Hopefully this will be a quick post, because I have errands to run and stuff to do...
The other day Jason Kottke tweeted a link to this post at Stratechery called, "Tech's Two Philosophies." Read the post, it's not very long, though it can provoke a great deal of thought and discussion.
Assuming you didn't read the post, briefly, author Ben Thompson points out the difference between Apple and Microsoft, and Google and Facebook. Apple and Microsoft are platform makers, whose products are intended to empower individuals to do things for themselves. Google and Facebook are aggregators whose products are intended to do things for you. I think that's interesting.
A bit of backstory is necessary, going back to the early visions of what computing would mean for humanity. Steve Jobs' "bicycles for the mind," is an apt and lovely metaphor, and one that I think still has some value, although we have mostly failed to live up to that vision. Douglas Englebart foresaw the information explosion, and saw computers as one way humans could learn to cope with it. Englebart was also somewhat more sophisticated in his anticipation of what it might mean, as he foresaw a co-evolution of man and machine. This is a smart take on the idea that we make our tools, and, in turn, our tools make us. We can go back to using stones to grind grains, and the story goes on from there. Exercise for the reader.
What is sad, and depressing, and frustrating, and infuriating is that we have completely failed to realize either Jobs' or Englebarts' vision. Bill Gates' vision was largely realized, a computer on every desk, running Microsoft software. Yay. Go Bill. A lot to be said for having modest goals.
What I immediately thought about Thompson's assertion that Google and Facebook want to do things for you, to give you back more of your time, was that of course they do. So you can spend that time on Facebook or Google!
And Google, and to a greater extent, Facebook, are the source of much of the information overload we are experiencing. Now, I'm reluctant to rely on the idea of information overload, because it's not so much that we're overloaded with information, it's that there is so much information that is utterly irrelevant to us, and, more troubling, so much that is just misinformation. Ideally, the information processing ability of computers should have helped us make tools to manage this surfeit of data, and to an extent they have, but corporations have taken computers' information processing capability and used it to attract attention.
Google and Facebook are not information or data aggregators, they are attention aggregators. They use information of all kinds, good, bad, titillating, prurient, provocative, entertaining, amusing, demagogic, idealistic, whatever message you're receptive to, they have it and they surface it to you, place it before your eyeballs, so they can show you an ad and charge a corporation for renting your eyeballs!
And one of the bitter ironies of all this is that it's done through the screens made by the platform makers, Apple and Microsoft. It's like Apple built a bicycle for the mind, but it only travels to one destination - social media!
Now, there's a solution to this, but it's largely unattainable. We can learn a form of discipline and eschew the attention-whoring aggregators. That would require discipline and the insight to realize that social media is a trap, an insight that is deliberately kept obscured by the aggregators, and one in which we have been trained since birth to be blind to. Since childhood, we've been taught (educated) that the world is perceived as images through screens, first by television then by the internet. We are not predisposed to regard this skeptically. We'll deny global warming, but we won't deny our tweeps!
All of which is why I'm pessimistic about this civilization's future. I suspect (didn't say "hope") that humanity will survive the coming calamity; but in much reduced circumstances. Whether that's good or bad, perhaps history will judge, whenever we get around to recording and examining history after the collapse.
But we have large, powerful entities today, chiefly corporations, that have very short time horizons and cannot act in any form of "selfless" way; and who cannot perceive a threat to their self-interest beyond the next quarterly report. Perhaps some do, but it's not clear that Facebook or Google can, locked as they are in a hyper-competitive struggle to monetize your attention. And there are numerous other corporate entities leveraging this captive audience for their own purposes, which likely have little to do with our best interests.
And because they're so good at what they do, because ceaseless, relentless competition compels them to get better and better, the likelihood that there will be large social movement away from the aggregators is vanishingly small. The odds are all against us.
So there's your cheery thought for the day. It's nothing new. I've been ranting into the void about it now for a very long time, to no discernible effect. I'm just getting my dibs in on "I told you so!" early.
Okay, this may take a while...
Book arrived yesterday...
1130 pages! Ooof! Does anybody really read this thing anymore? Well, how do you eat an elephant? One page at a time, I guess.
Book: Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
When I was about to retire in 2013, some of the people I worked with asked me what I was going to do with all my time, seeming to believe that without a job, there'd be nothing to fill it. One of my replies was that I had a stack of books taller than I am, and that I hoped to read them all.
Well, if anything, the stack is taller today than it was five years ago. But I did read a book this week.
