Losing control of our attention

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Screens are contagious. If we see one person look at their phone, we emulate them like we do catching someone yawn.

But the addiction is not totally our fault. With the vibrant colors of apps, the dopamine of Facebook likes and news alerts, on top of serving as a consolidated utility of our camera, wallet, and communications device, our phones are designed to hook us.

Tech is the “cigarette of the century.”

It’s amazing that in this post-internet world of surfeit information and 24/7 conversation we can even concentrate at all. We’ve numbed our thumbs from excessive use.

We’ve lost the signal to those little gaps of solitude and doing nothing where we reaped the benefits of a wandering imagination.


Can we get our bored minds back?

There are plenty of options other than riding the Facebook or Google monopoly on our attention. For as many tricks these companies play us, there as many tips to get away from them: turning our screen gray, just sitting and staring outside the window, and at the most extreme: throwing our phone into the ocean.

We can only harvest quality attention if we can escape the torment of distraction and external stimuli fighting for the inside of our heads. The world around us already creates a theater inside our head. We see the world once, with an intrinsic pair of eyes, with no need to record the outside world with a third eye.

“Attention is a form of prayer,” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil. We should insist on slowing down if we’re to restrengthen the human will.

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Sean Parker: Facebook exploits a “vulnerability in human psychology”

Social platforms are casinos, and likes, replies, comments, shares, etc. are the poker chips. We are addicted to social currency on top of our psychological desire to solve for loneliness.

The main reason I blog is to get away from the hyper-activeness and dopamine-hitting fast food of social media, so I can slow down and gather my thoughts.

How often do you get stuck in the ludic loop?

Make it new

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“Reality is an activity of the most august imagination,” said poet Wallace Stevens.

What we call reality emerged from human ingenuity. So if we can take today’s tools and use them for good we’ll naturally have a better future.

Instead, we are building technology that paints a future dystopia. Hackers hijacked Facebook, Google, and Twitter and filled them with fake news during the 2016 election. What did we think was going to happen with free-flowing information? “The art of debugging a computer program is to figure out what you really told the computer to do instead of what you thought you told it to do,” quipped Andrew Singer, director of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois. Meanwhile, Amazon is replacing its workers with bots.

While we can expect software manipulation to continue, there are still reasons to be hopeful. As Tim O’Reilly points out, we should be looking at ways to work with artificial intelligence to fuel productivity and innovation.


We have to make it new. That’s a wonderful line from Ezra Pound that’s always stuck in my brain: “Make it new.” It’s not just true in literature and in art, it’s in our social conscience, in our politics. We have look at the world as it is and the challenges that are facing us, and we have to throw away the old stuck policies where this idea over here is somehow inescapably attached to this other idea. Just break it all apart and put it together in new ways, with fresh ideas and fresh approaches.

We have a choice: we can deny optimism and permit darkness or we can build a brighter future. For every time Google chooses to be evil, or Facebook invades our privacy in an attempt to make stockholders happy, there’s another rocket Elon Musk is building that takes us from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes.

There’s a lot to be hopeful for, as experiments should continue to be encouraged. The real question is how can we create a society for both rapid technological advancement and reflexive sociopolitical change. How do ‘we make it new’ without throwing out the stuff that made it good in the first place?

Question the algorithms

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Photo by David Werbrouck

It is a canard to think that math can’t fail. All you need to do is look at the way society constructs algorithms – from job and college applications to Facebook feeds to find out that sorting can be wrong and biased.

In the case of the 2016 election, algorithms did more harm than good. Facebook fed the internet silos with fake news. As Cathy O’Neil author of Weapons of Math Destruction puts it in a 99% Invisible podcast: “The internet is a propaganda machine.”


We’ve adopted the factory mindset of mass-sorting, leaving the anxiety of decision-making up to machines. Humans are pieces of data, waiting to be organized by the least valuable candidate or customer.

There’s too many of us and not enough time to make individual considerations. But a conversation around algorithmic frailty might do us some good. Making generalizations impedes the magic of a discovering an outlier.

‘The real world is an escape from the internet.’

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Social networks are specifically designed to keep us hooked as long as possible. No matter how aware we are of the entrapment, the exit door never tempts us enough to permanently leave.

Yet we ‘users’ are literally the ones being used and tracked so big brother can sell our data to advertisers. We permit cookies to follow our behavior all over the web, from shopping to googling health related issues.


While the internet offers us a marketplace of ideas, instead we find ourselves collecting resources and stealing other people’s opinions to reconfirm our own.

Rather than tapping into a common goodness of those who disagree with us, we pat the backs and converse with those who serve us their boilerplate bullshit.

Stuck in boxes, spied on and taxed, it’s no wonder the internet makes us so antsy we can’t get along. Writer Noah Smith puts it best: “15 years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Now, the real world is an escape from the internet.”

Hooked on Facebook

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The only threat to the longevity of Facebook is that it makes people feel like shit.

Facebook’s relationship with its users, the product, is deeply psychological. It wants us to post whatever want, but all we end up doing is comparing our lives to other people in our own cocoons. We are ambiently aware of what everyone in our feed is doing.

The internet is a vast space of potential connectedness yet our relationships are usually with like-minded people. Our ideological bunkers reconfirm our beliefs, whether the content is real or fake.

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The benefit of connectedness is proximity at scale — we can chat with a friend from the couch while Facebook surrounds us with ads like we’re standing in the middle of Times Square. Facebook is surveillance, and we give Big Brother the benefit of the doubt in selling our information to marketers in exchange for the ease of communication with so-called ‘friends.’

Facebook wants us to present our best selves online. It could care less about authenticity since it is our curated selves generate clicks and thereby give Facebook Ads a chance to make more money.

Facebook purports to be to the social network that upholds your real identity but its attention-based algorithm is psychologically damaging. The platform profits from fantasy, loneliness, and mimetic desire. Facebook persuades us to live the life we don’t want, thereby infringing on the personal liberty of making decisions that are key to our heart. Impressing others drains the soul of what we really want to do: express our uniqueness.

Facebook is the world’s biggest copy machine. It tries to box us in and disregard the person we really want to be. We are hooked on to its expectations of conformity and insularity.

Read You Are The Product

Shadow of a doubt


The software and hardware companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook want us to trust them. The theory is that our information is better kept stored with them in a private cloud rather than with the government. Outside America, however, the NSA can collect our information without a search warrant.

The internet companies are not only American-based, their manifest destiny makes them look like hegemonic colonizers.


“This is a dilemma of the feudal internet. We seek protection from these companies because they can offer us security,” says Maciej Cegłowski. “But their business model is to make us more vulnerable, by getting us to surrender more of the details of our lives to their servers, and to put more faith in the algorithms they train on our observed behavior.”

We are all citizens of tech companies, trading privacy for free communication. But the users are the ads and coders are the kings; the latter which convert our interests and attention into ad revenue.

Technology platforms appear to be doing more harm than the good. Most recently, they’ve facilitated fake news and ushered in FOMO-hitting mental health issues.

The internet is as indispensable as water but it’s also a perceivable threat when the few that run the show are creating new problems while hesitating to solve them.

The best of the best

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Facebook makes you unhappier because it produces envy. We always want in our feeds what we don’t have in real life: a stable relationship, a high-paying job, a weekend vacation in the Caribbean, a beautiful house, a new car, the latest gadgets–the list goes on.

But social media is edited real life. We tend to over-post happiness and under-post negativity. Who’s going to share about their mental illness, a divorce, or a family death? That’s sad stuff, even if Facebook allows you to respond with a weepy face instead of a thumbs up.

We usually post things that we wish were, not as they are. Social media presents the best of the best, an online Truman Show that excludes the beautiful struggle in between. At the very least, social media is pseudo-news that often omits context.

“There’s always another story,” indeed.

Listen to Hidden Brain: Ep. 68: Schadenfacebook

Forget what you heard

For many people, Facebook is their sole newspaper. One of the primary roles of a newspaper is to validate events rather than spread false rumors.

But fake news runs rampant on the platform because anyone can post it without consequence. Facebook does nothing to validate sources, especially since it fired its human curators and replaced them with an algorithm that amplifies noise, true or false. Twitter is equally culpable.

Should we believe anything on social media platforms? Probably not. But the press isn’t exactly trustworthy either. It also has an agenda, that which revolves around whichever drives the most site traffic and clicks.

Misinformation and lies are at the root of chaos. Even the smartest people can often be the most gullible, duped by comedians faking death.

If marketers are liars and social media is edited real life, people must also interpret the news with a grain of salt. Doubt everything.

Identifying narcissism in today’s digital age

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Millennials may have ushered in the era of narcissism, but they are no longer responsible for its durability. Everyone else has caught up to the “toxic self-absorption” that plagues the western world.

It’s already hard enough to tell the work of an amafessional from a true artist that takes their work seriously. Everyone owns their own Instagram and Twitter microphone. So how do you pinpoint a narcissist in the age of social media me-ness?

Writer Kristin Dombeck offers some ideas on how to identify a modern day narcissist in the n+1 magazine.

The narcissist acts like a rock star

“Narcissists are the most popular kids at school. They are rock stars. They are movie stars. They are not really rock stars or movie stars, but they seem like they are. They may tell you that you are the only one who really sees them for who they really are, which is probably a trick.”

The narcissist is callous

“He cannot feel other people’s feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours.”

The narcissist won’t do the right thing

“The narcissist, in contrast, always chooses to act in exactly such a way that if everyone were to follow suit, the world would go straight to hell.”

The narcissist aims to dupe you

“The narcissist has a priori no empathy, yours is just applause to her, and she is not just fake, but evil.”

So what do we do when we face a narcissist for the first time? Do we find the quickest exit and run a “5K right there in the middle of the cocktail party?” Consider self-reflection.

Perhaps we’re all a bit narcissistic, no more superior than the emptiness of emotion that the pixels display on our screens. Some people bath in ‘selfiness’ while others prefer to get a little wet.

Let’s be honest 

There’s a reality between what people say and what they do.

Examples:

  • People keep predicting the death of email but its keeps getting bigger and more important because it’s the one feed where we can control. Everything else (i.e. social media) operates on linear abundance or algorithmic infinity.
  • Tech pundits continue to predict the death of Facebook as teens shift to ephemeral sharing apps like Snapchat. But Generation Z still uses the social network; not because it’s ‘cool,’ but because like email it’s just part of their everyday lives.

The story we tell ourselves is actually different than how we act.

Nicholas Carr on the religion of technology

Below is a snippet from technology and culture writer Nicholas Carr’s new book Utopia is Creepy, based on the collective musings of his popular blog Rough Type, where he writes about the craving for everything technology, including the way it’s become a religion and the way we think of it as the be-all and end-all for solving all the world’s problems.

“So began my argument with – what should I call it? There are so many choices: the digital age, the information age, the internet age, the computer age, the connected age, the Google age, the emoji age, the cloud age, the smartphone age, the data age, the Facebook age, the robot age, the posthuman age. The more names we pin on it, the more vaporous it seems. If nothing else, it is an age geared to the talents of the brand manager. I’ll just call it Now.”

Read more: ‘The World Wide Cage

A world that runs on algorithms

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Predictable undulation

Facebook pioneered the Newsfeed, the world’s first social algorithm, in 2006 to deal with the abundance of shared content. The algorithm continues to be the secret sauce of its business, a magic formula that it can tweak at any time to favor branded content or individuals, with ads sprinkled in between.

From business to professional sports, algorithms have since gone mainstream. Scouts use statistics as well as behavioral data to determine their team’s future draft picks. Similarly, employers use personality tests to disqualify a majority of their applicants, particularly those with mental illness. According to data scientist and author Cathy O’Neil:

“In the US, some 72% of CVs are never seen by human eyes.”

Algorithms have become a modern way of sifting between mass populations and mass consumption — hello Spotify and Amazon recommendations. What algorithms miss, are the plurality of outliers. People and tastes are exceptional.

Before World War II, the US Army standardized the size of its cockpits to match the average American male’s stature. To recruit more pilots, the Air Force built more flexible seats and adjustable pedals. Diversity won out to demand.

The age of algorithms signals a similar narrow-minded path with potentially disastrous consequences. The concept of automation as a service saves time fails when it comes to sorting out humans. O’Neil continues:

“Their popularity relies on the notion they are objective, but the algorithms that power the data economy are based on choices made by fallible human beings. And, while some of them were made with good intentions, the algorithms encode human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into automatic systems that increasingly manage our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models are opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists.”

The machines are us: The tendency to exclude the unpopular, the misfit, the unfit just because it fails to meet a generic formula poses a risk to the potential outlier which disrupts the probabilistic agenda.

How algorithms rule our working lives

Unclutter Your Facebook With Flatbook

One of the reasons people started using Facebook instead of Myspace was because it was a cleaner experience. But then Facebook got bloated with ads and unnecessary additions like ‘Your Games’ and ‘Recommended Games’ on the right sidebar.

Now, a new Chrome extension called Flatbook removes these user obstructions. Flatbook makes Facebook’s main features (photos, friends, newsfeed) speedier to navigate with its big buttons on the left pane and overall readability of content.

Remember when Biz Stone blogged about a $10/month premium version of Facebook? You can get that experience now for free.

Enjoy Facebook again with the Flatbook extension in the Chrome web store.

PLUS: Check out these other essential Chrome extensions that will “change your Internet life.”

Alain de Botton on Fusing Ancient Greek Wisdom with Modern Capitalism

What we’re seeing today is the fusion of Ancient Greek philosophy and modern philosophy into daily business life. Technology companies like Facebook exist for the purpose of solving the human desire to connect with others.

“Facebook is a psychological need to solve loneliness.”

AirBnB exists to deliver “happy travel,” not just deliver on the false needs of a vacation.

“You know a journey has gone wrong when you go to a museum.”

Alain de Botton’s point is this: Capitalism doesn’t deliver real happiness. It sells products that purport to help you lead a fulfilling life. Apple’s technology merely “facilitates the act of conversation” but it doesn’t help guide the actual conversation between humans in real life. However, Alain is hopeful that a new era of thinking that blends the pursuit of Ancient Greek wisdom with a new psyche of capitalism will make us instinctually happier.