When there’s shelf space in wrong, someone’s gonna fill it
Anti-vaxx stuff on social media is just the latest example. We're being destroyed by our insatiable craving for dopamine and technology’s boundless efforts to deliver it in exchange for profit.
Now that we all know software is eating the world, it’s time we start talking about how software is eating our brains too. Issue after issue plaguing society is caused by our insatiable craving for dopamine and technology’s boundless efforts to deliver it, by any means necessary, in exchange for profit. We’re being slowly devoured by a relentless feedback loop of wild technology and predatory capitalism.
Meanwhile, our titans of tech continue to elude blame. These Thiel-loving technolibertarians constantly demand “personal accountability” from others yet refuse to accept any responsibility for the damage their companies inflict upon the rest of us.
We discuss these platforms as if they’re broken and a few patches will help. But they’re not broken, they’re doing exactly what they’re programmed to do. Code obeys the wishes of its masters. And those in charge have somehow managed to deny any responsibility for the bad actions of their Frankensteins while still collecting all the profits they generate. Oh, and they barely pay taxes too. And then they lecture us about mindfulness and Stoicism and wonder why we’re mad at them. The nerve!
Cool meme, bro
I’ve been thinking about all this amidst the anti-vaxx/mask-hating madness that thrives on social media.
Some context: A few months back, an author I dig appeared on a podcast loosely themed around masculinity/manhood. I’m all for non-toxic macho gabbing so I listened to the episode and followed the host on Instagram too. But after a few weeks, I realized the host’s posts were not for me: Guns! Home schooling! Anti-vaxx! Martial arts! Canoes! Um, no thanks. I’m a Jew who lives in Brooklyn, works out on an elliptical trainer, and hates canoes. I know when I’m not the target audience.
Nonetheless, I stuck around; I like having some dissenting opinions that challenge my worldview in my feed. Eventually, though, the anti-vaxx stuff got to me and I decided to leave a comment pushing back. (I know, a fool’s errand. But every once in while I get delusional and try treating social media as if it’s a place for reasonable conversations).
FYI this was the “cool” meme post that set me off:
The comments were filled with dudes +1ing this “cool” opinion. (For a collection of supposed alpha males, they sure are unanimous in parroting their leader.) I replied with this:
I started following you because I enjoyed one of your podcast episodes. I’ve been disappointed by your approach on this topic though. Are you familiar with the concept of self regarding vs other regarding action? When your actions impact others, the context changes. It’s why you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater or pollute the air even if you stay on your own property. When the things you do impact your community, the equation changes. I don’t think condemnation is the right answer but I also think it’s an oversimplification to pretend the choices of the unvaxxed aren’t impacting our ability to eliminate this disease, educate our children, and protect our healthcare workers who are exhausted and demoralized by those who care about their own freedom but seem to be ambivalent or worse about how their actions are impacting others. If nothing else, I wish the unvaxxed by choice would sign a waiver that healthcare workers are allowed to deny them treatment if they become sick. Seems only fair. Alas, it too often feels like it’s a one way street where some are asked to sacrifice for the common good while others refuse to yield until they need help. I know you’re all about manhood and masculinity but IMO part of that is also being part of a community and considerate of how one’s actions impact others. If you breathe the same air I breathe, then it’s our air and we need to collaborate on how we treat it. That may involve compromise and negotiation as opposed to an “everyone does their own thing” mentality. Working well with others, even those who disagree, is also an essential part of manhood and being part of a team and a democracy. I wish you the best.
Worth mentioning: I’m obsessed with the concept of self-regarding vs. other regarding actions and how infrequently people clock this concept in our “freedom”-obsessed society. Basically, self-regarding actions are actions that only harm yourself or those who consent, while other-regarding actions are those that harm others.
(If you want insight into how my brain works: I’ve considered printing this definition out on business cards so I can hand them out to people. The only reason I haven’t is because I’d probably run out after one trip on the C train from West 4th Street to Lafayette.)
Anyway, no one replied to that comment except for one guy with some bunk theories about data from Iceland, Israel, etc. I gave him info that explained why he’s wrong. Guess what? He didn’t change his mind. Because of course he didn’t change his mind. That’s not what social media is for. It’s there to tell us we’re right for thinking what we already think.
When being wrong is right
It’s about incentives. These platforms are designed to create tribal echo chambers where pre-existing opinions are validated. That’s the best way for them to deliver us our dopamine hits in order to maximize attention and profits. In turn, creators have realized being wrong is an easier path to money/fame/followers than being right. After all, disinformation on Facebook gets six times more likes and shares than factual posts.
