You must choose

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.

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What information consumes

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

~ Herbert Simon

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It may be, as he says, obvious to Simon, but it really was not obvious to me. Until I read this I had always thought of myself as giving, or perhaps spending, my time on information. In recent years I’ve begun reminding anyone who’ll listen, that we all have large Oxo grips that extend from the ancient systems cobbled together which today form our intelligence, our fear, and our psyche. It’s easy to grab someone by those handles and lead them. That’s fine because everyone doesn’t try to grab me by those Oxo handles. But software is good at grabbing those handles. Hardware is good at it. And companies run by people who haven’t thought through the morality of what they’re building using software and hardware are really good at it.

So when I read Simon’s comment about information consuming my attention. I sat bolt-upright.

…and then I renewed by efforts to swat away anything that I catch gazing lasciviously at my weaknesses.

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Information

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

~ Herbert Simon

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Do something

Posting about it isn’t doing anything. It’s just like talk … it’s cheap! Too many people think they are supporting a cause, and the only thing they are doing is posting about it on social media. Doing something is doing something, everything else is just talk.

~ Ashton Kutcher

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Silent majority

The great biographer Robert Caro once said, “Power doesn’t always corrupt, but power always reveals.” Perhaps the same is true of the most powerful networks in human history.

Social media has not corrupted us, it’s merely revealed who we always were.

~ Mark Manson from, https://markmanson.net/social-media-isnt-the-problem

There’s a lot of good—writing, concepts, anecdote, data—in this article. But the thing that leapt out at me was something I’d already known, but seem to have forgotten… or, if not fully forgotten, I’d failed to connect it to other things in my model of the world: The idea of the silent majority.

About 90% of the people participating on social networks, are not even participating. They’re simply observing. It turns out that the other 10% are the people with extreme views; not “blow stuff up” extreme, but simply more towards the opposing ends of whatever spectrum of views you care to consider.

Two things to consider: First, boy howdy guilty as charged! I’m on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn— but the only content I post is related to my projects. I don’t engage with anything, reshare… or even, really, participate unless it’s related to a project. *face palm* Woa! I’m literally a member of the silent majority. Perhaps you are to? If 10 of you are reading, then 9 of you are just like me.

Second, because math! If you look at the stream we all like to say, “it’s endless!” Right. There must be thousands of posts, right? I’ll pause while you do math… right. If there are only thousands of posts for me to see, I’m clearly not seeing all the activity from the millions of people. Sure, some of that is the platform filtering, but I have the feeling that the numbers hold true: If everyone posted a lot we’d have thousands of times more stuff flying around.

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The Ice Age persists

The algific talus slopes where relic species persist are steep, built atop limestone—itself a relic from a time, half a billion years ago, when a shallow tropical sea covered what’s now the Driftless. The porous limestone is easily eroded by even slightly acidic water, including rain. As a result it holds numerous caves, sinkholes, cracks, and fissures. These networks of open spaces deep in the hillside were never compromised by glacial steamrollers, and are crucial for the “breathing”—slopes’ respiration.

~ Gemma Tarlach from, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ice-age-midwest-driftless-geology

There seems to be something special about Iowa. Pockets of Ice Age biodiversity, and Vonnegut, must somehow mean something. Atlas Obscura started as an ecclectic collection of interesting points scattered about the Earth. It’s grown to—in my opinion—rival Wikipedia in the context of places. And then it started producing these place-specific, in-depth articles.

In the endless sea of click-baity, bullet-listed, double-spaced individual sentence fragments posing as a “post” on some social network… because, honestly, a paragraph block of text just scares the shit out of too many people, so we’ll just

space out the phrases

so our feeble minds understand

what the bite-sized thoughts are supposed to be.

I digress. Over decades, I’ve found sources on the Internet that are continual fonts of wonder and joy. I follow them using RSS, and I’m better off for it.

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All social media have their issues

All social media have their issues. The “walled garden” character they create is the antithesis of the traditional Internet philosophy of openness. They are actually consciously designed to be addictive to their users — one company that consults on such issues is actually called Dopamine Labs — and they tend to soak up a huge amount of time in largely profitless strivings for likes and shares. They promote bad feelings and bad behavior: I saw a cartoon listing social media by deadly sins, with Facebook promoting envy, Instagram promoting pride, Twitter promoting wrath, Tinder promoting lust and so on. It seemed about right.

~ Glenn Harlan Reynolds from, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/12/03/twitter-facebook-social-media-bias-political-poison-blogosphere-instapundit-column/2183648002/

It’s a good article with more nuance than any of my usual rants.

BUT

Just go look at that page—presuming it doesn’t disappear, or disappear behind a pay way, etc.— it’s horrible. ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE. And that page is an example of the “open web” I keep going on about? Sheesh, the cure [get thee onto the open web] is as bad as the problem.

Anyway, I don’t know what to do other than to go on doing my best to create something which I think makes the world a better place. (I also started writing on Substack, and I do as much as I can in the big room with the ceiling that’s sometimes blue and sometimes black.) Thanks for reading!

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Deeply held beliefs

This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality:

“[W]e are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value.”

In the absence of strongly-held answers to this question our attention remains adrift and unclaimed — we cannot, therefore, be surprised that app-peddlers and sticky websites swooped in to aggressively feast on this abundant resource.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/07/15/from-descartes-to-pokemon-matthew-crawfords-quest-to-reclaim-our-attention/

Turns out Crawford was interviewed by Brett McKay, another person I’ve often quoted here. I’ve not yet listened but the episode is Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Originally I thought “social media” itself was the problem. Eventually it became clear to me that social media is the symptom. People want to be fed saccharine lives through their phones because they’ve never been taught that they need to consciously make decisions about what’s important to them.

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Barely noticeable

The authors note that a core resource of the digital economy is the data produced by users of services like Facebook and Google, which can then be used to train machine learning algorithms to do valuable things like precisely targeting advertisements or more accurately processing natural language. The current market treats data as capital: the “natural exhaust from consumption to be collected by firms” for use in training their AI-driven golden gooses. Lanier and company suggest an alternative: data as labor. Put simply, if a major platform monopoly wants your data to help build a multi-billion dollar empire, they must pay you for it. Offering a free service in return is not enough.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2018/01/17/on-seriously-rethinking-the-digital-economy/

Well, that would change everything.

Imagine I changed the sidewalk in front of my house to have plates that moved slightly as one walks across it. I’ve rigged the plates to absorb some of the motion created during walking to generate electricity to offset my electric bill. Let’s assume further that the movement of the plates is barely noticeable. Perhaps something seems a bit “off” when you walk past my house, but nothing bad happens to you; you don’t fall and you don’t get tired, but you do work just a little harder when walking past my house.

What happens when we scale up that “harmless” little modification to include everyone, walking everywhere?

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Breathing Room

To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.

~ Cal Newport from,
https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/08/25/focus-week-give-your-brain-some-breathing-room/

This tension is not only real, it’s necessary. You need to have this tension; it’s a critical component of how you assess the world by choosing what to filter in and what to filter out. The difficult part, of course, is if you don’t intentionally manage this balance.

How many things just pop in front of you each day? Are you happy with that amount?

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