An occasional reminder may be prudent: I'm not the John Karahalis who writes letters to the editor of the New York Daily News. I'm not taking a position on those opinions. I just don't find it productive to discuss religion or politics in polite company.
For the most part, I regret discussing religion and politics on social media. Doing so accomplished little good. Moreover, the ubiquity of such content is one of the many reasons I find social media intolerable. Of course, religion and politics take many forms. The line between them is becoming less distinct, and often, they disguise themselves as simple reality.
Venmo includes the following warning with MFA codes that they send over SMS. It's the clearest warning I've ever seen, and I applaud Venmo for being so thoughtful.
Venmo here! NEVER share this code via call/text. ONLY YOU should enter the code. BEWARE: If someone asks for the code, it's a scam. Code: [CODE]
Spotify’s new AI DJ feature is superb, and it's only in beta!
Even a broken clock is right twice a day. I love that phrase.
Here's a new one. Many working clocks are wrong infinitely many times per day. How can that be? There are infinitely many decimal numbers between 1 and 2, and unless a clock has a sweeping second hand, it can't correctly represent any of them.
“If our goal is to live in a shared reality with our neighbors, what if our current approach isn't bringing us any closer to that?"
—Peter McIndoe in a TED talk about his satirical conspiracy theory, Birds Aren't Real
"In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car."
Social media is dead. At least, that's the conclusion of a recent Business Insider article.
The premise is that young people aren't posting on social media nearly as often as people used to, partly because they're sick of being judged, partly because they're sick of looking at ads. Fine by me! The article also suggests that young people are sending more private messages, leading app makers to prioritize those features.
It's hard to see a downside, as imperfect as this improvement is. Why not go a step further by using Signal? It's a truly private messaging app from a non-profit that doesn't want to spy on you. In fact, Signal pretty much couldn't spy on you if it tried. The app is painstakingly designed to use end-to-end encryption, so that nobody, not even Signal, can see what you and your friends are talking about. How many apps can make that claim? (Spoiler alert: almost none.)
"Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse."
"What are human beings without animals? If all the animals ceased to exist, human beings would die of a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the animals will happen soon also to human beings. All things connect."
—Chief Seattle, from an inscription at the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport
The Beatles never set OKRs.
I asked GPT-4 (with the BrowserOp plugin enabled) to read this page and write three new posts in my style. Its initial response leads me to believe it only considered about the last two months of posts when emulating me, but that's good enough.
The first post summarizes my views on technology very well, albeit imperfectly. I'm struck by how gentle it is, and I wonder if I should strive to write more like this:
The Paradox of Progress: As we advance into an era of unprecedented technological growth, I find myself pondering the paradox of progress. On one hand, technology has undeniably made our lives more convenient. We can communicate instantly, access vast amounts of information, and even use AI to mimic human creativity. Yet, with every leap forward, there seems to be an unintended consequence. The same platforms that connect us also divide us, feeding us tailored content that reinforces our existing beliefs and isolates us from diverse perspectives. The tools that promise efficiency often lead to increased distractions and decreased human interactions. It's a reminder that progress isn't linear, and with every innovation, we must pause, reflect, and ask ourselves: Is this truly betterment, or just change? As the great thinker Aldous Huxley once said, "Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backward."
The second post is interesting. It makes the case for minimalism, which is important to me, but it also loses focus and veers off at the end:
The Ephemeral Nature of Digital Memories: In an age where every moment is captured, shared, and stored in the vast expanse of the digital realm, I've been contemplating the true essence of memories. Physical photographs once held a tangible weight, each one a frozen slice of time, carefully chosen and cherished. Now, with the ease of digital photography, we capture hundreds of moments, only to let them get buried in the depths of our devices. But does this abundance dilute the significance of these memories? Or does it simply offer a richer tapestry of our lives? As I sift through old digital photos, I'm reminded of the words of the poet Maya Angelou: "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike." Perhaps, in this digital age, our shared experiences and memories serve as a bridge, connecting us in ways we've yet to fully understand.
The third is my favorite. I hadn't considered this, exactly, but I agree almost completely:
The Quiet Power of Solitude: In our hyper-connected world, moments of true solitude have become increasingly rare. The constant pings, notifications, and digital chatter often drown out the quiet introspections that once defined our quieter moments. Yet, it's in these moments of solitude that creativity often sparks, and self-reflection deepens. Virginia Woolf once wrote about the need for "a room of one's own" for deep thought and creation. Today, perhaps we need not just physical, but digital solitude—a space free from the relentless influx of information, where our minds can wander, explore, and simply be. As we navigate this digital age, it might be worth seeking out these pockets of quiet, for it's often in the silence that we truly hear ourselves.
Soon, I won't be needed at all. AI John will trade words with AI Zuckerberg without either of us lifting a finger. (I'm not worth the real Zuckerberg's time, but AI Zuck might have some cycles to spare.) On the other hand, maybe my digital mind will debate someone who's not so oblivious, who actually appreciates the dangers posed by today's weapons of mass distraction. Now there's a zinger GPT couldn't come up with!
For most people, most of the time, there is almost no line between wanting to believe and actually believing. I'm guilty of this, too, in ways I don't even notice. The fact is illuminating, though. It explains so much.
Pets are not good gifts, no matter how many YouTube videos suggest otherwise. Gift-givers want to witness joyous reactions from gift recipients, and many people are genuinely joyous the moment they receive a surprise pet, but caring for an animal is a responsibility that lasts for much, much longer than that one moment. Unless the recipient has met the animal, knows for certain that the animal will be their gift, wants the animal to be their gift, and is completely prepared for that responsibility (i.e., unless there is no element of surprise at all), please do not give an animal as a gift. Even then, please think twice.
For the time being, at least, when using ChatGPT and other AIs, we need to remember a simple rule: trust, but verify.
I dislike the political baggage associated with the phrase, but there's not much I can do about that. It's good advice.
