‘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.

Do millennials struggle more with social media’s dark side than other generations?

As an older millennial myself, this is something I’ve long wondered. A recent piece on the Guardian, bearing the title ‘We millennials have more ‘friends’ than ever. So why are we so lonely?’ adds an interesting perspective.

Here’s a pertinent quote:

Having grown up with (and to at least some extent been shaped by) social media, millennials have been especially vulnerable to its worst psychological effects, such as creating an illusory impression of connection and the sense that everyone else is living an impossibly rich, varied and active life.

Before I begin, let me stress that I can’t speak for all millennials here. I’m extrapolating from an observed trend.

I’ve spoken to many individuals from older generations who are far more capable of using social media as a simple tool with remarkably little psychological imprint on their overall well-being. Could this be because greater maturity acts as a shield against the attention traps and psychological loopholes social platforms use throughout their design? Do older people have more real friends and richer social interactions in the physical world? Are they just online less than we are? Perhaps a lifetime of being exposed to advertising has had a galvanising effect too.

But I’m not so sure. In my experience, young people are often acutely aware of when they are being manipulated and controlled by the attention economy (which, when online, is almost always). And while some young people undeniably lack a rich real-world social life, I don’t think anyone would claim we’re a generation of shut-ins. No, the difference seems to be in the response.

I’m generalising here, basing my points on circumstantial evidence and personal impressions (although I plan to study this more formally). I’ve observed that older people who are heavy users of social media, and savvy with it, often have a surprising ability to put these platforms from their minds when they aren’t using them. Put another way, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al. seem to have less of a hold on older people. The experience can be completely different for some people my age and younger. I think we are incapable of viewing the internet and all the various platforms as just a set of tools. Because we grew up alongside them as they developed, in our heads we think of them as all-encompassing aspects of nature. Like the sea or the sky. Or perhaps as extensions of (replacements for, God forbid?) our own minds and souls.

When millennials struggle with social media’s dark side, our response is often anxiety, overwhelm, numbness, and a constant feeling of jitteriness and being unable to focus on anything. These effects can last for hours or days, even when offline. Even if our phone and computer are switched off. This isn’t just me – I’ve heard the same story from countless people, both my own friends and relatives and people I’ve chatted to online. Hundreds of articles about the phenonenon are only a web search away.

It’s a complicated picture, and I think many factors are at play. The nature of the work that many millennials do, which often relies so heavily on social media in one way or another, must play a role. If our identities are entangled with what we post on social websites – places designed to trap us and force us to do free work for internet corporations – then what does that do to how we perceive ourselves? No wonder young people get just a bit anxious when a carefully curated tweet only gets two likes. We can’t help but see that as a reflection of our own worth. Magnify that to the scale of our entanglement with social media, of our poisononous relationship with likes and metrics, and perhaps we’re starting to see the outlines of the problem.

How do we know what we actually think about anything if we’re constantly being bombarded by the thoughts and opinions of other people – and corporations – at all hours of waking life?

To be clear, I don’t believe this reflects badly on my generation. We are not workshy or feckless. Hell, we often work multiple jobs for low pay in an environment where it feels that everything we do is tied to our own value as human beings. We’re not just dumb consumers of whatever nonsense the internet throws at us either. But we’ve been manipulated by tech platforms since childhood in ways that are only just starting to be talked about – in some cases only just starting to be understood. Methods that far exceed other means of control or corporate surveillance that have existed at any other point in history. That’s got to leave its mark on the psyche. Perhaps every generation has its own unique form of collective damage; maybe this is ours.

This is why I believe it’s important to speak up about these issues and to strive to learn more about them – to, yes, raise awareness, because many people remain unaware. There are greater problems in the world, but the mental health of an entire generation deserves to be taken seriously. The anxiety and overwhelm some millennials feel some of the time in association with social media is a real problem. When I see older people flip out at millennials on Twitter and tell them to ‘get off the internet if it’s bothering you so much’ I think it’s a lot like telling someone with clinical depression to get a grip and start smiling more.

Further reading

‘Why your Instagram isn’t growing’

I noticed an interesting new post on PetaPixel about Instagram, which starts with the premise that ‘it isn’t you, it’s Instagram’. It also makes it blindingly clear that Instagram has absolutely nothing to do with photography, if you hadn’t already figured that out, and everything to do with consumerism and the attention economy:

There are so many people on Instagram, and the organic, chronological order news feed is sadly a thing of the past. These two things alone mean the beginning of the end for any social media platform, because they mean that the platform is prioritizing advertisers over users…

And:

The average user spends around 53 minutes a day on Instagram; are you getting a return on your time investment into that platform? Are you making an hour’s wage daily from Instagram? If not, then I say leave the app behind and focus your time on something else.

Nicholas Carr wrote that digital content is often not as engaging as the enclosing medium or interface, and that – in many cases – the content itself becomes irrelevant. Scrolling through Instagram is all about staying in the machine zone of no-time, not about appreciating photography. (Don’t believe me? How long do you spend looking at the photos in your feed?) He also wrote that ‘Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like’.

Final thought: is it better to reach a small number of people with something of genuine value, or a large number of people who don’t care with trivia?

To decarbonize we must decomputerize

‘Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.’

‘Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.’

