What don't you do?

Table of Contents

1 College, critical thinking, and questioning social norms

In college, people often ask, "what do you study?" In general in life, people ask, "what do you do?" The answers to these questions are important for defining your character, but I think the answers to "what don't you do?" are equally imporant.

In college, I studied Statistics and Molecular and Cell Biology, so I acquired a lot of specific technical knowledge in these subjects. However, one of the most important things that I learned in college was to think critically about the people and ideas that I encounter. College gave me the capacity to look around at unquestioned, common behaviors and ideas in society and put them into question.

I have been led by my critical thinking skills to reject certain common practices in society today. In this essay, I will give 3 precise answers to the question "what don't you do?" In particular, I will defend my choices to not use closed source software, to not buy new digital objects every few years, and to prefer real-life interactions rather than phone or internet conversations.

2 I don't do closed source software

Computers are an increasingly prevalent part of my everyday life, and the functioning of a computer can be explained in 2 parts: hardware and software. The physical devices inside a computer such as keyboard, screen, and processors are called the hardware, and the programs that run on the computer to perform specific tasks are called the software. I have chosen to limit my use of computer software to only free, open-source software.

I find several advantages in using only free, open-source software. This type of software is distributed free of charge on the internet and can be installed on any computer hardware. Furthermore, since the software is open-source, if it doesn't work as I wish, I am free to modify the software. The major advantages over paid, closed-source software is that it works on any computer, I don't have to pay for it, and I will always be able to change it to make it work how I wish.

However, open-source software is definitely not mainstream, which has presented me with several difficulties. First, since it is free, nobody can make money by selling it to me, so there is not much marketing and I had to discover it by word-of-mouth. Second, it was often difficult to learn since there are few people who had the expertise required to teach me. Finally, it is sometimes difficult to work with people that use other kinds of software.

Despite these weaknesses, I have found it quite advantageous to go against the mainstream and limit myself to free, open-source software. I will discuss 3 particular pieces of free, open-source software that I use on a daily basis for work.

2.1 Emacs+LaTeX rather than Word

Word is a mainstream, paid, closed-source program that allows typesetting of articles, letters, and various other printed documents. I prefer to create these kinds of documents using Emacs and LaTeX, which are open-source programs that exist for free since the 1970s. The Emacs text editor works well for me since it is customizable and I can change it to work exactly as I like. LaTeX is a typesetting program that is good with mathematical formulae, which is great for me since I type equations frequently in my work. Furthermore, most mathematicians use this, so I encounter few compatibility problems when working with colleagues. In summary, Emacs and LaTeX are 2 pieces of old but good open-source software that allow me to reject the mainstream, closed-source Word.

2.2 Debian rather than Windows or Mac

After using the mainstream, paid, closed-source Windows and Mac operating systems in my youth, I have managed to switch to using only the free, open-source Debian operating system. I find Debian to be very useful since I can download the software from the internet, burn it to CD, and install it on any computer in a matter of minutes, for free. However, it was quite difficult to learn all the technical tricks necessary to use Debian. Despite my initial difficulties, I found Debian to be a great system for writing new programs, and for automatically downloading and installing other free software programs. In summary, Debian is an operating system that works for me as a great free alternative to the mainstream Windows or Mac systems.

2.3 R rather than Excel or MATLAB

Excel and MATLAB are mainstream, paid, closed-source programs for performing calculations and visualizations on data. I used Excel in my youth and my colleagues use MATLAB on a daily basis. Since I am a statistician, I need to do calculations, and I do this using the free, open-source program called R. Its main advantage is its powerful and wide array of statistical and graphical functions. In my work as a statistical programmer, I found that a useful function was missing in R, and since R is open-source, I was able to add this functionality to the program. Like with Debian, I found that it was challenging to learn, but that the investment was worth it. In conclusion, R is a free, flexible, open-source program for statistical computation that allows me to reject mainstream, closed-source alternatives.

3 I don't do a lot of technologically-mediated interactions

Technology plays an increasingly large role in mediating interactions between people. Is this a good thing? In my opinion, not necessarily. Technology has its place in my life for interpersonal communication, but I much prefer real face-to-face interactions with people. Lacking that, I try to do one-on-one phone conversations, where I can at least hear how a person is feeling through their voice. In previous years, I often used communication media such as cell phones, instant messaging, SMS, and social networking websites. However, I found that these communication media are inefficient, often inconvenient, and sometimes not private!

3.1 Efficiency

Many media of communication such as SMS, instant messaging, and email are quite inefficient substitutes for a face-to-face conversation. To make this concrete, I define a simple statistic that can quantify the goodness or efficiency of a medium of communication: the total amount of time spent composing a message divided by the amount of information conveyed in the message. I don't have any actual data, but I conjecture that using this criterion we could rank communications media in terms of their efficiency as follows:

1 on 1conversation
1 to manypresentation
1 on 1regular phone call
1 to manyconference call
1 on 1video calllow quality
1 on 1cell phone calllow quality, high cost
1 to 1hand-written lettercan draw easily
1 to 1typed letterhard to add drawings/equations
1 to 1email
1 on 1sms
1 to manywebsiteflexible
1 to manyblog
1 to manysocial network
1 to manytwitterinflexible

I think the best type of interaction with other people is face-to-face, one-on-one communication, where I can observe with all my senses and immediately respond to what I sense from the other person. All other forms of communication are less efficient in some way, so I really try to get as much face-to-face communication with people as possible. Modern computers attempt to come close with video calls, but it is often buggy, low-quality video and audio, with no attempt to replicate the other senses. Likewise, cell phones have low-quality audio and cost a lot, whereas regular phone calls give me the audio quality and time with which I can better express myself. Other forms of media like SMS or instant messages can be useful for communicating precise times, places, or numbers, but in general I find that using these media takes too much time to communicate too little information. I find that communication using a one-to-many medium is inherently less focused and audience-specific than an equivalent 1-on-1 medium. These media are useful for other things, but are not well-adapted for encouraging understanding between 2 individuals. In summary, less technological communication media are in general more efficient for communicating real feelings to other people.

