Newsletters from the Athenian Way

After reading Technopoly last month, I went looking for more Neil Postman material. I got Amusing Ourselves to Death from the library — and then sent it back unread, because I just wasn’t going to get to it (another time, I hope). But there are some articles of his available online and I was very much struck by a short piece entitled “My Graduation Speech”. Here is its introduction:

Having sat through two dozen or so graduation speeches, I have naturally wondered why they are so often so bad. One reason, of course, is that the speakers are chosen for their eminence in some field, and not because they are either competent speakers or gifted writers. Another reason is that the audience is eager to be done with all ceremony so that it can proceed to some serious reveling. Thus any speech longer than, say, fifteen minutes will seem tedious, if not entirely pointless. There are other reasons as well, including the difficulty of saying something inspirational without being banal. Here I try my hand at writing a graduation speech, and not merely to discover if I can conquer the form. This is precisely what I would like to say to young people if I had their attention for a few minutes.

If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation.

Now, I don’t expect to be speaking at any convocations anytime soon! But I commend the speech to you. Go read it — it’s only 85 sentences and will not take long. Postman’s argument is that there are, essentially, two types of people in the world: Athenians and Visigoths — or rather, spiritual heirs of either the one or the other. He gets a little more specific in his examples, but a broad way of understanding it is that, in interacting with culture, people who are functioning in the Athenian spirit build up, while those who function in the Visigoth (Visigothian?) spirit tear down.

This is something that I’ve been slowly thinking over in the past few weeks. Are there spaces in my life where I’m functioning more as a Visigoth than an Athenian? Am I feeding my Athenian side with what I do, what I read, what I look at, what I think about? How am I directing my children’s steps towards one or the other?

And of course, because I’ve also been thinking a lot this year about technology, social media, etc., I’ve been pondering the way that those things interact with the Athenian and Visigoth ways. I don’t know whether social media makes people more likely to turn Visigoth, or if it just makes more visible what was there all along, but I don’t think many people need convincing that an awful lot of public-internet-spaces are being quite overrun by Visigoths. But being overrun is not the same as wholly conquered; there are many pockets of the internet where the Athenian spirit burns bright. I’ve been seeking some of them out, lately, and what I’ve found is… newsletters. Seriously.

I mean, blogging is dead, right? Everyone knows blogging is dead (she wrote on her blog). But newsletters — something’s happening with newsletters. Newsletters interest me. I’ve been signing up for newsletters with abandon; I don’t even know who most of these people are, but they got linked to in other newsletters that I already read. It’s some sort of newsletter causal chain, and I am following to see where it goes. (This is the part of the post where I drop a lot of links.)

In no particular order, some newsletters for your consideration:

  1. Snakes and Ladders by Alan Jacobs: for me, this is where it all began. Alan Jacobs is one of my favourite living writers/thinkers right now, and his was the first newsletter I subscribed to. Just look what that started.
  2. Notes from a Small Press by Anne Trubek. Just what it says on the box: notes and interesting bits and bobs about running a small publishing business.
  3. Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis. Ellis writes comic books and novels and things, and this engaging weekly(ish) bulletin.
  4. Year of the Meteor by Robin Sloan. Another of my favourite living writers. Also he has an olive oil business.
  5. The Public Domain Review newsletter. The two best things about the public domain are that 1) it’s full of weird, interesting stuff and 2) it’s constantly expanding. The PDR newsletter is a nice curation.
  6. All My Stars by Joanne McNeil. Mostly about technology, also art, music, books, etc.
  7. Restricted Frequency by Ganzeer. Art, social commentary, storytelling,
  8. Mark Athitakis Newsletter by Mark Athitakis. There’s something that tickles me about just straight-up naming your newsletter after yourself. You go, Mark Athitakis.
  9. The Tourist by Philip Christman. Christianity, culture, reading, writing.
  10. Roden Explorers by Craig Mod. Reading, writing, long walks in the woods (and other places).

These newsletters reflect my particular interests, of course (though I hope they are also working to expand my interests). But I take them as an encouraging token of Athenianism. It’s not all dust and ashes yet… not even on the internet.

