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.
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. 😊
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.
Recently, I saw a Facebook post by a lady who self-identifies as both a Republican and a Trump supporter. She said she resented being accused of being a racist because of her political affiliation. Not all Trump supporters are racists, she maintained.
Logically, I can agree with that. I am sure many Republicans don’t see themselves as racists, or as any of the other negative stereotypes that have increasingly become associated with the party, especially since Trump became its primary spokesperson. Republicans aren’t all racists, or sexists, or religious fundamentalists, or paranoid gun toting conspiracy theorists, and the many who aren’t understandably resent being grouped with those few who are.
Sadly, this kind of cognitive pigeonholing is common. There is an unfortunate human proclivity to generalize a universal truth from a few (perhaps anomalous) examples. I imagine such behavior has evolutionary survival value. Think about it. While only a few types of snakes are poisonous, avoiding all of them makes it far less likely you will be bitten by one that is. We probably have a gene for this kind of thing. That doesn’t mean all snakes deserve to be shunned, although many of us do have an irrational phobia about them. It’s called ophidiophobia.
There doesn’t have to be a psychologically accepted term for an irrational fear for it to exist. There are people who fear butterflies, or trees, or speaking in public. Some people feel anxious around police, or protestors, or clowns. This kind of generalized anxiety may not be deserved, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There may sometimes even be a cause for it, some experience the fearful person had that traumatized them for life. Apparently, it doesn’t take much for people to build themselves a phobia, and it takes even less for most of us to make unwarranted assumptions and jump to unjustified conclusions. So, when we see video of a cop kneeling on a black man’s neck, or a picture of someone at a protest throwing a rock or breaking a store window, we sometimes must struggle to avoid thinking, “They’re all like that.”
Not so long ago, in an America that felt much different than the one we have today, I worked for the US Department of Defense. Ethics was a big deal back then. DoD employees were advised (formally and repeatedly) to avoid any possible semblance of impropriety. We were told to always be mindful about doing anything that might be misconstrued to imply corruption or favoritism. So, for example, when attending a meeting at a defense contractor’s facility, we could accept free cups of coffee (if such were available to their own employees), but a donut might be a bit too much. Being treated to a free lunch was right out. Someone (probably with an agenda) could claim we were accepting a bribe to award the company with a lucrative contract, or to overlook some deviation in the performance of one they already had. My point here is that, justified or not, impressions matter. The policy was meant to preclude any behavior that might, even inadvertently, undermine confidence in the integrity of the DoD. It was intended to minimize the chance of anyone having any reason to jump to the wrong conclusion. Because that’s what people do. They generalize from the specific to the whole. Whether we like it or not, we are often seen as representatives of some group. In my case, above, it was Defense Department employees. For a cop, it’s police in general. For a guy in a MAGA hat, it’s Trump supporters.
In most cases, these generalizations make no sense. People who are likely to be swayed by a free lunch are not predisposed to work for the government, and most people prone to excessive violence are not disproportionately inclined to flock to the ranks of the police force. But when it comes to Trump supporters, it’s a bit different. I think it’s safe to assume that anyone waving a Confederate battle flag and flashing a White Power hand gesture also supports Donald Trump. So, whereas all Trump supporters aren’t racists, it seems pretty clear that most racists are Trump supporters.
Yeah, but so what? That’s hardly Trump’s fault. He can’t control who likes him. And if a long-disfavored ideological group such as white supremacists suddenly finds favor with a major political party, there’s hardly any harm in it. It’s certainly good for the party, which can count on the racists’ votes, and it’s good for the racists because they get to feel that their movement has regained some measure of lost legitimacy. It’s just politics, after all, and, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. You shouldn’t take political rhetoric too seriously. I have heard Trump supporters (well, one Trump supporter) make this very claim. Republicans in general are not racists, sexists, religious fundamentalists, or even gun owners. They only play some minimal lip service to these groups to gain their votes. And it’s not like it really matters. Legal segregation is never going to return, women aren’t going to lose the vote, and the Constitution isn’t going to be changed to impose a state religion.
Perhaps, but let’s go back to appearances again. How does it look when someone you don’t want to be associated advertises their association with you, like when the racist puts on his MAGA hat? Even accepting as true that racists, sexists, religious extremists, and armed survivalists combined do not make up the majority of the Republican Party, in the eyes of the public at large, they do represent it. When the guy flying the Confederate battle flag also has a Trump sign in his front yard, does that not give the impression of a link exiting between racists with Trump supporters? (This isn’t a hypothetical. There is a house on my street with both a large Confederate flag and a much smaller Trump 2020 sign in the front yard. It’s the only house in the neighborhood with either, and it has both. Granted, it’s a very small and nonrepresentative sampling, but it provides a 100% correlation. If you drew a Venn diagram to represent the two groups (racists and Trump supporters), it would be a single circle.)
I’m not claiming that there is a legitimate reason for suspecting someone is a closet racist simply because they identify as a Republican or even as a Trump supporter. I am simply attempting to explain why people might jump to this conclusion. It’s all about appearances. Right now, the Republican party appears to support racism, not only because of things Trump has said (e.g. his now infamous rant about Mexican immigrants), but also because some of the party’s more vocal members are overt racists. I believe the perceived association between Republicans and racist and other fringe groups will persist until such time as Trump and other party leaders strongly repudiate and take substantive actions against them. Until that happens, traditional Republicans may wish to ask themselves with whom they choose to be associated.
