Aaaand we’re back. It’s been seven months since my last post. Remarkably, there are dozens of you new to the fold since then, so let me quickly reintroduce what we do here.
Don’t Think About the Future is, funnily enough, about thinking about the future. But, in an indirect, possibly circumspect way. I believe that the future is both open and undetermined — the outworking of our collective free will — and, perhaps paradoxically, made now, out of our current values and actions. Whether planned or not, the future is our pregnancy, and when she is born, much of what makes her who she is will have been decided by us, long before. We must eat, sleep, dream, and work with the best of intentions. Or, we could just go with the tagline I used when I began this series: design, technology, and being human, wherein each of those terms is at its broadest (i.e. little to no gadget talk here). Either way, we make the future blindly. At the risk of sounding grandiose, this series is about opening our eyes.
So about those seven months of silence, there have been various reasons for this which I’ll just summarize in four words: new schedule post-baby. My daughter turned one this month, and with that anniversary, I also reflected upon the many ways (and times) the day to day of our family has changed since her birth. Adjusting to parenthood, as it turns out, isn’t something that happens once. It’s an ongoing process, and I’m learning that the only way to maintain commitments and sanity is to get much better at planning and scheduling. There is no discretionary time for a parent of a toddler, and so things like writing this get a slot on my calendar far, far in advance. My intention in this return is to write every two weeks, and I have already scheduled time for each of the twenty-one posts to come between now and the end of the year.
So without further waste of your attention, let’s get into something big and future-making. You probably won’t like it.
The only meaningful act of protest in the 21st century is to permanently delete your digital accounts. Facebook. Netflix. Amazon. The big ones. Making signs and standing in crowds on the weekends won’t do anything. Retweeting provocative ideas won’t do anything. Giving money to other people who promise to fight for your cause on your behalf won’t do anything. In 2018, you have exactly one point of leverage, and that is your monetized attention.
I know your mind is already crowding with objections. And before I attempt to address them, let me first say that many — if not all — of them are good objections, and many — if not all — of them probably have to do with Facebook. So much of what I will say in preemptive defense will be specific to Facebook. I also realize that what I’m arguing for is not just difficult, but quite unlikely. Perhaps even impossible. Because what I have in mind here is not the individual withdrawal from digital engagement. Not the “digital farewell” we’ve all read of someone’s that is immediately buried by the noise of everyone else who has not said goodbye. It’s a coordinated act of resistance comprising the simultaneous deletion of tens of thousands of digital accounts, at least. Ideally, it’s more. Ideally, it’s everyone who would march on Washington once a year for a very good social cause, plus one hundred thousand more. Ideally, it’s a number that destabilizes the digital economy. That is our leverage. That is our only leverage. But before I get into that a little more, let me first address some objections, starting with Facebook.
I have said both publicly and privately that I believe Facebook is, ultimately, more destructive to our society than any other likely threat. But that’s a final analysis — a tallying of the balance sheet, as it were. It sounds a bit hyperbolic, I know, if not a tad glib. But it does not ignore the good that is made possible there. I cannot account for all of that good, but I have to estimate it to be tremendous. So when I say that, on balance, Facebook is destructive, I mean that the damage it does outscales and, in turn, undermines that tremendous amount of good. In other words, the bad is not just bad, it’s very, very bad.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Facebook does not…
…and many other goods. If the question is whether Facebook has been a good thing for some people, the clear answer is yes. But that is not the question I’m answering when I conclude that Facebook is harmful. The question I’m answering is what role Facebook plays at the macro level of society. Facebook, really, is a social switchboard. But it’s not open source. It’s not the case that you and I are both the caller and the operator. As callers, we’re given as much signal freedom as possible so that we will continue to create more and more signal. The operator — the algorithm — decides where our signal goes and who receives it, while also pulling from it information that, when properly organized, represents us each individually to a staggering degree of accuracy and sells that to people observing the switchboard: advertisers. The operator always has control. It give us the illusion of freedom so that we will give it more and more of what we have that is valuable to Facebook’s customers: our time and attention. Other metaphors that might illustrate this point better include: Facebook is an ant farm; we are the ants. Facebook is pleasure island; we are the puppets-turned-asses.
But you’ve heard all of this before. This critique is nothing new. It’s ultimately the same critique as if-the-service-is-free-then-you-are-the-product, to which most people say, yeah, but if I know that and am OK with it, so what? Quite right. So what, indeed. Monetized attention isn’t the only place we reach that conclusion. It’s the same when it comes to the corner we’ve all been backed into as far as our digital privacy is concerned. We know that every communication we send over the internet — every email, every keystroke, every URL request (even the ones we request “incognito”) — is scraped by a long list of observers: the Silicon Valley company who made the thing we’re using, the Silicon Valley company who made the operating system on which we are running that thing we’re using, the ISP we pay for connectivity, the government security agency who siphons off the ISP’s pipes, not to mention all the hackers in between. By now, we’re all aware of the ever proliferating swarm of spies and yet we still believe we have the upper hand because “we have nothing to hide.” Well, I believe that privacy is the right to keep even the banal undisclosed. In the same way, just because I offer it up with no regard to its value to me does not mean my attention can become someone else’s inventory. In both cases, our manipulated complicity makes it theft no less.
