Friday Round-up – August 7, 2020

This was a light week for consuming content that stuck with me, so here is the sole round-up list for the week ending on August 7th:

ūüí≠Reflection – Citing our sources – How to Think for Yourself | Ozan Varol blog post and Don’t Quote. Make it Yours and Say it Yourself | Derek Sivers blog post

The Varol piece was new, and as I read it, it reminded me of the Sivers piece, so I’m pairing them together. I’m a little conflicted with the message. On the one hand, I agree with both writers about the sentiments they are expressing. In Varol’s case, often citation becomes a short-hand for original thinking. Rather than expression your own unique ideas, you regurgitate what you’ve consumed from others (whether you are citing it or not, as is on display in the Good Will Hunting example). Likewise, Sivers is on to something when he suggests that integrating facts into our mental apparatus should not require us to cite our sources when it’s no longer the appropriate context. It makes sense to cite sources when writing something that will be graded in school, but it is stilted while in informal settings.

Where I feel conflicted is when there is a need to trace ideas back to verify the content. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it has certainly accelerated in recent years that misinformation is being thrown out into the void at a rapid pace. The internet has optimized itself on three facts of human nature – we like sensation, we like things that are familiar (that accords with what we already believe), and we are less critical of our in-group. Therefore, information bubbles get set up online, which creates a digital environment that’s conducive to rapid spreading of memetic viruses. When you think about it, it’s a marvelous analogy: the online information bubble is a closed environment where people are like-minded, which amounts to a roughly analogical immune system. A memetic virus then latches hold on one person, who spreads it to people in their network. Since the folks in the network share similar belief structures, the homogeneous group quickly spreads the meme throughout the information bubble. The meme is then incorporated into the belief network of the individuals through repetition and confirmation bias exposure. It writes itself into the belief web, in the same way viruses incorporate themselves into DNA.

I’m using the example of a memetic virus, but I think this framework is equally applied to more benign examples. Scientists release findings in the form of pre-peer reviewed news releases, which gets amplified and distorted through the media, which is then amplified and distorted through information bubbles. See here for an example:

At each phase, part of the signal is lost or transformed, like a social media game of telephone. When one person in the chain misunderstands the data, that impacts how the idea gets replicated. Over time, it becomes the digital version of a cancerous mutation of the base information.

This is why it’s important that we take care of how information is communicated, because as soon as you print something like “the majority of people believe x,” or “studies showed a y% decrease in the effect,” without a proper context of what the data is saying (or its limitations), that gets incorporated into people’s webs of belief. If you are a part of the population that believes something and you read that information, it reinforces your prior beliefs and you continue on in replicating the idea.

And so I’m torn. On the one hand, I shouldn’t need to cite my sources when having a casual conversation (a la Sivers), and I shouldn’t be substituting original thoughts with the ideas of others (a la Varol), but at the same time, I want it to be the case that when I encounter something that it should be verifiable and scruitable. I don’t know what the solution to this is, other than to flag it and remind myself to be wary of absolutist language.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Appealing to my Smarmy Brain

selective focus photography of spiderweb
Photo by Nicolas Picard on Unsplash

From time to time, I catch myself thinking some pretty stupid stuff for entirely dumb reasons. A piece of information finds a way to bypass any critical thinking faculties I proudly think I possess and worms its way into my belief web. Almost like a virus, which is a great segue.

A perfect example of this happened last week in relation to the COVID-19 news, and I thought it important to share here, both as an exercise in humility to remind myself that I should not think myself above falling for false information, and as my contribution to correcting misinformation floating around the web.

Through a friend’s Stories on Instagram, I saw the following screencap from Twitter:

My immediate thought was to nod my head in approval and take some smug satisfaction that of course I’m smart enough to already know this is true.

Thankfully, some small part at the back of my brain immediately raised a red flag and called for a timeout to review the facts. I’m so glad that unconscious part was there.

It said to me “Hang on… is hand-sanitizer ‘anti-bacterial’?

I mean, yes, technically it is. But is it “anti-bacterial” in the same way that it is getting implied in this tweet? The way the information is framed, it treats the hand-sanitizer’s anti-bacterial properties as being exclusively what it was designed for, like antibiotics. For example, you can’t take antibiotics for the cold or flu, because those are not bacterial infections but viral infections.

