“Addiction is actually the point.”

It would seem more people are getting it. Via Cal Newport’s blog post, Senator Hawley on Social Media: “addiction is actually the point.”

“Social media only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day. It needs to replace the various activities we did perfectly well without social media, for the entire known history of the human race with itself. It needs to replace those activities with time spent on social media. So that addiction is actually the point.

-Josh Hawley, Missouri Senator (emphasis mine)

And another great one – I’m stealing these directly from Cal’s post, but they’re too good to pass up. Cal’s original post is short and well worth the click-through to read.

“This is what some of our brightest minds have been doing with their time for years now. Designing these platforms, designing apps that integrate with them. I mean, what else might they have been doing?

-Josh Hawley, (emphasis again, mine)

It’s refreshing to hear a politician – any politician – talking in such a frank manner. Video of full speech available on the Senator’s website, and is totally worth your time.

Scholarship By Metrics

Interesting article by Justin E.H. Smith on How Social Media Imperils Scholarship. It’s a long article, but well worth reading. A few highlights:

Eventually, those who do research simply out of love of knowledge might find it preferable to present their findings anonymously and gratuitously as Wikipedia editors rather than as members of the afflicted and moribund tribe of academics. Social media is hastening the arrival of that day.

The same click-swipe-and-rate economy has left everyone involved in cultural production dazed and stumbling. Journalism, art, literature, and entertainment have been engulfed by a tsunami of metrics. And dare we mention love, friendship, and political community? These, too, have been absorbed by the mania of metrics coupled with so-called gamification — a treacherous imitation of play. 

I have not yet heard of tenure committees taking into consideration information about a candidate’s followings on Academia.edu or the other sites, as they attempt to take the measure of his career success. But it will happen sooner or later. And sooner or later tenure candidates in Ohio will be PayPaling click factories in China to help them inflate their numbers artificially. And after that has gone on for some time, candidates will be required to submit, along with their dossiers, proof that the information has been run through some trusted anti-­click-factory certification software, and the metrics have been shown to be authentic. And eventually a way will be discovered to game the certification process, too, and so on, and at each stage academics will be drawn even further away from their ostensible object of study, Old Turkic inscriptions or Elizabethan verse, the thing they once imagined, in graduate school, was worthy of a lifetime of loving dedication.

The old world is crumbling. Pre-internet institutions are struggling to make their presence felt however they can. Even the pope has taken to tweeting, in what may be variously interpreted as a hip renovation of his dilapidated old temple, or as a desperate bid to stay relevant in a world that equates an absence of online metrics, of clicks and likes and follows, with nonexistence itself. It is no surprise that in this strange new world, academics are behaving no differently than the Pontifex, or exposure-craving politicians, or SoundCloud rappers, or aspiring team players projecting their can-do attitudes on LinkedIn.

The Dark Forests of the Internet

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Yancey Strickler, cofounder of Kickstarter, has written an interesting piece on Medium about how the Internet is becoming segmented into different channels primarily out of people’s desire to feel safer to express themselves honestly while being free from the barrage of advertising and tracking. I can relate to much of what he says there.

I went dark on the internet a few years ago. I took social apps off my phone, unfollowed everyone, the whole shebang. This was without a doubt a good decision. I’ve been happier and have had better control over my time since. Many others have done this and are doing this. A generation of modern wannabe monks.

I haven’t been off for years – a little over a year maybe – and it does start to feel monk-ish. It’s been an interesting experiment, especially when you run into people in real life who are still on various platforms and didn’t even realize you’ve checked out. There’s sometimes an awkward back and forth when you try and figure out what to talk about when they discover that you’re not up to date with everything they’ve been seeing daily in their feed.

But even as my personal wellness grows, I see a risk in this change.

You could argue that these decisions removed me from the arena. I detached from the mainstream of conversation. I stopped watching TV. I stopped looking at Facebook and Twitter. I silenced my voice on the platforms where the conversation was happening because of the strings, risks, and side effects they created in return.

This detachment wasn’t just in politics. It was also true of how I shared my personal life. Milestones for me and my family were left unshared beyond our internet dark forests, even though many more friends and members of our families would’ve been happy to hear about them.

While I too feel the sense of better overall ‘wellness’, I don’t know that I feel or see the same associated risks. One thing I do think could become – or possibly already is – a problem is that people become continually more ‘siloed’ in their respective ‘dark forests’ and channels, leading to increased polarization – if that’s even possible. In much the same way algorithms are currently gaming people to reinforce biases or think certain ways, if they get comfortable only with the viewpoints found within the familiarity of their own ‘dark forests’, could it become even harder to see and or consider other viewpoints?

