Remote, Day 120 - Deactivating

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live the way we do. The last ten years have had a different feel than the 36 that came before. That’s not just about pandemics and politics. It’s about our mediated and shallow interactions. It’s about the lack of long-term thinking, the bubbles of absolutism, the hours of distraction, and the dearth of wisdom. It’s about how we relate to the only thing that we truly have - time. I can’t say I’m happy with any of it. The world is not something that I can change on my own, but I can choose how I respond to it.

The forces of technological progress are neutral, but the uses we put them to are sometimes good and sometimes bad. The printing press led to the Enlightenment, but not before it empowered the Protestant Reformation to incite religious wars across most of Europe. The industrial revolution gave us an array of wonders that provide uplift to modern life, but it also gave us the ability to wholesale slaughter each other in the trenches of World War I. Television and radio gave us rapid communication and some sense of a shared world-view; one predicated on mass consumerism and marketing products we don’t need. Science has given us vaccines, better agriculture and wide-scale abundance, but it also gave us the atom bomb. Progress is not without it’s darker side. Which brings us to our internet-connected world and the problem with some of our tools.

I’m a programmer. I love computers and all the potential that they represent. But we’re in the midst of a major shift in civilization and it’s not a given that change in and of itself is a good thing. Looking across the array of side effects that the rise of the attention economy that Facebook and other internet companies have brought about, it’s clear to me that it simply isn’t worth it.

Sixty years ago, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. We’ve seen a shift in the mediums that we use in the last decade, so we should think about the messages we’re implanting. The message of Facebook, Twitter, and other mediums isn’t connection. It’s competitive narcissism, shallow thinking, nuance-free meme wars, engagement-driven echo chambers, and a choose-your-own-worldview mentality that turns out to be dangerously disconnected from reality.

On the plus side, there’s another medium that has also grown in the last few years. One that I prefer a great deal more. Podcasts and other long-form interviews are about conversation and the exchange of ideas. At least the ones that I listen to. I’m sure there are many out there that I wouldn’t appreciate. Which is part of the point. I’m the one that curates the feed and decides what to engage with. Nothing is pushed at me by an algorithm that has business interests that conflict with my personal goals.

The algorithms are the problem. Once you seek to monetize attention then you are incentivized to promote fear, anger, and confirmation bias. This isn’t the fault of any one person, it’s just what the techno-capitalist machine will default to if you give it a massive number of humans and an imperative to get them to engage as much as possible so you can sell ads. Higher-order thinking is hard to make money on, but playing to our animal instincts and human blind-spots has a huge return on investment.

So I’m done being a subject in this massive social experiment that none of us agreed to participate in. It doesn’t work for me. I believe in strong opinions weakly held. Understanding that there are complexity and nuance in the world and that conversation is more important than conflict. That disagreement is not disrespect or an evil perpetrated by the other side, it’s a necessary component of arriving at good solutions. I believe that our civilization is more important than our ideologies. These social media platforms have no such beliefs and they have demonstrated an unwillingness to use their significant influence to make the world better. So I’m taking a break until the situation improves. I encourage you to consider doing the same. Until then I have only one piece of advice - have ideas but don’t let ideas have you.