Study Hacks Blog

The End of Screens?

Believe it or not, one of the most important technology announcements of the past few months had nothing to do with artificial intelligence. While critics … Read more

On Kids and Smartphones

Not long ago, my kids’ school asked me to give a talk to middle school students and their parents about smartphones. I’ve written extensively on the intersection of technology and society in both my books and New Yorker articles, but the specific issue of young people and phones is one I’ve only tackled on a small number of occasions (e.g., here and here). This invited lecture therefore provided me a great opportunity to bring myself up to speed on the research relevant to this topic.

I was fascinated by what I discovered.

In my talk, I ended up not only summarizing the current state-of-the-art thinking about kids and phones, but also diving into the history of this literature, including how it got started, evolved, adjusted to criticism, and, over the last handful of years, ultimately coalesced around a rough consensus.

Assuming that other people might find this story interesting, I recorded a version of this talk for Episode 246 of my podcast, Deep Questions. Earlier today, I also released it as a standalone video. If you’re concerned, or even just interested, in what researchers currently believe to be true about the dangers involved in giving a phone to a kid before they’re ready, I humbly suggest watching my presentation.

In the meantime, I thought it might be useful to summarize a few of the more interesting observations that I uncovered:

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Danielle Steel and the Tragic Appeal of Overwork

Based on a tip from a reader, I recently tumbled down an esoteric rabbit hole aimed at the writing habits of the novelist Danielle Steel. Even if you don’t read Steel, you’ve almost certainly heard of her work. One of the best-selling authors of all time, Steel has written more than 190 books that have cumulatively sold over 800 million copies. She publishes multiple titles per year, often juggling up to five projects simultaneously. Unlike James Patterson, however, who also pushes out multiple books per year, Steel writes every word of every manuscript by herself.

How does she pull this off? She works all the time. According to a 2019 Glamour profile, Steel starts writing at 8:30 am and will continue all day and into the night. It’s not unusual for her to spend 20 to 22 hours at her desk. She eats one piece of toast for breakfast and nibbles on bittersweet chocolate bars for lunch. A sign in her office reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.”

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My Thoughts on ChatGPT

In recent months, I’ve received quite a few emails from readers expressing concerns about ChatGPT. I remained quiet on this topic, however, as I was writing a big New Yorker piece on this technology and didn’t want to scoop my own work. Earlier today, my article was finally published, so now I’m free to share my thoughts.

If you’ve been following the online discussion about these new tools you might have noticed that the rhetoric about their impact has been intensifying. What started as bemused wonder about ChatGPT’s clever answers to esoteric questions moved to fears about how it could be used to cheat on tests or eliminate jobs before finally landing on calls, in the pages of the New York Times, for world leaders to “respond to this moment at the level of challenge it presents,” buying us time to “learn to master AI before it masters us.”

The motivating premise of my New Yorker article is the belief that this cycle of increasing concern is being fueled, in part, by a lack of a deep understanding about how this latest generation of chatbots actually operate. As I write:

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On Taylor Koekkoek’s Defiant Disconnection

An article appearing last month in the Los Angeles Times book section opens with a nondescript picture of a young man in a Hawaiian shirt standing in front of a brick wall. The caption is arresting: “Taylor Koekkoek is one of the best short-story writers of his (young) generation. So why haven’t you heard of him?”

On March 21st, Koekkoek (pronounced, cook-cook) published his debut short story collection, Thrillville, USA. Those who have read it seem to love it. The Paris Review called it a “raw and remarkable debut story collection.” The author of the LA Times piece braved a blizzard in a rental car just for the chance to interview Koekkoek at his Oregon house. And yet, the book has so far escaped wide notice: At the time of this writing, its Amazon rank is around 175,000.

The LA Times provides some insight into this state of affairs:

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Meta Rediscovers the Cubicle

Back in 2016, I reported on a rumor that was circulating about employee dissatisfaction at Meta (then, Facebook). Developers, it seemed, were unhappy with the company’s trendy, but also unbearably noisy and distracting, 8-acre open office floor plan.

“Developers need to concentrate,” explained an amused Joel Spolsky at a conference that year, before going on to add that Facebook was paying a 40 – 50% premium for talent because people didn’t want to work under those conditions. A commentator on my essay pointed to a podcast episode where Facebook insiders claim that the open office was never more than 30% occupied. “Apparently, the majority of people that work there make sure that they are away from their desk when they need to get work done,” he explained.

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On Section 230 and the Dream of a More Human Internet

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that has the potential to fundamentally reshape the internet as we know it. As you might expect, this caught my attention.

The focus of the case is a single sentence, found in Section 230(c)(1) of 1996’s Communications Decency Act:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This so-called Section 230 has since been interpreted through multiple court rulings as providing broad immunity from liability for internet platforms that publish content from third-party users. If I defame you in a Tweet, in other words, you cannot sue Twitter.

The case in question was brought against Google by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a college student who was killed in a terrorist attack in 2015. The Gonzalez family claims that the terrorists responsible for their daughter’s death had been radicalized by videos recommend on YouTube, and therefore Google, which owns YouTube, should be held liable.

At the core of their argument is that Section 230’s protections should not extend to information recommended by algorithms. There’s a difference, the lawyer for the Gonzalez family argued, between passively hosting third-party content, such as on a bulletin board, and actively pushing it toward users, such as what happens on social media services.

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Pliny the Younger on Happy and Honorable Seclusion

A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing letter, reproduced a few weeks ago in the always-impressive Areopagus newsletter, that was originally sent from Pliny the Younger to his friend Minicius Fundanus around 100 AD. Among other topics, the letter touches on the difficulty of completing meaningful work in a distracted world.

As Pliny writes:

“I always realize [that city life is distracting] when I am at Laurentum, reading and writing and finding time to take the exercise which keeps my mind fit for work. There is nothing there for me to say or hear which I would afterwards regret, no one disturbs me with malicious gossip, and I have no one to blame — except myself — when writing doesn’t come easily. Hopes and fears do not worry me, and my time is not wasted in idle talk; I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honorable, more rewarding than any “business” can ever be. The sea and shore are my private Helicon, an endless source of inspiration.”
Pliny’s advice led me to do some more digging on what exactly he meant when he quipped: “when I am at Laurentum.” It turns out that Pliny maintained a rambling villa on the sea, southwest of Rome. According to an article I found, written by a British architect, Pliny’s property had been specifically configured to support focus:

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