As the edges of human knowledge are advanced, the total amount one must learn to be able to then contribute to further advancement grows. If there’s a proverbial mountain of knowledge, it grows taller as each contributor adds. If you start from the beach (at birth), wander inland in your early years of not-guided-by-you learning, and eventually decide to scale the mountain… well, it really matters in what epoch you happened to be born. Or maybe it doesn’t?
There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers-conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.
~ Vannevar Bush from, As We May Think
Bush played a complex role in the history of the United States. (It’s better if you form your own opinion about him and his work.) His short essay from about 80 years ago is these days seen by technophiles as heralding our own, current Internet and information age. In particular, a lot is read into Bush’s description of a desk which behaves like our modern Internet, information systems, and data processing. That’s fine. It’s like reading 80-year-old science fiction that became science fact.
Much more interesting to me is the point that with just a bit of squinting, it looks like nothing has changed in 80 years. Everything about this—the mountain of information, the tools [eg, Bush’s imagined desk, our internet], the people feeling overloaded, the specialization—feels fractal.
Love ’em or hate ’em, big platforms with big collections of people and information about said people are currently ever-present. This deep dive from Masnick has a bias—one which I wholeheartedly endorse—but it is also an excellent description of what does “protocols versus platforms” really mean? What’s a protocol, and what’s a platform? How are they different, and why do they seem to have such different effects on the late-game situation? If you’ve so far avoided this topic, this is a good place to try spending a half an hour to see if it makes more sense.
After a decade or so of the general sentiment being in favor of the internet and social media as a way to enable more speech and improve the marketplace of ideas, in the last few years the view has shifted dramatically—now it seems that almost no one is happy. Some feel that these platforms have become cesspools of trolling, bigotry, and hatred. Meanwhile, others feel that these platforms have become too aggressive in policing language and are systematically silencing or censoring certain viewpoints. And that’s not even touching on the question of privacy and what these platforms are doing (or not doing) with all of the data they collect.
~ Mike Masnick from, https://knightcolumbia.org/content/protocols-not-platforms-a-technological-approach-to-free-speech
There’s an old saying familiar to those who work in radio: Radio has the best pictures. It’s obviously a jab at television. But it’s also completely true. Since it doesn’t literally have pictures, listeners are left to imagine, and imagination is almost always better than anything that can be jammed into images. This all goes doubly so for books and reading. I was grudgingly going along with Apple’s production of Asimov’s Foundation series of books. Until they showed me the Mule. (You either know this character, or I’ve lost you.) My heart sunk.
If you explore MicroMUSE today, you’ll get a preview of the fate that awaits all of our social systems. The streets are empty, but it’s more than that: there is a palpable sense of entropy. You can query the system for a list of commands, but many of them no longer work. It’s half glitchy video game, half haunted house. Sometimes it falls offline entirely, only to return days later.
The system still speaks. You are welcomed by the transporter attendant, who gives directions to all newcomers to this space city. It cautions you: Clear communication is very important in a text-based environment…
~ Robin Sloan from, https://aeon.co/essays/before-minecraft-or-snapchat-there-was-micromuse
This article was nearly too much for me to read. That’s the Internet that was growing when I started tinkering. Today, with god-like power (from my 1994 perspective) at my fingertips, it took me 3 seconds to install a telnet client. And just a minute more to learn the answer to Sloan’s main question, “As kids, we make secret worlds – in trees, in our imaginations, even online – but can we go back to them when we’re grown?”
The idea of a changeable-bits, screw driver is brilliant. There were dozens of different screw-driving tools that varied only in the shape of their pointy end; their handles and other properties were identical. This was the perfect opportunity to create one tool to perform many functions.
You might wonder whether life is really simpler this way. Wouldn’t it be far more convenient to use a single device to accomplish all of these tasks?
Technically, yes. Psychologically, no.
While there’s an undeniable ease-of-use factor to housing a phone, internet browser, entertainment center, camera, and GPS in a lightweight rectangle that fits inside my pocket, the proximity of each of these tasks to one another leads, inevitably, to constant distraction. If you’ve ever tried to find the perfect angle for a photo while your Instagram post is blowing up, or answer a work email while your mom is calling you, you know what I mean.
~ Talia Barnes from, https://www.persuasion.community/p/the-case-for-digital-minimalism
I agree with Barnes, and her point about proximity is one I’d not seen clearly expressed. And there’s a more obvious argument for digital minimalism: It actually works.
The multi-bit screw driver works exactly as well as the dozens of tools it replaces. But my “smart” phone is a less capable phone, a less capable camera, a less capable correspondence tool, etc. Yes, clearly, it’s more convenient. But “the best camera is the one you have with you” is only true if your definition of “best” is: I captured the photo. “The jack of all trades is master of none.” holds true. If instead your definition of “best” is: I did the thing well. Well, then, you need the right tool. And the right tools—the right technology, is calm technology.
