Our minds, like our bones, respond to the demands placed upon them, and the informational bits multiplying in our environment are rapidly modifying the atoms of our brains. Many—me included—have responded to the unreasonable effectiveness of information tech in a rather reactionary manner, via retreat. Technology sabbaths, monk mornings, manifestos for deep work, informational fasts, screen censoring. Venkatesh Rao calls this “Waldenponding”. He explains in a recent Breaking Smart newsletter:
“I’ve been developing a growing discomfort with a philosophy of relating to technology I call Waldenponding (after Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment on which Walden is based). The crude caricature is “smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms.” It is less of a caricature than you might think. At an event I was just at, the opening keynote featured a guy who’s literally done just that, and I know at least half a dozen people who have executed a Hard Waldenponding plan with varying degrees of literal fidelity. A great many more have implemented a sort of Soft Waldenponding, marked by digital retreat (aided by various amputation tools that sever or loosen your connection to digital prosthetics), but no log cabin.
As a one-time interesting experience or occasional mental-health retreat, both Soft and Hard Waldenponding are a great idea. Heck, I’d like to try living off the grid for a bit on a log cabin myself for a summer or something. I’m also on board with trying and adopting experimental rituals like a no-devices sabbath day if they work for you. But as an attitudinal foundation for relating to society and technology, Waldenponding is, I am convinced, a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level. It’s a world-and-life negation. A kind of selfish free-riding/tragedy of the commons: not learning to handle your share of the increased attention-management load required to keep the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) running effectively.”
The premise is interesting—a turning into, instead of away from, the growing importance of interconnection. But how does it play out? Venkatesh continues:
“34/ The GSCITC is not a homogenizer of effort or imagination, but it IS a homogenizer of egos and identities. What you do counts. Who you are doesn’t. You are an ordinary part of an extraordinary process.
35/ This is the heart of FOBO. Fear of Being Ordinary. Fear of being just another entangled particle in the GSCITC. Fear of your ego dissolving into the collective ego. Fear of having “nothing to show” for playing a part, despite it being sustainable.
36/ Waldenponding, I strongly suspect, is driven more by FOBO and ego-attachment than by any real fear of having your mind, productive potential, and rewards destroyed by “hacked attention.”
37/ Personally, I can attribute more than half my income in the last few years to being strongly plugged in all the time, so rewards certainly didn’t suffer. Half my good ideas for writing came from being plugged in, so neither did productive potential. And I don’t think I’m any dumber for having been plugged in. About 42% smarter in fact.
38/ Sure, the challenge of managing the stress and anxiety is high, but then, so is the corresponding kind of stress working inside a traditional organization. There is no reason to expect the stress on your “free” attention to be lower than on your industrially organized attention.
39/ If you are a genius who rises to Level 25 Omega Super Adept in a monastery in the mountains, who knows everything there is to know about candle flames, that’s kinda… very convenient for the Pope and the King. Smart person out of the way in a log cabin learning Candleology out of FOBO.
40/ A real adept oughta be able to meditate on the angriest, most toxic twitter stream, consume the bile, and turn it into nectar: actionable insight you can bet on in the real world.
41/ A real adept ought to have strength-trained attention so they can spend an hour either reading a tweetstream or a once-in-a-generation history-disrupting philosophy book. No hack designer or advertiser should be able to lock them down in the 0.1-10 second range.
42/ So stop blaming the media platforms for your own wallowing in small-minded twitter gossip about people. Strength train to the point where you decide whether to be there or elsewhere. May the FOMO be with you, and may you have the strength to resist FOBO.”
NAVIGATING THE CONFLICT
I actually let the above linger in my to-read pile for a while because I was in the midst of evaluating my “connectedness”. During that period I reached a consensus that algorithms, not information, were my problem.
Originally, I thought that the human brain wasn’t designed to handle such extravagant loads of information. But then I realised that is exactly what it is designed to do. Think of the senses—what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell—and how small a part of what they pick up makes it all the way to the surface of our consciousness. Now, tell me, have you ever heard anyone complaining that they “see too much” as they walk through the park? That the trees have too many colours, that the grass is overwhelming, that the litter is making them go blind, that the birds are tweeting so much that they feel they’re going to go deaf? Of course not—we’ve learnt to filter the incomprehensible amount of information that our senses deliver to our minds every second of every single day. And this is the difficulty with the information environment we occupy—we haven’t evolved to it, yet.
I recently came across a Stewart Brand essay about pace layers that hints at a reason for this modern conundrum. In it, he says:
“In recent years a few scientists (such as R. V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling) have been probing the same issue in ecological systems: how do they manage change, how do they absorb and incorporate shocks? The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change-rates and different scales of size. Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle, these systems yield as if they were soft. Some parts respond quickly to the shock, allowing slower parts to ignore the shock and maintain their steady duties of system continuity.
Consider the differently paced components to be layers. Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.
From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:
Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.
All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure. It is what makes them adaptable and robust.”
Brand goes on to identify these layers and sort them. He says that the levels, from fast to slow, are Fashion/Art, Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture, Nature. Right now, there’s a great conflict between the infrastructure of the modern world and our fundamental nature. The former contains the rapid proliferation of information in a medium that the latter is not equipped to deal with.
Venkatesh’s call to become an “adept” is one way to navigate this conflict. Another is the less nuanced (and morally questionable) Waldenponding. But both of these categories of response are available only to those who are conscious of the need to respond. Not everyone wants to learn how to direct and leverage Info Flows like a modern-day Jedi. Some just want to talk to the people they care about and be able to do their job. In other words, What about the normies?
An easy—and rather crude—way to think about this is to separate the world into those with a high Info IQ and those with a low Info IQ. Those with a high Info IQ are capable of mindful interaction with vast amounts of information and the technology that acts as a gateway to it. Those with a low Info IQ aren’t.
Unfortunately, the latter outnumber the former, many times over. And this is why a lot of tech companies can persist. They profit from the naivety of those with a low Info IQ. They’ll market free services and products to you and profit twice—first from the ad revenue used to subsidise these product’s overheads, second from the totality of data they accumulate about your life. And why wouldn’t they? It’s low-hanging fruit and most of these companies have shareholders to report back to. What’s that saying? “Hell hath no fury like a majority shareholder who receives a tiny dividend.” If you don’t know how valuable your data is, that’s your own fault, right?
When I look at it, it appears to be nothing more than exploitation. It’s like ripping off a tourist who doesn’t have a clue about exchange rates. Low risk and high return—that is until the tourist wises up and vows to, one, never come back to your country, and two, always check the rates. Facebook is only one company that’s been caught taking our data and selling it off for a tidy profit. Do you think they’re unique? No way. More episodes will come to the fore.
Right now, “surveillance capitalism” is in full swing. The minority can protect themselves and fight back against it, but the majority either can’t or won’t. And the only way to change that, to shift the balance, is to plug in. As Venkatesh says, a smart person who renounces tech helps himself and no-one else. That’s another person with the ability to diffuse info-management techniques out of the game. Another person with the capacity to call exploitative companies on their exploitative practices in a space where they can do no harm.
Even if you feel no inclination to become a digital rights activist, you can still have an impact. Make change with your wallet. Pay for the services you value. Audit your privacy and attempt to increase it. Register your opposition by foregoing convenience and abandoning products and services from companies you deem questionable. If enough people do this for long enough then tech companies will lose their halo and be compelled to behave like other companies, to do things that serve their customers over the longterm.
I remember reading about luxury fashion brands abandoning fur products. Their PR people spun it as a Big Moral Decision by a Caring, Compassionate Company. It wasn’t. Fur wasn’t selling as much as it used to and it came with negative associations, so it got dropped. Surveillance capitalism and the exploitation of those with low Info IQs will go the same way if we do the right thing, if we plug in and act up.