Collapsing Context

Assorted music amps, records, tapes, books, and televisions on a wall

Does Jaron Lanier follow blogs? Where does he get his news? How does he learn about Meltdown/Spectre?

 

Word of mouth was the original form of communication. Before there were books, people could only tell stories to share information. The collective hive mind of civilization would do their best to spread knowledge equally from one person to the next. Verification of stories could only be carried out collectively as groups of people could ensure what they believe was true. One could add Individual color a story to show creativity but ultimately lead to deviations from the original idea.

Fast forward to books. Once we mastered the skill of preserving information in physical objects the amount of our collective knowledge exploded. We could remember things across generations, and even without coming into contact with the person or people who first transcribed their ideas. We could pull from philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, composers, playwrights, and doctors to develop deeper ideas and advance our understanding.

What is the hive mind in the world of books? It was still among the people reading these works who pulled from their own experiences and created their own interpretations. Remixing their learnings into new forms of intelligence.

Today is another progression. We go beyond having all the knowledge in the world documented and at our fingertips, to peering into the minds of everyone on the internet. Social media, like Twitter, amplify ideas only for an instant, as the next thing comes along and yanks at our attention.

(This is no different than before when we spread stories across the world, or documented our understanding of nature.)

We go where the thought leaders go. And when rapid reactions and quick wit are incentivized, we miss out on the deep thinking required to keep progressing forward. As Lanier mentions, where are all the Woodward and Bernstein’s these days? Deep investigative journalism is becoming a thing of the past. Instead our big stories take the form of the aggregate. Pulling the voices of all perspectives involved. And taking down multiple people.

Continuing the thought, how can one create new ideas and seek blue oceans? Part of the success of the web (an any technology for that matter) is the externalities spawning new industries out of the original innovation. Like cryptography, it takes a lot of work to come up with a solution, but once public, the idea is easily verified. It’s the “why didn’t I think of that moment” you get when watching Shark Tank.

So how can we do it? Why is music from 90s and 00s so similar in sound? Are we bound to digitally rehash all of history? To find out, lets think about some of the new ideas stemming from web 2.0.

Well one more digression. To do so, lets start with some digital rehashes: Airbnb -> hotels. Lyft -> taxis. Wikipedia -> Encyclopedia. Ebay -> Thrift store. Amazon -> Bookstore, grocerystore, restauraunt brick and mortar. These are all hugely successful companies that replaced what existed before. I think what’s missing from Lanier’s manifesto is the added value web 2.0 tech brings to previous implementations. However, he does highlight what’s lost in the transformation. (there is more to talk about here, but I’m getting off track)

What is new thought. Is a review of a book just adding to the noise? How can we ever learn if we do not discuss our thoughts and opinions with others? There is value to rehashing work if the idea can stand for something greater. A new version of Unix? Ok sure. But openly available for all to improve and understand? This is novel and moves society forward. Lanier is concerned with the side effects of open culture and I agree with him on the aspect of sustainability (via employment, how do you make a living working on open source?), but how do we build cathedrals if we don’t have the tools?

Part of Lanier’s concern stems from the abstraction of humankind. Kevin Kelly’s one book theory, for example. And it is important to maintain human individuality and creativity. So how do we keep from abstracting the person behind the creation as we move to an aggregated world? People no longer know which studio produces a movie or TV show, unless it’s from Netflix. Netflix advertises their creations, and everyone else’s are abstracted to a title, image, and caption.

Context Collapse

There is a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show with Lanier. Instigated by the release of Lanier’s new book, the two discuss all sorts of things including VR, music, Facebook, blogs, and podcasts. The most intriguing thread was on the topic of social media’s influence in collapsing context of the things people create. They didn’t know who coined the term, but it seems to have been either danah boyd or Michael Wesch (see below), although it might as well have been Lanier.

The basic idea is this (as nicely described by Joel on Software):

Here’s what happened with the 140 characters. You would start out having some kind of complicated thought. “Ya know, dogs are great and all? I love dogs! But sometimes they can be a little bit too friendly. They can get excited and jump on little kids and scare the bejesus out of them. They wag their tails so hard they knock things over. (PS not Huskies! Huskies are the cats of the dog world!)”

Ok, so now you try to post that on Twitter. And you edit and edit and you finally get it down to something that fits: “Dogs can be too friendly!”

All the nuance is lost. And this is where things go wrong. “@spolsky what about huskies? #dontforgethuskies”

Ten minutes later, “Boycott @stackoverflow. @spolsky proves again that tech bros hate huskies. #shame”

By the time you get off the plane in Africa you’re on the international pariah list and your @replies are full of people accusing you of throwing puppies out of moving cars for profit.

The context for Joel’s thought is his decision to give up Facebook and Twitter for 2018. (Isn’t it odd how things come in threes? Reading Lanier, Context Collapse, Joel on Facebook & Twitter). His reasons for doing so are exactly what Klein and Lanier discuss in the podcast. You just lose the human connection when everything we say and do is mashed up, chomped into a sound bite, and thrown around far outside the initial context for the idea.