Some people are highly motivated. They will curate their information sources and follow whoever provides the most value. That will likely include some independent writers (maybe “good” ones or maybe “bad” ones).
But most people aren’t all that motivated. They just want to get information quickly and go live their lives. So they get their information in three ways:
~ “Dynomight” from, https://dynomight.net/copypasta/
Whenever “the Internet” comes up (including discussion of anything that runs via the Internet, without the Internet itself getting a specific mention) I trot out this handy aphorism: The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing us that anything related to the Internet was easy to understand. In this article, the anon-/epon-ymous “Dynomight” goes deep into why the mainstream (read: online media platforms that gets all the traffic) winds up being this solidly middling quality of content. To get there, there’s a deep dive involving tourists finding restaurants and a you-must-not-miss mention of Gell-Mann amnesia.
The most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing (UC) era is a focus on calm. If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control. Calmness is a new challenge that UC brings to computing. When computers are used behind closed doors by experts, calmness is relevant to only a few. Computers for personal use have focused on the excitement of interaction. But when computers are all around, so that we want to compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next fifty years. The rest of this paper opens a dialogue about the design of calm technology.
Designs that encalm and inform meet two human needs not usually met together. Information technology is more often the enemy of calm. Pagers, cellphones, news-services, the World Wide Web, email, TV, and radio bombard us frenetically. Can we really look to technology itself for a solution?
But some technology does lead to true calm and comfort. There is no less technology involved in a comfortable pair of shoes, in a fine writing pen, or in delivering the New York Times on a Sunday morning, than in a home PC. Why is one often enraging, the others frequently encalming? We believe the difference is in how they engage our attention. Calm technology engages both the center and the periphery of our attention, and in fact moves back and forth between the two.
~ Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown from, https://www.johnseelybrown.com/calmtech
Calm technology is designed to be unobtrusive and blend in with daily life. The opposite is technology that is distracting and disruptive, creating agitation and stress.
Never before have I seen, nor imagined, the adjective calm associated with technology. It never occurred to me to question where technology falls on a spectrum of calming to agitating. Mark my words: Calm technology is going to get mentioned by me going forward.
But, there are always tradeoffs. Relying on someone else’s platform is often just much easier. It doesn’t involve having to maintain your own site, and it’s also often where the audience is. The issue with blogs is that you had to attract — and then keep — an audience. Tools like RSS acted as a method for keeping people coming back, but… then Google became the de facto provider of RSS reading tools, and then killed it. To this day, that move is still considered one of the defining moments in the shift from a more distributed, independent web to one that is controlled by a few large companies.
~ Mike Masnick from, https://www.techdirt.com/2022/06/03/the-internet-can-still-be-small-and-nice-but-its-on-all-of-us-to-make-that-work/
My pull quote is really just a small side trail in the article. But I’m quoting it because it reinforces my point (possibly on purpose by the author, possibly by coincidence). Even a maneuver by the giant Google hasn’t killed blogging. Blogging continues. (Hey thanks for reading my blog!) And the same is true for everything else.
Because it all runs on the internet. The walled gardens referred to as social media? …they actually run atop the internet. The current darling-child that is Mastodon? …it uses a protocol called ActivityPub which was invented to enable federated networking of social activity. And ActivityPub runs atop the good ‘ol web… which of course runs on the internet. The true gift is the open internet.
Also: I’m on Mastodon :) just look for
@email@example.com to follow this blog, or you can even look for
@firstname.lastname@example.org to follow the Movers Mindset project.
If you stop to listen to a musician or street performer for more than a minute, you owe them a dollar.
There is no such thing as being “on time.” You are either late or you are early. Your choice. ~ Kevin Kelly from, https://kk.org/thetechnium/103-bits-of-advice-i-wish-i-had-known/
Alas, though I’ve provided you a link, it has already rotted. (I lamented this just a few weeks ago too.) You’re welcome to click through, but it leads now to a teaser version of the original piece… and links to the it’s-now-a-book on Amazon.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’m all for people making money off their own work. It’s just weird to me, because it was only just 5 months ago that I marked that URL for later reading (my read–things–later tool saved me a copy of the page) and yet now it is no more.
Pro-tip: If you have the URL to something (as I’ve given you above) the Internet Archive probably saved you a copy. For example, here’s 103 Bits of Advice… from May, 2022.
As for the specific bits of advice, above I’ve chosen just two to quote. The bit about being late or early is my favorite; The world would be infinitely better off if everyone learned that bit. And the bit about owing money to street musicians is one I learned later in life, but to which I strictly abide; If I stop to listen, I will contribute.
