A while back, I finished Matthew Crawford’s latest book, The World Beyond Your Head, whose subtitle is, unusually, a pretty good summary of his topic: “on becoming an individual in an age of distraction.” (I tweeted some thoughts at the time.) There are an awful lot of books out there on “focus” or eliminating distractions that approach the topic from a sort of techie-hustler Tim Ferriss sort of angle, and this is not one of them. Crawford is both a philosopher and motorcycle mechanic by profession. (Not in a sort of precious way, either – he actually owns and operates a motorcycle repair shop.) I’ve been thinking a lot about this book ever since. In particular, it touches on how I’m working to better master my own attentional resources by taking control of my experience of the internet.
In “World Beyond Your Head,” Crawford covers an awful lot of ground, but one big theme is identifying how our mental attentional resources have become the most precious commodity of the age. As such, there’s a lot of money to be made in controlling them, and circumscribing our range of individual choices in ways that are often invisible. This allows us the illusion of personal agency while they – what he calls “choice architects” – retain full control over those range of alternatives that they manipulate to their profit.
This description, of course, is a very good one for our modern internet. As I wrote a while back about The Internet as Television:
All ecommerce roads eventually lead back to Amazon. All your online activity is tracked and monitored in order to “optimize” your “experience,” which turns out to mean targeting ads to you from the highest bidder. Much of the content you see online is predetermined by an algorithm that shows you what you’re statistically most likely to “engage” with.
The internet’s slow transformation from a collection of communities into just another media platform has lots of causes, and is not wholly a bad thing. After all, media platforms should exist on the internet. The problem is that passive consumption as a primary mode of engagement turns the user into a product to be securitized and sold, exactly as Facebook does and many others aspire to. It leads to an algorithmization of the online experience that, aside from removing individual agency, is also frequently manipulated into promoting whatever wacky, far-out craziness “performs” well in your given demographic. (As a 30-something white guy, I can attest that the portals into alt-righty Trumpism basically follow me around the internet.)
What I have found is that once you recognize the “choice architects” for what they are, you begin to see them everywhere. They are the sites you visit, the networks you use, right down to the form factor of device that is your internet portal. The internet is inherently a mediated platform, after all, and there’s just no getting away from any filter whatsoever. In the real world, you can’t just Richard Stallman your way through the internet. Thus, it becomes a question of making the right choices to maximize your agency and take what control of your internet experience any one person can.
For me, and probably equally for most people, this means the following:
- Stop using Facebook. I’ve gravitated gradually away from Facebook over the last several years and today almost never use it. I don’t have the app on my phone and am not logged in on my computer. This is partly a conscious choice, and partly just the season of life I’m in – Facebook simply feels very irrelevant to me now. There is now loads of research directly correlating Facebook usage to feelings of inadequacy and FOMO, and I prefer to cultivate my own tastes without its algorithm’s help.
- Twitter is a refreshing alternative for a lot of reasons, including (ironically) company’s fundamentally broken management. Twitter can’t effectively monetize themselves out of a brown paper bag. I’m able to turn off targeted ads, and (incredibly) see none at all on Tweetdeck.
- Switch to Firefox. Chrome is a fine browser, but it is literally custom built to more effectively serve you ads. Google, after all, is the world’s largest advertising company, which is why they poured so much investment into making Chrome the world’s leading browser (and open-sourced Chromium). Why would you want an advertising company to also control your portal to the internet? I’ve been fully switched over to Firefox for months now and like it a lot, and have much more trust in Mozilla.
- Pay for the news sources you consume. If you value news as information, you have to pay for it. That’s how you get more, and better, news. This is goes regardless of your political persuasion. News products that are sold directly to customers are always going to be better-quality than those that must rely on advertising and optimize for eyeballs. I pay for two newspaper digital subscriptions and two magazines.
- Sign up for newsletters. I receive a fair number of newsletters (or blog updates by email), and filter all of them into a dedicated folder that I can peruse as time allows. This way, I don’t have to rely on something going viral on Twitter in order for me to know it exists.
- WANTED: my own email platform. I do not feel great about using Gmail as my default email platform (like everyone does). I would rather be the customer, not the product. Yet I feel hopelessly trapped by an email account that now holds 15 years of my life. I know that ProtonMail exists, but can’t quite bring myself to make the switch. Where can I import my entire gmail archive?
As a guy who writes stuff on the internet, I also happen to have strong opinions on how this is done.
- Own your own platform (get off of Medium). If you write words on the internet (and you should), you should do it on your own domain. It is cheap and easy to set up. Medium’s promise is that it’ll own the audience and rent out eyeballs to you for the price of your hard-worked content. Maybe that’ll get your piece some views (or not!), but you will not develop an audience there. Quit working for Medium’s investors and get your own domain.
- Cultivate a mailing list. People giving you their explicit permission to email them directly with whatever words you come up with is really a big expression of trust on the internet. As a blogger, I see the growth of my email update subscriber base as the single clearest indicator of how well I’m doing. A plain ol’ Mailchimp mailing list is super easy to set up and ensures that your warmest audience members are able to follow you.
We’ve long been taught that “scale” is the highest virtue on the internet. But pursuit of bigger and bigger scale, on the internet as anywhere else, only serves to water down and commoditize what’s being produced. Making deliberate choices to craft your own internet experience helps you, in Crawford’s words, “become [or remain] an individual.” I also think that it helps make the internet a healthier place. If you try it out, let me know how it goes.