What is real? Part 1: Echo(es) and Narcissus(ism)

I’ve been writing this post in my head for over a year now. The thing that side lined it was the arrival of kid no. 2 coupled with an enormous amount of inertia. Originally, the theme for this post was “what is real?” and the need to be sceptical of unattributed information online. The internet has always specialized in specious information spreading like wildfire and social media has accelerated this to dizzying effect (Is Twitter Wrong has a representative collection of examples). And like always, there are people being taken advantage of or extorted by others deliberately misrepresenting themselves (e.g. Manti Te’o, the TV show Catfish, and sad reports of teenagers taking their own lives). There’s even people going to extreme lengths to lie about having cancer.

While skepticism is definitely a relevant topic and a lesson that my kids will need to learn, it basically boils down to “Check Snopes before you retweet that crazy thing.” Yes, scepticism requires critical thinking skills but it’s not a ground-breaking insight. Also constant vigilance to guard against being duped is mentally tiring and it stops you from enjoying things that are genuinely delightful. Maintaining a paranoid disposition and declaring everything that comes across your path as bullshit is not a particularly good way to live.

As this idea of “what is real?” continued to percolate in my head, another angle emerged. Last year during the US election season I noticed that of the 200+ people I follow on Twitter, only one (a friend from high school) is a visible Republican, and by visible I mean he occasionally tweets or reteweets a political opinion. In seeing his tweets I realized how much my twitter feed is a giant echo chamber. I’ve selectively chosen to follow a whole group of people who mostly share my point of view and I realized how limited my exposure to different perspectives is. If I’m being generous, I could compare it to living on a diet entirely of sushi rolls. If I’m being ungenerous, sausages.

Once I noticed my echo chamber I realized its influence on how I see the world. When everyone around you is saying the same thing, it feels like everyone everywhere is saying the same thing. It’s a very comfortable place. But when confronted with an extreme example of the other side, and it’s always the extreme examples that break through, you recoil to think how twisted that person must be to hold such an idea. The reality is that their journey to an extreme point of view was probably the result of the same echo chamber effect. 

My dad tells the story of when he was working in north-western Russia in the early 90s and everyone there read 8 or more newspapers on a regular basis. They all knew that every news source had their own bias and their own agenda. If you read all the newspapers you could gradually get an understanding of what was actually going on.

Despite the internet providing unprecedented access to all of the world’s ideas and news outlets, my news generally comes from a handful of established primary sources. Just keeping up with that can be daunting. You’ve got to give yourself space to think and reflect and just be and not always be chasing all the news you might be missing. Filters are necessary.

But as more and more of our media is automatically “personalized”, the filtering becomes less active and less visible and what feels like a conversation is actually just the sound of our own voices bouncing off a wall. The key is to be aware of the existence of your echo chamber and not mistake a mirror for a window.

Next time: What is real? Part 2: Confirmation Bias

Outbound and Down

In my last post, I focused on the question of how do we manage all the inbound messages of our always-on digital lives. Since that post there have been more articles published on this topic. Generally, they ask if we are witnessing a major change in the way the world works and make a guess at what a permanently connected future might look like. As expected, the primary conclusion of these articles is that the endless flow of information is ultimately harmful to our physical and mental well-being. Constant connectivity saps our creativity and productivity, our ability to focus and recharge. In studies of internet addicts, researchers have even found physical changes to the brain. From a Newsweek article “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” (such a link bait title…)

The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. In a study published in January, Chinese researchers found “abnormal white matter”—essentially extra nerve cells built for speed—in the areas charged with attention, control, and executive function. A parallel study found similar changes in the brains of videogame addicts. And both studies come on the heels of other Chinese results that link Internet addiction to “structural abnormalities in gray matter,” namely shrinkage of 10 to 20 percent in the area of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information. And worse, the shrinkage never stopped: the more time online, the more the brain showed signs of “atrophy.”

Ok. So researchers have shown that what many people would intuitively guess is a physical reality. The next step is to manage this inbound flow of information so that we achieve the optimal balance, which will be something individuals have to eventually manage for themselves. In the beginning it will be parents who set the boundaries. Much like with food, parents are the regulators of meals and snacks with the aim to raise a well-nourished child who understands how different foods affect their overall wellbeing. I would guess that in most cases, as soon as a kid is away from this regulatory influence, they binge on those things that are most restricted. It’s the way it is. My hope is that I can establish a good enough foundation of self awareness and general knowledge that eventually they’ll notice that they kinda feel like crap when they overindulge and remember the early lessons all about balance and variety. I expect digital media consumption to the follow this same pattern.

