Three Years Under Our Thumbs

We’ll spend three years of our lives with our thumbs on our phones. What will we have to show for it?

I keep bumping up against this statistic about how much time we spend online, and how much time we spend on our smartphones and tablets. Depending on the source you cite, it’s at least three years of our lives that we’ll spend scrolling up and down on little timelines.

For geeks like me and my friends, it’ll be more, of course. And new wearable devices only promise to raise that number further. That’s not even counting the time we spend on, you know, regular old-fashioned computers.

As I work on building ThinkUp, this number lingers in my mind, popping up nearly every time I am talking to a new person about our work. Can any of us who make apps be worthy of the investment of time and effort that we ask of our users?


Those of us who make technology have to take responsibility for the time that people choose to spend with our creations. We seldom have conversations about this kind of responsibility, but when we do they usually come back to a few words or ideas: What’s useful, what’s important, and what’s meaningful?

“Useful”

The truth is, I’m not sure I want to make an app that’s “useful” anymore. At least not on purpose. Useful has come to imply an almost robotic utilitarianism, focused on efficiency at the expense of soul. So much of our fixation on utility leads to soulless production tools where the only emotion they inspire is frustration. I’m happy to make something that’s incidentally useful, but art isn’t useful, and as Ev famously said to those who complained Twitter isn’t useful, ice cream isn’t useful either. And ice cream is great!

“Important”

Making something “important” is a scary idea, too. Packed into that word are a lot of judgments about what matters, and a lot of danger of being pretentious and overbearing. Right now a lot of technology promises to help you by trying to filter information down to what’s “important”. But that hasn’t seemed to be a problem that algorithms are very good at yet. Worse, we bring our own cultural and personal assumptions to any conversation about of what’s important, and while technology necessarily has values baked into it, tech culture overall isn’t very good at having productive conversations about these values yet.

“Meaningful”

So that leaves “meaningful”. I’m as wary of this word as I am of any other jargon, but this aspiration is closest to my heart. Because we can find meaning in anything. We can find meaning through any lens that technology provides us, whether that’s a telescope or a microscope or a mirror.

So I’ve decided that is what I want to do, use technology build a mirror to hold up to all our time online, to let us reflect on the years of our lives spent mediated by technology. The hope is that this is how we can each find what’s meaningful to us. If we can reveal to ourselves what we do and what we say and how we act, we’ll each make our own personal choices about what is the most meaningful path to pursue.

This question is how we build technology to help us find that meaning. I don’t know the answer, but I feel good about the question.

Three years

Three years sounds like a long time to spend on a mobile device, but three years is just the blink of an eye. My son is not yet three years old, but in the brief time I have known him, he has already become the most meaningful thing in my life. And he taught me my biggest lesson about technology.

Since my son was born, I’ve spent more time reading my Twitter timeline than I’ve spent reading to him. I am not proud of that fact, but there it is. My son has challenged me to find some worth in all that time spent.

How do we find enough meaning in the hours we while away flipping through a feed on our phones? Years from now, decades from now, will we be able to explain why this is how we spent our days? As the whole world picks up their phones, I actually think this may be one of the most important challenges I can work on.


I know the conventional tendency is to dismiss our online lives as trivial, to say that social media and social networking are made up entirely of distractions. But I think we wouldn’t be there if there weren’t substance there, or at least the possibility of finding some substance. And I’m going to enjoy trying to find it.

To that end, I’m working with my friend Gina to build a company, a community and a culture focused on that goal, knowing full well that it’s equal parts ambitious and absurd. So far, a few thousand other people have been willing to bet on the possibility that we might all find something meaningful together. I hope you’ll join us.

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