A few weeks ago I read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It helped consolidate some thinking on my part and I sent a few copies out to friends who I knew would have thoughtful and interesting responses. One that came back is very worth reading as it has a healthy critique as well as some personal reflections. The note from my friend after reading Lanier’s book follows.
He makes a reasonable case (obviously with a lot of room to dispute individual points) that social media is “bad” in general and a source of concern. Some of it is old hat but the way he puts it together is certainly helpful. It seems like it would be good if a lot of people read it.
I had two major concerns with it structurally. First, he positions the book as making arguments as to why *the reader* should delete his or her accounts. But as is common these days, it conflates reasons that are self-interested with reasons that might justify a “boycott.” Many of the arguments are not about how the use of social media affects the reader directly as an individual, but rather its systemic effects. Even the economic argument doesn’t work individually – even if I’m a gig economy person, it does not hurt my prospects to use social media, it’s that the BUMMER business model exists at all that causes the problem. It’s all the rage of course to talk about boycotting anything that has any secondary effects we don’t like, but it rarely works, especially as we realize everything affects everything else, which is why people in Boulder who are concerned about CO2 still drive up to the mountains constantly just for fun. So I thought this really weakened the argument that he does not separate the two things. It’s really Three Arguments why you should delete your social media accounts and Seven Arguments why you should Boycott them.
The second concern is that he conflates Google with social media. Last I checked, no one uses Google Plus. Yes, Google has an advertising and manipulation-oriented business model, but it’s extremely different from Facebook and Twitter. I find the ads Google gives me generally useful, and I don’t see Google making me more of an asshole than I already am. It certainly does not make me sad. Yes, search does have the effect of causing SEO and content-poaching and all that stuff, so this distinction connects to my first point. I think the book would have been better if he had made a more clear compare/contrast with Facebook. I do worry that he is a Microsoft employee and he has a Google-is-the-enemy bias. I’d be very open to hearing how Google is bad for me because I have thought about this and I don’t see it (other than the same things that happen when I pass a billboard on the highway or whatever). I also like Chrome Mobile’s news feed – it’s very much tuned to things I find interesting (cosmology, AI, poetry, etc.) in a way that a news site like the NY Times, which thinks that POLITICS is what is important (just like the MSM) – he talks about religion but does not connect the dots that the MSM have elevated politics-is-the-most-important-thing into a form of religion.
From a personal perspective, in the past year, I went through a couple of transformations regarding Facebook (I don’t use Facebook and never really have). The first was after the election I realized I had gotten caught up in the politics-is-important cycle and was posting frequently on it. At some point, I realized I had been sucked in, and mostly stopped posting on current politics. That took a month or two. Then I had a run-in with a particular individual on something controversial I had posted, and it made me realize I too had been sucked into making controversy and drama there. My approach now is only to post things I think my friends will find funny (NOT political satire) or that offer an update on my life. Yes, I mostly post positive things, but generally not competitively. Instead of commenting I just Like posts, or just read them and move on. I mostly ignore the politics or I just smirk at how absorbed and overconfident everyone is. I probably waste a little more time on Facebook than I would like, but I do find that scrolling through stupid dog and cat and political posts and all that sometimes leads me to a post I am really glad I saw. So, noise to signal is high but really what isn’t?
I’ve got a lot on my plate. I always do. Presumably, I like it this way because I’d change things if I didn’t. And yes, that’s continuous fodder for conversations with my therapist and with Amy.
I have always tried to ignore the macro, especially short-term dynamics, in the context of my work. I collect a lot of data and like to be well informed. I get this data from lots of different inputs. I regularly play around with the volume on the inputs as well as try different inputs.
One of my key inputs is reading books. I read 50 to 100 books a year (the number seems to be steadily increasing as I get older.) It’s a great joy of mine to sit and read, especially stuff friends recommend to me. I read across all categories and am game to try anything. And I’m willing to quit something I’m not enjoying.
A week ago I read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. While it had a few annoying characteristics (I didn’t love his forced acronym for the BUMMER machine), the insights from it were right on the money. I let it roll around in my head the past week as I considered my own behavior over the last six months.
Basically, I’ve turned down the input knobs on almost all real-time social media inputs to 0. I no longer look at Facebook or Twitter. I never really got Facebook, so I was a Twitter guy, but since mid-2016 engaging with Twitter has simply made me anxious, upset, jangly, and distracted. By the beginning of this year, I was broadcast only – sending out links via Buffer when I saw something I found interesting – but that’s about it.
Until a few months ago, I still had a bunch of inputs turned on. I had a Daily folder, which I’ve opened first thing in the morning for over a decade. The contents would periodically change, but it was always something like RSS Reader, some daily reads, Hacker News, my LinkedIn messages, or Google News.
I deleted my Daily folder a few months ago from my browser bar. The inputs were distracting me instead of informing me.
