Tag: Dan Hon

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?

Alexa for Kids as babysitter?

I’m just on my way out if the house to head for Scotland to climb some mountains with my wife.

But while she does (what I call) her ‘last minute faffing’ I read Dan Hon’s newsletter. I’ll just quite the relevant section without any attempt at comment or analysis.

He includes references in his newsletter, but you’ll just have to click through for those.

Mat Honan reminded me that Amazon have made an Alexa for Kids (during the course of which Tom Simonite had a great story about Alexa diligently and non-plussedly educating a group of preschoolers about the history of FARC after misunderstanding their requests for farts) and Honan has a great article about it. There are now enough Alexa (plural?) out there that the phenomenon of “the funny things kids say to Alexa” is pretty well documented as well as the earlier “Alexa is teaching my kid to be rude” observation. This isn’t to say that Amazon haven’t done *any* work thinking about how Alexa works in a kid context (Honan’s article shows that they’ve demonstrably thought about how Alexa might work and that they’ve made changes to the product to accommodate children as a specific class of user) but the overwhelming impression I had after reading Honan’s piece was that, as a parent, I still don’t think Amazon haven’t gone far enough in making Alexa kid-friendly.

They’ve made some executive decisions like coming down hard on curation versus algorithmic selection of content (see James Bridle’s excellent earlier essay on YouTube, that something is wrong on the internet and recent coverage of YouTube Kids’ content selection method still finding ways to recommend, shall we say, videos espousing extreme views). And Amazon have addressed one of the core reported issues of having an Alexa in the house (the rudeness) by designing in support for a “magic word” Easter Egg that will reward kids for saying “please”. But that seems rather tactical and dealing with a specific issue and not, well, foundational. I think that the foundational issue is something more like this: parenting is a *very* personal subject. As I have become a parent, I have discovered (and validated through experimental data) that parents have very specific views about how to do things! Many parents do not agree with each other! Parents who agree with each other on some things do not agree on other things! In families where there are two parents there is much scope for disagreement on both desired outcome and method!

All of which is to say is that the current design, architecture and strategy of Alexa for Kids indicates one sort of one-size-fits-all method and that there’s not much room for parental customization. This isn’t to say that Amazon are actively preventing it and might not add it down the line – it’s just that it doesn’t really exist right now. Honan’s got a great point that:

“[For example,] take the magic word we mentioned earlier. There is no universal norm when it comes to what’s polite or rude. Manners vary by family, culture, and even region. While “yes, sir” may be de rigueur in Alabama, for example, it might be viewed as an element of the patriarchy in parts of California.”

Some parents may have very specific views on how they want to teach their kids to be polite. This kind of thinking leads me down the path of: well, are we imagining a world where Alexa or something like it is a sort of universal basic babysitter, with default norms and those who can get, well, customization? Or what someone else might call: attentive, individualized parenting?

When Alexa for Kids came out, I did about 10 seconds’ worth of thinking and, based on how Alexa gets used in our house (two parents, a five year old and a 19 month old) and how our preschooler is behaving, I was pretty convinced that I’m in no way ready or willing to leave him alone with an Alexa for Kids in his room. My family is, in what some might see as that tedious middle class way, pretty strict about the amount of screen time our kids get (unsupervised and supervised) and suffice it to say that there’s considerable difference of opinion between my wife and myself on what we’re both comfortable with and at what point what level of exposure or usage might be appropriate.

And here’s where I reinforce that point again: are you okay with leaving your kids with a default babysitter, or are you the kind of person who has opinions about how you want your babysitter to act with your kids? (Yes, I imagine people reading this and clutching their pearls at the mere *thought* of an Alexa “babysitting” a kid but need I remind you that books are a technological object too and the issue here is in the degree of interactivity and access). At least with a babysitter I can set some parameters and I’ve got an idea of how the babysitter might interact with the kids because, well, that’s part of the babysitter screening process.

Source: Things That Have Caught My Attention s5e11