Digital Dependency

I’m old enough to remember knowing people’s phone numbers. Here’s how it worked: if I wanted to call a friend or family member, I’d pick up the phone and dialed. Their numbers were among the many pieces of information rattling around in my memory. Of course, I didn’t know everybody’s number; some I had written down in a paper-based address book. If the person I wanted to call wasn’t in my address book, I could look them up in the (also paper-based) phone directory. I could also ask someone else for their number.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to go through this process. Here’s how I call someone these days: I search for the person’s name in my iPhone and tap their phone number. The marvelous pocket supercomputer takes it from there, initiating the call without me having to type (much less remember) the number. I don’t talk much on the phone anymore. Still, this new way of calling saves me lots of time. It’s also liberated me from having to remember lots of “useless” information. Why memorize frequently called numbers if I can just tap away at the person’s entry on my phone?

The same is true for my calendar. Ever since meetings became a central part of my life, I’ve kept a list of appointments. For a long time, I used a thick and heavy Franklin Covey planner for this purpose. This planner was always near me, and I consulted it throughout the day. Eventually, my phone ate the planner too.

Like the contacts app on my phone, the digital calendar app is better than the paper planner in every respect. Every respect but one, that is: I’ve become dependent on my digital planner to a greater degree than I was with my paper-based system. The paper planner was the source of “truth.” But unlike my digital devices, the paper planner couldn’t notify me of a meeting starting in ten minutes.

As a result, the paper planner was most useful for reminding me of events happening in the future; I needed to keep near-term appointments — things happening “today” — in my mind throughout the day. I could check in with the planner first thing in the morning and maybe two or three times during the day. But for the most part, I needed to keep my schedule top of mind throughout the day. I have lost this ability after moving to digital devices. I still review my appointment list early each morning, but I now rely entirely on my Apple Watch or iPhone to alert me of upcoming meetings throughout the day.

To be clear, I’m not complaining. The new way is better than the old one in many ways. However, I must acknowledge that at this point, I’ve become dependent on these tools. I’d be less effective if I had to go back to relying on pen and paper to keep my appointments and contact information.

This is mostly ok, since I have many choices regarding digital tools for managing my contacts and appointments. If I tire of the ones I’m currently using (for the record, Fantastical and Cardhop on the Mac and iOS, with Google Apps synching in the backend), there is a wide range of competing front- and backend apps to provide these services. There are also standard formats that allow me to migrate data between apps easily. Even though I am dependent on these apps, the variety and portability in the areas they serve give me a reassuring degree of control.

However, not all areas of digital information management offer as much choice. As a general rule, the more innovative or unique the service, the fewer alternatives you’ll find, and the harder it’ll be to move between them.

To wit: there’s a new class of apps in the market that promises to do for thinking what Fantastical and Cardhop do for appointments and contacts. Consider Notion and Roam. These apps liberate the mind from having to keep connections between concepts in much the same way that a digital contacts app liberates us from remembering phone numbers. I’ve used both, understand the power and value they offer. Although they’re very different, both allow me to break down concepts into granular chunks that can be related in endless ways and surfaced in various contexts. Moreover, both tools allow me to do this collaboratively, something that’s impractical with paper-based systems. (Roam, especially, feels like the realization of the vision of computers as a tool for thinking pioneered by folks like Doug Englebart and Ted Nelson.)

On the one hand, I’m excited about these apps’ promise – I think they really can make my thinking better. Also, if other people are using them, their thinking is likely to be better, giving them a competitive advantage. (That’s the FOMO angle.) On the other hand, I’m wary of becoming dependent on such apps for essential parts of my thinking in the same way I’ve become dependent on contacts and calendar apps. It’s especially concerning given that the “thinking” apps are proprietary and (as far as I know — and I’d love to be proven wrong) there are no good ways of migrating to alternatives.

What’s at stake is my ability to establish and maintain connections between ideas, which is (arguably) what I do for a living. I wonder, would using these apps eventually diminish my ability to make such connections in the same way that the contacts app has diminished my ability to remember phone numbers? If so, do I want to develop that dependency? Am I willing to relinquish control over such a central part of my workflow?

These are especially tricky questions since these apps’ value (both to the companies and me) increases over time as I feed them more data. But the switching cost also increases the more I use them. The best time to switch is at the beginning when relatively little is at stake, but that’s not when the question of switching would likely arise. So, I’m both excited and unwilling to go all-in just yet. Bottom line: I’m torn.