Ambient Humanity – Notes on a Month Without Facebook

A month ago, I decided to take a mental health break from Facebook. Between the Cambridge Analytica mess, the cognitive pressures of always trying to juggle half a dozen ongoing conversations, and a creeping sense of “opinion exhaustion” (tired of my own and everyone else’s too), something had to give.

Alamere Falls / Coastal Trail
Winter rains pouring over the cliff into the sand at Alamere Falls, Pt. Reyes

The timing was good, and necessary. Over the past month, I’ve gone through one of the most intense work-stress periods of my life, so leftover mental energy was at a premium. When I did have time to unwind, I replaced the usual Facebook time with attention to platforms I knew were great (but very different) – Quora, Reddit, Twitter, and an endless supply of news and blogs aggregated via Feedly. All of them were interesting in their own ways, I was missing something crucial – what Kottke calls “ambient humanity“:

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity — the feeling that “others are here” — that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

Kind of hard to put my finger on why things feel so different outside of the Facebook bubble. Sure there are a zillion people having interesting conversations on other platforms, and I’m more than comfortable jumping in a pool with strangers, but the discussions are like drive-bys — I don’t feel invested the same way I do with people on Facebook. There’s something qualitatively different about talking things through with people you know or have known, compared to leaving one of a thousand comments on a topic with a bunch of random humans.

And there’s a level of civility on Facebook that I am not finding anywhere else. We are, for the most part, polite with people we actually know, and sadly, way too often rude with strangers.

Then there’s the news aggregation aspect. I found interesting content everywhere, of course, and wandered into great threads all over the place, but haven’t been able to shake the feeling that Facebook is not only great at social, it’s also among the best at news aggregation. Twitter is too noisy, even with tuning. Quora really isn’t about news. Reddit can be about news if you use it that way, but I find it much better for surfacing random stuff than for seeing what’s going on the world today/now. A dedicated RSS reader (I use Feedly) is right up there with Facebook, but feels “cold” in comparison.

But wasn’t this exactly what I was looking for — a break from the continual pressure to engage? If I so much as look at Facebook, I’ll post or comment. And when someone responds, I’m obliged to return and continue the conversation (you can’t just ignore a friend when they’re talking, right?). Outside of Facebook, that pressure vanishes. It’s exactly what I wanted, but it felt… empty somehow. The “ambient humanity” was missing.

There was a huge benefit to getting out of the Facebook bubble for a while — I felt and became a calmer version of myself, which allowed me to be more focused on the work stuff. There’s something about Facebook that seems to amplify outrage. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Now more true than ever, and Facebook does make me feel more “in touch” than any other platform, but here’s the thing: Outrage is a drug. However justified your outrage may be, however much this messed-up world is pissing you off, this remains true: Start down the outrage path, and pretty soon you’re subconsciously looking for things to be outraged by, taking cues from your tribe on the daily outrages, dwelling on outrage, going to sleep and waking up with outrage.

Miles and Mardo, Frozen Shady Oak
Winter lake, Minnesota 2018

The paradox is that if you want to stay aware, you’re going to be outraged. But continuous outrage is a super-unhealthy state of being. Ditch Facebook for a while and tell me you don’t feel the difference. It’s lovely to check out of that hotel for a while.

I had intended to do a lot more blogging this month, but didn’t, because you know, work. I still want to. But paradoxically, I find myself longing for this month to be over so I can return to Facebook. Weird, right?

Just Wandering Away

About to post this to Facebook…:

I heard a pundit say the other day that people “are just wandering away” from Facebook. I feel that. The vibe has totally changed, and much of the old vitality is gone. Pre-Trump, Facebook was an enjoyable place for serious debate on an endless variety of topics. Post-Trump, FB became a place to rally and compare notes about the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. But no one can stay in rage mode every day – we become exhausted. Now it feels like people are just kind of limping along, trying to keep their chins up against an inexplicable and endlessly infuriating backdrop.

Then there’s the whole Cambridge Analytica thing, and the ensuing #deletefacebook movement. If you didn’t catch tonight’s 60 Minutes interview with the developer of the app that scraped your data, must watch.

Three Facebook writers/friends I admire bigly have quit FB over the past month, leaving my stream all the poorer. Meanwhile, I find myself pining once again for pre-Facebook days, when it was all about blogs aggregated into RSS and FOAF networks. I’ve let my Twitter and Flickr accounts go somewhat stale. I don’t give Quora nearly the amount of time it deserves. Medium is an amazing resource. Reddit is a massive phenomenon of which I’ve barely scraped the surface. There are still tons of great blogs out there. And the stack of unread magazines and books on the coffee table keeps calling.

Coming to treat Facebook like it’s the internet itself, or like it somehow represents the “best of the internet” is a subtle trap, one that occurs silently, almost naturally, when you allow it suck you in. It’s too good at what it does.

I think a big part of the appeal of TV shows set in the past (“Call the Midwife,” “The Crown,” etc.) is that they let us spend an hour remembering how different the world was before the internet changed everything, for better and for worse. Lately, I’ve been leaning more toward “for the worse,” which is ironic given my chosen profession, but I can’t escape the conclusion that our culture’s seeming inability to distinguish truth from fiction, or to even care when our leaders use lies as a primary currency, or to think rationally as a collective, is largely due to the fact that anyone can now speak on the same playing field as trained professionals. What drew me to a career on the web – the revolutionary potential of an idealistic “democratization of voices” that could “give everyone their own printing press” turned out to be HORRIBLE for democracy.

Meanwhile, it feels like a third of the country views people who just want to maintain common-sense, good-for-humans policies as if they are “leftist radicals” (excuse me now, WHO are the radicals?). Today I did something truly radical: I picked up the damn phone (remember those?) and called an old friend. Sat in the afternoon sun and talked, just like in the olden days. It was truly great.

Lately, the thing that makes me happiest is not having online conversations – it’s rolling through pristine countryside on two wheels. It’s bike season, and the centuries are coming up. That’s where I feel most at peace, and I experience a deeper sense of meaning making a new friend on a bike than I do clicking Like 30 times a day. Late nights, lately I take more pleasure in writing code than in “scrolling the feed” (which is why I’ve been posting less).

This is all a long way of saying I feel increasingly depressed by it all. By the internet in part, but by Facebook’s supremacy *in particular*. I need a mental health break from this platform. Not unplugging entirely, but needing more diversity of inputs and of voices, and to do more analog reading. I’m returning to my old haunts for a spell, and looking for new ones. Just deleted FB from my phone (it only takes a second!), and will not visit FB/web for one month (though I’ll probably check in on this post for a day, and may make exceptions for a couple of big events coming up).

I know it’s going to be tough — for all of its problems, Facebook is an incredible platform. The technology is good, all my friends are here, and it serves important functions for organizing events and interest groups. This will be tough.

For updates this month, see blog.birdhouse.org and twitter.com/shacker . Come May 21, I’ll re-evaluate.

Much love,
./s

Space Oddity

Easy to laugh this off or to get pizzy about space junk, but cannot underestimate the significance of what happened today – humans launched a Tesla into space blasting Bowie on infinite repeat, using a rocket many times larger than anything we’ve launched for decades, for a fraction the cost of what NASA launches cost, *and* brought two out of three of its booster rockets back for a perfect (and simultaneous!) landing, ready for re-use. And we got a view from the Tesla-in-space streamed live on YouTube as it all went down. Humans are awesome, and Mars just got a whole lot closer.

Great pics in the Guardian coverage.

Skeptoid on Rhino Horn

In the mid 2000s, a rumor circulated that an unnamed politician in Vietnam had been cured of cancer by consuming powdered rhino horn. Fast forward 17 years, and rhino horn is now worth around $25,000/pound on the black market. That rhino that was shot by poachers and had its horn removed with a chainsaw in the middle of the night at the French zoo a few months ago? Its horn was like a quarter-million-dollar pile of gold sitting out in the open.

Not only is there NO science on the anti-carcinogenic properties of the keratin in rhino horn (chemically the same as your own fingernails), the belief isn’t even derived from ancient Chinese health literature. All of this literally stems from one rumor gone viral, combined with public willingness to buy into rumor as truth. Rhino species are going extinct rapidly, and poaching is a huge part of the reason why.

The Skeptoid podcast is one of our national treasures, as far as I’m concerned. This episode is particularly good.

Rhino Horn: Cure or Curse?

Believe, Believe

Believe in this. Young apple seeds,
In blue skies, radiating young breast,
Not in blue-suited insects,
Infesting society’s garments.

Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz,
Tearing the night into intricate shreds,
Putting it back together again,
In cool logical patterns,
Not in the sick controllers,
Who created only the Bomb.

Let the voices of dead poets
Ring louder in your ears
Than the screechings mouthed
In mildewed editorials.
Listen to the music of centuries,
Rising above the mushroom time.

~Bob Kaufman

Iceland 2017

Just returned from nine days in Iceland – two days of work and seven days of pure exploration. It was winter, so days were short, and it was gray/stormy the whole time, so no Northern Lights for me, but the trip still managed to blow my mind. Misc notes and photos below. For lots more photos, check out my

Flickr Album – Iceland 2017 (full-screen please!)

Iceland driving tip: While it might be tempting to tune in to the Icelandic death metal station while wending your way through miles of snow- and moss-covered lava rock, one notch up on the dial is the “public culture” station, where the only words you can decipher from the lilting Elvish language are “Yoko Ono,” “Steve Reich,” and “John Cage” (and then they play them).

Blue Lagoon - Waterfall

That station works way better with the landscape. No sleep in 36 hours, but made it to the Blue Lagoon, where 464-degree superheated geothermal water from half a mile down in the earth brings up white silica powder which meets cold sea water, creating these gorgeous warm swimming holes; the color of sky refracts off the silica in the water, making it intensely blue in the right conditions (it was more greenish today). Allegedly great for psoriasis sufferers. Exhausted but blissed.

Blue Lagoon Selfie
Continue reading “Iceland 2017”

Mojitos with Fidel

With yesterday’s passing of Fidel Castro, I have to share my personal (and surreal) Castro story. In 1994, I spent 10 days in Cuba on a journalistic visa with my then-girlfriend, attending an International Film Festival. Unforgettable trip, and great films. On the last day, Fidel threw a party in his palace to entertain the international visitors (PR move?). I remember the palace being spacious and well-appointed, but not gaudy — green slate tiles on both the floor and the walls, brass sconces. Palace bartenders kept the mojitos flowing, and Castro himself was mingling with the guests. We joined a circle of people listening to him passionately answer questions about how hemp farming could benefit Cuban workers and the economy.

Then, suddenly, my friend leaned in and pointed coyly toward a wiry-haired old man with big bushy eyebrows standing near Castro and said “Do you recognize him? It’s Grandpa Munster!” Sure enough, it was Al Lewis himself, (much older than he had been on the TV show of course). And then the weirdness of the moment dawned on me: I’m standing in Castro’s palace, drinking mojitos with Grandpa Munster and Fidel Castro, talking about marijuana legalization at a time when our own country wouldn’t even contemplate it. Unforgettable.

Why It’s Time to Repeal the Second Amendment

Orlando is kind of a perfect storm of American hot-buttons. Terrorism, homophobia, racism, politics, mental health, and guns all in one monumental tragedy. The gay issue is complicated by the fact that there are so many homophobes on the right who are secretly (or not so secretly) happy to see gay people slaughtered. The Islam issue is complicated by the fact that the shooter is an American. The mental health issue is complicated because so many people “on the verge” aren’t identified even by those closest to them. The gun issue is complicated because it always is. There is an element of exhaustion – we’ve all been down the Mass Shooting road too many times, and all of our arguments are all worn out. We each rant and plead in our own ways, but nothing ever changes. And this time, we’re having ten different arguments at once. But we can’t stop talking, because the alternative is apathy.

Meanwhile, we’re not even focused on the bigger part of this tragedy. 50 people all in one place is horrific, yes, but people are overlooking the larger fact that, on average, we lose 91 people per day to gun violence. That’s almost two Orlandos every freaking day.

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One of the reasons we end up focusing so hard on guns is that it’s something concrete we can address with the force of law. We can’t “fix” mental health by throwing money at it. We can’t “fix” religious extremism by closing our borders, because it grows in our own soil and is fed by the internet. But we can, at least potentially, “fix” the gun situation by recognizing that the Constitution is a fluid document that was designed to adapt to the times. We can stop thinking of gun ownership as an “inalienable” right and treat it as a privilege instead – one that has to be earned or bestowed (to hunters and law enforcement), not one granted willy nilly to every bozo who wants a human-killing machine for “reasons.”

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The current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is not one the Founders would ever have imagined or wanted. Better background checks, banning assault rifles… all well and good, but I think that’s splitting hairs, and won’t have much impact in the long run. I’ve been ranting for the past year about how it’s time to repeal or rewrite the 2nd Amendment. The sentiment is finally gaining traction. Thank you, Rolling Stone, for this excellent piece by Constitutional scholar David S. Cohen: Why It’s Time to Repeal the Second Amendment

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Just think of what would have happened in the Orlando night-club Saturday night if there had been many others armed. In a crowded, dark, loud dance club, after the shooter began firing, imagine if others took out their guns and started firing back. Yes, maybe they would have killed the shooter, but how would anyone else have known what exactly was going on? How would it not have devolved into mass confusion and fear followed by a large-scale shootout without anyone knowing who was the good guy with a gun, who was the bad guy with a gun, and who was just caught in the middle? The death toll could have been much higher if more people were armed.

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Please read: Why It’s Time to Repeal the Second Amendment

Maker Faire 2016

Our tenth annual father-son excursion to the world’s largest convention of inventors, sculptors and weirdos. Different every year – both as the fair changes and as we change. Spent more time this year having conversations with makers, which makes it so much richer. Unfortunately, the trend of making the fair safer every year also makes it a bit less exciting every time. Still, this trip is always one of the highlights of our year, and has become an important bonding time. Here’s to the next 10!

Flickr set

GoPro Time Lapse: Stinson Beach

Last weekend at Stinson Beach I attached a GoPro to a tree and had it shoot one image every 5 seconds for a couple of hours. Later compiled the image into a 29fps half-speed video in GoPro Studio. Not sure why I enjoy making these so much; something oddly satisfying about the process.