#Ferguson Problems: How Social Media Mangles Critical Thinking

//by Ryan Taylor//

TL;DR: Twitter destroys the integrity of discourse and reinforces cheap appeals to ideology.

Although what’s going on in Ferguson right now is incredibly problematic––not to mention: despicable (also: alarming, infuriating, insulting)––the social media explosion that preceded (and which continues to comment on) the Michael Brown case is symptomatic of another problem, that is: the dramatic lowering of the bar for what constitutes legitimate political discourse.

Our soundbite news culture, exacerbated by Twitter’s 140-character format, has been disturbingly successful in its ongoing replacement of more traditional modes of dialogue. Modes of dialogue which, not viral in any sense of the word, share as a foundation a rigorous analysis.

Before critically examining any of the evidence in the Mike Brown case, I admit I was ready to condemn the police (and all police) in much the same way the Twittersphere and my own Facebook News Feed™ has done. Based on my own political lean, I consumed and dispersed a narrative that appealed to me despite a lack of substantiated evidence therein.

After taking some time to read up and think about the case, my perception of the incident has completely changed.

What’s problematic is not the quickness with which my opinion was able to change, but the quickness with which it was first formed.twitter_evil

Ideology led me to conclude that the Michael Brown case was just another example of institutionalized racism and fetishized violence coming to a head, á la George Zimmerman. Twitter confirmed my conclusion, muddling and mincing the facts.

While the actions Officer Wilson took are inexcusable, even idiotic, the way he has been represented in this case as a ‘cold blooded killer’ is probably disingenuous. Trigger-happy yokel? Yeah. Racist? Very likely. Cold blooded killer? I don’t know the man that well.

To the point: ideology will always play a role in human judgments––this much is certain––but that doesn’t mean we should not be critical of ideology and the mediums through which it influences us.

Now, this post is incredibly ironic, given that its thesis concerns the impotence of social media platforms (like the one I’m using right now) to be politically productive or rigorously composed. This post is certainly neither. But that doesn’t preclude me from pointing to a growing problem: the disavowal of reasoned argument in favor of the easy-to-consume rhetoric of social media.


Sell Your Memome Into Slavery

Wired reports on a new app called Citizenme which will help users consolidate all the data there is to track and sniff about us, as we go about generating it. “Spy on yourself and sell your own data,” Wired concisely puts it. Yes it’s a real app in development.

From social media profiles to the fitness trackers we’re now strapping to our bodies, it’s all data gravy, baby. It’s all very valuable too, and now an app lets users sell their own data into the great gaping maw of marketing, where the app makes its commission, right at the welcome gate to the maw. It begins with the obvious info from social media sites, then the service plans to expand as:

the [Citizenme] team wants to… integrate far more information, including location data, statistics from health trackers, or your even genome, via services like 23andMe. That would let you learn far more about your online self and how advertisers perceive you, while providing still more data you eventually could sell.

Continue reading

ECONOMIST: The tragedy of the Arabs

Opened up the wifi connect window at a major coffee chain today. The day’s marquee news article was this one from July 5th, published in the ever durable Economist. It details the failures of the Arab people. What it really comes down to, the wise western rag says, is that the Arabs are really just a rubbish people. Religion, that’s no excuse.

I loved this sentence–– not so much for it’s actual implications–– but for its consistency with my ideas about the July 4th drone stunt:

Military support—the supply of drones and of a small number of special forces—may help keep the jihadists in Iraq at bay. That help may have to be on permanent call.

So the drone exits its pupation phase, metamorphosed into a sentry of freedom and democracy both at home and abroad. Drones are here to help, and they are here to stay.

Makes me wonder about a term to describe a process that’s the opposite of “metastasize”…like, benastasize?

I’m flailing here.

ECONOMIST: The tragedy of the Arabs

ISIS’ Bitcoin Move a Threat to High Finance

Pando daily and other sources report that ISIS the Islamic State, known in some parts as the Ramadan Rough Riders, have recently joined the bitcoin club.

In the wake of this development, divisions of US and European financial giants are bracing for infrastructure switchover costs in the race to provide state-of-the-art services to enemies of state.

