Shame and Social Engineering

Just finished reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson’s zeitgeisty book about social media pile-ons. There were many, many good points in the book, but I forgot to highlight them as I was enjoying reading it so much. One thing that has stuck in my mind, however, is an email exchange with the film-maker Adam Curtis, in which he talks about feedback loops and the social media echo chamber:

Feedback is an engineering principle, and all engineering is devoted to trying to keep the thing you are building stable.

It’s undeniably true that I now self-censor a lot more on Twitter than I did in the past, for fear of a strong negative reaction. I don’t think I’m alone in this; anecdotal evidence suggests many people are also becoming more tame to avoid the Twitter mobs. The net effect is, as Jon Ronson himself says:

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age. ‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’

I recommend you read the book yourself to see all of this in much greater context. And I wonder if Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t give away a free copy to all their users.

Blogging the Highlights: Smarter Than You Think

I make no secret of the fact that I love Russell Davies’ blog, and recently he’s been running a series of posts in which he blogs the portions he highlights in books on his Kindle. I think this is a great idea, so I’m stealing it wholesale, except I have a Kobo.

The first book is Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think, which looks at common complaints against modern technology (It makes us stupid! It makes us antisocial!) and gently attempts to debunk them. It’s not cyber-utopian, but it is pro-technology. I really enjoyed the book, and agree with its conclusions.

Here are the bits I highlighted:

In 1915, a Spanish inventor unveiled a genuine, honest-to-goodness robot that could easily play Chess – a simple endgame involving only three pieces, anyway. A writer for Scientific American fretted that the inventor “Would Substitute Machinery for the Human Mind.”

I have a hobby of collecting dire predictions about the perils of technology. This is an example.

The mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz bemoaned “that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,” which would doom the quality writers to “the danger of general oblivion” and produce “a return to barbarism.”

That’s another example.

Each time we’re faced with bewildering new thinking tools, we panic – then quickly set about deducing how they can be used to help us work, meditate, and create.

This is kind of a distillation of the book. Each new technology seems overwhelming, there is a small outcry against it, then we adapt ourselves to it (and it to us).

“Blogging forces you to write down your arguments and assumptions. This is the single biggest reason to do it, and I think it alone makes it worth it.”

Gabriel Weinberg of DuckDuckGo said this, and I endorse this message. That’s what this very blog is for.

U.S. neurologist George Miller Beard diagnosed America’s white-collar population as suffering from neurasthenia. The disorder was, he argued, a depletion of the nervous system by its encounters with the unnatural forces of modern civilization, most particularly “steam power”, “the telegraph”, “the periodical press”, and “the sciences.”

Today we blame modern technology for memory and attention disorders instead.

Sociologists have a name for this problem: pluralistic ignorance. It occurs whenever a group of people underestimate how much others around them share their attitudes and beliefs.

“I’m not racist myself, but I couldn’t employ a black person as my colleagues wouldn’t accept it.”

Complaining is easy – much easier than getting out of your chair. Many critics have worried about the rise of so-called slacktivism, a generation of people who think clicking “like” on a Facebook page is enough to foment change. Dissent becomes a social pose.

The book’s position is that online activism helps act as an instigator of, rather than a replacement for, real-life protest. Really, I just liked the phrasing of the last sentence.

“It strikes me that social media embodies the connection between action and expression.”

Charlie Beckett said this, about the theory in the previous quote.

… this reflexively dystopian view is just as misleading as the giddy boosterism of Silicon Valley. Its nostalgia is false; it pretends these cultural prophecies of doom are somehow new and haven’t occurred with metronomic regularity, and in nearly identical form, for centuries.

(Standing ovation) I share this opinion, and I was delighted to read this in the epilogue. We’ve always had scares about new technologies, and we always will; just read some history and you’ll find it’s an inescapable solution. There never was a more innocent time, we’re not all doomed because we read on our smartphones instead of newspapers, no-one is becoming more stupid because we have better tools to outsource some of our processing to. Everything old is new again.