There is a saying (or perhaps I made it up) that goes, “What you see depends on where you stand.” This book encourages you to mentally move around a bit to see your subjective world from the outside. Think about the things you know, the things you believe, your musings, your fears, your passions, and imagine someone from the outside taking an interest in you. Would they understand where you are coming from? Would your assessment of yourself and your world make sense to someone from some other time, or from some other species from some other world? Would it even be comprehensible to them? How you see yourself, where you stand, informs how you see everything else. The main point of this book, I think, is to demonstrate how subjective a view that really is.
The basic premise of this book, that some jobs are pretty much pointless and that the world wouldn’t skip a beat if they disappeared, is incontestable. But I think the author goes too far on too little evidence. He presents plenty of anecdotal quotes from people who believe their own jobs fall into the bullshit category, but no real assessment of whether or not these job holders are right. Not knowing what the benefit of your work might be doesn’t necessarily mean there is none.
There were two of his subcategories of bullshit jobs that I found especially problematic. He called one of these duct tape jobs, which exist only to fix mistakes that need not have been made or to make things work together that weren’t designed to work together. Holders of this kind of job seemed to be complaining that their own jobs wouldn’t be needed if others had simply done their jobs properly in the first place. Well, maybe, but people make mistakes, and they’re not omniscient. You can’t be expected to perform a job flawlessly 100% of time or to know if or how someone might want to leverage your work to accomplish something else. Compensating for someone else’s poor performance or lack of foresight may be infuriating, but it is not pointless.
The other questionable category is “box tickers.” By this, I think he means jobs that basically exist to verify that all the steps in an established process have been taken. Jobs like this can certainly be boring, but are they pointless? In some cases, maybe, but in most it seems a reasonable way to ensure the safety, reliability, or quality of a service or product. Think about a pilot’s preflight check, or a safety inspectors’ checklist. Again, if people were perfect, if they never made mistakes or got distracted or forgetful or negligent, if they got things 100% right 100% of time, these box ticker jobs might not be needed, but people aren’t like that.
That doesn’t mean that truly, or at least mostly, bullshit jobs don’t exist. They do. From where I’m sitting, pretty much any job containing the word analyst, consultant, advisor, director, chief, or coordinator in the title is likely to be at least 50% bullshit. I’ve held a few jobs like that, and yes, they did contain a fair amount of bullshit. The seemingly ironic thing about these jobs is that they tend to pay far more and are more “respected” than truly essential jobs like garbage collectors or teachers or nurses. The author suggests why and how this came to be, but doesn’t really delve deeply into the question.
As with most books of this type, which point out a societal ill, he concludes with some vague notions about how the situation might be improved, including implementing some kind of UBI (Universal Basic Income). I think this is an idea worth exploring, but this book doesn’t really do that in any depth.
Although it doesn’t approach the level of a scientific analysis, this book succeeds in getting the reader to think about bullshit jobs in a way they might not have before. While I agree that there are bullshit jobs, I personally don’t see them as a fundamental problem. I see them as a symptom of a larger and broader issue, and I have my own ideas about how that might be addressed. I may have to write about that, someday. No one is likely to read it, of course, but that doesn’t mean the effort would be pointless.
Are we losing our ability to focus? Is it harder now than in the past to pay attention to things? If so, do our work habits, lifestyle, diet, environment, and (especially) social media habits have anything to do with this? The author of this book, a writer and journalist who has consulted with experts in the field of behavioral science, believes the answer to all these questions is “Yes,” and although he brings up many valid points, I’m not convinced he’s entirely right. I think the real problem may be something else. It’s not that we can’t focus, it’s that our basic human instincts are being exploited to manipulate our behavior. A side effect of this is that our focus gets diverted.
In hopes of not coming off as a conspiracy nut, let me expand this short book review a bit to try to explain. I’ll try to keep it short without leaving out too much. You are more than welcome, encouraged, in fact, to stop reading here because I’m sure you have much more enjoyable ways to spend your time. . . .
Ah, so you’ve volunteered to read my rant on social manipulation. Your indulgence is appreciated and my conscious is clear. You have been warned.
There is no doubt that sustaining mental focus on a task can be difficult. But that has always been true. I’m not convinced that people, on average, are less able to focus now than in the past. It’s an aspect of our nature. Humans are easily distracted. That’s not a bug in our genetic makeup. It’s a feature. There’s an evolutionary advantage to having the ability to quickly divert our attention from whatever we may be doing at the time to something more urgent, like from chipping flakes off a stone hand axe to a suspicious rustling in nearby bushes, which might be the sound of a stalking tiger.
I see no reason to suspect that human nature has changed much over the last 40,000 years. We still have the same instincts and basic needs as our Stone Age ancestors. However, we do live in a much different world than they did. People in most contemporary societies work longer, sleep less, and eat more processed foods with questionable additives than they did even a generation ago. There isn’t much doubt about that, but does any of this affect our ability to achieve “flow,” the highly productive state of mind in which our attention is so focused we can lose sense of time and of our immediate surroundings?
Maybe, but if diet and environmental factors can impact our ability to focus, I would expect that people would be more able to achieve flow now than in the past. After all, we are better fed, live longer, and are under less stress than most people throughout history. (This is true overall and in general. Your individual results may vary.) And, as far as I can tell, achieving a flow state is not uncommon. I’m sure most of us have done it. I have, most often when doing something creative, whether it’s writing, cooking, or creating a spreadsheet. I’ve experienced something similar when playing a video game or while binge watching a series on a streaming service without commercials. I’ve heard that some people have become so focused on a video game that they’ve forgotten to eat.
The author of this book brings up some good points about the pervasive distractions of modern society, and those observations cannot be dismissed. People often seem to have difficulty focusing. But if technology and modern living are not in and of themselves a detriment to achieving flow, what is the problem? We no longer spend a lot of time worrying about creeping tigers, bad harvests, plague, starvation, or barbarian invaders. Those are all distractions of the past. The distractions of the present are much different, and possibly more insidious, which finally brings me to what I think may be the real issue in all of this.
People have always lied to one another to gain food, sex, money, power, or influence. Unprincipled clerics, unscrupulous merchants, and unsavory politicians have been making a living at it for centuries, and it seems ironic that they are often respected for their success. But for our especially insane predecessors, The-End-Is-Near types and conspiracy nuts of assorted flavors, they could only spread their less than coherent rants through privately funded pamphlets and opinion pieces in newspapers.
Two important things have happened in the last couple generations that make the messages of lunatics, liars, and con-men far more effective. The behavioral sciences (including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics) have provided us with a growing understanding of basic human drives and motivations so that we can now better predict how people are likely to react in various situations. The second important achievement is that we have developed the technology to share information (and disinformation) widely and quickly. If used well, both these things can provide a real boon to humanity. But if abused, well, they could potentially help toss us back into the Dark Ages.
You can probably see where this argument is heading. Others have made it, and the author of Stolen Focus takes us there as well, but he treats it as only one aspect of a declining capacity for maintaining mental focus whereas I see it is a fundamental societal problem and a major impediment to any kind of human progress.
There is an old adage that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” because it has long been known that things like violent crimes, wars, and car wrecks on the front page will sell newspapers. Modern behavioral science confirms that human attention is instinctively drawn to things like conflict and potential danger. If you want to distract someone and get them to shift their focus to you, say something that makes them feel angry, threatened, or disgusted. (Sex is also an attention grabber, but it doesn’t seem as effective a motivator for anything other than more sex.)
With an understanding of what can attract and distract people’s attention, manipulators with dubious ethical principles design mind viruses to do just that. They create ads, infomercials, tweets, blog posts, fake news articles, short videos, and “memes” that exploit our instincts. They knowingly design these things to trigger a visceral reaction and a sense of urgency to get us to either buy things we don’t necessarily need or to believe things that are not actually true. Some of the content creators are driven by ideology, but others do it for the money or to boost their egos. They probably don’t see themselves as Evil or even as dishonest. They may sincerely believe in the delusions they are trying to spread, or that they are simply engaging in a legitimate business practice. It’s just a form of advertising, right? And everyone knows advertising is, at best, not entirely objective. Whatever their motivations, the perpetrators of these mental social diseases then release them into the wild to breed. The internet is proving to be an especially effective incubator.
