Posts in: Technology

Jack Leahy:

Distraction is nothing other than a way to avoid, in the short term, the radical discomfort of the necessary spiritual growth beyond this predicament. Distraction is now a very normal way of negotiating life.

Walking through my neighborhood, seeing so many people living on small city lots using leaf blowers powered by electricity or gas. Our wiser descendants will reach for hand tools for tasks like this, reserving energy usage for work that is beyond human strength.

Luxury surveillance

Chris Gilliard: These “smart” devices all fall under the umbrella of what the digital-studies scholar David Golumbia and I call “luxury surveillance”—that is, surveillance that people pay for and whose tracking, monitoring, and quantification features are understood by the user as benefits. These gadgets are analogous to the surveillance technologies deployed in Detroit and many other cities across the country in that they are best understood as mechanisms of control: They gather data, which are then used to affect behavior.

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Interesting page on permacomputing, a.k.a., “radically sustainable computing.” Plenty of links. This is way out of my league but some of you may find it valuable.

Robin Sloan:

The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform melts like mist when that invitation is rescinded.

This is most certainly true.

Oliver Burkeman on the reality distorting effects of the attention economy:

As you surface from an hour inadvertently frittered away on Facebook, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the damage, in terms of wasted time, was limited to that single misspent hour. But you’d be wrong. Because the attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever’s most compelling - instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful - it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things - and all of these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. If social media convinces you, for example, that violent crime is a far bigger problem in your city than it really is, you might find yourself walking the streets with unwarranted fear, staying home instead of venturing out, and avoiding interactions with strangers - and voting for a demagogue with a tough-on-crime platform. If all you ever see of your ideological opponents online is their very worst behavior, you’re liable to assume that even family members who differ from your politically must be similarly, irredeemably bad, making relationships with them hard to maintain. So it’s not simply that our devices distract us from more important matters. It’s that they change how we’re defining “important matters” in the first place. In the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want.”

Four Thousand Weeks p. 96-97

Alan Jacobs has recently posted about his news consumption habits in response to a worthwhile piece by Oliver Burkeman. Taking the latter first, Burkeman says that while there has always been alarming news, “the central place the news has come to occupy in many people’s psychological worlds is certainly novel”. Is this a healthy state of affairs?

Assuming you’re not reading this in an active war zone, it doesn’t follow that you need to mentally inhabit those stories, all day long. It doesn’t make you a better person – and it doesn’t make life any easier for Ukrainian refugees – to spend hour upon hour marinating in precisely those narratives over which you can exert the least influence.

What approach is preferable to marinating in the news? He discusses and dismisses both the “renunciation” and “self-care” approaches. Instead, he says, we should “adjust our default state”. Dip into and out of the news. Take action where you can and then move on. Then guard this practice with some “not-too-rigid” personal rules for handling the information. Rather than marinating in the news, do the good you’re actually capable of: “meaningful work, keeping your community functioning, being a good-enough parent or a decent friend”.

Burkeman’s rules involve putting physical distance between himself and his laptop and phone, along with time limits for their use. Jacobs describes his practices in his blog post:

  1. “Most important: I avoid social media altogether.
  2. I always have plenty to read because of all the cool sites I subscribe to via RSS, but not one of those sites covers the news.
  3. I get most of my news from The Economist, which I read when it arrives on my doorstep each week.
  4. In times of stress, such as the current moment, I start the day by reading The Economist’s daily briefing.”

I second Jacobs’ recommendation of RSS feeds. I use NetNewsWire and it really is a good way to keep track of writers and sites you’re interested in. Whenever something new is posted, it simply appears in the app and I can read it whenever it is convenient for me.

I also second his recommendation of avoiding social media. I’ve written before (and likely will again) about my discovery, once I closed the accounts, of how much my thoughts were driven by the timeline, not my own interests.

I avoid cable news at all costs. I believe it is, just as much as social media, engineered to hijack your brain. #CNNsucks

I tend to pick up most news through something like ambient awareness. If something is big enough, I usually hear about it one way or another. In times when I feel like I need to attend to the news (as in recent days), I typically go to the BBC news site because

  1. They have a reputation for being reliable and professional, and
  2. I don’t constantly hit paywalls, like at the NYT or WaPo, and
  3. It’s not jammed with video and ads. Again, #CNNsucks.

For me, it is an essential practice (and Burkeman refers to this) to continually distinguish between what I can and cannot control. I have little to no control over much of the awful shit that happens in the world. There are a few practical actions I can take. Beyond that, though, my responsibility is to learn (both for myself and with my family and friends) how best to navigate and understand the world we find ourselves in. It is useful to remember that, if life is the Battle of New York, I am not Thor or Captain America or even Hawkeye. I’m not even the NYPD. I am one of those people in the background scrambling to avoid falling debris.