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This is a microblog for frequent, shorter thoughts, interesting links and shaping ideas before they become full posts. The best way to follow is via my RSS feed.
Algorithmic conveyor belts
Algorithms Hijacked My Generation really hit me. It explains a lot of things happening in the world that I can sense, but not put together into a system, into the single term of algorithmic conveyor belt:
I remember first hearing conversations about mental health in the mid-2010s when I was 12 or 13. The first YouTube stars started opening up, tentatively, about their anxiety and depression. Celebrities confessed to struggling. Mental health communities formed on Tumblr. I learned about anorexia, self-harm, and disorders like ADHD. It all felt important to talk about.
But things quickly began to change. Some of us got hitched to the algorithm. Platforms like YouTube began to reward cheap, clickbait posts to boost ad revenue, meaning that users were being served more and more sensational content. Slowly we went from watching influencers talk about anxiety to live-streaming their panic attacks, describing deeply personal traumas along to pop songs, and even capturing split-personality switches on camera. TikTok came out and suddenly everyone seemed to be sharing their symptoms of mental illness. Next, they started telling us we might be mentally ill! We began to see TikToks telling us we have anxiety, autism, ADHD, and traumatic stress disorders. Companies caught on. Soon we were served customized ads, micro-targeted ads, solutions to our specific struggles. Videos with vaguer and vaguer symptoms. Distracted a lot? You might have ADHD. Have ADHD? You need Ritalin. Pay for this virtual therapy app; get medication delivered to your door; buy some ADHD merch!
And that’s how we’ve come full circle, with too much therapy making people unwell.
This is also an important point:
So, I believe we have some personal agency. But I also believe that a 12-year-old’s mind is no match for a giant corporation using the most advanced AI to manipulate her behavior. Gen Z were the guinea pigs in this uncontrolled global social experiment. We were the first to have our vulnerabilities and insecurities fed into a machine that magnified and refracted them back at us, all the time, before we had any sense of who we were. We didn’t just grow up with algorithms. They raised us. They rearranged our faces. Shaped our identities. Convinced us we were sick.
Both personal agency and determinism can coexist. But it’s such a waste that we squander so much of our agency on social media and the second order effects thereof.
My kryptonite is Reddit. I can stay off of it with sheer will power, tricks like deleting the app from my phone. And it works. Sometimes.
And it doesn’t take much before I notice that I’m a bit more on edge, slightly rougher around the edges, and convinced I need to take my hobbies to extreme lengths — at least I’m down to only hobby subs.
That’s a massive amount of energy, and not everyone is going to win that battle each time. And once you’re down the rabbit hole, it can be long time until you come back.
Just before an election in one of the most democratic societies on this earth, a candidate was physically attacked:
Forum MP Freek Jansen who was with Baudet at the time told the Telegraaf the pro-Russia party leader was bleeding from the head after the attack. The attacker, who was arrested, shouted something about being “done with fascism”, Jansen said.
In Amsterdam, large protests broke out against the elections — in the name of stopping fascism, of course. And not surprisingly, the “anti-fascist” demonstration turned to chanting for the elimination of Jews.
In multiple real life conversations, I’ve heard the sentiment that “this is why we shouldn’t let stupid people vote”.
The irony that’s not lost on me, is that I almost certainly would have voted for the left-wing coalition, had I been able to vote in this election. But I feel increasingly less comfortable in these circles.
It seems that fewer and fewer of those on the left believe in classical democracy and liberalism. Instead, there’s a deep yearning for a left-wing authoritarian movement.
The beautiful part of Dutch democracy is that even with a right-wing party winning a serious mandate, they can’t govern without coming to the center, moderating their policies, and working with others who have vastly different views.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, the huge number of unassimilated and partially assimilated immigrants is really pissing off a lot of people. I’m part of that problem.
Thankfully, I can do something about that. I’ve been putting off anything beyond speaking rudimentary Dutch for too long. I haven’t been involved with much in the actual community. Time for that to change.
Many Buddhist mythological texts speak of a bird called a haṃsa in Pali and Sanskrit. Finding it curious that this is often left untranslated or noted as a goose or a swan, I decided to take a closer look. From Wikipedia:
Jean Vogel, in 1952, questioned if hamsa is indeed a swan, because according to Dutch ornithologists George Junge and E.D. van Oort he consulted, swans were rare in modern India while bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) were common. According to Vogel, Western and Indian scholars may have preferred translating hamsa from Sanskrit to swan as the indigenous goose appears plump while the swan (and, Vogel adds, the flamingo) appears more graceful.
