Nobody calls me chicken.Marty McFly, Back to the Future Part II
Our capacity to write is a precious resource. Some days a single good hour, fluid and focused, can feel like a gift from above. Of course, writing is my full-time occupation, so an hour a day won’t cut it. A single good hour just means the rest of the day is going to be a grind.
Clichés about certain aesthetic professions persist: The chef who can’t tolerate unfiltered tap water. The perfumer whose nose is so sensitive they swoon at the chemical aroma of a new car’s interior. I buy it. If you write a lot each day, you can’t help but develop an advanced sense of interiority, a sort of cognitive palate. The same must be true of people doing any other task requiring both intense concentration and imaginative breadth—competitive finger-painting? The point is, weaving between the exhilaration of good hours and the desolation of bad ones day after day, you become attuned to your own meteorological conditions. You learn when to expect smooth sailing, when to expect rough seas.
If you pay close attention, you begin to notice that some external inputs calm your mental waters while others trap you in a perpetual cognitive storm, thoughts swept away before they cohere into anything useful. Of all the negative influences, provocation is the one most destructive to my creative flow. It only makes sense in retrospect that Marty McFly destroyed his chances at a music career not because he was “too darn loud” but because he was unable to ignore a provocation—at least until time travel taught him the value of restraint.
Today, we’re provoked ceaselessly and deliberately. That, to me, is the greatest provocation of all. I need to write but I also need information. Information is a vital resource, like gasoline. Its composition matters: octane levels, leaded or unleaded, etc. To stay mentally healthy, I need a relatively clean information supply. Unfortunately, my primary source of information, the internet, is as polluted as the photogenic pond in Siberia popular with Instagram influencers for its bright blue color.
Rage sells ads. Companies profit from the online engagement that adrenaline and cortisol spur in the brain. As a consequence, provocation is purposefully ladled into our information supply like ash from a coal plant into a pristine lake.
It isn’t the employees themselves doing this, of course. Employees at Facebook and Google are innocent bystanders here. It’s those darned algorithms poisoning our minds. If only there were something the developers of those algorithms could do! But there isn’t, so, as the head of the Russian EPA told Siberia about its toxic blue pond: “Tough luckski.”
The public buys this defense because we’ve been taught to think of algorithms as almost-sentient forces beyond human control, as though, for example, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, the person, isn’t directly responsible for YouTube and what it’s doing to our society. Make no mistake: Like Big Tobacco in its day, “Big Like” is well-aware of how the most profitable algorithms also happen to radicalize people, particularly the young, the old, the dispossessed and the uninformed. The leaders of these companies have decided they’re OK with the damage as long as it’s good for business. They really have. People sat at a table, discussed it, out loud, and came to that decision. I know it’s weird to think that could happen, but at one point many found it hard to believe that nice-seeming people at R.J. Reynolds talked out loud to each other about burying the evidence on cigarettes and cancer.
Let’s take a concrete example of provocation-contamination that nearly sent me spinning out the other day. One of my guilty pleasures is /iamverysmart on Reddit. The theme is simple: “People trying too hard to look smart.” I don’t know about the other million-plus followers out there, but I read this particular subreddit less to scoff at the arrogance of others than to be forcefully reminded of my own hubris. I’ve had many /iamverysmart-worthy comeuppances in my life, as anyone unfortunate enough to have shared a classroom with me can attest. (Thankfully, none of those episodes have found their way onto the internet—yet.)
When a woman on Twitter—her account has since been suspended—sent the following tweet, it went to the top of /iamverysmart as well as the Reddit front page:
People are f—ing idiots. My neighbor’s kid just tried to tell me that bats are mammals. Mammals don’t fly, we walk and are confined to the ground. No wonder my family in Sweden thinks Americans are dumb. Y’all truly need to educate your kids better. Bats are birds. [Edited for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.]
(Trolling? Possibly, but the moderator makes an argument that this is genuine and I tend to agree. For the purpose of discussion, let’s assume it’s real.)
Nobody’s knowledge is perfect, my own included. And ultimately, the question is academic. As Richard Feynman pointed out, the names of things are irrelevant if you don’t understand the underlying concepts. It’s a safe bet this woman doesn’t understand any of the concepts and, more important, isn’t curious about them, about bats, mammals, or the natural world in general. As a human being, she’s welcome to think whatever she likes about all living things (as long as she isn’t a biology teacher at a state-funded school, which, knowing how these things tend to go, she probably is). It’s up to her poor neighbors to insulate their children from her opinions the best they can. The Earth’s other inhabitants—particularly the 4.5 billion with internet access—have no genuine need to learn this woman’s opinion in the first place. In fact, far better if they didn’t, even if their hindbrain gives them a little burst of righteous dopamine when they do. And that goes for all the crazy, angry, uninformed, and just plain mean individuals shouting into the megaphone that is the algorithmic web.
