Tag: social media

Digital-Political-Informational Silos

A while back, I was reading a book called Fall by Neal Stephenson. Full disclosure — I haven’t finished this book. It’s long, and I found that the focus of the book shifted away from what I was really found interesting in the book. That’s probably a mistake, but it didn’t hold my attention about halfway through. This post, however, is about the part of the book that I did find interesting.

It’s kind of a strange, sprawling, not-so-distant future sci-fi. Its focus is split between (roughly) two distinct stories. In the main story, an older man named Dodge dies, and his brain/consciousness is mapped and uploaded onto a server. Many years later, a young programmer figures out how to “wake up” Dodge’s consciousness. This is the part of the book that I lost interest in around the midway point.

The second focus of the book is on the outside world, and the various ways in which humans are dealing with (mis)information, false media narratives, news bias, and social media silos. I really wanted the book to be about this. As an example, near the beginning of the book, a fake nuclear attack on a small town outside of Moab, Utah was staged via a widespread media blast coordinated with an internet and phone line shutdown for that section of the US. There were well-made press conferences, fake nuclear blast videos that looked like they came from airplanes, and widespread uncertainty throughout everyone’s social media and video feeds.

In other words, something that could EASILY happen in a situation like ours. Not-so-distant future, remember? Some of the characters end up figuring out that the hoax is happening (one of these characters is a CTO of a major social media company, so he feels the responsibility to figure out the real story to stop the spread of the misinformation campaign). Suffice it to say, this one moment holds massive impact on the US over the course of the next couple of decades. There are “Moab truthers” (people who believe a nuclear attack happened, when it did not). A new form of the internet is born where people are given private internet IDs so they can be easily identified.

The story skips ahead, and there has been some kind of secession in the US — there is now the regular USA, and what looks to be a sovereign country called “Ameristan.” Further, you find that everyone has a different, self-selected version of their access to the net — including news channels, articles, entertainment, etc. Some people just have algorithms choosing their information feeds for them. Others (the wealthy) tend to have personal news/media curators peeling through news and media and selecting it to go in the person’s net feed or not. These leads to massive polarization, because these feeds bend and shape how each person sees the world — what it is, what it’s not, who’s in control, and what is true of the past and present.

The thing that struck me the most about this depiction is not only its relevance, but just how close this is to our own reality.

I’m not necessarily worried about secession  or a civil war right now. But this whole notion of people splitting their feeds, breaking off into other forms of social media so they aren’t censored, and choosing the kinds of information they get (or being radicalized by information chosen for them) seems especially… prescient right now.

Since election day last week, I have seen multiple people claim that they are getting off of Facebook (not necessarily a bad thing, IMO). But instead of doing that to create a sense of calm or peace, they are simply moving platforms to a place where their information is not censored — Mastodon, Parler, Gab, etc. I don’t know if this is necessarily a bad thing, but doesn’t this come with a cost that we have a difficult time foreseeing? Facebook, because of its massive popularity, is a platform that pretty much everyone can use. Therefore, we have a bigger opportunity to encounter those with differing view points.

Don’t get me wrong. Facebook and Twitter have their own (MAJOR) problems. Their algorithms select for the most outrageous posts, videos, and images. When, as Tristan Harris says, the economics of the social media companies we use revolve around selling our attention, we will inevitably lose any autonomy we might have over what we consume — and ultimately what we think and how we see the world.

But when we start siloing ourselves within a particular social network with only those who agree with us, doesn’t this present an opportunity for radicalism to spread unchecked in these groups? A form of group-think has the ability to emerge, and this can also produce cult-like behavior, where real, lasting harm can be done to individuals.

I don’t know what the proper solution here. Neither do the tech whistleblowers that we see in movies like The Social Dilemma. They see the problem, but (again, like Tristan Harris says) it’s like saying climate change is a problem. That’s true, but any possible solutions here are necessarily complex, because the entire internet, and therefore the entire digital economy, is inexorably interwoven with the attention economy as seen in the behemoth tech companies of Google/Facebook/Amazon/Apple/Twitter.

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).

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.

