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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Seneca on Social Media

Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?” The service is free, conventional wisdom tells us, so no matter how minor the benefits (which tend to orbit around a generalized fear of missing out), they’re still more substantial than the cost. But as Seneca points out, this assessment is misguided because it ignores the human toll of social media.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/03/11/seneca-on-social-media/

I generally try to suppress my urge to pounce on opportunities to talk about the well-known downsides of social networks. But a Seneca-CalNewport two-for-one is simply irrestible catnip for me. Here, Newport is referring to the value of one’s own time. That’s the human “toll” that so many people—as far as I can see at least—don’t factor in.

I think I am ready to give up fighting the fight; I’m done [or at least, I really should get a grip, and learn to be done] beating the drum about the evils of social networks. Know what I’m going to do instead? Double-down on creating things on the open web and let people decide what they want to do.

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Common Sense

It’s easier for Artist Today to post to Medium than it is to build her own site so Artist Tomorrow has a place to live when yet another publishing platform dies or becomes watered down by crap. It takes hard work and conviction to build your own thing — and it takes relationships, which are greater investments than ad dollars.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2017/01/common-sense/

I’m nobody. Nobody’s asking me why I’m not posting on Medium. Although, come to think of it, people do ask me why I don’t post on LinkedIn, and some people ask why I left Facebook… Anyway, you didn’t ask, but you’re still reading.

Truth be told, all the problems come from you, the aggregate readers (viewers, etc.) on the Internet. You have avoided doing the slightly-harder-than-droolingly-easy work of finding and following the things you care about. It’s easy to open an account on feedbin.com and to start following what you want to read. (And if something doesn’t play well with FeedBin, then it’s not actually on the open Internet and I encourage you to shun and shame it.) If you actively follow the things you care about, (using the Internet and software of course,) then you don’t need the middlemen; you don’t need the search engines and the social platforms.

Aside: Exactly ZERO percent of the stuff I share and talk about on this blog is discovered by search engines or social networks. (Just checked, and I have 485 things queued up as “that’s interesting, I should read it more carefully and look into it.” It was 486, until I created this post.) The kernels are found through my actively following many hundreds of different things. I receive exactly ZERO email newsletters [that’s a lie, I route a precious few into FeedBin :] Sure, I may go down search engine or social network rabbit holes learning more. But the things I care about I follow intentionally.

Once you start following things, you might even grow to love those things. One day you’ll realize that you even value those things so much that you voluntarily throw some money at them to support their work.

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Sabbaticals are not the solution

What is it about digital addictions that make us think the occasional break will suffice?

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/03/digital-sabbaticals-dont-make-sense/

Weekly sabbaticals make no sense, sure. But less frequent sabbaticals are powerful. Take a week off from—whatever, email, social networks, etc.—and your addictions are made obvious. Nothing surprising there. The question is: Do you then consciously bring the addicting drug back into your life?

That’s not hyperbolic soapboxing; That’s a real question for you to consider.

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Dive deep

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.

~ David Brooks from, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/opinion/brooks-the-art-of-focus.html

I’m not sure I’d call the longing I seek, “terrifying.” But “longing” certainly fits. This idea of finding something that pulls you so strongly as a way to brush away attempted distraction fits closely with the old platitude to, “have a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside you.”

I used to think of my attention as a flashlight; as a thing I needed to narrow by focusing—narrow to illuminate a smaller area with increased brightness. I’ve always found, though I spent years in denial—you know that river in Africa?—that the more I tried to force my attention onto things, the more I felt anxious and uncomfortable. Somewhere around episodes 8, 9 or 10 of John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis there’s a discussion of what exactly is your attention. Hint: It’s not like a flashlight that you can intentionally point, and then having pointed it your mind will focus on that target.

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Not spinning out of control

Because, like you, like seemingly everybody, I have also felt as though the world is spinning out of control and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m exhausted from all the stories of shootings and attacks and bombs and the constant stream of awful stuff that is happening out there. I, too, feel desensitized and dejected from the seemingly constant carnage raging across the planet.

~ Mark Manson from, https://markmanson.net/crazy-world

There was a period of time when I felt that the world was spinning out of control. It is not.

Over a couple decades, as I spent less time on dysfunctional social networks, less time on instant gratification, less time on consuming mindless media, less time on bite-sized tripe posing as information, less time on pre-digested opinions… Well, over a couple decades I’ve come to realize that humanity is awesome. Sure, we progress in fits and starts, with setbacks small and large scattered about. But progress we do none the less!

If you see an issue that you think needs addressing, then please do set about affecting change. But do so sans hysteria, sans hyperbole, sans click-baity mindless louder-just-to-get-attention fluff.

The way you make the whole world better is to make one piece of it better; Then repeat.

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Wherein I continue my perennial rant against social networks

His friends, however, were aghast at his decision to leave the social network and argued strongly against the action. Their airtight case? Certain activities, such as finding out about parties, would become less convenient. The convenience principle is so ingrained in our culture that Daniel’s friends believed that their argument that something would become less convenient was unimpeachable. Daniel, for his part, ignored them. He missed a few invitations, but not many.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/01/21/distraction-is-a-symptom-of-a-deeper-problem-the-convenience-principle-and-the-destruction-of-american-productivity/

I spent time writing about social networks for this post—but deleted it all because I’ve nothing nice to say. Instead I’ll smirk, and point at what someone else has written.

Great article though from Newport. As usual for his 2012 epoch, it’s specific to college students but contains deep wisdom for all.

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Are you part of the solution?

If you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

~ Seth Godin, from https://seths.blog/2017/02/nextstep/

This rant from Seth is a couple years old, but it remains as important as ever.

I talk often about the problems with social networks. But what I’m particularly interested in is what, (if anything,) actually works to change people’s minds. I bet you can guess what works: Basically, nothing works.

I wasted a lot of time trying to explain the problems with social networks using facts and rational arguments. You know how far I got with that. One day, I stopped trying to educate and explain, and started trying to plant seeds. Little seeds of inquisition. Little seeds of self-awareness.

How do you feel when you are not on that social network?

And how do you feel after it ate your face for 2 hours?

Do you like the way you look, all hunched over with spine twisted and your face completely facing the ground?

Could you make progress on your dream if you could just find 10 hours of time a week? (As if you only spent 10 hours on social networks this week.)

Hold your phone facing you at arms length. Look just to one side and notice the actual amount of your immediate world which it occupies. How do you feel about only living within that small fraction of your world?

Visualize your death bed. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.) Now begin to list your imagined regrets as you lay dying. (Seriously. I’ll wait.) Which items on your list were related, in any way, to online social networks?

You have Seth’s thoughts. You now have my thoughts. Do you have any thoughts of your own?

Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?

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