Last week, we talked about valuing your attention. It should be self-evident that reading nothing but US Weekly (“lowbrow brilliant”) or airport self-help nonfiction (“highbrow despicable”) is mostly a recipe for discardable knowledge. Of course, if you read nothing but academic journals and SSRN you are going to have some troubles relating to fellow humans. There must be a local maxima in-between these extremes. It’s unlikely you are sitting at that peak. Take a moment. Self-diagnose from which extreme you are approaching it. I realize that Dunning-Krueger might have something to say about whether folks who exclusively read supermarket rags can effectively self diagnose. Don’t worry, if you have gotten even this far, you aren’t in that camp.
From school days until now, you managed your info intake across the spectrum. Then social media showed up. You dipped your toe in. Maybe got in up to your knees. After some cautious steps, you made a choice. Go back to shore or dive in. You may even have jumped in only to find the waters too cold. You may be swimming where you can still touch the bottom if you stand on your tippies. What is undeniable is you are either in the water or have an oceanfront view.
The downsides of social media are touted everywhere including, non-ironically, on social media. It’s probably irresponsible to not be conflicted about its impact. People share hiatus stories like they used to describe diets — Don’t ‘Gram before bed. Unplugged retreats. Lock the donuts (cough) I mean phone, in a drawer. Personally, I don’t read Twitter on Fridays during work. Baby steps. So how do we use social media to parallel shift our info intake functions up to a higher Y-intercept?
The piece that best incorporated and extended my own take is Venkat Rao’s Against Waldenponding.
- Waldenponding (after Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment on which Walden is based). The crude caricature is “smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms.” As a one-time interesting experience or occasional mental-health retreat, both Soft and Hard Waldenponding are a great idea. But as an attitudinal foundation for relating to society and technology, Waldenponding is, I am convinced, a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level.
- It’s a world-and-life negation…a terrible yielding of agency. you are part of a Giant Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) computing the future. The level and latency at which you consume information and act on it determines your “job” in the social computer. If you don’t manage your information economy career, you will default to the lowest-level job in the social computer: processing very low-latency information with small-minded cognition (bottom left) for small bets. It’s the equivalent of low-level bug reporting/testing.
- The way to manage your attention is to be sensitive to your current mind size (small to great) and consciously target the zone you want to be in. There are THREE ways to fail at this: a) Thinking you can be Great Minded all the time. b) Trying to be Great Minded purely on a low-latency information diet c) Trying to consume a high-latency information diet without aspiring to more than small-minded thoughts
- The goal is “being able to translate the information consumption/production choices you’re making into winning bets.”
- The GSCITC is not a homogenizer of effort or imagination, but it IS a homogenizer of egos and identities. What you do counts. Who you are doesn’t. You are an ordinary part of an extraordinary process.
- Waldenponding, I strongly suspect, is driven more by FOBO (fear of being ordinary) and ego-attachment than by any real fear of having your mind, productive potential, and rewards destroyed by “hacked attention.”
- More excerpted highlights
- His recent follow-up essay
My favorite ideas from it:
- Waldenponding is about FOBO (fear of being ordinary). While our individual contributions to the great computational machine may matter our egos dissolve since the individual does not matter just his output (people try to get recognized, trademark turn of phrase, etc) which is a recognition that it’s difficult to claim credit for specific ideas and feed our egos. He goes on to discuss waldenponding as a remnant of religious meditation and unplugging. A useful distraction from which intermediary derives influence (also by having you be less productive). I think you can substitute intellectualism just as easily as religion here.
- Segmenting info by latency and being aware that consuming info from all latencies has value because it dictates your place in the machine. The higher latency info being what some call “dead authors”. Classics as well as foundational math and science. Timeless concepts that withstand the weathering of time. Taleb categorizes such ideas as Lindy
- Being too low minded or high minded may be counterproductive to you inhabiting your desired position in the great computation machine. Your desired position is personal (the machine needs people in all places so every position is worthy) but you must match your information diet with your goals.
- Instead of waldenponding, he uses weightlifting analogy for training your attention. Just be aware that social media is just one type of load and should not constitute your whole workout if you want to achieve a higher place in the machine.
With the ashes of the information explosion layered miles high, modernity rewards people who know the effective ways to search the soot for the surviving insights. Knowing a lot about something in demand secures you place in the machine (for now), there may be more leverage today in knowing how to know things. Supply and demand is the force of gravity in the non-physical world. If the supply of information is abundant the bottleneck is in the questions. Give thought to abstracting how you learn things. The direct questions are frontal attacks. Learn to flank.
Hands-on example: Twitter
- Twitter is a fantastic platform to explore niches if you learn to use it effectively. I have learned so much from “Fintwit” (financial twitter) despite being a finance professional. Start following people that you like and as you read conversations you discover who else you like and before long you can, without their permission, find a tribe to teach and challenge you.
- I have helped several people to discover and benefit from a thoughtful approach to Twitter. My 2 main techniques:
- Use curated lists related to topics. You can subscribe to any of my lists and think of them as customized feeds. Make your own or find the lists of other “Tweeps” you may like.
- On desktop use Tweetdeck. It uses your Twitter credentials and allows you to see column-based feeds filtered by a list, a hashtag, a user, or other dimensions. Here’s a snapshot of my Tweetdeck.
- I don’t post much but I do engage conversations sometimes. Twitter is a very entertaining and clever ecosystem. If you want a field guide to the Twitter prairie, check out Alex Danco’s playful analysis. Learn what it means to “get ratio-ed”.
- If you are able to generate a following, one of the greatest tools afforded to you is the ability to crowdsource the answer to questions from a sharp community. Remember, you can follow anyone, unlike LinkedIn. You can always @ someone’s handle but to DM somebody they must follow you. I have seen people expertly crowdsource insightful business questions. I recommend following people who exploit this power so you can “draft in their lanes”.
- If you don’t have a following (I do not), remember that crowdsourcing skill can be best rewarded on Reddit. Why is Reddit better than most internet forums? The top entries on the page are not the most recent but the most “upvoted”. Unlike Twitter, you may not “know” the respondents so it can be difficult to calibrate the value of the replies. The trade-off is you don’t need a following, instead, you must ask the right question in the right way to get responses and upvotes. A game in itself.
- Michael Pollan invites you to take psychedelics. For the sake of science.
- Autocomplete an entire paragraph! A little spooky? It’s just the beginning.
- Market Ear is a slick feed for following markets. A bit trader centric.
- A video history of “ok”. Etymology porn. H/t to Avi!
From my actual life
Apple released this commercial in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day. It epitomizes my impression of moms everywhere and in every species:
There is no force greater than the wrath sprung from our deepest loves. And no love deeper than the mamas for its cub. Respect.