Social media services, like Twitter and Facebook, get their money from advertising, and they attract advertisers by getting lots of users who spend lots of time on their sites. (This is also true of traditional sources of news, which explains a lot about cable news and talk radio, but let’s focus on social media, for now.) More users, more time, more advertisers, more money. So, how do they get more users to spend more time looking at Tweets and Facebook updates? By exploiting even more insights uncovered by behavioral science. In addition to having an instinctive wariness that causes us to be distractable, humans also have a basic need for social acceptance. Social media provides these with “likes” and retweets and other forms of online engagement. We get a certain rush when someone “likes” our Facebook status update or retweets one of our Tweets. It makes us feel accepted, appreciated, part of a community. Put it all together and you have some very powerful tools for social manipulation, and those tools are being used.
I’m not saying this is some kind of grand conspiracy. Although some individuals and a few disreputable groups are knowingly spreading lies and disinformation, I believe most people believe what they’re posting or sharing. I have no doubt that there are people who actually think Earth is flat or that the Moon landing was faked. (I don’t understand how they can believe such things, but that’s beside the point.) But regardless of their sincerity, I’m certain that both the intentional liars and the unfathomably misinformed aren’t working together in a scheme of world domination (mainly because they don’t seem to play well together). It’s just that social media tends to amplify exaggerated and outrageous claims because crazy stuff is especially good at attracting attention.
Social media algorithms learn and adapt, and they’ve noticed what people will stop scrolling for and at what they’ll respond to and share. It doesn’t matter if these things are true or false of if people agree or disagree. What matters is that they engage. The algorithm makes note of these engagements, does a bit of math, and perfects its technique to gain viewers, which tends to amplify attention-grabbing messages. “Ah,” it says. “I see you like kittens. Here, let me show you this post people are sharing about a group of Bastet worshipers who are abducting pet cats and using them in cannibalistic rituals in the basement of a pizza shop. I estimate there is an 84% chance you’ll have an opinion about it.”
And that’s basically it. People come up with all sorts of crazy stuff, and social media amplifies crazy because crazy captures attention. So, the real problem, or at least the main problem, is not that we have difficulty focusing, it’s that we’re being deluged with things that are designed to distract us, and social media is amplifying those distractions because it supports their business model. (It’s also leaving a lot of truly misinformed, unnecessarily angry, and often well-armed people all over the world, which is also quite distressing.)
So, how do you fix it?
The author of Stolen Focus offers a few suggestions, including nationalizing social media to remove the profit motive, and using social media to put together a grass roots movement to recognize and fight the dangers of social media. (I found that last one a bit ironic.) I’m not dismissing either notion. Both might help, but since the bigger issue for me isn’t our loss of focus but rather that we’re being inundated with falsehoods, I had a different notion.
Maybe we could do something about making lying illegal. Right now, I’ve heard it’s not, at least for politicians (in the US). Someone running for office can legally lie in their political ads. From making unsubstantiated claims to statements that are demonstrably false, it’s all allowed under the concept of Free Speech, leaving it up to independent “fact checkers” to verify any dubious assertions. I personally think this is wrong, mainly because I wouldn’t want to unwittingly elect a dishonest manipulator to a position of public trust.
In the US, we justifiably hold the concept of Free Speech sacred. The right to speak out can provide a societal check on abuses of power. It’s not an absolute guarantee, of course, nor is it an unconstrained right. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (unless there truly is a fire) does not fall under the protections of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. A false statement likely to cause panic and injury is not considered a legitimate exercise of a person’s freedom of speech. I imagine it should be possible to apply this same principle to spreading falsehoods in public and social media. It would be best if such a law applied to more than politicians, of course. Perhaps it could be worded so that a person could be prosecuted for using public outlets to spread malicious or misleading information with intent to misinform the public or subvert honest discourse. Something like that, anyway. Getting the wording right, making it enforceable, and gaining the political support for its passage would no doubt be difficult, but it might be doable.
