wrong. It has never been right. Food, electricity, lives: when has anything good ever come from using something that you don’t need? Why sit outside the shop with your engine running if you can turn it off and stop wasting something? Why throw plastic bags away when you can use them again? If you’re as rational as you claim to be, Mr Sceptic, please lay out the arguments why waste is good, if you please. I’d be delighted to hear them.

In short, Mr Sceptic, I would much much rather be in the camp of people who are trying and prepared to be wrong than in the camp of people who are denying. I think if you look deep inside yourself and behind your wall of bravado; I think if you take just a little bit of time to look not just at the world immediately in front of your eyes but the one beyond that; if you look behind the – oh so terribly fashionable to be cynical – exterior, you might find you actually feel the same way, too.