It must be some 15+ years since I first had broadband internet, and I have had it ever since. For all its very real benefits, there were some obvious problems — too much time taken browsing irrelevant trivia (including a lot of mislabeled “news”) being just the most obvious one. But as the years went by, I noticed a subtler problem: as I spent ever more time online (which usually meant “time reading text on a screen”), the length of the texts I read kept getting smaller and smaller (even if I read more and more texts), and it was borderline impossible to end up reading the same text twice.
To be sure, reading vapid tidbits (and watching vapid videos), in addition to the distraction emanating from messengers and whatnots, eventually began to take a toll on my ability to concentrate. Also, I am perfectly aware that reading on a computer screen is harder (and weirder) than reading on paper: even before the “always connected” internet, I have had the experience of trying to read a book in a
.txt file — and after fifteen minutes, I was exhausted (with paper books I can keep reading for hours on end). But could there be more to it than this? After all, the digital revolution heralded the spread of an increasing amount of information at a decreasing cost — but as (this human at least) began to realise, I seemed to be gaining less and less knowledge from that information, which was not how this whole thing was supposed to function.1
Or was it? Surely information from which one cannot extract knowledge is usually waste, but, as it turned out, this particular type of waste could be turned into a profitable business model. As Jaron Lanier explains,
The early waves of web activity [mid to late 90s] were remarkably energetic and had a personal quality. People created personal “homepages,” and each of them was different, and often strange. The web had flavor [sic]. [And] that volunteerism proved to be an extremely powerful force in the first iteration of the web. When businesses rushed in to capitalize on what had happened, there was something of a problem, in that the content aspect of the web, the cultural side, was functioning rather well without a business plan.2
Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer from way back in the 1980s, wrote these words to criticise the fact that, in the rush to monetise the web, this personal flavour has all but disappeared — to be replaced by the standard formats of the blog/comments, the Wikipedia article, the Twitter message. But another part of that monetisation is novelty: the one thing those standard formats made really easy was to keep churning out new stuff, at an ever increasing pace. This was sold to us as “innovation”, but genuine innovation always takes its time. Placing the emphasis on speed meant — with hindsight, rather predictably — that the “new” stuff would be little more than remixes or rehashes of the old (another aspect of the web 2.0 that Lanier also sternly criticises).3 It also meant the smaller, the better, because the important thing was no longer content per se, but novelty and speed, and “smallness” helps achieve both — this is now called generating “buzz” on social media.
Me, on the other hand, having the privilege of not doing this for the money, decided I had had enough of that. If I take the trouble of writing about something, then there is little point in not making it thorough and informative — otherwise I might as well not write anything. But it is quite true that reading in a computer screen, and especially in a browser, can be troublesome. I can’t easily solve the computer screen part, but I designed the structure this blog so that it prints nicely to PDF. I recommend using the
chromium browser, so that you can get a PDF without annoying headers and footers (unlike what happens with say, Firefox).4 You can then read at your own leisure, and plus you will have a local copy to re-read without having to search for it again (or when internet is scarce). This is not as redundant as it may seem: in any book that doesn’t completely suck, you get more out of it as you re-read it, and same is true online — unless, that is, one is aiming for the vapid, flat stuff that yields good buzz generation…5
As for comments, when I used Wordpress, I always ended up having more spam than actual comments… That not withstanding, I still tried using a static comment system with the static site generator I use now (Hakyll), but it was way too much hassle. So I told people to send feedback via email. As an improvement (?), I now put links of my writing on twitter, and tell people that emails are still welcome, but that if that is too weird, then just create your own space online and use twitter to ping me (the hope is that this will be too much effort for trolls, but not for everyone else). This way, I use available tools to make a setup that feels deeply personal to me, and actually informs you, the reader — instead of reducing writing online to another effortless, “off-the-shelf” consumer experience (actually, where social media is concerned, you are not so much a consumer as you are raw material, but enough already).
