Tag: social media (page 1 of 2)

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other

Graphic showing a hospital, face masks, and hand washing

😷 How do pandemics end?

🙆 How I talk to the victims of conspiracy theories

🔒 The Github youtube-dl Takedown Isn’t Just a Problem of American Law

🖥️ The Raspberry Pi 400 – Teardown and Review

🐧 As a former social media analyst, I’m quitting Twitter

Quotation-as-title by Eric Hoffer. Image from top-linked post.

One nation under Zuck

This image, from Grayson Perry, is incredible. As he points out in the accompanying article, he’s chosen the US due to an upcoming series of his, but geographically this could be anywhere, as culture wars these days happen mainly online.

I’ve added the emphasis in the quotation below:

When we experience a background hum of unfocused emotion, be it anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, we unconsciously look for something to attach it to. Social media is brilliant at supplying us with issues to which attach our free-floating feelings. We often look for nice, preformed boxes into which we can dump our inchoate feelings, we crave certainty. Social media constantly offers up neat solutions for our messy feelings, whether it be God, guns, Greta or gender identity.

In a battle-torn landscape governed by zeroes and ones, nuance, compromise and empathy are the first casualties. If I were to sum up the online culture war in one word it would be “diaphobia”, a term coined by the psychiatrist RD Laing meaning “fear of being influenced by other people”, the opposite of dialogue. Our ever-present underlying historical and enculturated emotions will nudge us to cherrypick and polish the nuggets of information that support a stance that may have been in our bodies from childhood. Once we have taken sides, the algorithms will supply us with a stream of content to entrench and confirm our beliefs.

Grayson Perry, Be it on God, guns or Greta, social media offers neat solutions for our messy feelings (The Guardian)

Saturday spinnings

As usual, I’m taking a month off Thought Shrapnel duties during the month of August. So this is my last post for a few weeks.

In the meantime, consider deactivating your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. See how it makes you feel, and perhaps I’ll run into you on the Fediverse? (start here)

Sinead Bovell

I Am a Model and I Know That Artificial Intelligence Will Eventually Take My Job

There are major issues of transparency and authenticity here because the beliefs and opinions don’t actually belong to the digital models, they belong to the models’ creators. And if the creators can’t actually identify with the experiences and groups that these models claim to belong to (i.e., person of color, LGBTQ, etc.), then do they have the right to actually speak on those issues? Or is this a new form of robot cultural appropriation, one in which digital creators are dressing up in experiences that aren’t theirs?

Sinead Bovell (Vogue)

This is an incredible article that looks at machine learning and AI through the lens of an industry I hadn’t thought of as being on the brink of being massively disrupted by technology.

How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture

It is strange that “cancel culture” has become a project of the left, which spent the 20th century fighting against capricious firings of “troublesome” employees. A lack of due process does not become a moral good just because you sometimes agree with its targets. We all, I hope, want to see sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination decrease. But we should be aware of the economic incentives here, particularly given the speed of social media, which can send a video viral, and see onlookers demand a response, before the basic facts have been established. Afraid of the reputational damage that can be incurred in minutes, companies are behaving in ways that range from thoughtless and uncaring to sadistic.


If you care about progressive causes, then woke capitalism is not your friend. It is actively impeding the cause, siphoning off energy, and deluding us into thinking that change is happening faster and deeper than it really is. When people talk about the “excesses of the left”—a phenomenon that blights the electoral prospects of progressive parties by alienating swing voters—in many cases they’re talking about the jumpy overreactions of corporations that aren’t left-wing at all.

Helen Lewis (The Atlantic)

Cancel culture is problematic, and mainly because of the unequal power structures involved. This is an important read. See also this article by Albert Wenger which has some suggestions towards the end in this regard.

Woman working at a laptop

How to Stay Productive When the World Is on Fire

The goal of productivity is to get the things you have to get done finished so you can spend more time on the things you want to do. Don’t fall into the busy trap, where you judge your self-worth by how productive you are or how much you’ve contributed to your company or manager. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water. I hope these tips will help you do the same.

Alan Henry (WIRED)

As I wrote yesterday on my personal blog, I have a bit of an issue with perfectionism. So this reminder, along with the other great advice in the article, was a timely reminder.