Some ephemera

I’ve had several posts rattling around in my brain for a few weeks now — but I’ve hit a bit of a busy stretch, or at least a difficult-to-blog stretch, and I don’t think any of them will ever be realized at this point. So, in no particular order, here are some things I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. Recently I read Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, by Vigen Guroian. His thesis is that the “classic stories” — fables, myths, and fairy tales in their un-bowdlerized, un-Disneyfied versions — are powerful tools for teaching and nurturing the virtues in our children (and ourselves). Each chapter examines a classic story or two, the virtue it imparts, and the means by which it does so. It’s compelling reading — and enough that I immediately checked out the original story of Pinocchio when I had finished (since I am only familiar with the Disney film version). I was especially struck by this passage quoting George MacDonald:

There are critics who say that George MacDonald wrote over the heads of children. MacDonald himself said that he wrote for “children” of all ages. He endeavored to appeal to the childlike in everyone — not the childish, but the childlike — and to feed the moral imagination. MacDonald dd not exaggerate the power of the imagination. Imagination is a power of discovery, not a power to create. The latter capacity he reserved to God alone. Nor did MacDonald equate imagination with mere fancy, what we used to call “vain imaginings.” Rather, for him, imagination is a power of perception, a light that illumines the mystery that is hidden beneath visible reality: it is a power to help “see” into the very nature of things. Reason alone, MacDonald argued, is not able to recognize mystery or grasp the moral quiddity of the world. As the sensible mind needs eyes to see, so reason needs the imagination in order to behold mystery and to perceive the true quality of things. Imagination takes reason to the threshold of mystery and moral truth and reveals them as such. Reason may then approve or submit. But it remains for the heart of courage with the will to believe and the vision of imagination to embrace the beauty of goodness and the strength of truth as the foundation of virtuous living. (141-2)

2. “Silent Night” — the Christmas carol, I mean — has always driven me a little nuts. It doesn’t scan properly. We expect melody and lyrics to work together in the service of meaning, but in this case, they’re constantly fighting each other. The third verse is slightly nonsensical. Son of God love’s pure light / radiant beams from thy holy face / with the dawn of redeeming grace — what does that mean? Is the Son of God “love’s pure light”? In which case, where is the verb that should go with the “radiant beams”? Or are we supposed to read it as “love’s pure light, radiant, beams from…” where “radiant” is modifying the light instead of describing the beams? I shouldn’t have to work this hard at a Christmas carol, for goodness’ sake.

However. I was leafing through one of my older hymnals and came across an alternate translation, by “Jane M. Campbell and others”:

Silent night! holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Yonder the Virgin-Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night! holy night!
Only for shepherds’ sight
Came blest visions of angel throngs,
With their loud alleluia songs,
Saying, Christ is come,
Saying, Christ is come.

Silent night! holy night!
Child of heaven, O how bright
Thou didst smile on us when thou wast born,
Blest indeed was that happy morn,
Full of heavenly joy,
Full of heavenly joy.

I don’t have any German and so I can’t compare the fidelity of either translation to the original lyrics (except by running it through Google translate, which illustrates the continued necessity of human translators). But as English versions go, I think this is far superior to the more popular iteration. It’s grammatically sensible. It scans perfectly with the melody. I move that we all sing this version instead (start petitioning your choir directors now).

3. I ditched Facebook a good while ago now, but my husband still has an account, and occasionally I hop on his when I want to check something — usually a business or organization that only has a FB page instead of their own website, which is a really boneheaded choice for several reasons, which is a complete digression from the point that I’m actually trying to make. The other night I was scrolling through his feed and all I could think was I don’t miss this at all. Sometimes I regret giving up my account because it also meant giving up a certain ease of connecting with people — but when I remember everything else that came with that ease, I am again satisfied with my decision.

On a somewhat related note, the other night my husband was looking at Goodreads reviews for a book he just finished. (Why? I can only assume it’s because he likes to punish himself.) He found a long, one-star review by a contributor who admitted to not having read past the fifth page of the book. Apparently five pages of the introduction — it wasn’t even the first chapter — was enough for him to feel he had thoroughly understood and engaged with the book’s material.

It is a strange thing to live in an age where every thing demands an opinion, no matter how  dishonestly we may come by it, and every opinion is both instantaneous and public. I had both of these incidents in my mind when I ran across a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this morning, Barton Swaim’s “For Sanity’s Sake, Delete Your Account“:

The in­stan­ta­neous aware­ness of so much folly is not, I now think, healthy for the hu­man mind. Spend­ing time on Twit­ter be­came, for me, a deeply de­mor­al­iz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Of­ten, espe­cially when some con­tro­versy of na­tional im­por­tance pro­voked large num­bers of users into tweet­ing their opin­ions about it, I would come away from Twit­ter ex­as­perated al­most to the point of mad­ness.

I thought of a verse from the 94th Psalm: “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are van­ity.” Af­ter an hour or so of watch­ing hu­man­i­ty’s stu­pidi­ties scroll across my screen, I felt I had peeked into some dread­ful abyss into which only God can safely look. It was not for me to know the thoughts of man.

Indeed.

Life after Facebook

It’s been about two months now since I deleted my Facebook account — not just disabled, but really and truly deleted. On my end of things, there’s nothing left for me to access. On Facebook’s side of things, it will probably be another few weeks before all of my data has been completely purged by their systems, but it’s coming. I hemmed and hawed for weeks before making the decision to do this; now that it’s done, I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s affected my life. What have I gained? And what have I lost?

Because there have been both: some clear gains, and some clear losses. First and foremost, getting rid of Facebook has drastically opened up my time. When I turn my computer on or pick up my phone during the day, I check my email and a few other things, and then… I’m done. There’s nothing else to do, so I put it away. It’s amazing how much of your day opens up when there isn’t an infinite scroll available. Now, could I have achieved the same effect by being more disciplined with my online habits? Theoretically, yes. Experientially? No.

Another gain is that I feel much less mentally… buffeted, I guess you could call it. There’s no predicting what you see when you’re scrolling through the newsfeed: it’s a mishmash of whatever your friends have posted (as curated for you by the almighty algorithm). Everything appears without context and leaves no context behind it. News is mixed with fundraisers is mixed with baby pictures is mixed with jokes and political opinions and anecdotes and rants and all the rest of it, not to mention the hoaxes and misinformation and flat-out lies, coming at you relentlessly. And everything implicitly (or explicitly) demands a response: like me! share me! respond to me! be happy with me! be angry with me! agree with me! correct me! Frankly, it’s exhausting. Leaving all of that behind has been refreshing. When I want to read the news, I open up a news app. If I want to respond to something, or to learn more about it, it’s easier (and, now, more natural) to take the time to find the context, digest what’s happening, and formulate a response that’s not just off the cuff.

But there’s a price to this temporal and mental freedom, isn’t there? Leaving Facebook has meant reconciling myself (well… sort of) to being out of the loop. I don’t know what’s going on with my friends, not the way I used to. I’m not seeing pictures of their kids — and I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoys seeing pictures of other people’s kids. For some of my friends, Facebook was really the only connection point we had, and when I think about some of those connections I feel a real sense of loss.

But it’s a strange thing: what I’m grieving is maybe not the loss of those relationships, but the loss of the illusion that they still existed. As long as our profiles were linked, there was hope: “Sure, we haven’t talked in ten years — but we could!” And to be completely fair, sometimes this did happen, we did reconnect. I got in touch with a friend from undergrad to return a book I borrowed from her about twelve years ago. I was able to apologize to someone from my past for something that happened when we were young adolescents. But those moments, if I’m honest, were few and far between. I wasn’t using Facebook to connect with people; I was using Facebook to feel as if I were connecting with people. Those are, in the end, very different things.

And so this last comes from a loss but is really a gain: ditching Facebook has reinforced for me the fact that friendship is an active pursuit. There was no real friendship behind most of my connections; there was, at best, a passive acknowledgement of a shared past. But that’s not a friendship, or enough to sustain one. I do miss being in the know. I do miss the ease of the connection that I did have with the people with whom I am really friends. In that case, though, what have I really lost? Just the ease; not the thing itself. In the weeks since quitting Facebook I have been sending and receiving more emails than I have in years. And I’ve been picking up my phone not to scroll through a feed but to actually, you know, call people. It’s been a good change. Yes, I could have done all of this without needing to delete my account — well, maybe. But if that’s what it took to remind me of the work and worth of actively pursuing friendship, then it’s a price I am willing to pay.

Let’s get bored

Manoush Zomorodi hosts WYNC’s Note to Self podcast. In 2015, Zomorodi hosted a six-day challenge for her listeners in realigning their relationship with their smartphones. Why, she wondered, are our phones so hard to put down? How much do we actually use them, compared to how much we think we use them? And what are we missing out on? The challene series was widely successful, with over 20,000 initial participants, and now it’s a book:

This is a brilliant (ba-dum tssh) read in which Zomorodi makes a strong case for the value of boredom, of deliberately leaving (or making) spaces in our days for daydreaming, spacing out, and sitting around with no distractions or mental agenda. Far from wasted time, these moments are actually critical for our own creativity, ability to plan, and mental health. We shouldn’t be avoiding boredom; we should be embracing it.