It is commonly held that religions, especially monotheistic religions, have been and still are responsible for a great deal of violence and oppression. Crusades, jihads, inquisitions, and things of that nature are pointed to as examples. In this book, Karen Armstrong argues that it’s more complex than that. To demonstrate how, she presents a long and rather dry history of violence, which sometimes obscures the point I think she is trying to make. As best I can tell, her position is that it’s not religion per se that’s behind such things. Religion is just one aspect of culture, so pointing to religion alone as the culprit for any brutal or inhumane act is far too simplistic. Prior to the Eighteenth Century, there was no clear separation between what we now think of as religion and other aspects of a culture such as politics and customs. For much of human history, there wasn’t even a clear line between the natural and the supernatural in peoples’ minds. Kings ruled with divine authority, and angels and demons were as real as snakes and bunny rabbits. The United States was the first nation to intentionally and officially separate politics from religion, and even then, it did not excise religious influences from affairs of state. Humans being what they are, that would be impossible. But once we do, at least intellectually, define religion in such a way as to distinguish it from everything else, it’s still unfair to claim that religious motivations predominately lead to unsavory behavior. Although religious beliefs may motivate one person to hijack an airplane and fly it into a building, they may encourage another to acts of charity. Also, religion isn’t the only motivator for acts of inhumanity. Nationalism, ethnic identity, or political ideology can be equally responsible. The terror one person brings about for God, another may do for his people, his country, or for what he believes is the betterment of mankind.
Although I think the author is far too quick to dismiss religious motivations for certain historical acts of violence, her observation that religion can be a motivator for good as well as bad, and that beliefs other than religious ones can also motivate behavior (again, both good and bad) is unarguable. But all of this seems obvious. The real question, the interesting question is: what common traits do religion, nationalism, and ideology share that make them such strong motivators for extreme behavior? It’s a question this book does not pose.
Suppose you rented a time machine and it broke down, stranding you in the past, possibly in the distant past. If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself marooned at some point after biologically modern humans first make their appearance (around 200,000 years ago), you may survive. After all, they did, which means there is at least somewhere you can find a suitable climate and things that you can, if hungry enough, safely eat. But since you’re accustomed to conveniences such as palatable food, clothing, and toilet paper, this survival guide ostensibly informs the reader how to build a semblance of modern civilization from the things around them in whatever time period they find themselves in, and hopefully do it much faster than it took originally (which was an embarrassingly long time).
To my mind, that’s the takeaway from this book. We think we’re smart (collectively, at least), and, with no sense of irony, we put the word sapiens in our species name (twice). But when we look back, that assessment seems far from obvious. Sure, our ancestors used cool things like fire and stone tools, even before they were actual humans, but it took people who were biologically indistinguishable from us almost 200,000 years to invent, well, pretty much anything else. For the vast majority of our species’ existence, we didn’t know how to grow food or make cloth or write, let alone know how to effectively treat or prevent illnesses. We’ve only gotten reasonably good at that in the last century or so. If humans are so smart, why didn’t we figure this stuff out earlier?
The book doesn’t really address that question, other than to imply that we may not be quite as smart as we like to imagine. But, with the information it does provide, the stranded time traveler can get civilization up and running in far less time. It would be interesting to run a simulation to see if that might be true. I rather doubt it, and that’s partly because of another important question beyond the scope of this otherwise entertaining and informative book. How would the stranded time traveler avoid being eaten, enslaved, burned at the stake, or otherwise inconvenienced by the first people he or she ran into? Prior to modern civilization, these were common ways of greeting strangers. But, if time travelers did survive, and if they could somehow get people to understand, believe, and follow them (probably in that order), and if they could then avoid the wrath of the chiefs, priests, kings, or emperors whose authority they might be undermining, then maybe they could avoid a few centuries of even millennia of cultural and technological stagnation. Maybe.
Of course, this isn’t really a survival guide, or even a book on how to build a civilization from scratch. It’s an overview of human progress that highlights some of the key ideas, discoveries, and inventions that made modern civilization possible. It does a fine job with that.
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Birth rates are falling. In many countries, fewer children are being born than are needed to replace the previous generation. (The replacement rate is 2.1 – each woman, on average, would need to have 2.1 children to maintain a population at its current level.) In some nations, the populations are already falling. In others, the populations are being bolstered through immigration. That seems to be the central point the authors are making in this book. Immigration can offset the declining birthrate of the native population and allow nations to maintain robust and even growing populations and economies. Nations that severely restrict immigration, such as China and Japan, are likely to find themselves in a world of hurt as their populations age and they are left with too few people of working age to support or care for their senior citizens.
That’s all true and fairly obvious. Immigration has long been a proven means of creating and maintaining a vibrant economy, although it takes a special kind of society to embrace it. Those that are especially xenophobic cannot, but nations like the United States and Canada, which are defined as as being nations of immigrants, may do well…at least for a while (unless they screw up by closing their borders).
But immigration is not a long term solution because, as the authors point out, the declining birthrate is a global phenomenon. As societies become more urban, educated, secular, free, gender-equal, affluent, and healthy, they have fewer children. And although there are no guarantees, it seems reasonable to expect that these kinds of societal advances will continue to be achieved by nations around the world. This may take longer than the authors seem to envision. Societal change can be slow. There are even people who cherish traditions that enforce ignorance, superstition, and oppression and are willing to go to extreme measures to preserve them. But these are exceptions, and eventually, and not all that far in the future, the global population seems likely to start falling.
This, of course, has all sorts of implications, both good and bad. Pollution is likely to decrease. The number of fish in the sea is likely to increase. But the world economy may suffer from lack of workers and consumers and, as may all of the old folks who are dependent on them. Innovation may slow because of fewer young minds working on fresh ideas. This book doesn’t go into any detail about the cultural and technological changes that might mitigate such problems, but I can imagine several, which is why the prospect of a declining population wouldn’t bother me even if I were young enough to still be alive to witness it.
All in all, this is highly readable book about an important issue. I recommend it.