Why you should be thanking your employees more often

If you treat somebody with disdain, of course, you give that person a psychological incentive to diminish your opinion and to want you to be less powerful. Inversely, if you demonstrate understanding and appreciation of someone’s contribution, you create a psychological incentive in the individual to give greater weight to your opinion. And that person will want to strengthen the weight of your opinion in the eyes of others. Appreciation and gratitude breed appreciation and gratitude.

Bruce Tulgan (Fast Company)

Creating a productive, psychologically safe, and emotionally intelligent environment means thanking people for the work they do. That means for their day-to-day activities, not just when they put in a herculean effort. A paycheck is not thanks enough for the work we do and the value we provide.

Old blue boat

Nostalgia reimagined

More interesting still is that nostalgia can bring to mind time-periods we didn’t directly experience. In the film Midnight in Paris (2011), Gil is overwhelmed by nostalgic thoughts about 1920s Paris – which he, a modern-day screenwriter, hasn’t experienced – yet his feelings are nothing short of nostalgic. Indeed, feeling nostalgic for a time one didn’t actually live through appears to be a common phenomenon if all the chatrooms, Facebook pages and websites dedicated to it are anything to go by. In fact, a new word has been coined to capture this precise variant of nostalgia – anemoia, defined by the Urban Dictionary and the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as ‘nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’.

How can we make sense of the fact that people feel nostalgia not only for past experiences but also for generic time periods? My suggestion, inspired by recent evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is that the variety of nostalgia’s objects is explained by the fact that its cognitive component is not an autobiographical memory, but a mental simulation – an imagination, if you will – of which episodic recollections are a sub-class.

Nigel Warburton (Aeon)

In the UK at least, shows like Downton Abbey and Call The Midwife are popular. My view of this is that, as this article would seem to support, it’s a kind of nostalgia for a time that was imagined to be better.

There’s a sinister side to this, as well. This kind of nostalgia seems to be particularly prevalent among more conservative-leaning (white) people harking back to a time of greater divisions in society along race and class lines. I think it’s rather disturbing.

The World Is Noisy. These Groups Want to Restore the Quiet

Quiet Parks International (QPI) is a nonprofit working to establish certification for quiet parks to raise awareness of and preserve quiet places. The fledgling organization—whose members include audio engineers, scientists, environmentalists, and musicians—has identified at least 262 sites worldwide, including 30 in the US, that it believes are quiet or could become so with management changes….

QPI has no regulatory authority, but like the International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Parks initiative, the nonprofit believes its certification—granted only after a detailed, three-day sound analysis—can encourage public support of preservation efforts and provide guidelines for protection. “The places that are quiet today … are basically leftovers—places that are out of the way,” Quiet Parks cofounder Gordon Hempton says.

Jenny Morber (WIRED)

I live in a part of the world close to both a designated Dark Sky Park and mountains into which I can escape. Light and noise pollution threaten both of them, so I’m glad to hear of these efforts.

Header image by Uillian Vargas

Saturday signalings

I’ve been head-down doing lots of work this week, and then it’s been Bank Holiday weekend, so my reading has been pretty much whatever my social media feeds have thrown up!

There’s broadly three sections here, though: stuff about the way we think, about technology, and about ways of working. Enjoy!

How Clocks Changed Humanity Forever, Making Us Masters and Slaves of Time

The article with the above embedded video is from five years ago, but someone shared it on my Twitter timeline and it reminded me of something. When I taught my History students about the Industrial Revolution it blew their minds that different parts of the country could be, effectively, on different ‘timezones’ until the dawn of the railways.

It just goes to show how true it is that first we shape our tools, and then they shape us.

‘Allostatic Load’ is the Psychological Reason for Our Pandemic Brain Fog

“Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of Practice, Research, and Policy at the American Psychological Association. “Part of what we try to do to function in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those kinds of things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.”

Emily Baron Cadloff (VICE)

A short but useful article on why despite having grand plans, it’s difficult to get anything done in our current situation. We can’t even plan holidays at the moment.

Most of the Mind Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

The industrialized world is so full of human faces, like in ads, that we forget that it’s just ink, or pixels on a computer screen. Every time our ancestors saw something that looked like a human face, it probably was one. As a result, we didn’t evolve to distinguish reality from representation. The same perceptual machinery interprets both.

Jim Davies (Nautilus)

A useful reminder that our brain contains several systems, some of which are paleolithic.

