What Should Your Computer Do When It Has Nothing To Say?


When you spend time working in a GNU/Linux environment, something strange happens.

Especially if you like the terminal – as I do.

For example, I recently discovered that Google has a cloud offering, just like Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

You can set up a server and have a play – and it says that the really small ones – the ones they call a droplet – are forever free.

That’s the kind of price I like.

So, I played about creating a website – setting everything up from a browser that acted like a terminal. If you don’t know what that is – it’s a bit like DOS.

And do you know how many times the droplet – the terminal – interrupted me while I was working?

How many times did it stop to tell me I had new mail, or that a new file had been added to Dropbox, or that it needed to be updated?

That’s right – not once.

There’s a rule that’s part of the Unix Philosophy – a cardinal virtue. It’s called the rule of silence.

This rule says – if you have nothing surprising, interesting or useful to say, say nothing.

It’s ignored by virtually every other type of system out there.

In fact, many do the opposite of being silent. They jump up and down, waving and shouting and pushing into your space, vying for attention.

People study exactly how to get you hooked. It’s called Captology, which stands for Computers as Persuasive Technologies – or now just behaviour design.

In essence – these systems know that if they want you to act in a certain way – then they have to get three things right:

  1. You must want to do it.
  2. You must be able to do it.
  3. You must be prompted to do it.

Watch out for this approach the next time you use Dropbox, for example, and see how they try and get you to upgrade.

They know that you want to keep your photos safe. If you have Dropbox, then you probably know how to put photos in there – but because photos take up space you’re probably keeping them somewhere else if you have the free account..

So what do they do? They introduce lots of prompts – with a pop up asking if you’d like to import your photos, integrate with your documents, add videos.

Anything that will make you add more to the folder and decide that you need to upgrade and pay for more space.

It’s just good business. Good, old fashioned manipulation.

That’s focusing on number 3. But you can do number 2 – make it easier for them. So videos autoplay on every service out there and your binge watching soars.

If you want to learn more about how to do this kind of work, or learn how to avoid it, here’s a good article.

The best defence, however, is a good offence. Turn off every notification, every alert. Stop using devices if you have to.

Or use a device for exactly one purpose. A text editor for writing. A camera for photos. Taking nothing in your pockets if you want to relax other than a good paperback.

Silence really is golden.


Karthik Suresh

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