Someone had recommended Amusing Ourselves to Death to me some time ago, perhaps more than a decade ago, since my email shows that I ordered the book from Amazon in 2007. What prompted me to pick it up on Wednesday was the same thing that prompted my last Editorial Note. I've begun a little project I'm thinking of as the post-mortem of late 21st Century civilization. Not that there'd be anyone around to read it then, so it's perhaps best that we begin it now.
I'll digress a bit here and reveal that I believe we can identify today a number of significant developments in the course of history since the enlightenment that had, within them, the seeds of what would ultimately become our undoing. Many of these developments are regarded as positive, and indeed, for the most part, they were. But they had an effect that we've recently begun to call "unintended consequences."
One of the first developments, and at this stage, I'm calling it the first, is Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Now, like many, hopefully, educated people, I know what The Wealth of Nations is, but I've never read it. So it occurred to me that I'd probably better read it to make sure it says what I think it says. Basically, I suspect that it cemented the notion of the "free market" as the preferred economic system by which wealth is created and resources, goods and services are distributed within a population. And, by most accounts, it's been a resounding success. But I want to see what Smith wrote about competition, the role of the government and what he thought "free" really meant.
The second development would be Darwin's Origin of the Species. In part because it helped diminish the authority of the church, but especially because of how I suspect it influenced our thinking with regard to the idea of competition. I suspect that Darwin, without ever intending, was essential in establishing within western culture the idea of competition as its central organizing principle.
The third would be the development of electronic media. By this, I had in mind radio, but Postman is convincing that it is really the telegraph that started it all.
The fourth would be the development of advertising or propaganda, essentially, "messaging" by large organizations or perhaps, "social organisms."
I suppose the zeroth development would be the discovery of fire; though more proximally, the discovery of "fossil" fuels, chiefly coal and oil. The effects of the combustion thereof, being ultimately what causes changes to our planet that our civilization is unable to adequately address, leading to its eventual collapse.
But it will be our notions of free markets, the role of competition, and the way that we distribute and "process" (by which I mean "think about") information, that create a system that is fundamentally unstable and unsustainable, and that ultimately consumes itself. There is no "check" on the system, no "governor." It is unconstrained by design, and in the absence of constraints, it proceeds to its logical conclusion and eventually consumes itself.
Enough about that! I've ruined the whole thing for you. Now you know the whole plot, and therefore there's little to "entertain" you. So let's get back to the book.
Amusing Ourselves to Death was written in 1985, or roughly a generation ago. "Mobile" phones were the size of a brick, and very few people used one. Before the internet (Yes, yes, I know. ARPANET 1971ish). Before the era of ubiquitous computing. A year before Nikon introduced the first digital single lens reflex camera. Two years before the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine (what a quaint notion!). Three years before Rush Limbaugh began his national radio program. Only two years after the CD was commercially introduced. Ronald Reagan was in his second term, Michael Dukakis hadn't yet been photographed in a tank wearing a helmet that made him look like Snoopy. Four years before America Online (AOL). Seven years before the House Check Kiting Scandal, nine years before Gingrich and Armey's Contract with America. In other words, it was written a long time ago. Long, long before "social media."
As damning as Amusing Ourselves to Death is, everything he condemned is so much worse now, because of "progress" and competition.
The problem is information, and the media by which it is conveyed. At least, it's the problem in this environment, where competition is the central organizing principle, and the purpose of life, it seems, is to generate and amass, insofar as it is possible, wealth.
Postman makes the point that since at least the 60s and up to perhaps the decade after the book was published, television had overtaken school in terms education. That's not to say that children did not go to school, or that colleges and universities weren't cranking out graduates, only that what they "learned" in their formal schooling was but a tiny fraction of what their minds "learned" from television. Today I think you can substitute "screens" of any type, the problem is the same, only much worse.
If you're having any trouble following this, I encourage you to please read the book. Alternatively, the theme is nicely captured, I think, in the first several paragraphs of David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College. Television, more generally, electronic media, is the water you've been swimming in. You think you learned how to think in school. You've been learning it your whole life, in front of a screen. Your experience in the classroom is just an anomaly, that you've been told is somewhat applicable to "real life." But we all know "real life" is perceived through a screen.
And what has electronic media taught us? How has it molded and shaped our intelligence? What form of thought does it permit? And the answer is simple. Our thoughts have become tweets. Powerpoint slides. Facebook posts. Twenty second spots on TV. Slogans. Jingles. Memes.
Sure, there are people who put more cognitive effort into thinking, but they're the exception today, and mostly because their job or profession requires it. Worse, as portrayed by much of the electronic media, they've become the élites, the people who seem somewhat condescending, somewhat distant from "regular" people. Postman makes a compelling case that it wasn't always so, and that people were capable of, and routinely did, perform strenuous amounts of thinking about things; not just reacting to them. Because, by far, the single biggest form of engagement actively sought by electronic media is some type of emotional engagement. The "hot take." The "like." The retweet.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Well, this has been a bit of a long post, I must say.
