Impulses

ACTION REQUIRED, the e-mail demands, NOW. Give money. Sale! One day only! You might like this video. Sign our petition now or terrible things will happen! How was your test? Sign our petition now to stop terrible things from happening! What kind of furry animal are you? Fill out this spreadsheet with data from another database, then copy data from spreadsheet column A to spreadsheet column ZZ. What’s for dinner? ACTION REQUIRED.

But can you act when all of these demands force themselves upon your attention and you’re twitching this way and that attempting to satisfy every competing request?

We’ve been trained to act on our impulses immediately, and to expect instant gratification: Send an instant message to your daughter at school asking about whatever springs to mind or sharing something interesting; pop off an unread e-mail to your Congressperson objecting to the latest idiocy; watch a movie now in the comfort of your car; order pizza delivered.

Whereas earlier we couldn’t, and had to learn patience; now we can, and the discipline of patience is but a fleeting memory. As is our memory: Can you hold a thought in your head longer than it takes to tweet at someone?

Can you respect your time and another’s?

Can you think before you act?

I shop therefore I am

AT&T Fell for Media’s Inflated Sense of Self-Importance

AT&T has entered the “content” business in a big way with the acquisition of DirecTV and TimeWarner. This is not a new plan–they’ve been in love with the glamour of Hollywood for years. But it is a misguided plan.

AT&T hopes to provide value and profit from exclusive content through focused advertising.

This is a fool’s errand.

Folks other than I have talked about the reasons why in greater depth for many years, most notably Andrew Odlyzko, formerly of AT&T Labs, whose “Content is Not King,” First Monday 6(2) (February 2001), persuasively showed that people pay overwhelmingly for connectivity, not content. And not by a small margin either.

The reason is simple: humans are gregarious. We are social animals. We want to reach out and touch someone.

Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail,” Wired (October 2004), proposed that given infinite, instant availability, sales of things, particularly digital things, would tend to accumulate in the long tail of a Pareto distribution. That is, value would accrue to things that had had minimal value before. A follow-up analysis in 2008 at the Harvard Business Review noted that while this was the case, the long tail got longer and thinner so that the popularity of things on the thick end of the tail became more significant. (You can also see this with the current shape of income inequality.) That could provide hope for AT&T’s advertising plans, but it doesn’t because of two factors outside of their control: time and the supply of money.

Time and money are finite. Time cannot exceed 24 hours in a day. Money is artificially constrained by governments and their agents. But content is essentially infinite: All humans create things. All humans want to share what they create. Alas, there’s nowhere near enough time to consume infinity, and one’s personal supply of money restricts what little can be consumed even further. I have to choose between writing this, correcting a crontab entry, listening to a podcast, making dinner, lifting weights, watching the Champions League, voiding my bladder, and so forth. No matter how much I want to find out right now what happens when the Ice Dragon breaches the wall, for me to actually do so depends on those two things: time and money. I’ll wait, and get the DVD from the library.

Money, or the lack thereof, is what drives cord-cutting. Even were there infinite money, time trumps everything.

Or, you cannot squeeze blood from a stone.

Oddly enough, AT&T’s earlier foray into advertising, the Yellow Pages, was similarly profitable for the same reason telephony is: connectivity. Rather than shouting at customers “Buy Me!” the directory simply sat there, waiting, until a customer needed something. It, and the classified advertisements which provided much of newspapers’ revenues, have been gradually replaced not by pay-per-click advertising on the Internet, but by services built on the World Wide Web–basically Google and Craigslist–accelerated by the general decline in local economies. Everyone’s price sensitive these days.

But I can understand why they’ve made the choices they did. There’s only a certain amount of time in a day, and only a certain amount of time to spend reading or listening or watching or working or playing. It’s highly likely that the idea connectivity is more valuable than content never crossed their minds.

Better to invest in what enables connections and carries all of that content. And ignore the shiny distractions.

So what next? What could AT&T do with what they have?

What do people actually need? It’s not more advertising and it’s not more content; there’s plenty of that.

Shards

If you must
sit inside on a bright and lovely day,
focused--for definitions that mean unfocused--
on the screen of a computer,
not the world around,
then the shards of life caught in its web
offer beautiful solace.

Yesterday, while cleaning the screen, I found brief mention of Neja Tomšič’s Tea for five: Opium Clippers. It’s a transitory artwork, a happening, so I can’t experience it, but I’m struck by what tiny glimpse the Internet has given me of her work.

Only the Emperor’s Clothes Change

It’s remarkable how little changes over time.

Doesn’t this 1989 complaint of Audre Lorde’s sound familiar?

“We are a territory of the most powerful country on earth, supposed to be. Why are there almost 700 families still homeless? If we do not learn the lessons of Hurricane Hugo, we are doomed to repeat them. Because Hugo will not be the last hurricane in this area.

What lessons were learned, by whom?

via JSTOR Daily

One of my nieces is visiting for a while, and, as the other children are in school, the question asked is, “But what will she do all day?”

I don’t know. What do you do when you’re left to your own devices? What do you do when all of time is yours?

Hi-Phi Nation: a Philosophy Podcast

The February 2019 dead tree edition of Chronogram, a local magazine here in the Hudson Valley of New York, had a brief interview with Barry Lam of Vassar College about his philosophy podcast, Hi-Phi Nation. I listened as a result, and found Hi-Phi Nation to be entertaining and interesting, even punny. But I may be an outlier: check it out yourself.

Economists enjoy great media cachet. I don’t see philosophers being revered in the same way as go-to problem framers.

Philosophy has the reputation of being a little old-fashioned or weirdly inaccessible. We haven’t done a good job in philosophy of putting ourselves as one of the branches of people who have been thinking about these kinds of things and have a stake in it and can offer a way of approaching these problems that an ordinary person concerned with social issues and what’s happening with the world can access. The public has to feel that philosophers are offering an insight versus just arguing endlessly amongst themselves about things that nobody else cares about.


Yes. People don’t like jargon, for good reason. But what they really hate is uncertainty.

They also ask tough questions like, “Philosophy? What kind of job can you get with that? Stand-up philosopher?” As if nothing is worth doing for itself.

And as if philosophy is not something that everybody can do.

Respect

One of my favorite things about the Internet is discovering kindred minds, often in unexpected places.

Cate Huston writes in Why you can’t manage humans like they’re software:

There’s a comfort for the mathematically inclined in returning to the certainty and understanding of mathematics, to think in systems and optimize for efficiency of communication between them. These things work, up to a point, but they are too static for the messiness of humans and the chaos of growth. If we leave out trust, and we leave out developing each other, we will never scale.

Some days I have great hope that the world of work will move beyond treating people as things.