Ensuring the sustainability of Thought Shrapnel

Over the last couple of months, after coming back from a hiatus over Lent, I’ve really poured my free time into Thought Shrapnel. My hope was that, by providing daily content, there would be a corresponding uptick in the number of people willing to become a supporter.

In fact, the opposite has happened, with almost 10% of supporters ending their backing of Thought Shrapnel over the past few weeks. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong here.

After some research and comparison with other creators, I think I’ve figured out what’s gone wrong:

Most people do not want more email. So if the only thing you have to offer them is, ‘Hey, subscribe to this newsletter and you’ll get some more email,’ that’s not that compelling. But if you can create a different value proposition where you can say, ‘Look, I’m creating the kind of writing that you can’t find anywhere else and I need you to be a part of this and to support this work if you value it,’ then I think that people get into that. And they want to get it four times a week, but it’s not necessarily the idea of getting it four times a week that is going to be the motivating factor.

Judd Legum

Nobody asked me to send them more email. Not one of the supporters asked for ‘exclusive access’ to articles a week before everyone else. I just assumed.

With Thought Shrapnel, it’s not the money that drives me. After hosting costs, etc. I give away most of what I receive to support other creators and worthy causes. Rather, it’s the exchange of energy that’s important to me. Committing to even $1/month is different to just hitting ‘like’ or ‘retweet’.

So, going forward, I’m going to try a different approach. For everything I publish:

  • Comments are on
  • Three different types of post each week
  • Everyone gets access at the same time

On Mondays I’ll publish an article-style post. On Wednesdays I’ll publish a post answering any questions that have come in, or a microcast. And then on Fridays I’ll publish a round-up post of interesting links.

I’m still aiming to share 30 links per week. The weekly newsletter will still be a digest of what’s gone on the open web. I just hope that trying things this way will both be more sustainable.

So, I have a couple of questions:

  1. Do you have any questions for me to answer in tomorrow’s post?
  2. Would you consider becoming a supporter of Thought Shrapnel?

Thanks in advance!

Our nature is such that the common duties of human relationships occupy a great part of the course of our life

Michel de Montaigne, one of my favourite writers, had a very good friend, a ‘soulmate’ in the form of Étienne de la Boétie. He seems to have been quite the character, and an early influence for anarchist thought, before dying of the plague in 1563 at the age of 32.

His main work is translated into English as The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude where he suggests that the reason we get tyrants and other oppressors is because we, the people, allow them to have power over us. It all seems very relevant to our times, despite being written around 450 years ago!

We live in a time of what Patrick Stokes in New Philosopher calls ‘false media balance’. It’s worth quoting at length, I think:

The problem is that very often the controversy in question is over whether there even is a controversy to begin with. Some people think the world is flat: does that mean the shape of the world is a controversial topic? If you think the mere fact of disagreement means there’s a controversy there, then pretty much any topic you care to mention will turn out to be controversial if you look hard enough. But in a more substantial sense, there’s no real controversy here at all. The scientific journals aren’t full of heated arguments over the shape of the planet. The university geography departments aren’t divided into warring camps of flattists and spherists. There is no serious flat-earth research program in the geology literature.

So far, so obvious. But think about certain other scientific ‘controversies’ where competing arguments do get media time, such as climate change, or the safety and efficacy of vaccination. On the one side you have the overwhelming weight of expert opinion; on the other side amateur, bad-faith pseudoscience. In the substantial sense there aren’t even ‘two sides’ here after all.

Yet that’s not what we see; we just see two talking heads, offering competing views. The very fact both ‘heads’ were invited to speak suggests someone, somewhere has decided they are worth listening to. In other words, the very format implicitly drags every viewpoint to the same level and treats them as serious candidates for being true. That’s fine, you might reply: sapere aude! Smart and savvy viewers will see the bad arguments or shoddy claims for what they are, right? Except there’s some evidence that precisely the opposite happens. The message that actually sticks with viewers is not “the bad or pseudoscientific arguments are nonsense”, but rather that “there’s a real controversy here”.

There’s a name for this levelling phenomenon: false balance. The naïve view of balance versus bias contains no room for ‘true’ versus ‘false’ balance. Introducing a truth-value means we are not simply talking about neutrality anymore – which, as we’ve seen, nobody can or should achieve fully anyway. False balance occurs when we let in views that haven’t earned their place, or treat non-credible views as deserving the same seat at the table.

