Digital Book Today on my birthday

February 7 is my birthday, and Digital Book Today has given me a gift:  Its editors chose today to run a blog of mine. The blog, which originally was posted here, is called “Lewis Carroll on Social Media.”

Do you wonder how the heck I made THAT connection? Sure you do. Go to DBT and ponder an odd little scene from Through the Looking Glass.

Stay tuned. The chose a second blog for Valentine’s Day.

People as product

Last week in the thread “Notable Quotes, Excerpts, and Profound Lines” over at Mobileread, I read this quotation:

“The people who use sites like Google and Facebook are not those companies’ customers. They are the products that those companies sell to their customers. In general, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. Sometimes you’re the product even if you are paying for it.”

—Bruce Schneier, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.

It got me thinking about the ways I am product: at Facebook, on Twitter, on Google. The thought that followed on the heels of that one was, “As product goes, I’m not worth much.” Sell my personal information, sure. But use it to sell me something? Not likely. The concept of me-as-dataset is not troubling. Think it is gold? It is not. It is not me either.

A pitch is like an invitation to a dance. To be sold, you have to first agree to be waltzed around by the ones doing the selling. When you are young, you lack experience and find it easy to say yes. By the time you grow up, you are more discriminating.

From the days of people barking their goods on city streets to the present when they bark their goods online, we have not come so very far. We pass by with our own agendas, hopes, worries, dreams, pain, distractions, likes, and dislikes. These characteristics are not stiff and static as they are when extracted as data. Instead they are like leaping all over the place, like popcorn in a machine.

People are quirky and unpredictable product. That is because they are alive.

As an actual living person, you look down on ads from a great height. If you stop to pat the ad on the head and say “cute,” you might buy what the cute little thing is selling.  But  a cautionary note: be yourself. You are not your dataset. You never will be.

The Artist’s Way Week 4: Reading deprivation

For Christmas a friend gave me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  In a vague intuitive way,  I thought  “something good is about to come from this.” It has. It will.

I had the mistaken impression that The Artist’s Way was one of those feel-good books for creative types, to be read once in cozy circumstances and then relegated to a bookshelf, to be removed when you need to feel good again.

Not so. The Artist’s Way is a twelve-week course in recovering creativity and focus in daily life. It is intensive. It brings up hidden things. Julia Cameron also links creativity to spirituality (a nonnegotiable point for her), and any time you venture into that country with an open mind, you embark on an adventure around every corner of which may be something you did not expect.

The tasks vary from week to week. The primary task of week 4 is Reading Deprivation. That means to stop idle-time reading. Cameron might have meant to stop reading entirely, but on a practical level this was impossible, not to mention undesirable. So I set two conditions:

  1. Social media (Facebook, Twitter) 1X/day.
  2. No reading in the evening. AT ALL.

Wait—ONCE a day?

I was an early adopter of social media.  I’ve been using these sites in one iteration or another since the late 1990s. They are about connection. Also  they are about hiding out from work, about being bored with work, and about nothing more than habit.

Here’s what I learned: the number of times I used to check into Facebook was too many, but once a day is not enough. Not for me. I am spending a half hour there every morning rather than the usual 5-6 minutes. I miss half of what I would otherwise have seen and barely respond to anything because that half hour is agenda driven. It is not fun. It is like skimming through 8,000 emails to see if there is anything important.

When the purpose is connection, all kinds of things can be important, including trivia. Sometimes especially trivia.

So when the week is up, I’ll give myself 3X/day and see how that goes.

Not surfing the Internet to waste time (as opposed to doing research) turned out to be surprisingly easy. That does tell me how little the purposeless surfing added to my day. It did nothing, basically.

My oldest habit—broken

I always read in the evenings. Even before I learned to read, books were part of the night, because I was read to. Going cold turkey on this particular habit was a major change.

The first thing reading deprivation did was to produce a flurry of housecleaning. The place now has better-looking kitchen cabinets and a number of other improvements. I stopped short of rearranging office furniture, but I did do a lot of throwing out and sorting.

There was something of the “new broom” about this cleaning. Reading deprivation is a big enough deal that it felt like a harbinger of change.

I was halfway through a new book when reading deprivation week came around and have been looking at it wistfully. A purchase from Abebooks arrived yesterday and I did not open it.

I have rediscovered the music on my seven-year-old iPod. I went through a Gregorian chant phase a few years ago. That’s nice music to get sleepy to.

An odd discovery: when I look at photos in a catalog and do not read the accompanying text, the photos look different. Imagination provides the stories rather than the sales pitch I am not reading. It’s nice.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I bought a beautiful art book from the National Gallery on the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. That was a fine thing to rediscover. Look at his paintings.

To waste time (I knew I’d find a way), I discovered an addictive little computer game called Balloon Pop. If you know someone whose organizational skills and productivity have always annoyed you, Balloon Pop will derail them. It is part of a sweet and charming animation called Circus. It costs two dollars, and you can give it as a gift.

Just saying . . .

Lewis Carroll on social media

Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871.

Naturally, Carroll had no knowledge of social media, but he had wit, intelligence, and imagination. So it is not too surprising he came up with a scene in Looking Glass that prefigures the ethereal interactions that now are our daily bread.

The scene is from chapter 3,  titled “Looking Glass Insects,” though by that point in the chapter Carroll was through with the insects (gnat, rocking-horse fly, snapdragon-fly bread-and-butterfly).

The scene floats in out of nowhere and disappears less than 400 words later, never to be referred to again.

She was rambling on in this way when she reached the wood: it looked very cool and shady. “Well, at any rate  it”s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the–into WHAT?”she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the–under the–under THIS, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What DOES it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it”s got no name–why, to be sure it hasn”t!”

She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. “Then it really HAS happened, after all! And now, who am I? I WILL remember, if I can! I”m determined to do it!” But being determined didn”t help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was, “L, I KNOW it begins with L!”

Just then a Fawn came wandering by: it looked at Alice with its large gentle eyes, but didn’t seem at all frightened. “Here then! Here then!” Alice said, as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it; but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!

“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”

“Think again,” it said: “that won’t do.”

Alice thought, but nothing came of it. “Please, would you tell me what YOU call yourself?” she said timidly. “I think that might help a little.”

“I”ll tell you, if you”ll move a little further on,” the Fawn said. “I can”t remember here.”

So they walked on together though the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice”s arms. “I”m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight, “and, dear me! you”re a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

Into the woods

What has Carroll’s wood of forgetting got in common with cyberspace? It isn’t the bittersweet emotional connection. Internet encounters come in all  flavors, many not sweet at all. It is the “floating in space” feeling. Alice and the fawn have been stripped of their identities and all the baggage they carry.

In space you can  forget anything you want, including but not limited to your name.

Out of the woods

I remember the early days of social media. When you did social media in the mid-1990s, you were basically a voice in space, talking to other voices in space. Your thoughts were you. That enabled connections—for better or worse—that would have been impossible/unlikely in the world where everyone has faces and bodies, and histories.

Have you ever known someone only via an internet connection and then met them in life? Most everyone has. There is a little shock—the transition from zero gravity to earthbound. (Before the day of Facebook et al, a common thought was “this person looks nothing like I imagined.”) Then you shrug it off and move on. Or not, depending on how disorienting the transition is. It is easier to make the transition these days, because it is so commonly made.

Futurists who believe perfection will be achieved when we leave our bodies behind (and some DO believe this) are imagining a more sophisticated version of Carroll’s wood of forgetting. I think they must be. You go into that wood and it goes on forever.

“One thing about the Net”

In 1992, [NOTE THAT DATE] mathematics professor, computer scientist, and science fiction author Vernor Vinge published a visionary novel called A Fire Upon the Deep. The key event is development of a superintelligence called The Blight. Efforts to counter the destructiveness of the Blight drive the plot, which spans several star systems and races of beings, human and nonhuman.

Almost in passing (and I suspect for fun) Vinge shows considerable talent for mimicking the conversation of what were then called news groups. We don’t use the term “news groups” any more, but other things have not changed at all. As you will see.

Early social media, fictional examples

From: Khurvark University [claimed to be habitat-based university, in the Middle Beyond]

Subject: Blighter Video

Summary: The message shows fraud

Text of message:

It’s obvious that this “Helper” is a fraud. We’ve researched the the matter carefully. Though he is not named, the speaker is a high official in the former Straumlli regime. Now why—if the “Helper” simply runs the humans as teleoperated robots—why is the early social structure preserved? The answer should be clear to any idiot: the Helper does not have the power to teleoperate large numbers of sentients. . . . Our conclusion: this Helper Symbiosis is just another messianic religion, another screwball empire excusing its excesses and attempting to trick those it cannot directly coerce. Don’t be fooled!

From: Society for Rational Investigation [probably a single system in the Middle Beyond]

Subject: Blighter Video thread

Summary: [Probable obscenity] waste of our valuable time

Text of message:

Who is a fool? [probable obscenity] [probable obscenity] Idiots who don’t follow all the threads in developing news should not waste my precious ears with their [clear obscenity] garbage. . . . The Blight is something new and interesting. I think it’s time that [obscenity] jerks like Khurvark University stick to the noise groups, and let the rest of us have some intelligent discussion.

From: Twirlip of the Mists [perhaps an organization of cloud fliers in a single jovian system. Very sparse priors.]

Subject: Blighter Video thread

Summary: Hexapodia as the key insight

Text of message:

I haven’t had a chance to see the famous video from Straumli Realm, except as an evocation. (My only gateway onto the Net is very expensive.) Is it true that humans have six legs? I wasn’t sure from the evocation. If these humans have three pairs of legs, then I think there is an easy explanation for—

Vinge back in narrator mode:

And so it went. Tens of thousands of messages, hundreds of points of view. It was not called the Net of a Million Lies for nothing. Ravna talked with Blueshell and Greenstalk about it every day, trying to put it all together, trying to decide which interpretation to believe.

A Fire Upon the Deep won the 1993 Hugo award for best science fiction novel.   The sequel, The Children of the Sky, was nearly twenty years coming: it was published on April 24, 2012.

The series has a name now: Zones of Thought.