‘An epistemic crisis’

Today’s ‘The Interface’ at The Verge opened with a line that jumped out at me:

One result of a world in which everyone has more or less equal access to publishing tools has been what’s sometimes called an epistemic crisis: a scenario in which large groups of people muddle along with very different understandings of reality, undermining the ability of elected officials to govern.

I think this can be expanded to include many spheres of modern life. Entrenched ideas based on shaky foundations become more entrenched on social media, reinforced by powerful feedback mechanisms and amplification loops as a result of a business model that feeds on anxiety, parasitic engagement, and present shock. What do we end up with? From The Verge’s piece:

BuzzFeed is maintaining a list of debunked coronavirus claims, relating to its origin, potential treatments, and faked government communications about it. Some of the claims are highly susceptible to being shared by credulous parents. Canada keeps being falsely implicated. And Axios reported that “nearly 13,000 posts across Twitter, public Facebook pages, and Reddit between January 24 and January 27 have propagated conspiracy theories about the virus, including that it may be a bioweapon or a depopulation method.”

The coronavirus outbreak is a classic example. People are worried and frightened, but facts are in short supply. Fear creates engagement. The algorithm wants people to be more worried and frightened, because that creates more engagement. People become more like the machine when they spend time in an emotive, fact-sparse environment like that – they become part of the machine itself, often doing what it wants whether they are conscious of it or not. We’ve all been swept up in the drama of some collective event playing out online before, haven’t we? Sometimes it’s positive and this feeling of being part of a huge movement can feel good, but sometimes it’s a whirlpool of anxiety and FUD. We become less of an individual human being and more of a mob/machine component.

I suspect part of the answer is just to spend less time online. The more time you spend jacked in, the more it becomes your reality – and the more worried you probably feel about anything and everything.

If you visit the #coronavirus hashtag on Twitter right now, it’s an absolute shambles of made-up statistics, conspiracy theories, memes, and scaremongering. There are also genuine human expressions of fear and concern, and real news/facts to be found, but if it’s 75% bullshit to 25% reality then I think we are witnessing the point where trending hashtags have lost their usefulness. Maybe we passed that point a long time ago.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about the coronavirus outbreak, or that we should remain ignorant about it, but using social media to stay informed in times like this strikes me as counterproductive at best.

‘So I chased myself around the page, suddenly much more noise than signal’

Much of my job, there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day. It was jarring, as I became the ubiquitous face of the spammily cretinous new regime, to find that I was myself now part of that chaos—it was my face and voice, decontextualized and unbidden, pouring out of that pipe. I couldn’t stop it, but it doesn’t stop. So I chased myself around the page, suddenly much more noise than signal.

From ‘The Year in Pivoting to Video’ by David Roth (Hazlitt)

‘The sublime subversion of looking up’

We no longer identify with the “little people” looking up but with the powerful people looking down. It’s a forced perspective. We’re still surveilled but this time, by the glowing lozenges we cradle in our palms, the ones that keep our heads bowed and shoulders aching.

…the Romantic philosophers, poets and artists understood the sublime subversion of looking up. During the rapidly industrialising 18th and 19th centuries, they sought profound thrills in primal experiences of nature. They reimagined the upward gaze as an escape into another dimension of feeling – away from the relentless forward momentum of modernity.

From ‘We spend so much time staring at our phones. What do we miss when we don’t look up?’ by Mel Campbell (the Guardian)

Apple’s AirPods Pro are a symbol of death

Apple recently announced the AirPods Pro – shiny new wireless earbuds with some attractive new features. But they can’t be repaired, and are an environmental disaster waiting to happen. They also raise troubling questions about our inability to be silent with our own thoughts.

White Apple headphones have become a visual cliché in urban environments. For many years they were wired, but more recently the wireless kind have risen to prominence. AirPods are expensive, easily lost, and disposable, which makes them a uniquely obnoxious form of conspicuous consumerism. Wired headphones work perfectly fine – or at least they did until phone manufacturers started eradicating the headphone jack – so if you can afford to pay the minimum £159 sticker price of AirPods then you’re signalling that you’re willing to splash out this kind of money on a convenience that’s also a status symbol. Personally I can’t think of anything that screams ‘I conform!’ more than plugging Apple adverts into my ears, but maybe that’s just me.

The AirPods Pro take things a few steps further:

  • They are dramatically more expensive, at £249.
  • They feature ‘Active Noise Cancellation’, designed to further immerse you in whatever Gripping Content™ you’ve decided to consume, eradicating just that bit more evidence that you’re living in the physical world.
  • They’re ‘even more magical’, which is Apple-speak for ‘we can make you give us money’.