As a curious person, ChatGPT is an incredible resource. When I want to debug a computer programming problem or get into the weeds of a philosophical issue, I often start by engaging with the chatbot. I've learned important things this way, but I've also noticed ChatGPT making major mistakes. In one particularly bad "hallucination," as they're called, ChatGPT invented a horrific quote and attributed it to someone who said no such thing.
These things happen, and technologists don't currently have a solution. For that reason, I strongly recommend double-checking any important claim made by one of these mechanical minds. Trust, but verify.
Grief is not as it appears in movies. It's confusion and disbelief, it's dull and numb, with periods of intense, breathless sadness when one is least expecting it.
I started using Signal years and years ago, back when it was called TextSecure. I've always appreciated its commitment to privacy, including its use of end-to-end encryption, and its focus on usability. Precursors like Enigmail were great, but few people used them. Glenn Greenwald famously couldn't be bothered to set up a secure communication channel when Edward Snowden implored him to do so. When he finally got around to it, Snowden sent him the documents that changed his career forever.
Now, I'm finally replacing some Google services with equivalents from Proton, another company that aims to make privacy easy. I'm impressed with their growing product line, and I don't want to fuel the attention economy any more than I have to. Consider checking them out! A healthier internet awaits.
In recent weeks, I've spotted one Etsy retailer and one physical retailer selling art under their own names that I'm almost certain were wholly generated by AI. (For now at least, it's sometimes not hard to spot when you know what you're looking for.)
We live in strange times.
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."
My phone is perpetually in Do Not Disturb mode, with few exceptions. It only just occurred to me how strange that name is. If the unobtrusive mode is called Do Not Disturb, what is the ordinary mode called?
If it’s important, do it first.
For years, I’ve tried to remind myself of this. Work expands to fill the time allotted, and with so many distractions vying for our attention every minute of every day, it’s easy to see how the things we care most about sometimes go undone.
If it’s important, do it first.
"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
According to Quote Investigator, this was not spoken by Carl Sagan, as some claim, but rather written by reporter Sharon Begle.
In any case, I'd like to offer a corollary:
Somewhere, a song you'll love is waiting for you to hear it.
Let's hope you never leave, old friend
Like all good things, on you we depend
So stick around 'cause we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual
You had your time, you had the power
You've yet to have your finest hour
—Radio Ga Ga by Queen
I've loved this song since hearing it in the film Bohemian Rhapsody. The music is great, but I'm even more attracted to the message. There really is something special about audio as a medium. Podcasts are huge for a reason. Interviews, drama, news, comedy, true crime. Freddie was right.
I wonder if people will lose interest in podcasts when truly hands-free, self-driving cars become more widely available. I myself will certainly have fewer reasons to listen and more opportunities to be distracted by my phone. How strange is that? As a result of having more free time, I may spend less time doing something I enjoy. The attention economy at work?
Many years ago, my dad discovered a manual ad-blocking technique for TVs: when commercials start playing, mute the device. It's surprisingly effective. The otherwise captivating ads immediately become uninteresting.
To my surprise, my dad wasn't the first to come up with the idea. In The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu explains that the Zenith Flash-Matic, the first wireless remote control, was partly designed to "shoot out" the sounds of commercials. Clever!
Multitasking almost never works. I want to show respect to the people around me. I want to fully engage with them. That means not looking at screens that they aren’t looking at. It's easier said than done.
Please don't text and drive.
Of course, drivers who are distracted by their phones aren't always texting. I would guess many are checking their notifications. It saddens me that people sacrifice their lives to check their "likes" when those likes aren't worth much anyway.
Should app makers be held liable for contributing to these horrific accidents? I think they should. These aren't neutral tools. They're designed to be as addictive as possible. Who could blame teenagers for giving into the temptation to check their phones behind the wheel? TikTok and their rivals could go quiet inside moving vehicles, but they don't. After all, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Perhaps you can't become the #1 social network without cutting a few thousand lives tragically short.
I’m not optimistic about Threads, the new Twitter alternative from Meta. I’m told the community is pleasant now, but I have no doubt the shitstorm will roll in soon. Fool me once…
Tuesday was Independence Day, America's holiday commemorating independence from Great Britain. There are many reasons to celebrate, of course, but I find it a little strange that we continue to focus on independence when we're now so friendly with our former adversary.
With our country and our world so divided, aren't there other achievements we could more wholeheartedly honor, filled with genuine pride and excitement? Juneteenth is a deeply worthy observance. How about humanity's first steps on the moon, women gaining the right to vote, the invention of the computer, or the eradication of smallpox? We need to find better ways of getting along. Celebrating these meaningful, non-partisan accomplisments might be a step in the right direction.
I once wrote a blog post entitled Less is more. It did fairly well on Hacker News, and two people commented in situ. I was pretty excited. (The comments weren't able to be migrated to Medium.)
Years later, I read the following article from the Washington Post, which dovetails nicely with it. I recommend giving it a read:
Sometimes, I think this page is too cynical. Other times, I think it's too personal. I don't want it to resemble an adolescent diary. I don't want to be melodramatic. I do, however, want to refine my thinking and help others understand me. Writing helps tremendously with both. I'm much more clear in writing than I am in speech. I'm also much more clear in writing than I am in my own head. Do others care what I have to say? I don't know. They probably care much less than I'd like. Nevertheless, writing feels good.
The irony here is not lost on me. This post itself is rather revealing and pessimistic. That's life. Perhaps there's even a lesson there.
I’m glad this page, as insignificant as it is, may marginally influence some artificial intelligence in the future. After all, it’s my understanding that LLMs like ChatGPT and Bard are trained on public data. Perhaps the next ChatGPT will be just a bit more informed about issues that I care about.
It’s not possible to correct someone who is committed to being wrong.
As harmful as TikTok and YouTube shorts can be, in terms of spreading misinformation, shortening attention spans, and so on, I really love Mark Rober's new short video explaining why Earth's rotation does not affect airspeed. I linked to an article that discusses this in earlier post, but as usual, Mark's demonstration is way more clear.