And I realize I’m constantly doing that know. I haven’t quite figured out how to include quotes and references to others when developing new thoughts and creating new things. I have to keep exploring. Which leads to…

A basis for further understanding

A quick search lead me to this post from danah boyd on coining context collapse. danah boyd talked about the term back in 2013, referencing her thesis from 2002. So the idea, while not new, was new to me. This topic is a rabbit hole, and I have just scratched the surface. I need to go off to read, watch, and listen. I will return soon.

from danah:

From Michael Wesch:

P.S.

I’ve fallen victim just now. I scoured the web for an hour following links to uncover new and interesting things to read. Then I took it all out of the context I was in and distilled my findings into a nice tidy list. I’m grappling with how the onslaught of Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory can mesh with avoiding context collapse via boyd/Lanier (the three should do a podcast together). Does pulling together sources and finding key themes inherently strip the human side of what people create? Or are we bound to keep mashing up ideas. Certainly all new things come from the history that preceded, but how do we balance this growing from this influence with remembering where we came from?

To do research, you take all the mind space of the internet open 100 tabs, make some progress, then save it across all services to pick up again tomorrow. Just with this topic alone, I scattered material to YouTube, Kindle, Instapaper, iBooks, and OneNote. What in the world!? How do people keep any semblance of a train of thought when the best technologies are designed to keep us stretched in multiple directions. Where does the context remain after distilling your work into buckets and silos? This frustrates me, With all the learning one can do on the internet, why is it so unnatural and inhuman? What if the internet was set up more like college, where thoughts and ideas are shared amongst new learners and experts, instead of like a kindergarten classroom where things may be haphazardly thrown everywhere with no sense of where they came from?

There is more to this thread, but I need to dig deeper. I have my materials and my thoughts. Now I just need to stay focused. Keep my mental state and remember the context of where it all began.

Passion

Person jumping on the beach

Person jumping on the beach

Passionate players will give it their all while winning, but play discouraged when losing big. Purposeful players will see the challenge as an opportunity to show determination, resolve, and sportsmanship. Displaying their grit to continue playing, even when all hope seems lost.

Passion inflates you. Purpose defines you.

Something New

Coin-operated binoculars overlooking a beach

Coin-operated binoculars overlooking a beach

While something may make sense in your head, you must work hard to have it click for others. Furthermore, you must create a space where others can feel safe in being vulnerable and asking questions. Don’t be angry someone doesn’t know certain things. Be happy you are able to teach them something new.

 

Bonus track: Something new at Somewhere New

Questions

Blue green "Ask more questions" framed poster

Blue green "Ask more questions" framed posterLearn to control your biases and impulses around others. Stop and ponder “What are you thinking about? What’s going through your head?” Keeping these thoughts in everyday life humanizes others and allow you to better understand that we are all people with complex histories and emotions. Prodding with simple questions like “What do you think about? What are you thinking about? What do you mean? What are you working on?” Ground conversation on an emotional level and foster deeper connection. This is the type of conversation which brings us together and stimulates growth. It’s not superficial, but thoughtful, on a level helping us come to a better understanding of ourselves and others.

Video of the day

Seeking to Become

Eye glasses, notebook, pencil, and postcards, and camera on a map

You may be the average of the five people you spend the most time with [1], but more so, today, you are the product of who you were yesterday and the day before [2]. “The difference between who you are now and who you were five years ago is largely due to how you’ve spent your time along the way.” [3]

So, who are you seeking to become?

If you like who you are today, keep doing what you are doing. But if you want to change, work to retool the habits which defined you up until this point. You don’t have to appease social norms of being the same person you were yesterday. Buck the tread and become who you want to be. (Do you believe people can change? [4]) Fight club and Tyler Durden show that resetting can be the impetus for your new, desired self to take hold. You don’t have to set fire to all your possessions, but find what brings joy to your life [5] . Don’t let your possessions own you  [6]. “If you can’t afford to lose it, you can’t afford it to buy it yet” [7]. So as spring rolls around here in the US, what cleaning will you be find? How will you shed your skin to let your new self shine?

Just connecting some things I came across recently. Here’s a non-chronological list:

[1] “You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.”  – Jim Rohn
[2] Change Making Problem – Wikipedia
[3] Who are we seeking to Become – Seth Godin
[4] The Personality Myth – Invisibilia
[5] Life Changing Magic of Tidying up – Marie Kondo
[6] “The things you used to own, now they own you” – Fight Club
[7] Mr. Money Mustache – The New Yorker

Journal

One year and three months ago I wrote this in my journal:

“I want to start writing more for my blog. I am going to start by making an effort to sit down for five minutes (at least) and note what I am thinking about. Time seems to fly by lately. It would be enlightening to have a journal of past events to look back and remember what was going on in my life.”

In that time, I’ve amassed quite the collection of musings. I thought journaling would naturally overflow into blogging, and while it hasn’t yet turned out that way, the practice allows me to focus and make sense of things. Today I began reading what I wrote. We’ll see what comes of it, but I’m already happily surprised and excited to continue.

If you want to connect thoughts in your head, remember events in your life, or track growth over time, take a snapshot. Write it down. Make the nebulous, physical. As time passes, you can go back and reflect.

Three Questions

“Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

From Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy