People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think

So said Neil Postman (via Jay Springett). Jay is one of a small number of people who’s work I find particularly thoughtful and challenging.

Another is Venkatesh Rao, who last week referenced a Twitter thread he posted earlier this year. It’s awkward to and quote the pertinent parts of such things, but I’ll give it a try:

Megatrend conclusion: if you do not build a second brain or go offline, you will BECOME the second brain.

[…]

Basically, there’s no way to actually handle the volume of information and news that all of us appear to be handling right now. Which means we are getting augmented cognition resources from somewhere. The default place is “social” media.

[…]

What those of us who are here are doing is making a deal with the devil (or an angel): in return for being 1-2 years ahead of curve, we play 2nd brain to a shared first brain. We’ve ceded control of executive attention not to evil companies, but… an emergent oracular brain.

[…]

I called it playing your part in the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC).

[…]

Central trade-off in managing your participation in GSCITC is: The more you attempt to consciously curate your participation rather than letting it set your priorities, the less oracular power you get in return.

Venkatesh Rao

He reckons that being fully immersed in the firehose of social media is somewhat like reading the tea leaves or understanding the runes. You have to ‘go with the flow’.

Rao uses the example of the very Twitter thread he’s making. Constructing it that way versus, for example, writing a blog post or newsletter means he is in full-on ‘gonzo mode’ versus what he calls (after Henry David Thoreau) ‘Waldenponding’.

I have been generally very unimpressed with the work people seem to generate when they go waldenponding to work on supposedly important things. The comparable people who stay more plugged in seem to produce better work.

My kindest reading of people who retreat so far it actually compromises their work is that it is a mental health preservation move because they can’t handle the optimum GSCITC immersion for their project. Their work could be improved if they had the stomach for more gonzo-nausea.

My harshest reading is that they’re narcissistic snowflakes who overvalue their work simply because they did it.

Venkatesh Rao

Well, perhaps. But as someone who has attempted to drink from that firehouse for over a decade, I think the time comes when you realise something else. Who’s setting the agenda here? It’s not ‘no-one’, but neither is it any one person in particular. Rather the whole structure of what can happen within such a network depends on decisions made other than you.

For example, Dan Hon, pointed (in a supporter-only newsletter) to an article by Louise Matsakis in WIRED that explains that the social network TikTok not only doesn’t add timestamps to user-generated content, but actively blocks the clock on your smartphone. These design decisions affect what can and can’t happen, and also the kinds of things that do end up happening.


Writing in The Guardian, Leah McLaren writes about being part of the last generation to really remember life before the internet.

In this age of uncertainty, predictions have lost value, but here’s an irrefutable one: quite soon, no person on earth will remember what the world was like before the internet. There will be records, of course (stored in the intangibly limitless archive of the cloud), but the actual lived experience of what it was like to think and feel and be human before the emergence of big data will be gone. When that happens, what will be lost?

Leah McLaren

McLaren is evidently a few years older than me, as I’ve been online since I was about 15. However, I definitely reflect on a regular basis about what being hyper-connected does to my sense of self. She cites a recent study published in the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association. Part of the conclusion of that study reads:

As digital technologies become increasingly integrated with everyday life, the Internet is becoming highly proficient at capturing our attention, while producing a global shift in how people gather information, and connect with one another. In this review, we found emerging support for several hypotheses regarding the pathways through which the Internet is influencing our brains and cognitive processes, particularly with regards to: a) the multi‐faceted stream of incoming information encouraging us to engage in attentional‐switching and “multi‐tasking” , rather than sustained focus; b) the ubiquitous and rapid access to online factual information outcompeting previous transactive systems, and potentially even internal memory processes; c) the online social world paralleling “real world” cognitive processes, and becoming meshed with our offline sociality, introducing the possibility for the special properties of social media to impact on “real life” in unforeseen ways.

Firth, J., et al. (2019). The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18: 119-129.