Top industry players have spotted the trend moving militia funding away from centralized government fiat currencies, toward digital and encrypted ‘crypto currencies,’ such as Bitcoin. Money laundering is a high-growth sector and the competition is fierce. Bank of America, Wachovia, BNP Paribas, HSBS and others boast prestigious Capital Markets––Militias, Terrorism, Narcoterrorism divisions.

Banking executives worldwide have been taking emergency meetings with CIA officials. The parties’ interests are aligned here: stay relevant in a digital age where terrorist hands are not forced into heroin distribution deals with various and sundry US forces.

Watch this space.

Comment Threads: All Agony, No Ecstasy

//by Keith Binkly//

Last great experience you had in an online comment thread, go!

Right. Didn’t think so.

I love the writing on The Last Psychiatrist blog. It’s downright excellent. One of the best offerings in the whole wide blogosphere. I think to myself, You know, I’d like to check out the comment section, because I expect to find some intelligent conversation going on there. Might even jump in myself.

It’s true that the comments–– and the commenters–– are ‘intelligent,’ strictly speaking. But it’s rather tough to stomach because so many reader responses are hiply self-referential to a fault and ape the author’s style to a miserable tee.

When you’re there answering your own rhetorical questions and fashioning yourself a fount of contrarian insight, you better be the original author. If you’re unloading in the comments instead, douche tsunamis are always sure to follow.

Of course, emulation has always been a healthy tool for writers, right up until online commenting. There, everyone else is, too, reproducing the style that’s both the cause of, and forum for, the gathering. Traditionally this has served as great comfort to offline congregations, but it morphs into the coldest kind of comfort for online groups. Continue reading

Google Barges, or Mister America Float On By

Jon Stewart’s latest show covered a story about the Google barges popping up on either US coast. One’s moored in San Francisco Bay, the other sitting in Maine’s Portland Harbor. For want of a manifest, media offered asinine speculation as to the concealed cargo. Señor Stewart handles his bread and butter:

Source: The Daily Show

This got my wheels a-spinnin’. A search yielded a WaPo article: Google’s crazy barge scheme: your complete guide. Check out this bit:

A Bay Area TV station has said the barge will be a marketing center for Google Glass, the wearable computer that connects to eyeglasses. Business Insider has suggested the same thing. An anonymous source told CNET that the barges will be stores that float from city to city via river (emphasis mine)

Um, that tip was anonymous for a reason, guys. What is this, a tabloid? Can we go ahead and not write an obituary for journalism? Think twice about the idea that Google wants to send barges adrift down our waterways, slanging augmented reality headgear to America’s riverfront communities. This report demands suspension of disbelief that might be required to view movie sequels Robocop: Houseboat! or Minority Report on the Mississippi.

Headline pizzazz is not gotten by a ‘new Google data centers’ story, it’s true. But the whole piece is bunk when reporters have no insight into the question, Why floating? 

My guess: finance. Specifically, high frequency trading (HFT). The winning edge in HFT is so vanishingly small that, paradoxically, physical space comes back into play. If Google were to float these barges way out into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, they’d succeed in putting relay centers smack dab in between the west coast and the Tokyo Stock Exchange, the east coast and the London Stock Exchange. The cash that mega-banks would put up for a Google server at sea is—oh my god wait for it—unfathomable.

In support of my speculation I offer this, a Reuters piece published in May of this year. The article talks HFT with Mike Persico, CEO of high-tech network infrastructure company Anova Technologies:

Asked what might come next, Persico mentioned the use of drones and barges to create a transatlantic wireless network (emphasis mine).  

*Gulp*. Welp, I sure didn’t wake up wishing for a haunting vision of space-age militarized finance this sunny morning, but, there it is.

Mr. America, try to hide the product of your savage pride. 


The Facebook Effect (What Is It?)

Sometimes I fantasize about kicking the Facebook habit. It alters mind and behavior, I have no doubt. But how? Why? Can it be contained or controlled?

Sometimes I want to shove away this digital decadence in disgust, proclaim a return to the new asceticism: the analog life (LOL ya rite!!!) Maybe I’ll start a band called Rage Against The Facebook.

What I’m really interested in is pulling apart the psychology of having and maintaining a social media profile. Specifically one on Facebook because it’s so all-encompassing. I’m hoping that over the course of writing social media critiques, I’ll eventually find my way to a tempered optimism. Fingers crossed that I don’t find myself railing against what I secretly want to save myself from, a la ‘moral majority’-type politicians, Pastor Ted Haggard, etc. Anyway, my first concern has to do with identity and Facebook’s demands on our attention. Later pieces will deal with other aspects, but I want to start with this one, which I call:

Near-Past Nostalgia. 

‘Near-future’ literally means ‘the not-so-distant future.’ Writers and filmmakers often tell stories set in near-future worlds to make political points and create a surrounding sense of moral urgency. Whatever the impending problem in the artist’s view– global warming, war mongering, outsourcing, some creeping horror of culture decay, anything– the hope invariably is that viewers will research, rethink, and react in service of the cause.

The near-future technique must make an implicit argument: Focus on this, because this is worth your attention. The argument must be made, and made forcefully, because human attention is the most precious resource in the entire milky way galaxy (if not the entire universe, but I hope not).

With a major assist from wisely acquired artsy-sheen-provider Instagram, Facebook inverts the art of near-future. The platform directs its one billion users’ attention toward their own not-so-distant history. That is to say, their own near-past. Pics, vids, messages of last week, last month, and last year are all on continuous display just a few clicks away, reminding us where and with whom we just were. Read: who we just were.

When it comes to the argument for attention, it’s already won: It’s me, and I’m worth it. Devil’s advocate anyone?

friedalorealFreida Pinto on self-affirmation, purportedly. Grammar is [sic]. Source: lorealparis.com

David Foster Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest (Little, Brown, 1996), ‘We are what we walk between.’ I think I agree with that. Self-expression at any moment can be broken down into what began and what will end the journey (or journeys) we’re on. And just so do we reply to the battle hymn of HR personnel, which goes (the battle hymn): Tell me about yourself. The answer is, guaranteed, a mix of where we’ve been and where we plan to go. But crucially, the question of identity is a matter of the weight we hang on either end of the psychic balancing scale.

Do we identify more heavily with the containers holding our last endeavors and prior escapades? Or do we look to the containers of to-be-explored possibilities? Indeed with this metaphor I ask you to imagine yourself a shipping crane, and to ponder the true significance of yesterday’s cargo.

Anyway, the point is that our attention is restricted to a narrow field. Were we to attend to all–mind in overdrive considering past and future–the splayed self would stretch into an unthinking membrane. In terms of the Wallace quote, it’d be like trying to walk in opposite directions simultaneously. Gotta pick, because where we choose to focus our precious attention makes us who we are. The larger the origin looms or the future horizon magnetizes, the gravity of our journey is thus oriented. In consideration of this, Facebook and Instagram’s emphasis on reliving the near-past is problematic.

Social media spaces have today become the environments in which an astounding degree of self-expression and self-image generation takes place. This is ever truer as the internet-enabled individual gets younger.

Barring temporal lobe issues, it’s impossible that someone thumbing through photo albums or whatever social feeds would not experience waves of nostalgia. Reminiscing is a peculiar thing humans have done for millennia, it’s true, but we’ve done so sparingly until social media made photos infinitely portable, instantly and always available on all devices.

It’s seductively costless to switch on a gadget and relive last month’s meals, last year’s relationship, last weekend’s bar crawl, last professional conference, so on and so forth. How rosy those already-lived moments can be. Maybe it’s related to ‘good old days’ syndrome, a condition I just invented. But the misperception of the known past is well known, and pervasive. So grows the weight of our near-past in its mental magnitude.

This makes me ill at ease because the mountain-movers of this new topography have every incentive to push this trend to it’s limit, i.e. What The Market Will Bear. Facebook is designed for effortless content spurting, and also to be a total bitch to remove anything. How do you post a comment anywhere? Type into the comment box and press ‘return’.

How do you delete a specific comment from your archive? Whew. Here goes: Click ‘Timeline Activity.’ Click ‘Comments.’ Click to the correct year. Click to the correct month. Scroll, then click ‘More Activity’ if/as needed, repeat until comment is found. Click the tiny pencil ‘edit’ symbol. Click ‘Delete.’ Prompt: ‘Are you sure you want to delete?’ Click ‘yes’ or press return.

Holy shit. That’s not even counting scouring time for comments with date unknown. No search bar here, suckers. But hold on to your panties because something Mark Zuckerberg calls frictionless sharing is well on its way, where every very read, every view, each click and comment on any Facebook sign-on site  or app can (i.e. will) be auto-broadcast to your Facebook friends. The energy to prune that overgrowth of social profile data is shocking to consider. Celebrity or not, that’ll be a job unto itself.

I might summarize what’s going on this way: the upkeep of a Facebook profile perverts an individual’s grasp of his or her own identity development, by anchoring conscious attention in the mushrooming volume of records chronicling his (or her) own near-past.

What’s wrong with that? Well, I’m want to think that if nature is constantly in flux, so self-image and self-expression should be free to move about. These are the tools by which the fleshy vehicle of our being consciously explores the world and discovers a true self in the process. When I sat in on a meditation session recently the guru spoke about happiness being tied to our own sense of whether the thoughts we have and the actions we perform are progressive rather than regressive. That is, are they in line with our goals? Do they move us toward or away from our destiny?

I know that this sure as hell would sound woo-woo to a previous me, especially the destiny bit. But it’s interesting to note that Wikipedia implements a model very like this to establish trustworthiness of editors. Over the course of entry’s evolution into its final, stable version, those editors that moved the article toward its final version score trust points. Editors who pulled it away from its final version suffer a hit to their reputation. It’s a simple matter of whether a collaborator’s efforts make the final cut or not.

When I think about that in terms of personal development, we want to be mindful of whether we are good or crappy collaborators with ourselves. If we’re moving ourselves in the direction we’ll ultimately end up. It’s a purer form of the weird political idea of voting for the most electable candidate. Instead, it’s your body politic and you’re the most special interest. Go win your future, or you know, something like that. Dwelling on the past takes time and energy away from distilling the final version of ourselves, and Facebook and like applications rack up serious excess-dwelling time. It comes from some where. We can either look toward the future or get stuck in the past, and no one has ever  gotten stuck in the future, not even Marty McFly.

Getting Facebook-hooked on the past can only be an impediment to identity cultivation. In some cases, a cause for crisis. We’re burning up valuable attention resources in service of looking backward, to the detriment of the energy we’d otherwise devote to inventing the near-future, to plucking up the courage to bound toward it without craning our necks for approval. This is the point of nearly every motivational speech ever: fight valiantly against that awful tendency to debit the account named ‘where to next?’, while the frantic ‘who am I?’ account gets more credits than god at the Grammys.

What I’m getting at is simply, social media has the power to sacrifice dreams of the future for an identity crisis now.

In the good old days, dusting off a physical photo album was reserved for special occasions, holidays mainly. Also to be embarrassed in front of a significant other for parental mirth purposes. We’d all marvel at how much we’ve changed without  realizing it: Wow, I’m a totally different person now! That whole developing-without-realizing thing is a matter of not worrying Who am I? all the damn time. If mid-life crisis is a sudden and hysterical onset of What have I missed out on?! then the bogus and too-chronicled pop-disorder called Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) stinks of way-too-early-onset midlife crisis.

Middle-age men mired in the aforementioned psychic calamity are known to saunter down to their local Harley-Davidson dealership and claim any wind-blown Route-66 tours rightfully theirs. Facebook aims to be the limitless Harley lot for us FOMOd-out digital natives, pacing and racking our rearward brains to answer the unanswerable: What am I missing out on right now?!


I use the state of the art 


Supposed to make for better livin’

Are we better human beings

We’ve got all our wires crossed

Our tubes are all tied

And I’m strainin’ to remember 

Just what it means to be alive