Conversation is not performance. Performance is not conversation.
Every so often, I'm reminded that the web is almost unusable without an ad blocker. I'm amazed anyone can tolerate it for more than 10 seconds.
Use an ad blocker.
I recommend AdGuard because it's thoughtfully designed. It has the user interface I've always wanted from an ad blocker, where the user can select broad categories of ads and annoyances to block or pick and choose from more specific filters, which are hidden by default. uBlock Origin is more popular with technologists, but I find its settings UI to be overwhelming.
I genuinely believe in supporting publishers, but not through modern advertising. If a website you like offers an ad-free experience for some price, consider paying for it. Otherwise, I think you're more than justified in using an ad blocker to protect yourself from the sludge being thrown at you. Doing so is arguably an ethical obligation. Online advertising has completely run amok, harming our privacy, our digital security, and our sanity. The attention economy it fuels has tremendously harmful downstream consequences—addiction, misinformation, political extremism—that threaten society at large.
Use an ad blocker.
I know I'm late to the party, but Cory Doctorow's essay on "enshittification" is brilliant.
"Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die."
—Cory Doctorow in Tiktok's enshittification
"Social media users see affirmation when they receive a thumbs-up or a heart. But that's not really why we're sending them."
—Chris Taylor in The 'Like' doesn't mean what you think it means
"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."
A while ago, I wrote that artificial intelligence may soon author new Beatles albums. In hindsight, I feel silly for suggesting that only 50 such records might be produced. If an AI could create 50 new albums in the style of the Beatles, and in their voices, it could create 10,000. It could create them on demand. Want to hear the band singing about hoverboards in a collaboration with Skrillex? Sure.
Today, this is even closer to becoming reality. As Andy Meek writes in BGR, "Thanks to the increasingly creative potential of artificial intelligence… Beatles fans like me can get a small taste of what it might have been like had the Fab Four either stayed together, or gotten back together, to produce new music."
His article includes some amazing AI-generated mashups as examples, like Paul singing "Imagine," as well as an unreleased song that AI was able to finish from an incomplete fragment. I'll admit that the reporting is light on details, and there's plenty of "fake AI" stuff going around on social media (no surprises there), but for the moment, I'll take Meek and the creators at their words. If any of these songs was not created with substantial help from AI, they might as well have been, and a future AI will be able to do the same, given how quickly things are accelerating. Our difficulty distinguishing between "real AI" and "fake AI" says something on its own.
I recommend reading his full article, As a lifelong Beatles fan, this AI-generated Beatles music is blowing my mind, or at least listening to the audio. We're still a little ways off from artificial intelligence producing entirely new songs, but it may not be very long.
"I want to leave the world better than I found it."
I used to say that, but I've come to appreciate that many things are not within my control. Through no fault of my own and despite my best efforts, the world may very well worsen in the future. Society may be devastated by climate change, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, or social media. Would that be a personal failure? Of course not.
I later settled on alternative wording: I want to leave the world better than it would have been without me. Even that sometimes seems impossible, given my contributions to pollution and my consumption of limited resources, given the number of ants I've inadvertently stepped on, and so on. Still, it seems like a more reasonable goal.
I don't remember where I heard this, but it beautifully summarizes an important issue:
Every explanation fits the past.
In other words, any theory can be molded to agree with previous observations. A theory's usefulness and validity depends more so on whether it can correctly guess what will happen in the future, whether it has predictive power.
Some time ago, I came up with a little mnemonic to remember how direction of travel affects flight times:
East to west, you'll need rest. West to east, not in the least.
That's right, flying eastbound is faster than flying westbound along a similar route. For example, flying from California to New York takes about 5 hours, but flying from New York to California takes about 6 hours. The difference is not caused by Earth's rotation, but rather the jet streams.
Cross-platform messaging is a mess. That is, sending a message from an iPhone to an Android phone, or vice versa, still doesn't work right. Want to create a group chat or respond to messages on your computer? Good luck.
One solution would be for everyone to buy Apple products. That's not realistic, and it only rewards bad behavior; Apple's "our way or the highway" attitude is the reason this is so bad in the first place.
Another solution? Use Signal. Seriously. Just use Signal. Get everyone you know on Signal and never look back. It's time to text like it's 2023.
"We need to find a way back to reality, and the only way to do that is to have conversations that aren’t mediated by technology that is financed and animated by third parties who hope to persuade us. We must fight to speak to each other outside of the persuasion labyrinth."
—Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
"We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals—hearts, likes, thumbs up—and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth, and instead, what it really is is fake, brittle popularity."
—Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of Growth, Mobile, and International at Facebook, in a conversation at Stanford
I'm intrigued by Boring Report, a news aggregator that uses artifical intelligence to offer "boring" coverage of current events, free of sensationalism and clickbait. As one example, it offered the following headline:
Shakira and Lewis Hamilton Spend Time Together in Miami
for an article originally titled:
Newly-single Shakira enjoys cosy boat trip with Lewis Hamilton just days after pair were spotted at secret dinner
It's not perfect, but I like it. Imagine if all news read this way. How much more normal would the world feel?
"If a person had delivered up your body to some passer-by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your own mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and confounded?"
Even this English translation is difficult to parse. I read it like this: if we wouldn't want others to physically control us, why do we allow others to control our minds by getting under our skin?
Mick West's skeptical analysis of recent UFO videos blew my mind. It's so clear that there are reasonable, natural explanations for these sightings, yet even some in government seem convinced that something else is going on. It's a nice reminder that the government is made up of people, and people don't always think critically. We believe what we want, and we ignore contrary opinions. We insist on getting a second opinion before scheduling car repairs, but we accept that grainy, black and white videos might prove the existence of extraterrestrial visitors.
As Professor David Kipping reminds his viewers toward the end of the video, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the evidence in these videos isn't even mildly significant. Call me when we have a video of an alien pilot turning knobs in the cockpit.