In her Guardian article, McLaren cites the main author, Dr Joseph Firth:

“The problem with the internet,” Firth explained, “is that our brains seem to quickly figure out it’s there – and outsource.” This would be fine if we could rely on the internet for information the same way we rely on, say, the British Library. But what happens when we subconsciously outsource a complex cognitive function to an unreliable online world manipulated by capitalist interests and agents of distortion? “What happens to children born in a world where transactive memory is no longer as widely exercised as a cognitive function?” he asked.

Leah McLaren

I think this is the problem, isn’t it? I’ve got no issue with having an ‘outboard brain’ where I store things that I want to look up instead of remember. It’s also insanely useful to have a method by which the world can join together in a form of ‘hive mind’.

What is problematic is when this ‘hive mind’ (in the form of social media) is controlled by people and organisations whose interests are orthogonal to our own.

In that situation, there are three things we can do. The first is to seek out forms of nascent ‘hive mind’-like spaces which are not controlled by people focused on the problematic concept of ‘shareholder value’. Like Mastodon, for example, and other decentralised social networks.

The second is to spend time finding out the voices to which you want to pay particular attention. The chances are that they won’t only write down their thoughts via social networks. They are likely to have newsletters, blogs, and even podcasts.

Third, an apologies for the metaphor, but with such massive information consumption the chances are that we can become ‘constipated’. So if we don’t want that to happen, if we don’t want to go on an ‘information diet’, then we need to ensure a better throughput. One of the best things I’ve done is have a disciplined approach to writing (here on Thought Shrapnel, and elsewhere) about the things I’ve read and found interesting. That’s one way to extract the nutrients.


I’d love your thoughts on this. Do you agree with the above? What strategies do you have in place?

6 Comments

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  1. Great post Doug. I like your three things:

    Hive-mind not linked to shareholder value
    Find voices in other places
    Curate not just consume
    Personally speaking, I have not found a home on Mastodon, but spend less time on Twitter. Instead, I scroll through my feed within Inoreader, while follow up links captured through Nuzzel.
    In regards to voices in other places, I subscribe to a number of blogs, podcasts and newsletters.
    I also try and curate what I read. However, I feel that I could probably do more to join the dots.

  2. Hi

    An interesting topic …

    The idea of a ‘world brain’ has a longish history in the ‘modern era’, an aspiration since at least the 16/17 century. Until the 1960s, up to an including things like Xanadu and even the WWW of Berners-Lee all/most projects concerned aimed to retrieve, catalogue, store and disseminate *existing* information (some form or other of ‘texts’). It was a librarian’s idea of information. Today we seem to live in a highly reflexive environment in which the tools of retrieval, collection and cataloguing are themselves *creating* new information (‘texts’) that also need to be retrieved, collected and catalogued. It’s a dizzying situation all right and, in the history of ideas, unprecedented.

    Your questions about how to cope are important – though I have no answers except perhaps to echo many others who talk about the need for self-discipline, focus, archival skills and, no getting away from it, bloody hard work if you really are going to make something of what is at once a liberation and a curse.

    Less is more when it comes to thinking, knowledge, and understanding. The risk with feeds like Twitter is that there is always the next interesting idea/source/conversation. coming along even before one has had a moment to reflect on and integrate the current one. Collecting and archiving becomes an end in itself …

    … we are all now librarians in some sense!

    I think it was in Richard Feynman’s autobiographical essys where he talks about the relative scarcity of books in the small town where he grew up. He describes how his mind was opened, and his mathematical talent ‘triggered’, by coming upon a maths textbook in a second hand bookshop. Just *one* book that he worked through many times in his teen years.

    The rest as they say is history.

    Now we have millions of ‘books’ (i.e. posts, report, tweets etc.) that trigger’ our thinking in all so many directions. It’s a kaleidoscope – a library of Babel!

    As I say, I have no cool answers to how to manage this – I only know that it requires all the usual qualities of persistence and hard work to read and synthesise the ever-expanding universe of ‘texts’ that catch our attention. Curation on its own is not enough. Assemblies of information are really just first base.