But that’s just the inbound flow. Much harder to manage and control is our brave new world of outbound flow.

Slowly but surely, we’ve all become used to the idea that everything we do online is being tracked and logged somewhere. Based on my own experience, I think the general assumption is that the sheer volume of the information we generate coupled with the decentralized nature of the internet means that even though everything is tracked, it is too hard to actually know sensitive details about a single individual. Essentially, privacy through obscurity, or “I’m not important enough to be a target.” However much I want to think this is true, it isn’t. And it certainly will become less true in the next few years. Even when I encounter specific examples of online tracking, like targeted ads showing me items I looked at previously on a completely unrelated website, I rationalize it by saying “it’s just a computer algorithm, not a real person.” Gathering consumer data and analyzing it is big business. It’s been given the soft name of “Big Data” but the name still carries the echo of “Big Brother.” If anyone with even a whiff of connection to a large, centralized group (e.g. government, insurance companies, etc) is seen to be using these resources, there is instant outcry. Similarly this is why every single change to Facebook’s privacy policy has met with such uproar. Each individual on Facebook has personally inputted sensitive pieces of personal information and then hoped that the system will be maintained and run responsibly and in their best interest. When stated like that, it sounds incredibly naïve. But the benefits of easily connecting and sharing our lives with others online so far out weighs the risks that we keep going and hope for the best.

This is dangerous.

It makes me think of a couple of tweets from Matt Jones a few months back:

We need to be aware of how things are connected and the strength or weakness of those connections. Ideally, we should all have enough technical literacy to inspect the rough inner workings of the services we use and rely on. However, the reality is that online services are quickly developing levels of sophistication that mirror the impenetrably complex workings of a new car. It used to be possible to fix your own car if you knew the systems and dependencies, but this isn’t the case anymore. The importance of technical literacy will continue to grow as our lives become more connected to and dependent on systems outside of our control. Previously, an individual ran the risk of losing their entire digital life (music, photos, videos, personal correspondence, etc) if their personal computer was irreparably damaged or stolen. The move to external, “cloud” based storage has alleviated that individual risk, and instead has distributed the risk across a huge number of people. When a very rare failure does happen (no redundancy or back up system is completely invulnerable) it is even more damaging because now a single breakdown has a cascading effect on many people instead of just one. This is assuming that the new start up where you’ve chosen to store your digital life doesn’t go bust or get shut down sometime in the next 50 some odd years…

The biggest cautionary tale in the last few weeks of online interdependencies was the story of how Mat Honan was hacked. According to him, as a result of a hacker taking a liking to his Twitter handle (@mat), his personal computer with all the photos and videos of his young daughter’s life and his primary Gmail account with years and years of correspondence were wiped out. As he investigated what happened (with help from the person who hacked him), he found out exactly how different, seemingly unconnected systems can be exploited with mostly publicly available information.

We have to take responsibility for our digital lives by investing time and effort in our own technical literacy and also demand transparency from the services we use so that we can make informed decisions about what gets stored where and how it is kept safe.


The Workplace Benefits of Being Out of Touch

Is the Web Driving Us Mad?

You for Sale: Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome

How Big Data Became So Big

How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking

Media Snack Packs

This post is very late according to my self-imposed deadline of the first of every month. It was originally late because I was traveling on June 1st and didn’t have decent access to wifi. Then the arbitrary deadline passed, nothing happened and lying on the sofa watching the Euros seemed a much more appealing way to spend my free time. And then another week went by….

Originally the post was going to be titled “Frictionless Future?” and I wanted to address the always-on nature of ‘frictionless’ sharing, and how I thought that this is a bad thing. I started on it a couple of times and realized there are two sides to this, inbound and outbound. By ‘inbound’ I mean the stuff that shows up in the top right corner box on Facebook and other real-time updating services. ‘Outbound’ references the fact that so much of what we do is being captured and stored passively. In the time between June 1st and now I’ve read thoughts from numerous other people about this same topic. The more I’m reading other people’s thoughts on this topic, the better I’m coming to understand my own unease.