Wright Flier and Bell Rocket Belt

Not even wrong: ways to predict tech

The Wright Flier could only go 200 meters, and the Rocket Belt could only fly for 21 seconds. But the Flier was a breakthrough of principle. There was no reason why it couldn’t get much better, very quickly, and Blériot flew across the English Channel just six years later. There was a very clear and obvious path to make it better. Conversely, the Rocket Belt flew for 21 seconds because it used almost a litre of fuel per second – to fly like this for half a hour you’d need almost two tonnes of fuel, and you can’t carry that on your back. There was no roadmap to make it better without changing the laws of physics. We don’t just know that now – we knew it in 1962.

Benedict Evans

A useful post about figuring out whether something will happen or be successful. The question is “what would have to change?”

Grandmother ordered to delete Facebook photos under GDPR

The case went to court after the woman refused to delete photographs of her grandchildren which she had posted on social media. The mother of the children had asked several times for the pictures to be deleted.

The GDPR does not apply to the “purely personal” or “household” processing of data. However, that exemption did not apply because posting photographs on social media made them available to a wider audience, the ruling said.

“With Facebook, it cannot be ruled out that placed photos may be distributed and may end up in the hands of third parties,” it said.

The woman must remove the photos or pay a fine of €50 (£45) for every day that she fails to comply with the order, up to a maximum fine of €1,000.

BBC News

I think this is entirely reasonable, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of this until people stop thinking they can sharing the personally identifiable information of others whenever and however they like.

Developing new digital skills – is training always the answer?

Think ESKiMO:

– Environment (E) – are the reasons its not happening outside of the control of the people you identified in Step 1? Do they have the resources, the tools, the funding? Do their normal objectives mean that they have to prioritise other things? Does the prevailing organisational culture work against achieving the goals?

– Skills (S) – Are they aware of the tasks they need to do and enabled to do them?

– Knowledge (K) – is the knowledge they need available to them? It could either be information they have to carry around in their heads, or just be available in a place they know about.

– Motivation (Mo) – Do they have the will to carry it out?

The last three (S,K, Mo) work a little bit like the fire triangle from that online fire safety training you probably had to do this year. All three need to be present for new practice to happen and to be sustainable.

Chris Thomson (Jisc)

In this post, Chris Thomson, who I used to work with at Jisc, challenges the notion that training is about getting people to do what you want. Instead, this ESKiMO approach asks why they’re not already doing it.

xkcd: estimating time

Leave Scrum to Rugby, I Like Getting Stuff Done

Within Scrum, estimates have a primary purpose – to figure out how much work the team can accomplish in a given sprint. If I were to grant that Sprints were a good idea (which I obviously don’t believe) then the description of estimates in the official Scrum guide wouldn’t be a problem.

The problem is that estimates in practice are a bastardization of reality. The Scrum guide is vague on the topic so managers take matters into their own hands.

Lane Wagner (Qvault)

I’m a product manager, and I find it incredible that people assume that ‘agile’ is the same as ‘Scrum’. If you’re trying to shoehorn the work you do into a development process then, to my mind, you’re doing it wrong.

As with the example below, it’s all about something that works for your particular context, while bearing in mind the principles of the agile manifesto.

How I trick my well developed procrastination skills

The downside of all those nice methods and tools is that you have to apply them, which can be of course, postponed as well. Thus, the most important step is to integrate your tool or todo list in your daily routine. Whenever you finish a task, or you’re thinking what to do next, the focus should be on your list. For example, I figured out that I always click on one link in my browser favourites (a news website) or an app on my mobile phone (my email app). Sometimes I clicked hundred times a day, even though, knowing that there can’t be any new emails, as I checked one minute ago. Maybe you also developed such a “useless” habit which should be broken or at least used for something good. So I just replaced the app on my mobile and the link in my browser with my Remember The Milk app which shows me the tasks I have to do today. If you have just a paper-based solution it might be more difficult but try to integrate it in your daily routines, and keep it always in reach. After finishing a task, you should tick it in your system, which also forces you to have a look at the task list again.

Wolfgang Gassler

Some useful pointers in this post, especially at the end about developing and refining your own system that depends on your current context.