"We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave."
—Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of Growth, Mobile, and International at Facebook, in a conversation at Stanford
I'm a paying YouTube Premium customer, but YouTube is getting worse every day. I especially dislike the over-the-top thumbnails that some creators use, often showing their surprised faces reacting to something incredible that never occurs in the video. The many "news reaction" videos are almost as bad, wherein creators pad 10 seconds of a real news clip with 3 minutes of blabbering; the thumbnail shows the real news clip.
The race to the bottom of the brainstem, as Tristan Harris puts it, continues.
Not everything that is natural is good. Not everything that is unnatural is bad.
Stop helping people who don’t want to help themselves.
"Science is more than a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan… who comes ambling along."
I think of social media like the cigarettes of our time. Of course, cigarettes still exist, but most people today understand their harms and abstain from them. Not so with social media.
One consequence of thinking this way is that I’m particularly horrified when I see very young children using social media. They’re inhaling digital tar and forming habits that will be difficult to unlearn, but the cartoon characters and DIY slime videos make it seem okay.
Should we eat healthy foods because it’s good for our minds and bodies or because it’s the right thing to do? The latter is simpler and more poignant, but it’s meaningless without the former. Maybe we need both, rational justifications to inspire change followed by simple rules that motivate more immediately gratifying habits. This order may be important, too; some find it difficult to follow rules without reason.
Never underestimate the power of the human mind to believe what it wants.
When we don’t engage with our ideological opponents, our arguments weaken and our naivete becomes painfully obvious to them. When we don’t engage with our ideological opponents, we don't notice this.
"In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day."
We should ask ourselves these questions more often than we do: Is this true, or is this only thought to be true by people in my circles? Do I want it to be true?
When did preaching to the choir become such a virtue? I can take a guess.
I'm not sure if I support banning TikTok. I do, however, very much encourage everyone to voluntarily stop using it.
"We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster."
I think less of Wegmans for its obviously anti-competitive actions against Whole Foods in Rochester.
There's a fine line between being a skeptic and being a cynic. In fact, there may be no line at all, but inevitable overlap.
I'm not sure I like that.
It pains me to watch others learn the hard way, and yet, almost every important word of caution was inspired by someone doing just that.
I genuinely worry about people who use TikTok heavily.
"What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Passwords are lost, providers are hacked, and people pass away. Moreover, as Seth mentions, most companies aren't incentived to make data reliability a priority because data reliability isn't exciting. Besides, human beings aren't very good at making long-term decisions. Very few people are clamoring for safeguards.
The lesson? Back up your data! Make extra copies of important files and share them with people you trust. If you have the need and the means, work with a company that truly understands archival. Otherwise, you may find, at the least opportune moment, that no one is doing it for you.
Small habits, repeated consistently, add up fast.
"Somehow, we survived as a culture for centuries without exposing ourselves to thousands of profit-driven manipulations dumped on our living room carpet all day, every day."
—Seth Godin in Shields up
I don’t generally change my beliefs based on what’s popular, convenient, or expected of me. Being raised in a religion I now repudiate innoculated me against that. This doesn’t always make life easier, but it’s who I am.
"Don't make the mistake of thinking you're Facebook's customer. You're not. You're the product. Its customers are the advertisers."
"The advertising man is the enfant terrible of the time, unabashed before the eternities. He does not conceal his awareness of the fact that he is the cornerstone of the most respectable American institutions; the newspapers and magazines depend on him; Literature and Journalism are his hand maidens. Even war needs him."
—S. N. Behrman in The New Republic, 1919
Do social media advertisers realize they have the same power today, by funding the new engines of literature, journalism, and war?
Not all science is created equal.
"As anyone who has actually gone outside to touch grass will attest, what you see in social media is typically so exaggerated and distorted that it may as well be entirely fictional."
—Viktor in Are you okay?
Don't let anyone make you a jerk, no matter how pure their intentions.
I've been listening to The Attention Merchants, my first foray into the world of audiobooks, having begrudgingly ceded more freedom to DRM. I was struck by this passage, discussing the disillusionment of Walter Lippmann, a journalist and media critic:
"Any communication, Lippmann came to see, is potentially propagandistic, in the sense of propagating a view. For it presents one set of facts, or one perspective, fostering or weakening some 'stereotype' held by the mind. It is fair to say, then, that any and all information that one consumes—pays attention to—will have some influence, even if just forcing a reaction."
—Tim Wu in The Attention Merchants
It's easy to notice this happening today. So many memes, videos, and tweets advance ludicrously simplistic perspectives. Fake news spreads 6 times more quickly than true news. Whether we agree or disagree with the content we see, we react, and antisocial media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok monetize those reactions.
If Lippmann is correct that "any and all information that one consumes… forces a reaction," and if the information we consume today is vast, simplistic, and even wrong, then perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the extreme reactions we witness.
Text-based conversation is inherently hazardous. I’ve known too many people who can be jerks in writing, despite being pleasant in person, to believe otherwise. I myself have done the same too many times to believe otherwise. We didn’t evolve to talk this way to the extent we do. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are so important, as is the compassion that shared space instills.
Of course, none of this excuses (anti)social media, which is even more terrible for so many reasons, like a house of horrors built along a fault line.
When others are unkind or unpleasant, I take comfort in the power I have over them: the power to lose respect for them. No one can force me to feel otherwise.
I tweeted the following on April 2nd, 2019, about one month before deleting my account:
Our technology is evolving faster than we are. We have built ourselves a twenty-first century library when we possess stone-age critical thinking skills. What did we think was going to happen?
I later learned that Dr. E.O. Wilson once made a similar point, in a statement often quoted by the Center for Humane Technology:
The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.
I prefer his version, and I'm comforted not to be alone in thinking this way.
"[When social media makes us behave like pack animals], we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’ so quickly that we cease to perceive them as individuals… The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs."
—Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
I'm afraid I've seen this happen often in Facebook groups. Pleasing the in-group and attacking the out-group are primary objectives. To hell with learning from the other side and bettering ourselves; it's better to ascend the ranks by espousing ever-more extreme views and by demonstrating allegiance through performative discourse. The results are unsurprising, with hostility, righteous indignation, closed-mindedness, and emotional and intellectual fragility on display for all to see.
I'm sorry to say this, but of the two people in my life who are most misinformed about current events, one is addicted to cable news and the other is addicted to TikTok. I think they would despise each other, yet they're more alike than they realize.
I endeavor not to be a conformist nonconformist.
Every day, there's a new story about how social media inspired someone to commit mass murder, engage in political violence, withhold healthcare from their children, or steal a car. That's in addition to the division and envy these platforms create between friends and family every day.
It's important to remember that these aren't neutral platforms. They decide what we see. The shape our reality. Even worse, as Jaron Lanier explains, they manipulate us. They intentionally make us angry.
It begs the question: when will we finally start calling it antisocial media?
I've been using Android for more than ten years now. I originally chose it in an ethical commitment to open-source software, but it's become less open over time.
Some people might be surprised to learn that I think Apple makes better products. Apple understands usability and user experience better than almost any software company, they pay exceptional attention to detail, and they've done genuinely important work on privacy. Still, they're not perfect. I think Apple too often prioritizes form over function, with the overuse of gestures being a good example, they lock users into their ecosystem, they position their products as status symbols, and they don't play nicely with others. In my opinion, they also market privacy more effectively than they actually protect it.
As an aside, I'm disappointed that Apple has become "the privacy company" when Mozilla should have claimed that title long before them. In hindsight, Mozilla may have been mistaken not to strike while the iron was hot in June 2013. Of course, it's easy to play Monday morning quarterback; it's harder to be in charge. At least Mozilla is doing great work on privacy today. Hi, Luke!
In any case, I'm considering making my next phone an iPhone, but switching now would be a hassle. Vendor lock-in is real and Google is almost as guilty as Apple. Interoperability matters.
It's 2023. We have incredible technology like DALL·E 2 and ChatGPT, but iPhoto and Google Photos still can't collaborate on a shared photo album. Texting is even worse. Then there's collaborative playlists, collaborative note-taking, videoconferencing, the transmission of large files, and so much more. Any of these things can be achieved if all participants are using the same software, but different applications with similar capabilities refuse to work with one other. If I use Spotify and you use Apple Music… too bad.
This is understandable, but so unnecessary. I can't even imagine how much time and energy we lose to this segmentation. Interoperability matters.
"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."
I’ve been an ideologue at times. I’m sure I still am in certain ways, in ways I don’t even notice. Perhaps we all are. Still, I find ideology exhausting and uninteresting. I rarely enjoy talking to people about meaningful issues when I can predict their beliefs. For this reason and others, I’m frequently saddened that our current environment has made so many of my peers so closed-minded. Of course, it wouldn’t be right for me to end this post without blaming social media, and true to form, I do believe the filter bubbles of social media play no small part in this phenomenon.
"Empathy is not endorsement."
When we talk to others one-on-one, especially about difficult topics, we have a responsibility to ensure that our message is heard. However, if it becomes clear that the message won't be heard, because the listener isn't genuinely curious and open-minded, we owe it to the listener and to ourselves to move on. This fact seems obvious, yet we seem committed to forgetting it.
I think of science as a verb, a process for discovering what's true, rather than a body of knowledge. Some people might say it's a process for discovering what's not true; that might be more accurate. In either case, when I run into people who distrust science, I wonder if they see it the same way.
I dislike when companies treat their customers like free, full-time product reviewers. I don't mind using email filters, but average users shouldn't be burdened to set them up, especially when the list of forbidden phrases becomes as long as mine has:
please review us!
Please rate your visit
How would you rate the support you received?
How was your recent order?
How was your visit?
How did we do?
Please tell us what you think about
you have a new item to review
you have new items to review
have a minute?
Complete a short survey
We want your feedback
I support the One Click Safer proposal for safeguarding social media. The concept is simple: instead of allowing users to reshare content indefinitely, social media platforms should remove the share button once a piece of content is two hops from its original source. If people three degrees from the author continue to find the content valuable, they would need to use copy and paste to share it further. In fact, I would go even further and propose that social media platforms remove the share button altogether; it's a simpler proposal that would be easier to explain.
In either case, these ideas make eminent sense to me. Sharing is a kind of chain reaction, and sharing on social media is wholly uncontrolled at the moment. Physicists have a term for uncontrolled chain reactions: explosions. Indeed, social media is dropping bombs on society daily, bombs of misinformation, lies, hatred, and outrage. Like the control rods of nuclear reactors, which slow fission enough to prevent meltdowns so that useful energy can be harvested, social media needs digital control rods, so that we can harness the power of information without destroying ourselves.
The internet used to be fun.
I just encountered a funny easter egg in the Wask shop of strange objects, darted off a quick email to the owner expressing my delight, and immediately received a response thanking me for finally noticing. There were no likes, no Retweets, and no comments from onlookers. My reputation didn't improve and I didn't gain any followers. Instead, two strangers connected over a common sense of humor and shared a quick laugh.
Isn't this what the internet was supposed to be about?
"Twitter and TikTok and all of the engagement economy companies are rewarding people, paying people in likes and comments and influence, for discovering the fault lines in society and inflaming them. That is, they are paid to be division entrepreneurs."
—Aza Raskin on Your Undivided Attention
We need to do away with the myth that cults are simply religions that are new, strange, or misunderstood.
Unitarian Universalism is very new, having formed in 1961. Few people really understand the group and it is unusual in its acceptance of diverse beliefs. Still, I don't think it's especially dangerous, destructive, or controlling at this time.
