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Film Life Nature Review Technology

Are You Paying Attention? On ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher’

I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.

The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.

The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.

Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.

Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)

The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.

Diving into the divine milieu

Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.

He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.

Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.

That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)

Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.

My toddler teacher

A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.

Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.

I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.

I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.

I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.

Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.

My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.

You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.

Categories
Media

They podcast me back in

“If your mind is forever filled with the voices of others, how do you know what you think about anything? Pulling attention apart is pulling a mind apart.”

After watching this video by CGP Grey about attention (h/t C.J. Chilvers), I deleted over half of my podcast subscriptions. I’ve culled the list before, but like Don Corleone:

(I happen to be in the middle of rewatching the Godfather trilogy.)

Podcasts are perfect for my input-seeking brain. I have liked them for a while. Every morning, first thing, I check for new episodes and fire them up. Though I’m very liberal with skipping ones that don’t interest me, the ones I do listen to can still flood my brain for hours.

But like any habit, what starts as a fun diversion can easily turn into a compulsion. Social media I can regulate easily. Podcasts, I’m realizing, not so much. They are good during chores and driving, but not during time at home with my wife or when I want to be creative. Scaling back will help, I think, but so will prioritizing those other more enriching and lasting activities.

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Technology

How I’ve made my social media better

Here are some browser extensions and tools I’ve been using to make my experience on the Big Three social networks better:

Twitter

Since 2012 I’ve been using Fix Twitter to swap the right and left columns to put the feed back on the left, as it was pre-2012. Mostly cosmetic, but for me preferable.

Make Twitter Great Again hides two things that have made web Twitter nearly unbearable recently: other people’s liked tweets popping up in my timeline and promoted tweets.

Twitter Demetricator hides all the site’s metrics for followers, likes, retweets, and notifications in order to, per its creator, “disrupt our obsession with social media metrics, to reveal how they guide our behavior, and to ask who most benefits from a system that quantifies our public interactions online.”

I recently enabled Tweet Delete to automatically delete tweets older than two months.

Facebook

I’m not deleting my account, not yet anyway. For work and other reasons it’s just more convenient to have one. The next best thing to do in response to the company’s rolling malfeasance is to deny them their power source, so I’m using Social Book Post Manager to bulk-delete my old posts and plan to post a lot less. It’s a little clunky, and you have to do the process repeatedly to actually get all the posts, but seems to be working.

I’m starting with the earliest, from the summer of 2006 when I first joined, and working forward. Since you get to watch it work through your posts in real time on your Activity Log, you get to quickly reminisce—or cringe—at all of your status updates and comments of olde (common topics for a while there: Lost, the Oscars, The Office, and the Packers). Once all your posts are removed from a given year, the updates that remain—Life Events, your friending history, photos you’re tagged in—reflect an interesting kind of online anthropological history.

I also use Stay Focusd to limit my time on Facebook.

Instagram

I like Instagram generally, but I don’t like how easy it is to waste time scrolling mindlessly. I also don’t like the feed showing me whatever the Almighty Algorithm decides to show me rather than what was posted chronologically.

My hack for this is to delete the Instagram app from my phone after each time I post a photo. This cuts me off from the mindless scroll, from obsessing over my likes and follows, and forces me to decide whether posting a photo is worth the extra time to download the app and sign in again.

Categories
America Media Politics Technology

Ursula Le Guin on the ‘media golem’

A pox upon me for never having read Ursula Le Guin before she died last week. I’ll get right on that, as her reputation is high among many different kinds of readers.

Before diving into her novels, though, I encountered her blog (an 88 year old blogging!) on which last year she posted “Constructing the Golem”, pretty thoroughly diagnosing our political moment and offering advice for overcoming it:

When he does something weird (which he does constantly in order to keep media attention on him), look not at him but at the people whom his irresponsible acts or words affect — the Republicans who try to collaborate with him (like collaborating with a loose cannon), the Democrats and Government employees he bullies, the statesmen from friendly countries he offends, the ordinary people he uses, insults, and hurts. Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion.

Or: just don’t look.

He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud.

Oh, would that it were so simple. He is the president, and the office of the presidency is unable to be ignored no matter who occupies its office. This is the present conundrum.

Nicholas Carr, incisive as always, speaks to this in an essay at Politico. He first zooms in on the president’s Twitter addiction:

Thanks to Twitter, the national conversation is now yoked to the vagaries of Trump’s mind. Politics has been subsumed by psychology. Twitter’s formal qualities as an informational medium—its immediacy and ephemerality, its vast reach, its lack of filters—mirror and reinforce the impulsiveness, solipsism, and grandiosity that define Trump’s personality and presidency and, by extension, the times. Banal yet mesmerizing, the president’s Twitter stream distills our strange cultural moment—the moment the noise became the signal.

…and then zooms out on its larger implications:

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the nation and its institutions have become a sort of drug-delivery system engineered to feed the compulsions of a single, unusual man. And given what we know about the way media technologies shape society, a bigger question looms: Are we stuck here for good?

Dear lord I hope not.

A president’s pronouncements will always be news, but they don’t have to grab headlines the way Trump’s tweets routinely do. The messages’ enduring power to seize attention and shape debate springs from a deeper source. It reflects the polarized state of the country and its politics. Among both the president’s fans and his foes, the tweets provoke extreme reactions, which serve to reinforce each side’s confidence in the righteousness of its cause. We listen so intently to Trump’s tweets because they tell us what we want to hear about the political brand we’ve chosen. In a perverse way, they serve as the rallying cries of two opposed and warring tribes.

And when you’re stuck between these two warring tribes, you don’t even get to enjoy the psychological benefits from tribalism. You just witness the carnage and wonder which side you’d rather see lose.

Categories
Politics Technology

Facebook vs. Wikileaks

What’s the difference between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange? A recent Saturday Night Live skit with Bill Hader as Assange answered that question: “I give you private information on corporations for free and I’m a villain,” he says. “Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year.”

It seems backwards, right? In a perfect world, the release of free information about corporate malfeasance would be celebrated and the selling of private information for profit would be illegal, or at least frowned upon. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead, Assange gets arrested and Zuckerberg makes billions and is named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The U.S. government insists on secrecy. Every politician seems to campaign on bring transparency to Washington and making the government more for, by, and of the people. Yet it never seems to work. So when someone like Assange comes along and pulls back the curtain on important areas of public interest like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government goes code red.

Facebook is the opposite. No one is forced to reveal personal information; we do it willingly. And the company takes that information and uses it to sell advertising and make billions of dollars in profit. Zuckerberg believes in total openness—on Facebook and in the world as a whole—yet somehow I think he’d had a problem if Wikileaks revealed how Facebook was using people and their information to make a huge profit.

I’m not wholly anti-Facebook. I think it’s a great way to communicate and stay in touch with friends and family. And the way things are going it looks like the site will be the Internet one day. But there’s something very unsettling about how disclosure through Facebook is encouraged yet through Wikileaks it’s demonized. And as long as institutions like Time continue to honor this dangerous dichotomy, things won’t change.