The Great Asshole Fallacy

The focus should be on the insistence of excellence, both from yourself and from those around you. The wisdom from experience. The work ethic. The drive. The dedication. The sacrifice. Jordan hits on all of those. And he even implies that not everyone needed the “tough love” to push them. But that’s glossed over for the more powerful mantra. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that not only are there other ways to tease such greatness out of people — different people require different methods.

M.G. Siegler (500ish)

I like basketball, and my son plays, but I haven’t yet seen the documentary mentioned in this post. The author discusses Michael Jordan stating that “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price.” However, he suggests that this isn’t the only way to get to excellence, and I would agree.

Header image by Romain Briaux

Software ate the world, so all the world’s problems get expressed in software

Benedict Evans recently posted his annual ‘macro trends’ slide deck. It’s incredibly insightful, and work of (minimalist) art. This article’s title comes from his conclusion, and you can see below which of the 128 slides jumped out at me from deck:

For me, what the deck as a whole does is place some of the issues I’ve been thinking about in a wider context.

My team is building a federated social network for educators, so I’m particularly tuned-in to conversations about the effect social media is having on society. A post by Harold Jarche where he writes about his experience of Twitter as a rage machine caught my attention, especially the part where he talks about how people are happy to comment based on the ‘preview’ presented to them in embedded tweets:

Research on the self-perception of knowledge shows how viewing previews without going to the original article gives an inflated sense of understanding on the subject, “audiences who only read article previews are overly confident in their knowledge, especially individuals who are motivated to experience strong emotions and, thus, tend to form strong opinions.” Social media have created a worldwide Dunning-Kruger effect. Our collective self-perception of knowledge acquired through social media is greater than it actually is.

Harold Jarche

I think our experiment with general-purpose social networks is slowly coming to an end, or at least will do over the next decade. What I mean is that, while we’ll still have places where you can broadcast anything to anyone, the digital environments we’ll spend more time will be what Venkatesh Rao calls the ‘cozyweb’:

Unlike the main public internet, which runs on the (human) protocol of “users” clicking on links on public pages/apps maintained by “publishers”, the cozyweb works on the (human) protocol of everybody cutting-and-pasting bits of text, images, URLs, and screenshots across live streams. Much of this content is poorly addressable, poorly searchable, and very vulnerable to bitrot. It lives in a high-gatekeeping slum-like space comprising slacks, messaging apps, private groups, storage services like dropbox, and of course, email.

Venkatesh Rao

That’s on a personal level. I should imagine organisational spaces will be a bit more organised. Back to Jarche:

We need safe communities to take time for reflection, consideration, and testing out ideas without getting harassed. Professional social networks and communities of practices help us make sense of the world outside the workplace. They also enable each of us to bring to bear much more knowledge and insight that we could do on our own.

Harold Jarche

…or to use Rao’s diagram which is so-awful-it’s-useful:

Image by Venkatesh Rao

Of course, blockchain/crypto could come along and solve all of our problems. Except it won’t. Humans are humans (are humans).

Ever since Eli Parisier’s TED talk urging us to beware online “filter bubbles” people have been wringing their hands about ensuring we have ‘balance’ in our networks.

Interestingly, some recent research by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, paints a slightly different picture. The researcher, Dr Richard Fletcher begins by investigating how people access the news.

Preferred access to news
Diagram via the Reuters Institute, Oxford University

Fletcher draws a distinction between different types of personalisation:

Self-selected personalisation refers to the personalisations that we voluntarily do to ourselves, and this is particularly important when it comes to news use. People have always made decisions in order to personalise their news use. They make decisions about what newspapers to buy, what TV channels to watch, and at the same time which ones they would avoid

Academics call this selective exposure. We know that it’s influenced by a range of different things such as people’s interest levels in news, their political beliefs and so on. This is something that has pretty much always been true.

Pre-selected personalisation is the personalisation that is done to people, sometimes by algorithms, sometimes without their knowledge. And this relates directly to the idea of filter bubbles because algorithms are possibly making choices on behalf of people and they may not be aware of it.

The reason this distinction is particularly important is because we should avoid comparing pre-selected personalisation and its effects with a world where people do not do any kind of personalisation to themselves. We can’t assume that offline, or when people are self-selecting news online, they’re doing it in a completely random way. People are always engaging in personalisation to some extent and if we want to understand the extent of pre-selected personalisation, we have to compare it with the realistic alternative, not hypothetical ideals.