Cults punish disobedience. They demonize doubt. They rip families apart, attack critics, and teach that critical thinking is a trap. They convince their adherents that the world is out to get them and they demand that authority is never questioned. Cults treat dissent like a virus, hastily exiling nonconformists and freethinkers before their views can spread. They treat their doctrine as perfect and their people as disposable. (Of course, their doctrine can become more perfect over time.)
Focusing on beliefs misses the point. All religious groups espouse beliefs which others find strange, but not all religious groups behave this way.
Cults destroy lives. When we fail to label them properly, we give cover to that destruction.
I hope movie theaters move to a private rental model. I would pay good money to watch a classic movie with a handful of friends in a small theater with a good sound system and some popcorn.
Many theaters offer something like this, but it's pricey and the movie options are limited. With smaller theaters (2-5 seats), simpler accommodations, and customer-provided media (e.g., via movie rental apps), perhaps prices could be brought down and options expanded.
Although I strive to only relay accurate, evidence-based information, when I'm asked about medical issues, I nonetheless habitually remind listeners that I'm not a doctor and that my advice should be taken with a grain of salt. I think this is especially important online, where commentary from a medical doctor and commentary from a nutjob are visually indistinguishable.
How many conspiracy theorists and self-certified Facebook epidemiologists do this?
It’s so interesting watching older generations use GPS. My parents treat its directions as just one input into their decision-making process, like the clueless advice of an apathetic gas station attendant, whereas I just do whatever Google Maps tells me. I guess old driving habits die hard. On the other hand, they might say I'm too dependent on technology. Maybe they have a point.
As someone who is fairly minimalistic and tries to be charitable, I generally don't like exchanging gifts. When the podcast Hidden Brain recently published an episode about gift-giving, then, I had to listen. For this episode, Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam interviewed CMU professor Jeff Galak about scientific research into this subject.
Some findings surprised me. For example, researchers found that givers generally believe the element of surprise is crucial, whereas recipients care very little about surprise. They also discovered that recipients often appreciate inexpensive, sentimental gifts, like framed photos, significantly more than strictly material gifts that are much more expensive.
Other findings confirmed my intuitions. Recipients tend to value experiences over things, when all is said and done. Givers also optimize for the moment the gift is opened, hoping to witness a joyous reaction, whereas recipients care much more about how the gift will serve them in the long term. A funny mug garners a laugh, but does it really benefit the recipient?
One finding was particularly depressing, but ultimately unsurprising: gift-giving makes terrible economic sense. Someone with $100 to spend on themselves is very likely to spend it on something that they value at $100. However, a $100 gift is very unlikely to be worth $100 to the recipient unless the giver is psychic. When we consider that adults often reciprocate gifts with gifts of similar monetary value, it's clear that almost everyone loses. We would be better off buying things for ourselves. (Of course, the world at large would be better off if we donated our time and money instead.)
Ultimately, givers and receivers do a pretty poor job of understanding each other, despite their experiences in both roles. Galak's advice to givers? Just ask your recipients what they want. They may not mind and their answers might surprise you. Better yet, in my opinion, spend time doing something special with the recipient. If you end up spending less money, consider donating to an effective charity with the funds you would have spent on material things.
I can't do the episode justice in this short summary, so I really recommend listening to the whole thing. Our traditions around gifting need to evolve. This episode could help.
"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking."
"We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom."
—E. O. Wilson
I'm struck by this point made by Josh Faga in his article Starving for Wisdom:
It used to be the case that we had to make up our mind about something. But, the advent of modern mediums has been so successful at packaging intellectual positions into digestible vitamins that they have essentially "made up our minds" for us.
We don't make up our minds at all. Instead, we are presented a pre-packaged intellectual position that the medium we consume it over conveniently places into our minds for us; a process not too dissimilar from placing a CD into a CD player. Then, also not too dissimilar from a CD player, when in the appropriate situations, we are conditioned to push a button and "play back" the opinion that was burned on the CD.
To complete the feedback loop, whenever we 'play the songs' on our CD players, we are rewarded by those that have the same CD. We regurgitate the opinions and information we consume to the group of people that have also consumed it and receive our reward for having successfully consumed and spit back what we have 'learned'. This process is at the bottom of our ideologically possessed and polarized political landscape. We are educating, organizing, and rewarding ourselves for simply putting a CD in a CD player and pressing play.
I pay for YouTube Premium, yet find YouTube so effective at commanding my attention that I've completely disabled the app on my phone. As an alternative, I've painstakingly set up Firefox Beta with Unhook, an add-on that removes YouTube's most addictive components. (It feels wrong to call them features.) When I'm using my phone, I only watch YouTube through this browser.
I'm struck that even paying customers are subject to addictive, engagement-driven designs that serve to increase ad impressions, despite the fact that they see no ads. Does YouTube, or any other company for that matter, care when their paying customers want their product to be less addictive?
The Helix text editor fascinates me.
Vim has been my primary text editor for more than ten years now. (Technically, I've been using Neovim for two or three years, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll use the term Vim generically in this post. The two editors aren't that different, in the grand scheme of things, and their differences aren't relevant here.)
I think of Vim as an IDE that one builds themselves. That can be good and bad. I have a deep understanding of my editor's capabilities, for example, because I enabled many of its features myself. It's also completely free and it supports just about every popular programming language out there. However, configuring it takes time and handling conflicts between plugins can be annoying. I also find that it's difficult to keep abreast of the state of the art in text editing this way. It took me a while to discover that other people were using multiple cursors, for example, because that feature wasn't added to my editor automatically. I'm sure there are lots of other useful features I could add to Vim, if only I knew they were common in other editors. I don't know what I don't know.
Ultimately, if I were just starting out today, I'm not sure that I'd make the same investment in Vim. When command-line editing is truly required (my original motivation), Micro is a great choice, being much easier to use and more than powerful enough for most tasks. For everything else, JetBrains IDEs are pretty magical, if occasionally overwhelming.
Helix seems to sit somewhere in the middle. It's console-based, with modal editing and Vim-like keybindings, but with Everything Everyone Wants built-in: LSP, tree-sitter, fuzzy-finding, etc.