To avoid false balance, the media needs to make important and context-sensitive discriminations about what is a credible voice and what isn’t. They need balance as a verb, rather than a noun. To balance is an act, one that requires ongoing effort and constant readjustment. The risk, after all, is falling – perhaps right off the edge of the world.

Patrick Stokes

For many people, we receive a good proportion of our news via social networks. This means that, instead of being filtered by the mainstream media (who are doing a pretty bad job), the news it’s filtered by all of us, who are extremely partisan. We share things that validate our political, economic, moral, and social beliefs, and rail against those who state the opposite.

While we can wring our hands about the free speech aspect of this, it’s important to note the point that’s being made by the xkcd cartoon that accompanies today’s article: we don’t have to listen to other people if we don’t want to.

In a great post from 2015, Audrey Watters explains how she uses some auto-blocking apps to make her continued existence on Twitter tolerable. Again, it’s worth quoting at length:

I currently block around 3800 accounts on Twitter.

By using these automated blocking tools – particularly blocking accounts with few followers – I know that I’ve blocked a few folks in error. Teachers new to Twitter are probably the most obvious example. Of course, if someone feels as though I’ve accidentally blocked them, they can still contact me through other means. (And sometimes they do. And sometimes I unblock.)

But I’m not going to give up this little bit of safety and sanity I’ve found thanks to these collaborative blocking tools for fear of upsetting a handful of people who have mistakenly ended up being blocked by me. I’m sorry. I’m just not.

And I’m not in the least bit worried that, by blocking accounts, I’m somehow trapping myself in a “filter bubble.” I don’t need to be exposed to harassment and violence to know that harassment and violence are rampant. I don’t need to be exposed to racism and misogyny to know that racism and misogyny exist. I see that shit, I live that shit already daily, whether I block accounts on social media or not.

My blocking trolls doesn’t damage civic discourse; indeed, it helps me be able to be a part of it. Despite all the talk about the Internet and democratization of ideas and voices, the architecture of many of the technologies we use is designed to amplify certain ideas and voices and silence others, protect certain voices, expose others to violence. My blocking trolls doesn’t silence anybody. But it does help me have the stamina to maintain my voice.

People need not feel bad about blocking, worry that it’s impolitic or impolite. It’s already hard work to be online. Often, it’s emotional work. (And it’s work we do for free, I might add.) People – particularly people of color, women, marginalized groups – shouldn’t have to take on the extra work of dealing with abusers and harassers and trolls. Block. Block. Block. Save your energy for other battles, ones that you choose to engage in.

Audrey Watters

Blocking on the individual level is one thing, but what about whole instances running social networking software blocking other instances with which they’re technically interoperable?

There’s some really interesting conversations happening on the Fediverse at the moment. A ‘free speech’ social network called Gab, which was was forced to shut down as a centralised service will be soon relaunching as a fork of Mastodon.

In practice, this means that Gab can’t easily be easily shut down, and there’s many people on Mastodon, Pleroma, Misskey, and other social networks that make up the Fediverse, who are concerned about that. Those who have found a home on the Fediverse are disproportionately likely to have met with trolling, bullying, and abuse on centralised services such as Twitter.

Any service like Gab that’s technically compatible with popular Fediverse services such as Mastodon can, by default, piggyback on the latter’s existing ecosystem of apps. Some of these apps have decided to fight back. For example Tusky has taken a stand, as can be seen by this update from its main developer:

Before I go off to celebrate Midsummer by being in bed sick (Swedish woes), I want to share a small update.

Tusky will keep blocking servers which actively promote fascism. This in particular means Gab.

We will get our next release out just in time for the 4th of July.

Don’t even try to debate us about Free Speech. This is our speech, exercising #ANTIFA views. And we will keep doing it

We will post a bigger update at a later time about what this all really means.

@Tusky@mastodon.social

Some may wonder why, exactly, there’s such a problem here. After all, can’t individual users do what Audrey Watters is doing with Twitter, and block people on the individual level — either automatically, or manually?

The problem is that, due to practices such as sealioning, certain communities ‘sniff blood’ and then pile on:

Sealioning (also spelled sea-lioning and sea lioning) is a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility. It may take the form of “incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate”.

Wikipedia

So it feels like we’re entering a time with the balkanisation of the internet because of geo-politics (the so-called Splinternet), but also a retreat into online social interactions that are more… bounded.