But why is it so hard to let ourselves be bored? After hitting a creative wall at work, Zomorodi began examinging her life in order to figure out what was happening:

My mind felt tired. Worn-out. Why? Yes, I was juggling motherhood, marriage, and career in one of the most hectic cities in the world. But it was more than that. In order to analyze what was going on with me, I began by observing my own behaviour. What I found was, frankly, exhausting. As soon as I took a moment to reflect, I realized there wasn’t a single waking moment in my life that I didn’t find a way to fill — and my main accomplice was my phone.

I had long ago traded my own flip phone for a smartphone, and now it seemed I spent every spare minute on it. Whether waiting for the subway, in line for coffee, or at my son’s preschool for pickup, I was engaged in some kind of information call-and-response. I checked the weather, updated Twitter, responded to e-mails. When I flopped into bed at the end of an exhausting day, instead of turning out the lights, I chose to fire up Two Dots — a game that I couldn’t stop playing despite myself. I wasn’t using my smartphone to connect. I was using it to escape. […] My brain was always occupied, but my mind wasn’t doing anything with all the information coming in.

[…] I saw a connection between a lack of stimulation — boredom — and a flourishing of creativity and drive. It was so clear to me because the cycle of technological innovation sped up at exactly the same time my life did, too. Between the time my son was born and could walk, we saw mobile technology change the way people called a taxi, ordered food, found a date. Suddenly, very basic society actions that had remained unchanged for decades were upended. And then, when the next operating system came out six months later, unpended again. My life wasn’t just pre-children and post-children . . . it was simultaneously pre-mobile phone, post-mobile phone. Both children and smartphones shifted me to the core.

In light of all this, I asked myself, “Can my lack of ideas have to do with never being bored?” (3-4)

As it turns out, research suggests that the answer to that question is an overwhelming Yes. When we allow our minds to wander, we activate something called the default mode, “the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is als involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments” (5). When we’re spacing out, there’s an awful lot going on underneath the surface; it’s not wasted time, but rather the opposite. In fact, fMRIs show that when a person is daydreaming, their brains are active at about 80-90% of the level they would be when deliberately thinking through a complex problem. Under the surface, our brains are working hard — which is why our best ideas so often come when we’re taking a walk, washing dishes, or having a shower.

Zomorodi is not anti-technology and this is not an anti-technology book. It’s not about not using our smartphones, but about using them purposefully instead of mindlessly, about placing them back in service to us as tools rather than over us as taskmasters. To that end, she suggests seven exercises to be completed over the course of a week.. Here are the seven culminating challenges and some “upgrades” for those who want a bit more (she suggests reading Bored and Brilliant straight through before attempting them, in order to better understand the purpose of each challenge):

  1. Observe yourself: download a time-and-usage tracking app to your phone (I’ve linked to those at the end of this post). Don’t change your behaviour on day one, but think about how you would like to use / relate to your phone.
  2. Put your phone totally away while engaging in motion (no using it on your commute or while you’re out walking). Challenge upgrade: try instead to notice five things around you that you’ve never noticed before.
  3. Have a photo-free day: don’t take any pictures with your phone. Challenge upgrade: today when you look at pictures on social media, only look at them: no likes, no comments, no shares or retweets.
  4. Delete that app: the one that you find yourself constantly opening without even thinking about it, be it social media, a game, the news, whatever. Challenge upgrade: don’t just delete the app, delete your whole account.
  5. Take a fakecation: block out some time for yourself, set an auto-reply on your email, let your phone go to voicemail, and totally disconnect from tech for that time. Challenge upgrade: don’t just take a hiatus from email and the phone, but download an app that will send auto-replies to incoming texts as well.
  6. Observe something else: go to a public place (the mall, the library, a cafe, etc.) and simply sit and observe. Try to find something you would never have seen/noticed if your face was stuck in a screen. Challenge upgrade: Instead of just noticing, write down what you are observing, in as much detail as possible.
  7. The Bored and Brilliant challenge: Identify an area of life where you need to do some real thinking. Set aside thirty minutes. Put a pot of water on the stove and watch it until it boils, then immediately sit down with a pen and paper and put your mind to the problem you’ve identified: unlock its solution through the deliberate cultivation of the boredom that leads to creative thinking.