Rather than leaving this belief untested, I jumped on ye ol’ Googles to find out more. I found a write-up in the National Center for Biotechnology Information discussing alcohol sanitizers.

According to the author on the topic of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (ABHS),

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases evaluated the virucidal activity of ABHS against re-emerging viral pathogens, such as Ebola virus, Zika virus (ZIKV), severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and determined that they and other enveloped viruses could be efficiently inactivated by both WHO formulations I and II (ethanol-based and isopropanol-based respectively). This further supports the use of ABHS in healthcare systems and viral outbreak situations.

There are some special cases where ABHS are not effective against some kinds of non-enveloped viruses (e.g. norovirus), but for the purposes of what is happening around the world, ABHS are effective. It is also the case that the main precaution to protect yourself is to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and follow other safety precautions as prescribed.

The tweet, while right about the need for us to wash our hands and not overly rely on hand-sanitizers, is factually wrong generally. Thanks to a mix of accurate information (bacteria =/= virus) and inaccurate information(“hand sanitizer is not anti-bacterial”), and a packaging that appeals to my “I’m smarter than you” personality, I nearly fell for its memetic misinformation.

There are a number of lessons I’ve taken from this experience:

  1. My network is not immune to false beliefs, so I must still guard against accepting information based on in-group status.
  2. Misinformation that closely resembles true facts will tap into my confirmation bias.
  3. I’m more likely to agree with statements that are coded with smarmy or condescending tonality because it carries greater transmission weight in online discourse.
  4. Appeals to authority (science) resonate with me – because this was coming from a scientist who is tired of misinformation (I, too, am tired of misinformation), I’m more likely to agree with something that sounds like something I believe.
  5. Just because someone says they are a scientist, doesn’t make the status true, nor does it mean what they are saying is automatically right.
  6. Even if the person is factually a scientist, if they are speaking outside of their primary domain, being a scientist does not confer special epistemological status.
  7. In the aftermath, the tweet was pulled and the person tried to correct the misinformation, but the incident highlights that the norms of Twitter (and social media more broadly) are entirely antithetical to nuance and contextual understanding.

It’s interesting how much information spread (memetics) resembles pathogen spreading. If the harmful thing attacking us is sufficiently designed to sidestep our defenses, whether that’s our body’s immune system or our critical thinking faculties, the invading thing can easily integrate within, establish itself within our web, and prepare to spread.

The one thing that really bums me out about this event is the inadvertent harm that comes to scientific authority. We as a society are caught in a period of intense distrust of the establishment that is coinciding with the largest explosion of information our species has ever seen. The result of this is not that good information is scarce, but rather the signal-to-noise ratio is so imbalanced that good information is getting swept away in the tide. If people grow distrustful of the sources of information that will help protect us, then forget worrying about gatekeepers that keep knowledge hidden; there will be no one left to listen.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My Fab Fit Friends

person wearing orange and gray Nike shoes walking on gray concrete stairs
Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

This week, I want to pause to celebrate some of my friends who I find really inspiring. I don’t get a chance to see these folks much in person anymore as we’ve all moved on with our lives. They came into my life through various avenues – a childhood friend (C), high school (Sh), community work (K), and two I met through working at the bar (Sa and Y) – and yet thanks to technology and one of the few positive benefits of social media, I get to be a passive viewer as they live out their lives.

The concept of fitness is fraught with some terrible associations about what it means to be or look healthy. I don’t look to these friends because they embody some ideal of fitness, but for a more important reason. I admire them because they are consistent and dedicated, which is something I struggle with from time to time. Every day that I scroll through my feed, one or more of my friends are sharing the fitness part of their lives by showing up and putting in their time towards their goals.

“C”, for instance, is killer with her cardio and puts my runs to shame. “Sh” is in the gym almost every morning before I am conscious enough to roll out of bed. “K” has logged so many days of running on the trail, riding on her bike, and hours on the mat that she could stop all activity and I doubt I’d still catch up in my lifetime. “Y” is an absolute beast of a man and can deadlift two of me, but is one of the nicest guys I’ve had the privilege of working with. And “Sa,” who I’ve been fortunate to train with, is there, everyday, training his students in athletics and the martial arts.

These aren’t perfect people. Each of them has had their ups and downs, and has struggled in battle with their own personal demons. It’s not the “fitness” that makes me proud of their work, it’s because they inspire me to show up and not get discouraged.