So in the best of all worlds, we would consider these things and think deeply about what systems and services we use, and what we consume and share when we use them. We would make more conscious choices, rather than incrementally redefine our reality more and more under the auspices of the digital frameworks asserting their ubiquity and dominance with virtually no restraint from us, though we do have the power to assert it. We would conclude that some tools are better for us, individually, than others; that engagement everywhere is not required, but in some places and at some times is beneficial to us and worth the price we pay in time and exposure. We would conclude that time spent in unmediated conditions — in silence or in nature, for instance — is good and in need of prioritization, similar to how we carve out time in our schedules to exercise, and that basic self-control is necessary, similar to that which we wield when we don’t have that drink, that cigarette, or that donut. That’s in the best of all worlds, where that which is permissible is not necessarily beneficial.
In the best of all worlds, that would be how we think about signing in to Facebook, or turning on Netflix, or buying from Amazon.
In the best of all worlds, we’d just turn things off and happily live without them every now and then.
But we don’t live in the best of worlds.
We live in a world where the aggregated ills of our digital profligacy have become an urgent matter of national integrity. The very structure of the internet makes it difficult to discern betweeen truth and fiction. Recall, if you will, the now-classic cartoon from 25 years ago, depicting a dog at a computer, saying to another dog, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” You may update this cartoon for 2018 by replacing dog with whatever you like. Liar. Troll. Racist. Russian. Which, of course, matters all the more on an internet embedded within the internet like Facebook, which further engineers our reality by exposing and hiding portions of our own network’s truth. Facebook narrows our principal lens through which we see the world, which makes it easier for them to make money, but more difficult for us to maintain the integrity of our shared political border. If Facebook were to ask of us, “What is America?” the answers, I’d wager, would be more clustered and divergent than ever. Eli Pariser warned of the filter bubble almost a decade ago — that convenience-driven personalization would eventually erode our shared reality — and he was right. Only it’s worse than he predicted. Much worse. I give you the year 2016 as Exhibit A. Further years will be added to the record, no doubt. And unless Facebook decides that truth matters, we will have them to thank, principally.
In this world — not the best of all, but the only of all — our engagement in digital culture is no longer an accessory to existence. It has become the bedrock. And so the stakes are so much greater than our own individual sense of mastery over our own time and attention. The stakes are such that sacrifice — true sacrifice — in this arena is necessary.
Sacrifice means giving something we value in order to make possible something that we agree is of greater value. Sacrifice has to be difficult in order to mean something. And the nature of sacrifice in 2018 is quite different from what it was in the past — from whatever situation serves as our current model of it, just as the nature of resistance and protest must also be updated to the times. Protest is about resisting and disrupting the exchange of power when we, the people, agree that it is contrary to our shared values, harmful to us individually, and destructive to the fabric of our society. In the 1960s — our last real shared, cultural exhibit of national protest — a person’s time and physical presence was their leverage. Standing somewhere for hours with a sign was a visible and meaningful thing to do. When thousands of people did that, culture moved because it was impossible to ignore. The crowd showed that if they were willing to sacrifice their time — which in the 1960s had a much more direct, monetary measure — for a limited, coordinated protest, they were willing to continue to do so until it cost the powers that be. Fifty years later, that model of protest no longer works. Why? Because we have had several decades now of digital communication, miniaturized computing, and telecommuting to thank for the decoupling of time, physical presence and progress. Being somewhere hardly means what it once did. Withdrawing your body from the workplace and quarantining it in a crowd of signs no longer withdraws your ability to move bits and bytes around. Don’t get me wrong — standing somewhere for hours with a sign means something to those who do it. And that is important. But, it means little to nothing to those who aren’t there. The world continues in its unrelenting complexity. If you aren’t looking, you can miss hundreds of thousands of people marching on Washington for something as meaningless as a rerun of Friends on Netflix. If protest doesn’t impact those who are not protesting, then it does not work.
If we feel lead to protest — and good lord do we have so many things leading us there — then we must protest more effectively and efficiently.
