A week or so ago I was laying in bed working on my Powerbook. My fiancee, Staci, leaned over to me and asked, in her cutest 5-year old girl voice, “Are you going to snuggle-buggle with your ‘puter-wuter all night?”

I chuckled and replied, “Yeeeah. What of it?”

She went back to her book, good-naturedly mumbling something about “what a geek” and I went back to my business, content and happy. I got to thinking about this interaction a day or so later and that train of thought took me all over the place and dropped me off right here.

I thought quite a bit about technology and the role it plays in our day-to-day lives. I thought about the social aspect of technology. I thought about how we try to humanize technology and how badly that fails. I thought about how much easier technology makes my life and how, when it’s working, technology allows me to meet people I’d never had had the chance to meet, and experience things I’d never had been able to experience and get much more done than I’d be able to do on my own.

h3. When it’s not working

Here at To-Done I’ve spoken about technological tools, mainly software, that are designed to help us manage our time, be more productive and hopefully have more time to spend at the beach, among other things. One tool I use on a daily basis is Basecamp, a project management tool from 37signals. I love this tool. Why? Because it’s the first project management tool that I’ve ever used that has actually cut down on the amount of work I had to do managing projects.

Yes, what that means is that every PM tool I tried before Basecamp actually added to my overall workload. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if there were other benefits but to be quite honest, pretty much all these other tools did was make me work harder.

What did 37signals do that made Basecamp so much more useful? They took what I call a “peoplecentric” approach to the design and development of their software. They really tried to understand the underlying problems people were having managing projects and build something that addressed those problems. Seems pretty simple right? Well, it’s obviously harder than it seems because so many technologies fail to work for people.

h3. When the problem is the people

Let’s take a look at content management systems (CMS). How many of you have used a CMS that wasn’t a pain in the ass? Put your hand in the air. If your hand is up my guess is you’re either lying, you have an amazing thick skin when it comes to technology or you are a glutton for punishment.

(If not, please let me know what CMS you’re on!)

I’ve seen a few (mainly lightweight tools) that can actually, after a bit of a learning curve, make managing content easier, but I’ve yet to see one that I feel lives up to it’s promise. One of the biggest myths about CMS is that the technology is some kind of content silver bullet. The problem here is the people. By it’s very nature a CMS needs people to work with it. No technology is going to allow content to manage itself.

In the case of CMS, while most the software does suck, people are needed to ensure it’s working at its best.

h3. When we try to make computers human

Have you ever “spoken” to a computer over the phone? You know, one of those automated systems that tries to sound like a person and forces you to talk to it as you would another person? I hate those. I mean, it’s amazing technology and the voice recognition is pretty damn good, but I feel so strange talking to a computer like that. I’d much rather push buttons.

Then there is the bank machine that uses “friendly” prompts. It’s kind of funny, and well intentioned, but it throws me off every time when I read, “How can I help you today?” instead of “Please choose..” or whatever.

I feel that trying to make technology more human is misguided in many ways. Use it to connect humans, to help humans, but I’m fine with keeping technology technology.

h3. When it’s working

The underlying theme of my thoughts, the rails upon which this train rode, is my fundamental belief that technology should work for me, not the other way around. As soon as I find myself working to hard for technology, I’ve got a problem. If technology frustrates me, or makes me mad, I’ve got a problem.

As much time as I spend with technology, you can imagine that I’ve got a few problems. I’m lucky enough to be one of those people who is able, in some small way, to do something about those problems. It’s one of the things that keeps me passionate about what I do and one of the things that keeps me writing here and elsewhere.

As a Web professional (I’m an Information Architect by day, Web designer, developer, writer and publisher by night) I’ve spent many years trying to get technology to work for me. In most cases my success has been marginal. I spend most of my day head down in front of a screen working.

Now, while I’ve got a passion for my work, and I enjoy it quite a bit, I can’t say there is nothing I’d rather do. I’d rather not work at all, thats for sure. A sunny beach with a bottle of Pacifico, a good book and some nice music in the background–I’ll take that any day. But I’ve got to work, and with the help of technology I’m able to have more sunny days at the beach. Which is kind of the point really.

Like the motto of this site says, I work to live.

When the technology is working for me, I get more days at the beach. When it’s not I’m often at home trying to sort it out. This is the price we sometimes have to pay for the freedom technology affords us. But it’s getting better and often we’ve got a choice.

h3. Geek to Live

The other day I got an e-mail from a reader who wanted to know how I use Backpack (another productivity tool from 37Signals). She had tried it out and spent quite a bit of time with it and just didn’t get what she was supposed to do with it. She wanted me to tell her how I used it so she could learn from my experience and perhaps put it to good use as well.

