Facebook and Us

Back in 2010 and 2011, not to mention other times, I did some writing about Facebook for the Z audience, and I hoped it would go wider still, and then Z even tried to launch a radical alternative

Below I offer three of the articles. They led nowhere. There was no flurry of constructive discussion, though considerable vituperation after the first. There was no active pursuit of insightful investigation. No serious debate. And most important, the effort at advancing a positive alternative that we literally built and then unveiled, and then sought members for, was overwhelmingly ignored.

I offer the three archival essays now, again, below, on the one hand because the substance is still relevant, though it is now a far less lonely perspective, and on the other hand because I think asking what the impediments were not just to seeing the truth, but much more so to applying ourselves to solutions, could enhance future prospects. The sum total is rather long. For that I do not apologize.

The first offering was a blog post from December 1, 2010:

Facebook Vs Civilization

At the risk of pissing off a lot of friends, I have become steadily more concerned about Facebook to the point where I am beginning to feel that coupled with instant messaging and certain aspects of the world wide web, Facebook is precipitating the end of civilization, not just as we know it – but period. That is extreme, I know. But, I can’t shake the feeling.

Over Thanksgiving at a family affair, I watched a group of teens navigate their reality. They weren’t just avidly using their portable devices – ranging from modest cell phones to large screen laptops. Rather, they were inseparable from those devices. They were constantly at them. And they didn’t even have Ipads! Okay, big deal, you might say. But yes, I think it is.

The young people, and some of the elders as well, couldn’t even watch TV and focus on it much less seriously converse about anything at all. They had to, instead, at the same time as watching TV, send and receive instant messages while periodically, almost convulsively, visiting and revisiting their Facebook pages.

One parent said it used to be that they felt like TV was antisocial compared to sitting around dinner and talking at length. Now they wished the group could even just watch TV as a group, without being enmeshed in self creating absolutely individualistic personal spaces defined by access to their mobile devices.

Indeed, I finally understood why various network TV shows now advertise their web sites, telling viewers to visit those while the show is still on, and thus, seemingly competing with themselves. Are they nuts? Of course not.

The answer is, they do it because contemporary kids multitask like that, whether they are invited to or not. The kids, and many adults too, can’t not be doing a bunch of things – not so much literally at once, which is real multitasking – as one after another after another, back and forth, which is what I have come to call flitting. In this case this yields a little attention on TV and some on messages and Facebook and some on frequent forays to web sites – but no attention for everyone else in the vicinity, even, and no sustained attention for anything at all.

This is also why more and more TV shows and web sites, clutter things up with quick info bulletins, constantly flowing at the bottom. It is so the new audience of network aficionados can keep changing what they are doing, without literally, entirely, leaving the show. You can see it on talk shows, too, as the talking heads change topics as fast as they can. In fact, what many people find cluttering nowadays isn’t so much clutter, as it is anything that threatens to require serious time.

The point is, and i am serious about this, attention span is plummeting toward zero.

We have been schooled already for some years by the habits of browsing on pages flitting among many choices often as quickly as possible. Now added to the mix is Facebook with its never ending flow of snippets of personal gossip and news, and of course, talking about snippets, we have Twitter. We can tweet – yikes, they aren’t even embarrassed by naming the behavior incredibly accurately, we tweet, or we even follow an avalanche of other people’s tweets. Are we birds? Thousands of years of intellectual development and struggle and now we can tweet, tweet, tweet – speedy and vacuous.

Kids now sit in school ensconced in their mobile devices – tweeting, messaging, and otherwise twitting about. One wonders, do the sons and daughters of the rich and professional do this all the time, too? If so, their brains are doomed to decline. But I bet not. I bet many are in private schools that keep a lid on it. I bet they go to clubs and homes which put a lid on it. But if not…and if maybe the poor don’t do it for want of access, perhaps finally, a saving grace – the poor may inherit the earth due to alone not becoming bird brains. But, alas, inquiries evidence that no, the poor twit too.

Am I exaggerating? Sure – well, I hope so. But maybe I am not so sure of it.

We are told about a massive increase in communications. Okay, yes, I admit that – there is certainly more sending and receiving – more bits and bytes are transfering – but the content conveyed is declining even as the number of messages is climbing. The duration of each communication is approaching zero. Fast, faster, fastest. The content of each communication is approaching nil. Short, shorter, shortest. And here is the scariest part, the individual and thus also the collective brain is rewiring itself in accord.

Think about exercising to become good at some new function. I am medically entirely ignorant, but my intuitive impression is that one thing that happens, more or less, is that you become attuned in your muscles and expectations and habits to the new function. Maybe it is shooting foul shots on a basketball court or ice skating. Or perhaps it is some kind of mental calculating or playing a musical instrument or even listening to certain types of complex music,.

Or maybe, nowadays, the new function we master is literally doing any one thing after any other thing, after still another thing, after another. Thus the function that is mastered is being the fastest and most efficient possible switching of one’s brief focus over and over.

In the former cases of learning a new skill, we know that we eventually get quite good at something, and we tend to want to keep doing it and we feel good doing it, and so on. It may even become a bit habitual. Given the opportunity to do our thing, we feel a pressure to seize that opportunity and to indeed do what we have become expert at.

In the latter case, however, where what you are becoming good at it is literally rapidly, efficiently and repeatedly switching what you are doing, then what you are getting good at is flitting. You become a good flitter. But in that case too, we might anticipate, you will start to want to flit, and to even need to flit, to manifest your new flitting talent. Who you now are is, well, in part a great flitter. It is almost like your muscles becoming attuned to shooting baskets or skating or whatever. Your brain becomes attuned to flitting. Experiments show that for this functionality your brain even reorients itself, rewires itself – a bit – to maximize your flitting capacity.

