Against Waldenponding

Today's newsletter is a cleaned-up and 50% expanded version of a live Twitter thread I did yesterday.

Some context. For several years now, I've been developing a growing discomfort with a philosophy of relating to technology I call Waldenponding (after Thoreau's Walden Pond experiment on which Walden is based). The crude caricature is "smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms." It is less of a caricature than you might think. At an event I was just at, the opening keynote featured a guy who's literally done just that, and I know at least half a dozen people who have executed a Hard Waldenponding plan with varying degrees of literal fidelity. A great many more have implemented a sort of Soft Waldenponding, marked by digital retreat (aided by various amputation tools that sever or loosen your connection to digital prosthetics), but no log cabin.

As a one-time interesting experience or occasional mental-health retreat, both Soft and Hard Waldenponding are a great idea. Heck, I'd like to try living off the grid for a bit on a log cabin myself for a summer or something. I'm also on board with trying and adopting experimental rituals like a no-devices sabbath day if they work for you. But as an attitudinal foundation for relating to society and technology, Waldenponding is, I am convinced, a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level. It's a world-and-life negation. A kind of selfish free-riding/tragedy of the commons: not learning to handle your share of the increased attention-management load required to keep the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) running effectively.

But I've never tried to lay out exactly why I think this, or offer an alternative viewpoint based on a full-blown embrace of the digitally entangled information-wrangling life. The key element of the argument that I was missing so far, as I realized yesterday, is that retreating from information flows is just a different way of having your attention hacked by others. This argument is developed starting in point 25 below. If FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, is the basic fear exploited by third parties that want to drown you in information, the basic fear exploited by people telling you to unplug and retreat is FOBO: Fear Of Being Ordinary. I didn't talk about FOBO in the live thread yesterday, but it's laid out in this expanded version.

Anyway, here we go with the case against Waldenponding. If you still choose to do it after reading this, at least you'll have a better idea of what you are choosing and why.

The attention management turnpike

1/ Lemme do a 1-slide presentation since I'm feeling job sick. Title: How to Actually Manage Attention Without Smashing Your Phone and Retreating to a Log Cabin

2/ Premise: FOMO is good. Being plugged in is good. There is valuable info at all levels from twitter gossip to philosophy books. You should stay plugged in. You can manage anxiety and beat the House without resorting to shaming social platforms into managing attention for you. That's a terrible yielding of agency.

3/ Inspiration from 2 sources: The famous quote "small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas" ( = y axis) and Richard Hamming's idea of scheduling "Great Thoughts" calendar time in You and Your Research

4/ What the "unplug for self-care" crowd doesn't get is that you are part of a Giant Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) computing the future. The level and latency at which you consume information and act on it determines your "job" in the social computer. Your shitposting and FOMO are functional.

5/ The reason the unplugging doesn't work for most people is not that the Evil Platform Companies are trying to hack your attention and turn you into a helpless addict (though they are) but because you rationally realize you need a job in the GSCITC.

6/ If you don't manage your information economy career, you will default to the lowest-level job in the social computer: processing very low-latency information with small-minded cognition (bottom left) for small bets. It's the equivalent of low-level bug reporting/testing.

7/ This isn't a bad thing. A big groupmind composed of lots of small minds doing small-minded cognition can compute very profound things. It's just that your individual role in it is small. You can't see past the "people" and "events" level implications, but the emergent GSCITC can. Still, you can and should aspire to more.

8/ The way to manage your attention is not to "unplug" or do some sort of bullshit Classical Liberal virtue signaling crap of "I only read Ancient Greek authors" but to be sensitive to your current mind size (small to great) and consciously target the zone you want to be in, moving fluidly between small/great mind.