“Charles blew a little smoke and said, ‘Build a thousand and if we can’t sell them, we will use them in the store for something,’” Mr. Roach recalled in remarks to the Fort Worth Executive Round Table last month. “We were finally able to ship some machines in September and shipped 5,000 that year, all we could assemble,” Mr. Roach said. “Our competitors shipped none.”
~ Sam Roberts from, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/23/technology/personaltech/john-roach-dead.html
I had no idea who this person was until I saw this. A TRS-80 (the portable model, called a “4P”, so my computer’s name became “Forpy”) was literally the first in our home. We unpacked it Christmas morning and my father had declined to buy any games (which cost extra) for it. I didn’t even notice—I programmed the crap out of that thing. First in ASCII graphics, then added a graphics card so it could—gasp—draw progressively changing, black-and-white ellipses that looked like othello pieces flipping. I even manually coded the optimal tic-tac-toe algorithm so it could actually play. So, just knowing that one of the people who made that possible, is now gone… well, that’s a little sad.
You should go find the TV series Halt and Catch Fire.
That’s the thing about aggregation: one can understand how it works, and yet be powerless to resist its incentives. It seems foolhardy to think that this might be true for economics and not true for ideas, even — especially! — if we are sure they are correct.
~ Ben Thompson from, https://stratechery.com/2022/the-current-thing/
Sometimes I read things on the Internet and I want to throw my keyboard (my title is a reference to 1980s console games where one might get furious, and rage-quit by throwing the game’s controller.) Partly, my urge to rage-quit is from exasperation that Thompson keeps cranking out these great articles (and his podcasts Dithering and Exponent and this other thing he did that is awesome but you wouldn’t understand because I can’t explain it well) while I’m over here plinking away writing snarky blog posts when I should be earning a living.
But also because of the point of the article which is found in my pull-quote of the entire final paragraph.
This simplicity was disorienting in a way. Many times a day I would finish whatever activity I was doing, and realize there was nothing to do but consciously choose another activity and then do that. This is how I made my first bombshell discovery: I take out my phone every time I finish doing basically anything, knowing there will be new emails or mentions or some other dopaminergic prize to collect. I have been inserting an open-ended period of pointless dithering after every intentional task.
~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2022/02/what-i-learned-during-my-three-days-offline/
It is still uncommon for me to be without my phone. I have to admit that sometimes I carry it simply because I have a flat pince-nez stuck to the back of my phone. Recently it’s dawned on me that I have another, identical pair in a tiny flat case not stuck to my phone and I sometimes just carry those and not my phone. Regardless, you’ll never see me whip out my phone—unless we have a question, what’s the weather, where’s the nearest…, and so on. It’s a tool I sometimes use, like shoes.
If Earth were to shift to even longer days, we may need to incorporate a “negative leap second”—this would be unprecedented, and may break the internet.
~ Matt King and Christopher Watson from, https://phys.org/news/2022-08-length-earth-days-mysteriously-scientists.html
The use of the phrase “may break the internet” made me smile. It’s not irony, and it’s serious. I do not want to think about what would happen if they inserted a negative leap second; The forward sort are bad enough, and don’t get me started on Daylight Savings Time. I digress.
This is a refreshingly clear, popular-science level article that covers the myriad reasons there is such variability in the exact amount of time it takes our magic marble to whirl precisely once around its axis. The very first thing most people never think of is how do we even precisely decide what “one rotation” is. (Hint: Astronomy.)
It’s an endless list of little things that you think you’ve forgotten, but you haven’t. You are quite literally built to sense an infinite amount of subtle bits of signal from your fellow humans. We were not built to live alone in caves; we were built to live together in them.
~ Rands from, https://randsinrepose.com/archives/what-we-lost/
As the “online interaction” soared in recent years, I’ve gradually moved away from feeling grumpy about the quality of (for example), video calls online. Through that time I continued to enjoy in-person interaction as much as I ever did, and I had already spent years massively reducing the frequency of those. My feeling is that all the online interaction has expanded—not replaced, nor “attempted to replace” nor anything negative like that—my human interaction. I’ve had multiple conversations with people from other continents I’d never had been able to meet in person.
I’m not suggesting “Rands” has it wrong. No, he has it quite right. I’m simply pointing out that these sense-limited interactions can be an enormous positive addition when we don’t think of them as replacing normal human interactions.
Web pages which neglect to include two of the most important pieces of information: Who and When. Yes, all web pages. Thou shalt always list the author. (“Anonymous” is a legitimate answer to, “who?’) Thou shalt always list at least a general composition/publication date. Online, it is already difficult to place things into context. Having a Who and When gives that many more clues to place things into context.
there are enough users who understand how it is supposed to work. They expect to be able to listen to any podcast anywhere they want. Most probably don’t understand why they have this ability, about the history and technology design that made it possible, but they understand that they have the ability. And it doesn’t have to be all of them or even most of them, just enough of them, whatever that means. And for right now, at the end of 2021, there are enough. Podcasting has always been and remains an open platform. I can’t say it will be for the future, but so far so good.