It’s going to be interesting to see where the next 18 months takes us, I think. I can definitely see a decline in centralised social networks, especially among certain demographics. If I’m correct, and these people end up on federated social networks, then it’s up to those of already there to set not only the technical standards, but the moral standards, too.


Also check out:

  • The secret rules of the internet (The Verge) — “The moderators of these platforms — perched uneasily at the intersection of corporate profits, social responsibility, and human rights — have a powerful impact on free speech, government dissent, the shaping of social norms, user safety, and the meaning of privacy. What flagged content should be removed? Who decides what stays and why? What constitutes newsworthiness? Threat? Harm? When should law enforcement be involved?”
  • The New Wilderness (Idle Words) — “Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.”
  • IQ rates are dropping in many developed countries and that doesn’t bode well for humanity (Think) — “Details vary from study to study and from place to place given the available data. IQ shortfalls in Norway and Denmark appear in longstanding tests of military conscripts, whereas information about France is based on a smaller sample and a different test. But the broad pattern has become clearer: Beginning around the turn of the 21st century, many of the most economically advanced nations began experiencing some kind of decline in IQ.”

Header image via xkcd

Friday fancies

These are some things I came across this week that made me smile:

  • The fake French minister in a silicone mask who stole millions (BBC News) — “For two years from late 2015, an individual or individuals impersonating France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, scammed an estimated €80m (£70m; $90m) from wealthy victims including the Aga Khan and the owner of Château Margaux wines.”
  • No, You Don’t Really Look Like That (The Atlantic) — “The global economy is wired up to your face. And it is willing to move heaven and Earth to let you see what you want to see.”
  • Can You Unwrinkle A Raisin? (FiveThirtyEight) — “Back when you couldn’t just go buy a bottle of wine, folks would, instead, buy a giant brick of raisins, soak them in water to rehydrate the dried-out fruit and then store that juice in a dark cupboard for 60 days.”
  • What Ecstasy Does to Octopuses (The Atlantic) — “At first they used too high a dose, and the animals “freaked out and did all these color changes”… But once the team found a more suitable dose, the animals behaved more calmly—and more sociably.”
  • The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years (Nautilus) — “The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived. “

Image via webcomic.name

The world is all variation and dissimilarity

Another quotation-as-title from Michel de Montaigne. I’m using it today, as I want to write a composite post based on a tweet I put out yesterday where I simply asked What shall I write about?

Note: today’s update is a little different as it’s immediately available on the open web, instead of being limited to supporters for seven days. It’s an experiment!

Here’s some responses I got to my question:

  1. Tips for aspiring Mountain Leaders (@CraigTaylor74)
  2. Decentralised learning (@plaao)
  3. Slippers and sandals (@boyledsweetie)
  4. Carbon footprint of blockchain-based credentials (@ConcentricSky)
  5. How educators can promote their good practices without looking like they’re bragging (@pullel)
  6. Why the last episode of Game of Thrones was so very bad (@MikeySwales)

Never let it be said that I don’t give the people what they want! Five short sections, based on the serious (and not-so-serious) answers I go from my Twitter followers.

1. Tips for aspiring Mountain Leaders

Well, I’m not even on the course yet (two more Quality Mountain Days to go!) but some tips I’d pass on are:

  • Be flexible with your planned route, especially in respect to the weather
  • Don’t buy super-expensive gear until you actually need it
  • Write down your learning experiences the same day as you experience them
  • Go walking with different people (although not with anyone who’s got their ML, if you want it to count towards your QMDs!)
  • Do buy walking poles and gaiters, even if you feel a prat using them

…and, of course, subscribe to The Bushcraft Padawan!

2. Decentralised learning

Decentralisation is an interesting concept, mainly because it’s such an abstract concept for people to grasp. Usually, when people talk about decentralisation, they’re either talking about politics or technology. Both, ultimately, are to do with power.

When it comes to learning, therefore, decentralised learning is all about empowering learners, which is often precisely the opposite of what we do in schools. We centralise instruction, and subject young people (and their teachers) to bells that control their time.

To my mind, decentralised learning is any attempt to empower learners to be more independent. That might involve them co-creating the curriculum, it might have something to do with the way we credential and/or recognise their learning. The important thing is that learning isn’t something that’s done to them.

3. Slippers and sandals

I’m wearing slippers right now, as I do when I’m in the house or working in my home office. I don’t think you can go past Totes Isotoner, to be honest. Comfy!