Underlying my procrastination was that I didn’t really have a clear point of view on what exactly the problem with a frictionless future was. I knew it bothered me and it seemed like it bother a lot of other people too. The outline I had drawn up touched on how the emergence of portable, connected devices is the key thing enabling the always-on trend and how the unending flow is wearing us down. I thought I might end with saying something about how the backlash to frictionless will create a new round of fragmentation. There is an increasing amount of research to back up the fragmentation idea, but this conclusion seemed to miss the point.

In the past couple of weeks, the phrases “slow web” and “slow tech” have appeared on my radar, primarily from the following sources:

Joe Kraus, “Creating a Culture of Distraction”

Jack Cheng “The Slow Web”

They’re long (by blog post standards) but concise, so any attempt by me to summarize would necessarily leave out key elements. So just go read them right now.

These two posts articulate and address my unease with the always-on, frictionless inbound bombardment we now encounter in our daily, connected lives. We are cultivating a “culture of distraction” at the expense of the deep and wandering thinking that often leads to great bursts of insight and creativity.

I’ve noticed in my own habits the negative effect that bite size bits of distractions have on my ability to focus and be productive. When I start the day skimming news sites, email and twitter, I find it much harder to actually get started on the day’s work. Instead I keep craving just a little more “something”. In my own brain, I rationalize these moments by labeling them as “quickly catching up” or “just a little something before I get started” or “a little break” from whatever I’ve been doing. While I try to convince myself that these are trivial activities by using words like “quickly,” “just” and “little,” the switch back to productive work often gets stalled after these breaks and I get caught in a loop of checking various services for updates and new items. It’s like the digital version of highly processed snacks packed in 100 calorie portions. There is little actual nutrition in these snacks and research has shown that this type of packaging can lead to over consumption when people focus on the permissive quality of the “small portion” labeling and lose sight of the cumulative effect of consuming multiple rounds. To me it really feels like repeatedly checking various updating services mirrors this consumption pattern.

In Joe Kraus’ conclusion he references the fact that he wonders how his kid will deal with the “culture of distraction.” This question is exactly the same one that motivated me to start this blog. I also think it is worth pointing out that both Joe and I work in web/technology fields and that success in these fields is measured by things like unique visitors, pageviews and dwell time. In other words, building things that capture more of people’s time and attention when compared to the competitors. Possibly because we have an insider’s view of the “culture of distraction” we can look ahead and see how if things continue on the current trajectory, the next generation is going to be a twitchy mess (kids these days…)

It seems like the starting point for addressing the negative effects of all the distractions is to put boundaries around them. Joe blocks out time every week where he does not interact with phone, email, TV, radio or ebooks. This is a good place to start but how do we communicate the value of this discipline to kids that have never known a world without the iPad?

My kid is under two so I can still be the one who decides how our time is spent. As he gets older this will change and my preference for him to spend some of his time offline will have to compete with “the fear of missing out” and all its hardwired triggers and dopamine feedback loops. I see it as my responsibility to be the parent and put in place rules that  will help guide him, and balance that with information on why these are the rules so he can interrogate them and start to form his own opinion (heh, yeah, check back in ten years and ask me how that goes…). I think that’s the starting point.

His experience and relationship with technology and all its distractions will be radically and fundamentally different from anything I could ever predict. The thing that will make the most difference will be his ability to see things objectively and within a larger context. That kind of foundation for critical thinking is really what’s going to define his ability to find balance and meaning in the great information onslaught in what, right now, looks like will be the future.

Further Reading:

“Journal of Consumer research;” The Effects of Reduced Food Size and Package Size on the Consumption Behavior of Restrained and Unrestrained Eaters; Maura L. Scott, Stephen M. Nowlis, Naomi Mandel, Andrea C. Morales http://gatton.uky.edu/faculty/scottm/Scott%20Nowlis%20Mandel%20Morales%20JCR.pdf

Teens turn from Facebook to fresher social-media sites http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/technology/story/2012-06-20/facebook-teens/55723500/1

Catarina Fake on The Fear of Missing Out (original post is gone?)

