We become what we behold

    An insightful and nuanced post from Stephen Downes, who reflects on various experiences, from changing RSS reader through to the way he takes photographs. What he calls ‘AI drift’ is our tendency to replace manual processes with automated ones.

    What I appreciate is that Downes doesn’t say this is A Bad Thing, but that we should notice and reflect on these things. For example, I’ve found it really useful to use AI with my MSc studies and to understand (and accelerate) some of the client work I’ve been involved with.

     This image depicts a person in a dimly lit room, surrounded by stacks of books and papers, focusing on a bright computer screen. The room fades from bright red near the screen to dark gray in the corners, with yellow sticky notes scattered around. The light gray walls are adorned with fading pictures, representing the neglected interests due to 'AI drift'.
    What's important is to notice what's happening. When I use AI to select the posts I read in my RSS reader, I'm finding more from the categories I've defined, but I'm missing the new stuff from categories that might not exist yet - the oft-referenced filter bubble. Also, I'm missing the ebb and flow of the undercurrent, of the comings and goings, of the stuff that seems off topic and doesn't matter - and yet, to someone who dwells in the debris like me, it does.

    This is what I’m calling ‘AI drift’ in humans. It’s this phenomenon whereby you sort of ‘drift’ into new patterns and habits when you’re in an AI environment. It’s not the filter bubble; that’s just one part of it. It’s the influence it has over all our behaviour. One of those patterns, obviously, is that you start relying on the AI more do do things. But also, you stop doing some of the things you used to do - not because the AI is handling it for you, because as in this case it might not be helping at all, but because you just start doing other things.

    […]

    AI drift isn’t inherently good, and it isn’t inherently bad. It just is. It’s like that quote often attributed to McLuhan: “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Recognizing AI drift is simply recognizing how we’re changing as we use new tools. We then decide whether we like that change or not. In my own case, it comes with some mixed feelings. But that’s OK. I wouldn’t expect anything else.

    Source: AI Drift | Half an Hour

    It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish

    🕸️ A plan to redesign the internet could make apps that no one controls ⁠— "Rewinding the internet is not about nostalgia. The dominance of a few companies, and the ad-tech industry that supports them, has distorted the way we communicate—pulling public discourse into a gravity well of hate speech and misinformation—and upended basic norms of privacy. There are few places online beyond the reach of these tech giants, and few apps or services that thrive outside of their ecosystems."

    It is, inevitably, focused on crypto tokens, which provide an economic incentive. If only there was a way to fix things that didn't seem to be driven by making the inventors obscenely rich?


    🤯 Can’t Get You Out of My Head review – Adam Curtis's 'emotional history' is dazzling — "Whether you are convinced or not by the working hypothesis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a rush. It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence, too. It is rare, also, to watch a project over which one person has evidently been given complete creative freedom and control without any sense of self-indulgence creeping in."

    Adam Curtis' documentary 'Hypernormalisation' blew my mind, and I'm already enjoying the first of these six hour-long documentaries.


    💸 Why Mastercard is bringing crypto onto its network — "We are preparing right now for the future of crypto and payments, announcing that this year Mastercard will start supporting select cryptocurrencies directly on our network. This is a big change that will require a lot of work. We will be very thoughtful about which assets we support based on our principles for digital currencies, which focus on consumer protections and compliance."

    Companies like Mastercard haven't got much of a choice here: they have to either get with the program or risk being replaced. Hopefully it will help simplify what is a confusing picture at the moment. I've had problems recently withdrawing money from cryptocurrency exchanges to my bank accounts.


    👉 Hovering over decline and clicking accept — "There's so much written about self-care. And much of it starts from a good place but falls apart the moment things get hectic. But this idea of Past You working in service of Future You isn't a one-off. It's not a massage you sneak in one Friday morning. The secret hope that 60 minutes of hot rocks will counteract 12 hours a day hunched over a laptop."

    Some good advice in here from the Nightingales, whose book is also worth a read.


    👨‍💻 Praxis and the Indieweb — "If a movement has at its core a significant barrier to entry, then it is always exclusionary. While we’ve already seen that the movement has barriers at ability and personality, it is also true that, as of 2021, there is a significant barrier in terms of monetary resources."

    As I said a year ago in this microcast, I have issues with the IndieWeb and why I'm more of a fan of decentralisation through federation.


    Quotation-as-title by Heraclitus. Image by Saad Chaudhry.

    Situations can be described but not given names

    So said that most enigmatic of philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Today's article is about the effect of external stimulants on us as human beings, whether or not we can adequately name them.

    Let's start with music, one of my favourite things in all the world. If the word 'passionate' hadn't been devalued from rampant overuse, I'd say that I'm passionate about music. One of the reasons is because it produces such a dramatic physiological response in me; my hairs stand on end and I get a surge of endophins — especially if I'm also running.