This is the central argument behind a superb piece by Ben Tarnoff, published last week in the Guardian, which bears the provocative title ‘To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution’. This article, which is well worth reading in full, makes the following claims:

  • As more areas of life come to rely on computation, AI and machine learning, the energy footprint of the cloud’s physical infrastructure is rapidly increasing, and is already vast.
  • Much of that energy comes from fossil fuels. It is unlikely that attempts to push for ‘green AI’ will provide anywhere near enough energy to meet demand, which is increasing exponentially.
  • Therefore, digitization is a disaster for the climate.
  • On a human level, although ‘digital enclosure’ is widely regarded as progress, in reality it provides a means for big tech to exert greater control over individuals and populations. (The word ‘Entanglement’ is not used, but this is a classic definition of the Entanglement.)
  • Although resistance is increasing, in order to make a difference we must do more than resist: we must offer a vision for the future we want.
  • Luddism allows us to approach technological developments with intention, considering them from a human-centric viewpoint.
  • ‘We should destroy machinery hurtful to the common good and build machinery helpful to it.’

There’s a whole load of common sense here – common sense that is missing from the mainstream tech debate, which holds the view that handing all human affairs over to computers is good, that if we suffer because of it we’re the problem, and that the new way is always best because look at this futuristic shiny thing! It’s high time that the antihuman ideas of Silicon Valley get consigned to the dustbin of history. I see signs for hope, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A few choice quotes:

we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.

In the present tense … putting computers everywhere is bad for most people. It enables advertisers, employers and cops to exercise more control over us – in addition to helping heat the planet.

Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.

Luddism urges us to consider: progress towards what and progress for whom? Sometimes a technology shouldn’t exist. Sometimes the best thing to do with a machine is to break it.

Read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/17/tech-climate-change-luddites-data

The blandness of LinkedIn

(Necessary context: I originally wanted to post this entire rant on LinkedIn as a text post, but the character count was much too high, so I’m posting it in full here instead. Maybe I should have optimised my content a bit more for the platform 😉)

I’m probably about to upset some of you.

I’ve noticed something about LinkedIn.

Everyone writes posts that looks like this.

Have you noticed it? Short, staccato paragraphs.

Presumably this is something to do with optimising content for engagement.

Or maybe it’s just because we all have such short attention spans these days.

Either way, I find it incredibly annoying. These posts all look like clones of each other, with a similar tone and often similar content. I have started to unfollow people who write like this. It’s turning me off LinkedIn faster than I’ve been turned off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (which, let me tell you, is saying something). LinkedIn already has enough annoyances and user-hostile features – why add to them?

The more we optimise ourselves and our content for the machine world, the more machine-like we become. I get it – it’s difficult to be human online, especially when we have brands to build. There’s intense pressure and everyone else seems to be optimising everything they do to serve the demands of volume, speed, and fake authenticity. But this is what the platform wants, and the platform doesn’t care about you – it cares only about devouring attention and turning it into value for advertisers. ‘Engagement’ is fundamentally adversarial because attention is a finite resource.

Please be considerate when you demand the attention of people who have chosen to read what you write. Please be a human being, not a content-optimising drone who only posts stuff that is calibrated to get the most views, likes and comments. When everyone adopts the same hacks to game whatever algorithm is currently deemed to be important for the success of our personal brands, everything looks the same. Individuality is erased in a drab sameness that makes me want to slam my head against the nearest brick wall. If I read another top-10 listicle with a big, Pinterest-friendly header graphic (at just the right image aspect ratio, of course) with text in a ‘quirky’ font I think I will throw my iMac out of the window. Everything on the web is either terrifying or bland these days with nothing in between.

So let’s try to retain what humanity and individuality we can while the machine world still allows it. I’m not saying we should all completely ignore evidence about what is worth doing and what isn’t, because time is precious. But remember that social networks don’t want us to behave like free-thinking individuals – they want us to behave like an anxious mob, constantly following trends because we fear being left behind. When everyone on LinkedIn starts writing stuff in the same way, adopting the same vaguely entrepreneurial, upbeat tone (with the odd bit of ‘today I had a bad day and I’m about to tell you about it’ thrown in to show how authentic we all are), perhaps saying something different – even if it might result in lower engagement, or perhaps precisely because it might result in lower engagement – is the most human response left to us.

Apple gets into the debt business

The same company that urges us to monitor our phone screen time, make healthier choices, and live better lives is now getting into the icky business of debt, incentivizing spending by giving users cashback on their purchases.

Vlad Savov, The Apple Card is Apple’s thinnest and lightest status symbol ever’

Full article here: https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/25/18281259/apple-card-credit-goldman-sachs-titanium-design-event-2019

Life Without the Tech Giants

Kashmir Hill is conducting a fascinating experiment: completely blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from her life, using a custom VPN. Turns out it’s a tricky process:

To keep my devices from talking to the big five’s servers, and vice versa, Dhruv built a virtual private network, or VPN, for me, through which I sent all my internet traffic. He then used the VPN to block my devices from being able to use the IP addresses owned by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and/or Apple, depending on the week.

On a normal day, as measured by the VPN, I tend to send two million data packets out onto the internet and more than half of them (60 percent) go to the tech giants. That meant that over half of my normal internet usage was going to grind to a halt—including virtually every way I communicate with my friends, family, and colleagues.

The first installment is about her attempt to block Amazon, which turned out to be impossible:

Ultimately, I learn that it’s simply not an option to block Amazon permanently. It’s technically impossible given the use of CDNs, and even if we could come up with a perfect block, it would wall me off from too many crucial services and key websites that I can’t function without for both personal and professional reasons.

This is a fascinating experiment that says something important about centralisation on the web. We like to think of the internet as this great big decentralised free-for-all, but it really isn’t – almost all power has fallen into the orbits of a few giant corporations. They hold more power over us as individuals than any pre-web organisations (or governments) ever have. Are we ok with that? I know I’m not.

I’ll be following the rest of Kashmir Hill’s experiment with interest.