Category: Technology

Information without Meaning

In the Information Age (the one in which we are living now), it’s really easy to assume that more information is always better. More information means being more informed, which should theoretically make us better citizens, better friends, better human beings. It should lead to increased knowledge, and to having a more coherent picture of reality.

As the amount of information available to us grows every moment, however, I think it’s safe to say that access to more information has not led to these outcomes. More information, somehow, makes us feel less informed. It also seems to lead to less coherent and cohesive understandings of what the world is like, and what it should be like.

Neil Postman makes this argument in Technopoly:

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions, but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose (69-70).

In other words, we live in an age where the overarching cultural assumption is that more information leads to progress — scientific progress, human progress, economic progress, etc. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The glut of information that overwhelms our senses on a day to day basis leads us to question whether we know anything at all. And because of that, it leads to a lack of a unified theory about what human beings are and what human beings are meant to be.

In this kind of a situation, information becomes its own end, and a not a means to some other end, which it ought to be. Postman again:

To the question, “What problem does the information solve?” the answer is usually “How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.” This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to access information. For what purpose  or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask (61, emphasis added).

When reading this yesterday, my first thought was that, in some ways, the way information seems to act of its own accord in society to grow for its own sake is similar to the way capital (money) acts of its own accord within capitalism. Within capitalism, money always optimizes for the growth of money. Within what Postman calls “technopoly,” information optimizes for its own growth.

Without some overarching system in place that allows us to set information or money up as a means to some actual end, both of these become devourers of our time, attention, and ultimately our lives.

Twitter and the Shape of Our Knowledge

From Yascha Mounk’s piece at The Atlantic, “The Problem Isn’t Twitter. It’s That You Care About Twitter.”:

Being active on Twitter has practically become part of the job description for some of the most influential people in the country. Any politician, journalist, or CEO who does not engage with social media gives up a precious chance to shape the conversation. And any public or semipublic figure who fails to monitor what is happening on the platform risks missing attacks or accusations that can quickly find their way into the headlines of national newspapers and the chyrons of cable-news shows.

Obligation breeds habit and habit addiction. The most active Twitter users I know check the platform as soon as they wake up to see what they missed. Throughout the day, they seize on the little interstices of time they have available to them—on the way to work, or in between meetings—to follow each new development in that day’s controversies. Even in the evening, when they are settling down to dinner, they cheer attacks against their enemies, or quietly fume over the mean tweet some anonymous user sent their way. Minutes before they finally drift off to sleep, they check their notifications one last time.

I’ve been off Twitter for a while now. My posts still go to a Twitter account, @cdbaca, but I do not have access to the username and password, because I know the dangers of Twitter for my own personal well-being. But I’m not here to toot my own horn about my digital habits. I have enough other bad habits that prove I am no internet saint.

This piece at The Atlantic made me think of Neil Postman’s claim that new technologies bear new epistemologies. In other words, the technology that we use make us all think differently about two things: (1) what we can know and (2) how we know those things. In Technopoly, he writes,

new technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. (20)

Postman was no technophobe — he’s just relatively hesitant about the uncritical use of new technology that’s so prevalent in our society. We should be wary, in other words, of uncritical engagement with technology, because the use of technology often (always?) comes with its own way of framing how we picture the world. The same is true for language, which is maybe the postmodern insight.

Twitter is really interesting in this regard, and I think — I hope — that some of us are coming to our senses about the way that heavy Twitter use forms our sense of what we can know and how we know it. Limiting ourselves to short, pithy sentences that attempt to convey religious, political, philosophical, or existential meaning will absolutely have an effect on how we view those spheres of human life.

And ultimately, I wonder if that means that we ought to extend Postman’s thought about the effects of new technology. New technologies don’t just bear new epistemologies; after we accept that new epistemology (or framework of knowledge), we are led towards a new metaphysics (what reality really is), and ultimately a new way of understanding values (aesthetics and ethics).

What the Internet is Like

This lecture from Patricia Lockwood (“The Communal Mind”) is a little strange, a little terrifying, and distinctly captures what the internet felt like to me for those years I was on Twitter and Facebook. A quote, though there are several parts of this worth reading/listening to:

Each day we merged into a single eye that scanned a single piece of writing. The hot reading did not just pour from her but flowed all around her; her concreteness almost impeded it, as if she were a mote in the communal sight. Sometimes the pieces addressed the highest topics: war, poverty, epidemics. At other times they were about going to a deli with a poor friend who was intimidated by the fancy ham. And we always called it that: a piece, a piece, a piece.

Did you read the piece?
It’s there in the piece.
Did you even read the piece?
Um, I wrote the piece.

There’s something Faulkner-esque in the lecture itself, in that Lockwood attempts to capture the actual feeling of being on the internet in language. Not for the faint of heart, and admittedly a little strange. It only bolstered my desire to gain less knowledge, not more.

