Sunday Seven: Reading, reality and inequality

For the first Sunday Seven of the year, I’ve tried to stay away from the typical “best of” and “trends for” lists, there are so many of them, and few are worth more than a passing glance (the ones I’ve most enjoyed so far are this one from Wired on upcoming TV, games and music, and this engrossing one from Longreads on the best longform journalism of 2015). Here are some links to articles and ideas I’ve enjoyed this week:

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The deep space of digital reading – by Paul La Farge, for Nautilus

by Irene Rinaldi for Nautilus

by Irene Rinaldi for Nautilus

Paul La Farge gives us an eye-opening stroll through the history of reading that debunks the accusation that technology is making us dumber.

“The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment.”

Tackling Nicholas Carr’s accusation that we’ve lost the ability to “deep read”, as in to read a book from cover to cover without getting distracted, Lafarge points out that we never really had it. The table of contents, the index and footnotes are there to distract us, to add side texts, to make it easier to weave in and out of a narrative. The only books that we enthusiastically read from beginning to end are novels, for we don’t want to miss part of the plot.

“The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades—little jumps—and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse’s cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote.”

And the overwhelming flood of stuff to read is not new, either. Ever since the printing press was invented, mankind has been churning out more books than anyone can read in a lifetime. The scale is completely different now. But then again, more people than ever are readers.

Lafarge also brings up the intriguing question of why we find scrambled texts, disjointed ideas and general absurdity more fun. As education experts can tell you, we learn more when we’re having fun. So, surely text riddled with hyperlinks, and fractured reading, help us to learn more, not less? It could well be that our lower learning scores are because of haste imposed by expectations, both ours and society’s, rather than the style of the text. That is not (directly, anyway) technology’s fault.

This also hints at the success of the new literary media of video games. Apart from the technological wizardry and fantastic art, the interrupted story lines that wait for our input make us part of the narrative, increasing our emotional investment and empowering our search for more.

After reading this article you’ll feel more relaxed about the digital encroachment, and more of a participant in a fundamental cultural and even biological shift. Our brains are being rewired, yes, but not as a shocked response to sudden changes in media. Rather, we are all part of a continuous rewiring that is and always has been necessary to adapt to the technological evolution that propels us forward.

In lamenting the impact of new technologies, we join the ranks of great philosophers throughout history. But an open mind presents opportunities, and some historical perspective gives confidence, opens up curiosity and hands us better questions.

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The Value In Virtual And Augmented Reality – by  Linc Gasking, for TechCrunch

I’m excited about virtual reality, and augmented reality, and how it will change the experience of watching, learning, playing and doing. This article nimbly skips across the surface of the potential, and in so doing conveys an understanding of why so much is being written in the tech press about the developments. Skeptics say that it’s a “flash in the pan”, that the enthusiasm will die out as we discover that the headsets are too clunky, too expensive and/or too isolating. I don’t agree, I believe that the genie is out of the bottle as far as the technology is concerned. The emotional impact is real, and thoughout time we have shown that we are willing to pay for that. If the headsets aren’t comfortable enough, we will come up with something better.

It’s a concept that is hard to understand without experiencing it, and I speak as someone who has not yet tried out “the real thing” and who doesn’t yet fully grasp the impact beyond the “cool” factor. But that doesn’t mean that I’m unable to imagine the implications. Articles like this struggle to do it justice. As Chris Milk said in an entertaining TED talk about the subject: “Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture.”

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The Victoria & Albert’s Design-A-Wig

From those masters of silliness, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, this is crazy fun.

design a wig

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Who controls your Facebook feed – by Will Oremus, for Slate

As Facebook has grown from a way of keeping in touch to a global newspaper, it’s important to have a think about the control it has over what we see. You may think that you’re seeing updates from your friends and from the companies and media that you follow, but you’re wrong. You’re seeing a very limited selection. And who selects? Glad you asked.

You no doubt already know that it’s an algorithm. This gripping article goes deep on how the algorithm works, why, and how it came to be. It is relevant even if you don’t use the social platform, as it speaks to the increasing control that algorithms have over what we see. The author is actually present at an algorithm tweak.

For now, we can put aside our fears of a Facebook-friendly artificial intelligence:

“Facebook’s algorithm, I learned, isn’t flawed because of some glitch in the system. It’s flawed because, unlike the perfectly realized, sentient algorithms of our sci-fi fever dreams, the intelligence behind Facebook’s software is fundamentally human.”

On the ingenuity of the Like button:

“The like button wasn’t just a new way for users to interact on the site. It was a way for Facebook to enlist its users in solving the problem of how best to filter their own news feeds. That users didn’t realize they were doing this was perhaps the most ingenious part. If Facebook had told users they had to rank and review their friends’ posts to help the company determine how many other people should see them, we would have found the process tedious and distracting. Facebook’s news feed algorithm was one of the first to surreptitiously enlist users in personalizing their experience—and influencing everyone else’s.”

I came out of reading this both worried and relieved. Worried that so much information and power is in the hands of a computer program. And relieved that we won’t be depending on it any time soon, either for controlling our feed with intent, or for accurate filtering. It turns out that the algorithm is still very dependent on us humans, and we are a confusing and unpredictable bunch.