9/ There are THREE ways to fail at this: a) Thinking you can be Great Minded all the time. b) Trying to be Great Minded purely on a low-latency information diet (upper-left red box) c) Trying to consume a high-latency information diet without aspiring to more than small-minded thoughts (lower-right red box)

10/ The first failure mode manifests as trying to consume only information at your target level. Like only reading The Economist and journal papers, and trying to produce only in institutional modes. This will fail. You need some information diet input from ALL levels to work at ANY level

11/ The second failure mode manifests as trying to have Great Thoughts on a diet of pure low-latency live information (upper-left red box). This failure mode is common among people who take the investing/seeking-alpha (signal to bet on that hasn't already been priced in by markets) attitude to information too literally.

12/ The final failure mode is trying to keep up with all the information at all latencies at a small-minded level (lower-right red box) Reading every trending tweet and every bestselling big history book and everything in between, but ALL at the same small-minded level (ie as people gossip or play-by-play event tracking). Unsustainable.

13/ Each failure mode is an information diet that leads to patterns of betting that fail to deliver a positive return long-term. It's not addictive FOMOing that kills you, but not being able to translate the information consumption/production choices you're making into winning bets.

14/ The stable consumption/production positions are along what I've labeled the turnpike (a term borrowed from economics). You can move focus up and down along the turnpike. Higher latency requires higher abstraction levels/bigger minds to extract value. Get off the turnpike and your bad returns will start to kill you.

15/ Trying to "float" your attention at a focused point on the turnpike rather than distributing attention all along it is the other way to fail. It's better than being off the turnpike entirely, but still not sustainable.

16/ The danger in executing this turnpike roadmap strategy is that your mind-level might choose you rather than you choosing your mind-level. If you choose to be small-minded today, that's good. If you find you are always small-minded and can't ever break up into mediocre, that's bad. So is always being great-minded and never being able to break downwards.

17/ This is a bit like weight training. You have to increase the weights slowly and perhaps train your attention to exhaustion a bit. If you're in small mind zone and can only consume/produce tweets, try an essay. See how far you get. Strength-train attention from 10s to 10min.

18/ You can and should go the other way as well. If you can only read big philosophy books by dead people and processing the chaotic churn of a Toxic Day on Twitter is too much for you, try handling it for 15 minutes, then an hour. Try posting instead of just reading. This is like low-weights/high-volume endurance training. Harder than it looks.

19/ Note that this atrophying of attention and latency limits will happen REGARDLESS of whether evil designers are trying to hack your attention and keep you phase-locked into their preferred 10s latency information loop. Their designs are in fact the LOAD you're training against

20/ The fact of the matter is that information distribution has become free/cheap, so the firehose is going to have flows at all timescales, time constants, and abstraction levels no matter what designers and advertisers want or don't want. It's the information firehose itself that's creating this environment not evil designers.

21/ Blaming/shaming platform UX designers is giving them way too much credit. There's just too much actual information being put out there at too high a rate, and you do in fact have meaningful access to almost all of it.

22/ There is of course a time, place, and role for unplugging from information flows entirely, and doing whatever low/zero information refractory period activity you prefer to recover, from domestic blissing to meditation. Not shown on graph.

23/ But while that has a role to play in mental health, make no mistake: you do need a job in the giant social computer, and that involves consuming and acting on information at all levels on the turnpike, in a time-bound, temporally constrained way.

24/ The idea of a profane/secular "temporal" plane and a sacred/religious timeless/eternal plane is a medieval idea invented to justify the power of powerful intercessionary religious orgs. Don't reproduce that bad pattern.

25/ LONG before the digital media companies tried to pwn your attention by overloading it at difficult latency ranges, religious institutions tried to pwn you by suckering you into checking out of "temporal" matters by labeling them sinful/profane or whatever. This is utter bs.

26/ That is in fact the original attention hack: powerful religious leaders telling smart people to check out and unplug from information flows. That way, they get the power.

27/ If you think about it, it is very shady indeed that you're supposed to meditate on low-actionable-information information streams like a flickering candle. Good start, and a necessary part of attention training. But if you stay there, you're playing someone else's game.