Media Nutrition

Hi. My name is Robin. I have a kid. The kid was born about 6 months after the first iPad was launched and he will never know a world without responsive touch screens (worldwide apocalypse, notwithstanding). This made me wonder what else will become a basic expectation of his generation. The one thing that I am confident about is that there will be a never-ending stream of information and entertainment always on-tap, ready to be consumed and this constant flow will try to command his attention in an increasing numbers of ways.

That’s fine. That’s progress/technology/the world we live in. I don’t particularly want to get into the “technology and media are wonderful and connect us” versus “technology and media are awful and disconnect us” debate, because it’s been going on for centuries and isn’t going to come to a conclusion any time soon. Instead I want to discuss how we navigate the world we live in, with all its flashing lights, update alerts and assorted shiny things. I see it as my job to give the kid the analytical tools to think through the new things he encounters so he can make a reasoned assessment of the positives and negatives.

A bit of background:

A little over five years ago I moved from New York to London. One of the things that caught me by surprise was how difficult it is to buy laundry detergent when you have no previous exposure to any of the brands. Laundry detergent really does represent the pinnacle of marketing and advertising because there is almost no discernable difference between one product and another. And the packaging is surprisingly unhelpful. This made me realize how much my shopping habits and expectations were actually influenced by the advertising I had seen throughout my life. This gave me a bit of a jolt because I worked in media and thought of myself as someone who had seen behind the curtain and could tune it all out. A few years later I started thinking about food in this same way. Instead of “why am I buying the thing I’m buying?” I started asking myself “why am I eating the things I’m eating?” I challenged myself to answer two questions whenever I had a craving for something in particular (generally junk food): “Why do you want this?” and “How will you feel 30 minutes later?” It took a while but eventually the answers kept coming back “Because it’s a treat and I’m bored/need a break” and “Crappy”. The “treat” craving never goes away but I found I was able to satisfy it with a more nutritious option once I was honest with myself about the underlying motivation. I went through this same process with alcohol when I got pregnant. A significant part of my social life happens in bars and pubs and it’s really boring sitting around drinking water. So I used the same questions and realized it wasn’t the alcohol I was missing but the “something different than what I can get at home” feeling. So I substituted something non-alcoholic I couldn’t get if I was just sitting at home, like a cranberry and soda. Not very exotic, I know, but it fit the bill. These experiences made me realize how much of our day to day lives are made up of a series of habits that we don’t really think twice about. Later on the New York Times confirmed this with, you know, actual research and real world examples.

This process also works for how we engage with the technology and media in our lives. There was a while when I felt a certain amount of angst if I missed any updates on Twitter. I follow a moderate number of people who tweet a lot, so I was spending roughly 3 hours a day just keeping up. When I was at home with a newborn Twitter helped me feel connected and there were so many interesting and inspiring things I found there. Eventually those 3 hours I could devote to sitting still, staring at my iPhone evaporated. After trying to keep up with my Twitter feed at the expense of sleep, I eventually let go. Now I dip in and out of Twitter, mostly in the background while I’m at work. The world still revolves around its axis and, just like before Twitter, there are interesting things going on that I don’t know about.

This is what media nutrition is all about: the process of questioning the underlying motivation and what our expectations are of the end result. Actively fighting against TV, video games, and various connected hand held devices is a losing battle. I think cutting these out undermines natural curiosity and desire to learn about new things. Plus, there is lots of evidence that you can learn important skills, like pattern recognition, multi-tasking and attention to detail through engagement with these mediums. But like food nutrition, media nutrition is about not overindulging and trying to maintain a balance across a variety of categories. No one diet suits everyone and people make their decisions based on the information they have. The purpose of this blog is to talk about the information around technology and media consumption and use it to make more informed decisions.

A few notes on format:

My goal is to post an update on the first of every month. As I’ve already mentioned, I am a mom and I work so that’s about as much as I feel comfortable committing to. I want to hear what you think but also keep my own sanity, so all comments will be approved before they are posted publicly. Finally, I’ve read some interesting articles on how links within articles have a negative impact on comprehension. With this in mind I’m going to experiment with having a set of relevant links at the end of each post for further reading.

Further Reading:

The New York Times “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?pagewanted=all

Salon.com “Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain and Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” has the evidence to prove it” http://www.salon.com/2010/05/09/the_shallows_2/