You can give every Saturday to stand in a crowd for the next year or more and nothing will happen. In fact, you can do that and post pictures every moment you are there to whatever social media account you like, and though you will feel as if more and more visibility and awareness are brought to your cause, less and less meaningful action will be taken because in feeding the machine, the status quo is maintained. Social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all of it — is an informational omnivore. It will eat your celebration. It will eat your rote, daily narcissism. It will eat your protest. Giving up a Saturday no longer means anything because you haven’t sacrificed anything that is of value to the outside world. The world doesn’t care where your body is, so long as your signal is active. As long as your battery life holds out, you’ve spent that day reinforcing the systems that matter. You’ve worked for the machine, not against it. Physical protest may endure as an expression of our values and voice in society, but it must not be the only means by which we push back. Digital resistance is required, and it is deletion.
Instead of feeding Facebook hours and hours of monetisable content by standing in a city square somewhere, stay home, delete your account, and plant a garden. If enough people do this — recognize and exert their greatest leverage over the real power in the world in 2018 — and make it known that doing this comes with demands, they can expect change. If tens of thousands of people deleted their Facebook accounts at the same time after having stated the intention to do so and stay off until the change they want has occurred, the information economy will grind to a halt and you’d better believe that tens of thousands of people interested in getting it going again will be willing to negotiate. If tens of thousands of people shut down their Netflix accounts in a coordinated manner, they’d be telling the world that they’re done being distracted and are willing to wait in their boredom for the necessary corrections to be made. If tens of thousands of people stopped buying from Amazon in a coordinated manner, they’d be telling the world that they’re willing to wait a little longer, or pay a little more, or just go without until the armies of lobbyists hammering Washington 24-7 revised their agenda.
We have political power, and we yield it every conscious moment of every day, not just on Tuesdays in November every couple of years. We need to start thinking of our progress interval differently. Instead of protests which are designed to move our representatives toward policies that resemble our collective will, which, in theory, pay off every few years or so, we need to recognize that we have the power to grind the money making to a halt right now and bring all the power brokers to the alter for a massive come-to-jesus reckoning of our design. Billions and billions of dollars in subscription fees and advertising are all at stake and under our control. All it takes is our sacrifice. Are we willing to let go of the feed? Are we willing to stop watching TV? Are we willing to stop shopping? And really, are we willing to let go of the digital versions of all these things? After Facebook, Netflix and Amazon, we’ll still have the people we know, we’ll still have email (for the record, I’m not arguing that we bail on email at the moment, though one could easily substitute Google for any of the major corporations I’ve named so far), we’ll still have libraries, books, cinemas, and radio; we’ll still have musical instruments, pens and paper, paint and canvas, campfires, farmer’s markets, community centers and places of worship, parks, gardens, restaurants, coffee shops, bars; we’ll still have our homes and electricity and heat and running water. You see, we’ve taken a tiny bit — pun intended — of the human experience and we’ve made it so much more than it should be. We’ve built a simulation so effective we forgot it wasn’t reality.
Ten years ago, we all so enthusiastically mocked Second Life for it’s geometrically retrograde rendering of a digital reality that the joke was lost on us when it filled to the brim with scores of spawning penis avatars. No matter how digital it looked, Second Life got our reality: perpetually on the precipice of Mount Id. Ten years later, we are all in Second Life, but we don’t even know it. That’s because our sim is a distributed sim. Every status message, tweet, snap, pic, post, like, and swipe — however trifling — builds the sim around us. We no longer know a world without it, and so as much as we may believe we’re in a city square holding a clever sign expressing our discontent with the world, we are also very much in the sim — someplace else, slaves to a digital world we do not own. It doesn’t have to be that way.
You might wonder whether I, impassioned as I may sound, have made these sacrifices. No, not really. I’m at the beginning of a process of personal withdrawal that began several years ago and looks, generally, like less time spent on social media, and basically no time on Facebook. Though I’ve gutted my account — manually deleted every image, wall post, and status message — I still have an account. They have my name in there. The only thing that has kept me from deleting it outright is the ability to administer pages for my firm and my podcast. But I believe I am ready to let those go, too. Perhaps by the time you read this I’ll have deleted my account for good. But, I still have Netflix. I still give Amazon an inordinate share of my money. I still use Google. I’m still on Twitter. As far as my individual plans are concerned, I started with Facebook because I believe it to be the most destructive and most guilty of an imbalance of value. Netflix might be next. And yes, there are economic treatises to be read on the dangers of an Amazon size monopoly, but for now, I want to start by going after the machine that has turned our time and ourselves into their product, rather than the machine that has just gathered all our products in one incredible act of digital monopoly (I gotta pick my battles, but if Amazon is your #1 villain, by all means: delete). Similarly, I remain happy with Twitter. I do understand that there is an awful side to Twitter. But thanks to muting, constant pruning, and, frankly, not being the target of racist, sexist slime, it’s been a mostly positive place for me. I’m the beneficiary of demographics. I’m sad that isn’t true for so many people who deserve a safe place just as much as I do. So all this is to say that I do have personal plans to de-escalate my own digital activities, but ultimately, what I’m arguing for is not a personal plan, no matter how aggressive. I could delete it all, but it would do nothing. An act of digital withdrawal gathers potency only as it gathers participants. I need to be very much not alone in this. And I realize the likelihood of remaining alone, no matter what I say or do.