~ Dave Winer from, http://scripting.com/2021/12/21/124205.html
I like Winer’s point that the web (websites, web browser, blogs—not asocial media platforms) and podcasting are not dominated by any one large company. He’s pointing out that we’ve two examples of things not centrally controlled—two examples of success (so far, things could always change.) And therefore it’s quite possible that we could build something else, another new media format, which is also free, open, and not centrally controlled.
But I don’t like that Winer has glossed over the fact that podcasting only appears to be open, (in the way that the web is open.) Podcasting appears to be open, and isn’t yet dominated by one large company, because the podcast creators individually go to great lengths to make their shows available everywhere. There are multiple large companies trying to leverage the listeners against the creators. I’ve given up on trying to lead podcasting to be open, the way the web is open; I simply hope that someone else sees what I see and that I live to see podcasting grow to be a first-class, truly open, platform, (the way the web is.)
Then there was a moment. A short one. Social media was perfect. The bubble popped, and suddenly there were voices from outside the bubble. But it was still small, still manageable, not yet the all-consuming force it is today.
~ Jacob Kaplan-Moss from, https://jacobian.org/2018/apr/2/the-moment/
Today, we have asocial media. I’ve not seen anyone else point out we’re still misspelling it, “social” media. I agree with Kaplan-Moss, and I’ll point out that I am happily still living in that moment. I use the Internet, and I use my phone (and tablet, and computer, and my connection of people, etc.) — none of those things use me any longer. That’s the key. Figuring out what sources of interaction and information you find valuable, and then acting to make them a part of your lived experience. What made asocial media’s moment great was that it showed us that the Internet could be useful. Now it’s up to you to make it so for yourself.
Forums are the dark matter of the web, the B-movies of the Internet. But they matter. To this day I regularly get excellent search results on forum pages for stuff I’m interested in. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t end up on some forum, somewhere, looking for some obscure bit of information. And more often than not, I find it there.
~ Jeff Atwood from, https://blog.codinghorror.com/civilized-discourse-construction-kit/
That’s a wonderful unpack by Atwood of why Discourse, (a piece of software that powers forums,) was created. Along the way there’s also a load of great information about discourse, (the concept.) And this article is now 9 years old.
I’ve put forward a physiological hypothesis to explain the psychological Opponent Process theory, which I call the Receptor Control Theory. In essence, our pleasure set point or baseline “happiness” is determined by the density and sensitivity of dopamine receptors in the brain (and elsewhere). In this view, obesity and addiction result from a process of “dopamine resistance”, whereby receptor down-regulation impairs satisfaction and drives cravings. Conversely, high receptor density and sensitivity promote satisfaction and dampen cravings.
~ Todd Becker from, https://gettingstronger.org/2019/10/retraining-the-limbic-brain-to- overcome-obesity-and-addiction/
Phone use might rise to the level of a literal addiction. Its use can certainly cause dopamine release, which is a strong motivator that plays a role in addiction. I used to think that wasn’t true… That my phone didn’t cause dopamine release… That my phone wasn’t causing manipulation of my motivations… then I tried to put my phone down for an entire day.
And then I set about separating using my phone as a tool—which I can do a lot without it being addictive—from my phone’s use of me as a tool.
I read and hear a lot about how excessive “screen time” is bad. But there’s a distinction that has to be made: Is the “screen time” tool-use to accomplish something meaningful? …because tool-use is not bad for you. We don’t begrudge the time a mechanic spends wielding his tools; we call that “working.”
Today I spent nearly every waking minute in front of one of four different computer screens. For reasons of sanity and physical health, sometimes I was sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes indoors and outdoors for long stretches too. I also take intentional “vision breaks” to allow my eye muscles to relax—literally relax to infinite focusing distance, which they would otherwise never do facing a screen, or anywhere indoors.
What did I do? I did an enormous number of things. Here are a few examples from today: I submitted a presenter application for an in-person event in September. I worked on my presentation notes for a different, in-person event in 2 weeks. I researched and experimented with exporting the contents of a WordPress site, and then read and interpreted the massive data which was output, to verify that I could later write a program to parse it. I then planned out the work needed to disassemble the project, of which that WordPress site is but one piece. I estimate I spent three hours reading text articles I’d previously queued up to read later. I helped a member of a community sort out a problem they were having.
I, truly, don’t know about you. I however, am an excellent mechanic, with the finest tools, and there remain far more things worth doing than I can ever get done. My problem is not, “screen time.”