"Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man."



At the risk of being perceived as a luddite, or a grumpy old man, I'd say the 30% rise in the suicide rate since 1999 is very clearly linked to the internet, and ubiquitously networked devices.

People have always struggled with mental illness, they've always faced adversity in one form or another. Everyone suffers from time to time, some more than others. And many people with severe mental illness will take their lives. But why has the rate increased? Is there more adversity? Not according to Steven Pinker. Is there more mental illness? Well, perhaps, but if so, why?

I'd say the thing that's most different between this moment and 1999 is probably the thing you're reading this on right now, and where you're reading it. If you're in front of a computer on your desk in your home, God bless you, that's how it's intended to be. But if you're reading this on your phone, on a tablet, in a bus, at lunch, at the beach, at work, in your car(!), then, as a wise person once said, "You're doing it wrong!"

Right now, the world is too much with us. And by "world," I mean the thing we perceive through screens, which is far more than the "real" world. We spend more time looking at screens than ever before. The "world" is something that exists in a screen, and it's something that is laden with emotional "content," that we are encouraged, manipulated, to respond to and interact with. "Like" it! "Retweet" it! "Favorite" it!

Competition seems to be the central organizing principle of this society and this civilization. With the rise of the internet, television and radio had to compete for attention, and in order to do so, they had to make "content" more "interesting," that is, arousing. So, while television and radio have lost some of the public's attention, what attention they receive is given to emotionally arousing content. Local news, "if it bleeds, it leads." "See which of your favorite restaurants failed their health inspections! Are roaches on the menu?"

Are we capable of introspection anymore? Can we hold a thought in our heads longer than it takes to type out a tweet?

Next slide please.

A state of semi-permanent "arousal" has become the norm, the homeostatic condition. If it's not "exciting" it must be "boring."

It's not just technology. I agree that technology is not value-neutral. But I think the central problem is human nature, and by that I don't mean that there's nothing we can do about it. There's a lot we can do about it, but I'm not optimistic that we will, and that's because competition, zero-sum thinking, is the central organizing principle of this civilization. Competition is not inherently self-correcting. Apple is including new features in iOS 12 to help you understand how much of the world you're perceiving through one of their screens, but so what? It's a nice gesture. Some people will use it to good effect, but most people will never know it even exists. Just like nobody ever reads the "user agreement."

And if you are using iOS 12's new features to limit your interactions on iOS, will you merely be giving that time to another screen? Your television? Excuse me, your smart television? And it just limits certain apps, you're still going to be receiving your messages, phone calls and emails. And you're still going to be struggling with the conditioning that the other apps helped to create. You'll just give your attention to different apps to get the same dopamine response.

When Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, he noted that our president at the time was a former movie actor, (and television host, "Death Valley Days, brought to you by Twenty Mule Team Borax!"). He felt it was a consequence of the influence, the education, of television. Well, today our president is a game show host with a Twitter account.

You connect the dots.

But does it mean anything?


[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post included Ngram embedded links with "Socialism" (capitalized) as the search term. Changing it to "socialism" (lower case), changes the result. Ideally, I should have clicked the case insensitive check box.]

I vaguely recalled seeing something about Googe's Ngram widget, but someone used it to show the use of a particular term in another context on Twitter, and I had a thought.

So, I went to the site (had to search for it on Duck Duck Go first), and entered a few key terms. Now, I don't know how Google's widget works. I gather they've scanned thousands of books, and that his reflects the frequency of appearance of these terms in "thousands of books."

This was my first choice of terms:

Then I wanted to see what the frequency of the term "market" was:

Hmmm... there must be some reason why "market" is written about more frequently than those other terms, but it's interesting that its relative frequency has a net positive slope. I suspect that the industrial revolution had a great deal to do with it from 1880 to about 1936. It would be interesting to see if the strong increase between 1960 and 1993 correlates in some way with increasing financialization in the U.S. economy.

I wish we had data after 2000, but this was interesting.

The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. The slope of the curve for "competition" is basically flat from 1800 to 1860. By 1880, it's strongly positive.

Add "cooperation" as a search term, and you get this:

Not exactly encouraging, I think, but perhaps somewhat revealing.

Just for fun, I added "computer" and "internet" - seems we were fascinated with computers once.

Anyway, something to think about.