Anyway, thanks for reading my rant on social media rants. Feel free to comment and share. 😊
Like many others, this book is a gentle reminder that our species has a heavy impact on Earth’s environment. But, unlike some, it doesn’t forecast the end of the world. No matter how much we pollute, regardless of how many nukes we drop, we can’t stop nature. Sure, we can kill ourselves, and take several species with us. Not just those we kill off by encroaching on their habitats or accidentally poisoning them with pesticides, herbicides, or inadvertent side effects of various ill considered actions. A lot of species have evolved to depend on us. When we snuff it, there’s a good chance so will they. Dogs, cows, chickens, and the fleas, mites, and various other parasites that rely on us may also become extinct. But fear not. Life will go on, and evolution will continue. New species will emerge to fill empty niches. They won’t be descended from us, and they probably won’t be sapient (at least not anytime soon), but Earth will still have life. Even if things really get bad, bacteria will still be here, and given time, bacteria can’t evolve into all sorts of things. The sun may set on us, but it’s likely to still be shining for a few more billion years. The planet will continue to turn. There will be many more tomorrows. We may not be there, but life will go on. Now, doesn’t that make you feel better?
There is a tendency, both as individuals and as a culture, to perceive a greater difference between humans and other animals than may actually exist. When a chimpanzee mother cradles her infant, we credit maternal instincts. When a human mother does the same, we call it love. People, we often claim, have souls, minds, consciousness, reason, sentience, or some other poorly defined attribute that sets them apart from all other living things. We’re special. We’re unique. We’re better. But, when you think about it, does that really make sense from a scientific standpoint? This is the central question posed by this book.
Although it can come off a bit preachy and judgemental at times, I found it to be a fair overview of the idea of human exceptionalism. It’s not a detailed scientific or even philosophical treatment of the subject, but it does succinctly point out some of the obvious flaws in the idea.
I’m an angry old man. Well, maybe not angry so much as disillusioned. This is not the future I expected. It’s not the one I was promised by pretty much everyone from “futurists” to cartoonists to song writers. I’m not talking about space stations and Mars colonies and things like that, although their lack is disappointing, too. I’m talking about peace, prosperity, freedom, equality, justice…. Age of Aquarius type stuff, the dreams of John Lennon’s Imagine.
In the latter half of the last century, young, naïve idiots like myself truly believed that a new age of human understanding, progress, and cooperation was just around the corner. Humanity would finally realize that race, religion, nationality, gender, and things like that, really don’t matter very much. It wouldn’t be a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It would be more like “don’t know, don’t care, not important.” Not to society in general, anyway. People are people. Black or white, gay or straight, religious or secular. All of them. All of us. Whatever differences we might possess are far outweighed by the things we have in common. The dawning of a bright new century would somehow bring a second Enlightenment that would leave all our petty biases, prejudices, and superstitions behind us. We would finally accept that working together to achieve common goals made far more sense than constantly arguing and fighting one another over relatively unimportant things, most of which boil down to matters of taste or opinion.
Obviously, that idealistic future didn’t happen. In some ways, it seems we’ve become even more sensitive to minor personal differences now than we were half a century ago, especially when it comes to matters of religion and gender. Perhaps this kind of sensitivity is a result of people grasping for some semblance of individuality in an increasingly homogenized world. Maybe it’s a cry for acceptance by those who feel that society has rejected them. I don’t know, but I find it disheartening. I shudder when voters rally to support a politician simply because he or she claims to share their religious faith. I don’t understand why anyone would be hypersensitive about gender pronouns. Neither a person’s religious beliefs nor their gender identity makes any difference to their ability to be a valued citizen. Any society that respects personal freedom should be equally accepting of all choices like that.
I now appreciate that there was no realistic way this kind of change could have happened. Not in half a century, at least. Human history, and probably human nature as well, is burdened by far too much irrational baggage for that. I understand that, now. But unjustified as it may be, I can’t seem to let go of the dream that somehow, someday, the bright future we imagined back when I was young might still happen. I’m not confident it will. I certainly don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, but I can’t seem to abandon all hope in it. So, yeah, I’m disappointed, but I guess I’m not entirely disillusioned after all. Maybe we can do better with the next century. I wish I could be there to find out, but countering the incredibly inconvenient and invariably terminal effects of aging is another thing we haven’t made much progress on.