Given I live in the North East of England, my opportunities to wear sandals are restricted to holidays and a few days in summer. I had a fantastic pair of Timberland sandals back in the day, but my wife finally threw them away because they were too smelly. I’m making do now with some other ones I found in the sale on Amazon, but they’re actually slightly too big for me, which is annoying.

4. Carbon footprint of blockchain-based credentials

I’ll start with the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, which gives us a couple of great charts to show the scale of the problem of using blockchains based on a proof-of-work algorithm:

That’s right, the whole of the Czech Republic could be powered by the amount of energy required to run the Bitcoin network.

As you can see from the second chart, Bitcoin is a massive waste of energy versus our existing methods of payment. But what about other blockchain-based technologies, like Ethereum?

They’ve had the same problem, until recently, as Peter Fairley explains for IEEE Spectrum:

Like most cryptocurrencies, Ethereum relies on a computational competition called proof of work (PoW) . In PoW, all participants race to cryptographically secure transactions and add them to the blockchain’s globally distributed ledger. It’s a winner-takes-all contest, rewarded with newly minted cryptocoins. So the more computational firepower you have, the better your chances to profit.

[…]

Ethereum’s plan is to replace PoW with proof of stake (PoS)—an alternative mechanism for distributed consensus that was first applied to a cryptocurrency with the launch of Peercoin in 2012. Instead of millions of processors simultaneously processing the same transactions, PoS randomly picks one to do the job.

In PoS, the participants are called validators instead of miners, and the key is keeping them honest. PoS does this by requiring each validator to put up a stake—a pile of ether in Ethereum’s case—as collateral. A bigger stake earns a validator proportionately more chances at a turn, but it also means that a validator caught cheating has lots to lose.

Peter Fairley

Which brings us back to credentials. As I’ve said many times before, if you trust online banking and online shopping, then the Open Badges standard is secure enough for you. However, I can still see a use case for blockchain-based credentials, and wouldn’t necessarily rule them out — especially if they’re based on a PoS approach.

5. How educators can promote their good practices without looking like they’re bragging

This is really contextual. What counts as ‘bragging’ in one culture and within one community won’t be counted as such in another. It also depends on personality too, I guess ⁠— something we don’t really talk about as educators (other than through the lens of ‘character’).

The only advice I can give is to do these three things:

  1. Keep showing up in the same spaces every day/week so that people know where to find you (online/offline)
  2. Share your work without caring about recognition
  3. Point to other people and both recognise and celebrate their contributions

Remember, the point is to make the world a better place, not to care who gets credit for making it better!

6. Why the last episode of Game of Thrones was so very bad

I’ve never even seen part of one episode, so perhaps this can help?


Do you have any questions for me to answer next time I do this?

The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break

Angela Carter with the story of my life there. I can’t help but be skeptical about ‘Libra‘, Facebook’s new crytocurrency project. I’m skeptical about almost all cryptocurrencies, to be honest.

The website is marketing. It’s all about ’empowering’ the ‘unbanked’ worldwide. However, let’s dive into the white paper:

Members of the Libra Association will consist of geographically distributed and diverse businesses, nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions. The initial group of organizations that will work together on finalizing the association’s charter and become “Founding Members” upon its completion are, by industry:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, MercadoPago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
    Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, UnionSquare Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva,Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

We hope to have approximately 100 members of the Libra Association by the target launch in the first half of 2020.

So, all the usual suspects. How will Facebook ensure that we don’t see the crazy price volatility we’ve seen with other cryptocurrencies?

Libra is designed to be a stable digital cryptocurrency that will be fully backed by a reserve of real assets — the Libra Reserve — and supported by a competitive network of exchanges buying and selling Libra. That means anyone with Libra has a high degree of assurance they can convert their digital currency into local fiat currency based on an exchange rate, just like exchanging one currency for another when traveling. This approach is similar to how other currencies were introduced in the past: to help instill trust in a new currency and gain widespread adoption during its infancy, it was guaranteed that a country’s notes could be traded in for real assets, such as gold. Instead of backing Libra with gold, though, it will be backed by a collection of low-volatility assets, such as bank deposits and short-term government securities in currencies from stable and reputable central banks.

So it sounds like all of the value is being extracted by founding members. Now let’s move onto the technology. Any surprises there? Nope.

