There’s no podcast this week, so instead I want to talk about this CGP Grey Video, where he talks about how social media is evolving to capture as much of our attention as possible.
The idea is that sites are using metrics and algorithms to refine their behavior to capture more and more of our time. They figure out what attracts us, and refine their feeds to keep that sort of stimulus coming. This produces sort of evolutionary arms race of attention-whoring. The example he gives is where you open an app, check for new content, close it, and then check it again right away. The idea is that we’re spending less time reflecting. We have fewer quiet moments. We’re on a steady drip of content throughout our waking hours. Grey mentions that some of his friends even listen to podcasts in the shower. Trivial content wins out over weighty content. Short content wins out over long. Our brains are forever stuck in this reflexive loop of seeking and consuming ephemeral stimulus.
As Grey made his case, I found it curious that this wasn’t really resonating with me. I check Twitter once or twice a day. Sometimes my phone dies because I forget about it for a couple of days. I visit Facebook once a week for family updates I can’t get elsewhere, and then leave rather than sifting through the remaining noise. While I recognize the behaviors he’s talking about, they don’t seem to be a problem for me.
I don’t think I’m a particularly strong-willed person. I know for a fact I’m susceptible to getting caught in fruitless obsessive behavioral loops. So why doesn’t this impact me? What am I doing differently?
As far as I can tell, my job (this site) is what keeps me from throwing away all my time on social media. I like the validation that comes from sharing my analysis and having other people react to it, and I need lots of quiet time to create that analysis. I don’t get trapped by social media because I’m already hooked on a stronger drug. I’m obsessed with behaviors based on creating content rather than consuming it.
A lot of my personal habits are designed to safeguard my quiet time. If my Twitter feed drags me into groups united by a common outrage, then I start un-following people until it stops. I take a couple of showers a day. I make sure my phone doesn’t give me audible notifications for anything except messages from my immediate family. I use music to drown out distractions.
I’m curious how many people find themselves in the same situation as Grey. Is your day wall-to-wall with low-effort content, to the point where you never have a moment of quiet with your own thoughts? Do you observe this behavior in others around you?
Also, after watching this video I have to ask: Is Grey a wizard? He takes us for a ten-minute walk where he builds a thesis without pausing for a single “um” or “uh”. No pauses, no coughs, and no digressions. You might think he’s working from a script, except he’s walking on uneven ground while also holding a camera. If he was actually reading from a script then he’d be at risk of stumbling on that terrain. So then maybe you’ll think he recorded the footage first and did the voice-over later, except you can tell by the way he’s breathing that he’s really walking. To top it all off, he wraps up his thesis just as he reaches the end of the walk so that he’s talking about sitting quietly just as he reaches a place to sit down.
For contrast: When I record the podcast I’m normally sitting still, in a quiet room, without any distractions. And yet I’m still prone to “uhhh” and “ummm” my way through a topic. For a guy supposedly suffering from chronic distractions, Grey has remarkable mental discipline.
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