It’s the holidays, which means it’s also “teach technology to your elderly relatives” season. Most of my elderly relatives are pretty smart, and were technically advanced in their day. Some were engineers or coders back when that was rare. When I was a kid they were often early adopters of tech. Nonetheless, they are now noticeably worse at technology than my friends’ 3 year old. That kid figured out how to take selfie videos on my phone after watching me do it once, and I wasn’t even deliberately demonstrating.
Meanwhile, my aunt (who was the first girl in her high school to be allowed into technical classes) got confused when attempting to use an HBOMax account I’d mostly already configured for her (I think she got confused by the new profile taste poll but I wasn’t there so I’ll never be sure). She pays a huge fee to use Go Go Grandparent instead of getting a smartphone and using Uber directly. I got excited when an uncle seemed to understand YouTube, until it was revealed that he didn’t know about channels and viewed the subscribe button as a probable trap. And of course, there was my time teaching my PhD statistician father how to use Google Sheets, which required learning a bunch of prerequisite skills he’d never needed before and I wouldn’t have had the patience to teach if it hadn’t benefited me directly.
[A friend at a party claimed Apple did a poll on this and found the subscribe button to be a common area of confusion for boomers, to the point they were thinking of changing the “subscribe” button to “follow”. And honestly, given how coy substack is around what exactly I’m subscribing to and how much it costs, this isn’t unreasonable.]
The problem isn’t that my relatives were never competent with technology, because some of them very much were at one point. I don’t think it’s a general loss of intelligence either, because they’re still very smart in other ways. Also they all seem to have kept up with shopping websites just fine. But actions I view as atomic clearly aren’t for them.
Meanwhile, I’m aging out of being the cool young demographic marketers crave. New apps appeal to me less and less often. Sometimes something does look fun, like video editing, but the learning curve is so steep and I don’t need to make an Eye of The Tiger style training montage of my friends’ baby learning to buckle his car seat that badly, so I pass it by and focus on the millions of things I want to do that don’t require learning a new technical skill.
Then I started complaining about YouTube voice, and could hear echoes of my dad in 2002 complaining about the fast cuts in the movie Chicago.
Bonus points: I watched this just now and found it painfully slow.
I have a hypothesis that I’m staring down the path my boomer relatives took. New technology kept not being worth it to them, so they never put in the work to learn it, and every time they fell a little further behind in the language of the internet – UI conventions, but also things like the interpersonal grammar of social media – which made the next new thing that much harder to learn. Eventually, learning new tech felt insurmountable to them no matter how big the potential payoff.
I have two lessons from this. One is that I should be more willing to put in the time to learn new tech on the margin than I currently am, even if the use case doesn’t justify the time. Continued exposure to new conventions is worth it. I have several Millennial friends who are on TikTok specifically to keep up with the youths; alas, this does not fit in with my current quest for Quiet.
I’ve already made substantial concessions to the shift from text to voice, consuming many more podcasts and videos than I used to and even appearing on a few, but I think I need to get over my dislike of recordings of my own voice to the point I can listen to them. I made that toddler training montage video even though iMovies is a piece of shit and its UI should die in a fire.This was both an opportunity to learn new skills and manufactured a future inspiration when things are hard.
Second: there’s a YouTube channel called “Dad, How Do I?” that teaches basic householding skills like changing a tire, tying a tie, or making macaroni and cheese. We desperately need the equivalent for boomers, in a form that’s accessible to them (maybe a simplified app? Or even start with a static website). “Child, how do I…?” could cover watching individual videos on YouTube, the concept of channels, not ending every text message with “…”, Audible, etc. Things younger people take for granted. Advanced lessons could cover Bluetooth headphones and choosing your own electronics. I did some quick math and this is easily a $500,000/year business.
[To answer the obvious question: $500k/year is more than I make doing freelance research, but not enough more to cover the difference in impact and enjoyment. But if you love teaching or even just want to defray the cost of video equipment for your true passion, I think this is promising.]
My hope is that if we all work together to learn things, fewer people will be left stranded without access to technical tools, and also that YouTube voice will die out before it reaches something I care about.
Lots of people are getting covid boosters now. To help myself and others plan I did an extremely informal poll on Twitter and Facebook about how people’s booster side effects compared to their second dose. Take home message: boosters are typically easier than second shots, but they’re bad often enough you should have a plan for that.
The poll was a mess for a number of reasons, including:
I didn’t describe the options very well, so it’s 2/3 freeform responses I collapsed into a few categories.
There was a tremendous variation in what combination of shots people got.
It’s self-reported. I have unusually data-minded friends which minimizes the typical problem of extreme responses getting disproportionate attention, but it doesn’t eliminate it, and self-report data has other issues.