Well, I know exactly how she feels. It’s quite often that when a new tool or technology comes around I begin to feel this strange pressure, from where it comes I’ve got no clue, to jump on that technology, figure it out, use it and make my life “better.” I hate that feeling.

I explained to her how I use Backpack and that for me it’s working very well. Making my life a tad easier and all that. What I also told her was that I thought if it wasn’t working for her that she might consider simply not using it.

There is no reason to use a technology that doesn’t help you in any way. Not every solution is going to fit every problem. Some technologies are just plain not easy, or fun, to use. Unless in the rare case you have to use a technology, you might try simply letting go. A technology that frequently upsets you, frustrates you or makes you mad is a technology you’re probably better off without.

I know for many of you the geek in you makes that hard, but as the title of this post implies–it’s got to be better geeking to live, than living to geek.

10 Comments on Geek To Live

  1. This was a pretty interesting read, I totally agree with you about the voice automated services on phone. I was talking to some tech support machine not too long ago and I couldn’t help but get upset at this stupid thing as I tried 3 times to get it to understand what I wanted.

    If you’re going to make me talk to a machine, then give me some buttons to communicate to it in a way I know will work.

  2. I just blogged about something like that recently. Check it out.


  3. Chris says:

    I completely agree that most project management tools make this slower but “better”. I eventually give up on them. I’ve tried Basecamp and Backpack, but even they were too heavyweight for me.

    I currently use a wiki for todo lists, calendar, and bookmarks. At work, I just use a text file to track my work items. I wish I had a slicker, more integrated system, but I haven’t found it yet. I started to write my own GTD wiki software, but I’ve been too busy to make much progress.

  4. andreas says:

    Interesting article. I recognised myself a couple of times. With Basecamp, I had the same initial problems as you mentioned and I remember thinking: it’s from 37signals and they make good products, it’s new and cool and it’s supposed to save time — so how on earth can it be that I don’t have an idea about how to use it?

    By now, I’ve found my approach and it does save me time and hassle but I suppose when I look hard, I’ll find software I use that doesn’t.

    I’ve thought along similar lines recently as you mentioned in another post, IIRC: there is a way in which computers creep into every corner of spare time by promising benefit, joy, saved time, information or communication. I can’t believe how hard it is for me to switch off my machine (which for that lack of an office) is in my living room at the moment) in the evening because I might miss an email and only read it in the morning. But it is hard and sometimes I think that’s scary.

    We should probably think more clearly about infringing technology and how to keep it at bay in our everyday lives. I don’t know if this is a geek-only problem or if “normal” people feel it as well. But I, for one, should switch off more often and earlier.

    Thanks for this great blog, which I wouldn’t be able to read and think about without technology. — There you have it again, the double-edged sword.

  5. Don says:

    I’m surprised, but guess I shouldn’t be, that no one has commented on your interchange with Staci.

    I’ve been married over 20 years, and admit I still understand very little about women. I can pretty confidently tell you, though, that Staci’s comment may have sounded cute and innocent, but ten years from now she’ll be resentful that your computer is more important to you than she is.

    When the woman in your life asks if you’re going to stay up with your computer/football game/beer buddies/phone call with anyone, it’s a clear signal that she wants your attention. The smart man who wants a happy and loving, long-term relationship will stop what he’s doing at that point, and make his wife the center of his attention.

    Ask another woman what *she* thinks Staci meant by her question, and listen very carefully to her answer.

    Sign me “slowly learning.”

  6. Keith says:

    Don – I respectfully disagree, as it relates to my situation. This is an isolated incident for one thing. As well, she was reading and taking a break, she was totally engaged with her Jude Deveraux and really wasn’t paying any attention to me aside from that. She wasn’t viying for attention, she was teasing me.

    I know Staci and I know when she wants attention.

    Also, it should be noted that I usually don’t work on the computer when spending time with her and it’s no where near as important to me as she is.

    Thanks for the concern and advice, and I do appreciate it, but trust me on this one, she gets plenty of my attention.

  7. Don says:

    I stand happily corrected.

  8. Konstantinos says:

    So, would you mind sharing with the rest of the world how you use Backpack?

    I’d love to know.

  9. Keith says:

    Konstantinos — I’m still figuring out ways to use Backpack. For the most part I’ve been using the reminders heavily and I’ve been using it as a brainstorming, idea recording tool. I have pages set up for all of my projects and when I’ve got an idea or something I usually post it there.

    For example, I’m working on an idea for a new site. It’s not far enough along to have an actual project associated with it so I’ve got a simple page set up in Backpack where I post ideas, images, notes, to-dos, etc.

    But I’m still learning how Backpack can help me. So far I’ve found it pretty useful.

  10. Konstantinos says:

    Great Keith, thanks for the quick follow-up.

    Best of luck with that new site!

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