    I am well old enough to remember pre-internet days (although I am of the television generation, my parents of the radio generation) and Feynman’s description captures what it was like. One or two ‘significant’ books is all it took to create or develop some new perspective or understanding. One did not go looking for dozens more books like the ones we had (whereas nowadays I do spend time searching for similar posts and articles or build endless bibliographies of relevant publications), but we tried to read what we had a bit thoroughly – talk about them with friends and generally get excited about what we thought were important paragraphs or, believe it or not, important sentences.

    There was always the element of seeking out similar books but today I often find that in the online world there is a sort of anxiety at work that never used to exist – that somehow there is a more recent, more interesting, or new ‘thought’ to capture.

    Books (and to some extent even newspapers TV programmes) had a degree timelessness about them, a pace, a half-life that kept them relevant for longer than now. Even book publishing seems to have changed – I have lost count of how many new books have been published this year alone relevant to topics I am interested in – more than I could hope to read in ten years! The half-lie of book sis so much less than it was.

    For all that I would not like to give up what we now have. It is rich and exciting. The volatility of ideas can be problematic but I have no idea (as yet) how to deal with that. Resisting the anxiety brought on by ‘infoglut’ can also be challenging.

    Perhaps this rapid culture of ideas is something that could be better handled within education where, oddly, the school curriculum seems over-resistant to finding ways to work with this rich, sometimes extravagant, information environment we have. (The Saber-Tooth curriculum effect?)

    Anyway – signing off.

    For the record I use Evernote (which has taken some time to learn to use in a way that suits me, so I am fighting the temptation to learn other similar tools like Notion). It’s great for archiving but Evernote to needs to improve their text editing tools esp for annotating and commenting on archived items. And of course I use Twitter, Feedly to track blogs, and several mailing lists (but too many). Android makes it a breeze to browse, read and file posts, articles to Evernote or to Gmail (which I also use to keep organised collections of stuff)

    After reading your post I am now tempted to look at Mastodon and Nuzzel but time-to-usefulness (TTU) is a vital measure for me these days. Only so many hours to devote to yet more helpful tools! Having developed some sort of system that works for me I have to be careful about disrupting it too much …

    Follow your newsletter with interest – always something to think/argue about! Thanks.

    • Thanks David, that’s a post-length comment in its own right!

      I always feel like I’m missing out by not using something like Evernote, but I’ve given up trying to keep hold of everything I’ve ever come across of interest.

      What I have noticed in the last couple of weeks of being away from Twitter and the news is that the newsletters to which subscribe (some paid, some free) have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than other places.

      Just to re-emphasise my point about *doing* something with the information: Thought Shrapnel is that to me. There’ll be stuff I discover that I never write about. That’s the stuff I’m least likely to remember.

  3. Hi Doug,

    interesting thoughts and important concepts.

    I’d consider the hive brain you describe as a third brain, because there already is a second brain that is really important to me which is the concept of using external means to build a support structure for my personal brain without thinking about collaboration.

    That’s what you’re probably missing if you don’t use evernote, even though evernote isn’t the only (and probably not the best) tool for this kind of system.

    The German sociologist Niklas Luhman was really successful in setting up his Zettelkasten (slip box), as an external brain. Check out https://takesmartnotes.com/ for a really good book on the concept.

    Then there’s Tiago Forte with his concept of “Building a second brain”, mostly based on evernote. His key idea is that the value of your notes is not in their quantity, but that there’s much to be gained by going over your important notes again and again, adding more depth to them.

    These are just two pointers to get started.

    I myself am just starting to set up my own second brain using the outliner app workflowy, and there’s a small community of people using workflowy for related things.

    But you’re right, the important thing is to actually do something with the information, so maybe Thought Shrapnel is your second brain (and even tapping into third, because you get feedback on your thoughts).

    Alex

    • Thanks Alex, I did use Evernote for many years but found that sharing things by default openly worked better for some reason. I guess there’s no ‘perfect’ system…

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