Blockchains are described as either permissioned or permissionless in relation to the ability to participate as a validator node. In a “permissioned blockchain,” access is granted to run a validator node. In a “permissionless blockchain,” anyone who meets the technical requirements can run a validator node. In that sense, Libra will start as a permissioned blockchain.

This is as conservative as they come, which is exactly what your strategy would be if you’re trying to transfer the entire monetary system to one that you control. People often joke about Facebook as ‘social infrastructure’, but this is a level beyond. This is Facebook as financial infrastructure.

Given both current and potential future regulatory oversight, Facebook are very careful to distance themselves from Libra. In fact, the website proudly states that, “The Libra Association is an independent, not-for-profit membership organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.”

To be fair,Josh Constine, writing for TechCrunch, notes that Facebook only gets one vote as a founding member of the Libra Association. It does actually look like they’re in it for the long-haul:

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

John Constine

Whereas before there’s always been social pressure to have a Facebook account, now there could be pressures that span identity and economic necessities, too.

Some good commentary on the hurdles ahead comes from Kari Paul for The Guardian, who writes:

The company claims it will not attempt to bypass existing regulation but instead “innovate” on regulatory fronts. Libra will use the same verification and anti-fraud processes that banks and credit cards use and will implement automated systems to detect fraud, Facebook said in its launch. It also promised to give refunds to any users who are hacked or have Libra stolen from their digital wallets.

Kari Paul

Would this be the same kind of ‘innovation’ that Uber uses to muscle its way into cities without a license? Or to muscle its way into cities without a license? Perhaps it’s the shady business practices beloved of PayPal? Both companies are founding members, after all!

Right now, developers can get access to a ‘test network’ for Libra. The system itself won’t be running until the end of 2020, so there’s a lot speculation. Here’s some sources I found useful, but you’ll need to make up your own mind. Is this a good thing?

To be perfectly symmetrical is to be perfectly dead

So said Igor Stravinsky. I’m a little behind on my writing, and prioritised writing up my experiences in the Lake District over the past couple of days.

Today’s update is therefore a list post:

  • Degrowth: a Call for Radical Abundance (Jason Hickel) — “In other words, the birth of capitalism required the creation of scarcity. The constant creation of scarcity is the engine of the juggernaut.”
  • Hey, You Left Something Out (Cogito, Ergo Sumana) — “People who want to compliment work should probably learn to give compliments that sound encouraging.”
  • The Problem is Capitalism (George Monbiot) — “A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution.”
  • In Stores, Secret Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move (The New York Times) — “For years, Apple and Google have allowed companies to bury surveillance features inside the apps offered in their app stores. And both companies conduct their own beacon surveillance through iOS and Android.”
  • The Inevitable Same-ification of the Internet
    (Matthew Ström) — “Convergence is not the sign of a broken system, or a symptom of a more insidious disease. It is an emergent phenomenon that arises from a few simple rules.”


Life doesn’t depend on any one opinion, any one custom, or any one century

Baltasar Gracián was a 17th-century Spanish Jesuit who put together a book of aphorisms usually translated The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence or simply The Art of Worldly Wisdom. It’s one of a few books that have had a very large effect on my life. Today’s quotation-as-title comes from him.

The historian in me wonders about why we seem to live in such crazy times. My simple answer is ‘the internet’, but I want to dig into a bit using an essay from Scott Alexander:

[T]oday we have an almost unprecedented situation.

We have a lot of people… boasting of being able to tolerate everyone from every outgroup they can imagine, loving the outgroup, writing long paeans to how great the outgroup is, staying up at night fretting that somebody else might not like the outgroup enough.

This is really surprising. It’s a total reversal of everything we know about human psychology up to this point. No one did any genetic engineering. No one passed out weird glowing pills in the public schools. And yet suddenly we get an entire group of people who conspicuously promote and defend their outgroups, the outer the better.

What is going on here?

Scott Alexander

It’s long, and towards the end, Alexander realises that he’s perhaps guilty of the very thing he’s pointing out. Nevertheless, his definition of an ‘outgroup’ is useful:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

Scott Alexander

Over the last three years in the UK, we’ve done a spectacular job of adding a hatred of the opposing side in the Brexit debate to our national underlying sense of xenophobia . What’s necessary next is to bring everyone together and, whether we end up leaving the EU or not, forging a new narrative.