Dr Richard Fletcher

Read the article for the details, but the takeaways for me were twofold. First, that we might be blaming social media for wider and deeper divisons within society, and second, that teaching people to search for information (rather than stumble across it via feeds) might be the best strategy:

People who use search engines for news on average use more news sources than people who don’t. More importantly, they’re more likely to use sources from both the left and the right. 
People who rely mainly on self-selection tend to have fairly imbalanced news diets. They either have more right-leaning or more left-leaning sources. People who use search engines tend to have a more even split between the two.

Dr Richard Fletcher

Useful as it is, what I think this research misses out is the ‘black box’ algorithms that seek to keep people engaged and consuming content. YouTube is the poster child for this. As Jarche comments:

We are left in a state of constant doubt as conspiratorial content becomes easier to access on platforms like YouTube than accessing solid scientific information in a journal, much of which is behind a pay-wall and inaccessible to the general public.

Harold Jarche

This isn’t an easy problem to solve.

We might like to pretend that human beings are rational agents, but this isn’t actually true. Let’s take something like climate change. We’re not arguing about the facts here, we’re arguing about politics. Adrian Bardon, writing in Fast Company, writes:

In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time, when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen.

But things don’t work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone’s ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.

Adrian Bardon

This is pretty obvious when we stop to think about it for a moment; beliefs are bound up with identity, and that’s not something that’s so easy to change.

In ideologically charged situations, one’s prejudices end up affecting one’s factual beliefs. Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, information that threatens your belief system—say, information about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment—can threaten your sense of identity itself. If it’s part of your ideological community’s worldview that unnatural things are unhealthful, factual information about a scientific consensus on vaccine or GM food safety feels like a personal attack.

Adrian Bardon

So how do we change people’s minds when they’re objectively wrong? Brian Resnick, writing for Vox, suggests the best approach might be ‘deep canvassing’:

Giving grace. Listening to a political opponent’s concerns. Finding common humanity. In 2020, these seem like radical propositions. But when it comes to changing minds, they work.


The new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.

Brian Resnick

This approach, it seems, works:

Diagram by Stanford University, via Vox

So it seems there is some hope to fixing the world’s problems. It’s just that the solutions point towards doing the hard work of talking to people and not just treating them as containers for opinions to shoot down at a distance.

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Friday flowerings

Did you see these things this week?

  • Happy 25th year, blogging. You’ve grown up, but social media is still having a brawl (The Guardian) — “The furore over social media and its impact on democracy has obscured the fact that the blogosphere not only continues to exist, but also to fulfil many of the functions of a functioning public sphere. And it’s massive. One source, for example, estimates that more than 409 million people view more than 20bn blog pages each month and that users post 70m new posts and 77m new comments each month. Another source claims that of the 1.7 bn websites in the world, about 500m are blogs. And WordPress.com alone hosts blogs in 120 languages, 71% of them in English.”
  • Emmanuel Macron Wants to Scan Your Face (The Washington Post) — “President Emmanuel Macron’s administration is set to be the first in Europe to use facial recognition when providing citizens with a secure digital identity for accessing more than 500 public services online… The roll-out is tainted by opposition from France’s data regulator, which argues the electronic ID breaches European Union rules on consent – one of the building blocks of the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation laws – by forcing everyone signing up to the service to use the facial recognition, whether they like it or not.”
  • This is your phone on feminism (The Conversationalist) — “Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true. This cognitive dissonance confuses and paralyses us. And look around. Everyone has a smartphone. So it’s probably not so bad, and anyway, that’s just how things work. Right?”
  • Google’s auto-delete tools are practically worthless for privacy (Fast Company) — “In reality, these auto-delete tools accomplish little for users, even as they generate positive PR for Google. Experts say that by the time three months rolls around, Google has already extracted nearly all the potential value from users’ data, and from an advertising standpoint, data becomes practically worthless when it’s more than a few months old.”
  • Audrey Watters (Uses This) — “For me, the ideal set-up is much less about the hardware or software I am using. It’s about the ideas that I’m thinking through and whether or not I can sort them out and shape them up in ways that make for a good piece of writing. Ideally, that does require some comfort — a space for sustained concentration. (I know better than to require an ideal set up in order to write. I’d never get anything done.)”
  • Computer Files Are Going Extinct (OneZero) — “Files are skeuomorphic. That’s a fancy word that just means they’re a digital concept that mirrors a physical item. A Word document, for example, is like a piece of paper, sitting on your desk(top). A JPEG is like a painting, and so on. They each have a little icon that looks like the physical thing they represent. A pile of paper, a picture frame, a manila folder. It’s kind of charming really.”
  • Why Technologists Fail to Think of Moderation as a Virtue and Other Stories About AI (The LA Review of Books) — “Speculative fiction about AI can move us to think outside the well-trodden clichés — especially when it considers how technologies concretely impact human lives — through the influence of supersized mediators, like governments and corporations.”
  • Inside Mozilla’s 18-month effort to market without Facebook (Digiday) — “The decision to focus on data privacy in marketing the Mozilla brand came from research conducted by the company four years ago into the rise of consumers who make values-based decisions on not only what they purchase but where they spend their time.”
  • Core human values not eyeballs (Cubic Garden) — “Theres so much more to do, but the aims are high and important for not just the BBC, but all public service entities around the world. Measuring the impact and quality on peoples lives beyond the shallow meaningless metrics for public service is critical.”