And here is the scary part – the rewiring to facilitate flitting has a by-product. You gain flitting ability, but you also lose inclination to and perhaps even ability to focus for more than a smidgen of time on any one thing. You become disinclined to appreciate activities that require you to pay close extended attention, much less activities that require you to think many connected thoughts over an extended time without repeatedly taking off on some other very brief path. So you start to want short, shorter, shortest. You start to want fast, faster, fastest. You keep moving your attention until your attention can’t sit still. You are a flitter. And there goes civilization.

Maybe I am paranoid, but this is what I see happening. I can even feel it in myself at times, when using an Ipad, say, which is a marvelously designed and powerful instrument that, however, like most instruments, can be used for good, but also for not so good – including for flitting. Okay, again you may say, so what.

Well here is what.

The internet and even social networking can most certainly be tremendously beneficial tools for human and social enrichment. I can just hear people reading this and saying to me – or screaming at me – but MIchael, we use Facebook to send good left articles to people. It is a wonderful thing. We use it to organize demos. We use the web to read massive volumes. And so on.

Sure, these are good possibilities. And some people do mostly these things. But the good here is getting swamped – and that is much too weak a word for what is happening – by the bad.

The potential of the internet is getting hijacked. And we – the people using it and even the people using it for good – are,when we use the commercial and fundamentally deadening parts (taking benefits from them while also legitimating them and ignoring the need to build better alternatives) abetting the hijacking.

It is hard not to do it. If you are a teen and you don’t tweet and you don’t message and you don’t Facebook, you are decoupled from your community. You have no time to build and contribute to and advocate for better networks and sites and practices – because you need to go back and check your Facebook page – and, in any event, you have come to think Facebook is perfect, or nearly so. After all, if it wasn’t why would so many people be using it so much? This is now starting to occur even for adults. Age creep – up toward those of us staring at senility on one side, and at techno babble on the other side, wondering which is duller.

Who wants to unplug from everyone? So we choose to message and Facebook and tweet, and having chosen to do it, we laud it so we don’t have to feel guilt about our choice, and slowly but surely, or even quickly but inexorably, we forget about books, even magazines, hell – even a TV show that requires real focus. Not while the cell phone is in reach.

Give me snippets or give me death!

And so everyone who might have built networked options that advance civilization is left without audience, pretty soon without motivation – and they join the stampede into mindlessness, too.

Indeed, even the left sites start to think, we have to mimic the big boys who are succeeding. We have to compete on their turf. Fast, faster, fastest. Short, shorter, shortest, as even left users start to gravitate to venues that can and will deliver the largest crowd doing the least with their minds – the snippet twitting venues.

I used to be concerned about video games. I still don’t like that they have kids celebrating shooting and killing in a less and less playful and more and more violent and vindictive and even realistic fashion that increasingly acclimates the soul to murder. That’s very bad. But I don’t think video games begin to approach the Facebook, messaging, web flitting nexus of devolution of human prospects. That is even more serious. In fact, there is no competition on the horror meter. Facebook is starting to annihilate video gaming that requires long attention, I think.

People used to write long serious letters. Yes, the exchanges took a lot of time, but they had real artistry, real substance, real content. Then came email and it was fantastic – but the letters started to get much shorter, even as they got more frequent. Then came tweeting and messaging – soon to replace email as the main mode of communicating – and the messages became very nearly, and almost ubiquitously, meaningless. For that matter, people used to have conversations – another capacity that I am inclined to think is in serious free fall.

I am told that roughly one quarter of all internet use is viewing Facebook. Think about that. If we find a distorted distribution of income scarily rotten – just think about that distorted distribution of information focus. The internet carries very nearly all human information. You can take university courses – read nearly any book – follow discussions and articles, explore, learn about virtually anything – and yet, instead, we increasingly examine snippets.

And I haven’t even bothered to mention the big brother aspect of Facebook being in the business of saving private, personal information about 500 million users to enhance the effectiveness of advertising – among other potential uses of the information.


The above article engendered a lot of attacks, though nothing particularly insightful. So I followed up with a second…

Internet Worries

Some days back I put up a post titled “Facebook versus Civilization.” My selfish hope was that some folks would say, more or less, “hmmm, this is interesting – is this apocalyptic worry warranted or unwarranted? I think I will look into it.”

Then the people who took up the task would do some research and report their findings. With the findings in place, we could all proceed however our reactions moved us.

Well so far my hope hasn’t panned out. People say I didn’t prove anything. But of course I didn’t prove anything. I merely raised an alarm, hoping that others with better skills for the task, and with more time for the task, would investigate and either see that my worries were warranted and deserved still further attention, or debunk the worries if they were found unwarranted.

Feeling a need to try again, I looked back at the earlier blog post to see if I needed to correct anything. Despite all the critical comments and discussion the first post engendered – I decided I didn’t need to change its message, especially given all that I added in the comments area. But perhaps it would help if I were to look at least a little bit deeper and provide a little more support for the message or, hopefully, if I could do so, torpedo my own worry and say, “never mind.”

Reading that piece, above, may be essential to having sufficient motivation to wade through what is below. It was certainly essential to my having sufficient motivation to write what is below.

By way of reintroducing the subject, one part of what I was trumpeting in the earlier piece should be totally obvious to any serious critic of current social relations. A second part of what I was trumpeting was, however, unfamiliar to most, and indeed almost the opposite of widely held feelings. Both parts require investigation to assess their substance and determine their implications.


