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What are we looking for in our ambition? What do we hope to find at the end of our aspirations? In Augustine’s experience—like our own—the answer is complicated. There is a bundle of hopes and hungers bound up with our ambitions, but so often they boil down to the twin desires to win and to be noticed, domination and attention—to win the crown and be seen doing it.

Augustine’s map of this particular terrain of the hungry heart is as useful as ever because so little has changed. When Augustine reflects on ambition, he’s really delving into the dynamics of fame. Could anything be more contemporary? We live in an age where everybody’s famous. We’ve traded the hope of immortality for a shot at going viral. What is Instagram if not a platform for attention? Arcade Fire’s song “Creature Comfort” is a chilling assessment of the extent to which the quest for attention has almost become synonymous with the conatus essendi, our reason to be. And if we can’t have it, we’d rather not be. We

Stand in the mirror
and wait for the feedback
Saying God, make me famous
If you can’t, just make it painless.

But naming the symptoms is easy. The challenge is diagnosing the disease. The question is: What do we want when we want attention? What are we hoping for when we aspire to win this game of being noticed?

For Augustine, the only way to get to the root of this desire is to understand it as a spiritual craving. That’s why we can only truly understand disordered ambition if we read it as a kind of idolatry. If our ambition becomes a roadblock to peace, an inhibitor that robs us of the rest and joy we’re looking for, it’s because we’ve substituted something in place of the end for which we were made.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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In a 2013 blog post about whether or not she coined the term “context collapse,” boyd points to her indebtedness to a book by Joshua Meyrowitz called No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Written in 1985 and mostly concerning electronic media like TV and radio, Meyrowitz’s work reads now as eerily prescient, ripe for translation by boyd into online terms. At its very outset, No Sense of Place presents a thought experiment that sounds like the analog Version of modern-day Twitter.

Meyrowitz Writes that when he was in college in the 1950s, he’d gone on an exciting three-month summer vacation, and when he got home, he was eager to share his experiences with his friends, family, and other acquaintances. Obviously, he says, he varied the stories and the telling based on the audience: his parents got the clean version, his friends got the adventurous version, and his professors got the cultured version. Meyrowitz asks us to consider what would happen to his trip narrative if, on his return, his parents had thrown him a surprise homecoming party where all of those groups were present together. He ventures that he would have either 1) offended one or more of the groups, or 2) created a “synthesized” account that was “bland enough to offend no one.” But no matter which one, he writes, “the situation would have been profoundly different from the interactions I had with isolated audiences.” Meyrowitz’s imagined options are analogous to boyd and Marwick’s observations in their paper on Twitter users and personal brands. Option 1 (offending an unintended audience) is what happens with those whose old tweets are dug up; Option 2 (“bland enough to offend no one”) is the professional social media star, a person reverse-engineered from a formula of what is most palatable to everyone all the time. Taken to its logical conclusion, Option 2 would eventually create a race to the mediocre bottom that has been repeatedly decried by cultural critics like Jaron Lanier.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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It’s pretty intuitive that truly understanding something requires attention to its context. What I want to emphasize here is that the way this process happened for me with birds was spatial and temporal; the relationships and processes I observed were things adjacent in space and time. For me, a sensing being, things like habitat and season helped me make sense of the species I saw, why I was seeing them, what they were doing and why. Surprisingly, it was this experience, and not a study on how Facebook makes us depressed, that helped me put my finger on what bothers me so much about my experience of social media. The information I encounter there lacks context, both spatially and temporally.