    That's why Greg Evans' piece for The Independent makes me feel quite special. He reports on (admittedly small-scale) academic research which shows that some people really do feel music differently to others:

    Matthew Sachs a former undergraduate at Harvard, last year studied individuals who get chills from music to see how this feeling was triggered.

    The research examined 20 students, 10 of which admitted to experiencing the aforementioned feelings in relation to music and 10 that didn't and took brain scans of all of them all.

    He discovered that those that had managed to make the emotional and physical attachment to music actually have different brain structures than those that don't.

    The research showed that they tended to have a denser volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex and areas that process emotions, meaning the two can communicate better.

    Greg Evans

    This totally makes sense to me. I'm extremely emotionally invested in almost everything I do, especially my work. For example, I find it almost unbearably difficult to work on something that I don't agree with or think is important.

    The trouble with this, of course, and for people like me, is that unless we're careful we're much more likely to become 'burned out' by our work. Nate Swanner reports for Dice that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently recognised burnout as a legitimate medical syndrome:

    The actual definition is difficult to pin down, but the WHO defines burnout by these three markers:

    • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
    • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
    • Reduced professional efficacy.

    Interestingly enough, the actual description of burnout asks that all three of the above criteria be met. You can’t be really happy and not producing at work; that’s not burnout.

    As the article suggests, now burnout is a recognised medical term, we now face the prospect of employers being liable for causing an environment that causes burnout in their employees. It will no longer, hopefully, be a badge of honour to have burned yourself out for the sake of a venture capital-backed startup.

    Having experienced burnout in my twenties, the road to recovery can take a while, and it has an effect on the people around you. You have to replace negative thoughts and habits with new ones. I ultimately ended up moving both house and sectors to get over it.

    As Jason Fried notes on Signal v. Noise, we humans always form habits:

    When we talk about habits, we generally talk about learning good habits. Or forming good habits. Both of these outcomes suggest we can end up with the habits we want. And technically we can! But most of the habits we have are habits we ended up with after years of unconscious behavior. They’re not intentional. They’ve been planting deep roots under the surface, sight unseen. Fertilized, watered, and well-fed by recurring behavior. Trying to pull that habit out of the ground later is going to be incredibly difficult. Your grip has to be better than its grip, and it rarely is.

    Jason Fried

    This is a great analogy. It's easy for weeds to grow in the garden of our mind. If we're not careful, as Fried points out, these can be extremely difficult to get rid of once established. That's why, as I've discussed before, tracking one's habits is itself a good habit to get into.

    Over a decade ago, a couple of years after suffering from burnout, I wrote a post outlining what I rather grandly called The Vortex of Uncompetence. Let's just say that, if you recognise yourself in any of what I write in that post, it's time to get out. And quickly.


    Also check out:

    • Your Kids Think You’re Addicted to Your Phone (The New York Times) — "Most parents worry that their kids are addicted to the devices, but about four in 10 teenagers have the same concern about their parents."
    • Why the truth about our sugar intake isn't as bad as we are told (New Scientist) — "In fact, the UK government 'Family food datasets', which have detailed UK household food and drink expenditure since 1974, show there has been a 79 per cent decline in the use of sugar since 1974 – not just of table sugar, but also jams, syrups and honey."
    • Can We Live Longer But Stay Younger? (The New Yorker) — "Where fifty years ago it was taken for granted that the problem of age was a problem of the inevitable running down of everything, entropy working its worst, now many researchers are inclined to think that the problem is “epigenetic”: it’s a problem in reading the information—the genetic code—in the cells."

    Forging better habits

    I’m very much looking forward to reading James Clear’s new book Atomic Habits. On his (very popular) blog, Clear shares a chapter in which he talks about the importance of using a ‘habit tracker’.

    In that chapter, he states:

    Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path.
    At the start of the year I started re-using a very simple app called Loop Habit Tracker. It's Android-only and available via F-Droid and Google Play, and I'm sure there's similar apps for iOS.

    You can see a screenshot of what I’m tracking at the top of this post. You simply enter what you want to track, how often you want to do it, and tick off when you’ve achieved it. Not only can the app prompt you, should you wish, but you can also check out your ‘streak’.

    Clear lists three ways that a habit tracker can help:

    1. It reminds you to act
    2. It motivates you to continue
    3. It provides immediate satisfaction
    I find using a habit tracker a particularly effective way of upping my game. I'm realistic: I've given myself a day off every week on top of two sessions each of running, swimming, and going to the gym.

    If you’re struggling to make a new habit ‘stick’, I agree with Clear that doing something like this for six weeks is a particularly effective way to kickstart your new regime!

    Source: James Clear