Issue One – The Obvious Problem

Our online information practices are overwhelmingly defined by the choices and agendas of a relative few massive information corporations. They directly govern the most widely used parts of internet communications and exchange. More, by their scale, they acclimate users to designs, styles, and approaches, and inculcate habits and expectations. The spread of these habits and expectations among users in turn cause nearly all information providers to make decisions that trend toward replicating, ratifying, and reinforcing – or at least accommodating to – the decisions of the dominant few.

Information corporations of all sizes, dominant and not, deal with digital content. That does not, however, make information corporations, whether large or small, benign, humane, or even neutral. Rather, information corporations seek profits and to continually reproduce the conditions of making profits just as banks, construction companies, and auto companies do this. Markets and private ownership impose the behaviors on all corporations.

Yes, the domain of information is certainly different than the domain of hedge fund investment, construction, and car manufacturing – so the specific practices of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are different than those of Bank of America, Bechtel, and GM, often in interesting and consequential ways. Yet, the overarching aims from sector to sector in the economy are indistinguishable. Google, Facebook, and Twitter – not to mention Amazon, Microsoft, Sony, and Apple, are not guided by a desire to edify, inspire, or uplift humanity. Instead, they all seek firstly and overwhelmingly to enrich and aggrandize their owners and powerful CEOs, managers, etc.

This typically means that information corporations are either using their online assets to amass audiences that they can turn into revenue, rather like a TV network does, or they are using their online assets to directly sell their own products for revenue, rather like any wholesaler does.

The latter and more typical selling pattern is familiar. Apple and Amazon get people’s attention and sell them a product. This could be a book, program, song,  video, or other information. The aim, however – and is anyone confused about this? – is not the consumer’s well being, but profit.

But Google, Facebook, and Twitter – what do they sell? It seems like they sell nothing. We use their offerings, but we don’t pay them. Well, that’s because we aren’t their consumers. We aren’t buying their product. Instead, we are their product. We are what they sell.

Like TV, radio, and to a very large extent print media, online information corporations like Google, Facebook, and Twitter very typically sell – or try to sell – access to their users to other corporations and also, taking it another step, access to information about their users to other companies. Or sometimes they use that access themselves, or they do both. For example, they sell ads that reach their users to companies seeking to sell what their products to that same audience – and they sell additional personal information about the potential buyers to raise the price and the volume of advertisements.

You might reply: So what? Nothing is profoundly new in that. Newspapers, magazines, and TV do it too. True enough, though the scale has changed, but mostly it means Google, Facebook, and Twitter want to attract lots of users, and they want to keep those users coming back, but they also they want to show the users lots of ads or sell access to the users to others who will show them ads, and therefore they also need to have their users in the mood to respond positively to the ads, and they don’t want the options they offer in order to attract users to incidentally empower the users in such ways that the users will tend to buy less or even stop buying at all, or worse yet, even challenge the conditions of profit making per se.

The above should be utterly and uncontroversially obvious for any serious leftist. The only reason I can see to deny the above is that we don’t follow through our analyses and understandings when they tell us something we would rather not hear.

So here are a couple of contending possibilities for our assessment of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other information companies –

  • Information companies driven by market competition, and after years of carefully considering the situation and testing their options and offerings, and honing them in light of findings, are still following paths utilizing new technical capabilities in ways that are largely beneficial to enhancing real and valuable social ties and critical consciousnesses – two pursuits that are incredibly dangerous to existing social structures.
  • Information companies have instead in light of their own researches and learning from others about past efforts, steadily and very heavily perverted the use of new technical capabilities in a manner aimed toward overwhelmingly enforcing existing or new profit making relations, partly intentionally and explicitly and partly also by various unintended byproducts that they are, however, exploiting rather than countering… a point I will get to below.

If someone on the left urged that car manufacturers are first and foremost trying to expand people’s freedom and people’s knowledge of their environments, or they are seeking profits but incidentally doing so much good that we don’t have to pay careful attention to how they are perverting our way of getting around (and I bet that nearly everyone said things just like that, quite confidently and forcefully, when cars began appearing and seemed like a tool of freedom that were spreading mobility through society), other leftists would simply laugh at their naiveté.

Well, I contend that even just similar very familiar and uncontestable observations about all corporations seeking profits and to reproduce the conditions of profit making ought to motivate leftists to be very openly and vociferously investigating, as social critics, what the implications are of information corporation’s motives for our information activities. And, in light of the findings, it should be motivating us to  think about how to do something about Google et. al.’s dominance and whatever bad implications it has for our ways of producing, accessing, and even using the information we access. This kind of critical assessment is happening – but not enough, I think.


Issue Two – The Less Evident Problem 

The new approaches to online information exchange that are currently sweeping the planet largely entail quickly perusing small nuggets or snippets of information, with constant flitting between options and almost no in depth, immersive attention to anything. This type of communication is steadily encroaching on and even replacing longer uninterrupted more immersive approaches such as reading books and even articles that one gets deeply into without jumping to and fro, and even reading longer letters, longer email, seeing longer videos, and soon, I bet, even playing attention demanding games.

What is emerging in place of all these is a new dominant style of interfacing with information. We move quickly from item to item. We examine items always with other items clamoring for our attention. We get better and better at and we get more and more comfortable with quickly evaluating content arriving in nuggets and snippets. However, we get steadily less practiced at and less comfortable with reading and otherwise engaging more deeply and continuously with information.

To accommodate and then reinforce our new practices, our attention spans decline. This is not something anyone intended. No one, large or small, neither Google nor any little blog site, set out to have this byproduct of inducing declining attention spans and increasing snippet processing abilities. But, those who do command the shape of internet outcomes abetted the result by pursuing their desires to move people quickly from page to page, or even to garnet people’s attention at all, and now by piggybacking on the tendency. And so it snowballs into more and more realms.

If we become habituated to very fast and jerky focus on short nuggets and snippets, we get good at that kind of perception – which is a very real skill. We naturally start to increasingly want to exercise and employ that skill. Indeed, after awhile if we don’t exercise it, we miss it, sort of like an athlete not getting any exercise misses that. And as we do more and more flitting – we also start to feel less and less good doing the type of information perusal which we are becoming less good at and less inclined toward, which is whatever requires sustained and in depth focus.

And the big information companies see this trend in our preferences and habits and they don’t care much about the broader implications. They only want you using their offerings, and flitting from ad to ad on their pages – not on someone else’s. They see that the lowering of attention span, which nobody sought, is however, good for that aim, and at any rate, must be accommodated.

So big information companies start to consciously address changed preferences – or maybe they are just reflexively copying trends –  but, in either case, more and more of them, online and off, pursue designs and practices favoring flitting, and the practices start to imperially spread. Print media, video media, audio media – all of it recognizes the necessity to change if they are to survive and prosper in the world of audiences that have increasingly short attention spans coupled with very high flitting skills. They thus trend their own practices in the same directions as big outfits are trending – freely, because, in the stampede, for their purposes, nothing else seems sustainable, much less maximally profitable.

Is the trend real? Will it snowball in online domains? How much will it spread to offline practices too?

Will the trend, in the worst case, make books seem like ancient artifacts? Will it make it unlikely that most people can or will be willing to pursue a line of thought that deviates so much from what’s familiar that it requires real attention to comprehend much less to apply?

Will it undercut art and literature? Will it even undercut conversation?

And, if this is happening, and if it is on track to get worse, are there additional effects? Does a short attention span and nugget like social networking produce mostly expanded and healthy social ties – or does it produce just a bit of that and mostly reduce social ties to near meaninglessness? Does it produce social empathy, or more often, rudeness? Are people gaining a hundred or a thousand friends? Or are we redefining what it means to be a friend drastically downward?

If we investigate these questions and find that yes, the negative trends and possibilities exist and are even unfolding, then we would need to investigate to see where we think they might wind up. And we would need to think about how digital intercommunication would have to change in order for it to contribute more positively in a good society. And we would need to think about what can be done, even now, to create seeds of a better future in the present, not least, by our own online practices and offerings. And then we would need to explore what demands can be made of existing operations, what ethos can be urged for existing users of existing practices – to make things better?

In the next section I provide some information that arguably bears on understanding the motives of information companies and their practices, and on worries about attention span. This is not a comprehensive survey or research report. It is, rather, just a taste of what can be found, I suspect.


Some Chaotic Nuggets of Evidence Bearing on Internet Concerns

Here is a little survey of print magazine design, for which I looked pretty quickly at one issue of each of the following… and asked myself, are they better designed now than ten or fifteen years ago?

First we have two highly intellectual offerings…

The New Scientist I am currently looking at is 48 pages plus 4 sides of cover. No article exceeds three pages, and there are only three of that length. Three more go cover two pages. On most pages, however, there are from two to four and sometimes six or even eight separate nugget articles – with little call outs all over, as well. Ads aren’t too plentiful, the magazine is probably subsidized, is my guess.

The Scientific American I am looking at is 108 pages plus four sides of cover. Up to page 54 the only things that exceeded two pages, or even reached two pages, were ads. Then comes a six page article – and that’s it for something approximating serious in depth reading. The rest are at most three pages – and even when they are that long, the pages are broken with ads and include boxed call outs, etc., all of which attract and reward flitting eyes. The density of ads is enormous, demanding attention, even if just to decide to not examine them, on virtually every page.

Now we have and example of news and commentary for the “masses”… People magazine is 152 pages of which 89 are advertising. With ads, multiple stories, and call outs, fact boxes, etc. there are no pages that you actually read, in full – none – though a few articles do have content on as many as three different pages. The snippet influence is incredibly pronounced – to say that one reads this magazine would be almost like saying that when you go to the supermarket and scan shelves you are deep reading… the issue is not just the content – it is the delivery…it is a brilliant design – but not for serious communication.

Okay, how about the opposite extreme, at least in theory, or a magazine meant to provide real social substance. The Economist is about 100 pages, and 50 are ads. Much to my surprise, there were no four page articles, a couple of three pagers, an endless stream of one pagers, or of half pagers, or of quarter page baby nuggets, plus many call outs and sidebar boxes, etc., but not quite so obviously catering to attention deficit as People does.

The Sports Illustrated I am looking at, not surprisingly has length like the others, and ads like the others, and part devoted to short articles and one pagers like the others – BUT – it also has many more in depth essays and much more informed journalism than the others…sports fans are still serious about their focus…

The above survey claims to be no more than indicative – but I think what it indicates and what anyone can see at any magazine stand, if they are open to noticing, is that the desire to capture and retain receptive audiences of people who are assumed to have steadily declining attention spans to be sold to companies in turn seeking to sell their products, is causing even print media to move away from in depth reading toward nuggetizing whatever is delivered.

Enough of that – though it could go on and on.

The following critical nuggets – irony intended – were accumulated in a period of a few hours from totally innocuous and apolitical sources such as Ideas and Discovery Magazine (I&D) which I happened to find on a newsstand – had never before seen – when collecting some other magazines for the above survey – on the one hand, and a recently widely touted book titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains (which I highly recommend as a very well written and accessible piece of work) and another book, titled You Are Not a Gadget, which is a bit more flighty and not as compelling, at least for me, save in a broad and general way, though it also has some striking insights. I have barely even tried to organize the excerpts and quotes below. I give names to help those who want to look people and thoughts up. Make of all this merely indicative data what you will.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt says “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” Does anyone else find this incredible – he is the head of the most powerful and influential information corporation, and perhaps most powerful corporation of any kind, in the world.

