The New York Times offers up a widely-shared article on doomscrolling, which prompts me to realize that I’m actually doing pretty well at staying away from that.
In large measure I credit my decision from right after the election to minimize my exposure to internet content designed to maximize my outrage. Outrage comes with its own little dopamine hit, which makes it a treadmill that’s hard to get off of, but I realized that it was a treadmill that didn’t suit me:
I’m going to follow fewer links—so often they go to articles calculated to produce outrage, and I don’t need more outrage. It’s a fine line, because there has been and will be much that is deserving of outrage. Yet: I do not worry that I will suffer from outrage deficiency.
I did pretty well at that, and I doubled down on it after coming across the ideas of (and then reading several books by) Cal Newport. His bookDeep Work reminded me of the satisfaction involved in taking the time and putting in the energy to focus deeply on doing something important and doing it well. (I recommended the book at the time.) His book Digital Minimalism helped me understand the harm that comes from participating in the faux social interactions of social media (things that feel like social interactions, but aren’t—things like hitting “like” on a facebook post).
I don’t want to give an impression of smugness here. I’m certainly not holding myself out as a role model. I’m all-to-well aware that at every moment I’m only a few clicks away from leaping headlong down the rabbit hole of internet outrage. But I’m doing okay. I feel the outrage, but I’m not compelled to feed it. I tend not to share the posts that feed the outrage in others (while still sharing the ones that suggest ways to make things better, both individually, and across society).
Maybe one or another of those ideas would be helpful to you.
I have always been an optimizer. I spend way, way too much time, energy, and attention optimizing things. Which is, you know, fine, even though my net benefit is small or zero, largely because I don’t focus my optimization efforts in places where I get the biggest payoff. (I’d say that I don’t optimize my optimization efforts, but I don’t want to tempt my brain into trying to do that. It would not end well.)
One place where my optimization efforts did end well has been in optimizing things for life under late-stage capitalism.
I was helped by a couple of lucky coincidences and a bit of lucky timing.
Purely because I enjoyed doing software, I became a software engineer at the dawn of the personal computer era, which gave me a chance to earn a good salary straight out of college, a salary that grew faster than my expenses for most of the next 25 years.
Whether because of my upbringing or my genes (my grandfather was a banker), I liked thinking about and playing with money, which meant that I was doing my best to save and invest during a period when ordinary people could easily earn outsized investment returns.
It worked out very well for me. I’m as well positioned as anyone who isn’t in the 1% to do okay in late-stage capitalism. (Frankly, better positioned than a lot of the 1%, who find it easy to imagine that they deserve the lifestyles of the 0.1%, and if they live like they imagine they should will quickly ruin their lives.)
This whole post was prompted by a great article that looks mainly at the efforts women make to optimize themselves under the overlapping constraints of health, fitness, appearance, and financial success in the modern economy. Highly recommended—insightful and daunting, but also funny:
It’s very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible…. But today, in an economy defined by precarity, more of what was merely stupid and adaptive has turned stupid and compulsory.
One focus of that article is on “fitness.” I put fitness in quotes because of the way, especially for women, so much of fitness is actually about appearance. Perhaps because I’m not a woman—also perhaps because I’m already married, and because I’m older—my own perspective on fitness has gotten very literal: I want my body to be fit for purpose—fit for a set of purposes which I have chosen. I want to be able to do certain things because I have found the capability to be useful. (I also want to be able to do certain things that I can’t do, because I imagine that the capability would be useful, and much of the exercise I do now is intended to achieve those capabilities.)
In a sense, optimizing for fitness is really neither here nor there as far as optimizing for late-stage capitalism, which is mostly about money. And yet, really it is. My fitness suffered during the period I was working a regular job. Getting fit and staying fit takes time. To a modest extent, you can substitute money for time—you can pay up for the fancy gym where the equipment you want to use is more available, or take a job that doesn’t pay as much but allows you to squeeze in a midday run. But now we’re right where we started: optimizing for life in late-stage capitalism.
I should say that I’m delighted with how well my life has turned out. If I’d had any idea how little I could spend and still have everything I really want, or how early I’d have saved up enough money to support that modest lifestyle, perhaps I could have avoided a lot of anxiety and unhappiness along the way. But who among us has such luck? And more to the point, maybe some of that anxiety and unhappiness were crucial to my making the choices I did that got me to where I am.