I have not completed the challenges yet — most of the time I think I have a pretty good handle on how I’m using my phone. But one thing that really challenged me was in Chapter Five, “App Addled”: the phenomenon of self-interruption. We’re all aware of how easy it is to be interrupted by others: by incoming emails, by app notifications, by incoming text messages. But most of the time, it’s not other people who are interrupting us — it’s us interrupting ourselves:

But you can’t blame your coworkers or your children or your Gchat buddy for everything. Guess who is the person who actually interrupts you the most? Yourself. [Gloria] Mark’s lab has a term for this — the “pattern of self-interruption.”

“From an observer’s perspective, you’re watching a person [and] they’re typing in a Word document. And then, for no apparent reason, they suddenly stop what they’re doing and they shift and look at e-mail or check Facebook. These kinds of self-interruptions happen almost as frequently as people are interrupted from external sources,” Mark said. “So we find that when external interruptions are pretty high in any particular hour, then even if the level of external interruptions wanes [in the next hour], then people self-interrupt.”

In other words, if you’ve had a hectic morning dealing with lots of e-mail and people stopping by your desk, you are more likely to start interrupting yourself. Interruptions are self-perpetuating. (90)

I do this all the time. I’ll be writing a post, or writing an email, then all of a sudden I’m looking at my blog reader or checking my virtual store in my favourite game, or taking a look at my library holds list, or looking something up on wikipedia… and generally for no real reason. This self-interrupting also plays into something Zomorodi discusses in an earlier chapter: reading comprehension:

His journalistic interest piqued, Mike [Rosenwald] began investigating why he and his friends were struggling with something that, until recently, had come naturally. He went, of course, straight to the Internet to see what was coming between him and the page. (When in Rome . . . ) What he discovered was a radical break in reading methodology post-Internet. Before the Web, reading was primarily a linear activity. “You looked at a magazine, a menu, a book. Whatever,” he said. “You pretty much read it uninterrupted, and that’s the way we’ve read since writing on caves.”

Then along came the Internet with hyperlines, scrolling screens, and an impossible-to-finish flow of information, which necessitated nonlinear reading. The problem, Mike found, wasn’t that our brains have adapted to this second form of reading. Rather, it has supplanted the first. In an article he wrote for The Washington Post, he did his own in-house (and meta) experiment on the thoroughness of reading online. Only 30 percent of the people reading his story about having trouble reading got to the last line of his story. (46)

For a few years now, I’ve tried to make it a discipline to read as linearly as I can when I’m reading online, something that’s hard to do — all those delicious hyperlinks begging to be read as well! What I try to do is to open any links I want to read in new tabs, and to read them after I’ve finished with the thing I started with, rather than jumping around. It’s hard. But I think it’s worth trying. To that end I’ve decided that, going forward, instead of hyperlinking within the main body of my posts here, I’ll stick them all at the end. I’ve also started to go through old entries and reformat them this way (although that’s a side project that will take a little while to finish). I can’t control how people read my posts, of course, but I can maybe help foster some good habits — in myself as well.

I appreciate the thoroughness of the research in Bored and Brilliant (as well as its excellent index). Manoush Zomorodi has written a very timely and useful book, one which I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to take back some control over their digital experience and creative lives.

Explore More: Manoush Zomorodi | Note to Self podcast | “Bored and Brilliant” TED Talk | “Bored and Brilliant” podcast challenge series (6 episodes) | Default mode (wikipedia) | “Moment” app (iphone) | “SPACE” app (android) | “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say” (Mike Rosenwald, Washington Post) |

Confessions of a chaos monkey

(Alternate post title: In which I continue my descent into anti-technology crankdom.)

You may have noticed, gentle readers, that I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately reading and writing about technology, social media, Silicon Valley, etc. I ran across the name Antonio García Martínez in an article about the same, which pointed me to an interview with him that I can no longer find in my bookmarks, but which at least served the purpose of leading me to his recent memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. García Martínez tells all in this chronicle of his own Silicon Valley days: from the trading floor at Goldman Sachs, through a few years at ad-related startups, to his two all-consuming years at Facebook in the early 2010s. And what is Silicon Valley really like, at least as far as Chaos Monkeys shows us? As it turns out, it seems less a centre for incredible innovation than the kind of dystopian subculture you might find if a) Machiavelli ran your high school, b) everyone in said high school had millions of dollars of other people’s money to play with, and c) the only ethical/moral question that needs an answer is “is this legal or not?”. It’s not pretty. Actually, I had to stop reading Chaos Monkeys before bed because it was giving me bad dreams. I wish I were joking.

