How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for The Times, discussed the tech he’s using.
As a technology columnist, what devices and apps do you use to do your job?
I’m not sure I’ve arrived at any great system, and I’m always changing things around. At the moment, for phone calls, I use Skype in conjunction with a program called Call Recorder, because it’s the easiest way I know to record calls. When I’m doing face-to-face interviews, I use DropVox, an app that records and saves audio to the cloud drive Dropbox. For notes, I use Workflowy, a fantastic online outlining program that I’ve found easier to use than most other notes apps.
My primary work computer is an amazing 5k iMac desktop, but I spend more than half of my computing time on my phone, an iPhone 7.
Which is your favorite product and why?
I really like my iPhone; they’ve caused lots of problems, but on the whole, I think we’re better off with smartphones than without.
And yet, I wouldn’t say any of these are really my favorites. Technology occupies a weird space in my life: I love it more than anything for its potential, but I’m always disappointed in its failure to live up to what’s possible. My phone has changed everything about my life, much of it for the better, and yet I find myself hating it often — it can be buggy, the battery life is dismal, I miss the headphone jack, etc. The comedian Louis C. K. has a funny routine about how we’re all ungrateful about tech; I’m that guy, unashamedly.
Last year, you wrote about how the presidential election underlined the embarrassing shortcomings of email. What do you use to overcome the misery that is email?
Email is just terrible. I use Google’s Inbox app, which has some nice features to automatically sort email, but I still find email a huge chore. More and more of my communications are moving to other channels — Slack, mobile messaging, Twitter DMs, encrypted apps like Signal, and after last year’s Clinton-campaign email hacks, I’ve even started to make more phone calls. The sooner we can all get off email the better.
What new tech product are you currently obsessed with using at home? What do you and your family do with it?
This is going to sound weird, but I’m a strange person. I have two kids, ages 6 and 3, and for the last few years I’ve been mourning their loss of childhood. Every day they get a little bit older, and even though my wife and I take lots of photos and videos of them, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re losing most of the moments of their lives.
So last summer, after some intense lobbying of my wife, I did something radical: I installed several cameras in my living room and dining room to record everything we did at home for posterity. In other words, I created a reality show in my house.
In practice, it works like this: The cameras are motion-activated and connected to servers in the cloud. Like security cameras in a convenience store, they are set to record on a constant loop — every video clip is saved for a few days, after which it’s automatically deleted, unless I flag it for long-term keeping.
Yes, this system sets up a minefield of potential problems: We turn off the cameras when we have guests (it’s unethical to record people without their consent) and we don’t spy on each other. There are also security concerns. I’m not going to disclose the brand of the cameras I used because I don’t want to get hacked. The safety of internet-of-things devices are generally not airtight.
And yet I’ve found these cameras to be just wonderful at capturing the odd, beautiful, surprising, charming moments of life that we would never have been able to capture otherwise. Every time the kids say something hilarious or sweet, or do something for the first time, I make a note of the time and date. Later on, I can go and download that exact clip, to keep forever. I’ve already got amazing videos of weeknight dinners, of my wife and I watching the news on election night, of my son learning to play Super Mario Brothers, and my kids having a dance party to their favorite music.
When I’m 80 and the robots have taken over, I’ll look back on these and remember that life was good, once.
O.K. How old do you think a child must be to get that first smartphone?
My kids are way too young for their own phones. And so far, they don’t seem to have much interest in phones other than to take photos and, more recently, to play Pokémon Go. For them, iPads hold more interest.
In general, our policy for devices isn’t based on time but quality. If my kids are going to use their iPads, I want them to use them for experiences that aren’t totally bad for them. So, for instance, we’ve put curbs on how much they can use YouTube, which they use to watch the most garbage videos (usually of other kids playing with toys). But for other stuff — games, for instance — they’re allowed to play for an hour or two on the weekends.
I really haven’t thought much about when I’ll get them their own phones. It’s a looming crisis — I know it’s unavoidable, and I’ll probably give in when they’re around 11 or 12, but I’m sure going to hate the feeling of losing them to their gadgets. Of course that’s probably how they feel about me and my phone.