As Bryan Caplan points out, such efforts at cohesion need to be approached obliquely. He uses the example of American politics, but it applies equally elsewhere, including the UK:

Suppose you live in a deeply divided society: 60% of people strongly identify with Group A, and the other 40% strongly identify with Group B. While you plainly belong to Group A, you’re convinced this division is bad: It would be much better if everyone felt like they belonged to Group AB. You seek a cohesive society, where everyone feels like they’re on the same team.

What’s the best way to bring this cohesion about? Your all-too-human impulse is to loudly preach the value of cohesion. But on reflection, this is probably counter-productive. When members of Group B hear you, they’re going to take “cohesion” as a euphemism for “abandon your identity, and submit to the dominance of Group A.” None too enticing. And when members of Group A notice Group B’s recalcitrance, they’re probably going to think, “We offer Group B the olive branch of cohesion, and they spit in our faces. Typical.” Instead of forging As and Bs into one people, preaching cohesion tears them further apart.

Bryan Caplan

So, what can we do? Caplan suggests that members of one side should go out of their way to be overwhelmingly positive and friendly to the other side:

The first rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. The second rule of promoting cohesion is: Don’t talk about cohesion. If you really want to build a harmonious, unified society, take one for the team. Discard your anger, swallow your pride, and show out-groups unilateral respect and friendship. End of story.

Bryan Caplan

It reminds me of the Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” which must have melted the brains of those listening to Jesus who were used to the Old Testament approach:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

Matthew 5:38-40 (ESV)

Over the last 20 years, as the internet has played an ever-increasing role in our daily lives, we’ve seen a real ramping-up of the feminist movement, gay marriage becoming the norm in civilised western democracies, and movements like #BlackLivesMatter reminding us of just how racist our societies are.

In addition, despite the term being coined as long ago as 1989, we’ve seen a rise in awareness around intersectionality. It’s not exactly a radical notion to say that us being more connected leads to more awareness of ‘outgroups’. What is interesting is the way that we choose to deal with that.

Let’s have a quick look at the demographics from the Brexit vote three years ago:

Brexit demographics from The Guardian
Brexit demographics from The Guardian

Remain voters were, on the whole, younger, better educated, and more well-off than Leave voters. They were also slightly more likely to be born outside the UK. I haven’t done the research, but I just have a feeling that the generational differences here are to do with relative exposure to outgroups.

What’s more interesting than the result of the referendum itself, of course, is the reaction since then, with both ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ digging in to their entrenched positions. Now we’ve created new outgroups, we can join together in welcoming in the old outgroups. Hence LGBT+ pride rainbows in shops and everywhere else.

As I explained five years ago, one of the problems is that we’re not collectively aware enough of the role money plays in our democratic processes and information landscapes:

The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content.

Doug Belshaw

Sadly, in the west we invested in Computing to the detriment of critical digital literacies at exactly the wrong moment. That investment should have come on top of a real push to help everyone in society realise the importance of questioning and reflecting on their information environment.

Much as some people might like to, we can’t put the internet back in a box. It’s connected us all, for better and for worse, in ways that only a few would have foreseen. It’s changing the way we interact with one another, the way we buy things, and the way we think about education, work, and human flourishing.

All these connections might mean that style of representative democracy we’re currently used to might need tweaking. As Jamie Bartlett points out in The People vs Tech, “these are spiritual as well as technical questions”.


Also check out:

  • There is nothing more depressing than “positive news” (The Outline) — “The world is often a bummer, but a whole ecosystem of podcasts and Facebook pages have sprung up to assure you that things are actually great.”
  • Space for More Spaces (CogDogBlog) — “I still hold on to the idea that those old archaic, pre-social media constructs, a personal blog, is the main place, the home, to operate from.”
  • Clay Shirky on Mega-Universities and Scale (Phil on EdTech) — “What the mega-university story gets right is that online education is transforming higher education. What it gets wrong is the belief that transformation must end with consolidation around a few large-scale institutions”

Friday feastings

These are things I came across that piqued my attention:

