Noah Brier | June 24, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Ever-Waser Edition

On AirPods, social media, and what counts as insightful

Noah here. As we’ve worked on this email over the last few months we’ve started to develop a set of rules around what makes it and doesn’t. Most of those, as you might guess, are just gut feel for what we mean by interesting, but once in awhile I find myself repeating something enough that it moves from the back of my brain to the front. Such is the rule of avoiding talking about how social media is making us less social. There’s almost always an opportunity to make the point, and while it sounds interesting at first glance, it’s both pretty well-discussed at this point and also only sort of true. It’s a kind of “talking point insight”: an idea that gets repeated often enough that everyone just nods along and doesn’t actually bother thinking about it.

Why is this interesting?

Airpods are the latest product to perpetuate this idea. Here’s a bit of a thoughtful essay from Drew Austin (his Kneeling Bus newsletter is one of my very favorites):

Though the AirPod experience appears strictly solitary and a matter of personal choice, the headphones in fact reshape social behavior for everyone around them, whether those others have their own pair or not. In other words, AirPods have externalities — penalizing non-wearers while confining the value they generate to their individual users. They reinforce the idea that networked products and not particular shared spaces provide common ground, positing a world where people don’t really interact with strangers in public.

While it’s all technically correct (and I am fascinated by the kinds of behavior changes initiated by new technologies), whenever I read/hear this I always think back to this point from writer and literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn from an episode of the New Yorker Out Loud podcast:

We now have these technologies that simulate reality or create different realities in very sophisticated and interesting ways. Having these technologies available to us allows us to walk, say, through midtown Manhattan but actually to be inhabiting our private reality as we do so: We’re on the phone or we’re looking at our smartphone, gazing lovingly into our iPhones. And this is the way the world is going, there’s no point complaining about it. But where my classics come in is I am amused by the fact our word idiot comes from the Greek word idiotes, which means a private person. It’s from the word idios, which means private as opposed to public. So the Athenians, or the Greeks in general who had such a highly developed sense of the radical distinction between what went on in public and what went on in private, thought that a person that brought his private life into public spaces, who confused public and private was an idiote, was an idiot. Of course, now everybody does this. We are in a culture of idiots in the Greek sense.

The conversation continues with Mendelsohn attempting to answer whether it’s a good or bad thing, to which he says neither, it’s just a thing. Unfortunately it’s hard to find either the publications or people willing to commit an answer like that down to paper (which makes Drew Austin/Real Life all the more impressive). That, of course, isn’t a new problem either, though. All these conversations are really just evidence we’re living in a time of great change. If that sounds right to you, you’re probably what Adam Gopnik would call an “ever-waser”: someone who insists “that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others–that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.”

So is social media or Airpods isolating us? Sort of. Of course on the other end of both those things are billions of people who we can, and often are, connected with. While we talk about the isolation these platforms bring to bear, we also talk about how they’re fertile grounds for terrorist networks and the spread of misinformation, both of which would contradict the idea. And contradictions are fine, they go along with our modern moment. I just want to make sure that in this tiny space under my control that we try to do better than just recycling” talking point insights”. (NRB)

Cartoon of the Day:

This New Yorker cartoon hits close to home. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • I thought this bit about AI from the year in review was super interesting: “No one is now surprised in the least bit when a computer masters some complex symbolic task like chess or Go these days; we are surprised by the details like it happening about 10 years before many would’ve predicted, or that the Go player can be trained overnight in wallclock time, or that the same architecture can be applied with minimal modification to give a top chess engine. For all the fuss over AlphaGo, no one paying attention was really surprised. If you went back 10 years ago and told someone, ‘by the way, by 2030, both Go and Arimaa can be played at a human level by an AI’, they’d shrug. People are much more surprised to see DoTA 2 agents, or Google Waymo cars driving around entire metropolitan areas, or generation of photorealistic faces or totally realistic voices.” (NRB)

  • On radiotrophic fungi. (CJN)

  • Virus check your Samsung TV. (CJN)

  • Really good FT piece on the fight to control digital technology in Africa. “Already this year, at least six governments in Africa have shut down the internet, often with the complicity of western providers. This month in Sudan, as soldiers from a government paramilitary force went on a killing spree in the capital Khartoum, the internet went dark, preventing protesters from documenting the violence on social media.” (NRB)

Correction: In WITI 6/21 - Autonomous Edition, I said the 0.39% share of Uber Google received in the settlement over autonomous IP was worth $250 billion, I meant $250 million. Not even Softbank was that bullish on Uber. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Joshua for the catch.

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

© WITI Industries, LLC.