The title poses some very good questions, but does the book answer them? Well…
Steven Pinker is undoubtedly a brilliant fellow, and I loved his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but Rationality reads more like a textbook on probability than a clear explanation of reason and critical thinking. Rather than introducing the subject in layman’s terms using specific examples, it starts off with definitions of rules of logic, graphs, and diagrams. That’s all well and good, but it’s a tad dry. The issue on the minds of many people, and the reason this subject is so timely, was/is what seems like a spreading plague of irrationality epitomized by the rise of Donald Trump. How were otherwise intelligent people lured into his delusions? Did they not notice that much of what he said made little or no sense, or did they simply not care? And if they didn’t, why not? What is going on in the minds of religious extremists and terrorists who believe that God wants them to hurt people? What draws people into giving any credence at all to ranting radio talk show hosts and internet conspiracy theorists? This book mentions some of these questions, especially in the final section, but I didn’t find succinct answers to any of them. Maybe there aren’t any.
Why do people go mad in crowds? Good question. Despite the subtitle, this book does not provide a succinct answer, although it does present several historical accounts of when people did succumb to irrational economic and religious beliefs. Underlying them all is the premise that humans are not rational creatures. Not predominantly, anyway. Sure, given sufficient time to examine a situation, they may make rational choices, from time to time, but for the most part, nope. Most human behavior is based on instinct, learned heuristics, cultural narratives, beliefs, habits, and emotions. That’s not news. Any casual observer of human behavior will notice the same.
About half of this book (a rough, personal estimate) is devoted to apocalyptic doomsday type cults, from Anabaptist to Islamic State, and how the believers in these narratives react when their fiction hits fact like a bug on a windshield. It’s a scary, even depressing topic because of the harm a small, devoted, and utterly insane group of people can cause before it ultimately fails or evolves into something a bit less extreme (like Millerites becoming Adventists). And if this kind of pathological behavior is indeed based on our evolutionary heritage, one has to wonder if we are, ironically, doomed. Will all future generations be plagued by this kind of madness? Will our species be destroyed by it?
Well, maybe, and this brings up another omission I thought existed with this book. A few possible ways to mitigate such insanity are mentioned at one point. It seems that affluence has some effect on the formation of apocalyptic cults. Scientific and historical education might help. I would assume that greater equality of income, wealth, and opportunity would also tend to suppress the formation of irrational narratives, but the question is never pursued and no summation is provided.
This isn’t a bad treatment of this important subject, but I felt it could be better.
This book is mostly a boastful autobiography, but a small portion of it is dedicated to the hypothesis that Oumuamua, the strange, interstellar whatever-it-was that zipped through our solar system in late 2017 is an alien lightsail vehicle, possibly a defunct probe from an unknown extraterrestrial civilization. The evidence the author presents basically comes down to Oumuamua being abnormally shiny, probably disc shaped, and exhibiting non-gravitational acceleration. These are traits comets and asteroids don’t have, at least not often or all at the same time. It’s quite intriguing, but it’s hardly conclusive. It’s no wonder the scientific community didn’t hop onboard and proclaim it an alien artifact, and yet the author is quite critical of his colleagues for not doing so. At one point he challenges the often quoted adage, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” stating that he doesn’t know why this should hold true. This caused me to pause in my reading for a brief moment of WTF? Of course extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! It’s what distinguishes science from tabloid journalism! It’s why scientists don’t accept a couple fuzzy photos, an odd ripple in the water, and an indistinct impression in the mud as proof of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot. Yeah, perhaps there is too much resistance to serious consideration of the alien tech hypothesis in the case of Oumuamua, and perhaps humanity should be putting more effort into a search for signs of extraterrestrial life, but it’s not like this points to a systemic flaw in the scientific process. It’s more the fault of our screwed up priorities, which leaves too few resources available for pure scientific inquiry. But that’s another argument, entirely.