I’ve been using Sanebox for two years to filter out all the noise from my email. I’ve effectively unsubscribed (or – in Sanebox terms, blackholed) thousands of email newsletters. The ones I want to read each day go into my SaneNews folder, so I don’t read them once a day. The number in that folder is now very small and don’t include anything beyond stuff from the tech industry anymore.
While I haven’t deleted my social media accounts, I have turned all the inputs way down. For work, I’m very focused on my existing portfolio, Foundry Group business, and my writing. Beyond that, I’m spending my time with books and with people.
I feel different than I did six months ago. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel in six more months.
A central theme of science fiction over the past 20 years has been the dystopian future of humans, laying on couches, connected to machines that feed them and process their waste, while they interact with a virtual world. Advanced versions of this technology let you move around or relax in a comfortable creche.
Today we call it VR. I wish the abbreviation, which seems so harmless, had never taken hold as the phrase “virtual reality” helps remind us, just a tiny bit, of what we are talking about.
Ever since Jaron Lanier popularized the phrase virtual reality when I was in college, I’ve struggled with it. When my friend Warren Katz introduced me to the idea of a head mounted display in the late 1980s, I was simultaneously thrilled and disturbed. When Lenny Nero figured out what happened to Iris, I simply was disturbed. Yet, when John Underkoffler created the Minority Report user interface to the precogs in the early 2000s, I was enthralled. When Amazon decided to pull out of NYC in 2019, I wasn’t surprised.
Wait, that last sentence was for a different blog post. Just checking to make sure you are still here and paying attention.
I don’t believe humans want to strap a headset on, block out all the stimuli they are getting, lay down in a creche, attach themselves to biosensors that handle their meat puppet, and immerse themselves in a virtual reality, without being able to simultaneously interact with the world around them
There’s no question that VR has an enormous potential market in online gaming. This isn’t anything new – the online gaming industry and the porn industry are two of the most aggressive adopters of new technologies. It’s not difficult to imagine going from your couch to your creche. It would be easier to play esports if you didn’t have to eat or go to the bathroom.
But, beyond that, I don’t buy it. Outside of video games and esports, my bet is on holograms and augmented reality. See you in the future.
Several friends have mentioned that I’d love Cal Newport’s writing. I finally got around to reading his most recent book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and my friends were correct.
Newport is famous for being a millennial, computer scientist, and a
Digital Minimalism is complementary to Jaron Lanier‘s book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, but I found Newport a lot more comfortable and convincing. More importantly, it reinforced a number of changes that I’ve already made in my life over the past few years.
I’ve deleted Facebook, shifted almost all of my interactions on the few social media services that I use (Twitter, LinkedIn) to broadcast only (where I broadcast out things to anyone who cares to follow them). I’ve limited my online writing to my blog, which I’m fine being reposted in other places. My inputs are now what some refer to as Slow Media, where I can read and consider the input, rather than react to endless stimuli.
I’m an introvert in an extrovert’s world. I like to be alone, with Amy, or with a maximum of four people (usually me, Amy, and another couple.) In contrast, I spend a large portion of my work time with groups larger than four people. Figuring out how to manage this duality, while staying mentally healthy, has been a life-long challenge.
Newport’s concept of digital minimalism helps me with all of this. He refers to a distinction that MIT professor Sherry Turkle makes in her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation. In her book, Turkle draws a distinction between connection, her word for the low-bandwidth interactions that define our online social lives, and conversation, the much richer, high-bandwidth communication that defines real-world encounters between humans. I care deeply about
Newport has an entire chapter on solitude, nicely titled “Spend Time Alone.” He makes the important distinction between spending time alone with other stimuli (music, podcasts, audible, streaming media) and real solitude. I immediately understood this as well, as I almost always run alone and naked (without headphones). The examples of how Lincoln used solitude was extraordinarily well written and inspiring.
In addition to the framework around digital minimalism, Newport unloads on the reader with numerous tactics. I use some of them but found a few new ones to add to my repertoire.
A big thanks to Ben Casnocha, who was the most recent person to push me over the “you must read Cal Newport’s stuff.” I’ll read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World soon, after I enjoy some sci-fi mental floss next since the last few books I’ve read were heavy-ish.
While everyone is spending their day talking about Microsoft and Yahoo, I thought I’d share an email with you from 1993. Once again, my old friend Warren Katz has dug into his email archive and pulled out a doozy. This time I’m introducing him to this great new magazine called Wired.
Date: 25 Apr 93 16:57:27 EDT
From: Bradley Feld <75170.1206@CompuServe.COM>
To: Warren Katz
If you haven’t seen it already, check out the new magazine WIRED. It’s excellent. Flood them with press releases for Mak — they’ll definitely pick you up (in issue #1 there’s an article about SimNet and in issue #2 there’s an article about how Jaron Lanier is fearless).
If you haven’t heard of them, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope you’re doing well. I’m back in town for a few weeks — let’s get together.
Yeah – well – I thought it was funny. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.