Everywhere Connected, Yet Unable To Connect

“Just as we need certain things to suck in order for others to register as cool (Beavis and Butthead, 1994, MTV), so too must we experience resistance or difficulty in order to understand the nature and depth of our own desires…

…Frictionless exchange almost always involves an unseen toll. One of the most insidious features of our digital regime is the way in which it mystifies the role of labor in daily economic life…

…Few devices have done more to obscure the efforts of human labor than the smartphone. Fewer still have vacuumed out of our lives as much human interaction as has been lost to our oblong, digital assistants…

…We are everywhere connected, and yet we are unable to connect…

-Gabriel Kahane, “In Defense of Friction.” gabrielkahane.substack.com. April 26, 2022.

Strange little essay in the “you’d be happier without your smartphone” genre. Some real nuggets in it.

I’m thinking of updating my phone. Part of me wants to get a 5G phone, for more speed, presumably the Pixel 6a 5G that is likely to be announced next month. Part of me wants to get a Mudita Pure, which is basically a modern flip-phone with a long battery life. Part of me wants to get a PinePhone, a functioning Linux phone. Part of me thinks I should just keep using the old S5 with LineageOS I bought off eBay for ~$50.

The thing that this essay brings to mind for me is that there’s a lot of parts and different, conflicting wants in that paragraph above. In the end, it really doesn’t matter which phone I use. If you were to review the different devices I have used in my life, did any of them really matter? At the same time, an old S5 with LineageOS is a temperamental phone: slow, a flashing display when it is cold, and other problems.

It makes me think of that Amish story, where the question is whether a tool is both good for the individuals and the communities using it. Does having access to social media through a phone bind us closer to each other? Or, enable connections that wouldn’t happen otherwise? In some cases, it does. But, there are costs too. How many of us are taking a really close look at that ledger?

Teens Are Not Soothsayers

“Teens are strange and magical. To us they seem a little like Precogs from Minority Report—soothsayers of a mysterious, social-media-powered hyperdrive future, because this is the realm they’re already living in. Who saw Facebook coming? Teens. Same with Twitter, Vine, and now Snapchat. This puts them in a curious position. It makes them one of the most inscrutable generations in history—to people who desperately want to scrutinize them.”

-Mary H.K. Choi, “Like. Flirt. Ghost: A Journey Into the Social Media Lives of Teens.” Wired. August 25, 2016.

It’s always a little fun to revisit these breathless pieces that start from the premise that the social dynamics of high school are somehow going to be the future we are all going to inhabit. The basic ideas that Paul Graham discusses in various essays serve as a counter to this bad argument. See these three essays as examples:

Read the above article after reading those three essays. Doesn’t the already dated article seem even more ridiculous in light of these essays? I would be interested in a follow-up article, one that showed how much things had changed, even in just five years. Are they still actively managing these accounts like they are all influencers?

Also, weird aside, the one thing I couldn’t help but notice was how the twins had their shoes on in their home. Not only were they wearing shoes, but they were on every piece of furniture. Strikes me as a great way to get most of what you own dirty.

Mass Movements & Affinity Groups

“You don’t have to have a deep and intimate knowledge of the left or any of its manifestations to be part of its future. If you disagree with my values, if you think the left should change from what it has been, the path is simple: do the work. Convince people. Convince me. Organize. Get off of social media and into real-world spaces, otherwise known as your actual community. Do the shitty grunt work that real activism entails, the boring, dispiriting, exhausting trudge to slowly winning over one convert at a time. Lose and actually experience losing, by which I mean experience the pain and humiliation without dulling it with the numbing poison of irony. Organize with people who are not like you, people who you have fundamental disagreements with, passionate disagreements with, but who you recognize as sharing a significant degree of self-interest with you. Articulate your values and why they’re superior. But don’t show up online, sneering at everyone else as a way to hide your lack of confidence, and snidely make assertions about a history you know nothing about. And stop fucking asking “what happened to you?” like you know or care how people used to be. That’s just bullshit internet social control and I have no patience for it.

I love newcomers to socialism and organizing. I always have. But I also know my history, and ours, and will not let myself or my movement be defined by anyone else. Sorry. Not here, not about this. I am a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist, and will remain so. I was born here, and I’ll die here.”

-Freddie deBoer, “I’m Still Here.” freddiedeboer.substack.com. November 1, 2021.

I enjoy Freddie deBoer’s writing, and I’ve been thinking about this piece for a bit since I read it. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s not my job to convince you. I’m not interested in a mass movement, where we all collectively convince each other on some course of action and take it. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s wrong with leftist politics.

If you want to change the world, you start on the ground you are on and find fellow travelers. You find people that, in the main, agree with your political point of view. In anarchist circles, these are called affinity groups:

“An affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on direct actions or other projects. You can form an affinity group with your friends, people from your community, workplace, or organization.

