Jag Talon

A blog about learning and web development.

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I find myself feeling frustrated that I don't have much time to do all the things that I want to do in the day, and yet I manage to consistently clock in two to three hours every single night just mindlessly browsing the Internet, flicking my thumbs on the screen as I lay in bed.

All that adds up to about 1095 hours in a year. Just last week I spent 19 hours staring at my phone as it likely hovered a few inches away from my face.

A screenshot of Screen Time. It's an app on my phone that shows how much time I've spent looking at things.

The irony wasn't lost on me when I happened to run into this article called “In Search of Lost Screen Time” on—you guessed it—my phone. It turns out that I'm in the company of 253 million Americans spending all their time and money hunched over their phones.

More than three-quarters of all Americans own a smartphone. In 2018 those 253 million Americans spent $1,380 and 1,460 hours on their smartphone and other mobile devices. That’s 91 waking days; cumulatively, that adds up to 370 billion waking American hours and $349 billion.

In “How To Break Up With Your Phone”, Catherine Price explains why most apps on your phone are made to be addicting—especially the ones that you don't pay for. They're designed to give you variable rewards like a slot machine in your pocket, tricking and taking advantage of how your brain works.

I've somehow managed to kill my addiction to Instagram and Twitter, but I've found that I've only replaced it with other websites like Reddit. I honestly didn't even realize that I was addicted to surfing the web because it seemed pretty normal to me to veg out and look at my phone for a bit after a long day. But I noticed that I haven't been sleeping well most nights, and that I haven't been able to stop myself going off on an Internet rabbit hole whenever a question popped into my head.

A screenshot of my RescueTime dashboard. It says that I've been mostly productive except for when I read some articles on the web.

So last week I started to use software tools to block or limit my browsing habits like RescueTime on my laptop and Screen Time on my phone. It hasn't been easy. I'm finding that I'm more irritable than usual, and I always catch myself literally reaching for my phone whenever I feel the tiniest bit of boredom.

I understand that it's going to take some time before I can curb my addiction—I've had a habit of falling down the Internet rabbit hole for most of my life (it probably started with a thing called StumbleUpon)—but my hope is that I can reclaim my time and to put more intention into what I do.

Dealing with this addiction has really cemented in my mind the very real effects that we in the software industry have on actual people. Also having read “Technically Wrong”, I'm seeing all the painful effects of our assumptions and unchecked biases on people on the other side of the screen.

And that includes us.

Buckets of spices on the racks. We see chili powder, salt-free chili powder, dark-roasted chili powder, and cayenne pepper.

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The store had large bins that are about the size of my torso, filled to the brim with spices and herbs and coffee and tea. It was a huge departure from what I was used to buying, but I was excited. I've only ever bought tiny glass bottles of spices that you find in most grocery stores, the ones with pictures of what the plant used to look like before they ended up getting ground up into fine powder.

It was overwhelming—I didn't know what to do in the moment. Which ones should I get? How much should I get? What do I even want to cook at home? I couldn't decide, and I was very close to getting ¼ lbs. of everything.

The feeling was very familiar to me. When I started learning programming, I remember being inundated with so many different kinds of resources and learning paths. I found numerous books, online classes, interactive tutorials, and forums that taught all sorts of things with alluring and smart-sounding topics like Python, Objective-C, Haskell, and jQuery.

I started out learning one topic, my eyes constantly fixated on the screen, determined to learn as much as I could. But my hunger soon grew. Instead of focusing on one topic, I succumbed to FOMO. I wanted to learn everything.

As expected, I burnt out.

It reminded me of what my parents told me during the holidays while growing up. They said I was takaw mata which in English translated to “greedy eyes” because my appetite was way more than what I could handle. I put too much food on my plate, I'm uncomfortable, and I regret everything.

To this day, I still find myself feeling FOMO. It's almost unavoidable: When you're in the computer industry, you hear news about all sorts of new technology that you should be learning, lest you get left behind and ruin your career. But I've learned a lot about my limits. Whenever I feel the urge and excitement to start a project or to learn a certain thing, I put it in a list called a “wish farm.”

It's an idea that is useful for budgeting money, but it's worked well for my FOMO, too. It's just a list of things that I'd like to do in the future, but don't have the time to dedicate to it right now. It's handy for letting the excitement die down and see if I'm still interested in it in a few weeks or months. It's also great for prioritizing the things that I'd like to do in the future, whatever it may be. When I have the time available, I harvest them and start learning.

So at the store, I calmed down and just bought the things that I needed: cayenne, garam masala, cumin, turmeric, and paprika for the Tikka Masala dish that I wanted to make that week.