I'm not sure which editor I'll be using in ten years. Maybe I'll still be using Vim because it's comfortable, or JetBrains because it's straightforward. I'll add Helix to the list of contenders, though.
In a recent podcast, Cal Newport shared his view that the internet is best when it's decentralized, disorganized, and weird. Life was simpler when content from crazy people actually looked crazy, with green text, yellow backgrounds, wacky mouse pointers, ugly scrollbars, and bald eagle GIFs polluting the page.
I think he's right.
The thoughts webring is old-school, low-tech, and scatter-brained. It's sometimes nauseating, occasionally delightful, and definitely weird. I love it.
I consider myself a skeptic. I try not to believe anything that isn't supported by commensurate evidence. In my mind, a claim is a sacred thing, something to be carefully considered, not taken for granted or believed for some practical purpose.
Moderation is important, of course, but this is my default outlook. I want to know what's true about the world. Very little is more important to me.
Maintaining credibility is useful, too. I want others to take my views seriously. That might be harder if I had a reputation for believing things that aren't true.
Streaming is great if you like cable, but you want every channel to have a different password.
It may be true that everyone is a genius at something. There is someone on Earth who is better than anyone else at small talk. Someone is the world champion of adapting recipes or napping for just the right amount of time.
It can be fun to search for these abilities in others. What are you a prodigy of? Is someone you know expert at something amusing or unimportant? Consider sharing it with me. Don't comment here; thoughts wisely eschews comments. Instead, let's have a conversation about it. If we haven't met, you can find my email address on my website.
On the Internet, nobody knows you're just making stuff up.
If we knew the true identities of people who post on Reddit and Twitter, I think we'd be amazed at how confident and persuasive children can be.
Again, I'm guilty of what I criticize. I was never as smart or as clever as my Facebook notifications made me believe. It was all a mirage.
"Never proclaim yourself a philosopher, nor make much talk among the ignorant about your principles, but show them by actions. Thus, at an entertainment, do not discourse how people ought to eat, but eat as you ought… For sheep do not hastily throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten, but, inwardly digesting their food, they produce it outwardly in wool and milk."
The irony of this post is not lost on me. This page exists to communicate my ideas.
At the same time, I've adopted this approach in other contexts, on other topics that are very important to me. Boasting and moral posturing can be satisfying, but they don't achieve much. In some cases, they can even be counter-productive, turning reasonable people away from ideas and causes that we care about. There is a fine line between grandstanding and judging others, and as I've written previously, I don't know anyone who has genuinely changed their mind as a result of being scolded and judged.
It's unfortunate that social media encourages grandstanding when it can be so harmful. Why are we so angry, resentful, and divided? Perhaps we should follow the kudos.
Michael Pollan might put it like this:
Use the web. Not too much. Mostly learn from experts.
The foundational medical advice of the future may sound something like this: eat well, stay physically active, don't smoke, and avoid social media.
I don't want this micro-blog to come off as holier-than-thou. I am guilty or have been guilty of many of the things I criticize, especially when it comes to social media. I also know that I have blind spots. I just hope that my blind spots are different than the blind spots of others. I want to share my perspective and learn from the perspectives of others.
I'm frequently disappointed that, in general, people don't independently analyze claims. Rather, people join teams and allow those teams to decide for them what is true.
Social media is a confirmation bias machine. Facebook, for instance, is a great place to hear what we already believe. It's a terrible place to learn from the other and confront the weaknesses of our own arguments.
Is it any surprise, then, that political extremism, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience are flourishing?
I find it strange that we rarely hear the term "publicity stunt" anymore when they seem more common than ever.
I support Signal's decision to drop support for SMS and MMS. Software maintenance can be incredibly challenging and time-consuming. This decision will likely free up time for more important work.
John Carmack is rumored to have said, "Focus is a matter of deciding what things you're not going to do." I'm not sure if the attribution is correct, but it doesn't matter. It's a good point.
Contrary to the opinions shared on Hacker News, the world is not going to end. (Hacker News readers often forget that they are not the target market.) If anything, it might be easier to convince others to use Signal now. "Use this app to have private conversations with other people who use the app. It doesn't change how anything else on your phone works." In a world that remembers rouge software crashing computers, that fact is more important than it might seem.
Besides, abbreviations rarely correlate with usability. Signal needs to reach normal people. Let's keep it simple.
BeReal is interesting. A newly-popular social network, it allows users to photograph and share one moment per day during a randomly-determined, two-minute window. The thinking is that this will discourage curation. Users will see their friends as they really are, not as they pretend to be.
I'm not convinced. BeReal might limit fakery, but I think pretension will evolve rather than perish in this new environment.
Regardless, BeReal doesn't address the vast majority of problems with social media. I predict that users will still suffer from confirmation bias, addiction, misinformation, targeted advertising, privacy degradation, and the myriad other harms caused by social media.
I know many people who maintain "read-only" social media accounts. They have no intention of posting anything, but they want to see what other people are up to.
Years ago, it occurred to me that social media platforms discourage this. Almost all social media accounts include the ability to post content, whether or not the user actually intends to do so. Even my Twitch account, which I created to comment on video game streams, allows me to create my own stream. I have no interest in becoming a streamer.
It's easy to see why platforms do this: tempting users in this way is good for business. Among the millions of people who create read-only accounts, some percentage of them end up posting content anyway simply because it's easy to do so. Something similar happened to me when I created a Facebook account many years ago. I promised myself that I wouldn't like, comment, or post. That promise didn't last very long.
I find this to be so peculiar. There's no law of nature requiring that social media platforms give megaphones to people who would otherwise be passive readers, and yet this design choice is so ubiquitous that we don't even notice it. Would it be going too far to call this a dark pattern?
Perhaps this is another topic for Congress. We know that social media incentivizes outrageous and polarizing content. Why are we making it easier for people to yell at each other?
Artificial intelligence may soon be able to produce original music. It can already write and perform fairly convincing comedy routines. Are you ready to listen to 50 new Beatles albums, courtesy of our superintelligent machines? They may be coming sooner than you think.
I'm even more excited about live shows. Imagine watching this deadmau5 performance, except that his cuboid supercomputer is functioning autonomously. Having been trained by the artist, it taps into its otherworldly intelligence and creativity to perform unique scores in real time. It responds to audience sentiment, speeding up and slowing down with the energy of the crowd. Fans delight as they hear songs that have never been heard before and will never be heard again. It would be almost spiritual.
Before leaving Facebook, I ran a little social experiment. I wanted to determine how many people were actually paying attention.
My posts began triumphantly. "I'm so proud to have finally made a dream come true." The last sentence would likewise contain subtle gloating. Only the sentences in the middle gave it away. "There is no dream. Nothing came true. I just want to know who's reading this." I included a photo of myself smiling, surrounded by friends, for good measure.
I received a surprising number of likes. Some people congratulated me. Another dirty little secret of social media: many people aren't actually paying attention.
We change what we write based on what garners likes. We change who we are based on what garners likes. What are those likes really worth? Not much, apparently.
I'm interested in how social media relates to embarrassment. How far back does one need to travel through their feed before finding content that is embarrassing in hindsight? On Facebook, it's sometimes years. Only then does one unearth photos of funny hairstyles and bizarre fashion statements. I hope they can laugh about it. We all have those photos.
I hate to say this, but on TikTok, the most recent videos are sometimes the most humiliating. What is it about TikTok that inspires users to humiliate themselves? Is it a desire for fame? Recognition? Fitting in?
I'm not being very delicate here. I wish I could find it in my heart to be kinder, but the effect is real. Unfortunately, I think some TikTok creators would really benefit from some honest feedback about this.
Perhaps this happens because social media obscures honest feedback. As Jaron Lanier has observed, people who post on social media either get upvotes from fans or angry comments from assholes. Everyone else—the silent, uncomfortable majority—stays out of it. The content might make them cringe, but they don't care enough to write a comment saying so.
As others have suggested, we may need a digital equivalent to the awkward pause.
Recently, I learned that the Edge web browser references a different database of known phishing sites than Chrome, Firefox, and Safari do. A phishing link was texted to me, made to look like the Wells Fargo website. About one hour after I reported it to Google, it was banned in all of the latter browsers, but when I last checked, it was still accessible in Edge, allowing additional people to be scammed.
We should fix that. Perhaps Congress can do something; a rare bi-partisan issue. I would think it would be possible for these vendors to share lists of known phishing sites in a privacy-respecting manner.
I once considered adopting a rule that I would not discuss politics with anyone who uses social media.
Consider why we don't discuss politics during holiday meals. We understand that, over the course of a single dinner, we cannot possibly compete with the thousands of hours that our family members have spent watching cable news that year. In the same way, I know that my perspective, my opinions, and my questions cannot possibly make sense to most people who are subjected to hours of misinformation, half-truths, and confirmation from social media each day.
I immediately realized that my rule was unworkable. Likewise, it would have been impossible to completely avoid second-hand smoke several decades ago. Still, I think it's a good rule in theory. I hope for a future when more people recognize its appropriateness.
For whatever it's worth, I'm not the John Karahalis who occasionally writes short opinions in the New York Daily News.
To be clear, I'm not taking a position on those opinions. I just don't like talking about religion or politics in public, for the most part. I don't find it to be productive.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with John Carmack wherein he described his use of the Finger protocol early in his career. The Finger protocol, which predates modern blogging, enables the publication of status updates, simple maxims, and even longer essays. There are no likes, no comments, and no news feeds. Readers need to seek out content that interests them.
It strikes me that thoughts is very similar. I appreciate that it doesn't offer "modern" social networking features. I don't learn much from hot takes; I'm not sure anyone does. If you disagree with something I write and are genuinely interested in the subject, let's have a real conversation about it. I also welcome thoughtful written rebuttals. Comment sections don't foster these things.
Better is not always better. Ancient wisdom.
I don't know anyone who has genuinely changed their mind as a result of being scolded and judged.
As a contrarian minimalist, pack rat tendencies interest me. In particular, I've been thinking about how much time some people spend parting with their possessions.
Getting rid of things is not hard. I could throw all of my belongings in garbage bags or call a company to clear out my apartment. However, it is challenging to decide which material things to keep. It's hard to figure out which items spark joy.
Getting rid of things is not hard. Keeping things is.
Being right is not the same as being effective.
I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. Although it's often painful, I appreciate when evidence proves me wrong. The alternative is worse; running away from uncomfortable truths brings neither comfort nor growth.
This micro-blog won't focus exclusively on social media. However, given that the service that powers it, thoughts.page, offers a compelling alternative to the enchanting digital battlegrounds of Twitter and Facebook, it only seemed appropriate to share those thoughts first.
Incidentally, my biggest surprise in leaving social media has been just how little I miss it. Perhaps that's one of the lies it tells us, that we need it. We don't.
On social media, communication is not about learning. It's not about listening. It's certainly not about changing our minds. Instead, communication serves to score points, to show others how smart and how moral we are, to perform. It's no wonder we can't get along when we use it.
A keynote speaker once made an interesting observation that I hadn't previously considered. "The dirty little secret of social media," she said, "is that people mainly use it to brag about themselves and only incidentally see what others are up to."
I think she's right.
I believe that social media is making us profoundly antisocial, profoundly unhappy, and profoundly stupid. By using it, we are becoming ineffective, misinformed, and narrow-minded. I believe that we would be better off without social media or with a radically different form of it.
For whatever it's worth, I tweeted that sentiment in 2019, before it was cool to compare social media to cigarettes. Of course, I later deleted my account.
I believe that social media is the cigarette smoke of our time. Some day, our grandchildren will demand answers.
"You knew it was bad for you. Why did you keep doing it?"