Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly worried about what the internet and the endless distractions available from cell phones have done to humanity in general. For the few years before, it was only the awfulness of seeing families at restaurants all glued to their phones at the table without talking to each other, but then there was seeing social media turned into an effective propaganda machine during the elections. And it’s not just Russian propaganda and twitter bots or whatever, but it’s the whole echo chamber of rumor-mongering and shared outrage stirred by algorithms that reward posts that elicit reaction.
We recently hit the new low of of twitter coming into its own as an extremely effective platform for spreading racism, wherein twitter the company is fine with that because it drives “engagement”. Um, I mean that’s totally not the reason, there’s totally a defensible principle behind their decision to let it roll, I’m sure.
Plenty has been written about the perils of the pursuit of “engagement”, the craft of building addictive apps and websites in order to take peoples’ attention in order to show them more ads. The Atlantic article on Tristan Harris is a great read on the topic; his essays are also worth spending some time with. The GQ interview with Aziz Ansari is also a fun read that talks about about what he’s done about it personally, with the bonus of the writer’s quaint description of Ansari’s “deleting the internet from his phone”.
I’m reminded of the problem every time I see a clickbait headline and have to muster the discipline to not give it a click because hey, what the heck, that sounds interesting. A good /etc/hosts blacklist helps some, and I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at skipping over that stuff in general, but the fact that so much of the internet is full of that junk is a sad state of affairs, especially after all of the optimism about what the internet might be in the early days.
And it’s not just the bad stuff: the endless distractions, many of them worthwhile independently, serve to make sustained careful thought harder to achieve (for me at least). For me, it’s gotten to the point that Richard Stallman’s web browsing approach, which once seemed insane, now has appeal as a discipline to eliminate the distraction factor:
I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I usually fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see https://git.savannah.gnu.org/git/womb/hacks.git) that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly.
Anyway, I’m not yet ready to go full-Stallman, but have decided to more intentionally structure how I interact with the internet.
I started with an experiment over December. The goal was to only use the internet when needed for a specific question (“does std::vector clear() free the vector’s memory? I can’t remember.”), and never for unstructured moments of entertainment or distraction.
Thus, it was:
No twitter (my last social media connection; Facebook and LinkedIn have both been gone for years now).
A promise to myself to never open a web browser tab or take out my phone when I was bored / waiting for something to compile / whatever.
A once-a-day allowance of BBC News and Hacker News.
Finally, (I read about this somewhere), setting my phone display to be black and white in order to make it less appealing to interact with and to remind me to put the stupid thing away.
It was a good month; the promises were a surprisingly easy to keep. My few moments of weakness were all quickly corrected. I think I spent more time thinking about problems I’ve been trying to think through than I would have otherwise, and it feels really good to be context switching a lot less. I didn’t read as many more books as I’d hoped I might as a side-effect, but I did write a ton of code, so I’ll take that as indication that this was a good thing to try.
So the plan is to continue along those lines. I will be nuking my twitter account in a few days; not only does doing so make sure I don’t backslide, but given the givens, I want no part of adding my one to the count of daily/weekly/monthly active users of that platform.
One next step is to figure out a good RSS solution and spend more time reading blogs. There’s tons of great stuff to read (and more) that I’ve been lousy about keeping up with. I’ve decided that it would be a far better use of my time to intentionally spend my time on that sort of stuff than to let myself be taken wherever the tweet of the moment happens to bring me, for example.
And finally, I’m also going to try to start blogging—to do my part to add some freely-available, not-ad-driven, no-hidden-agenda-of-driving-engagement, longer-form thought-through-and-edited content to the internet. I’ve got a handful of half-written posts, some of which will hopefully make their way to something worth posting in the coming weeks.