Kierkegaard on Rome, and Perhaps on the Internet

In his upbuilding discourse entitled, “Strengthening in the Inner Being,” Kierkegaard describes Rome during Paul’s time as follows,

In the world’s capital, in proud Rome, where all the splendor and glory of the world were concentrated, where everything was procured whereby human sagacity and rapaciousness tempt the moment in the anxiety of despair, everything to astonish the sensate person, where every day witnessed something extraordinary, something horrible, and the next day had forgotten it upon seeing something even more extraordinary…

In the capital city of the world, in tumultuous Rome, where nothing could withstand the unbridled power of time, which swallowed everything as quickly as it made its appearance, which consigned everything to forgetfulness without leaving a trace…

This sounds an awful lot like the internet in the present day. The internet has become the place in which we are lost in the power of the moment. It is where wealth, power, prestige, the social, the intellectual, and the political congregate. It is so easy to get lost in its grip, because it has “everything to astonish the sensate person, where every day witnessed something extraordinary, something horrible.” And further, the next day, those horrible, extraordinary are forgotten and replaced by “something even more extraordinary.”

I’d be willing to bet that Kierkegaard is not only attempting to describe Rome in Paul’s time, but modernity in his own time. What I’m guessing he didn’t understand is that his description would only gain in power as modern humans globalized and became interconnected in ways unfathomable in the mid-1800s.

He goes on to describe the difficulty with which humans remain “strengthened in the inner being” when faced with adversity or given good fortune, because humans are so likely to focus in on their current situation as being definitive of what life is really like. What I wonder is — how difficult is it to maintain a strong inner being when the internet and the ubiquity of the social is so easily distracting? How can I become a whole person, or work towards the telos of the human life, if my attention is constantly pulled this way and that?

Ford, Kavanaugh, and Our Relentless Need to Be Entertained

In his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that the advent and ultimate rise of television gave birth to a new epistemology in Western discourse (he wrote this in the 1980s). This claim is more than simply “the medium is the message,” as we have often heard. It is deeper than that — rather than television simply being our new mode of communication and forming the kinds of things that we discuss, television (that is, the combination of images and sound that makes up what we know as television) forms the very basis of what we can know and how we know as a society. Television (and, it could be argued, later iterations of it, including the internet, social media, YouTube, music streaming, etc.), with its focus on fantastic images that stimulate the brain bends our societal discourse towards entertainment.

In such a society, where television and its iterations are entirely inseparable from social fabric, every other sphere of human discourse will ultimately be viewed and understood through the lens of entertainment. Our news, our politics, our religion, our economic choices — all of them will eventually be filtered through the lens of visual and audible stimulation. As various programs and content compete with each other for attention, those which are most visually stimulating will naturally shape what we know and how we know, because our brains are essentially lazy, and impulsively value stimulation over difficult mental labor.

The even bigger challenges now are that our modes of discourse have shrunk in meaning and quality in the last decade. A YouTube video that is longer than five minutes is probably not worth our time. A blog post over 500 words is difficult to follow. Twitter, with its (now) 280 character limit, seems to set our natural attention span.

I wondered about this last week during the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. For ten hours, our nation sat and watched — first Dr. Fords testimony of her experience, and then Kavanaugh’s attempted rebuttal. But what did our comments about that hearing focus on? Kavanaugh’s angry, partisan responses when questioned heavily. Dr. Ford’s harrowing recounting of her experience that night. Lindsey Graham’s outrage at the alleged mistreatment of an upstanding civil servant. What was not clear was that this trial was truly about discovering the truth about what happened that night. Sure, that was the veneer of the hearing, the “why” this hearing was happening. Just under the surface, however, our desire for a partisan battle over the soul of our country roiled. The entire hearing came across like a courtroom scene in a movie — the anticipation of seeing Dr. Ford walk in the room, the emotional buildup to her story, the recesses and breaks that functioned like commercial breaks to build anticipation for the next scene, the righteously angry Judge Kavanaugh, the side-room deals being made between Flake and other senators, and on and on and on.

Television and its iterations have made such hearings nothing more than another form of entertainment, no different than ancient gladiatorial fights, wherein we can, without fear of recrimination, satisfy our thirst for blood and battle and the thrill of the fight. And after this week is over, and Kavanaugh is or isn’t confirmed as the next SCOTUS nominee, we’ll be itching for another.

What Is This Thing? What Is This Thing For?

The more I think about current and future projects for myself, the more I also think that anything we do, or anything worth teaching or learning requires us to answer two extremely basic questions about that subject:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

Almost too basic. But I think we often fail to set parameters around whatever subject matter we might be interested in, so our thoughts become muddled and disjointed. We are then led down several different paths, all of which don’t seem to amount to anything. We are then further led to a sense of overwhelm or despair because the topic at hand seems too difficult or unwieldy. To be sure, the topic at hand probably is unwieldy — we should be able to mitigate such a problem, however, if we spending time in thought about the given subject.