First, a word on the title: what, exactly, is a chaos monkey (besides a little phrase that’s pretty fun to say)? As García Martínez explains it, Chaos Monkey is a software tool developed by Netflix that tests whether your system can stand up under the stress of random failures. As a metaphor, it extends to the Silicon Valley ethos as a whole, as technology entrepreneurs look for society’s weak points in order to either fix or exploit them, depending on your point of view:

In order to understand both the function and the name of the chaos monkey, imagine the following: a chimpanzee rampaging through a data center, one of the air-conditioned warehouses of blinking machines that power everything from Google to Facebook. He yanks cables here, smashes a box there, and generally tears up the place. The software chaos monkey does a virtual version of the same, sutting down random machines and processes at unexpected times. The challenge is to have your particular service — Facebook messaging, Google’s Gmail, your startup’s blog, whatever — survive the monkey’s depradations.

More symbolically, technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder). One industry after another is simply knocked out via venture-backed entrepreneurial daring and hastily shipped software. Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos moneys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time. With the explosion of venture capital, there is no shortage of bananas to feed them. The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what cost. (103)

Chaos Monkeys provides a fascinating inside view of this social-norm-breaking chaos monkeydom, many aspects of which Jaron Lanier warns about in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (my review here). One of Lanier’s strongest arguments has to do with the way the big, secretive algorithms at social media companies work to ever-refine the content that you see in order to maximize your engagement with the platform in question: feeding you mostly things you like (your best friend’s baby pictures) along with carefully calculated small doses of the rage-inducing (your crazy uncle’s political rants). All of the news and other content we encounter on Facebok only crosses our feeds because the algorithm has decided that it will keep us engaged; besides the very real problem of fake news, this also leads to a thoroughly myopic vision of whats going on in the world. We miss a lot, and because we only see what we’re shown, it gets harder and harder to even know what we’re missing. All of this is on purpose. García Martínez recounts the rousing speeches at his new employee orientation/on-boarding at Facebook, and the pictuer that high-ups in the organization painted of the brand new world Facebook was (and is) working hard to construct:

Facebook was the New York Times of You, Channel You, available for your reading and writing, and to everyone else in the world as well, from the Valley VC [Venture Capitalist] to the Wall Street banker to the Indian farmer plowing a field. Everyone would tune in to the channels of their friends, as people once clicked the knob on old cathode-ray television sets, and live in a mediated world of personalized social communication. That the news story in question was written by the Wall Street Journal was incidental: your friend Fred had posted it, your other friend Andy had commented on it, and your wife had shared it with her friends. Here was the first taste for the new Facebook employee of a world interpreted not through traditional institutions like newspapers, books, or even governments or religions, but through the graph of personal relations. You and your friends would redefine celebrity, social worth, and what should be churning through that restless primate brain all day.

Andy Warhol was wrong. In the future, we wouldn’t all be famous for fifteen minutes, we’d be famous 24/7 to fifteen people. That was the new paradigm, even if the outside world didn’t realize it yet. Facebook employees — we few, we happy few — knew what world was coming, and we’d help create it. (261)

In his two years at Facebook, García Martínez worked for the Ads department, in the early days of Facebook’s ads monetization projects. Perhaps because he’s an ad man, García Martínez is not impresed with people who use ad blockers in an effort to cut down on some of the noise they see online. Nor is he impressed with those who  are concerned with online privacy: in a point late in the book, he essentially makes the argument that we should all be grateful that Facebook captures and holds all our data, because otherwise facebook wouldn’t exist. I remain entirely unconvinced that this would be the disaster he purports it to be. If Facebook had kicked the bucket back in 2011 or so, when most of the book is set — well, so what, exactly? Their software engineers etc. would have moved on to other companies and users would have moved on to other platforms. Are any of us still mourning the death of MySpace or Friendster? It’s an interesting position for him to take, especially given the way he now looks back at his time with the big blue social media giant:

I could barely remember what my life was like before Facebook, and there was a trail of destruction I had caused by spending my entire life there: two children neglected, two different women whose worthy love I’d spurned, two boats rotting in neglect, and anything like an intellect or a life outside campus nonexistent due to indifference and my dedication to the Facebook cause. Don’t be deceived by my whithering treatment of Facebook in this book; inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist. If I’m now a morant critic, it’s because at one point […] I, too, lived and breathed for Facebook, perhaps even more than most. (458-9)

García Martínez’s time at Facebook didn’t end well; he was fired after a bitter internal battle over two different products/directions the Ads department was considering. That fact seems to fuel much of the book’s bitterness (and it is a deeply bitter book), as well as the occasional ambiguity of his positions. In truth, I didn’t find him a sympathetic narrator. García Martínez describes himself as “high-strung, fast-talking, and wired on a combination of caffeine, fear, and greed at all times” (161) and despite his avowed distate for the Silicon Valley lifestyle, he certainly appears to have lived it to the fullest measure, questionable ethical mores included. For example, he relates the following story from when his startup, AdGrok, was courting/being courted by two different companies: Facebook and Twitter, both of them still relatively nascent. Twitter was interested in buying the company and its three founders (in what’s called an acqui-hire), while Facebook wanted García Martínez but not rest of his team. How should he decide which company to work for? Here’s how:

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille game with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. […] Facebook it was. (228)

(I found a news article about the incident in question. It’s incredibly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading it, but I will leave the link here so you know that this isn’t something García Martínez is making up for the shock value. It happened.) But consider the attitude that looks at a story like that — social media-driven infanticide — and decides that the company that inadvertently facilitated this truly horrifying incident is the one to work for, not the one to avoid. “If Facebook can do this, then Facebook can’t fail, therefore I should work for Facebook.” I… can’t even imagine making that decision. But that was his choice and his plan, which he enacted with some serious machinations that resulted in Twitter buying out his AdGrok co-founders while he escaped to Zuckerberg-land. According to Chaos Monkeys, this is the sort of decision that many Valley types would make:

As every new arrival in California comes to learn, that superficially sunny “Hi!” they get from everybody is really, “F— you, I don’t care.” It cuts both ways, though. They won’t hold it against you if you’re a no-show at their wedding, and they’ll step right over a homeless person on their way to a mindfulness yoga class. It’s a society in which all men and women live in their own self-contained bubble, unattached to traditional anchors like family or religion, and largely unperturbed by outside social forces like income inequality or the Syrian Civil War. “Take it light, man” elevated to life philosophy. Unfortunately, the Valley attitude is an empowered anomie turbocharged by selfishness, respecting some nominal “feel-good” principals [sic] of progress or collective technologcal striving, but in truth pursuing a continual self-development refracted through the capitalist prism: hippies with a capitalization table, and a vesting schedule. (232)

There’s a lot more to say about the world of SiIicon Valley and the world it is trying to build, but I need to cut this off at some point — Chaos Monkeys clocks in at over 500 fascinating and depressing pages. In many ways it is not an easy read, and it certainly isn’t an uplifting one. But as we consider questions about how we develop and use technological tools, it’s also worth interrogating the culture behind those tools. “Move fast and break things” (an early Facebook motto) may work for shipping software, but it’s a poor way to construct a society, and we would do well to be wary of embracing the technological innovations that come our way without serious thought. Chaos Monkeys contributes to that discussion, filling in a lot of the background for us as we think about how to shape techonology, and how it in turns shapes us.

Weekend Reading: tech and our children, social justice and the Holy Spirit, and caring for cast iron

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here

1. The Tech Industry’s Psychological War on Kids (medium.com)

What none of these parents understand is that their children’s and teens’ destructive obsession with technology is the predictable consequence of a virtually unrecognized merger between the tech industry and psychology. This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.

These parents have no idea that lurking behind their kids’ screens and phones are a multitude of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to devise products that capture kids’ attention for the sake of industry profit. What these parents and most of the world have yet to grasp is that psychology — a discipline that we associate with healing — is now being used as a weapon against children.

This piece is absolutely worth a read, especially for parents, although it’s something that should concern all of us.

2. Powers and Principalities: King and the Holy Spirit (plough.com)

Yet in some ways BLM is an example of George Santayana’s axiom that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

This piece from Eugene F. Rivers III is a powerful reminder of the spiritual realities that under-gird social conflict, and the only means by which they can truly be dealt with.

3. The Truth about Cast Iron (seriouseats.com)

There are a lot of myths about how to properly treat your cast iron pan, but thankfully, Kenji is here to set us on the right track. It turns out that using cast iron is easier than we all thought, and I’ve really enjoyed upping my cooking game with mine.