The book has given me a lot to think about. Some of which I'll do here, as I try to write this. Even the act of writing these posts is challenging from the standpoint of wanting to get everything out all at once and posted. I'll start writing and the thoughts are whirling around in my head faster than my fingers can put them on the screen. And at some point, I just have to step away from it. I took a long break from this post after I wrote thirteen paragraphs. And the paragraphs aren't very long! And I'm writing very casually here, not making much effort to put this down in a more formal kind of presentation. Partly because it's faster to do it that way, and partly because I don't think anyone reads long blog posts; and while I have no idea who or if anyone does read these, well, I know about three or four people do, I don't wish to tax their attention!
So, more about this in another post. But this is very exciting to me. The post-mortem project is perhaps the larger effort, but having some new or different insight into the effects of electronic media is stimulating. I think some changes may be in order in my own life.
But it is refreshing to read something exciting for once. Even if it is all bad news.
I started a long post this morning, but real life intrudes so I can't finish it the way I'd like to. So I think to myself, I really ought to create a Drafts topic in this outline to stash long posts I'm working on.
That rings a bell...
Sure enough, I have a Drafts note, where it seems I've stashed five other posts I started and never finished, the oldest going back to November 2014.
So now I'm going to leave that item expanded and move some other topics around, so it's always there right in front of me. And I should probably delete most of those old topics. Of course, by that reasoning, I should probably just delete most of the archives too! Ah, I'll leave them in there.
In the old Groundhog Day I had a topic called "The Cooler" where I placed my most intemperate posts before publishing them. Most of them never made it out. Feelings pass. I haven't felt the need to do that in Marmot yet. Maybe soon though!
Back on the horse...
So I've not been very diligent about maintaining a practice here. Luckily, I was pissed off enough yesterday to post something. That's "luckily" for me, not sure about my audience. Not sure I have an audience either, when you come down to it. Oh, I know there are a few of you out there reading this. I'll try to be more cheerful.
Had a technical glitch in the presentation here yesterday, so let me say just a few words about the wonderful people at Eastgate Systems, makers of Tinderbox, one of the most interesting pieces of software I've ever used. And in terms of third-party applications, I think I've been using Tinderbox longer than any other program on my Mac(s). It's now an annual subscription, but I pay every year, and I paid for every upgrade before then. And it's kind of a love-hate relationship, because I struggle with it sometimes. But it's worth it, because nothing else does what it does they way I want to do it. Anyway, I'm digressing again. I couldn't get an acute accent to display properly in Safari yesterday. I posted a question at the Tinderbox Forum and received the proper answer within a very short time. So my thanks to them, the support has always been excellent, and there's an engaged and energetic community around Tinderbox, so you can find help, inspiration or sympathy at almost any time with very little effort.
In other news, spent over a week in Ireland last month. It was wonderful. Weather cooperated, mostly. We got there before the summer throngs, so the touristy things we saw and did had short lines, and traffic was a non-issue. I drove 1,351 kilometers on the wrong side of the road and didn't manage to kill anyone. Suspect there may be one or two wounded side-view mirrors, but not sure. Highways are no big deal. Major roads, not a problem. Cities, a bit challenging.
The scary parts are the narrow country roads with no shoulders and usually up against a stone wall, with a blind curve up ahead. Re-learned something I'd been taught by my dad when I was first learning to drive, just keep your eyes up ahead on your lane. Don't look at the oncoming traffic, don't look at the shoulder of the road. Your eyes start to wander, the car does too. But it was a white-knuckle affair much of the time. End of the day I was exhausted. When I got home, I dreamed about driving in Ireland almost every night for two weeks, which is longer than I spent driving in Ireland. Yes, I'd do it again.
Loved the whole thing. Took 2500 images, but it wasn't a photo trip, so the shots were tourist shots mostly, and we were never out during the "golden hour" so light was never the best. Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. So there are 250 shots that may be notionally "not crap," and of those, probably 25 worth sharing. Haven't made that effort yet, because it's kind of intimidating. But I'll get to it.
Beer was cold, contrary to rumor. The Titanic exhibit in Belfast was well worth visiting, I thought. Yes, it is touristy, but it's a compelling story and I thought it was well done. History of Ireland is fascinating. Did a walking tour in Kinsale and learned about Lusitania. Needed some Euros so we hit an ATM, needed some smaller denominations so I stepped into a bookshop and bought the book Dead Wake by Erik Larson, recommended by our tour guide. Read it in the evenings, winding down from the day's drive, finished it as we landed in Jacksonville. Just an amazing story. Recommended. Also dreamed about submarines for the first two weeks home.
People were wonderful. Food was great. Important pro tip: Diesel pump nozzles are black in Ireland, not green. Word to the wise. Not covered by insurance. We dodged that bullet. Barely. Visa doesn't extend car rental insurance to Ireland or Israel. Found that out when we arrived. Thanks, USAA. Not. Had a gig of data from AT&T on their Passport program thing. Used probably 650MB, mostly mapping and some web and mail stuff, probably 9 days in the country. Seemed about the right amount.
The cap to my Apple Pencil Lightning connector is probably stuck to the leg of a metal table in the Dublin airport. You go through security twice. Ireland's first, TSA second. Ireland relies on icons to tell you what must come out of your bag. Laptops look like laptops, not tablets, but tablets must come out too. All this investment in universal literacy and we can't use words. I'm really not impressed with the 21st Century. So, hurriedly pulling out my 12" iPad Pro from my backpack, I knocked the pencil out of its little holder. Hit the deck, and so there's Dave on his hands and knees holding up the line. I hate being "that guy." Found the pencil, abandoned the cap and renewed my disdain for security theater.
Anyway, that was Ireland. You should go.
I'd brought along Bootstrapping, the book about Doug Englebart and the history of personal computing, but Lusitania swept me away. I'm back reading it now. More on that in a later post.
That's probably enough for now. I'm playing with old computers, reading about the early vision of computing by some of the major players back then.
Sad to see how it all worked out, I think. Maybe I'm wrong. History will judge.
Until next time...
People are horrible...
Perhaps the second most well known thing ever said by Jean Paul Sartre, after "Au revoir, gophér," is, "Hell is other people."
Also true, what Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar, "All men have feet of clay." Or words to that effect.
Which is pretty much why everything sucks, especially social media. Because far too much of it is about judging other people, which is itself just a form of signaling to indicate what tribe you're in.
I've pretty much weened myself off Facebook. I still visit the Apple II groups I belong to, but I just dive into my main stream every other day or so, like a bunch of posts and then get the hell out of there before the stench starts to get to me. And occasionally I'll post something that really belongs here, but I'm lazy.
Feet of clay. Sue me.
But I haven't yet weened myself from Twitter, and it's beginning to feel as though I may have to. Same reason, too much tweeting about "other people" by "other people."
Yesterday it was someone tweeting about how horrible Dr. Richard Feynman was. And, no doubt, he was. He still did some good work though, but there's no room for nuance when you're virtue-signaling. And also Watson of Watson and Crick fame. A horrible person by many accounts. Racist and misogynist, the only thing he's missing is Republican, but that kind of goes by definition, am I right? (See how that works?)
Today it was someone ragging on Letterman, another horrible person. Yes, yes, I know.
Then there's this guy, in the NY Times, who writes "Liberals, You're Not As Smart As You Think," (You Are). I fixed that title, because I think that one really is just as smart as one thinks. "Thinking" being constrained by, perhaps, one's intelligence; otherwise, what, we could be smarter than we think? You'd think we'd know that, right? Never mind, I digress.
In any event, I'm pretty sure Gerard Alexander has never heard of the idea of irony. And I seriously question the intelligence of whoever it was at the NY Times who thought that piece was worthy of publication. Every now and then I consider canceling my subscription to the Times, and that piece was just about the one that did it. I'm still thinking about it.
I get it. There are horrible, mean people in the world. But that's not us, right? It's those other people! We're the good ones.
A good friend of mine stabbed me in the back several months ago. Never saw it coming, though in hindsight, it was all right there in front of me. I'm still not over it. Bitch about it all the time to people who know us. I really need to get over it, but that's probably going to take a little more time. Not that we'll ever be friends again. At some point, I suppose the best I can hope for is that I would piss on him if he was on fire. But I'm not there yet.
Anyway, yes, people suck. Everyone sucks. We know. Especially public figures, because public figures typically become public figures because they did something wonderful. (Except criminals.) And all these narratives sort of write themselves, eventually comes the inevitable downfall.
Still waiting for the other shoe to drop on Mr. Rogers.
I mean Hitchens, that rat-bastard, went after Mother Theresa for God's sake. So yeah, the jury's still out on my neighbor as far as I can tell. If I'm lucky, I'll be dead before someone discovers his dark secret.
People are horrible. Which is why social media sucks.
Another blinding glimpse of the obvious, brought to you as a public service by the tireless misanthrope at Nice Marmot (formerly Groundhog Day).