Image: The why is often invisible via Jessica Hagy’s Indexed

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?

Friday flexitarianism

Check these links out and tell me which one you like best:

  • The radical combination of degrowth and basic income (openDemocracy) — “One of the things you hear whenever you talk about degrowth is that, if the economy doesn’t grow, people are going to be without jobs, people will go hungry, and no one wants that. Rich countries might be able to afford slowing down their economies, but not poorer ones. You hear this argument mostly in countries from the Global South, like my own. This misses the point. Degrowth is a critique of our dependency on work. This idea that people have to work to stay alive, and thus the economy needs to keep growing for the sake of keeping people working.”
  • The hypersane are among us, if only we are prepared to look (Aeon) — “It is not just that the ‘sane’ are irrational but that they lack scope and range, as though they’ve grown into the prisoners of their arbitrary lives, locked up in their own dark and narrow subjectivity. Unable to take leave of their selves, they hardly look around them, barely see beauty and possibility, rarely contemplate the bigger picture – and all, ultimately, for fear of losing their selves, of breaking down, of going mad, using one form of extreme subjectivity to defend against another, as life – mysterious, magical life – slips through their fingers.”
  • “The Tragedy of the Commons”: how ecofascism was smuggled into mainstream thought (BoingBoing) — “We are reaching a “peak indifference” tipping point in the climate debate, where it’s no longer possible to deny the reality of the climate crisis. I think that many of us assumed that when that happened, we’d see a surge of support for climate justice, the diversion of resources from wealth extraction for the super-rich to climate remediation and defense centered on the public good. But that expectation overestimated the extent to which climate denial was motivated by mere greed.”
  • What Would It Take to Shut Down the Entire Internet? (Gizmodo) “One imaginative stumbling block, in playing out the implications of [this] scenario, was how something like that could happen in the first place. And so—without advocating any of the methods described below, or strongly suggesting that hundreds or thousands of like-minded heroes band together to take this sucker down once and for all—…we’ve asked a number of cybersecurity experts how exactly one would go about shutting down the entire internet.”
  • Earning, spending, saving: The currency of influence in open source (Opensource.com) — “Even though you can’t buy it, influence behaves like a form of virtual currency in an open source community: a scarce resource, always needed, but also always in short supply. One must earn it through contributions to an open source project or community. In contrast to monetary currency, however, influence is not transferable. You must earn it for yourself. You can neither give nor receive it as a gift.”
  • The Art of Topophilia: 7 Ways to Love the Place You Live (Art of Manliness) — “It’s not only possible to kindle this kind of topophilic love affair with “sexier” places chock full of well-hyped advantages, but also with so-called undesirable communities that aren’t on the cultural radar. Just as people who may initially appear lowly and unappealing, but have warm and welcoming personalities, come to seem more attractive the more we get to know them, so too can sleepier, less vaunted locales.”
  • A Like Can’t Go Anywhere, But a Compliment Can Go a Long Way (Frank Chimero) — “Passive positivity isn’t enough; active positivity is needed to counterbalance whatever sort of collective conversations and attention we point at social media. Otherwise, we are left with the skewed, inaccurate, and dangerous nature of what’s been built: an environment where most positivity is small, vague, and immobile, and negativity is large, precise, and spreadable.”
  • EU recognises “right to repair” in push to make appliances last longer (Dezeen) — “Not included in the EU right to repair rules are devices such as smart phones and laptops, whose irreplaceable batteries and performance-hampering software updates are most often accused of encouraging throwaway culture.”
  • I’m a Psychotherapist Who Sets 30-Day Challenges Instead of Long-Term Goals. Here’s Why (Inc.) — “Studies show our brains view time according to either “now deadlines” or “someday deadlines.” And “now deadlines” often fall within this calendar month.”