This tweet is representative of the countless salvos—ignorant, arrogant—pummeling the majority of us into a dark pit of anxiety and despair. To begin with, it’s an enraged attack on a “them,” in this case the people who believe (correctly) that bats are mammals. More inflammatory, it’s specifically directed at a “kid,” presumably a child, that the reader of the tweet knows is in the right. We can only imagine that child’s response to an angry neighbor saying (let alone trumpeting on the internet) that they are a “f—ing idiot” for believing bats are mammals. To cap things off, the tweet closes with a xenophobic swing at all of America.
The irony of an uninformed person denigrating someone else’s education—let alone the education and parenting of an advanced nation of 330 million—is the kind of special sauce that gives /iamverysmart its piquant kick.
Thanks to my over-developed cognitive palate, I am all too aware of what crap like this does to my brain and my ability to write. In fact, I’ve tried every technique in the book to protect my head, up to and including shutting down my social media accounts. But the garbage still gets in, not, I’m realizing, because I lack willpower or haven’t established the right systems, but because it’s become impossible to use the internet at all without stepping into a puddle of provocation and other emotionally toxic brain-sludge. Facebook, Google, and their kin have polluted the information commons. The pond is filthy and we still need to drink.
I will not let the internet break me. I can no longer let these provocations poison my mind, let alone sweep me up into responding with a link to a rational explanation, as though that would change this person’s opinion. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone intends to troll you. Fire back and you have been trolled. So I’ve decided to take an entirely different tack.
From now on, I will look for the positive. In all of it. Every last insane Instagram post and loony e-mail forward. How? There’s always a bright side. In this case, sure, a Swedish woman somewhere is under the impression that bats are birds and that’s not correct. This is what a bat is and this is the definition of mammal. But look again at what she admits in making her argument:
Mammals don’t fly, we walk and are confined to the ground.
I’m sure she didn’t really intend to make this much sense, but in writing this she acknowledges that humans are mammals. Don’t take that for granted! Accepting that humans are just another species of animal and part of the web of life is cause for celebration in 2019. We live in an era when anti-vaccine paranoia sweeps highly educated ZIP codes almost as quickly as the subsequent measles outbreaks. There is a growing flat-earth movement that exists only because a handful of trolls thought it would be funny to pretend they believe the Earth is flat and many other impressionable people became convinced. In both cases, don’t blame algorithms. Blame people. Greedy, ethically compromised people running large tech companies.
The reason for tweets like this isn’t poorly educated people. Thoroughly school all 7.5 billion humans alive today and rest assured we’ll make more blank slates. There will always be ignorance. The problem is that we’re bombarded by the thoughts and opinions of ignorant (and racist, and misogynistic, and hateful) people in the first place. There are so many more of us than there are of them. Tweets like this one almost always come from individuals with few followers (and fewer real-life friends). They are amplified exponentially by Big Like and its algorithms to make us angry—and drive more clicks.
For years I’ve had this fantasy of producing a reality television show where the host takes a flat-earther on a plane and flies them all the way around the world. Surely that would change minds—at least one! As the recent Netflix documentary Behind the Curve proved, however, fringe beliefs like this aren’t about evidence. They are symptoms of larger systemic issues—psychological, cultural, economic—that aren’t going to get solved by a real-world demonstration, let alone a helpful Wikipedia link.
I don’t have any easy answers. I find books like Cal Newport’s Deep Work helpful to a point, but I’m not a monkish tenured computer science professor (no offense, Mr. Newport). I still need to, you know, respond to client emails in a timely fashion and keep track of the news and watch TV shows with my spouse. Stay on top of memes. I’m involved in the world and I want to remain involved. As much as my mental health might improve were I to cut myself off from our contaminated information supply completely—alternating between meditation and reading great works of literature in the original illuminated manuscript edition by candlelight—the fact is I’m alive now, today, in 2019. There’s no going back to the monastery. Meanwhile I’m being mentally poisoned and so are you.
Since the government refuses to take meaningful action on Big Like, all we can do is interpret this psychic garbage in the most positive possible light, whether we applaud the bat lady for believing humans are mammals or the flat-earthers for conducting scientific experiments. They may ignore the results, but they’re still validating the scientific method itself. Again, nothing to take for granted.
Our information supply is contaminated but we need information to survive. If we want to write well—if we want to think straight—we’re going to have to adapt. Now if you’ll excuse, I’m going to go wash my brain.