  • What do cats do all day? (The Kid Should See This) — “Catcam footage from collar cameras captured the activities of 16 free-roaming domestic cats in England as they explored, stared, touched noses, hunted, vocalized, and more.”
  • These researchers invented an entirely new way of building with wood (Fast Company) — “Each of the 12 wooden components of the tower was made by laminating two pieces of wood with different levels of moisture. Then, when the laminated pieces of wood dried out, the piece of wood curved naturally–no molds or braces needed.”
  • What Did Old English Sound Like? Hear Reconstructions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casual Conversations (Open Culture) — “Over the course of 1000 years, the language came together from extensive contact with Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French; then became heavily Latinized and full of Greek roots and endings; then absorbed words from Arabic, Spanish, and dozens of other languages, and with them, arguably, absorbed concepts and pictures of the world that cannot be separated from the language itself.”
  • Adversarial interoperability: reviving an elegant weapon from a more civilized age to slay today’s monopolies (BoingBoing) — “This kind of adversarial interoperability goes beyond the sort of thing envisioned by “data portability,” which usually refers to tools that allow users to make a one-off export of all their data, which they can take with them to rival services. Data portability is important, but it is no substitute for the ability to have ongoing access to a service that you’re in the process of migrating away from.”
  • Fables of School Reform (The Baffler) — “Even pre-internet efforts to upgrade the technological prowess of American schools came swathed in the quasi-millennial promise of complete school transformation.”

Even in their sleep men are at work

For today’s title I’ve used Marcus Aurelius’ more concise, if unfortunately gendered, paraphrasing of a slightly longer quotation from Heraclitus. It’s particularly relevant to me at the moment, as recently I’ve been sleepwalking. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve been doing it all my life when something’s been bothering me.

When I tell people about this, they imagine something similar to the cartoon above. The reality is somewhat more banal, with me waking up almost as soon as I get out of bed and then getting back into it.

Sometimes I’m not entirely sure what’s bothering me. Other times I do, but it’s a combintion of things. In an article for Inc. Amy Morin gives some advice, explains there’s an important difference between ‘ruminating’ and ‘problem-solving’:

If you’re behind on your bills, thinking about how to get caught up can be helpful. But imagining yourself homeless or thinking about how unfair it is that you got behind isn’t productive.

So ask yourself, “Am I ruminating or problem-solving?”
If you’re dwelling on the problem, you’re ruminating. If you’re actively looking for solutions, you’re problem-solving.

Amy Morin

Morin goes on to talk about ‘changing the channel’ which can be a very difficult thing to do. One thing that helps me is reading the work of Stoic philosophers such as The Enchiridion by Epictetus, which begins with some of the best advice I’ve ever read:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Epictetus

Donald Robertson, founder of Modern Stoicism, is an author and psychotherapist. Robertson was interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton for their podcast, which they’ve also transcribed. He makes a similar point to Epictetus, based on the writings of Marcus Aurelius:

Ultimately, the only thing that’s really under our control is our own will, our own actions. Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things. Stoicism wants us to take also greater responsibility, greater ownership for the things that we can actually do, both in terms of our thoughts and our actions, and respond to the situations that we face.

Donald Robertson

Robertson talks in the interview about how Stoicism has helped him personally:

It’s helped me to cope with a lot of things, even relatively trivial things. The last time I went to the dentist, I’m sure I was using Stoic pain management techniques. It becomes a habitual thing. Coping with some of the stress that therapists have when they’re dealing with clients who sometimes describe very traumatic problems, and the stress of working with other people who have their difficulties and stresses. [I moved] to Canada a few years ago, and that was a big upheaval for me. As for many people, a life-changing event like that can require a lot to deal with. Learning to think about things like a Stoic has helped me to negotiate all of these things in life.

Donald Robertson

Although I haven’t done it since August 2010(!) I used to do something which I referred to as “calling myself into the office”. The idea was that I’d set myself three to five goals, and then review them at the end of the month. I’d also set myself some new goals.

The value of doing this is that you can see that you’re making progress. It’s something that I should definitely start doing again. I was reminded of this approach after reading an article at Career Contessa about weekly self-evaluations. The suggested steps are:

  1. Celebrate your wins
  2. Address your losses or weaknesses
  3. Note your “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tasks
  4. Create goals for next week
  5. Summarise it all in one sentence

While Career Contessa suggests this will all take only five minutes, I think that if you did it properly it might take more like 20 minutes to half an hour. Whether you do it weekly or monthly probably depends on the size of the goals you’re trying to achieve. Either way, it’s a valuable exercise.

We all need to cut ourselves some slack, to go easy on ourselves. The chances are that the thing we’re worrying about isn’t such a big deal in the scheme of things, and the world won’t end if we don’t get that thing done right now. Perhaps regular self-examination, whether through Stoicism or weekly/monthly reviews, can help more of us with that?