The Bottom of Things

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

From professor Donald Knuth’s Stanford web page (H/T Cal Newport, “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”)

It should be said that this probably shouldn’t only apply to computer science professors, but to anyone interested in doing the deep work of research, understanding, and making that research digestible for others.

Gain Knowledge. Not Too Much. Mostly from Books.

In a world where we consume and regurgitate information on an almost endless basis, it would be prescient for us to think of our information consumption in terms of diet.

What do we know about healthy eating right now? Basically, good consumption habits boil down to one simple rule for most people: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, there are acceptable variations on this rule for human flourishing, but the simplicity and truth of Michael Pollan’s statement stands. Too much of any non-plant-based food is generally bad for us. And we know that sugar (especially refined sugar that is added to food) is particularly bad for us.

I’ve been thinking about what the informational or educational equivalent of Michael Pollan’s rule above would be. Perhaps: “Gain knowledge. Not too much. Mostly from books.” Right now, this is not the standard rule for most people. We don’t really need to be convinced at the moment that knowledge is a good thing, so I don’t think I need to defend “Gain knowledge” here. Humans are knowledge-amassing creatures by nature.

The second sentence presents a bit more of a problem. “Not too much.” Really? Is there such a thing as “too much” knowledge? I think the answer is likely “yes.” We live in the age of information. Much like the fact that most Westerners have access to a nearly limitless amount of food, we also have access to (what feels like) an infinite amount of information. How many of us spend our time standing in the “stream,” (see Mike Caulfield’s distinctiong between the garden/stream metaphors when we think about the internet) consuming text, images, and video at a rate that prevents us from comprehending that which we consume? It stands to reason that access to an infinite amount of information is a bad thing. Or, at minimum, that such access prevents us from having the ability to form useful, coherent understandings about the world as it is. Constantly standing in the stream of infinite information means constantly consuming disparate hot takes on whatever today’s events are, or whatever people are outraged about right now, or whatever entertaining meme or video happens to catch the eye. Further, infinite access means our attention is constantly disrupted, which therefore disrupts any chance we have of thinking deeply about one issue.

Finally, our final sentence: “Mostly from books.” Maybe this is an unfair one. The internet is extremely helpful in many ways; without it, many of us would not know many of the things we know now. And that includes understanding social and political issues in new ways. But let’s come back to our analogy — Michael Pollan is making an argument that most of our food that we eat should come from plants and not meat, animal products, or (presumably) refined and processed ingredients (such as refined sugar).

I’d like to focus on the sugar bit, because that’s the most likely candidate for making a connection. Refined sugars are particularly bad for us, and they are also particularly addictive (I’m not going to link to anything. A ten second Google search will prove me right). Sugar gives us a quick, easy burst of energy, but it often goes unused, and so our body stores that energy as fat. This leads to obesity, sluggishness, and a high likelihood of disease in a variety of forms. In the age of access to infinite information, the information we often have access to is no different than the sugary, highly processed, low-nutrient food that we all have constant access to. And that information is often consumed by us, and forms us so that we become intellectually sluggish and unable to think clearly or rationally about the world. Books (and other long-form literature), however, give us a chance at a different kind of intellectual formation. They demand our attention. They help us to train those intellectual muscles that otherwise become weak when our intellectual diets are pulled from social media feeds. Why? Because those feeds are bent towards outrage, and are actively grabbing at your attention, which ultimately leads to a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” This doesn’t mean that all books contain and bequeath good quality knowledge. But I’d be willing to bet that books are more likely to properly form our intellects in ways that a pure digital diet cannot.

So: Gain knowledge. Not too much. Mostly from books.

Sanctified by Subjectivity

From “Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction” by Maireed Small Staid (I encourage you to read the whole article. It isn’t long, and there are some beautiful thoughts here):

Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.

And then, I loved this line from Birkerts, quoted in the piece above:

The book—and my optimism, you may sense, is not unwavering—will be seen as a haven, as a way of going off-line and into a space sanctified by subjectivity.

Sanctified by subjectivity — perhaps, as opposed to marred by objectivity and even objectification. Maybe my growing discomfort with the online world is that it is a space that is built towards understanding the what humans are in objective terms. That is, understanding humans algorithmically and biologically, rather than as subjective creatures. The online world is built around understanding human impulses as computer-like: push the right buttons, show the right images, and you can get a human to do whatever you want them to do. That’s probably true.

Unless we enter into a space that is “sanctified by subjectivity.”

A “Now” Page (or, On Post-Social Media Digital Life)

Given that I am not really using social media anymore, I haven’t really had a place to update what I’m up to right now. After coming across the idea of a “now” page on several other blogs, I’ve made one for myself. You can see it here. Of course, as I’ve made this space my home on the web, the “now” page is less for you than it is for me. It’s a good way of reminding myself what I’m trying to focus on right now, in case anything else decides to try to creep into my daily work that doesn’t really belong. It’s also a good way to push back against the “stream” version of the internet.