I only sampled people who follow me on social media, who are predominantly <45 years old, reasonably healthy, reasonably high income, and mostly working desk jobs.
I specified mRNA but not the manufacturer; Moderna but not Pfizer boosters are smaller than the original dose.
Nonetheless, the trend was pretty clear.
Of people who received three mRNA shots from the same manufacturer, comparing their second shot to their third:
12 had no major symptoms either time (where major is defined as “affected what you could do in your day.” It specifically does not include arm soreness, including soreness that limited range of motion)
2 had no major symptoms for their second shot but had major for their third
Not included in data: one person who got pregnant between their second and third shot
23 had major symptoms for their second shot, and the third was easier
This includes at least one case where the third was still extremely bad and 2-3 “still pretty bad, just not as bad as the second”
Three cases fell short of “major symptoms” for the second, but had an even easier third shot
11 people had similar major symptoms both times
2 had major symptoms for second shot, and third was worse
Of people who mix and matched doses
2 had no major symptoms either time
4 had no major symptoms for their second shot but had major symptoms for their third
Not included: 1 reported no symptoms for the first two and mild symptoms for the third
4 had major symptoms for their second shot, and their third was easier
2 people had major symptoms both times
1 had major symptoms for their second shot, and their third was worse
Last year I discovered, much to my chagrin, that always-on internet socializing was costly for me. This was inconvenient both because I’d spent rather a lot of time singing the praises of social media and instant messaging, and because we were in the middle of a global pandemic that had made online socializing an almost physical necessity. I made the decision at the time to put off changing my social media diet, and that was correct. But now there is in-person socializing again, and I’m changing how I use social media and messaging. I wanted to talk about this process and how great it was for me, but kept being nagged by the thought that the internet was full of essays about how the internet is bad, all of which I ignored or actively fought with, so what was going to make mine so special?
I decided to use the one thing I had that none of the other writers did: a detailed understanding of my past self. So I wrote a letter to past me, explaining how social media was costlier than she knew (even though she was right about all of the benefits), and how she could test that for herself to make a more informed decision. To help as many Elizabeths as possible, I tried to make the letter cover a wide range in time, although in practice it’s mostly focused on post-smart-phone life.
Dear Past Elizabeth,
I know you have read a lot of things calling social media bad. Your reasons for disagreeing with them are correct: social media has been an incredible gift to you, you have dodged many of the problems they’re describing, and you’re right to value it highly. You’re also right that many of the people bragging about how hard they are to communicate with are anti-socially shifting the burden of communication to other people.
Social media (and always-on instant messaging, which is a different, mostly worse, problem) has some costs you’re not currently tracking. I would like to help you understand those costs, so you can make different choices on the margin that leave you happier while preserving the benefits you get from social media, not all of which you’ve even experienced yet (is it 2015 yet? Approximately every job you get from this point on will have your blog as a partial cause. After 2017 you won’t even have interviews, people will just say “I read your blog”).
To be more specific: you have indeed curated your feed such that Facebook is not making you angry on purpose. You are not ruining relationships getting in public fights. You are not even ruining your mood from seeing dumb stuff very often. Much of what you see is genuinely interesting and genuinely connective, and that’s great. The people you connect with are indeed great, and you are successfully transitioning online connections into offline. I’m not asking you to give that up, just to track the costs associated with the gains, and see what you can do on the margins to get more benefits at less cost. To that end I’m going to give you a model of why internet socializing is costly, and some tools to track those costs.
I’m not sure how far back this letter is going, so I’m going to try to address a wide range of ways you might be right now. Also, if it’s late 2019 or early 2020, you can just put this letter on a shelf for a bit. If it’s mid 2020 and you’re confused by this, congratulations on being in the better timeline.
Currently you’re calculating your costs and benefits by measuring the difference in your mood from the time you receive a notification to the time you act on it. It’s true that that change is on average positive, and sometimes exceedingly so. But it ignores the change from the moment before you received the notification to the moment after. Notifications are pretty disruptive to deep thoughts, and you pay that cost before you even notice. But momentary disruptions aren’t even the whole cost, because the knowledge that interruptions could come at every time will change your mental state.
It’s as if you had a system that delivered electric shocks to notify you that food was newly available. You are right that you need food to live, and a system that delivers it to you is good. But electric shocks are still unpleasant, and fear of electric shocks will limit the states you will allow your brain to get into. You can’t write off the costs of electric shocks just because food is good, and because most criticisms of the system focus on the food being bad. I know you’re on board with the general principle behind this analogy, because you already believe it for open offices, and that people who find open offices costless are fooling themselves. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you that you are exactly the same, only with messaging instead of shared offices.