Image by Yung-sen Wu (via The Atlantic)

Friday fermentations

I boiled the internet and this was what remained:

  • I Quit Social Media for a Year and Nothing Magical Happened (Josh C. Simmons) — “A lot of social media related aspects of my life are different now – I’m not sure they’re better, they’re just different, but I can confidently say that I prefer this normal to last year’s. There’s a bit of rain with all of the sunshine. I don’t see myself ever going back to social media. I don’t see the point of it, and after leaving for a while, and getting a good outside look, it seems like an abusive relationship – millions of workers generating data for tech-giants to crunch through and make money off of. I think that we tend to forget how we were getting along pretty well before social media – not everything was idyllic and better, but it was fine.”
  • Face recognition, bad people and bad data (Benedict Evans) — “My favourite example of what can go wrong here comes from a project for recognising cancer in photos of skin. The obvious problem is that you might not have an appropriate distribution of samples of skin in different tones. But another problem that can arise is that dermatologists tend to put rulers in the photo of cancer, for scale – so if all the examples of ‘cancer’ have a ruler and all the examples of ‘not-cancer’ do not, that might be a lot more statistically prominent than those small blemishes. You inadvertently built a ruler-recogniser instead of a cancer-recogniser.”
  • Would the Internet Be Healthier Without ‘Like’ Counts? (WIRED) ⁠— “Online, value is quantifiable. The worth of a person, idea, movement, meme, or tweet is often based on a tally of actions: likes, retweets, shares, followers, views, replies, claps, and swipes-up, among others. Each is an individual action. Together, though, they take on outsized meaning. A YouTube video with 100,000 views seems more valuable than one with 10, even though views—like nearly every form of online engagement—can be easily bought. It’s a paradoxical love affair. And it’s far from an accident.”
  • Are Platforms Commons? (On The Horizon) — “[W]hat if ecosystems were constructed so that they were governed by the participants, rather by the hypercapitalist strivings of the platform owners — such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook — or the heavy-handed regulators? Is there a middle ground where the needs of the end user and those building, marketing, and shipping products and services can be balanced, and a fair share of the profits are distributed not just through common carrier laws but by the shared economics of a commons, and where the platform orchestrator gets a fair share, as well?”
  • Depression and anxiety threatened to kill my career. So I came clean about it (The Guardian) — “To my surprise, far from rejecting me, students stayed after class to tell me how sorry they were. They left condolence cards in my mailbox and sent emails to let me know they were praying for my family. They stopped by my office to check on me. Up to that point, I’d been so caught up in my despair that it never occurred to me that I might be worthy of concern and support. Being accepted despite my flaws touched me in ways that are hard to express.”
  • Absolute scale corrupts absolutely (apenwarr) — “Here’s what we’ve lost sight of, in a world where everything is Internet scale: most interactions should not be Internet scale. Most instances of most programs should be restricted to a small set of obviously trusted people. All those people, in all those foreign countries, should not be invited to read Equifax’s PII database in Argentina, no matter how stupid the password was. They shouldn’t even be able to connect to the database. They shouldn’t be able to see that it exists. It shouldn’t, in short, be on the Internet.”
  • The Automation Charade (Logic magazine) — “The problem is that the emphasis on technological factors alone, as though “disruptive innovation” comes from nowhere or is as natural as a cool breeze, casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.”
  • The ambitious plan to reinvent how websites get their names (MIT Technology Review) — “The system would be based on blockchain technology, meaning it would be software that runs on a widely distributed network of computers. In theory, it would have no single point of failure and depend on no human-run organization that could be corrupted or co-opted.”
  • O whatever God or whatever ancestor that wins in the next life (The Main Event) — “And it begins to dawn on you that the stories were all myths and the epics were all narrated by the villains and the history books were written to rewrite the histories and that so much of what you thought defined excellence merely concealed grift.”
  • A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked (The Atlantic) — “In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.”