Some have criticised Vogel’s view as being over-reliant on artistic representations from south India and Sri Lanka, where the white swan is rare. American ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, in 2010, stated that mute swans (Cygnus Olor) do migrate to the northwestern Himalayan region of India every winter, migrating some 1000 miles each way. Similarly, the British ornithologist Peter Scott, in his Key to the Wildfowl of the World (1957), states that northwestern India is one of the winter migration homes for mute swans, the others being Korea and the Black Sea. Grewal, Harvey and Pfister, in 2003, state that the mute swan is “a vagrant mainly in Pakistan but also northwestern India” and include a map marking their distribution. Asad Rahmani and Zafar-ul Islam, in their 2009 book, describe the three species of swans and 39 species of ducks and geese found in India.
Dave stated, “the present position according to Hume is that Swans do not occur anywhere within Indian limits outside the Himalayas except in the extreme North-West”, and suggested that they were perhaps more common in the “hoary past.”
This serves as a powerful example of the complexity of translating across centuries and cultures, the limits of just how much we can know about the other, and academia can really get stuck on some arcane points.
Just because a certain medication is useful, even revolutionary, in specific circumstances, doesn’t mean it should be used for everything. The obvious example is antibiotics, which will save your life if you need them, or wreak havoc with your guy microbiome and cause resistance if you don’t need them.
There are signs the same is true with psychology. Check out fellow indie webber Robert’s post on ubiquitous therapy and the Atlantic article he links to, These Teens Got Therapy. Then They Got Worse.
Of note, none of this discredits psychology as a healing art. Rather, the issue is the mass “mental health” movement that tries to psychologize everything and everyone. The way to destigmatize people getting the treatment they need for mental health problems, isn’t to suddenly claim everyone has depression, anxiety, ADHD, or neurodivergence.
I’ve seen something of this first hand, but more with the mass mindfulness movement. I don’t think everyone should meditate or “be mindful”. It’s a part of the Buddhist path that, historically, not all that many Buddhists even participated in. If you’re not starting out from a stable, well-adjusted place, you’re going to end up being mindful of misery. And that’s a mess for everyone involved.
And so my hope is that there’s a more discriminating look at who should seek out therapy, and who just needs to relax a bit. A day in nature, some time away from screens, losing yourself in a good book, movement — I’d rather see more emphasis on these for everyone.
From Against Superficial Simplicity by Jorge Arango:
Many designers have internalized the quote attributed to Leonardo, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” We love to make things simple. Simple things are easier to use than complicated or messy things. Simple is more beautiful and desirable.
But simple isn’t always better. Sometimes, in trying to make things simpler, we make them harder to use. The fact that something looks simpler doesn’t mean it’s easily understood. Case in point: notifications in macOS.
I’ve completely given up on using any of the fancy iOS / Mac focus modes. They’re just the right blend of too complex but also not customizable enough, making it easier to simply make a point of not having any of my devices around when I want quiet.
I’ve heard the argument that the best minds of our generation are going towards tweaking the engagement of Facebook, Instagram, and Google instead of building rockets to the moon.
This is a variation on that, but for writers, Getting too Good at the Wrong Thing:
I worry that some of the best writers of our generation are stuck making tweets and newsletters.
How many newsletters have you printed out and put on your bookshelf?
How many articles from five or ten years ago do you still go back and read? Or recommend?
And what about tweets? Are there any threads that rise to the level of books?
Yet, as increasingly unvaluable as blogging feels, there would be no book without this blog. If you aren’t a conventionally laureled writer, your worth is your email list. No other metric particularly matters. And so, to some extent, you must focus on a newsletter to build that initial base of readers so you can convince a publisher that you’re worth paying attention to
So, this has been my conundrum. I can’t deny this publication’s importance in getting my career to this point. But I also can’t deny the ways it might distract from my ultimate goals moving forward. And I’m unsure how much of my sense that “I need to keep publishing here and on Twitter” is an accurate assessment of the best use of my time, or merely some combination of FOMO and a desire to make numbers go up.
I finally got around to watching the Dune movie, and it certainly captured something magical of the Dune universe.
We also started our annual rewatching of Lord of The Rings, which got me thinking that both of these adaptations did exactly the same thing.
