Shortly after waking this morning I found myself in a conversation where the other person suggested that I was using LinkedIn like we’re living in 2007 WRT to how I curate my “connections”. Later in the conversation, which waxed philosophical about the dumpster fire that social media has become, I remarked that “maybe, to your point above, 2007 is roughly around the last time I liked the Internet”. I noted how much I loved the site Kuro5hin back in its heyday and how it was well on its way to decline by this point. He remarked on the site only ever having on the order of tens of thousands of users and how that “speaks to how many people truly appreciate something like that”.
No sooner had this conversation wrapped did another person message me to remark upon AWS taking Parler offline. This led to a meandering conversation about the entanglement of social media and extremism, what the appropriate role of regulation might be, how Machine Learning may represent the most toxic technology we have created to date, and how the Big Tech ecosystem may be hollowing out the foundation on which it grew.
At some point in the midst of all this my brain skipped laterally over to a friend’s Facebook post of a few days earlier asking for recommendations on best books from 2020. My reply had included Perilous Bounty, a treatise on “The Looming Collapse of American Farming”, in which our agricultural complex’s relationship to the topsoil of the ecosystem proved one of the most revelatory and scary topics. Essentially this topsoil represents a fossil resource that takes thousands of years to generate, provides enormous boost to our output, and is tracking for exhaustion in the span of decades. I found myself thus ruminating on the parallels with our knowledge ecosystem.
Google launched in 1998 and accomplished amazing feats in the realm of organizing the world’s knowledge. I can scarcely imagine what the life of a programmer must have been like before having such awesome search powers at one’s command. I can remember in the nineties having to drive from the suburbs into Boston to dig through actual libraries for research papers in service to science fair projects but for my entire professional life such a modality has seemed laughably antiquated. By now the world has inverted: getting answers is preposterously easy, assessing their quality can be wickedly difficult, knowing the right questions to ask is harder than ever, and our reasoning faculties may be getting progressively weaker.
I got my first cell phone in 2002, the year I finished undergrad, and did not acquire a smartphone until 2009. I also got a Facebook account in 2009 but I remember when linking it to my AirBnB account in 2013 the related analytic complained it seemed to be so minimally used that it could not serve as proof of identity. This may in large measure owe to spending 2005-2016 working full-time in government SCIFs where I had only a landline for a phone and on my unclassified terminal I only ever did Google searches to puzzle through technical problems. This offered by default a level of focus not afforded to most of the world as the social media ecosystem inexorably reached a fevered pitch. As I stepped out to the private sector in 2016 I experienced a torrent of digital connectivity that proved jarring.
In this past year, meanwhile, I note that have probably used social media more than all previous years combined, thanks to the pandemic. On a recent Facebook post a friend wrote: “Does anyone else feel that they don’t know what to do with social media anymore? It no longer helps me feel connected to folks.” My reply: “At first [during the pandemic] it provided some continuity during some strange and tumultuous times. Now as this nonsense has ground on for 9+ months and my life has undergone some serious evolutions it feels less a stopgap and more an ashes-in-mouth replacement of shared meals, brainstorming huddles, and solid hugs.”
And now I find myself pondering a conversation I had mid-2020 with a friend in which I opined on the increasing rarity of finding amazing blogs of the kind that I deeply appreciated during my formative years as a software engineer (Spolsky, Yegge, and Graham as standout examples thereof). His reply: “Yeah. Twitter took all the air out of blogs.”
And, finally, my brain now swings to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows as I reflect on this eye-of-storm moment we inhabit between the siege of the US Capitol on the day of our electoral college’s certification and the violence that extremists are planning for inauguration day. As discussion forums mediated by relatively dumb software and inhabited by thoughtful humans engaged in substantive discourse have given way to shallow and emotional interactions mediated by ruthlessly self-optimizing and echo chamber creating machine learning algorithms… As deliberately crafted email has fallen by the wayside as a medium for professional and personal communication alike, replaced by the sentence fragments and memes we dribble out on Slack and social media… Have we, in a 10-20 years long orgy of self-reinforcing digital titillation, thus mined out our collective capacity for deep thinking, thoughtful debate, and civil discourse? And have we brought about such an intellectual fragility just as we face the most complex and existential threats in our history as a species?
Twitter’s deletion of Trump’s Twitter account and Big Tech’s scorched earth approach to Parler at best represent break-glass CNA tactics to prevent violent extremists from organizing adequately to disrupt the peaceful transition of power in the USG. In the medium-term this medicine will likely prove toxic in complex and unpredictable ways. Expecting social media and technology platforms to serve as the arbiter of truth will only exacerbate the sentiments of many that a powerful and secretive cabal rules the world. Worse still, many of these companies have business models that thrive on stoking conflict that drives increasingly polarized politics. The long-term solutions toward which we must strive involve improved education, opportunity, and mingling. Well-fed and well-traveled skeptics, intellectually curious people with food and housing security who regularly bump into a diverse collection of philosophies and ways of life, people who find the headspace for deep and uninterrupted thought, people with the serenity and focus to attain Flow, tend not to travel down a path of radicalism and scleroticism that inevitably ends in alienation and violence.
We Americans kind of squandered the bounty of the post-WWII era. After an initial boom, owing to the rest of the world having been grossly disrupted, we took a careless attitude toward managing the secondary and tertiary effects of globalization and automation, drinking deep of our prosperity while increasingly neglecting to make the right investments in education and infrastructure. This, coupled with disruptive technology in the communications space, has created a perfect storm of large swaths of society struggling to make ends meet (while pining for times that will never return) and sub-groups struggling to interact. If conscripting technology companies to act as censors represents the best of our thinking as a society then we are not going to get out of this except by passing through some horrific fires.