Here is Schmidt again, “…because Google would know “roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are”, it could remind users what groceries they needed to buy when passing a shop.”

He adds, as a defense of mining everything we do, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The magazine I mentioned above points out that “The gathering of information about people, and processing of it, is now a gigantic pursuit. It’s use to decide who can be permitted to do what in businesses is already widespread – info from credit card use, browsing, etc. Not only do large firms with huge databases gather information – but other companies literally develop algorithms and software for using the data – see Cataphora.com as but one example.”

What does it mean? Well, Google just put a new app on the iphone and their own phones, etc. It is a map that displays where your friends are in real time. It seems impressive, it seems manageable. We can turn it off, after all, so where we are isn’t visible. And it is fun. The thing is, think about their amassing a record of where you go, whenever you have it on, or forget to turn it off. Go a bunch of times to various sites, parts of town, etc., and Google can easily deduce many things about your tastes, habits, etc. Then they can use that knowledge to better direct ads, to sell at higher rates, and so on.

Stephen Baker, a prominent computer analyst, writes, “We say reality mining because the process increasingly involves information that we generate in actual situations and in near real time.”

In other words reality mining is about gathering and then processing into profiles the information that is culled from people’s personal purchases and from their messaging – with the pioneers who are acclimating us all to this intervention being Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook – and now also from their travels around town.

As the magazine notes, “Phones are an increasingly important source of such data, via following information trails left by messaging, tweeting, etc.”

From their self description the company “Sense Networks, Inc. indexes the real world using real-time and historical location data for predictive analytics across multiple industries. Sense Networks has developed patent-pending machine-learning technology to index and rank real world places, based on movement data … collected in bulk and real-time from devices with GPS or WiFi positioning technology, such as mobile phones and automobiles. The result of this analysis is a rich profile of each location in a given city, at any given time, that can then be used to better understand visitors and anticipate their needs.”

The company is funded by Intel Capital, Javelin Venture Partners and “prominent technology and hedge fund angel investors.” The same technology can obviously be used not just to get data on sites, but on those moving from site to site. Knowing where you go, how often, in what patterns, what you tweet, and so on – is an advertisers, and a psychopath’s, and a dictator’s dream. What is quite incredible is that we all are not just not protesting it, we are welcoming it.

The magazine notes that, “The facial images placed on sites like Facebook are scanned by software to generate assessments of personality, creativity, and many other attributes,” which in turn “join assessments based on where one goes online, how often, how long, where one goes while carrying a phone or gps, and what one tweets, posts, etc.” Thus emerges a picture of potential customers.

Tim O’Reilly a famous internet innovator and capitalist writes, “A growing number of people are never offline, even at night… People search the web several times a day for information on the same topic, because the flow of data is constantly expanding, changing, and transforming itself. All of this happens too quickly for most people to simply stop. This hyper-networking of people is fueled by what appears to the the unstoppable ascendancy of social networks like Facebook. It is also driven by short and terse communication in a network environment that is increasingly doing away with its user’s private sphere.”

The magazine reports that, “People not only tweet about what they are doing, leaving a cyber path that is mined for selling them to advertisers,- but they do things so they will have something to tweet about. To not tweet is to not count. Then you lose your followers.”

Nova Spivack, a prominent sociologist writes, “We can present our opinions to a global audience even as we think them. In this sense, we’re moving through a new dimension of time. Nowism, or the predominance of the present, has never been as pronounced and influential as it is today.” “These days just one minute of Twitter can overload us with important messages and associated links.”

Christine Greenhow at the Univ of Wisconsin tells us “Clever will become a synonym for networked, at which time the word intelligence will express the ability to condense widely distributed bits of information into a coherent form.” This is probably meant neutrally, as observation, but notice that it matches perfectly with the idea of one new skill rising – while an old skill dissipates.

Nicholas Carr is the author of the Shallows, the book I mentioned. He writes Intelligence can be redefined to emphasize how quickly you can find information, rather than how deeply you can think about it.”

Mitch Kapor, programmer, entrepreneur, and advocate of net neutrality: “Getting information from the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”

Eric Jamet from the Univ of Rennes writes, “People in the future will no longer be capable of absorbing information in a static and attentive manner for long periods of time.”

I&D reports, “A test conducted with students found that the subjects’ ability to remember, understand, and reproduce a diagram declined dramatically the more the depiction of the diagram resembled the multimedia presentation formats common to the internet. … The sense of direction and focus of individuals who continually use real time communication systems was also 25% less pronounced than occasional users or nonusers of such services.”

Sergey Brin, Google partner with Schmidt says he wants Google to become the “third half of your brain.”

Nicholas Carr writes, “Text messaging now represents one of the most common uses of computers, particularly for the young. By the beginning of 2009, the average American cell phone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts a month…the average American teen was sending or receiving a mind-boggling 2,272 texts a month. Worldwide, well over two trillion text messages zip between mobile phones every year, far outstripping the number of voice calls.” There is something happening here…

Nicholas Carr adds, “Interestingly, as net viewing has gone up most statistics suggest television viewing has either held steady or increased, with the time Americans watching going up during the whole period of growth of web viewing.”

However he adds, “Young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 saw a drop in time given to reading printed works between 2004 and 2008, of 30%, to 49 minutes a week.” 30% in four years is an incredible rate for anything social.

Carr notes, “Rolling Stone, once known for publishing sprawling, adventurous features … now eschews such works, offering readers a jumble of short articles and reviews. There was no internet, publisher Jann Wenner explains, “back when Rolling Stone was publishing those seven thousand word stories.”