The pacing of novels was almost painstakingly slow. Dune is primarily a psychological novel, an exploration of what Bene Gesserit are capable of doing. Little of that makes it to the big screen.
The Lord of The Rings movies contain only a tiny fraction of what fascinated me when I first read them as a kid. The movies are mainly battle scene after battle scene.
I enjoy all of these films, but they are something a bit different than the originals.
While this number might be inflated, people spend half of their waking hours being entertained.
That’s a lot.
I’m just coming off of a meditation retreat, and enjoyed not being online. Not popping over to the internet for constant hits of instant entertainment was transformative. I was exhausted during the the first couple of days. My guess is that the constant stimulation of being online masks sleep debt. But then a quiet, joyful energy emerged.
I like entertainment. I enjoy my epic fantasy books, sci-fi, and all sorts of low-brow things. The problem, I think, is in the constant drip of it, not ever being bored for a few minutes and and there.
Hat tip to Çağatay.
Shame and guilt aren’t synonyms
Previously I wrote about the benefits of shame, but it’s also worth exploring the differences between guilt and shame, as they’re often confused.
Shame keeps you from doing something stupid because of a visceral understanding of the wider consequences of an action. Hence shame plays a protective role.
Guilt serves no constructive purpose because it gnaws at you after the fact. Even worse, guilt usually mixes cause and effect: you’re upset at the negative results you’re experiencing rather developing a plan to deal with that which has caused them.
To use my drinking analogy again, guilt is moaning that you have a bad headache, are tired, and feeling you are a “bad” person because you had a heavy night of drinking. None of these are constructive. In fact, intense feelings of guilt along the lines of “I’m such a bad person” are very likely to induce learned helplessness, which in turn makes you more likely to go off and have another night of heavy drinking.
The shame approach is to apologize and make amends wherever reasonable, accept the negative results as inevitable, and figure out ways to prevent the root cause from happening again, thereby completely sidestepping the whole “I’m a bad person” routine.
It looks like a lot of the “self help content” stuff obsessively tries to fight against the already inevitable results of an action and then latches onto the identity of “I’m a bad person”, or “I can’t help it because I’m neurodivergent / depressed / have anxiety”.
To clarify, I’m not dismissing these condition when diagnosed and treated by actual professionals. What I’m questioning is the increasingly common case of people diagnosing themselves with whatever after reading a blog post. It’s become increasingly common in the US to go to your GP or equivalent, who likely has almost no training in clinical psychology, share your self-diagnosis, and be prescribed powerful, life-altering drugs after a five-minute conversation. We don’t take iatrogenesis seriously in the current model of mental health in the West.
From the Buddhist perspective, this definition of guilt maps to kukkucca, which is usually translated as “worry” and is always an unwholesome mental state. It is essentially a form of aversion towards oneself.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the juxtaposition of mental health, eudaemonia or flourishing in the classical sense, and the sort of “mental health movement” that’s a heavily marketed form of online content — not to be be confused with actual professional help.
I’ve been noticing that people who go all in on “mental health content” are miserable. The gist of the narrative is that you’re a victim, everyone else is toxic, and that indulgence of some form or another is the key to happiness. Even when they take bits and pieces of respected spiritual traditions, it’s in the most self-indulgent way possible. My mindfulness practice reinforces obsession with my feelings, my needs to the exclusion of anyone else.
In contrast to online mental health content, Buddhist philosophy sees shame as part of each positive mental state. Here’s the definition of shame (hiri) from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma:
Shame has the characteristic of disgust at bodily and verbal misconduct…[its] proximate cause is respect for self and respect for others.
This is not unlike the Abrahamic traditions, where “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Whether we’re talking about shame or fear, it’s often understood to be a negative thing, whereas in reality they’re rooted in respect, love, and humility.
To put it more concretely: I won’t drink today because I respect myself. I respect the person who’s going to wake up energetic and feeling good tomorrow morning, and I don’t want to sabotage that. I respect my wife; she shouldn’t have to put up with the annoyance of me drinking. I respect the sacrifices my parents made to bring a healthy child into this world and raise me.
And this is why I think so much “mental health content” fails. Every wisdom tradition paves the way to flourishing with restraint, concern for others, understanding yourself in the greater context of society, and balancing how your actions affects those around you. That’s the exact opposite of self indulgence.
You’ve reached the end, kind of
Notes are meant to be fleeting, so I only display the last 10 of them. Older notes are still accessible either via their respective permalink or the random note link.