All other things can wait.

A picture of some dogs in Colorado with wonderful-looking mountains in the background.

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I remember going to a local mall in New Jersey and walking into a T-Mobile store back in 2014. I had just moved to the US the previous year, and I was just about sick of using Google Voice to keep in touch with people. Opening my laptop just to send a text or make a call wasn't very convenient. Unfortunately, it was all I could afford to do because I didn't even have a working phone at that time. I was a recent graduate and very unemployed. So I said to myself that the minute I get hired for a job I was going to get myself a new phone.

I don't think I've ever even heard of an unlimited data plan back then. The thought of having WiFi-like access to the Internet wherever I went was absurd. Sure I can understand unlimited text and calls—I had that back in the Philippines—but data felt different. Unlimited data opens up a world of video, images, music, and a whole lot of Wikipedia to prove who's right whenever you're with friends or family. And at $50? It felt like a steal for the benefit that I would get from it: The whole of the Internet in my pocket, whenever I want it.

Peak Data

The peak of my unlimited data usage was when I traveled around the US in 2017 for 8 solid months. At that time I truly did depend on my phone having service and Internet because I needed to do some work while I was on the road. At least, that was my justification for switching to an even more expensive Verizon plan at $85.

A picture of a couple of buffalos in Utah.

It was honestly a luxury having access to the Internet even when I was out in the middle of nowhere. What better way to prove that I was enjoying myself but through some pictures on Instagram? But in the end, I realized that I didn't really need that much data for work because I was usually at a coffee shop or at a co-working space with Wi-Fi anyway.

Cutting Costs

Believing that everyone else is just like you is, of course, not great when you're in the business of making websites. This is also where most of the issues in accessibility come up: We think that most people are able-bodied just like us and that they use the same fast computers, big screens, and the latest phones that we use when we're testing out our work. But the reality is much more different and diverse than that. Just visit your parents or your aunts and uncles and you'll see computers that have been permanent fixtures on their house and are running antiquated browsers that you would never want to touch.

So after all these years of having unlimited data, I started to believe that this was, in fact, the norm and that everyone in the US had one. Whenever I thought about optimizing a webpage, I always assumed that it would be for people who are outside of the US or for people who had slow 3G speeds on the road. It never occurred to me to think about bandwidth costs because why wouldn't you get unlimited data? Isn't it a small price to pay for having access to all that information?

But people have different priorities, and I realized that when I was doing an audit of my finances and questioned every single purchase that I was making. I asked, “Do I really need unlimited data?” I knew that I always had access to Wi-Fi on most days so I probably didn't, and I thought it was best to save that money instead. So I started looking for alternatives.

It turns out that there are a lot of options out there. There are whole companies outside of the big four such as Ting Mobile, Google Fi, and Republic Wireless that offer data plans based on your usage instead of giving you a flat fee for unlimited data. Additionally, there are brands that have spun out of the largest mobile providers to cater to people who want to cut costs: Metro (T-Mobile), Boost (Sprint), and Cricket (AT&T) are some brands that generally have cheaper offerings compared to their parent companies. This means that there must be a market for low-cost, non-unlimited plans if there are these many companies trying to get our attention.

The Cost of Webpages

So where am I going with this? If you're someone who makes websites, it's good to be aware of some of your biases and assumptions. When it comes to mobile data, know that some of your customers will watch their data usage because data can be expensive once they're outside the reach of their WiFi:

Service Cost / GB Cost / MB
Google Fi $10 / GB $0.01 / MB
Ting $10 / GB $0.01 / MB
MetroPCS $15 / GB $0.015 / MB
Verizon $11 / GB $0.011 / MB
Republic Wireless $5 / GB $0.005 / MB

So if you went to The New York Times, you'd have to pay around $0.20 for just visiting the home page (assuming no ad blocker, no cached assets, and on desktop). Speaking of, they ran the costs of several news websites back in 2015 and it shows how expensive web browsing can get for some people.

A screenshot from the NYTimes showing the different costs of different news websites.

You can use a tool called What Does My Site Cost? to get approximate costs of any website—including your own—across different countries.

What You Can Do

As a consumer, the best you can do is to use an ad blocker to cut down on data. But as a web developer, there are a lot of resources out there that you can use to learn about optimizing your websites for your visitors:

The technical decisions that you choose for your website will affect your users, and many people who are using your website aren't necessarily in ideal situations. Networks are unreliable, bandwidth is expensive, and their browsers are outdated. The best path forward is to be inclusive and resilient.