28/ This game is based on the opposite fear to FOMO which I call FOBO. If FOMO is Fear of Missing Out, FOBO is Fear Of Being Ordinary. What do I mean by that and why is retreating from digital information streams a mark of FOBO?

29/ When you are plugged into the GSCITC, you are part of a great computational fluidization of human cognition. You're just one instance in a liquid cloud of human intelligence, your thoughts entangled with those of others in a giant ongoing computation. It's a kind of computational civic duty, like voting. Sometimes it is fun, other times it is not, but it always important.

30/ This fluidization is a different emergent social phenomenon from the homogenization achieved by Organization Man corporations. Instead of being a faceless interchangeable part, you are a unique entangled particle in a quantum soup.

31/ The cost though is that even if your contributions are unique and your personal payoff makes it worthwhile if you do it right, the one thing the liquid cloud can't offer you is individual recognition. You are an ordinary Borg drone even if you are not interchangeable.

32/ No matter how brilliant the output of the collective intelligence/group mind -- and at its best Twitter in particular can be sublime in its sum-greater-than-parts output -- there is no easy way to disentangle and proudly claim your contribution to the distributed computation.

33/ Trying to claim credit for your part is a not-even-wrong thing to try. This is why ironically adding a joke trademark™ symbol to evocative turns of phrase is a thing on social media. This and other behaviors are early markers of how we're adapting to being incorporated into the GSCITC hive mind.

34/ The GSCITC is not a homogenizer of effort or imagination, but it IS a homogenizer of egos and identities. What you do counts. Who you are doesn't. You are an ordinary part of an extraordinary process.

35/ This is the heart of FOBO. Fear of Being Ordinary. Fear of being just another entangled particle in the GSCITC. Fear of your ego dissolving into the collective ego. Fear of having "nothing to show" for playing a part, despite it being sustainable.

36/ Waldenponding, I strongly suspect, is driven more by FOBO and ego-attachment than by any real fear of having your mind, productive potential, and rewards destroyed by "hacked attention."

37/ Personally, I can attribute more than half my income in the last few years to being strongly plugged in all the time, so rewards certainly didn't suffer. Half my good ideas for writing came from being plugged in, so neither did productive potential. And I don't think I'm any dumber for having been plugged in. About 42% smarter in fact.

38/ Sure, the challenge of managing the stress and anxiety is high, but then, so is the corresponding kind of stress working inside a traditional organization. There is no reason to expect the stress on your "free" attention to be lower than on your industrially organized attention.

39/ If you are a genius who rises to Level 25 Omega Super Adept in a monastery in the mountains, who knows everything there is to know about candle flames, that's kinda... very convenient for the Pope and the King. Smart person out of the way in a log cabin learning Candleology out of FOBO.

40/ A real adept oughta be able to meditate on the angriest, most toxic twitter stream, consume the bile, and turn it into nectar: actionable insight you can bet on in the real world.

41/ A real adept ought to have strength-trained attention so they can spend an hour either reading a tweetstream or a once-in-a-generation history-disrupting philosophy book. No hack designer or advertiser should be able to lock them down in the 0.1-10 second range.

42/ So stop blaming the media platforms for your own wallowing in small-minded twitter gossip about people. Strength train to the point where you decide whether to be there or elsewhere. May the FOMO be with you, and may you have the strength to resist FOBO.

43/ If, after recognizing the yin-yang dynamic of FOMO and FOBO, and the fact that both getting entangled in information flows and retreating from them are behaviors that can be pwned by others, you still want to do a bit of Waldenponding that is fine.

44/ Whether you choose a Soft or Hard Waldenponding, and whether you choose it as an occasional break or a regularly scheduled retreat, just recognize that it is not a self-evidently more "moral" attitude then getting your mind all dirty and entangled in the "toxic" information streams.

45/ We are all now part of a powerful global social computer in the cloud that is possibly the only mechanism we have available to tackle the big problems of the world that industrial age mechanisms are failing to cope with. We might as well get good at it. Do your part. Stay as plugged in as you can.

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