It’s possible, I suppose, that a shift away from the mainstream internet and into the dark forests could permanently limit the mainstream’s influence. It could delegitimize it. In some ways that’s the story of the internet’s effect on broadcast television. But we forget how powerful television still is. And those of us building dark forests risk underestimating how powerful the mainstream channels will continue to be, and how minor our havens are compared to their immensity.

I think there’s a giant hole waiting to be filled by whomever can figure out how to optimize the social aspects of the internet for the good of humans instead of the corporations – pretty much everything Douglas Rushkoff has been talking about with his Team Human project. Like the impending crisis of climate change though, it will take wholesale changes on a massive scale by businesses – and possibly even government involvement – to change the direction and business models towards the interests of the users vs. treating them as product – a huge ethical leap to take.

I myself haven’t been hanging out in many ‘Internet Dark Forests’ – save maybe listening to more podcasts – something that Strickler mentions as an emerging channel for people to cloister themselves within online. Aside from my posts here and selective reading, I’ve been staying away from screens altogether and trying get out more into the literal ‘forests’ of both green and humanity to rediscover and experience what is there.

Strickler’s article and conclusions are thought-provoking though, and clearly highlight the direction things are going. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, especially if the ‘side channels’ become prevalent enough that advertisers and corporations no longer feel they’re getting their bang-for-the-buck from the mainstream firehose of the Internet.

Digital Contributing to Climate Crisis

Gerry McGovern writes in his latest newsletter: Digital Contributing to Climate Crisis:

According to “The Cost of Music,” a joint study penned by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, greenhouse gases were recorded at 140-million kilograms in 1977 for music production activities (vinyl; plastic packaging). Moreover, they were at 136 million kilograms in 1988 and 157 million in 2000. In 2016, the age of streaming, greenhouse gases were estimated between 200- and 350-million kilograms in the U.S. alone.

“Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy,” Dr. Kyle Devine, an associate professor in music from the University of Oslo explained, “which has a high impact on the environment.”

Furthermore, I read an article a while ago, which said that the amount of energy consumed by a voice assistant while turning the lights off or on is significantly greater than the amount of energy required for a human to get up and turn the lights off or on.

Bet you thought doing everything online was guilt-free or carbon net zero. But vinyl is made from petroleum, so that is bad too, right? Do we go back to 8-tracks? Cassettes?

I know that I have been giving more thought to the volume of data I keep ‘online’/in the Cloud. Photos, documents. All this stuff takes server space which also means electricity and energy. Whereas before I had been keeping things redundantly on different servers/platforms, I’m trying to trim down my ‘digital footprint’ as well.

It also raises an interesting question with regards to my kids and the next generation of data users/hoarders. My kids will be of the first generation to grow up completely ‘online’. As such, when they move out, presumably, I’ll have to facilitate some sort of ‘massive data transfer’ of all their photos, documents and other ephemera that are currently stored on the ‘family’ computer. There’s a discussion there to be had and a protocol to be established for sure. In the case of my oldest, she has already set up her own Flickr Pro account to house all her photos.

I can see it coming as a bit of a shock down the road though, so should probably get started planning now.

“Congratulations on your new place, son! Here’s your 17 terabytes of ‘crap’ – find somewhere to store it! Mom and I will be in our cabin in the woods if you need anything.”

Also, get your lazy ass up and turn the lights on and off.

Facebook Co-Founder Says Break It Up

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has written an interesting opinion piece over at the New York Times, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook”.

I’ve been off Facebook for over a year now and about six months ago stopped using Instagram and Messenger. While I had my own issues and struggles with social media use affecting my mental health and general disposition, what finally got to me was the realization that Facebook’s business model is at it’s core, unethical. While I could remain on the platform and dismiss it or monitor and curtail my use, I felt like using any of the products was a tacit endorsement of their business practices and that just didn’t sit right with me.

A few choice nuggets from the article, which I suggest you read in full if you’re at all interested in these things:

Mark’s (Zuckerberg) influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government. He controls three core communications platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — that billions of people use every day. Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares. Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.

Facebook makes its money from targeted advertising, meaning users do not pay to use the service. But it is not actually free, and it certainly isn’t harmless.

Facebook’s business model is built on capturing as much of our attention as possible to encourage people to create and share more information about who they are and who they want to be. We pay for Facebook with our data and our attention, and by either measure it doesn’t come cheap.

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people.

Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them.

You may be saying to yourself, “if you (meaning me) quit facebook, why still so much interest in it?” The simple fact is I find it fascinating. The story is – in its truest sense – far more engaging and interesting than science fiction. It’s a massive experiment being carried out on humanity in real-time. It’s like the car-crash of the digital age – one simply can’t look away. The interesting thing is that the majority of people are still in the car – and even when being told it’s about to crash opt to sit tight.