David Heinemeier Hansson

June 2, 2023

We need not all be connected, all the time

When I went to school in the 80s and 90s, the communication between the institution and home was limited. Kids could bring home a flyer about some future event, they'd get their grades and remarks detailed in a little grey book, and once a year parents would come in for a chat with the teachers. That was basically it, and it was glorious.

In Denmark today, we have a centralized app used by all Danish public schools called Aula. Think of it as Facebook for teachers and parents. For our kid in an international school, there's a similar system. All of it sucks. And I don't mean in the way that the apps are poorly made, although that is typically also true, but in the way that adding IT to the parent-school relationship only made it worse.

I say that as someone who've spent a long career in the service of collaboration and communication tools. And as someone who is happy to let the kids play video games for hours on end. This is not the luddite perspective.

But what these wretched apps have wrought is a constant stream of needless communication and updates about life at school. Worse still, it's facilitated endless threads amongst parents on this thing or the other. And you're essentially obliged to partake in these non-stop chain mails, lest you miss a truly important or urgent message.

I simply don't need the play-by-play from a teacher about what happened in class this week, every week. We talk to our kids at home. We'll get the highlights, if there are any worth sharing.

Furthermore, it seems that very few people actually like where all this has gone. I've spoken to lots of parents who all begrudge these apps as yet another inbox with an ever-increasing unread counter, and teachers who'd rather spend their time on something else than detailing the mundane updates about weekly school life. Not to mention the fact that teachers often end up inundated with direct messages from parents at a frequency and in tone they'd never have to suffer if it required more effort than a direct message was required to talk.

Not all connections benefit from having the friction removed by digital systems. Some barriers to interaction are good, actually. The fundamental premise that everything will be wonderful if we could just all be linked together everywhere, all the time is false.

Parents and politicians are all, with some justification, so concerned about the dangers of screens these days. So let's start in our own interactions by burning the most useless use cases right away. We could start with Aula and its ilk. I'll happily bring the matches.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.