Surveillance Capitalism

Maciej Cegłowski makes Pinboard.in. It’s one of my favorite places to put articles that I’m never going to read. He’s also a gifted writer and really thoughtful about the role of technology in society. I don’t know how to pronounce his name. Either of them.

He recently gave a talk about The Moral Economy of Tech in which he argues that social media is becoming a requirement of modern life, but using it is putting all of us in a bad spot: 

Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick. They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods—you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.

The reality is, opting out of surveillance capitalism means opting out of much of modern life.

He then goes into “THE INEVITABLE LIST OF SCARY SCENARIOS” in which data is used against people. The scariest scenario being the one where we have to pay more attention to LinkedIn at international borders.

What we’ve done as technologists is leave a loaded gun lying around, in the hopes that no one will ever pick it up and use it.

I used to be in the camp of “I don’t care if anyone knows what I’ve checked out of the library,” but that was before we saw the extent to which crazy ideas could get crazy amounts of crazy people excited. Before Brexit and Trump and removing headphone jacks.

The Work Required to Have an Opinion

From the Farnam Street Blog:

Charlie Munger used to say something along the lines of “You’re not entitled to take a view, unless and until you can argue better against that view than the smartest guy who holds that opposite view. If you can argue better than the smartest person who holds the opposite view, that is when you are entitled to hold a certain view.”

Good discipline. Especially now.

There’s never been a better time for people to loudly hold opinions without the hassle of facts or consideration of opposing points of view.

Politics has become more polarized and emotional than ever before.

Nonpolitical topics, like whether women can be game developers, are becoming political proxy wars.

Online news consumption takes place on platforms that are using the very height of human technology to surface content that confirms our biases.

Social interaction online has devolved into digital trench warfare. It doesn’t matter what the topic is. It might be anything from abortion to fly-fishing lures, but you’re sure to find radically polarized sides firmly dug-in, barraging the opposing force with links featuring inflammatory headlines and unread body copy.


People of substance. We don’t have many of them anymore.

Those who are capable of holding two conflicting ideas in their head at the same time.

People who are willing to hold their own beliefs to the fire. Re-evaluate their stances over time.

They might have an opinion that isn’t popular, but they’ve at least thought about it.

And I think they’ve earned the right to it.

When a death interrupts the internet experience

The afterlife will be digitized: 

For years, Facebook has struggled with how to appropriately address the death of its users, eventually creating a “memorialized” setting that turns your timeline into a frozen digital tombstone where people can leave comments in lieu of flowers. Only a handful of states have established laws to address who inherits your digital accounts when you die. (Much to the horror of basically everyone, Delaware was one of the first to decree that its residents’ families would be given full access to their social media accounts when they passed.) And though the market for it remains modest, more and more businesses are offering to manage the posthumous digital clean-up that so many families now find is an essential and unbearable part of the mourning process.

I find this topic endlessly fascinating.

No, I’m not weird.

The Information Warp

Adage publishes a piece about a high profile person in the industry.

Adage tweets a link to the story.

Four people that I follow on Twitter retweet the original Adage tweet.

Nuzzel, an iPhone app (that shouldn’t have alerts enabled), alerts me on my Apple Watch that four people I follow have tweeted about the Adage story.

I find the link on my iPhone and save it for later using Instapaper.

I read the story in Instapaper.

I write my post in Ulysses. Starting on iPhone, continuing in Ulysses for Mac.

I publish the post to my self-hosted WordPress site directly from Ulysses.

Cindy gets an alert about it, probably from Google alerts.

Cindy links to my post and tags me on Facebook.

I am alerted about her Facebook post.

I press “Like” on Cindy’s post.

And here I am writing in Ulysses again.

Physical Media and Raising Interesting People

I wrote the other day about my son and books. I’m not generally any kind of crusader about paper verses digital. But I’m having a little bit of trouble with the tension between all media being digital and raising kids that are interested in the world.

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Kids of the future describing books:

“This is the settings panel.”

“This is the page-turn touch-target on the bezel.”

“This is the ice cold, unfeeling, touch screen. If you stare hard enough, it might stare back.”

I picked up a lot of great habits from my family by seeing how they went about consuming media. My mom and sisters were often around the house reading books. Dad read the paper.

We always ate dinner as a family. But around the time I was in middle school, Peter Jennings became a part of the family. We would watch the news together.

In fact, just having the paper in the house was important in how I became interested in the world.

No one ever told me to read it. But it was there. So when I was sitting around the house, eating breakfast, or whatever else, the paper was there for me to pick up and look through.

On Sunday, Dave Barry was in the back of the Washington Post Magazine. Which, as a young fan of comedy, showed that the written word could be really funny … every few weeks or so, anyways.

I’d read books that were around the house. I’d pull out the ten year old Funk & Wagnall encyclopedia and flip through it, reading about random things for hours on end. Sometimes while procrastinating homework. Sometimes not.

Our House is a Media Desert

Our house is barren of physical media. The bookshelves have a few books on them, but are mostly filled with pictures.

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I go back and forth between ebooks and the real thing. Or at least, I’d like to. The truth is that I get in much more reading when my book is always available and in my pocket. And I’m far too impatient to wait for a book to be delivered or to take a trip to the bookstore/library.

We subscribed to the paper for a few months before realizing that we didn’t have time to sit down with it. Or that we weren’t taking the time to sit down with it.

Magazines that we’ve subscribed to get to the point where they go directly from the mailbox into the recycling bin. We could’ve just left the recycling bin under the mailbox and asked our mailman to just skip the middle man. Lifehack.

And TV news? We can’t put that garbage in front of our kids.

When I’m reading a novel on some sort of device, it looks exactly the same as when I’m mashing the like button on Facebook or raising cortisol levels in my email inbox.

They don’t see me writing things. They see me rubbing and tapping on glass.

I want my kids to see us reading books and magazines and newspapers. There’s no sense of when I’m using “grown-up” media and making things versus the spazzy social media that is eventually going to consume their lives.

We’ll have to try harder.

I want them to know the difference. To have an appreciation for media that requires an attention span and stepping away from the world for a few minutes at a time.

I want them to know that it’s OK if they are not constantly reachable, and that it’s OK if they don’t get back to someone right away. I want them to be alone with their own thoughts and imaginations without the pollution of other people’s spastic posts and emails and snaps and chats and expectations.

I guess there’s not really an answer here besides trying harder. If I want to set the example I want to set, we’re going to have to invite physical media back into our lives. We’ll need to keep the instantly available, backlit convenience of digital books and magazines and websites at arms length. Or at least use it in moderation.

It would be good for the kids, and probably better for us.