Tag: Henry David Thoreau

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?

Only thoughts conceived while walking have any value

Philosopher and intrepid walker Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for today’s quotation-as-title. Fellow philosopher Immanuel Kant was a keen walker, too, along with Henry David Thoreau. There’s just something about big walks and big thoughts.

I spent a good part of yesterday walking about 30km because I woke wanting to see the sea. It has a calming effect on me, and my wife was at work with the car. Forty-thousand steps later, I’d not only succeeded in my mission and taken the photo that accompanies this post, but managed to think about all kinds of things that definitely wouldn’t have entered my mind had I stayed at home.

I want to focus the majority of this article on a single piece of writing by Craig Mod, whose walk across Japan I followed by SMS. Instead of sharing the details of his 620 mile, six-week trek via social media, he instead updated a server which then sent text messages (with photographs, so technically MMS) to everyone who’d signed up to receive them. Readers could reply, but he didn’t receive these until he’d finished the walk and they’d been automatically curated into a book and sent to him.

Writing in WIRED, Mod talks of his “glorious, almost-disconnected walk” which was part experiment, part protest:

I have configured servers, written code, built web pages, helped design products used by millions of people. I am firmly in the camp that believes technology is generally bending the world in a positive direction. Yet, for me, Twitter foments neurosis, Facebook sadness, Google News a sense of foreboding. Instagram turns me covetous. All of them make me want to do it—whatever “it” may be—for the likes, the comments. I can’t help but feel that I am the worst version of myself, being performative on a very short, very depressing timeline. A timeline of seconds.

[…]

So, a month ago, when I started walking, I decided to conduct an experiment. Maybe even a protest. I wanted to test hypotheses. Our smartphones are incredible machines, and to throw them away entirely feels foolhardy. The idea was not to totally disconnect, but to test rational, metered uses of technology. I wanted to experience the walk as the walk, in all of its inevitably boring walkiness. To bask in serendipitous surrealism, not just as steps between reloading my streams. I wanted to experience time.

Craig Mod

I love this, it’s so inspiring. The most number of consecutive days I’ve walked is only two, so I can’t even really imagine what it must be like to walk for weeks at a time. It’s a form of meditation, I suppose, and a way to re-centre oneself.

The longness of an activity is important. Hours or even days don’t really cut it when it comes to long. “Long” begins with weeks. Weeks of day-after-day long walking days, 30- or 40-kilometer days. Days that leave you wilted and aware of all the neglect your joints and muscles have endured during the last decade of sedentary YouTubing.

[…]

In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.

Craig Mod

I find that when I walk for any period of time, certain songs start going through my head. Yesterday, for example, my brain put on repeat the song Good Enough by Dodgy from their album Free Peace Sweet. The time before it was We Can Do It from Jamiroquai’s latest album Automaton. I’m not sure where it comes from, although the beat does have something to do with my pace.

Walking by oneself seems to do something to the human brain akin to unlocking the subconscious. That’s why I’m not alone in calling it a ‘meditative’ activity. While I enjoy walking with others, the brain seems to start working a different way when you’re by yourself being propelled by your own two legs.

It’s easy to feel like we’re not ‘keeping up’ with work, with family and friends, and with the news. The truth is, however, that the most important person to ‘keep up’ with is yourself. Having a strong sense of self, I believe, is the best way to live a life with meaning.

It might sound ‘boring’ to go for a long walk, but as Alain de Botton notes in The News: a user’s manual, getting out of our routine is sometimes exactly what we need:

What we colloquially call ‘feeling bored’ is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place.

Alain de Botton

I’m not going to tell you what I thought about during my walk today as, outside of the rich (inner and outer) context in which the thinking took place, whatever I write would probably sound banal.

To me, however, the thoughts I had today will, like all of the thoughts I’ve had while doing some serious walking, help me organise my future actions. Perhaps that’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that only thoughts conceived while walking have any value.


Also check out:

  • One step ahead: how walking opens new horizons (The Guardian) — “Walking provides just enough diversion to occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the surface.”
  • A Philosophy of Walking (Frédéric Gros) — “a bestseller in France, leading thinker Frédéric Gros charts the many different ways we get from A to B—the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble—and reveals what they say about us.”
  • What 10,000 Steps Will Really Get You (The Atlantic) — “While basic guidelines can be helpful when they’re accurate, human health is far too complicated to be reduced to a long chain of numerical imperatives. For some people, these rules can even do more harm than good.”