Affinity groups challenge top-down decision-making and organizing, and empower those involved to take creative direct action. Affinity groups allow people to “be” the action they want to see by giving complete freedom and decision-making power to the affinity group. Affinity groups by nature are decentralized and non-hierarchical, two important principles of anarchist organizing and action. The affinity group model was first used by anarchists in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was re-introduced to radical direct action by anti-nuclear activists during the 1970s, who used decentralized non-violent direct action to blockade roads, occupy spaces and disrupt “business as usual” for the nuclear and war makers of the US. Affinity groups have a long and interesting past, owing much to the anarchists and workers of Spain and the anarchists and radicals today who use affinity groups, non-hierarchical structures, and consensus decision making in direct action and organizing.”

-Shawn Ewald, “Affinity Groups.” The Anarchist Library. 2008.

Affinity Groups are a completely different model from major party, first past the post politics of liberal “democracies” that impose various forms of tyranny of the majority on the world they inhabit or the communism with its vanguards, opening the path for the hoi polloi.

I don’t have any illusions that there is anyone on this planet that is going to agree with my politics. But, there are enough people that might get close, who believe in decentralized organization, home rule, direct action and who have views that large governments, on balance and looked at over the course of their entire histories, are probably more a force for harm than for help for the vast majority of people. Say this to any person that identifies as Democrat / Liberal / Labour or what have you, and you’ll immediately get labeled as some variety of conservative. Maybe, but not the kind you are thinking of.

If you are busy, like Freddie, trying to convince Trump supporters and people like me to join your political cause, whether that cause is socialism, party politics, abortion or your political action of choice, then it’s unlikely you’ll spend a lot of time developing an affinity group because you are looking to be part of something larger.

This is why affinity groups aren’t more common. The politics of the day are designed to suck out the energy that would go into creating small groups and forming the bonds where the politics we wish to see in the world manifest and can be used to create real change for the people in those affinity groups. It’s not dependent on the will of Congress or your local politician, who are beholden to moneyed interests that fund their campaigns and get them elected.

When’s the last time you’ve seen a political argument that you should focus on the 5 to 20 people nearest and dearest to you and try to remake the world in some small way with them? We don’t because our lives have been atomized to the point that most of us probably don’t have five people in our lives we would want to form an affinity group with. That’s not an accident.

Troll Taxonomies

“The internet doesn’t turn people into assholes so much as it acts as a massive megaphone for existing ones, according to work by researchers at Aarhus University.

-Tom McCay, “Online Trolls Actually Just Assholes All the Time, Study Finds.” Gizmodo. August 27, 2021.

I think there is a troll gravity online, where the megaphones of a few draw people into their troll orbit. And like gravity, there is a difference between super massive jackholes of trolldom, where galaxies of individuals revolve around them. On the other end, there are the asteroids and comets of trolldom, not there all the time, but occasionally, they fly in and are a spectacle. If you are going to have this kind of discussion, you probably need to develop a taxonomy of trolldom.

Also, the reason people behave differently online is because there is not a threat of physical violence. A grief troll online can just ask questions that offline would likely end in a beating.

The Social Obscene

“In certain young people today…I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

I find it obscene.”

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “IT IS OBSCENE: A TRUE REFLECTION IN THREE PARTS.” chimamanda.com. June 15, 2021.

I found this discussion of the “controversy” around this essay pretty interesting. Why did she choose to write this? It seems like setting yourself up for a lot of bother. But, I think the central idea that the incentives of social media tends to do something to people’s perspective – removing nuance of thinking, increasing self-centeredness, etc. is valid. How do you mitigate this problem, for yourself and in relationship with others using these platforms?

Silence & Wanting to Be Heard

“Is it necessary that every single person on this planet expresses every single opinion that they have on every single thing that occurs all at the same time?” he asks. “Can anyone, any single one, can anyone shut the fuck up about anything, any single thing? Can any single person shut the fuck up about any single thing for an hour? Is that possible?”

Burnham seems aware of the irony of him not shutting up about anything for an hour and a half, but maybe that’s the point: It’s an impossible request. It’s human nature to want to be heard, and the internet has amplified our voices, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. Now, it’s up to us to recognize when the world has heard enough. Burnham knows it better than anyone: No one really wants to shut the fuck up.

-Scaachi Koul, “Why Bo Burnham, Jenna Marbles, And Shane Dawson All Logged Off.Buzzfeed. June 16, 2021.

I had never heard of Bo Burnham, Jenna Marbles or Shane Dawson prior to reading this piece of criticism. I read the quote above and it resonated. I guess, for me, I have found a happy medium for this blog in just trying to find one thing interesting a day to point to or talk about. But, there are days, and some weeks, when even that feels like a lot, where I think to myself, perhaps it would be better to post nothing at all and be silent.

But, on the other hand, I also enjoy the discipline. I’ve had at least one idea worth capturing or came across some snippet that is worth preserving as I’ve gone about my life today, haven’t I? Of course, it depends on the time scale too doesn’t it? In the grand scheme of things, nothing we do will be preserved.

As a reference point, think about all the time that Medieval monks spent copying manuscripts. This was certainly a valuable service that preserved writing from antiquity, but where is their work now? If it still exists, it is stored away in a special library or rare books collection, rarely seen by anyone. Even for something digital and assuming infinite storage capacity, what is the value of preservation anything we might say. Who is going to read it?

Or, consider how many people actually spend time reading the works of Shakespeare outside the classroom. Among a small subset of people, I’m sure he is well read. But, for most? He’s a name only. Pick a major piece of literature from antiquity to the present, and it is the same. However, maybe it is like the Japanese idea of tsundoku, of buying books and never reading them. Perhaps the value is simply that they are there as potential, whether they are ever read is besides the point.

But, perhaps, we are just engaged in wishful thinking on that score. Perhaps, the Rule of St. Benedict was right, and it is best to keep in silence.

The Misinformation Virus

“Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence…

…To successfully debunk a myth, the authors conclude, it helps to provide an alternative causal explanation to fill the mental gap that retracting the myth could leave. Counterarguments work too, as they point out the inconsistencies contained in the myth, allowing people to resolve the clash between the true and the false statement. Another strategy is to evoke suspicion about the source of the misinformation. For example, you might be more critical of government officials who reject human-caused global warming if you suspect vested business interests behind the denialist claims…

…[When personal identity and values are involved, people tend to cherry-pick their data towards pre-determined conclusions, which] hints at a vexing conclusion: that the most knowledgeable among us can be more, not less, susceptible to misinformation if it feeds into cherished beliefs and identities…

…Since each individual has only negligible impact on collective decisions, it’s sensible to focus on optimising one’s social ties instead. Belonging to a community is, after all, a vital source of self-worth, not to mention health, even survival. Socially rejected or isolated people face heightened risks of many diseases as well as early death. Seen from this perspective, then, the impulse to fit our beliefs and behaviours to those of our social groups, even when they clash with our own, is, Kahan argues, ‘exceedingly rational’. Ironically, however, rational individual choices can have irrational collective consequences. As tribal attachments prevail, emotions trump evidence, and the ensuing disagreement chokes off action on important social issues.

-Elitsa Dermendzhiyska. “The misinformation virus.” Aeon. April 16, 2021.

This article hits at many of the main points of why there are so many bad ideas floating around: a funky media environment, our need to make sense of the world, personal values that conflict with the demands of reality, in-group/out-group dynamics, etc. Thinking about it as a pathogen is probably a useful mental model. Social media is like the Plague and we are in the early 1350s in its transition. Humanity will likely need a few centuries to develop cultural antibodies for its effects, and while there may be policy interventions that might have some effect in the short term, it’s still going to take a long while for us to come to grips with the social disruption of this new kind of communication.

If you think about it, this is true of every type of new communication format, even in just the last two centuries. Telegrams, radio, and television all changed the landscapes of societies, and they are still doing it. Part of what makes the Internet so powerful is that it creates an abstracted layer for these forms of communication that can also be tailored to focused audiences, mass media transformed into media for one, which is much more engaging. It’s going to take awhile to come to grips with it.

Capitol Crimes

“The only good thing I can think of about the tsunami of stupid that crashed into Capitol Hill on Tuesday is that so many of those idiots posed for pictures or appeared in videos that show them committing one or more crimes. In most cases, they are easily identifiable in these images, often because they posted the evidence against them to their personal social media accounts. As we have discussed many times before, that is a very stupid thing to do. So it isn’t too surprising that it happened so often the other day.

[Precedes to cite some of the applicable statutes] …there’s also the federal Anti-Riot Act (18 U.S.C. § 2101, up to five years), and I feel pretty confident in saying that the rioters violated that one. See 18 U.S.C. § 2102 (defining “riot”). Under federal law, it only takes three people to constitute a riot (in California and many other states, it only takes two), so that isn’t an issue.

And those are just some of the crimes they committed simply by being part of the riot.” [Then, lists examples.]

-Kevin Underhill, “Dear Idiots: Please Keep Posting Pictures of You Committing Federal Crimes.” LoweringTheBar.net. January 8, 2021

Jumbo

“Jumbo (Android, iOS) isn’t a social media app replacement as such, but it can help you lock down the social networks that you’re already signed up for (and where your friends will already be). At the moment it comprehensively covers Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and though some of its features require a subscription, you do get a lot for free.

One of the best features that Jumbo brings to the table is auto-deleting your posts after a certain amount of time has elapsed, so you’re never leaving behind a long digital trail. It’ll also advise you on ways in which you can limit your exposure and increase your privacy on the apps you’ve got connected (by turning off face recognition or photo tags, for instance).

—David Nield, “6 Privacy-Focused Alternatives to the Apps You Use Every Day.” Wired. December 13, 2020.