For example, let’s take a look at my Twitter feed right now, as I’m sitting inside my studio in Oakland in the summer of 2018. Pressed up against each other in neat rectangles, I see the following:

  • An article on Aljazeera by a woman whose cousin was killed at school by ISIL
  • An article about the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar last year
  • An announcement that @dasharezone (a joke account) is selling new T-shirts
  • Someone arguing for congestion pricing in Santa Monica, California
  • Someone wishing happy birthday to former NASA Worker Katherine Johnson
  • A Video of NBC announcing the death of Senator McCain and shortly afterward cutting to people dressed as dolphins appearing to masturbate onstage
  • Photos of Yogi Bear mascot statues dumped in a forest
  • A job alert for director of the landscape architecture program at Morgan State University
  • An article on protests as the Pope visits Dublin
  • A photo of a yet another fire erupting, this time in the Santa Ana ‘Mountains
  • Someone’s data visualization of his daughter’s sleeping habits during her first year
  • A plug for someone’s upcoming book about the anarchist scene in Chicago
  • An Apple ad for Music Lab, starring Florence Welch

Spatial and temporal context both have to do with the neigh- boring entities around something that help define it. Context also helps establish the order of events. Obviously, the bits of information were assailed with on Twitter and Facebook feeds are missing both of these kinds of context. Scrolling through the feed, I can’t help but wonder: What am I supposed to think of all this? How am I supposed to think of all this? I imagine different parts of my brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense, that forecloses any possible understanding. Many things in there seem important, but the sum total is nonsense, and it produces not understanding but a dull and stupefying dread.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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Over the years, the Spotify algorithms have correctly identified that I tend to like “chill” music of a certain BPM: smooth, inoffensive songs from the 1960s and ’70s, or more recent ones with washy synths, echo-y guitars, and vocals that are either passive or nonexistent. As I continue to listen to the playlist, dutifully saving the songs that I like, the weekly playlist begins to hone in, if not on an archetypal song, then an archetypal mix—we could call this “the jenny mix”—and other potential mixes are measured for their likeness to whatever the current archetype is.

But it also so happens that my car is from 2006 and has no auxiliary input—which means when I drive to Stanford twice a week, I listen to the radio. My presets are KKUP (Cupertino public radio), KALX (UC Berkeley college radio), KPOO (a San Francisco community station owned by Poor People’s Radio), KOSF (iHeart8os), KRBQ (“the Bay Area’s Throwback Station”), and KBLX (“the Soul of the Bay”). Especially when I’m driving home late on Interstate 880, feeling anonymous in the dark, flat expanse, I’m comforted by the fact that some other people are hearing the same thing I am. I’ve come to know the physical coverage of the radio waves so well that I can predict when a station will fuzz out on a certain freeway interchange, and when it’ll come back.
More important, none of these stations ever play anything like “the jenny mix.” Instead they will occasionally play a song that I like even more than my archetypal song, in a different way and for reasons I can’t really pinpoint. The songs fall into genres I normally say I dislike, including Top 40. (It was only on KBLX that I heard Toni Braxton’s Top 40 hit “Long as I Live,” which I listened to obsessively for weeks afterward.) Especially with something as intuitively appealing or unappealing as music, to acknowledge that there’s something I didn’t know I liked is to be surprised not only by the song but by myself.

My dad, a musician for much of his life, says that this is actually the definition of good music: music that “sneaks up on you” and changes you. And if we’re able to leave room for the encounters that will change us in ways we can’t yet see, we can also acknowledge that we are each a confluence of forces that exceed our own understanding. This explains why, when I hear a song I unexpectedly like, I sometimes feel like something I don’t know is talking to something else I don’t know, through me. For a person invested in a stable and bounded ego, this kind of acknowledgment would be a death wish. But personally, having given up on the idea of an atomic self, I find it to be the surest indicator that I’m alive.

By contrast, at its most successful, an algorithmic “honing in” would seem to incrementally entomb me as an ever-more stable image of what I like and why. It certainly makes sense from a business point of view. When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to “be yourself,” What it really means is “be more yourself,” where “yourself” is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact, I don’t know What a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgements: “I like this” and “I don’t like this” with little room for ambiguity or contradiction.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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But as for the results of this accounting, Vivrekar and I come to very different conclusions. Indeed, I found a helpful articulation of my own argument for discipline in a section of hers titled “Counter-Arguments.” She writes, “Proponents of the ‘agency’ side in the agency vs. structure debate claim that instead of focusing on the problem of how to make persuasion more ethical, We should focus on empowering people to have more self control” (that’s me!). Vivrekar and the technology ethicists she cites, however, are less than optimistic about this approach:

Portraying the problem as one in which we just need to be more mindful of our interaction with apps can be likened to saying we need to be more mindful of our behavior while interacting with the artificial intelligence algorithms that beat us at chess; equally sophisticated algorithms beat us at the attention game all the time.