The easiest way to see this is to get yourself in a state where you can’t be interrupted, and observe your mood then. There is an incredibly beautiful, relaxing state I call Quiet that you are definitely not experiencing often enough. Once you have reached that state, you can observe how your mood changes as you move into a state where you can be interrupted, and again as you are interrupted.
Noticing these changes and their signifiance requires a certain minimum level of ability to emotionally introspect. If you don’t have this yet, developing it is your highest priority- not just for concerns around social media, but for your life in general. Building emotional introspection was a very gradual process for me, so it’s hard to give you instructions. In this timeline I had guidance from specific individuals which may not be replicable, but something in the space of somatic experiencing therapy is probably helpful. Waking the Tiger and The Body Keeps the Score are the classically recommended books. They’re pretty focused on trauma, which is not actually the goal here, but oh well. Other people report success doing this with meditation, but it never seemed to work for me.
Once you have that awareness, you want to practice getting in and out of Quiet so you can notice the changes in your feelings. I’ve included a few activities for producing Quiet, just to gesture at the concept, and a longer list at the end of this letter.
Unless otherwise stated, a given activity needs to be the only thing you are doing, and you need to have disabled all potential interruptions, including self-inflicted interruptions like Facebook. For tasks that use electronics, this means either putting them in airplane mode or having a dedicated device that doesn’t get notifications.
Eventually you can buy a thing for this. It’s fine but not amazing.
Learn a physical skill. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is good for absorption, and once you achieve a minimum skill level you can watch tutorials on youtube as long as you turn off every source of interruption.
Some of the frustration of drawing can be alleviated by getting an electronic device for drawing. I looked into this, and an iPad just is the best choice. You might want to have one of these ready to go by February 2020.
Read a book you’re really into (Kindle or physical).
FYI, you should reread things more often. The hit rate on new books is quite low and some of your favorites are really good
If it’s an activity that leaves your hands open and you absolutely need something to do with your hands you can add in jigsaw puzzles, coloring, cardio exercise, or low-end cleaning work.
Exercise in general is pretty good for Quiet, and you can even put on some entertainment, but it needs to be a single work you commit to, not all purpose access to your phone.
After you absorb yourself in one of these for a while (20-90 minutes), you’ll be in a very different state. Calmer, more focused, more serene. The volume on the world will be turned down. You’ll feel more yourself and less mixed with the rest of the world. Also you’ll crave Facebook like a heroin junkie. Give in to that. You just gave a weak muscle an intense workout and it’s appropriate to let it rest. As you do that, pay attention to which parts of you feel what ways. Something will be gained by using Facebook, but also something will be lost, and this is a time to learn those patterns so you can optimize your choices in the future.
My guess is as time goes on you/I will build the muscle and spend more time in Quiet and less in noise. To be honest I haven’t gotten terribly far in that process, but it seems like the kind of thing that happens and I just can’t imagine the correct amount of online socializing for us is zero.
So far what I’ve talked about is mostly the dangers of apps that give notifications: alerts that draw your attention and thus incur a cost even if you dismiss them. You might be thinking “that doesn’t apply to social media, if I keep it closed by default and l only look when I feel like it.”. First of all, you are wrong. This is because you are not a unified agent: parts of you will want to check FB while other parts are hurt by it, and removing the option to do so will enable the FB-impaired parts to more fully relax (just like it’s easier to relax in an office with a door). But second, even if that weren’t true, social media has some inherent costs even when every individual post is incredibly valuable.
This is hard to describe and I’m mostly hoping you’ll notice it yourself once you pay attention and have something to contrast it with. But to gesture at the problem: every topic switch means booting up a new context, new thoughts, stores of existing information etc. Social media means doing this once every 4 seconds. You’ve avoided a lot of the classic pitfalls by studiously not reacting when Facebook showed you bad opinions, but by teaching it to only show you interesting things you’ve made the intellectual mosh pit aspect worse. At least Facebook gives you breathers in the form of baby photos: Twitter is non stop interesting dense things.
Oh yeah, you’re gonna get into Twitter in 2020, and it will be the right decision. Yes, I’m very confident about 2020 in particular.
Anyways, I’m pretty sure the ideal amount of high-stimulus jumping between topics is not zero, but I’ve yet to get low enough to find the optimum. If you achieve Quiet and find yourself craving the stimulation of social media, and it feels good during and after, I think you should trust that. But I don’t think you’re capable of an informed decision on the tradeoff until you get more information.
In addition to the activities mentioned, a few tips and tricks that might make this whole process easier for you:
As you scale down your current process, you’ll lose the thing that makes you answer email and texts in a timely manner. Make sure to create a new habit of actually answering emails and texts at a chosen time.