The best place to be is somewhere else?

So said Albarran Cabrera, except I added a cheeky question mark.

I have a theory. Not a grand, unifying theory of everything, but a theory nonetheless. I reckon that, despite common wisdom attributing the decline of comments on blogs to social media, it’s at least also because of something else.

Here’s an obvious point: there’s more people online now than there were ten years ago. As a result, there’s more stuff being produced and shared and, because of that, there’s more to miss out on. This is known as the Fear Of Missing Out (or FOMO).

While I don’t think anyone realistically thinks it’s possible to keep up with everything produced online every day, I think people do have an expectation that they can keep up with what their online friends are doing and thinking. As the number of people we’re following in different places grows and grows, we don’t have much time to share meaningfully. Hence the rise of the retweet button.

Back in 2006, in the mists of internet time, Kathy Sierra wrote a great post entitled The myth of “keeping up”. Remember that this was before people were really using social networks such as Twitter. She talks about what we’re experiencing as ‘information anxiety’ and has some tips to combat it, which I think are still relevant:

  • Find the best aggregators
  • Get summaries
  • Cut the redundancy!
  • Unsubscribe to as many things as possible
  • Recognise that gossip and celebrity entertainment are black holes
  • Pick the categories you want for a balanced perspective, and include some from OUTSIDE your main field of interest
  • Be a LOT more realistic about what you’re likely to get to, and throw the rest out.
  • In any thing you need to learn, find a person who can tell you what is:
    • Need to know
    • Should know
    • Nice to know
    • Edge case, only if it applies to you specifically
    • Useless

The interesting thing is that, done well, social media can actually be a massive force for good. It used to be set up for that, coming on the back of RSS. Now, it’s set up to drag you into arguments about politics and the kind of “black holes” of gossip and celebrity entertainment that Kathy mentions.

One of the problems is that we have a cult of ‘busy’ which people mis-attribute to a Protestant work ethic instead of rapacious late-stage capitalism. I’ve recently finished 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary where he makes this startlingly obvious, but nevertheless profound point:

Because one’s bank account and one’s friendships can now be managed through identical machinic operations and gestures, there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience.

Jonathan Crary


[S]ince no moment, place, or situation now exists in which one can not shop, consume, or exploit networked resources, there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of 24/7 into every aspect of social or personal life.

Jonathan Crary

In other words, you’re busy because of your smartphone, the apps you decide to install upon it, and the notifications that you then receive.

The solution to FOMO is to know who you are, what you care about, and the difference you’re trying to make in the world. As Gandhi famously said:

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

Mahatma Gandhi

I’ve recently fallen into the trap of replying to work emails on my days off. It’s a slippery slope, as it sets up an expectation.

via xkcd

The same goes with social media, of course, except that it’s even more insidious, as an ‘action’ can just be liking or retweeting. It leads to slacktivism instead of making actual, meaningful change in the world.

People joke about life admin but one of those life admin tasks might be to write down (yes! with a pen and paper!) the things you’re trying to achieve with the ‘free’ apps that you’ve got installed. If you were being thorough, or teaching kids how to do this, perhaps you’d:

  1. List all of the perceived benefits
  2. List all of the perceived drawbacks
  3. List all of the ways that the people making the free app can make money

Tim Ferriss recently reposted an interview he did with Seth Godin back in 2016 about how he (Seth) manages his life. It’s an object lesson in focus, and leading an intentional life without overly-quantifying it. I can’t help but think it’s all about focus. Oh, and he doesn’t use social media, other than auto-posting from his blog to Twitter.

For me, at least, because I spend so much time surrounded by technology, the decisions I make about tech are decisions I make about life. A couple of months ago I wrote a post entitled Change your launcher, change your life where I explained that even just changing how you access apps can make a material difference to your life.

So, to come full circle, the best place to be is actually where you are right now, not somewhere else. If you’re fully present in the situation (Tim Ferriss suggests taking three breaths), then ask yourself some hard questions about what success looks like for you, and perhaps whether what you say, what you think, and what you do are in harmony.

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