So how would this actually happen? That is the question. Well, let’s be real. It won’t start with me. Someone of much greater influence than I would need to publicly declare their intent to do this and encourage their fans to follow suit. You know, someone like Justin Timberlake, who is unreasonably beloved across a wide demographic spectrum. Our leader would need to pick a day and time for us all to follow them off the cliff, and when DELETE DAY finally came, people in apartments, trailers, highrises, dorms, mansions, hostels, offices, classrooms, hospitals, airports, retirement communities, and tiny houses, of all ages, races, nationality and genders (read: not just privileged white 30-somethings) would need to hit “submit” with conviction.
The other day, a friend of mine asked me, “What happens next?” After withdrawing from digital culture (such as it is defined by Facebook, Netflix, and the like), what fills the void? My answer is, honestly, I don’t know. How a person spends their time is just not as important as the fact that such a question can be asked. Freedom needs no object to be validated. It need not be “freedom to _____.” Freedom is worthy of pursuit even if it cannot be further defined from any general or specific tyranny. In other words, why must anything fill the space left behind by Facebook? I know a man who is building an advertisement-free Facebook replacement because he agrees with everything I have said critically about Facebook. Except, of course, for one thing: he believes the world needs Facebook, he just doesn’t like the Facebook we have. It’s like how at some point in our past, we agreed that the world required fizzy, brown sugar water, so the alternative to Coca Cola wasn’t no Coca Cola (or the abundance of other things you could drink), it was Pepsi. Why is the alternative to Facebook your Facebook by another name? So what happens next? I don’t know. What happened before we had these things? Perhaps each of us having the opportunity to answer that question is what this is all about.
Heavy Rotation: Laurie Anderson’s new album, Landfall, which is a collaboration with The Kronos Quartet, is really good. So is David Byrne’s new single, Everybody’s Coming to My House. Also, Ministry has a new song called Twilight Zone, which is not great but not as bad as other things they’ve put out in the last decade. Nevertheless, I am glad that 60-year-old Al Jourgensen is still making angry music about bad Presidents. Only I wish it was 1992 Al Jourgensen’s Ministry doing it, not the 2018 version. Man, do we ever need a 2018 Ministry (that’s not the actual 2018 Ministry… you know what I mean) to ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ the ever loving shit out of 45.
On Screen: I’ve been watching the Netflix (gasp! the cognitive dissonance!) show Travelers, which is fun and charming and Canadian. If you liked Fringe and need to fill that alternate universe/future/time-travel/procedural hole in your heart, check it out. But I wanted to mention a very specific thing that I saw in a recent episode (of Season 2) that was pretty interesting: In Travelers people from a distant future send their consciousnesses back in time to inhabit the bodies of people about to die so that they can take their lives over (without being responsible for killing them) and correct a chain of events that leads to their present being a horrible hellscape beyond that which we of the Trumpocalypse can only imagine. Their mission is managed by The Director, an artificial intelligence that the people of the future depend upon completely. Anyway, in a scene in the most recent episode I saw, a character (a consciousness from the future inhabiting a body from the past) gets a “call” from the Director, which is handled in an incredibly inventive way. Because the Director cannot be embodied like consciousness of the flesh and blood variety, and must remain in the future but somehow communicate with its armies in the past, it sends messages through the bodies of the dying. So in this scene, the character sits in front of three large screens, on which are intermittently projected the images of people on their deathbeds, who speak bits and pieces of the Director’s message as their last words. It’s eerie and macabre and pretty darn inventive.
Recent Tabs: I will read anything that Russell Davies writes, including his rebooted column at WIRED: We need an internet of unmonetisable enthusiasms. Indeed we do. Authorities deactivate transit pass implanted in biohacker’s hand, because that’s the future we’re living in. On the other hand (no pun intended), the good folks at MIT are working for a different future: One in which thermoelectric devices can harness temperature fluctuations of many kinds to produce electricity. While we’re in the future, we thought going paperless was a great idea until that meant displaying your health records on your skin. Way back down to Earth and its billions of screens, there’s actually a new company trying to compete with Wordpress, and it’s been endorsed by Google. “The White House was relieved when the President did not go golfing right after a national tragedy,” because this is who the American People elected. Well sorta. Some of them elected him. The only thing Tesla failed to predict is the obsolescence of vest pockets. Lithops, also known as “living stone,” is not your typical plant. It blends in with surrounding rocks to avoid being eaten. Its leaves sit beneath the ground, while a translucent surface “leaf window” lets sun light in for photosynthesis. Now, in summary.