Fine Tuning the Fine Tuning Arguments: A Response to Mr. John C. Wright

This is a response to two posts by Mr. John C. Wright: The Fine Tuning Argument Needs More Fine Tuning and Argument from Design is Well Designed. While I think that Mr. Wright’s criticism of the argument in itself is correct, I think that he misses the context of why it is a useful argument none the less. (It shakes the poorly-founded confidence on which a belief in materialism is typically based.) As usual, you can also watch it on YouTube:

Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison

This is a follow-up to my posts Social Media is Doomed and Staying Sane on Social Media.

I ran into an article which discusses what a former facebook executive said about Facebook’s effect on people:

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”

Here’s the original video, in case the article goes down, or if you’d like to verify The Verge’s description of what was said:

(I haven’t verified it myself, mostly because mention it as a good expression of a concern I already have, and not as information supporting a conclusion.)

The ability social media gives to people to form instant mobs is something I haven’t talked about yet, but it’s another major problem that social media brings with it. Mobs are dangerous things; technology which allows them for form more readily is certainly dangerous. There is yet another element of push-vs-pull social media at work, but only in degree. Pull-based social media (i.e. social media where you have to actively go look at someone’s feed rather than there feed being pushed in front of you) still drastically reduces the amount of energy necessary to whip up a mob, but not as much as push-based social media. (To recap: Facebook, Twitter, etc are push-based social media while blogs, etc. are pull-based social media.) Much of the difference comes from speed: in pull-based, you have to get others to go look at the inciting material, and they will get to it when they get to it. In push-based media people can repost/retweet/etc the inciting material and spread it much faster. The faster it spreads, the more people will be having an emotional reaction to it at the same time.

There is a flip side to the information hose that push-based media causes, though, which is that no one has a good enough memory to drink from the information fire hose of push-based social media and keep track of all the things to be outraged about. This mitigates against the online mob-forming tendencies of push-based social media, in that a mob’s ire will usually not be directed at any particular target for any great length of time. Burning something requires both intensity of heat as well as duration of the heat being applied; anything can withstand a blowtorch applied for only a ten-thousandth of a second. And in fact savvy miscreants are learning how to use this to their advantage in order to avoid blow-back from their misdeeds.

To be clear, it’s not that I think that push-based social media is an unalloyed evil; only that it is fundamentally incompatible with human nature. My contention is not that push-based social media is impossible to use well. My contention is that push-based social media is simply too much strain on a human being for human beings to continue using it in its current form. I don’t think that Facebook et al will die off, but rather transform into something with so many content-curation tools as to effectively be pull-based rather than push-based. I.e. they will become something dissimilar to what they are now, though possibly under the same name.

The Value of Atheist Hacks: A Response to The Distributist

The Distributist made a video (which is very worth watching) called Atheist Hacks:

While I don’t disagree with anything he said, I do think he was missing one purpose that the atheist hacks serve within the skeptical community. So I made this video. You can watch it on YouTube instead of listening to it, if you prefer:

Heinlein’s Sexual Morality, Good & Evil in Novels, & More: A Conversation with Mr. John C. Wright

I had the pleasure of having the always-interesting science fiction author Mr. John C Wright (who blogs at scifiwright.com) on my show. It was a somewhat wide-ranging conversation, though it stuck (in my mind) surprisingly closely to the topic we set out to talk about throughout. It’s also available on YouTube:

How Joking About Evil Can Make You Evil

It’s popular to think of joking as completely harmless (probably in reaction to the people who can’t tell the difference between a joke and a serious philosophical position), but while joke are not the same thing as policy papers, that does not mean that they are always harmless. I take a look at the conditions in which joking about evil can predispose one toward evil. Of course you can watch it on YouTube instead:

Why You Can’t Have a Scientific Morality

I’ve occasionally seen references to using science to construct morality, so I discussed why this is impossible. (This is also a position which any who believes in scientisim—that the only source of knowledge is science—is forced into if they don’t want to hold morality and all associated human actions, such as law and criminal justice, to be completely irrational. They’re not going to want to do that because then they’d be holding that all the most important things in life are irrational.) And of course you can view this on YouTube:

Hollywood’s Flexible Morality: A Conversation with The Distributist

The distributist made a very interesting video on the sex abuse scandal in Hollywood:

Towards the end he brought up a very interesting point about Hollywood’s current anything-goes morality being replaced by a more strict feminist morality, and touched upon the idea that this might be self-defeating because a puritanical morality dominating would result in Hollywood ceasing to make the sort of movies from which it derives its power.

But this also brought up another very interesting point: if you leave aside the particulars of feminism, a sleazeball has a very strong interest in aligning himself with vocal proponents of morality because it gives him cover for his misdeeds. If the vocal proponents of morality (in this case, feminism) ceased to give the cover, the powerful sleazeballs would cease to have a reason to support the vocal proponents of that morality.  Or in short, it’s possible that the only reason Hollywood supports feminism as it does is as a cover for its sins and if feminism were to cease to provide that cover, Hollywood would cease to support feminism. It’s an interesting idea, and I invited the Distributist onto my channel to talk about it. I think it was an interesting conversation. You can also watch it on YouTube, if you prefer:

Staying Sane on Social Media

This is sort-of a followup to Social Media is Doomed. If we take as given that social media is in the phase where its push-based notification system is creaking under the weight of its large userbase and stressing users as a result, if one does not simply abandon all social media, how is one to deal with this and stay sane?

