•  4 min read

Everything is Broken and Boring

I've been reading quite a bit lately about how technology (especially the internet) has changed the nature and tone of our communication recently, and Something is wrong on the internet is a somewhat gloomy (warning: also graphic in parts) encapsulation of the state of the internet (and I guess society in general) today:

This is a deeply dark time, in which the structures we have built to sustain ourselves are being used against us—all of us—in systematic and automated ways. It is hard to keep faith with the network when it produces horrors such as these. While it is tempting to dismiss the wilder examples as trolling, of which a significant number certainly are, that fails to account for the sheer volume of content weighted in a particularly grotesque direction. It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on. This is not what many of us want.

To follow on from this, Lily Fish's article about Dr Douglas Rushkoff, In our digital age, being human is a team sport makes for an interesting read:

Silicon Valley seems to think that we're somehow going to compensate for humanity's faults with digital technologies. I don't think humans are obsolete. I don't think humans are the problem, I think humans are the solution. I believe that there are essential values and qualities of people that are not making the translation into the digital realm. Maybe they can't quite be quantified, and maybe that's the part of humanity that we should be exploring and celebrating now. Instead, we seem to be forgetting about them and that concerns me.

On a less dark—but still kind of depressing in a weird way—note, I found myself nodding along while reading I Don't Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore.

The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn't really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.

But... I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.

My internet time-wasting history is a little longer than the author's, but the basic premise is the same. I'd add that in the days of increasingly walled-garden ecosystems alongside all the stuff mentioned above, the internet is also a lot less fun. (Side note: who'd have thought that being nostalgic for the days of Geocities would ever be a thing?)

In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews Geoffrey West's new book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (my copy is now on its way from Amazon). It's a long read, but well worth it.

The history of each branch of science can be divided into three phases. The first phase is exploration, to see what nature is doing. The second phase is precise observation and measurement, to describe nature accurately. The third phase is explanation, to build theories that enable us to understand nature. Physics reached the second phase with Kepler, the third phase with Newton. Complexity science as West defines it, including economics and sociology, remained in the first phase until about the year 2000, when the era of big data began. The era started abruptly when information became cheaper to store in electronic form than to discard. Storing information can be an automatic process, while discarding it usually requires human judgment. The cost of information storage has decreased rapidly while the cost of information discard has decreased slowly. Since 2000, the world has been inundated with big data. In every science as well as in business and government, databases have been storing immense quantities of information. Information now accumulates much faster than our ability to understand it.

I also came across a moderately interesting article about the management consulting industry, Killing Strategy: The Disruption Of Management Consulting. While I'm relatively sure that McKinsey, BCG and Bain aren't in any imminent danger, but on top of outlining the ways in which the industry could be disrupted, this is also a great primer on how management consulting works.

"Strategy" did not exist as a concept at most companies in America until management consultants first started billing for it.

Before Bruce Doolin Henderson opened the doors of Boston Consulting Group on July 1, 1963, the concept of "competition" barely existed in American business culture, let alone the concept of strategy.

To finish up on a lighter note, it appears that Mumbling Isn’t a Sign of Laziness—It’s a Clever Data-Compression Trick:

Many of us have been taught that pronouncing vowels indistinctly and dropping consonants are symptoms of slovenly speech, if not outright disregard for the English language. The Irish playwright St. John Ervine viewed such habits as evidence that some speakers are “weaklings too languid and emasculated to speak their noble language with any vigor.” If that’s so, then we are swimming in a sea of linguistic wimpiness; Keith Johnson found that speakers relaxed or dropped sounds in more than 60 percent of words spoken in conversation. Happily, the science of mumbling offers a far less judgmental—and more captivating—account of our imperfectly crisp pronunciations.

While the analogy makes sense, personally, I'm not sure that there's all that much of a parallel between mumbling and data compression.