To wit, a personal example: blogging. Since attempting to build the writing-once-a-day habit, I’ve also thought extensively about the two questions above.

  1. What is a blog? What is blogging?
  2. What is a blog for? What should the purpose of a (or, perhaps better, my) blog be?

It’s kind of like teleological blogging. I don’t want to seriously engage in this activity if I can’t determine its purpose. Alan Jacobs has helped me significantly in this area. This morning, he published two posts (“new uses for old blogs”, and “the blog garden”) that, although written specifically about his personal publishing/writing situation, spoke to this area for me. He has continued along the trail of thought he laid out in his digital commons article; namely, making a distinction between maintaining a personal digital space as a type of architecture as opposed to the metaphor of gardening. The gardening metaphor is not only useful, but helpful in a time when most of us interact with a web that was created by others, rather than building it ourselves. He writes in “the blog garden”:

For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

That was a long quote, but I hope the point comes across. Jacobs, rather than wanting to shoehorn his writing about Ruskin into the form of a book (which takes an extended period of deep reflection and focus — neither of which are “bad”), is considering gathering material and reflecting upon that material in meaningful ways through a tagging system that has the potential to lead both the author and the audience down numerous rabbit trails. The connections that can be made in this kind of process (rather than a book, which is most often a single-path endeavor) are many and can sometimes be surprising.

So, what do I want blogging to be for me? Maybe not something so serious as what Jacobs is attempting. That’s a full-fledged project that I don’t have time for. What I’m hoping for, instead, is the ability to make connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise (through a tagging system), and to cultivate my understanding of different topics in a disciplined, meaningful way.

Micro-Blogging? Probably Not.

Apologies to the three of my blog followers that got a glimpse of a test post that I tried to do a couple of days ago when attempting to connect my personal blog with the micro.blog service being built by Manton Reece.

I was turned on to the whole “Micro-Blog” idea by Alan Jacobs, who migrated his social presence to his own website through http://social.ayjay.org. His reasons for this (along with many others on the Micro.Blog service) essentially amount to the following:

  1. Twitter has the tendency toward being a cesspool of vitriol and nonsense (I am inclined to agree, though I can’t bring myself to delete my dumb account there).
  2. Micro.Blog’s setup is built to allow users to own their own content. This is important in a time when a small amount of unfathomably large companies not only own what we write and say and produce, but also own the means of production.

There are a lot of cool things that Micro.Blog is doing. They do not allow anyone to see follower accounts, they are promising to never show ads (the entry cost is a minimum of $5 a month, unless you host your micro blog yourself), and the timeline is chronological (i.e., algorithms don’t control what everyone sees). All of this is highly appealing to me, especially after having deleted Facebook and reducing my Twitter presence significantly.

But here’s the problem I ran into when I started to try and set up my own Micro.Blog (and perhaps where I went wrong). I signed up for the service (you get a 10-day free trial), but I wanted to host everything here at cdbaca.org. Now, I’m sure there’s an easy way to do this, but I spent too much time a couple of days ago trying to figure out how to do this in such a way that my Micro.Blog posts didn’t populate in my regular blog feed. I copied and pasted code from other people into my own site files and tried to do all the right things in the admin section of my WordPress dashboard. I couldn’t get it to work.

I’m sure that I just missed some steps, and to be honest, I’m smart enough to figure them out. But after I spent that few hours with no success, I asked myself: Why am I doing this in the first place? What do I care about this new social community? Why do I even want to write short posts in the first place? And on another note, if it’s this difficult for someone like me to do this, what is the likelihood that non-tech people are going to find Micro.Blog appealing?

In all of that, I basically realized that I don’t actually care that much about having a Twitter (or Twitter-esque) presence. I’ll keep my Twitter account for now (although I’m only currently only logging in about once a day for a short amount of time). But the work that I really want to be doing is right here on the blog. I own the content, I control how it looks, and I’m keeping a more consistent writing habit than I have since I was a teenager. My writing will continue to post to a Facebook page that I don’t manage, and to my Twitter account that I rarely see, and I’ll happily manage my personal, digital space in a meaningful, cultivating way.