To my friends – I see you. I see all of your hard work. I appreciate how honest you are. And I applaud that you all seem to do what you do for good, noble reasons. You aren’t vain and aren’t doing it for the attention. You are doing it for you, to live your best lives. To challenge yourself and to focus your energies.

Thank-you.

Stay(ing as) Awesome (as they are),

Ryan

Checking Intuitions – Is Facebook As Bad As We Think?

Last week, I published a long, rambley set of thoughts about my relationship to Facebook. ¬†The following night, I sat down with a group of friends to discuss a taped forum discussion published by the CBC. ¬†If you have never looked into CBC’s programming, particularly their show Ideas, and their daily program The Current, I highly recommend them.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/screened-off-the-dangers-of-an-insular-web-1.3937638

It’s always good to check your intuitions and opinions against what others think, because sometimes its possible that your biases blind you to alternative considerations.

Now, what I’m about to write about is entirely unverified and does not serve as an argument on any side of this debate. ¬†This post is not meant to deliver any definitive answers on the topic of whether Facebook (or the modern internet) is less democratized, more problematic, or having a polarizing effect on how people think. ¬†What I wish to capture is how my mind expanded a bit when I listened to how others viewed the podcast topic and their reactions to it.

Going into the meeting, I felt that I aligned with the views discussed in the program.  I feel that people are polarizing in the online echo-chamber communities and that the internet, or specifically products created for the web, are designed to be attractive and modify behaviour to increase engagement.  Shallow content and emotional shortcuts are easily bypassing critical thought and our ability to maintain our attention is being eroded.

There were two counter thoughts brought up at the meeting that significantly shook my opinion.  Again, I pose these as items to consider, not definitive rebuttals to the original claims.

Rose-Coloured Nostalgia

The first assumption challenge by one friend was that the understanding and explanation of how the internet is currently, and how the internet “used to be,” do not adequately reflect reality. ¬†In the first instance, the speakers on the program are only speaking to a mainstream understanding of social media. ¬†They use Facebook as the default conversation piece because it is the highest trafficked site, however their descriptions do not account for all uses of the net, nor all demographic engagements. ¬†In fact, Facebook-use is in decline among younger internet uses (“old people got on Facebook and ruined it”).

But in the second instance, my friend (whom is a few years older than I am) disagrees with the assumption that the internet in the late-90’s and early 2000’s was more democratized. ¬†On a purely surface level, sure, it was more democratized because there were less corporate products. ¬†But at the same time, the internet was more closed off to the mass market because no one knew how to use the internet. ¬†Without the advent of streamlined user-interfaces, most people lacked the technical skills to adequately use the internet beyond services provided by internet providers (the Yahoo’s, the AOL’s, etc.).

I realized that my understanding and buy-in for the arguments is predicated on an understanding of the internet that I have no direct experience of. ¬†I only started using the web in 1998, compliments of AOL and the many coasters they sent to our house. ¬†Other than chat rooms and Slingo, my recollection of the net pre-2000 is pretty spotty. ¬†I have nothing that informs my opinion on the matter, and it’s entirely possible that I’m agreeing with a characterization of the web that is out of line with reality.

Deep Data

Another excellent criticism that another friend raised is that Facebook isn’t necessarily forcing people into echo-chambers, nor are people necessarily becoming more radical in their views. ¬†In fact, we don’t really know what’s happening relative to the pre-2000’s. ¬†For the first time in history, we are able to collect massive amounts of data on the reading habits of people online. ¬†Until recently, understanding where people seek out content, how they share, what they share, what they click through, etc, was not possible to the degree we are seeing now. ¬†It’s bad for us to see the limited data and fit a worldview to it. ¬†Quite simply, we don’t know if Facebook is changing anything, or if we are just able to glimpse into the minds of others for the first time.

But, you may say, “I’ve been on Facebook since the mid-2000’s and I’ve noticed a shift in my news feed.” ¬†Yes, that’s true. ¬†It’s also true that algorithms are more sophisticated now to curate your news feed. ¬†The only thing missing from that consideration is that the sample size for you has changed. ¬†If Facebook’s size had remained constant, we could potentially make an inference to how Facebook has impacted people. ¬†Instead, Facebook has gone from being the domain of college students (a typically liberal-leaning demographic) to high school students (remember when we thought that was a mistake, and these kids shouldn’t be on the network) to when our parents joined Facebook (ugh! They ruined Facebook!). ¬†Consider an alternative perspective – our experience of other people on Facebook was initially biased, and then regressed back to the mean once the user pool expanded to include non-university users (which is a fairly homogeneous class of people, all things considered).

Closing Thoughts

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what’s right, but I suppose that’s a good thing. ¬†Recognizing that my own views and opinions should be treated as suspect is a valuable insight to have. ¬†It requires a level of self-awareness that usually doesn’t get a lot of discussion in today’s media. ¬†Instead, everyone seems to speak from a position of authority that I feel as though I lack in my internal monologue. ¬†Maybe my friends are correct, and that the think-pieces about the dangers of walled-gardens and the role that social media has on our ability to think critically is all smoke and little fire. ¬†To be fair, where there is smoke, there is usually fire, so there is *something* there that needs to be discussed.

I appreciate the insight my friends brought to the table. ¬†It shouldn’t be surprising that the answers they gave above are wholly connected to their fields of expertise. ¬†The first friend has a PhD in criminology and has studied deviance online. ¬†The second friend works in marketing for a major Canadian food company. ¬†Their experiences are helpful to provide alternative viewpoints to my own, and if it is true that you are the average of the 5 people you most commonly associate with, it’s a pretty powerful example to me of the value in a diversity (plurality) of thought.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Signal and Noise – Facebook, We Need to Talk

Continuing the emergent theme of¬†January for this blog, I thought this post could discuss¬†some of the thoughts that have been mulling around in my head for the last few months. ¬†Once again, in the spirit of pulling back and simplifying, I’ll briefly comment on some thoughts I’ve had about Facebook (specifically) and social media (generally).

This won’t be a think piece about the problems with the various platforms, their social responsibility, the degree to which they are or are not responsible for the behaviours of their users, etc. ¬†There are many great articles written on those topics that have spun out as a consequence of the American Presidential election late last year. ¬†I have nothing new or clever to add to that conversation.

Instead, I want to focus on my relationship with social media – how it has affected me and my behaviour. ¬†You, my dear reader, may or may not agree with my attitude towards social media. ¬†That’s ok. ¬†I’m not speaking to any sort of norms here. ¬†I don’t think people should adopt my views if they don’t want to. ¬†Your relationship with social media is wholly bound up in a different set of lived experiences which is not guaranteed to overlap with mine in any meaningful sense. ¬†I will be describing my experiences here.

Birthday 2015

In 2015, I set a challenge for myself to cut back on my Facebook use.  I felt that I was spending far too much time endlessly and mindlessly scrolling through Facebook.  This challenge was motivated by a desire to be more productive in my life.  I wanted to consume less and produce more; I felt this was important for me to grow as a person.  Facebook was a constant and daily consumption habit where I binged on updates from my network of friends and family.  It was less about a sense of fear of missing out and more about seeking updates to what people were doing and things they found interesting.

So, on my birthday in 2015, I deleted the app off my phone. ¬†The experiment wasn’t very successful as I logged into Facebook using my phones Chrome browser (I had legitimate reasons to need onto the site initially since my job at the bar uses a Facebook group for scheduling shifts). ¬†When I didn’t log off from the browser, I essentially was left with Facebook on my phone.

It took until around September of 2016 to wise up to my usage, and I deleted the Chrome app from my phone.  For the last 4 months of 2016, I abided by the spirit of the original challenge and things were good.

Birthday 2016

Every year at the outset of my birthday, on the stroke of midnight, I deactivate my Facebook account for 24-hours. ¬†I do this for a number of reasons. ¬†It allows me to be more present in the day. ¬†It allows room to reflect and introspect. ¬†I don’t have a constant deluge of notifications from people wishing me a happy birthday (especially from people who only message me once a year¬†because Facebook tells them it’s my birthday). ¬†And it removes a mindless activity so that I can do more productive things with my birthday, such as exercising and volunteering.

This year was no exception on that front.  What was unique was that my birthday was buttressed against several days of travel and time with family.  For the better part of  the next five days,  I was busy with family and Christmas, and was never near a computer with enough time or the desire to check Facebook.  I realized only after my family expressed concern that I had possibly unfriended them (and my fiancee joking that she was no longer engaged to someone on Facebook) that I finally logged back in.