The problem is facts are a snooze! Some wannabe influencer could repeat what the CDC says (YAWN) and what scientists/statisticians know (BORING). But c’mon, that’s not interesting or surprising, especially to people hungry for a competing narrative. It’s all religion now and someone’s gonna preach to the congregation that hates the libs, doesn’t trust elites, and is sick of being lectured to by a bunch of acronym spewing liberal arts grads residing in NYC/SF/LA. (Btw, it’s not just on the right. There are plenty of woo woo wackadoos on the left who just want to see their opinions confirmed too.)
On some level, I get it; I too hate big pharma, distrust institutions, and despise performative virtue signalling. Alas, I overcome those feelings when it comes to vaccines because of 1) constant reminders in my life that experts know more than me and 2) my (controversial?) opinion that unnecessary death sucks and should be avoided.
(An aside re: the geography stuff: Dear mainstream media, for the love of god please start hiring people who live in red states to report on what happens there. Anna Wintour would never let someone who lives in Nebraska write about fashion shows in NYC so why do publications think it’s fine to have New Yorkers who never visit flyover country explain how people in Omaha think?)
“We give people what they want,” argue tech execs and PR flacks. But when it comes to information, there’s an inherent problem with giving people what they want: People don’t want the truth, they want validation.
There’s a huge demand for bunk science/dissenting voices and the mainstream media ain’t supplying it. When there’s shelf space in wrong, someone’s gonna fill it. The law of supply and demand is a crappy foundation for education.
So the faux doctors (who have a “PhD” from some online school), Crossfit freedom fighters, and Qties step up to fill the void. They’re either too far down a rabbit hole filled with Matrix memes to know better or they’re just plain ol’ Machiavellian: “Whatever, it’s all just a video game anyway and if someone’s gonna make a buck on these suckers it might as well be me.”
It’s a tyranny of the shameless. Since there’s zero accountability or punishment for getting it wrong, it’s an obvious path to attention for those lacking a conscience. And since we live in an attention economy, giddyup.
A Faucian bargain
It’s probably crystallized most clearly in the hatred for Anthony Fauci. Oof, this poor little man. All he’s ever tried to do FOR DECADES is save lives, yet now he’s become a villain to half the country who have decided watching a few videos on YouTube trumps going to med school. (Question: If it’s time to have your appendix removed, do you want an actual doctor to perform the surgery or some Reddit red-hat who “does the research?”) If a tiny, angelic, highly educated, non-partisan senior citizen who’s devoted his life to healing becomes a firestarter, what hope is there for anyone else?
Of course, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. could stop this crap if they wanted to (look how effective they are at stopping nipples). But there’s too much money to be made off mook thinking. So they put up a few alerts, flag the worst of it, and toss in some links to legit Covid sites. It’s actually a pretty clever model for these companies: Grab the cash from the scam post and then offer a link to the truth (that no one clicks) giving you plausible deniability. You’ve done the bare minimum to avoid government regulation and, in the meanwhile, ka-ching!
The end game
Even when (if!?) Covid goes away, this supply/demand problem won’t. Every issue will be slotted into a similar, tribal funnel (see: “the election was stolen” and “climate change is a hoax”). If people want to believe it, someone will find a way to “prove” it. Sadly, we’ll keep watching this movie over and over because that’s where the money is.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the logical end game here is the destruction of our society. Software will eat our democracy too. And China, Russia, and other foreign actors will keep throwing ⛽️ on the 🔥 because bots are way more cost effective than submarines.
These tech companies will never regulate themselves effectively or even admit there’s a problem. (Upton Sinclair 2.0: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his stock options vesting depends on his not understanding it.”) As for our politicians, they’re mostly paid-off lackeys or doddering fools who don’t even know how to use their smartphones; relying on them is like trying to fight a wildfire with a bunch of drunks pissing in the wind.
The current landscape may feel like a dystopian nightmare, but it can still get worse. Imagine a future where these venture capitalists and tech bigwigs hire private security/doctors/firefighters and hunker down in their compounds while pandemics/wildfires/civil war engulf the rest of us. They’ll keep promising to “do better” while we climb milk crates (in order to avoid the floodwaters).
The first step in fighting back is to call it out. Let’s start teaching Internet literacy in schools. Let’s empower the Tristan Harrises of the world so there’s some kind of payoff for pointing out the emperor’s algorithm has no clothes. Let’s elect politicians younger than 80 who understand what’s happening. And for chrissake, let’s explore legal remedies too; I’ve got a hunch the only way this really changes is if these companies face class action litigation. Cigarette manufacturers paid up for poisoning our lungs, it’s time these companies pay up for poisoning our brains.