I am not at present giving a definitive answer for two reasons:

  1. I do not have sufficient time
  2. I’m not completely sure yet

But I would like to sketch out some techniques I’ve found to work. They’re not rules, just heuristics.

Be Very Picky about Who you Follow

This is probably the most important thing. If people post too many things which would require you to come to terms with them in order to get along, don’t follow them. On social media where being friends and seeing updates are not the same thing, then by all means be friends with anyone you know but be careful to turn off status updates (or whatever the push notifications are called) as soon as you can tell that they’re not thinking of their status updates as public. It’s way better than losing friends.

Turn Off Phone Notifications

Everyone’s social media app loves to buzz you every time you have the slightest interaction with anyone, since they desperately want your eyes looking at the advertisements they show you. Just turn off the notifications for everything but direct messages and check on occasion. The number of times anything bad will happen because you didn’t catch somebody’s status update in a timely manner can be counted on no hands, for most people.

Don’t Use the Default Interface

The default interface of most social media is designed with one goal in mind: to get you to watch as much advertising as the social media company can manipulate you into watching. There are probably some exceptions, but however it is that the social media company makes money off of you, that’s what they want to trick you into doing, as often as they can. And they may not even realize that they’re training you through stress reactions and pavlovian training to do what they want; they probably only measure their success at making money, not what effect these things have on you. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether they mean well. You can do just as much damage by not realizing how to measure how much damage you’re doing. Protect yourself from everyone, not merely intentional villains. Most every social media platform has some alternative way of interacting with it that doesn’t get nearly as much attention. Tweetdeck for Twitter is the obvious example, but there are others. Maybe read Facebook via email that automatically goes into a folder. Whatever the platform offers that isn’t the standard, use that if at all possible.

Social Media is Doomed

That’s a slightly click-baity title, so let me clarify: I mean social media not in the sense of all ways of talking with people on the internet of any kind, but rather the giant platforms people typically mean when they say “social media”: Facebook, Twitter, etc. And when I say doomed, I mean, in their current form. I strongly suspect that there will be a Facebook corporation (or whatever it’s called) in 50 years time.

Social media is currently organized around a push-model of media delivery. Basically, it uses notifications for when people say things to you. And it does this regardless of whether you know them or not. This is not long-term viable for human beings. Conflict is deeply stressful to us, and we’re reasonably good at settling into mutually acceptable patterns with people we regularly come into contact with—especially family members. Though even there, plenty of people aren’t good at it and these relationships don’t all last. push-based social media forces us into contact with people in a relatively intimate setting with whom we haven’t developed the patterns of interaction which let us be comfortable with each other. And that just doesn’t work.

People not wanting to argue with random strangers in an intimate way is often ridiculed as “wanting to seal oneself in an echo chamber” but it’s basic human nature: people don’t have the energy to accommodate themselves to a large number of people, and worse social media contacts are often quite temporary in nature. Developing a mutually accommodating relationship to a person is often a waste of energy because they disappear from one’s life in 6 months.

For this and other reasons, social media where you interact in an intimate way with people you should be interacting with in a formal way is a disaster. It is simply against human nature.

Of course when social networks are relatively young this doesn’t cause as many problems because the members of the network are self-selected and most people just don’t run into that many people. Thus the network gains a lot of strength of this not-long-term-viable approach in terms of early growth. But eventually the downsides emerge; Facebook, for example, has become an excellent way to hate your family, friends, and neighbors. It’s also, apparently, an excellent tool for kids to bully each other with, and especially for girls to bully other girls with. I won’t use facebook for basically any amount of money, but its addictive properties do keep many bound to it.

The result is very likely going to be the platform’s gradual shift away from push-notifications to pull-notifications. Push notifications for private direct messages, since that’s the same thing as mail, email, SMS messages, etc. But pull notifications for other things, like status updates. The other thing is that on more personal networks like Facebook, people are likely to generally adopt rules of politeness very similar to teatime rules—do not under any circumstance discuss contentious issues.

The problem from Facebook’s perspective, of course, is that this reduction in engagement is bad for their bank account. For at least a fair time they were experimenting with showing you the things other people liked, in addition to showing you what other people shared. That’s really what eventually drove me off of Facebook, actually. And I notice that Twitter is doing it too. In fact the twitter phone app as become basically unusuable because of it. Between that and their constantly showing me the “in case you missed it” tweets, the phone app has become dysfunctional. Sure, it’s serving twitter’s ends and not mine, but I’m getting close to uninstalling it, in which case it will serve no one’s ends. I’m a little odd in that I analyze this sort of thing, but I’m not odd in my reaction—people burn out all the time.

So when you put all this together, it’s an inherent problem social media faces—growth and maximum engagement are achieved only by running hard against human nature. And you can only do that for so long before human nature revolts. As I said, I don’t expect that Facebook and Twitter will all go out of business—heck, there’s still a MySpace for crying out loud—but I do think we’re going to see big changes.

Blogging, by the way, is far more in accord with human nature because it is a pull-type medium. You go to a blog and read it, or read it in your RSS reader (I use newsblur).  It is convenient to take or leave as you find interesting and useful. It does not, therefore, introduce demands that you accommodate yourself to someone who probably won’t be around in six months anyway.