Of course, one could point to the following objection: I have complained about standard formats of blogs & comments, and twitter so-called micro-blogging, only to then encourage people to ping me on twitter and create blogs/etc to give longer feedback! What gives?! Admittedly, it seems my attentive reader might have point here — but in reality, Lanier himself provides the answers to this apparent conundrum. Here is his advice for twitter users:
If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.6
And for bloggers:
Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.7
What I am encouraging people who want to give feedback to do, is to find their own space online, and write their feedback there, with perhaps not weeks of reflection, but with reflection (and effort) enough to make it valuable, both for them to write it and for me to read it (or to put it in Lanier-lingo, something closer to an inner voice, and farther from just another bit of vapid trivia). Then, using twitter to spread the word, is describing your internal state (albeit indirectly), because the “external” event you are linking to — your blog post or whatever, in your own online space — will have been written by you, so it’s not external at all!
So there you have it: why I am not shy about writing at length about whatever I have decided to write about, and why I have what is arguably the world’s weirdest comment system (which is also briefly described here). Actually, my reality is weirder still, because what often happens is that I write something, and then, weeks later, when hanging out with my friends, someone will tell me “Oh! I also finished reading that thing you wrote some weeks ago…” and the conversation will stem from there onwards to whatever mischief I endeavoured about. Real life social media — enhanced, not replaced, with technology! And having tried both (digital and real life SM), I find the latter far more fulfilling than any of its putative digital replacements!
That last sentence needs to be put in context: I am first generation millennial, who grew up in a small city in the interior of Portugal (close to the border with Spain), during the 1990s. 4 TV channels (two Spanish), computer and internet only in the last year before college (and a cellphone only after I had actually left for college). And of course, no car. The point I wish to make is that nobody understands better than me the appeal that increasing connectivity and internet messaging and social media have — “finally, a way get out of this middle-of-nowhere town, even if only virtually!” And I fell for it — hook, sink and liner, as the phrase goes, and so did virtually all of my friends. But now, with so many years passed, experience and evidence have finally convinced me to let go and stay clear of all that. Your mileage may of course vary, but I hope to have at least tilted you towards the possibility that the way these tools are generally used, might be worthy of a second look.8
In case the dichotomy information vs. knowledge is not clear, let me give an example, that actually would become recurring. I would start browsing the web “just a little bit”, which would almost always end up as a couple of hours reading websites, and at the end I would get the same uneasy feeling: I felt tired — not high-concentration tired, but more like juggling-a-million-things-on-your-mind tired — but I knew I had learned nothing. Later on this would happen even when I tried to read actual books: my concentration never passed the shallow level, and even though I didn’t feel as tired as when browsing, I would be left with the same feeling that I had learned nothing (which was true, of course: learning without concentration is impossible). This was the warning sign that finally prompted me to start rethinking the whole web 2.0 shebang.↩
Jaron Lanier, You are not a gadget, Penguin Books, 2011. Chapter 1, section “Technology criticism shouldn’t be left to the luddites”.↩
Lanier, op. cit., chapter 9. A particular passage, at the beginning of that chapter, is worth quoting (original emphasis):
Let’s suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, “In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopaedia and a new version of UNIX!” It would have sounded utterly pathetic.
Lanier’s point is that we should be doing things far more original than Wikipedia and Linux. Much as I love and use both, he does have a very valid point.↩
Nassim Taleb’s advice to “Never read a book you would not reread” applies, in my opinion, well beyond books. Furthermore, the fact that a book is too long for you to be able to read it in a single seating — which is probably that case with most books — is usually not an excuse for you not to read it. The same should be true with digital media, but the web being what it is, this is easier to achieve by keeping in your computer a PDF that you can access offline. You thus minimise the chances of being distracted with some new trivia while you went online to find said digital media again (trust me, this happens).↩
Lanier, op. cit., chapter 1, section “Why it matters.”↩
The deleterious effects of social media and its ilk, and what to do about it, is actually a very deep topic. To get a brief overview, you could do worse than to read this and (for a Facebook specific perspective) this.↩