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Video: Female Magicians
How come there aren’t any female magicians? I’ve got a theory…click to see it:
🌀 Martin Short and Steve Martin really gonna go around performing as a duo yet NOT call themselves Martin & Martin!? C'mon.
🌀 Telling comedians to stop worrying about cancel culture is like telling firefighters to stop worrying about climate change.
🌀 Those months post-vaccine but pre-Delta variant (~June/July) gonna wind up on the list of great eras we didn't fully appreciate until it was too late, like the years post-birth control but pre-AIDS.
🌀 [Fire at Sean Hannity's home] News chyron: "The Bonfire of the Hannitys"
🌀 My mom had an abortion. She got drunk at dinner one night and told us kids. My dad just turned to her and said, "Frances!" Then we went back to eating dinner. I was 12 years old. I think she just wanted us to know.
1) A Complicating Energy: Notes on a year without strangers praises strangers and people-watching.
To people-watch, says Baudelaire, is “to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world”—to become interchangeable, one of the strangers. For Virginia Woolf, a wander through the city at dusk was an escape from the trap of being “tethered to a single mind,” from the oppression of self: “The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.” “Let us dally a little longer,” she writes, “be content still with surfaces only.” Strangers are all surface, and if we accessed their depths, they’d cease to be strangers. We’re all surface to them, too—all face. Strangers allow us to be mysterious in a way we can’t when we’re at home, or when alone. With strangers we’re unknown.
2) This Winston Churchill quote hit home: "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."
3) To Stop War, America Needs a New Party. (Emphasis mine.)
Just as we’re always designing new rifles and tanks and jet fighters, we’ve become adept at manufacturing fresh intellectual justifications for deploying troops, churning out everything from “humanitarian war” to “benevolent hegemony” to “regime change” to “nation-building” to Eisenhower’s own “domino theory.” Where once we fought for literal survival against other nations, and knew who’d won when one side surrendered, we’re now sending our kids to die (and kill) in open-ended engagements where victory is either impossible or indefinable, and the main concrete “results” are masses of foreign deaths and the gigantic houses built by defense executives in places like Loudon and Fairfax Counties in northern Virginia.
All those intellectual justifications from the military remind me of George Carlin’s great bit on how shellshocked evolved into PTSD.
4) Advice on building creative stamina. Miranda July on the right amount of pressure to apply to your brain on a writing walk:
[Miranda July] was really smart on writing and walks and how vitally important it is to get up from the desk. “Often I feel like I’m playing hooky,” she told me, “but I find there’s only so many good ideas you can have sitting in a chair. Of course the work has to be done there; you have to write. But there’s a way that I can get really kind of frozen—where I’m literally not doing anything and yet I forget to remember that I can get up and walk or look at a book or do something else.”
I also love how she talked about these walks. July said that over time she’s figured out the exact “amount of pressure to apply to my brain on a writing walk. It’s not too much. You know, you kind of want to trick yourself that you’re just enjoying being outside and maybe plant the seed of, like, ‘How does this character does this?’ And then let it go.”
5) In 'Dopamine Nation,' Overabundance Keeps Us Craving More. Psychiatrist Anna Lembke advises an interesting approach to ending behavioral/chemical addiction: Try radical honesty.
One of the recurring themes that has stood out to me is how telling the truth, not just about big, important things in their lives, but about everything, is central to their recovery from addiction. My research led to a lot of fascinating, different discoveries about the role of truth-telling in our lives, not just as a way to limit compulsive overconsumption and addiction, but also just to have better lives, to improve the quality of our relationships with others or with ourselves.
And so one of the things I recommend to my patients in addition to the initial period of the dopamine fast or the abstinence is try really hard not to lie about anything. Not just don't lie about your substance use or your online behaviors. Try really hard not to lie about anything, why you were late to work, why you had a second piece of cake, or whatever it was. And I warn them that it's really hard because, the average adult tells about one to two lies a day. We all lie. We lie in ways large and small.
To tell the truth, you actually have to have an active sort of truth-o-meter going on where you're sort of constantly observing what you're saying and saying to yourself - now, am I telling the truth? Was that really the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
I think it has really important brain health properties. And the most important among them is probably that it strengthens the ties between our prefrontal cortex and our limbic brain.
So the prefrontal cortex is that part of our brain just behind our forehead engaged in decision-making, long-range planning, delayed gratification, storytelling. So telling the truth strengthens that part of the brain and, in turn, strengthens the connections between that part of our brain and our reward pathway, which is a much older, more primitive part of our brain. And it thereby helps us really control our reward pathway and control our consumption.
Sounds like truthtelling as a path to mindfulness. Brains: Ya gotta rewire ‘em somehow!
Until next time,
The end stuff
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