3.2 Convenience/nuisance

Perhaps the most egregious example of technology being a nuisance to communication is the cell phone. When having a face-to-face conversation with someone, the last thing I want is to be interrupted by a phone ringing. I find that it is very strange in general that people use phones to keep contact with people at a great distance, where there are so many interesting people all around me. Furthermore, it seems that people with cell phones frequently arrive late to meetings since they can always phone ahead, and this is quite inconvenient! Of course, one can construct scenarios where cell phones are advantageous, but I feel that the annoyances outweigh the conveniences.

3.3 Privacy

Email is not personal! In fact, any computer that relays an unencypted email from my computer to its destintation can intercept and read it!

Facebook is not personal! In fact, developers of Facebook applications have access to all my personal data that I post on Facebook!

Skype is not personal! In fact, nobody but the few people at Skype in Luxembourg and Estonia know how it works! They claim that it is encrypted, but this claim is impossible to verify without access to the communications protocol or program source code.

The public telephone system is not guaranteed to be personal! I guess there are laws, depending on which country I live in, which protect me from people snooping on my phone calls. However, this is again practically impossible to verify!

Face-to-face communication without electronic devices is definitely the most personal and private means of communication available.

4 I don't buy new digital objects every few years

I have found it quite simple, useful, and liberating to free myself of many technological devices. One device that I no longer use is the cell phone, for reasons of efficiency, convenience, and privacy, as I explained in the previous paragraphs. With the recent flood of cheap consumer electronics in the marketplace, I have started to ask myself, which devices enrich my life? Again, I define a simple quantity: how much time do I lose if I do NOT use that device? This question attempts to quantify the personal utility of the device.

I ask myself the following questions to get at the issue of sustainability. When will I have to replace this device? Or can I fix it? Will I be able to sell it to someone else one day? Or recycle it? Or will it end up in a landfill?

For each device, I calculate the ratio of time lost if I do NOT use it to the amount of time the device will be used by anyone. This ratio of times attempts to quantify the goodness of a device.

By this measure, a classic Volkswagen Beetle is a lot better car than a Honda Civic. A saxophone is much better source of music than an iPod. A watch made from gears is a better timepiece than a digital watch. What is the difference here? The old objects are easy to repair and so are more sustainable for the same amount of utility.

What about things that can be used by a group of people? A bus is a better form of transportation than a rental car, which is better than a personal car. In Paris I have access to a public bicycle system called the Velib', which is better than using my private bike. Using the computer at the library is better than using the computer at work. The utility for one person is the same in each case, but there are several people who can use them, so that increases the sustainability of the device.

I will discuss several devices that achieve low scores in the following paragraphs.

4.1 Computers

I have gotten quite accustomed to using computers, but I do not think I need a personal computer. In fact, I use a computer every day at work to communicate with colleagues and write new statistical software programs. This computer use at work is quite sufficient for me, but I still do have a personal computer at home! Why? Because when I was moving into my apartment, the previous tenant offered me his old but fully-functioning computer. If I didn't take it and do something with it, he would have thrown it away. So I took it and I use it at home once every few weeks when I need a home computer.

The major social norm that I don't quite understand in this situation is the fact that the previous tenant judged the old computer to be useless, even though it runs fine! Somehow, he was convinced that it is a good idea to buy a new computer every 2 or 3 years. If everyone buys a new computer so frequently, what happens? We end up with a bunch of old computers in landfills? I don't know what will happen, but to address this issue, I have promised myself to never buy a new computer, and instead limit my computer use to used computers and public computers.

4.2 Digital cameras, Kindle, etc.

In fact, I can make almost the same argument for any other consumer electronics device, such as a digital camera. I have decided not to buy digital cameras anymore since the marginal utility I derive from them is greatly offset by their short lifespan, impossibility of repair, and "planned obsolescence." I refuse to buy a new digital camera every 2 or 3 years. Instead, I wonder if using a regular camera would be a viable alternative? For now, I just don't do any personal photography.

I wonder if the Kindle electronic book reader will be sustainable? How many years will it survive before you have to buy another one? Would it be better to just buy a real book and read that? Or not? With this new generation of devices, nobody knows how long they will last. However, I conjecture that the people responsible for selling this device, too, will attempt to get people to buy new models every few years.

5 Conclusions

Often old technologies are good. There will always be new and interesting things that I encouter in my life, but I will always try to critically examine and evaluate them before accepting them.

Take a position, and defend it with arguments that make sense. Think critically. These are the skills I learned in college.

Author: Toby HOCKING

Org version 7.5 with Emacs version 22

Validate XHTML 1.0