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.

Now

The iPhone crouches at the corner of my chair, well within reach. The iMac sits on the altar in the living room, but I can worship from afar by picking up the iPhone. The god of distractions is generous this way: it does not care what use you have for it, only what use it has for you.

Poetry rests in the little spaces between distractions. It waits in the silence for brief attention, patient, burdock along the trail.


There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.

— Mary Oliver, “Moments,” Felicity (2016)

All These Many Voices

We, all of us, have something to say. So many of us found a voice writing on the web, broadcasting on YouTube, or talking through a podcast, not to make money or sell something–though some do start with that thought–but because we must.

Year over year, there are more songs, more musicians, more books, more authors, more movies, more actors, both absolutely and as a percentage of the total population.

Are fewer making a living from it? Fewer “capturing the value” of it?

The value is in the sharing. We humans are a talkative species of chattering, gregarious simians.

Connectivity

Respect for others’ time is difficult when you cannot see them. The telephone interrupts dinner, church, conversations. The burden of ignoring the interruption placed on the recipient no matter how respectful the caller intended to be. Social cues are missing.

The same for e-mail, or instant messaging, or the apps on that phone in our pocket.

The things that connect us disconnect us.

Escapism

I have not been bored since I learned to read. I would read anything and everything; and what with the public libraries and my family’s collection, I didn’t often run out of material. Unless there was a planning failure. If I forgot to stick a book in my pocket. Did you know other houses don’t have as many books? Did you know some have none?

Ours was a household of readers. We didn’t have a television until after I was the fourth grade, and that was a small black-and-white set kept in the spare room. Later, someone in the congregation gave us a cast-off color TV just before we moved back to Virginia. (My own sons are now that age. Time moved so slowly for me then.) I have few childhood memories of television shows; most are of books and places and playing. My grandparents’ houses were defined by smells and their libraries: brick, boxwood, and Classics Illustrated on Mom’s side; apples, bread, mathematics, photographs, and genealogy on Dad’s.

I would sit for hours and read, so deep in concentration that I couldn’t hear the world outside. Reading filled all the gaps in the day: walking down the street, sitting on the toilet, riding in the car, between classes. Still now when I finish a book I immediately look around for something else.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of doing something similar with other entertainments–grasping for the next movie, the next update, the next web page–until there are too many things all at once, pulling in a multitude of directions, and I feel torn limb from limb. I stay up late restless, unsleeping, unthinking.

What am I not doing?

The Browser History Fell Through a Memory Hole in my Pocket

If not careful, the brogrammers responsible for the attention deficit economy and big data collection will find their work has gone the way of interactive television. People use tools because they are — wait for it — useful.

You’re not the customer; you’re the product.

A web browser keeps, or kept, a history of where the user has browsed, what sites he’s visited, pages he’s read, where he’s been. It uses this information in the back button, but it’s also exposed as a list. The user can, more generally, retrace his steps. Additional windows and tabs in the browser interface led to discontinuities in the history, so while browsers still send referrers, they are, for the most part, lost to the user.

As my habits have shifted from a desktop to a pocket computer, I’ve noticed a key missing feature. Where has view source gone? And with my time being spent in specialized “apps” that are really just handicapped web browsers, an annoying behavior of iPhone memory management has me poking around Medium‘s and The Guardian‘s apps for something that should be there but isn’t: my reading history.

iOS has made what I consider odd design decisions, some of which have bled over to MacOS. (And speaking of questionable design decisions, that lowercase m I just didn’t use.) It assumes a well-connected network, values currency, and behaves as though local memory, storage, and power are tightly constrained. (The latter is a hoot considering how many years location services — and valuing currency — have been draining batteries.) In practice this means that if you leave an app for a minutes or seconds, say to check an incoming text, the app throws away its state and you lose your place.

Started that long think-piece on Medium on something dreadfully pressing, but it’s time to make dinner so you’ll get back to it later, where later is tomorrow or next week because life is like that? In the middle of cooking a new dish and scrolling along through a recipe as you add ingredients, then your mother calls, the page reloads, and now you’re confronted with adding another tablespoon of ghost pepper or none at all? That YouTube video you were meaning to finish watching later? Yeah, it’s disappeared. But, well, at least you can look for it in the vast store of clicks that Google has on you: you can see what was captured.

Safari will reveal your history. But Medium doesn’t. Facebook doesn’t. Twitter doesn’t. Other apps don’t. They haven’t been that considerate. It’s pretty obvious all these folks know exactly what I’m reading and watching and listening to, when, and for how long. They use that data to serve up recommended fodder, advertisements for my attention. But there’s no courtesy of a reach-around. No trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow back out of this dungeon to what led me here in the first place.

If you want to continue the data harvest, it’s necessary to feed the cattle.

Chaperone on the Field Trip

Without constant external stimulation, we might have to face the anxious terror of consciousness.

And so the increasingly urgent demand in a first grader’s voice as he asks again and again for the bus driver to turn the radio on. Meanwhile, I too grasp for novelty, though, unlike the child, I have the luxury of carrying the Internet in my pocket.