Michael Scherer in the Columbia Journalism Review, notes that “Most popular magazines have come to be filled with color, oversized headlines, graphics, photos, and pull quotes… The gray text page, once a magazine staple, has been all but banished.”

Nicholas Carr pursues the same point, “Many newspapers, including industry stalwarts like the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, have over the last few years moved to trim the length of their articles and introduce more summaries and navigational aids to make the scanning of their contents easier. An editor at the Times of London attributes such format changes to the newspaper industry’s adaptation to ‘an internet age, a headline age’.”

Carr also points out, “In March 2008 the New York Times announced it would begin devoting three pages of every edition to paragraph long articles abstracts and other brief items. Its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts,” would allow harried readers to get a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the ‘less efficient’ method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles.”  

Carr, again: “Television networks have added text ‘crawls,’ and ‘flippers’ to their screens and routinely run infographics and pop-ups during their programs – even moving toward emphasizing brief segments emulating YouTube clips.” And “cable and satellite companies offer channels allowing people to watch multiple shows simultaneously, using their TV control like a mouse, to move between audio tracks.”

On another front, Carr adds, “A new trend is movies that sync with Facebook and allow chatting while watching, flitting between options rather than immersing in any one.” And “During a 2009 performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony At Wolf Trap in Virginia, the National Symphony Orchestra sent out a stream of Twitter tweets, about the performance…while…another example was a symphony having their audience vote via their phones for an encore.”

Eric Schmidt, remember, Googles head man, who wants to know everything about everyone so he can anticipate their desires and tell them what they want, notes that “The most obvious use of Twitter” can be seen in situations where “everybody is watching a play and are busy talking about the play while the play is under way.” Of course the record is then there for Twitter to use as they like. 

In Japan, a very prominent cell phone novelist (this means she writes a novel as a sum of snippet cell phone messages…) writes about the public: “They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them.” Really. First numb us, then exploit it, then say it is our fault.

Steven Johnson notes, “Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors. Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to see how well they rank.”

Kevin Kelly who loves internet trends, says, “Once digitized books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books.”

Carr reports that “Professors writing in an annual review of sociology tell us that The era of mass book reading was a brief anomaly in history. ‘We are now seeing such reading, return to its former social base, a self perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.’

Alright, but still, does any of this imply people’s attention spans are diminishing, feeding the dynamics. Can’t we just reorient a bit, as we have to do on many social fronts?

Carr reports that “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it is possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that not the type of thinking the technology [read, social practices] encourages and rewards.”

He adds, “It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net [as currently constituted] delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”

And, “Today’s teenagers typically send or receive a message every few minutes throughout their waking hours…If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible.’’

And, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.”

And, “Just as neurons that fie together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time spent scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflections and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives, but lose old ones.”

Gary Small at UCLA tells us “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” Our internet practice “stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones.”

Carr reports that, “In 2008, Small and two of his colleagues carried out the first experiment that actually showed people’s brains changing in response to internet use. What they found, was that ‘after just five days of practice, the exact same neural circuitry in the front part of the brain became active in the Internet-naive subjects (as in frequent users). Five hours on the internet, and the naive subjects had already rewired their brains… If our brains are so sensitive to just an hour a day of computer exposure, what happens when we spend more time…’”

Carr and the researchers claim that when browsing if there is a multitude of choices in our path, even on pages that are articles, “whenever we, as readers, come upon a link (as compared to reading a book or article without such intrusions, as in the old days), we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us – our brains are quick – but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it is repeated frequently.”

Carr’s book offers lots of examples, research studies, etc., and is peppered, as well, with attempt to hammer home the implications. Carr reports, “We’ve reached the point where a Rhodes Scholar like Florida State’s Joe O’Shea – a philosophy major, no less – is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn’t read books but that he doesn’t see any particular need to read them. Why bother when you can Google the bits and pieces you need in a fraction of a second:”

Carr documents both sides of the coin. Increasing capacity to rapidly imbibe and move on from nuggets, and to know when they should be skipped – on the one side – and declining capacity to focus on more than nuggets, on the other side.

Small, one of the main researchers notes that his studies reveal that regarding browsing “our brains learn to swiftly focus attention, analyze information, and almost instantaneously decide on a go or no go decision.” However, he adds that the flip side is that we “are developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of direct attention.”

Carr reports that Jordan Grafman a very promient cognitive neuroscientist “explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively.” Grafman notes, “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” He even adds that you become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.

There is researcher after researcher quoted in Carr’s book.

Here is Carr himself, however, and he is, as far as I could, see not remotely leftists – and with no attention to property relations hierarchy, etc. – offering another observation. “Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters – the Googleplex – is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. The company, says CEO Eric Schmidt, is ‘founded around the science of measurement.’ It is striving to ‘systematize everything’ it does. ‘We try to be very data driven, and quantify everything,’ adds another Google executive, Marissa Mayer. ‘We live n a world of numbers.’  What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is going for the work of the mind.”

Carr, “In one famous trial, the company tested forty one different shades of blue on its toolbar to see which shade drew the most clicks from visitors. It carries out similarly rigorous experiments on the text it puts on its pages. ‘You have to try and make words less human and more a piece of the machinery,’ explains Mayer.”

Carr offers a multi page dissection of Google in light of analysis of Taylorism that is really quite eye opening, particularly coming from someone who knows the internet and has little if any left background. He explains and explores the logic of Googles business plan – its revenue stream being entirely based on selling audience to advertizers and click through success – and its effects on their choices.

It leads to this assessment, “The intellectual technologies (I would say practices) it [Google] has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage any deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea, or narrative. ‘Our Goal,’ says Irene Au, ‘it to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.’ Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. The faster we surf across the surface of the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. It’s advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention – and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible.”