I worry just a bit about my irresistible impulse to optimize, but like everything else about me, it got me to where I am. And, as I say, I’m delighted to be here.
One point the book makes is that the faux social interactions of social media—clicking “likes” or whatever—produce a limited subset of the effects in your brain of having actual social interactions. You feel like you’ve connected with someone and they feel like they’ve gotten some social support, but it’s largely a sham: Neither of you gains the real benefits of having an actual social connection. But since you feel as if you have, your impulse to make real connections with people is reduced.
The material presented in the book was convincing enough that I’ve decided to pare down my faux social interactions, starting with two changes.
First, I’m going to largely quit clicking “like” on posts. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like them (or that I don’t like you). It just means that I’m trying to deprioritize faux social interactions in favor of real ones.
Second, I’ve removed the Facebook bookmark from the list of tabs I keep open all the time. I’m not deleting my Facebook account, nor am I avoiding all Facebook interactions, but I’m no longer going to have a Facebook tab open all the time.
I’ll still open Facebook from time to time—perhaps as often as daily—because so many people use it as their primary way to keep in touch. But it’s never been a good way to keep in touch with me (I use it primarily as a way to share links to blog posts like this one), and it’s about to get worse.
This is not going to be the end of the changes I make to start favoring genuine social interactions over fake ones—I want to write a longer post about my reactions to the Digital Minimalism book—but I wanted to mention this now (and share this post on Facebook) in case people would otherwise be puzzled by the changes they see in my behavior.
I wasn’t huge fan of the Creative Commons until shortly after I started writing for Wise Bread.
For illustrating Wise Bread posts I liked to take my own photos, but for some things I wanted an image that I couldn’t easily take myself. For those things I used Flickr’s powerful search facility and deep pool of licensed photos.
Because I was using photos for a commercial purpose (to illustrate articles posted to a personal finance site that was heavily monetized so they could pay their writers), I avoided photos that were not licensed for commercial use. And because I and the site were retaining rights to the posts, I avoided photos with a “share alike” license.
I quickly came to love the fact that there was this vast library of images generously donated by their creators, and quickly felt that I owed it to them, and the world in general, to share my images on the same terms.
Nearly all of my photos are licensed CC-BY, which allows anyone to use, remix, and share those photos, provided they provide attribution to me. (Ideally mention my name and link back to my blog, to my images site, or to the photo itself—whatever makes most sense for your use of the image.)
I mention all this primarily to let people know that those photos are available for use, because finding creative commons licensed images is no longer so easy as just searching at Flickr. Creative Commons has a search facility, but it doesn’t point at the wider web, just at certain “partner platforms.”
Still, if you see one of my photos and want to use it, know that it’s probably licensed with a CC-BY license. (The main exception is photos of family members, which I don’t license. Properly speaking all the license does is grant a license to the copyright for that photo. Any model release needs to be negotiated separately with whoever appears in the photo. But I figure that’s a nuance that many image users just skip over, so to avoid issues with people using photos of me or my family inappropriately, I just don’t license them.)
If a photo is not licensed (and it’s not of me or a family member), that’s probably just an oversight on my part. Let me know and I can almost certainly fix the licensing almost immediately.
I would be delighted if people would start using my photos on my images site the way they used to use my photos of Flickr.
Whenever I tweet about a company, I like to go ahead and tag the company in the tweet, so they can see what I’m saying about them. Besides that, I’ve a natural inclination toward brand loyalty (for companies whose products I like), so I like to keep up with what the company is doing, and twitter is a good way to do that. (Not nearly as good a way as an RSS feed, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The upshot is that I’m not infrequently searching for a company’s twitter handle—and just lately, I’m pretty often not finding one. More and more companies are limiting their social media presence to Facebook and Instagram—both of which are terrible choices.
Facebook is very bad. It tries to monetize passing on information! It deliberately holds back information that the company wants to share and that I want to see, specifically in order to pressure the company to pay up.
Instagram may be even worse. It is inherently about sharing pictures, whereas information is often best presented as text. Worse yet, it won’t share links, which is almost always what companies (should) want to do, if they’re trying to tell me about the sorts of things I want to hear about.
Twitter is a bad company that provides a service which is bad in many ways, but at least it will show me all the tweets of the company I’ve followed, tweets which can include text and links as well as pictures.
The photo at the top is of a donut I bought this morning at Industrial Donut—the latest company I noticed limiting its social media presence to Facebook and Instagram.