My main objection to AirPods is that they are disposable products with a severely limited lifespan. Ifixit recently completed their teardown of the AirPods Pro, and gave them a repairability score of zero. Unlike your phone, which is bad enough but can still theoretically be repaired, AirPods are mostly held together with glue and can’t be opened without destroying them. This means that when (not if) the batteries fail, they become environmentally dangerous technoscrap. These products are destined to end up in the ground in their millions, perhaps forming a geological layer along with all the other technoscrap, rather like the fossilised shoes left behind after the Shoe Event Horizon dreamed up by Douglas Adams.

On a less tangible level, I’m also troubled by active noise cancellation. AirPods Pro are not, of course, the only headphones you can buy with this feature, but when combined with the other downsides it merely serves to sweeten the sauce. Many humans in the 21st-century western world cannot suffer being alone, and will do almost anything to drive away the little slivers of solitude that punctuate daily life. The voices and ideas of others suffuse every moment of consciousness. We look at our smartphones the instant we awake. When walking to the bus stop or waiting in a queue, we plug in headphones and silence the world with music or a podcast.

Look – I love music as much as the next person, and often carry headphones with me so that I can drown out the world from time to time. But wireless earbuds are more convenient to leave in all the time, so why would people ever want to take them off (until they need charging, that is)? Why not leave them in from breakfast until you get home, saturating every instant with music and chatter, keeping precious boredom at bay, preventing a single scrap of genuine solitude from creeping through the defences?

Maybe that sounds attractive, but solitude is important, and we’re starved of it. I’ve been leaving my headphones at home a lot more over the last year, forcing myself to be alone and bored, because that’s when my mind lights up and I know who I am again. But on-demand distraction feels good in the short term so that’s what the brain craves.

Add active noise cancellation into the mix and you make it really easy for the AirPods Pro wearer to pretend that the external world doesn’t exist at all. Gripping Content™ is served to you on a bed of silence, the world just a drab, grubby background behind the hyper-saturated rectangle of your smartphone.

The real world may not be as exciting as Spotify or the latest podcast, but it’s real, and this is where we live. The less time we spend here the less we’ll care about it. We should check in more often.

I’m not even going to get into the other aspects of AirPods I find creepy and dystopian, such as the always-listening Siri voice assistant (luckily, Siri is mostly useless). And it isn’t all bad. The AirPods Pro do have an adjustable fit, which may make it less likely that one will drop out of your ear and be lost. I guess that’s something.

Look, if you have spent £249 on wireless earbuds that are destined to end up in landfill because they can’t be repaired, leaching toxic chemicals into the earth, then you’re not only signalling that you have more money than sense – you’re signalling that convenience is more important to you than the world in which we all live. That not only is today more important than tomorrow, but tomorrow doesn’t even exist. You’re also signalling that you’re easily controlled by Apple’s siren call of consumerism. Did purchasing them make you feel good? But it’s a momentary hit of pleasure in the void, isn’t it, until you feel the need to consume more – or until the AirPods Pro 2 come out and the old ones go into a drawer, maybe for 3 years, maybe for 20, but eventually they’ll come out of the drawer and end up in the ground. Or maybe you’ll decide to be an earnestly conscientious consumer and use your AirPods Pro until they fail, which will be in about two years because the batteries are minute and can never be replaced. And then you’ll open your wallet again because convenience soon becomes need.

How many pairs of AirPods will you get through in your lifetime before Apple announces the ability to embed them permanently in your head, so that you’ll never have to endure silence, or your own thoughts, ever again? Does that idea make you feel uncomfortable – or excited?

AirPods are death. They are a symbol of corporate control, of the annihiliation of the self and the annihilation of all life. Don’t buy them. Tell your family and friends not to buy them. Enjoy music, podcasts, whatever, but also take a few moments each week to be alone and without entertainment – you never know what thoughts will come to you in the silence.

The Machine Stops

…all these tubes and buttons and machineries neither come into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here.

Then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts.

E.M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops‘ (1909)

‘When we stop paying, we’re left with nothing’

Apologies for linking to Medium, but there’s a good piece by Simon Pitt called ‘Computer Files Are Going Extinct’ on the subject of platforms taking over more and more of what we do (and, also, digital enclosure in general). Here’s a quote for you:

The file has been replaced with the platform, the service, the ecosystem. This is not to say that I’m proposing we lead an uprising against services. You can’t halt progress by clogging the internet pipes. I say this to mourn the loss of the innocence we had before capitalism inevitably invaded the internet. When we create now, our creations are part of an enormous system. Our contributions a tiny speck in an elastic database cluster. Rather than buying and collecting music, videos, or other cultural artifacts, we are exposed to the power hose: all culture, raging over us, for $12.99 a month (or $15.99 for HD) as long as we keep up our payments like good economic entities. When we stop paying, we’re left with nothing. No files. The service is revoked.

I know, I know – people find files annoying. Writer and former developer Matt Gemmell wrote a blog post back in 2015 called ‘A farewell to files’, and I remember reacting to it strongly at the time. People find files annoying because they have to manage them and put them in folders and think about them. It’s become so tempting to just say ‘sod it’ and use one of the many library-based, cloud-based platforms that are available today for managing your stuff: Evernote for notes, maybe, and Apple Music for music, and Google Docs for work things. The lords of the cloud would like us to stop managing our own affairs and to hand everything over to them, but this is a staggeringly bad idea.

When you stop using files and start using one of these platforms, you hand control of another portion of your life over to a corporation whose motives may not align with your own. Even if you’re ok with how that corporation does business now, and even if the software does what you want at this precise moment, the future is the future. When everything’s a service you don’t own anything. The cost could increase beyond what you can afford (which recently happened to me with Dropbox; I am no longer a Dropbox customer). The company’s business model could pivot, or greater public scrutiny could reveal their true colours (Google). They could just get too big and profitable and stop giving a damn about the tools you rely on for your livelihood (Apple is doing this right now to the Mac). They could go bust entirely.

That’s the bigger picture, but within the scope of the original post, a file is something that you own, which (ideally) resides on a local storage medium that you also own. You are responsible for backing it up, sure, but – unless it lives primarily in the cloud – you also have full control over it. Nobody can take that away from you.

I have .txt files on my computer that have survived since the early 1990s. They work just as well now as they did then. Meanwhile, I have an Apple Notes database from 2015 that’s corrupted beyond repair, a Lightroom library that’s now so slow that it won’t open on my top-of-the-line iMac, an iTunes in the Cloud library that sometimes syncs if it feels like it, and a Trello account that completely disappeared for no apparent reason. I have twice attempted to use iCloud Photos and twice my photo library has ended up hopelessly corrupted. iTunes is the only one of these services I still use – and I have all my music stored locally as well as in the cloud.

If you want to store a thing on a computer, store it in a goddamned file. Upload it to the cloud for convenience if you need to, but make sure the canonical copy is somewhere you control, on a local storage device, and backed up the old-fashioned way. The cloud is wonderfully useful for collaboration and synchronisation but it would be a mistake to trust it entirely.

The platform-driven computing environment we live in now is not progress. We’re told it’s progress by the corporations who stand to profit from us trusting them with all our stuff. The cloud-based world is more expensive, less reliable, more complicated, and sometimes forces us to change platforms for any number of arbitrary reasons. The only real advantage is convenience.

Anyway, I encourage you to read the original article in full. The death of files has repercussions far beyond the narrow objections I’ve raised here, from chronocentrism to increased dependencies and other issues. Perhaps most importantly of all, it mentions the intangible sense that we’re losing touch with the data we create – ‘my own little world,’ says the author.

‘Travel without a phone’ and ‘travel without social praise’

This morning, I took a little time to catch up on the excellent blog of Derek Sivers, and came across two pieces that resonated with me: ‘Travel without a phone’ and ‘Travel without social praise’.

The first might be considered an extremist tactic, but he does make an interesting point:

Where you are is partially defined by where you are not. When you’re somewhere, you’re not somewhere else. But when you use your phone, you’re everywhere.

Smartphones have made travel easy, but they have also eroded that sense of travel, because when you carry a smartphone you carry your own collection of other places around with you – and it’s easy to slip away there if you get bored or anxious.

My own experiences have confirmed that travel does feel richer and more rewarding when I don’t have an internet portal in my pocket. Partly that’s because I have to be more intentional; partly it’s because I notice and experience more, and interact with more people. It’s been a long time since I travelled anywhere without taking photos, though. I’m not sure I’d go that far (although I do favour a real camera over a phone camera).

To carry no phone at all is an uncompromising, purist stance, and probably has more drawbacks than advantages. But, as someone who has found the experience of travelling with a basic dumbphone very positive, count me officially intrigued.

In ‘Travel without social praise’, the author wrote:

We go places we think would be impressive to other people. We take photos that will make our life look wonderful when we share them. We want that praise — that social reward.

Do we really want to do this thing, for its own sake? Or do we just want the praise?

This is something I thought about a lot in July-August 2019 when I hiked the Pyrenean Haute Route. Several times, I asked myself whether I would still do this big walk if I could never tell anyone about it or publish my experience in any form. I had assumed (hoped) that the answer would be an immediate ‘yes’, but to my surprise I found my honest response was more nuanced than that, and came with qualifiers and provisos. It took a week or two for my reply to become a firm ‘yes’ with no ifs or buts.

I actually asked one hiker I met a few times this exact question. His response: ‘Hell no. I do it for the ‘Gram. I’ve gained thousands more followers this week alone. What would be the point if nobody ever found out about this epic shit?’

I thought about that a lot too.

Weeks later, I thought about the words of Robert Frost in his poem Mowing:

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.