Regarding the negative trends affecting attention span, etc., Carr offers that, “the greatest acceleration has come recently, with the rise of social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. These companies are dedicated to providing their millions of members with a never ending ‘stream’ of ‘real time updates,’ brief messages about, as a Twitter slogan puts it, ‘what’s happening right now.’ By turning intimate messages – once the realm of the letter, the phone call, the  whisper – into fodder for a new form of mass media, the social networks have given people a compelling new way to socialize and stay in touch. They’ve also placed a whole new emphasis on immediacy.”

They strive, according to Mark Zuckerberg, to “increase the pace of the stream,” and “continue making the flow of information ever faster.” Google actually talks about helping readers to “explore a book in ten seconds.”

The young novelist Benjamin Kunkel reports his own experience of online life: “The internet, as its proponents rightly remind us, makes for variety and conveniences; it does not force anything on you. Only it turns out it doesn’t feel like that at all. We don’t feel as if we had freely chosen our online practices. We feel instead that they are habits we have helplessly picked up or that history has enforced, that we are not distributing our attention as we intend or even like to.”

There is much more in Carr’s book – including eye opening discussions of helpful software, versus taking away the helpful elements, and the impact of each on users – more on taylorism and the logic of programming, and more studies, etc.

The above is snippets – longer than Tweets, but way shorter than the book. So, try the book, and see what you think then, and if you are as concerned as I am, at that point, and you have the time for it, explore further!


Facebook is Diseased, ZSocial as Medicine?

July 29, 2011

In the sixties we had a slogan: “You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.” Our slogans didn’t always attain subtlety or nuance, and this one’s heavy handedness had ill effects. Someone disagrees with you. Label her a part of the problem. Then pay her no respect. Do it repeatedly. “Paranoia strikes deep…”

Another slogan has popped up recently that makes clear that being “part of the problem” isn’t just diverging from you, me, or whomever, but is far more substantial. A recent Greek banner reads, “You have the disease, we have the solution – revolution.”

What is the disease the Greek banner artists had in mind? I believe it was subservience to and indeed active support for the whole melange of institutional relations associated with capitalism, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and racism. And while one could imagine applying the term “disease,” meant that way, to individuals – I think the Greeks had in mind whole groups and especially institutions being sick.

So I say Facebook has the disease. What can I possibly mean by such a claim? Facebook? The modern day activist’s favorite weapon?

Well, I mean this. Facebook – and Google, Twitter, etc. – are massive corporate media machines driven by the dictates of accruing profit and maintaining the conditions of accruing profit. They care about sociality, information, truth, or justice only as means to profit and power.

When someone on the left says a bank has the “disease,” or a mortgage company, pharmaceutical company, electric company, Walmart, Amazon, or the New York Times, everyone else on the left pretty much says, okay, what else is new? Of course they have the disease. Medicate! Operate!

We put our money in a bank, hold a mortgage with a provider, get electricity from a utility, buy a chair or food from Walmart, buy a book from Amazon or a newspaper from the New York Times – dealing with disease each time – because we live in a world where disconnecting from all corporations would be suicidal. In our society critical and desirable production and consumption are overwhelmingly mediated by corporations. We relate or we die.

And even when the institutions we transact with are public, they are often class divided and operate on behalf of surplus and power in very nearly the same ways as Bank of America or the New York Times. National Public Radio, for example, is very far from a cooperative, classless, entity.

So we bank, we take medicine, we buy books, because we must, or, at any rate, to forego these options would spite ourselves and our agendas – at least as the world currently exists.

But in the midst of this essential compromising, what we don’t do, even though transacting with corporations literally keeps us alive and sometimes informs and fulfills us – and even as, each time, dealing with them also generates profits for the rich and puts one more little brick in the wall of legitimation of the system – is to celebrate the corporations we relate to as if they care about us, much less about social justice.

I get medicine produced by a pharmaceutical. It gives me sight. Yet I don’t paste images of its corporate logo on my shirt or medicine cabinet. I know it doesn’t care about my sight. It cares about my coins, spent to get its product.

I get food from agribusiness. I don’t carry an umbrella billboard for agribusiness or put its logo on my refrigerator, even though I would very likely starve without its product. It doesn’t care about my possible starvation or the actual starvation of millions. It cares about profit making.

I get information from the New York Times. I do not proclaim it a friend of humanity, even if sometimes I can use it for humanity. The New York Times doesn’t care about humanity. It cares about power and capital. It affronts humanity, curtails humanity, abides and contributes to injustice humanity endures – routinely.

So why the hell are so many people – including a great many very serious, very well informed, very committed leftists, so uncritical of and even so supportive of diverse information institutions and, in particular, of Facebook, Google, and Twitter? Include Apple, in the second tier, whose products I quite like and use, along with Microsoft, Sony, Yahoo, and any other corporation anyone on the left treats with kid gloves.

Maybe some leftists think to be critical of internet institutions implies they should not use those institutions at all? But why would they think that about Facebook, Tweeter, and Google and not about Bank of America, Merck and Co., and the New York Times? We rail at the latter, but when necessary we of course use them. Why not treat the information institutions similarly? Rail at them, and when advisable, use them?

In other essays, I have described the ills associated with the structures and practices of these giant corporate information institutions, commenting particularly on the ways they nuggetize information, diminish attention spans, devalue friendships, sell access to users to advertisers, manipulate searches, and reveal information about our habits and relationships to police and governments.

I suspect that at most a millimeter below the surface, no one on the left would doubt any of that. After all, to understand corporate logic is a significant part of what it means to understand the world around us. However, if you do doubt these claims about Facebook et. al., take a look at F acing Facebook and the Internet , Internet Worries , and Facebook Versus Civilization and at additional references you can find in those essays, among other places.

