Most people have no idea how the web works and don't understand the role they play in the web ecosystem. Partly this is because our mental model of the web dates back to the early days of "Web 1.0", when folks used the web to read physics papers and personal weblogs and such, somewhat as they would visit their local public library and read books and magazines and newspapers sitting on the shelves. My, how times have changed!
Imagine that when you walk into your local public library, ten or twenty people at the door note your presence (including a personal identifier such as your driver's license number) on clipboards. These people - we'll call them trackers - then follow you around during your visit. As you look in the card catalog, visit different parts of the stacks, pick books off the shelf, read specific articles in various newspapers and magazines, glance at specific advertisements in those periodicals, and so on, the trackers make detailed notes about everything you do and immediately sell that information to their customers (who aren't at the library but have a keen interest in your behavior). Based on your activities, the trackers helpfully suggest books you might want to buy and articles you might want to read. Sure, some of these suggestions take the form of shouting in your ear or pushing various materials in front of your face - and, confusingly, often several trackers will suggest things at the same time - but their suggestions are so helpful that you hardly notice. The materials they suggest feature lurid titles and racy photos. If you take the bait and read these materials, the trackers record that fact and again sell this information to their customers (who have a keen interest in whether you are interested in topics like money, drugs, sex, celebrities, and politics). Every time you visit the library, the trackers are there to record your every move.
But the trackers are not just at the library. When you shop at the grocery store or the department store or the mall, the trackers are there, too - noting where you shop and what you buy, making more helpful suggestions, and of course telling their customers about your activities. Same thing when you take a trip, look at map, go out to eat, stop at the gym, take a walk or a run, visit the doctor, meet a friend for coffee, chat on the phone, or send some family photos to your mom - the trackers are there, helping you on your way and noting everything you say and do.
Eventually, the trackers build up huge binders of information about you, and come to know you better than you know yourself. They tell all their customers (for a fee) about how often you exercise, what you eat, what you read, what you buy, how much you spend, where you go, who you talk with, etc. Their customers provide even more help to you in your busy life: they send you coupons, tell you about sales and special deals, give you discounts on your insurance, offer you magazine subscriptions, send you free advice about everything from health to money to relationships, and so much more.
Now, it's true that sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself, too. But the trackers and their customers are not your friends. To you, they're total strangers. And to them, you are just a thing to keep track of, as they would keep track of a product being shipped across the country. In fact, to them you're not a person, you're a product.
We talk a lot these days about the Internet of Things, and I work in that area myself. We talk a lot less, if at all, about the fact that for marketers and search engines and social networking services and consumer-oriented conglomerates, the Internet enables them to treat human beings like you and me as just a bunch of things.
The other day I finished reading Nicholas Carr's book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Carr's argument about automation, and technology more generally, is that it is not an unmitigated good. If technology is not made to serve human ends, then humans will end up serving technology. We can see this clearly with social networking services. As the saying goes, if you're not paying then you're the product. Yet it goes much deeper than that. Tools such as the ubiquitous "like" button give you the pleasant feeling that you are interacting with your 500 friends on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, but that feeling is illusory. Aristotle observed over 2300 years ago that true friendship requires spending time together; yet when clicking buttons on a website you are merely engaged in the simulacra of friendship, not the real thing. (I gather that Jacob Silverman makes this point quite forcefully in his book Terms of Service, which I have not yet read.)
Thoreau, too, took a questioning stance toward new technologies (in his day, that meant things like the railroad). Far from being a refusenik, he was, in fact, quite the tinkerer - he could build just about anything that needed building, he invented improved methods of pencil-making for his father's company, and he used various tools (such as telescopes) when they suited his purpose. Yet he keenly perceived the limits and constrictive qualities of the things we make. In "Economy" (chapter 1 of Walden), he wrote:
As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.
I write this on one of the prettiest toys of the present day: the laptop computer. So I am by no means immune from the wiles of technology. However, more and more I find myself pulling back from entanglement with the latest inventions. I find myself trying to live and work more deliberately, more thoughtfully, more quietly, more deeply. When not working, I find myself reading (and writing) books, walking, working outside, cooking, playing guitar, spending real time with real friends. During the workday, too, I find myself improving my focus by shutting down all applications but the one or two that I am actively using at the moment (say, an editing program to write a whitepaper), not constantly checking email or chat, not leaving dozens of tempting tabs open in my browser, and so on.
Living deliberately does not mean giving up modern improvements entirely. Instead, it means thinking clearly about your higher purposes and not getting distracted away from what truly matters; it means always holding your humanity to be primary, not subordinate to the supposed needs of the machine; it means exercising reflection and self-restraint, which are the only solid basis for personal freedom; it means seeking deeper treasures, not surface pleasures.
Perhaps this sounds hopelessly old-fashioned or just plain difficult; but as Spinoza said, "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."
The recent statement by Elon Musk that skeptics of autonomous vehicles are effectively killing people has set me to thinking, especially in conjunction with my current reading of The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr. Given that 40,000 or more Americans die each year in car accidents, Musk certainly has a point. Yet when I extrapolate this line of argument forward to a wide range of human activities, I start to wonder where our freedom and humanity will go. Eventually we might hear similar arguments against human doctors and nurses, human teachers, even human parents. We humans are messy - we get tired, we make mistakes, we go astray, we are imperfect. Yet we can be ethical, we can be caring, we can learn from our mistakes, we can inspire each other to live up to our ideals. To what extent will we lose what makes us human if we cede all activities to machines? Will we become mere pets, doted over (we hope!) but never taking initiative, never doing anything dangerous, never doing anything interesting? Last year I heard Steve Wozniak argue that becoming pets of the machines would be an ideal life; I strongly disagree.
Speaking of freedom, right now I'm also reading Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. So far it's an engagingly written account of the lengths to which one person will go for greater personal freedom - not just freedom from debt, but freedom for living a more authentic life in the midst of our often inauthentic culture. Mr. Ilgunas owes much of his thinking to Henry David Thoreau, so I'm curious to see what lessons he draws from his odyssey.
And speaking of Thoreau, last night I finished writing the first, rough draft of The Upland Farm: Thoreau on Cultivating a Better Life. At 10,000 words or so, it is perhaps more of a prose outline than an actual book at this point. In line with my usual practice, I plan to let it sit for a few weeks and then devote some dedicated days to improving it toward the end of the year. Thoreau, too, deeply valued freedom and authenticity, and I shall attempt to do justice to his distinctive outlook on life in the final version (still planned for publication in time for the bicenntenial of his birth on July 12 of next year).
This week, while America was losing its mind over the elections, I decided to unplug even further from the emotionally and mentally frenzied approach to life that is becoming more and more the norm. Among other things, I stopped using Twitter. More important, I finally dove into Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows, which describes the damaging effects of how we typically interact with computers and the Internet. As a result, I've started reforming my work habits: engaging in more "deep work" (I highly recommend Cal Newport's book by that name), shutting down all apps but the one or two I'm using to complete my current task, refraining from constant checks of email or chatrooms (Twitter isn't even on that list anymore!), and in general focusing on one thing at a time instead of fooling myself about my nonexistent ability to multitask.
I'm also recommitting myself to a low-information diet, to reading more books, and to writing in this online journal more often. While looking up some old blog entries for a friend a few days ago, I realized that I used to read and write a lot more than I do today. And this was not fluff, but deep historical, scientific, and philosophical research (at the time I was struggling to understand the origins of the Industrial Revolution and the modern world).
John Hussman, one of my favorite observers on finance and investing, posts a weekly market comment every Sunday evening. I really enjoy that cadence, and I always look forward to reading his latest post. Thus I'm going to try the same thing here, and post once a week with thoughts and observations on what I've been reading, what I'm working on (mostly technology, music, and philosophy), what I'm excited about, and so on.
See you next week. :-)
Nicholas Carr points out that hyperlinks distract the reader from absorbing the main body of the page, so I'll start putting them at the bottom of my journal entries...
P.S. Twenty years ago today, I was considering anarchism. Hmm.
Because I love dark chocolate and almonds, I decided to start making my own chocolate bark. Turns out it's very easy and also delicious. Here's how I do it.
There are only three ingredients: 1 lb dark chocolate (I buy 4 oz bars of 72% dark chocolate at the supermarket), 1 cup of whole raw almonds, and a few pinches of sea salt. (Although I prefer almonds, you can also use pumpkin seeds or cashews or anything else that suits your fancy.)
Step one is to temper the chocolate. Break 3/4 of the chocolate (i.e., 3 of the 4 bars) into smaller pieces (e.g., eighths), place it in a large bowl, and microwave it in 60-second bursts on 50% power until it's mostly melted and reaches a temperature of 110-115˚F (44-46˚C), stirring after each round. I've found that this takes ~6 minutes here at 6,200 ft above sea level. To be safe, on the later rounds cut the time to 30 seconds.
Now break the remaining 1/4 of the chocolate into smaller pieces and add it to the bowl. Stir constantly until the new pieces melt in and the mixture reaches a temperature of 88-90˚F (32˚C).
Stir the almonds into the melted chocolate and pour the chocolate mixture onto a sheet of parchment paper in a baking sheet. Using a spatula, spread the mixture so that it is about 1/4 inch thick. Then sprinkle the sea salt lightly over the mixture.
Allow to cool to room temperature and then transfer to the refrigerator. Break into irregular pieces and store them in the fridge.
The continuing disclosure of disgraceful conduct (past and present) by the atrocious candidates nominated for President by both the Democrats and the Republicans has led me to reflect further on the relationship between ethics and politics. In particular, if I care about character and ethical principles then it seems incumbent upon me to cast my vote for the candidate with the greatest personal integrity. Not the lesser of two evils - why would align myself with evil? - but the most reasonable, honest, principled person on the ballot. This year for President that person is Gary Johnson. He also happens to be a moderate libertarian, which is how I've described myself for a number of years. If I can find the time over the next few weeks, I will write in more depth about the importance of a moderate libertarian approach to the future of American politics.
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