As someone who has publicly criticized the major social media platforms for years, I’ve become familiar with the common arguments surrounding this topic.
One of the more interesting trends I’ve observed about this conversation is the split reaction to social media I used to hear from the political left before the 2016 election scrambled everything.
This split was defined largely by age.
Younger progressives were fiercely in favor of social media and were often appalled that people like me might say something negative about these services.
I remember one particularly lively radio debate, held on the Canadian equivalent of NPR, in which one of the other guests fought my suggestion that users should perform a personal cost/benefit analysis for these tools by arguing that even discussing this strategy was problematic as it might trick people into not using social media — a self-evident tragedy.
Older progressives, by contrast, were more skeptical of these platforms. This was especially true of tech-savvy activists like Jaron Lanier or Douglas Rushkoff who were connected to earlier techno-utopian movements.
On closer analysis, this gap seemed to stem from how these different cohorts understood social media’s relationship to the internet.
Earlier this week, Stephen Hawking died. It was a sad day for lovers of science.
Hawking’s breakthrough work from 1974 provided the world a new understanding of black holes. It also unified, for the first time, quantum mechanics with gravity — laying the conceptual foundation on which any attempt at a unified theory of physics must build.
There is, however, another important insight to extract from Hawking’s efforts — one that’s less often discussed…
Wu’s piece is both deep and scattered — an indication that the target of his inquiry, the role of “convenience” in shaping the culture and economy of the last century, is both crucial and under-explored.
His thesis begins with the claim that we’ve increasingly oriented our lives around convenience, which has benefits, such as reducing drudgery, but at the same time can leech individuality and character from our lives.
This basic idea is not new. Mid-century writers like Richard Yates were already quite concerned about related issues like suburban conformity.
But Wu distinguishes his analysis by identifying how consumer-oriented companies reacted to the destabilization of the 1960’s counterculture by instead focusing on making the quest for individuality itself more convenient.
Joe: And you said you didn’t go back to it, you never left…
Sebastian: I never left her.
Joe: You never went, like, iPhone…Android…never?
Sebastian: No, I never even thought about it
Joe: There’s no draw at all? Using the internet, answering email?
Sebastian: Well, I have a laptop at home and I do access the internet, yes.
Joe: But when you’re out, you don’t want to mess with it?
Sebastian: No, when I’m out, I want to be out in the world. If you’re looking at your phone, you’re not in the world, so you don’t get either…I just look around at this — and I’m an anthropologist, and I’m interested in human behavior — and I look at the behavior, like literally, the physical behavior with people with smartphones and…it looks anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don’t want to look like that, and I don’t want to feel like how I think those people feel.
Joe: Wow, that’s deep. I’m a junkie.
In addition to being provocative, this exchange is important because it presents a cogent example of a new type of thinking I’m pleased to see gaining prominence in our cultural discussion surrounding technology.
One of the big headlines from last month’s World Economic Forum at Davos was a scathing speech delivered by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist decried what he saw as multiple threats to open society in our current moment, including the rise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the behavior of the Executive here at home.
Not surprisingly, what caught my attention was when Soros directed his ire toward social media.
Soros began with the social problems, noting that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” acting like casinos that “have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.”
He then turned to the political problems, arguing that these companies have an undue ability to influence people’s behavior by leveraging their massive data stores to precisely target messages that nudge users in specific directions.
This is nothing less, Soros claims, than a theft of citizens’ autonomy. “People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.” (See Jaron Lanier’s new book for an eloquent investigation of this idea.)
BuJoPro appealed to me because it promised to unite my disparate and admittedly ad hoc systems into one elegant notebook. I liked the idea of having a single analog artifact I could carry with me and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life.
Enamored by my own hype, I then spent a couple weeks trying out this new breakthrough concept.
In the year 1800, Alexander Hamilton sent his son Philip the following letter, which laid out a set of rules that Philip should follow to make the most out of his legal training after his graduation from Columbia College:
Rules for Mr Philip Hamilton[:] from the first of April to the first of October he is to rise not later than six o’clock—The rest of the year not later than Seven. If Earlier he will deserve commendation. Ten will be his hour of going to bed throughout the year.
From the time he is dressed in the morning till nine o clock (the time for breakfast Excepted) he is to read Law.
At nine he goes to the office & continues there till dinner time—he will be occupied partly in the writing and partly in reading law.
After Dinner he reads law at home till five o’clock. From this hour till seven he disposes of his time as he pleases. From seven to ten he reads and studies what ever he pleases.
From twelve on Saturday he is at Liberty to amuse himself.
On Sunday he will attend the morning Church. The rest of the day may be applied to innocent recreations.
He must not Depart from any of these rules without my permission.
Two weeks ago, the American Economic Association held its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Spread over three days and two different hotels, this conference included over 500 sessions.
Buried in the program, during the morning on the last day, was a grab bag paper session titled Radically Rethinking Economic Policy. The final paper discussed in this session should command our attention, because its coauthors include, in addition to four well-respected economics researchers, someone who I’ve long promoted as one of the most brilliant and outrageous thinkers pondering the digital world: Jaron Lanier.
I'm a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age. If you're new to Study Hacks, a good place to start is the blog archive or my new book on the power of deep work.
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