Making Space

From the morning’s hike, taken to clear my head in preparation for this writing session

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing. ~ Benjamin Franklin

On 3 August I saw a Facebook post by a friend stating simply: “Hey everyone! It’s been forever. After a long break, I feel like life is (a lot) better without Facebook in it, so I no longer intend to return. I’m not going to delete my account, but I don’t intend to log in either.”

That was all the nudge I needed to begin an experiment of my own. I did not imagine quite so extreme an initial play but decided to delete all social media apps from my phone, log out from them on all other devices, execute a ten day cold turkey period, then reassess.

The subsequent reflexive thumb twitch to bring up Facebook on my phone only to remember it had disappeared proved variously illustrative, entertaining, and disturbing. Cessation of this nervous twitch would require a few painful days. But lo — how much more tranquil, for instance, my aquatic routine became, as I proceeded from car, to pool, to hot tub, to shower, and then back to my car, all with nary an intrusion from the larger world. With this experience I could appreciate more fully the aforementioned friend’s out-of-band elaboration that “the social media trickle was just a constant background hum of attempted inducement to outrage, jealously, concern, and disappointed incredulity”.

Only a few weeks earlier I had had an interesting conversation with a pilot friend during which we unpacked my most recent paragliding brain-dump. Part of this write-up included a ten-point list of ways I had reformulated my approach to aviation with the goal of being a happier and safer pilot. From this list he noted that the second item, “more indifference to the progress of others”, causes him the most struggle. He further stipulated that this was quite ridiculous — he flies more than anyone he knows while living a nomadic life wherein he perpetually follows the best flying conditions from one region to another.

We talked about how the confluence of two things created the potential for frustration and disappointment in his fabulous life — firstly, paragliding is an extremely weather dependent sport, making it a fickle friend from day-to-day, and secondly, he has traveled to many paragliding locations and thereby curated a huge collected of geographically dispersed pilot friends, meaning that on any given day someone somewhere is having an amazing flight, leaving him fretting over whether his current geography is the optimal play when weather has him grounded.

In between these two interactions, and doubtless playing a role in the lead-up to yanking the plug, I was at the recommendation of a friend reading The Elephant In The Brain, the central theme of which is that nearly everything we do in life has a performative element. This stems inevitably from Homo sapiens being an organism simultaneously highly social, highly individualistic, and highly intelligent. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing, and today’s social media giants represent merely the latest and most sophisticated attempt to yoke us with it. Elephant thus masterfully tied together many of the trends that of late had been fomenting in me an ever growing malaise with our hyper-connected reality.

Rewinding a bit, the pandemic exerted an extreme and weirding effect on my social media reality. In 2013 I attempted to use my Facebook account as an authentication method with AirBnb only to have their automated analysis assert that it was so little used as likely to be a fake. Facebook never held that much appeal to me and to the extent it did I imagine that living the SCIF-life from 2005-2016 did a lot to keep it at bay. After leaving the government, however, I suddenly found myself with my smartphone at my side at all times, the effects of which were gradual, subtle, and insidious. By the time the pandemic struck, a moment when I suddenly found myself cut off from everyone, social media was lying in wait. In the year-ish after the pandemic kicked off I must have used Facebook more than in the entire preceding ten years combined. It filled a vacuum that I never anticipated and knew not how to manage.

It admittedly did some wonderful things. It helped to rekindle connections with various friends with whom I had shared only the thinnest thread for a long time, facilitating Zoom calls with people who had largely faded into a hazy background over a period of disconnectedness spanning five, ten, even twenty five (!) years without a real-time interaction. This sustained me through a very dark period. I hope to hold onto these good parts.

Obnoxiously, though, it feels like these best parts are the most difficult to sustain. Far easier is to have the bite-sized transactions of Sharing and Liking a snippet of text or some carefully curated photos and videos. This has become increasingly evident as life has continually approached normalcy after getting vaccinated. After waking up to this reality I found myself incensed and wanting to fight back, to seize the best of what life has to offer instead of living in thrall to a trillion dollar company wielding weaponized machine learning to all our detriment. I found myself re-reading Flow and wanting to do everything I could to better find and protect that state of being. I don’t want to suffer the fate of George from Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron that our modern engineered society seems hellbent on inflicting on all of us.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

I remember really loving reading blogs in the 2000s — but eventually Twitter took the air out of them. I remember valuing the writing and reading emails at the office circa 2005-2016 — but chat applications such as Slack have almost completely supplanted email as a medium. I profoundly enjoyed during its heyday, a place where you could regularly have wide-ranging conversations with a very diverse cast of characters — but now hyper-sophisticated engagement algorithms seem determined to feed me only the most potent brain crack from the content creators I am apt to find the most comfortingly agreeable or most outrageously disagreeable (and maybe also outrageously agreeable?).

These systems incentivize producers to dribble out content instead of synthesizing a high quality product, bombard consumers with an endless stream of alerts to trigger our pleasure pathways in a highly devious fashion, and increasingly connect producers and consumers in a manner that deprive us of interactions with people of adjacent thinking. Small wonder, then, that we continue the march toward being a hyper-polarized society, all the while suffering from extreme FOMO and frittering away our precious time.

How tragic that we should find ourselves in a normalcy-depriving pandemic just as the power of these digital drugs was peaking, calling to mind the discoveries of Rat Park, wherein we realized that the worst of addictive behavior stems from a lack of healthy social connection. And how deep must these grooves of habit now be after such a prolonged and contentious ordeal. And how lamentably quixotic and Sisyphean our fixation on misinformation and disinformation is when the whole ecosystem’s purpose of existence is to attract and retain eyeballs to be sold to advertisers. IT’S THE ALGORITHM, STUPID!

I could lament the lost era of dial-up Internet, dumb phones, and simple bulletin boards, but that would be fruitless. We will not be returning to that era and I cannot deny the value that our modern systems create. There are, nonetheless, approaches we can all take to safeguard our sanity, albeit approaches made all the more challenging by platforms such as Facebook penetrating the realms of Messaging and Groups (even if you’re not buying the advertised products you are still contributing to the stickiness of the platform just by being there).

I enjoy seeing what friends and family are doing via the conduit of Facebook. I just want to experience it on my own time and terms, this despite powerful entities wanting quite the opposite. To that end I feel that the foundations of a nuanced approach involve Activation Energy and Replacement Behaviors. A key approach with the former takes shape in mostly limiting my Facebook usage to a usually-powered-off virtual machine on my laptop, a place inaccessible to the nervous twitch of the thumb seeking out The Red Dot of an app promising entertainment and/or validation. The latter might include something like replacing a digital drenched morning routine with a highly choreographed one that progresses with such smoothness as to generate a Flow state, or having a highly targeted and thus very meaningful one-on-one interaction with a friend, or erecting a hard boundary between the production and consumption of content by variously writing a substantive blog entry or reading a long article in a physical magazine.

Happily, the more we work at this, the more the treadmill of social media seems to slow and the easier the whole affair becomes, and thus the return to a healthier way of being accelerates. Just think of all the weird and wonderful stuff you will do with the time you claw back from your phone.

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