Intentionally Choosing Technologies Based on Our Priorities

Oliver Burkeman asks the following, provocative, question: what if you’re already on top of things? How would you know? Probably not by looking at your to do list.

Working so hard and so efficiently that you no longer feel like you’re falling behind – is literally impossible, not just grueling and unpleasant. In the modern world of work, there’s no limit to the number of emails you might receive, the demands your boss might make, the ambitions you might have for your career, etcetera – so there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever get to the end of them.

His solution: keep a “done list,” which starts empty each morning and is gradually filled with everything you achieve throughout the day. Rather than worrying about everything you didn’t finish on your to do list, you’ll feel good about everything you did manage to do.

Beyond the specific strategy Burkeman details, his blog post exemplifies something I’ve been thinking about this week:

“There are values embedded in the technology we use, and as we scroll and tap we often unthinkingly adopt these priorities as our own.”

That is Annie Murphy Paul, in her book The Extended Mind. There, she writes about the salutary effects of time spent in nature—not just in comparison to sitting inside at your desk, but as compared to time spent walking around in outdoor urban environments.

Paul recognizes that not everyone can take a walk in the woods on their lunch break, so she flags a GPS app called ReTUNE that optimizes your route for greenery or birdsong rather than speed. The idea is clever, and perhaps even more so because optimizing my route for greenery is not something I had ever thought about. Probably because I default to using Google Maps for GPS, which itself defaults to optimizing for speed. Which is precisely the point of her quote.

When we use Google Maps, we adopt its priorities. But is this adoption of priorities or values necessarily a bad thing? My hunch is that one of my first uses of Google Maps was to plot the fastest route to work. Saving five or ten minutes on my commute allowed me to sleep for five or ten minutes more—which I value highly. Even in the hypothetical world where Google Maps had asked me whether I’d like the fastest route or the greenest route, I probably would have chosen the faster one. In this case, the technology’s values overlapped with my own.

But these two value systems do not always overlap. And the danger is that once we get used to relying a technology or tool, we stop asking the kinds of questions that would force us to recognize these value mismatches.1 When it’s time to walk to the coffee shop, I open Google Maps, find the quickest route, and take it—even if, at that point, I would have preferred to add five minutes to my walk if it took me through the park.

As Austin Kleon writes.

Technology is not just about things and devices, it is about processes and verbs. So you have to be a little careful about what technologies you adopt, because each technology is, broadly speaking, a way of doing things.

Just as Google Maps’ “way of doing things” is to get there quickly, a to do list’s “way of doing things” is to check things off, to get to to-do list zero, reminding you of everything you have yet to complete along the way. A done list’s priority, by contrast, is reminding you everything you’ve achieved. These different technologies and tools come preset with different value systems. But the point is not that ReTUNE and done lists are right and Google Maps and to do lists are wrong. Rather, it’s that they are right some of the time and wrong other times—and those times are conditional on our mood, our values, and our situation. A done list can make me feel good about brushing my teeth, but it can never remind me that I need to call my mom on her birthday.

  1. For those interested in this idea, I also recommend Ezra Klein’s interview with L.M. Sacasas