For Vivrekar, persuasion is a given, and the only thing we can do about it is redirect it:
When we remember that hundreds of engineers and designers predict and plan for our every move on these platforms, it seems more justified to shift the focus of the discussion towards ethical persuasion.

This argument takes a few important things for granted. “Ethical persuasion” means persuading the user to do something that is good for them, using “harmonious designs that continuously empower us instead of distracting and frustrating us.” Reading this, I can’t help but ask: Empower me to do what? Good for me according to whom? And according to what standards? Happiness, productivity? These are the same standards that Frazier uses when designing Walden Two. The idea that I’ve already lost the battle of attention doesn’t sit right with me, an agential being interested in gaining control of my attention rather than simply having it directed in ways that are deemed better for me.

This solution also takes the attention economy itself for granted—something to be corrected but which is otherwise inevitable. Vivrekar notes that “metrics that align better with user values are not always contrary to the long-term business profits of companies in the attention economy; they actually pose a market opportunity.” She quotes Eric Holmen, the Senior Vice President of Urban Airship, a company on whom “[e]very clay, marketers and developers depend on . . . to deliver one billion mobile moments that inspire interest and drive action.” Holmen sees big bucks in authenticity:
People increasingly want to spend time well, not spend more of it . . . If it’s our shallowest self which is reflected to us every time we open Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, the best business opportunity around might be to begin to cater for our aspirational selves.“
But just who is this “our”? What does persuasive design look like when someone else tries to bring out my “aspirational self,” and does it for profit? Help!

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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Nobody is beyond hope. This is an article of faith for me. But if at this stage of the game, given what we know about how social media work and about the incentives of the people who make TV, you’re still getting your dopamine rush by recycling TV-news clips and shouting at people on the Internet, you’re about as close to beyond hope as a human being gets. There is no point talking to you, trying to reason with you, giving you facts and the sources of those facts. You have made yourself invulnerable to reason and evidence. You’re a Moab truther in the making. So, though I do not in theory write anyone off, in practice I do. It’s time to give you up as a lost cause and start figuring out how to prevent the next generation from becoming like you.

Alan Jacobs

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This question—of how versus whether—has to do with the attention economy insofar as it offers a useful attitude toward despair, the very stuff the attention economy runs on. It also helps me distinguish what it is I really feel like running away from. I’ve already written that the “doing nothing” I propose is more than a weekend retreat. But that doesn’t mean I propose a permanent retreat either. Understanding the impossibility of a once-and-for-all exit—for most of us, anyway—sets the stage for a different kind of retreat, or refusal-in-place….

Here’s what I want to escape. To me, one of the most troubling ways social media has been used in recent years is to foment waves of hysteria and fear, both by news media and by users‘ themselves. Whipped into a permanent state of frenzy, people create and subject themselves to news cycles, complaining of anxiety at the same time that they check back ever more diligently. The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design, Media companies trying to keep up with each other create a kind of “arms race” of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think. The result is something like the sleep-deprivation tactics the military uses on detainees, but on a larger scale. The years 2017 and 2018 were when I heard so many people say, “It’s just something new every day.”

But the storm is co-created. After the election, I also saw many acquaintances jumping into the melee, pouring out long, emotional, and hastily written diatribes online that inevitably got a lot of attention. I’m no exception; my most-liked Facebook post of all time was an anti-Trump screed. In my opinion, this kind of hyper-accelerated expression on social media is not exactly helpful (not to mention the huge amount of value it produces for Facebook). It’s not a form of communication driven by reflection and reason, but rather a reaction driven by fear and anger. Obviously these feelings are warranted, but their expression on social media so often feels like firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke. Our aimless and desperate expressions on these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quickly outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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