Filter Failure & Critical Ignoring

“As important as the ability to think critically continues to be, we argue that it is insufficient to borrow the tools developed for offline environments and apply them to the digital world. When the world comes to people filtered through digital devices, there is no longer a need to decide what information to seek. Instead, the relentless stream of information has turned human attention into a scarce resource to be seized and exploited by advertisers and content providers. Investing effortful and conscious critical thinking in sources that should have been ignored in the first place means that one’s attention has already been expropriated (Caulfield, 2018). Digital literacy and critical thinking should therefore include a focus on the competence of critical ignoring: choosing what to ignore, learning how to resist low-quality and misleading but cognitively attractive information, and deciding where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities.”

-Anastasia Kozyreva,, et al. “Critical Ignoring as a Core Competence for Digital Citizens.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. Volume 0. 10.1177/09637214221121570

One of the red flags of conversation is that you have to give “both sides” consideration. Or, the person you are talking with suggests that you need to do more research in the topic, particularly if it is along the lines of their argument.

Here’s a radical idea. Arguments have to earn their place at the table. All opinions are not equally valuable, and if you want consideration, you have to do the work and not tell the people you are trying to convince to do the work for you. If your perspective is anti-vaccination, Earth is flat, etc., don’t be surprised when you are ignored.

I don’t have to care about your pet issue, particularly when it is objectively wrong. Even if you are right, about your religion, politics or conspiracy theory de jure, you aren’t entitled to anyone’s attention. You earn attention by caring about people, not ideas.

Or, to make an analogy, you are not entitled to sex with someone, just because you are lonely. What is true of the body is also true of the mind. Congress is based on consensus.

Robustness of the Underlying Technology

I was reading The Browser, which made this recommendation:

Folders Versus Tags by Eleanor Konik | 24th September 2021

Personal knowledge management enthusiast’s magnum opus on the fraught subject of hierarchical organisation. The overwhelming trend in digital products, from Gmail down to the most niche notetaking app, is to apply tag to files rather than sort them away into folders. But, as is argued here, keeping all of your information in one bucket with no compartments has its downsides (4,238 words)

Upon clicking the above link, it returned the following:

The thing people tend to forget, when they talk about the comparative advantages and disadvantages of different ways of organizing information, is the underlying technology and how likely it is to fail. Using tags instead of a hierarchical file structure requires using a database, and everyone of us has had instances where a database fails, right when we need it. That’s fine, for a time, for a personal website. But, it’s not a good idea if were are doing something mission critical for our organization or perhaps even as a storage medium for your life work.

When considering the relative advantages and disadvantages, let’s also consider how likely the technology is to fail. Text files in a hierarchical file structure have disadvantages, but some of them have solutions, such as symbolic links that point to the same file in multiple locations. But, it’s a robust system and less likely to fail over time than new systems like Roam.

File Hierarchies: Images & Email

Every now and again, I come across something that makes me realize there is something about me that is different than most people. It happened this week while reading A World Ordered Only By Search by L.M. Sacasas, which is, in part, a commentary on an article Monica Chin’s File Not Found in The Verge. Here’s the relevant bit:

There comes a point when our capacity to store information outpaces our ability to actively organize it, no matter how prodigious our effort to do so. Consider our collections of digital images. No one pretends to order their collections. I’m not sure what the number might be, maybe 10,000, at which our efforts to organize images falters. Of course, our apps do this for us. They can self-sort by a number of parameters: date, file size, faces, etc. And Apple or Google Photos offer a host of other algorithmically curated collections to make our image databases meaningful. We outsource not only remembering but also the ordering function.

I order my images. I find it is pretty easy actually. There’s the main principle, which is by year. Then, you group them into relevant categories. Smugmug essentially uses symbolic links to files that allows for easy hierarchical ordering. So, I can keep files in a specific year. Then, another folder that points to a sequence within that year that corresponds to a vacation or event. You can also create folders for particular people, such as scans of older photos of relatives.

This is really only a problem if you only have one method, such as year, as an organizing principle, which forces you into a search paradigm. You need to be able to organize in multiple places within a hierarchy, and you need to choose software that enables you to do that. However, if you think in terms of search, then you are less likely to think in terms of symbolic links that allow for multiple points of categorization and points of entry to the same file or set of files.

It may be more “natural” to me for a number of reasons. One, *nix systems incorporate symbolic links into their file structure exactly for this reason. So, anyone that primarily uses a *nix system is going to think of hierarchies and using symbolic links to create different points of access to the same files. Two, I used to be a librarian. So, I might claim that I have a greater familiarity with classification systems, indexing, and other ways of organizing information than most people. This blog is probably a good illustration of this point. Another is email. I use a fairly simple structure in email that looks like this:

  • Archives
    • Blog
    • Correspondence
    • Goods
    • Information
    • Jobs
    • Statements
    • Subscriptions
    • Travel
  • Family
    • Name 1
    • Name 2
  • Friends
    • Name 1
    • Name 2

Blog is anything related to this blog. Correspondence is something official, like a politician. Subscriptions tend to be when I sign up for something online. If it is a friend or family member that doesn’t have their own folder, they get dropped into the main folder. If there’s enough email exchanged, then I create a new folder and add all their emails to it later. The rest is self-explanatory.

It’s easy to keep this file system in your head and to quickly categorize a piece of email. The aesthetic for edge cases is to try to use an existing category to cover it, if it is unclear. Information and Goods covers a lot of territory.

Of course, some people may have large families with different branches or different friend groups. It is easy enough to categorize these under sub-headings. But, I think trying to over-categorize is probably why a lot of people end up giving up on file hierarchies. They are trying to impose too much order on a system that should be fuzzy, allowing for rough categorization without too much detail.

The same principles apply to this blog, personal files, and elsewhere. For cafebedouin.org, for instance, there are the categories that act as a rough heirarchy and tags are symbolic links that give other ways to access a particular post. When you start thinking of files as having a main organizing principle and then other avenues for access, hierarchies become a useful supplemental (or starting) strategy that complements search.

L.M. Sacasas made me realize that this kind of mental model for organizing information is unusual. I thought discussing it might spark ideas or be useful for someone else.

Crony Connect

“Crony Connect allows you to identify politically-connected individuals, using data from Companies House, the Electoral Commission and the MP’s Register of Financial Interests.

How does it work? When you enter the name of an individual, Crony Connect looks for any companies linked to that individual in the Companies House database. Then it searches for the individual and any of their associated companies in the donations and financial interests databases.”

Crony Connect

I tried Michael Gove, 1967 and August and it had two entries. One indicated he was affiliated with the Henry Jackson Society, which probably doesn’t add much to what you might know of his politics. But, it’s interesting none-the-less.

I like how projects like these try to make information more accessible and present it in different ways. It also shows the problems in how information is organized. For example, Michael Gove should have one authority record, and all variants should point to the authority record, rather than multiple listings based on whether his middle name is included or not.

Crony Connect reminded me of TheyRule.net, which was a Flash site from 2001 that described itself in this way:

“They Rule is a website that allows you to create maps of the interlocking directories of the top 100 companies in the US in 2001. The data is static, so it is fast becoming out of date, as companies merge and disappear and directors shift boards.”

But, the site provided a visual representation of interlocking corporate boards that showed how information and power is shared in a visual way. I found it fascinating. But, it also shows how quickly this information changes, so there needs to be a dynamic way to generate and present this information that makes these kinds of relationships clear. Because it is when they are not clear that corruption flourishes.

Crony Connect is an interesting attempt along these lines. I found the search mechanism, particularly the need to include birth year and month, a bad user experience. But, I liked the spirit of the thing.

Calling Bullshit

“Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

* Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.

* Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.

* Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.

* Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

* Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”

Calling Bullshit Syllabus

Decide to K.I.S.S.

“…irrelevant information or unavailable options often cause people to make bad choices. When both elements are present, the probability of a poor decision is even greater.”

—Chadd, I., Filiz-Ozbay, E. & Ozbay, E.Y. “The relevance of irrelevant information.” Experimental Economics. November 11, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10683-020-09687-3

Determining what is possible and the relevant information between choices is key to good decision-making. It’s obvious, but at the same time, it’s something worth keeping in the forefront of our minds when making decisions.

The Syllabus

“By combining algorithms and human curation, we salvage the most thoughtful intellectual output from the ever-mounting great pile of information — most of which is simply rubbish.

The result? An eclectic selection of the best new academic articles, essays, talks, podcasts, books, lectures, and more, produced for you, once a week.

Led by technology critic Evgeny Morozov, The Syllabus method combines algorithmic filtering, categorisation and systematic human curation – across six languages – to power our various syllabi.

https://www.the-syllabus.com/