Ever since 2009 (or sometime around there), the stream — that never-ending, infinite-scrolling, time-sucking version of digital consumption — has dominated how we interact with the internet. It makes us passive consumers, rather than active participants. It neuters the internet from being what it was meant to be: a space for ideas, for gaining knowledge, for finding new things. The stream allows advertisers to control our attention in ways that seem benign, but which are really meant to subtly control our consumption habits.

So, the blog and my “now” page are my own little ways of pushing back against that. I don’t know that it could ever happen again, but it would be fun to move back to an internet where the hyperlink rules how we connect with one another. Where there are blogrolls instead of “friends.” Where my attention is mine and not taken from me.

Some additional reading/listening on the subject, in case you are interested:

“The Web We Have to Save”

“Cal Newport Has an Answer for Digital Burnout” (Podcast)

“Tending the Digital Commons”



On No Social Media

I gave up nearly all social media quite a while ago. I couldn’t even tell you when it was, exactly, because I started having my tweets deleted automatically after a week while I was still using the service.

Still, sometime in the last year, I have:

  • Completely deleted Facebook. (Which is really hard, by the way.)
  • Given up access to Twitter. (My wife knows my password, so I can’t login.)
  • Rarely logged in to Instagram. (Although that may be going soon too, after seeing the American Meme documentary on Netflix.)

It has been demonstrably good for my soul. I don’t have hard evidence of this, but I do know that I feel different. After finishing my thesis, I was able to spend my time relaxing with my kids over the holidays, reading several books (purely in a leisurely way — I read both Loeb/Sale Batman anthologies, and I’m currently in the middle of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to give my brain a rest from philosophy), and playing games with Elaine. It’s been really great. My screen time is down on my phone, and I’ve even decided to delete my Outlook app from my phone for work purposes. Reddit still sucks me in every once in a while, but it’s nothing like what Twitter used to do to me.

And I must say, as we head into a new election cycle (*gag*), I’m happy to say that my source of news won’t be the endless Twitter stream. I’ll probably be off of Reddit by then too, which will give me the chance to try to only get my news from diverse, reputable news sources. I’m thankful that I’ve started this process now. I wouldn’t call myself a digital minimalist, per se, but I’m happy that my digital choices feel a lot more like mine, and not like they’re being made for me.

If you have the guts to take the leap, even from one of the social media sites you use — just take it. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The Objectification of the Body

Silicon Valley, not content with external devices, has pivoted to the self as its next great frontier. And in order for its vision of your body to take hold, it needs you to speak its language. Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves. Where bodies might have previously been idealized as personal temples, they’re now just another device to be managed, and one whose use people are expected to master. We’re optimizing our performances instead of watching our figure, biohacking our personal ecosystem instead of eating salads.

“The Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Language of Dieting”

When I think of Kierkegaard’s distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, I’m most often thinking of knowledge, and how we, as individuals treat those objects of knowledge with which we interact. I wonder, though, if the objective/subjective divide can be applied elsewhere — not only internally, but externally.

Here would be a prime example: the body. The ever-growing tech industry demands that our very selves be quantified, measured in bits, and analyzed for optimization. This was  and is true for Facebook, the ad industry, Amazon, and so on; now it seems to be true for how we think of our very bodies. The human person, body and mind, is simply a complex set of algorithms — code that can be re-written with the right amount of objective understanding.

Maybe Kierkegaard’s objective/subjective distinction can be appropriated here, in defense against the quantification (and thus, the objectification) of our own bodies. [An aside: we often speak of objectification and bodies as if the only way to objectify bodies is “sexually.” Although I am not denying this is a reality, it seems as if the current health trends in tech show that we are moving towards the objectification of our own bodies.] We are not computers. We are not programs. We are whole human beings, with wills and hearts and minds and bodies, more than the sum of our parts. Therefore, instead, maybe we need a subjectification of the body: a being-in and enjoying-of the body.

On Concentration and Dopamine

With our heavy use of digital media, it could be said that we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through bursts of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can knock out the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel calm and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and making us feel jittery.

Harriet Griffey – “The Lost Are of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World

Interesting — the thought that our actions on social media and our inability to concentrate on one task could theoretically cause the rise of depression and anxiety via hormones. It’s long been known that heavy use of social media has a direct effect whether we feel anxious or happy, but the thought that our actions are replacing one set of hormones (dopamine and serotonin) with another (adrenaline and cortisol), and that’s the cause, actually brings me some hope. This would mean that behavioral/habit changes could bring us back to the point where we want to be — focused, creative, calm.

What we need, then, is communities and social groups that help us to form habits over and against the prevailing, standard habits that a society plagued by technocracy sort of “automatically” gives us.