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The triumph of email – by Adrienne Lafrance, for The Atlantic

I love the opening:

“Email, ughhhh. There is too much of it, and the wrong kind of it, from the wrong people. When people aren’t hating their inboxes out loud, they are quietly emailing to say that they’re sorry for replying so late, and for all the typos, and for missing your earlier note, and for forgetting to turn off auto-reply, and for sending this from their mobile device, and for writing too long, and for bothering you at all.”

Given how important email is in (most of) our lives, it’s surprising that more isn’t written about it, more studies aren’t done, more philosophical analysis is not performed. Or maybe it is but we just don’t hear about it, and that’s surprising, too. This article is an illuminating and at times discomforting look at an intimate part of our lives: our relationship with the barrage and the variety of the messages arriving daily in our inbox.

Here’s the crux of the problem:

“Email works just the way it’s supposed to, and better than it used to, but people seem to hate it more than ever.”

Why do we hate it? Because of the hijacking of our attention and our time. I get at least 100 emails a day, many of which I absolutely have to read, a good chunk of which I’d like to read, and a big chunk of which are automatic notifications from sites I don’t even remember looking at. Stuart Butterfield, the founder of email-killer Slack (which I use for one of my projects, and it works, email relating to that project is way down) tells us that 80% of the email we receive was not even generated by a human being. Glancing at my inbox, I have a feeling that it’s even more.

And the outlook is not good:

“If email represents one kind of “notification hell,” push notifications are the next circle of it… Push notifications are the natural extension of email, and with the rise of wearables and Internet-connected-everything, it’s only going to get worse.”

Help. I would be so happy if I got much less email. Or would I? Most of the email I receive is because I asked to receive it. Newsletters, curated lists, notifications… I asked for them. If I didn’t get them, I’d feel less informed. But probably less overwhelmed, too. My project for the rest of the day is to reduce my inbox from 1300 emails to just 700. And to watch the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks film “You’ve Got Mail” with my 13-year-old daughter, at her request. She’s entranced by the bookshop. She won’t even recognize their courtship medium as being close to what we still use today.

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52 places to go in 2016 – via The New York Times

I invested wasted so much time fantasising my way through this list. My top 3: Malta, Japan and San Sebastián. Yours?

sansebastian-landscape-1800

by Daniel Rodrigues for The New York Times

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Economic inequality – by Paul Graham

Paul Graham’s meandering response to the “economic inequality is bad” argument reads as a self-absorbed overreaction, which assumes that we all are against all inequality, and that we don’t understand economics at all. While I assume that he has his reasons for taking this so personally, I am confused as to the logic.

Mr. Graham is one of the founders of startup incubator Y Combinator, and as he himself says:

“I’ve become an expert on how to increase economic inequality, and I’ve spent the past decade working hard to do it. Not just by helping the 2500 founders YC has funded. I’ve also written essays encouraging people to increase economic inequality and giving them detailed instructions showing how.

So when I hear people saying that economic inequality is bad and should be decreased, I feel rather like a wild animal overhearing a conversation between hunters.”

Without even going into the implication that if only we were all capable of following his “detailed instructions” we too would be able to contribute to economic equality, let’s go straight to why his comments are an overreaction.

People are not against economic inequality per se. We enjoy the choice that our economic system gives us, and accept that full equality is not a feature. Yet, that does not mean that we are comfortable with the economic equality excesses that we see around us all the time. Most of us are against extreme inequality that weakens our communities, tugs at our heartstrings and makes us question what it means to be a human being. We see extravagant waste, and we see children go hungry. We see narcissistic splurging, and we see people unable to pay for medical treatment. Very few of us are comfortable with that. That does not mean that we want a complete redistribution of wealth. Incentive is good, and success, talent, hard work, and even luck should be rewarded. But fairness, backed up by the fiscal system, judicial support and social benefit is good, too.

Most of us are not at all against startups. Sure, there may be some complaints against startup excess and resulting price bumps (not to mention the hype). But startups aren’t what causes inequality. Successful startup founders create value, employment and technological advances, and deserve the wealth they accumulate. Several of them have taken significant and admirable steps to redistribute a good portion of that.

And the rambling about the pie fallacy and how kids grow up believing in the zero-sum game stretches credibility. Really, children do not grow up believing that for them to do well, someone else has to do badly. Their social instincts are generally more advanced than that, even at a very young age.

But it’s ok, because Mr. Graham isn’t defending all types of wealth:

“I’m all for shutting down the crooked ways to get rich. But that won’t eliminate great variations in wealth, because as long as you leave open the option of getting rich by creating wealth, people who want to get rich will do that instead.”

Ah, so the rich criminals are really all just startup founders who chose an easier way? And if that way is closed off to them, they’ll just go and set up a few companies? Got it.

Mr. Graham’s conclusion is perplexing, somewhat incoherent, and not particularly sensitive, coming from a white male working in Silicon Valley:

“If our goal is to decrease economic inequality, then it is equally important to prevent people from becoming rich and to prevent them becoming poor. I believe it’s far more important to prevent people becoming poor. And that therefore decreasing economic inequality should not be our goal.”

Um.

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Two things I’ve really enjoyed this week:

  • A Christmas present from my husband: Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch whisky. An ideal end to a blustery day.

Laphroaig

  • Building a Lego Minecraft house with my daughter. I think I enjoyed it more than she did, and all I did was hand her the pieces. If anyone wants to know what to get me for my birthday, a Lego spaceship, please.

lego minecraft

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