You’re gonna worry that making yourself unreachable will make you miss messages that are genuinely urgent and important. There is a phone setting to let messages from certain people through, or any phone number that calls 2x in 15 minutes. It’s okay to use that. Your friends are not monsters, they will not abuse the privilege.
In general, you should be open to having more electronic devices that only do one thing: I know it seems dumb when your phone or laptop can already do the thing, but it really does change how you relate to the activity.
I’ve had off and on success with screen bedtime, in which I can stay up as late as I want, but I can’t look at a screen after a certain time. It provides a natural end to the day while respecting energy levels.
Kindles are not screens.
At some point you’re gonna start requiring podcasts to fall asleep, but you can preserve the spirit of screen bedtime by putting the phone in airplane mode ahead of time.
You’re not wrong that some horror podcasts have very soothing narrators you can fall asleep to. But somehow the only periods where I frequently wake up with nightmares are also the periods where I frequently fell asleep to horror podcasts. It’s not 1:1 causality but I do think it’s worse for us.
While we’re at it: the point of things you do after and just before going to bed is to help you fall asleep. Right before sleep is not the all purpose reading hour. Please pay enough attention to notice that reading deeply upsetting recent history books in bed disrupts your sleep.
Transitioning from noise to Quiet can be hard. You might think to skip the unpleasant transition phase by pursuing Quiet when you first wake up. I have yet to figure out how to pull this off: I’ll lie there half asleep indefinitely before getting the energy to read a book, audio will put me back to sleep. I have a sneaking suspicion that the disruptive chaotic nature of social media/messaging is also what makes it good for transitioning from half asleep to mostly awake.
You are the only one who likes the Zune and the replacement will not be as conducive to unitasking. Unfortunately the realities of hardware support probably mean you can’t dodge this by stocking up ahead of time. I’m sorry, please enjoy the time you have.
Don’t go to Netflix or other streaming sites and look for something to entertain you. Maintain a watchlist on another site, and when you’re in the mood for a movie, figure out what kind of thing you’re in the mood for ahead of time and look for something on your list. This will prevent some serendipity, but the world is going to get much better at making things that look like they are for you but never pay off.
You’ll definitely enjoy work more if you turn off sources of interruptions.
Does that seem infeasible right now? Does it seem like it won’t matter because your co-workers can just find you at the physical workplace you go to most days? I have such good news for you. The conconcordance between your brain and your work environment is going to get so much better. There will still be tension between “following a single train of thought to the end” and “following up on the multiple paths that train lays down”. I haven’t solved this one yet. But you have no idea how much less bullshit your work life is going to become.
To recap: I am suggesting the following plan:
Try some of the activities on the Quiet list.
If you don’t notice the difference between them and the intellectual mosh pit that is your day, train the ability to notice subtle mood differences, then go back to 1.
Track the change in feeling between Quiet and a return to social internetting.
Do what feels good from there.
I hope this helps you become happier and more productive at a faster rate than I did,
PS. please buy bitcoin
More Quiet activities
Feldenkrais (and only feldenkrais. No podcasts, no audiobooks, no tv. Sometimes you like to have close friends in the room while you do this to keep watch for monsters). Your starter resource for this is Guide To Better Movement; after that you can search on Youtube. As a bonus, feldenkrais is also on the list of things that will help you develop your ability to notice your own mood.
Video games work but also require a lot of executive function and that’s your ongoing bottleneck resource so I don’t strongly recommend them. Horror remains an unusually good genre for this, and your algorithm of playing the top 10% of puzzle games works pretty well.
Avoid anything that you need to tab out of to look stuff up, which will unfortunately hurt Subnautica, a game otherwise made just for you, significantly.
Watch a single episode of a TV show without multitasking.
Horror is especially good for this because the damage done by an interruption is so palpable.
I know this is hard because even very good movies can be just not stimulating enough. There’s no fix for that right now because your audio processing is so mediocre, but in a few years that’s gonna fix itself for no obvious reason and you’ll be listening to podcasts at 2x like it’s nothing. Once that happens you can use Video Speed Controller to speed things up. Don’t overuse this, you’ll ruin your goal of creating Quiet if you go too fast, but a 10-20% speed up is often unnoticeable.
Remember to either be in airplane mode or use a dedicated device that doesn’t have messaging on it.
Horror podcasts are also great, especially Magnus Archive if that’s around yet.
20-30 minutes is the ideal length to start experiencing Quiet, which makes podcasts better than movies. Also they have a much better ratio of “time to figuring out if it is good” to “time after you know it’s good”.
TV horror anthologies meet the time constraint but just seem much worse on average than podcasts. More things to go wrong I guess.