Upon logging back in, I realized that I hadn’t really missed the experience. ¬†The first few days did have me missing Facebook in moments of boredom, but otherwise I hadn’t really missed using the service. ¬†I was actually a little sad that I was giving in and returning to the service because it became a game to see how long I could go without using Facebook.

I also realized that I felt happier in my ignorance. ¬†Well, that’s not true because I still followed the news and read articles; I kept up with current events. ¬†But in not paying attention to the micro-updates in peoples lives and in unverified news, a weight had lifted from my psyche.

Signal and Noise

When I reflected on these thoughts, I realized that I should maintain some element of distance from using Facebook going forward and disengage. ¬†My rationale has changed a little bit since 2015. ¬†I still seek to favour production over consumption, but since the election, using Facebook has become, for a lack of a better expression,¬†less fun. ¬†Through a combination of fake news, false information on memes, politicization, activism, expressed attitudes and values I disagree with on many levels, and uninteresting updates, I don’t enjoy using Facebook like I once had.

What I realized is that the signal-to-noise ratio had skewed too far in the noise direction. ¬†I personally don’t find Facebook all that useful outside of some very limited cases. ¬†I was having a hard time filtering out all the distractions. ¬†There are a number of reasons for this that, if I genuinely sought to address, I could fix. ¬†I could start hiding posts, or reporting fake news. ¬†I could unfriend people I don’t associate with, or I could hide posts and stop following updates from people in my network. ¬†I could curate the experience to better suit my tastes.

There are two big reasons why I don’t follow this route. ¬†First, I’m conscious of trying to avoid setting up an echo chamber that reflects back only things I agree with. ¬†I value diversity of opinion, even if I disagree with it. ¬†What I’m seeing on Facebook is not opposing viewpoints expressing themselves constructively. ¬†This may make me a bad person, an abuser of my privilege, or a bad ally, but I don’t find value in only associating with people who narrowly share my values and beliefs. ¬†It’s especially bad when I agree with the cause, I agree with the conclusions, but I disagree with the message or argument presented. ¬†I value setting aside individual differences for common purposes. ¬†I value good, sound arguments. ¬†I value constructive input and critiques. ¬†I value testing assumptions and arguments to ensure the burrs are smoothed out. ¬†A consequence is that this does end up challenging my beliefs less; on that front, I acknowledge the consequence of my action. ¬†I don’t have an adequate response to this and I need more time to reflect on it.

But the second reason why I don’t follow this route is that I don’t feel invested in the desire to fix the experience I have on the platform. ¬†Instead, I’m much happier to step back from the noise and seek other areas of my life where I can boost the signal of things that matter to me. ¬†I can focus on paying for news that I value (I recently purchased a subscription to The Economist, and a subscription for The New Yorker was gifted to me for Christmas). ¬†I prioritize time with friends and family. ¬†Being present with them is more important than cursory updates. ¬†And I have the time to satisfy my desire to be constructive – making things, collaborating with friends, and learning.

To me, Facebook is an endless well of distraction. ¬†Are there useful things on there? ¬†Sure. ¬†Are there important things on the platform? ¬†Absolutely! ¬†The activism and awareness campaigns that have popped up in the last year are a testament to how the platform can be useful to getting the conversation going for a mainstream audience. ¬†I would never want to take that away from the experiences of others. ¬†What I have a personal issue with is what the behaviour represents about¬†me. ¬†Facebook is a crutch I use to distract and occupy myself when I’m bored or procrastinating. ¬†I seek out the notifications and the feedback. ¬†I seek out validation and approval.

Facebook is built specifically to take advantage of this biological system in our brains. ¬†I won’t go so far as to say it’s addictive, but I will say that the site is engineered to get people to frequently come back to the platform multiple times per day through posts, notifications and suggestions. ¬†It leverages my desire for novelty and new content is frequently just a refresh away.

The same can be said for other platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. ¬†I suppose where my bias shows is I’m less critical of Instagram because I can curate my experience better around my interests and hobbies. ¬†On top of that, I find the experience purer on Instagram because I use it to share things I do and find interesting in my everyday life. ¬†These are things that I experience and these are things I make. ¬†It’s constructive, rather than consumptive.

Moving forward, I’m seeking to engage less with social media. ¬†I don’t hate or think Facebook to be evil. ¬†It’s a tool like any other. ¬†My goal is to scale back my use and be more mindful. ¬†I want to signal-boost the important things and tip the scales away from consumption into something more constructive.

Produce, not consume.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan