After the Fact – The New Yorker

After the Fact – The New Yorker

Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby proving that he did.

Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought experiment:

“Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain.”

As thought experiments go, this one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,” Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it will just tell you the answer.”)

Now imagine that, after living with these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation, inquiry, and reason.

Then picture this: overnight, an environmental disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know.

I Google, therefore I am not.

The American Scholar: Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie – James McWilliams

The American Scholar: Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie – James McWilliams

In 2012, Paul Miller, a 26-year-old journalist and former writer for The Verge, began to worry about the quality of his thinking. His ability to read difficult studies or to follow intricate arguments demanding sustained attention was lagging. He found himself easily distracted and, worse, irritable about it. His longtime touchstone—his smartphone—was starting to annoy him, making him feel insecure and anxious rather than grounded in the ideas that formerly had nourished him. “If I lost my phone,” he said, he’d feel “like I could never catch up.” He realized that his online habits weren’t helping him to work, much less to multitask. He was just switching his attention all over the place and, in the process, becoming a bit unhinged.

Subtler discoveries ensued. As he continued to analyze his behavior, Miller noticed that he was applying the language of nature to digital phenomena. He would refer, for example, to his “RSS feed landscape.” More troubling was how his observations were materializing not as full thoughts but as brief Tweets—he was thinking in word counts.

When he realized he was spending 95 percent of his waking hours connected to digital media in a world where he “had never known anything different,” he proposed to his editor a series of articles that turned out to be intriguing and prescriptive. What would it be like to disconnect for a year? His editor bought the pitch, and Miller, who lives in New York, pulled the plug.

For the first several months, the world unfolded as if in slow motion. He experienced “a tangible change in my ability to be more in the moment,” recalling how “fewer distractions now flowed through my brain.” The Internet, he said, “teaches you to expect instant gratification, which makes it hard to be a good human being.” Disconnected, he found a more patient and reflective self, one more willing to linger over complexities that he once clicked away from. “I had a longer attention span, I was better able to handle complex reading, I did not need instant gratification, and,” he added somewhat incongruously, “I noticed more smells.” The “endless loops that distract you from the moment you are in,” he explained, diminished as he became “a more reflective writer.” It was an encouraging start.

But if Miller became more present-minded, nobody else around him did. “People felt uncomfortable talking to me because they knew I wasn’t doing anything else,” he said. Communication without gadgets proved to be a foreign concept in his peer world. Friends and colleagues—some of whom thought he might have died—misunderstood or failed to appreciate Miller’s experiment.

Plus, given that he had effectively consigned himself to offline communications, all they had to do to avoid him was to stay online. None of this behavior was overtly hostile, all of it was passive, but it was still a social burden reminding Miller that his identity didn’t thrive in a vacuum. His quality of life eventually suffered.

What we do about it may turn out to answer one of this century’s biggest questions. A list of user-friendly behavioral tips—a Poor Richard’s Almanack for achieving digital virtue—would be nice.

But this problem eludes easy prescription. The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. Only when we grasp the inner dynamics of this paradox can we be sure that the Paul Millers of the world—or others who want to preserve their identity in the digital age—can form technological relationships in which the individual determines the use of digital media rather than the other way around.

Why Do I Have to Call This App ‘Julie’? – The New York Times

Why Do I Have to Call This App ‘Julie’? – The New York Times

  • Why does artificial intelligence need a gender.
  • The latest technology is stuck in the oldest stereotypes.

And why does artificial intelligence need a gender at all? Why not imagine a talking cat or a wise owl as a virtual assistant? I would trust an anthropomorphized cartoon animal with my calendar. Better yet, I would love to delegate tasks to a non-binary gendered robot alien from a galaxy where setting up meetings over email is respected as a high art.

Technologies speak with recorded feminine voices because women “weren’t normally there to be heard,” Helen Hester, a media studies lecturer at the University of West London, told me. A woman’s voice stood out. For example, an automated recording of a woman’s voice used in cockpit navigation becomes a beacon, a voice in stark contrast with that of everyone else, when all the pilots on board are men.


The product is an interesting idea and easy to use, but interacting with a fake woman assistant just feels too weird. So I shut “her” off. This Stepford app, designed to make my work more efficient, only reminds me of the gendered division of labor that I’m trying to escape.

Watch Data Attack | Are You Addicted To Your Phone? | WIRED Video | CNE

Watch Data Attack | Are You Addicted To Your Phone? | WIRED Video | CNE

On a typical day, the average person checks their phone 85 times. In total, we spend about 5 hours on our phones each day. Here we explore the fine line between normal phone use and device addiction.

Linguists Not Exactly Wow About Facebook’s New Reactions | WIRED

Linguists Not Exactly Wow About Facebook’s New Reactions | WIRED

WHEN MY 4-MONTH-OLD son is angry he turns bright red. When he finds something funny, he makes an alarming gurgling sound. When something surprises him, he says “Ah!”

You know: Like Facebook.

The introduction of Reactions, a set of five new “graphicons” with assigned textual meanings, probably isn’t supposed to be infantilizing. The social network just wants people to do more than “Like” someone else’s post. The new kids: Love, Sad, Angry, Wow, and Haha.

What do those words have in common? Not a lot, actually. To a grammar purist, that’s annoying. “These words are in radically different categories,” says Geoff Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the blog Language Log. “It looks like syntax is being thrown out the window here and being replaced by grunts like animals would make.”

Syntax, as you might remember, is the organization of words into sentences. By way of counter-example, syntactic conventions are what Internet meme languages like Dogespeak or Lolcats abuse. When you are sad because Monday, you are contravening the syntax of standard English. Much disappoint.

The Reaction words, though, have different syntactic uses. “Love” is either a noun or verb, depending on how you read it; “Sad” and “Angry” are adjectives; and “Wow” is an interjection, expressing astonishment. Pullum considers “Haha” to also be an interjection, expressing amusement, but Susan Herring, a linguist at Indiana University who studies language on social media, sees it as a non-speech sound.
Pullum and Herring agree, though, that the syntax of the new Facebook Reactions makes no sense. When Facebook asks you to respond to a status with that set of six words, it’s actually asking your brain to do something that’s slightly complicated: to fill in an implied sentence, or to “predicate” it. Programmatic linguists call this “inferencing.” The problem is, because these words are not the same category of speech, they require different predicates.

If you click “Love,” your brain must autocomplete the implied phrase “I love this.” Fine; just like “Like.” So far so good. But things get weirder with the adjectives. If you choose “Sad” or “Angry,” it’s not “I sad this” or “I angry this.” It’s “This makes me angry,” or “This makes me sad.” Makes sense! But the mental gymnastics of tweaking this supplied context aren’t easy.

For “Wow” and “Haha,” the problem is different. Both actually stand on their own outside of a sentence, so your brain doesn’t need to infer any predicate at all. Which is nice! But also inconsistent!

If those inconsistencies bother you, you may in fact have a disorder called “grammar purism.” Sufferers of GP have been known to correct mistakes on dinner menus and chew their cheeks in an effort not to correct their friend who always says “I have drank way too much tonight!” GP has no cure, but some sufferers find poetry or Winston Churchill quotes soothing.

“It’s a little bit perturbing that they are not the same parts of speech,” Herring says. But she doesn’t just talk about talking; she does something about it. As a thought experiment, Herring tried to rationalize the Reactions.

First she tried to make them all verbs. It didn’t work. You can say, “I love,” or “I laugh,” but as soon as you get to “I anger,” you’re doomed, because in that construction anger takes an object—“I anger the cat (by never letting it catch the laser pointer).”

Next Herring tried adjectives, where the predicate is “I am.” It was just as bad. “I’m sad” and “I’m angry,” are good, but for Love you’d need to say “I’m pleased” or “I’m delighted,” and that’s not the same emotion, really, at all. Not to mention how stilted “I’m amused” or “I’m surprised” would be for Wow and Haha. Nouns work better, and are reminiscent of that Internet tradition of spelling out the actions that emoji or emoticons are describing. Love could stay the same, but Sad would become Frown, Angry would become Scowl, Haha would become Laugh, Wow would become, perhaps, Gasp.

This gets closer to what Pullum says is the true nature of Facebook Reactions. “The happy face is like a squeal of delight; the sad face is like a sort of ‘humph’ of displeasure; the ‘wow’ face is like a widening of the eyes and opening of the mouth; the ‘haha’ is like giggling,” he says. “The emoji are all really just the equivalent of noises or gestures for directly expressing internal states. What is not being called upon here is the grammar and meaning that differentiate us humans from the other animals.”

None of this would matter to GP sufferers if Facebook hadn’t assigned each reaction a textual meaning. Unlike regular emoji and emoticons, which are purely graphical, Facebook chose to label each Reaction with a word, eliminating the ambiguity that makes emoji so great. This way, you don’t wonder if, say, the face with the open mouth is expressing fear or shock. “Once they decide to provide text, they back themselves into a corner, syntactically,” Herring says.


Going Silo-Private to Prefer the IndieWeb, Leave Silo Publics, and Pioneer Privacy on the Independent Web – Tantek

Going Silo-Private to Prefer the IndieWeb, Leave Silo Publics, and Pioneer Privacy on the Independent Web – Tantek

I changed my silo (social media) profiles to private today to:

  1. Take an incremental step toward outright leaving silos, as others have:
  2. Treat Instagram in particular as primarily a means to the ends of processing/posting photos and videos on my own site.
    • Though I continue to admire (and document) their “reading” user experience: how much more focused, primarily positive (perhaps choice of followings), and just overall pleasant it is to follow posts from people on Instagram.
  3. To be an indieweb canary. Many of the tools and services we have built in the community are designed for public posts and interactions, including with silos. I changed my silo profiles to private, or to make private posts by default, e.g. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Flickr and documented how to do so here:
  4. To learn firsthand what the challenges are, both user experience and technical, e.g.
    • How do people interact with private POSSE (syndicated) copies of public indieweb original posts?
    • What are the personal challenges of understanding the different publics of mixed private silo vs public indieweb posts?
  5. To start better understanding existing private account and privacy user experiences & expectations, and documenting them to accelerate indieweb “best of the best” privacy & private publishing design.

In that last respect, this is just one of many private vs. public experiments I will be conducting, including with my own website and posts, to gain real world experience of the privacy design challenges and opportunities for individual or small group independent web sites, inspired but not burdened by existing silo designs.

Starting in 2010-2011 we the IndieWeb community pioneered and documented details and best practices of how to POSSE (Publish on your Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) by doing so live on our own sites to various silos like Twitter.

By 2015, POSSE had grown far beyond the indieweb community and became an accepted open independent web practice, with many others reconceptulaizing or redeveloping it, e.g. POSSE to Medium by “Creating Medium stories via RSS”.

It’s now 2016, and just as 2010 felt like the right time to develop and show POSSE (and outdo silos at & with it), now feels like the right time for those of us with our own indieweb sites to take steps with those sites to pioneer, develop, document, and show how the independent web can do better at private accounts & posts, improving upon silos both technically, and more importantly, with better user experiences.

Blockwriter +

Blockwriter +

Alternate title: How to turn your computer into a manual typewriter. 

As we all know, the surfeit of distractions available on a personal computer these days can make it exceedingly easy to get nothing done. There’s the constant haranguing of emails, the intrusions of instant messaging, and the endless nagging of countless other attention-hungry applications and utilities.

In looking for ways to defuse this, I noticed a few years ago that some serious writers, at least in the early drafting stages of their work, were turning to manual typewriters as a method of sidestepping all of those distractions. It’s a great solution: what better way to thwart a computer than to step away from it completely? There’s no email to check on a typewriter, no beeps and pop-up reminders from other applications, and no access whatsoever to the Internet and its tantalizing abundance of productivity-killing diversions.

What’s more, a manual typewriter is a powerful antidote to authorial dawdling, that propensity to continually re-edit a sentence or a paragraph — thereby imparting the feeling of working without really working — instead of continuing to write new sentences or paragraphs instead. Unlike word processors or even the simplest text editors, manual typewriters don’t allow you to easily re-edit, insert and revise a sentence once it’s been committed to paper. This makes for an entirely different writing experience: the ideas come first, and the act of finessing them, of word-smithing, comes after all the ideas have been set to paper.

Why Hardware When Software Will Do?

At some point, it occurred to me that it really shouldn’t be necessary to purchase another piece of hardware to accomplish the same things that writers look to manual typewriters for: the ability to focus without distractions, and the ability to work in a mode that disallows excessive editing and encourages continued writing.

Neither of those things are beyond the capability of software, so why not just write software that does those things? I almost don’t have to write any more in this blog post and most readers will get the entirety of my concept: build an application that functions almost exactly like a typewriter.

For lack of a more marketable name, I call it Blockwriter. And because I’m no programmer and I’ll never get around to learning enough Cocoa skills to build Blockwriter for myself, I figured I’d just do what I know: throw together some mock-ups of the user interface to get my ideas across.

Draft Only

Of course, Blockwriter is intended only as a drafting tool, as it’s clearly impractical for the vast majority of text editing and word processing. To quickly knock out a rough version of any piece of writing that requires concentration and complexity, from a lengthy blog post to an article or even to a full-blown book manuscript, it’s the perfect tool. It provides a very narrow feature set that keeps you on task, along with one-touch methods of shutting out the rest of the system. And it’s a lot less bulky than a typewriter.

Alas, Blockwriter itself is only a draft. As I said, I haven’t nearly enough programming talent to make it happen. But I had a good time putting together the interface — more and more Web sites are referred to as “software” these days, but designing a desktop application is an entirely different experience, even a faux one like this. So the hour or two I put into Blockwriter was an interesting foray into a different kind of design. What resulted isn’t perfect, clearly, but maybe someone will find some of these ideas interesting enough to build it for real. I can’t imagine it would be particularly hard for anyone who’s comfortable with Cocoa.