The thing is, even if all leftists do such investigating and come away convinced of the disease ridden character of mainstream social networking, searching, etc., still, my experiences suggest many and perhaps most will nonetheless pause at vocal rejection much less at serious analysis and action aimed at Facebook, Google, and Twitter. I would sincerely like to understand why that is. It just doesn’t compute for me.

I can certainly see using these institutions – with the possible exception of Twitter which seems literally death ridden, at least to me – for very specific purposes. For example, I quite often use Google for searching online – though I admit that nowadays when I do so I push myself to account for the systemically filtered delivery of personalized search results Google provides me.

Or consider Facebook. I can certainly see using it to find folks you have long been dissociated from or even to stay connected with folks you can’t engage with by other means because of their priorities, as well as for delivering good information to wide audiences who would otherwise not have read it, though I think Facebook postings accomplish this last outcome much less often than people claim.

However, I can’t see ever even in passing thinking that a “friend” is someone on your list of Facebook friends – much less accepting the degrading idea that being on such a list is, in fact, the definition of being one’s friend.

I also cannot see allowing oneself to become accommodated to nuggetized communications whether it happens due to habits that arise from frequent actions online, or by preferences imposed for efficiency’s sake. This, too, degrades human potentials. And I can’t see noticing the steady decline in attention span one typically undergoes with extensive use of these venues and not at least disciplining oneself to pay longer attention to deeper materials, to offset the trend.

Similarly, I cannot see allowing oneself to consider highly targeted and intrusive advertisements benign, nor can I see acting as though mass scale profit seeking and power brokering are well motivated priorities.

A musician rightly eager for Z content to reach the widest possible readership recently wrote me asking how come on ZNet there aren’t ubiquitous icons on every page allowing people to very easily zip off articles and other content to Facebook, so they can then go viral?

I ignored that in my view clicking a little button doesn’t, in fact, typically generate a useful information virus, and I ignored that for most Facebook users – not the highly left users, I hope, but most – the impact of Facebook’s processes and biases on their habits is to severely diminish the probability that they will read anything beyond a few sentences, whether a link is conveyed to them or not, and I ignored that a site wanting, reasonably, to allow users to share might achieve without implying by ever present logos from a few main corporations that those corporations equal being social. Instead of harping on those disagreements, I wrote back to the musician accepting the premise that clicking such links could and often would engender otherwise unlikely dispersal of ideas. I then answered his why query essentially this way…

We believe Facebook and other such sites are far more a problem than a solution. Yes, it is possible to benefit in some ways from using gigantic corporate operations that are motivated by profit seeking and designed in ways that on balance cripple communications – even while people mistakenly think those sights are in sum enhancing communications – but that is different from anointing such institutions as highly worthy vehicles for serious and especially leftist social networking. We can also benefit from having a bank account, say, but we don’t celebrate banks and put up what amounts to ubiquitous ads and testimonials on their behalf.

So what can we do instead? Well, we at Z are holding out for, and trying to build, something better than making the best of vile corporate venues. Once ZSocial is in place, quite soon now, we will make it very easy to send our content to the large networking sites because once ZSocial is in place, by doing so we will not be saying, okay, Facebook is the best means of social interaction online and the way we should all do it. No, instead we will be saying, let’s use those quite vile institutions including Facebook like we use banks or pharmaceutical companies – as a horribly restricted and constraining option for some critical tasks such as reaching out to wide and not yet highly politicized audiences. But for serious social interactions with leftists, let’s develop and use our own tools that don’t commercialize, nuggetize, manipulate, and sell us out, but are instead designed and maintained with our priorities paramount.

Yes, in the meantime Z suffers some narrowing of outreach, but in the long run, hopefully everyone operating in the name of social justice rather than profit and power will benefit.

Of course, not everyone is in position to try to build or even to advocate an alternative to Facebook for the left. But those who are in such a position ought to be doing so, it seems to me. So Z is trying to build “FaceLeft,” ZSocial, not to revere and celebrate Facebook.

And as users rather than providers, shouldn’t we also be hoping FaceLeft like efforts succeed so that we leftists can use our own institutions for our internal discussions, debates, scheduling, and exploring, and use large commercial institutions only when doing so makes good sense, such as in reaching out to new audiences to bring them, in time, to our non corporate institutions and to reach them with our non corporate information, or such as finding old friends or keeping ties with those who won’t operate other than on Facebook. And even then, shouldn’t we do so only critically, with insight, and without adding to Facebook’s aura as a neutral or even beneficent abettor of justice?

That’s the thinking behind ZSocial, at any rate, which is coming very soon to the internet connection devices you prefer. We intend ZSocial to honor privacy and to reject commercialism and of course ads. We will not have ZSocial insidiously filter your range of communications. We will not have ZSocial bias toward nuggets. We will have ZSocial grow and alter as left needs dictate. We hope you will relate to it.

The disease is capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism. Would that we could have a revolution replacing all that disease with truly solidaritous, diverse, equitable, peaceful, ecologically green, self managing social relations, NOW. Alas, it will take time. Meanwhile, we can at least understand the disease to more safely navigate its corridors. And we can at least build some structures of our own, within the disease ridden landscapes surrounding us, that treat ourselves and others better, that provide a model to aspire to, and that inform our understandings and enrich our programs and actions.

Facebook serves us, used carefully, in some ways – as does Google, and maybe even Twitter, Apple, Sony, and so on. But we should be cautious and discerning when relating to these. And we should have our own alternatives, as best we can, showing how internet communications really ought to be implemented – and meeting our needs and potentials better then commercial ventures. Hopefully ZSocial will be a step in that direction.