Also check out:

  • Trying (Snakes and Ladders) — “I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.”
  • 43 — All in & with the flow (Buster Benson) — “It’s tempting to always rationalize why our current position is optimal, but as I get older it’s a lot easier to see how things move in cycles, and the cycles themselves are what we should pay attention to more than where we happen to be in them at the moment.
  • Four Ways to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do with Your Life (Lifehacker) — “In the end, figuring out your passion, your career path, your life purpose—whatever you want to call it—isn’t an easy process and no magic bullet exists for doing it.”

The proper amount of wealth is that which neither descends to poverty nor is far distant from it

So said Seneca, in a quotation I found via the consistently-excellent New Philosopher magazine. In my experience, ‘wealth’ is a relative concept. I’ve met people who are, to my mind, fabulously well-off, but don’t feel it because their peers are wealthier. Likewise, I’ve met people who aren’t materially well-off, but don’t realise they’re poor because their friends and colleagues are too.

Let’s talk about inequality. Cory Doctorow, writing for BoingBoing, points to an Institute for Fiscal Studies report (PDF) by Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu that is surprisingly readable. They note cultural differences around inequality and its link to (perceived) meritocracy: 

A recent experiment found that people were much more accepting of inequality when it resulted from merit instead of luck (Almas, Cappelen and Tungodden, 2019). Given the opportunity to redistribute gains to others, people were significantly less likely to do so when differences in gains reflected differences in productivity. The experiment also revealed differences between countries in people’s views of what is fair, with more Norwegians opting for redistribution even when gains were merit-based and more Americans accepting inequality even when outcomes were due to luck.

This suggests that to understand whether inequality is a problem, we need to understand the sources of inequality, views of what is fair and the implications of inequality as well as the levels of inequality. Are present levels of inequalities due to well-deserved rewards or to unfair bargaining power, regulatory failure or political capture? Can meritocracy be unfair? What is the moral status of luck? And what if inequalities derived from a fair process in one generation are transmitted on to future generations?

Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu

Can meritocracy be unfair? Yes, of course it can, as I pointed out in this article from a few years back. To quote myself:

I’d like to see meritocracy consigned to the dustbin of history as an outdated approach to society. At a time in history when we seek to be inclusive, to recognise and celebrate diversity, the use of meritocratic practices seems reactionary and regressive. Meritocracy applies a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that — no surprises here — just happens to privilege those already in positions of power.

Doug Belshaw

Doctorow also cites Chris Dillow, who outlines in a blog post eight reasons why inequality makes us poorer. Dillow explains that “what matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has”. I’ve attempted to summarise his reasons below:

  1. “Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in… means of entrenching their privilege and power”
  2. “Unequal corporate hierarchies can demotivate junior employees”
  3. “Economic inequality leads to less trust”
  4. “Inequality can prevent productivity-enhancing change”
  5. “Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest”
  6. “Inequalities of power… have allowed governments to abandon the aim of truly full employment and given firms more ability to boost profits by suppressing wages and conditions [which] has disincentivized investments in labour-saving technologies”
  7. “High-powered incentives that generate inequality within companies can backfire… [as] they encourage bosses to hit measured targets and neglect less measurable things”
  8. “High management pay can entrench… the ‘forces of conservatism’ which are antagonistic to technical progress”

Meanwhile, Eleanor Ainge Roy reports for The Guardian that the New Zealand government has unveiled a ‘wellbeing budget’ focused on “mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence”. Their finance minister is quoted by Roy as saying:

For me, wellbeing means people living lives of purpose, balance and meaning to them, and having the capabilities to do so.

This gap between rhetoric and reality, between haves and have-nots, between the elites and the people, has been exploited by populists around the globe.

Grant Robertson

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for government to act on inequality. We can seize the initiative ourselves through co-operation. In The Boston Globe, Andy Rosen explains that different ways of organising are becoming more popular:

The idea has been percolating for a while in some corners of the tech world, largely as a response to the gig economy, in which workers are often considered contractors and don’t get the same protections and benefits as employees. In New York, for example, Up & Go, a kind of Uber for house cleaning, is owned by the cleaners who provide the services.

[…]

People who have followed the co-op movement say the model, and a broader shift toward increased employee and consumer control, is likely to become more prominent in coming years, especially as aging baby boomers look for socially responsible ways to cash out and retire by selling their companies to groups of employees.

ANdy Rosen

Some of the means by which we can make society a fairer and more equal place come through government intervention at the policy level. But we should never forget the power we have through self-organising and co-operating together.


Also check out: