What's going on with our attention? Why are we exhausted? If technology is making us more productive, shouldn't we be better off?
What is Insights to Incite?
A critique of the design of the internet today. This show deconstructs our assumptions and looks at the implementation of technology rather than the intent.
Welcome to Insights to Incite.
In the podcast Know Your Net, I tried to provide a historical overview of the technology that we use today in hopes of providing some context as to how we got to where we are today.
This series is devoted to questioning our relationship with technology. In the classes I teach at the University of Miami, I’ve noticed an exuberance around technology while at the same time a trend of fatalism. There is an assumption that any advancement in technology is ultimately positive for humanity. How do we fix poverty? Give everyone a computer. That didn’t work? Give everyone internet access. That didn’t work? Shit, let’s figure out another solution rooted in technological progress.
Technology is evolving so quickly that we’ve lost our ability to contemplate what these changes mean. But for some reason, this trajectory is set in stone.
Let’s take a pause and look at where we are.
How many emails do you have in your inbox?
At the turn of the century, email became mainstream and our inboxes began to haunt us. When I worked at an IT helpdesk more than a decade ago, the amount of email in your inbox was a status symbol.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard some iteration of “I get a hundred emails a day” which denotes a sense of value. Look how many people are contacting me. Look at how in demand I am. I’m underwater with requests for my attention, see how important I am?
That humble brag is tired. Anyone can get hundreds of emails a day. I get hundreds of marketing emails that go straight to spam. We live in an attention economy.
Many years ago I began to practice zero inbox, where I would try to end my day with no emails in my inbox. But if you’re overwhelmed by email, you’re probably making an excuse right now that you could never do that. You have too many emails. You’d prefer to archive everything and search. Why?
Email wasn’t designed for real time communication. It was designed as the electronic equivalent of postal mail. Do you keep every piece of postal mail in your bedroom?
Gmail was created in 2004. Google’s radical change to email was simple: don’t delete it, archive it. Before this, people that couldn’t control the size of their inbox would be required to create multiple archives of old emails every now and then before their inbox got too big and crashed their email client.
Companies designed software to go through all of your archives and allow it to be searched. It’s the equivalent of addressing a hoarder’s problem by buying them a storage unit with filing cabinets. That’s nuts.
Google started as a search company. It wasn’t a radical step for them to look at email growing in usage, see people attempting to organize the chaos through folders and multiple archives and say “save all of it on our servers and just search for it.”
Why didn’t we ask ourselves why we’re generating so many emails in the first place?
The Florida Everglades are not in good shape. It’s been threatened not by a single bad decision but by many independent seemingly benign small decisions: add a well, a drainage canal, a retirement village, a roadway, etc.
No one said “let’s cut off the flow of surface water into the glades!” because if they did, it’d be a lot easier to see that by doing that, you’re encouraging hot and destructive fires and droughts.
But this is the reality of the Everglades today.
This is called the Tyranny of the Small Decision, where a number of decisions, individually small and insignificant in size and time perspective, cumulatively result in a larger and significant outcome... which is not desired.
Email evolved from the ways early computer users sent messages to each other using the same computer. At that time, people were using time sharing machines, not personal computers.
As the internet and computer programming languages evolved, new solutions have cropped up to make talking to other people more efficient: instant messaging, social networking, real time chat, forums, and more.
Perhaps it’s popularity coincided with the mainstreaming of the internet and old habits die hard. I’m not sure, but for whatever reason, email stuck.
There are so many better ways to communicate based on different contexts, yet we still default to using something in a way that it was never designed to be used. And in the case of Gmail, a free large email box let our hoarding get out of control.
We point to increases in productivity as the reason we do this.
We are working longer hours and for less money. That sounds more like being exploited.
And what about the person living in poverty that can’t afford a computer or access to the internet?
For affluent people our connectivity is a grind.
We seek “quality” time offline.
I can remember growing up as computers became mainstream, and having people older than me assume younger people could cope better with it.
My generation isn't better equipped to cope with it.
And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people of my generation say that younger people can cope with the grind better.
It’s hard to cope. Period.
We have shifted attention away from human memory and towards information systems. Instead of forgetting, we switch to finding.
Do you have a compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information? That’s called infomania.
Does the world go too fast for your brain to handle? That’s the Origin of contemporary chaos.
How often do you know that something is bad, but you feel like you can’t do anything about it? That’s called reflexive impotence.
How many terms do we need to come up with for us to realize that we are at a breaking point?
Content overload pushes us to retreat until we’re in a position of indifference.
We become complacent, but it’s a complacency of our own design.
In order to break this cycle, we need time to think and reflect.
In order to have time to think and reflect, we need our software to allow us to do just that.
In order to do that, we need to design our software with thinking and reflection as an imperative. Software that treats us as human, not machines.
How many apps do you use that allow you to think and reflect by design?
You’re currently listening to a podcast about the technology. Do you consider yourself media literate? What makes someone media literate?
The consensus on media literacy is being able to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. Do you always use the best form of communication? Do you rely on email too much? Or social media?
Internet studies scholar Geert Lovink adds a caveat to media literacy.
The ability to walk away from the screen.
You master the tools not only once you know how to use them, but also once you know when to put them aside.
How much of your device usage is vital? What can be done later? What defines entertainment? What is pure distraction?
The internet is a rabbit hole of content. You will never run out of content to consume and there is no canon that would make you a “master of the internet.”
In the 1960s, if you wanted to be a filmmaker, a group of experienced filmmakers would be able to generate a list of the films that you had to see.
It might take a decent amount of time to watch every film on that list, but you could do it.
Canons can be widened to understand specific cultures. For example, you could understand the Victorian Era by consuming a palatable amount of literature.
You’d understand that in Victorian culture, there was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards.
You would know that national self-confidence peaked and that there was a resistance to rationalism.
You would see the centrality of family and the emphasis placed on respectability.
Today there is a diffusion of cultures and the internet amplifies it. Where would one begin to understand the internet?
Is everyone aware of 4chan? Black Twitter? Wall Street Bets on Reddit? Weird TikTok?
How many memes would make the canon? What memes would make each subculture’s canon?
How many movements and subcultures exist on the internet?
Can I exist and be completely ignorant of various cultures around me physically?
Can I exist and be completely ignorant of various cultures around me virtually?
How can we maintain our humanity if we can’t relate to the people around us?
We’re overloaded and it’s exhausting.