Michael Reddy, Ph.D, CPC
           Healer  Trainer  Author   610 469 7588

Saturday June 24, 2017
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The Software Bubble is Closing Around YOU

reality check aheadWe talk about "the world" as if it's out there and the same for all of us. It's in crisis, we say, or same as always, or it's on the verge of a golden age. We know, on some level, that each of us has different surroundings, different centers of attention, different kinds of interactions—and different ways of learning about things not in our immediate surroundings.

In a deeper sense, that means each of us lives in his or her own unique reality. But, to interact successfully, we need something shared—so we project our uniquely different version of "the world," and assume it's sufficiently the same for everybody.

Balancing Various World Views

And that works, to some extent anyway. Yes, we have massive clashes, because our collective racial, ethnic, and regional worlds differ so greatly, but we also have many kinds of successful communities. man in bubbleToday, however, with little in the way of notice or discussion, something significant is happening to that uneasy balance.

Computers and automation now affect an ever-widening majority of our interactions. They are narrowing not only the inputs to our minds and senses, but also the kinds of interactions our hands and bodies are allowed to engage in.

How radical is this change? What does it mean to us? How do we best cope with, or influence it?

Custom Made Reality

big dataLet's look at inputs first. When you and I both search on say, the term "climate change," search engines no longer show us the same collection of hits and ads.

In a race with other companies to collect and collate every click, scroll, like, friend, GPS position, purchase, security camera photo, and so on—they now show us what some algorithm predicts all that information says we want to see and/or buy.

If big data suggests that I accept human influence on climate change, I'll see what supports that. If it predicts you don't, you'll only see what scoffs at it.

socialmediaInclude in this trend also online newspapers and newsfeeds, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and on and on. Within a couple of years, your cell phone will track, not just whatever you purchase, but also your path through the supermarket. Unless you are able to stop it, it will say to you: "hey, there's a sale on Parmesan by your left hand; you're usually out of that around now."

Google wants its routines to show you what you want to find before you even initiate a search. Facebook claims the time when you could display different aspects of yourself in more or less intimate or safe situations is over. You should now have one self only, visible to all at all times.

Not Exactly a New Problem

worldview frameBut let's step back and look at both sides a bit here. Since the days of Gutenberg, people's view of the wider world has always been shaped by governments, publishers, and authors.

With the rise of newspapers, for many decades last century, reporters and editors assumed an obligation to discover what was of shared importance (because it affected us all), and display it more or less prominently on different pages.

Evenhanded reporting that told "both sides of the story" was a hallmark of quality news. TV news adhered to a similar ethic also for a while. Hence the importance ascribed to "freedom of the press" in democratic countries.

information filterThe historical point here is, there have always been "filters." So what computer companies are doing now is not new—just different. And how well these earlier gatekeepers performed this function varied widely. Still, there was an acknowledged need and institutions supposedly devoted to fulfilling it.

So long as we live in nations, states, cities, or any communities that stretch beyond what we can observe first hand with our own senses—balanced, sometimes detailed information about what seriously affects the well being of these larger groups is important.

Yet most of today's information sources at best only pretend to aspire to balanced reporting. Whatever draws the highest ratings or sells product runs. That's mostly entertainment value based on newscaster personalities, along with shock, fear, and once again, catering ever more to what that ever more elaborate data profile of you says you like to see, hear, and think.

Simplifying our Lives?

The algorithms that collect and predict your behavior, unlike the "free press," are invisible, hard to explain, constantly evolving, and not publicly discussed. Isn't this a recipe for social and political fragmentation?

automation-softwareIf we now look at your outputs to your surroundings, your work, your play—an analogous trend emerges. More and more of these involve interacting with screens and, again, software. The coders who develop this tend to think of humans as slow and sloppy, and so want to diminish your ability to "kludge things up" as much as possible.

The cutting edge goal these days is "frictionless software." That means routines that just do what you want with minimal "interference" from you.

Physical work, since the time of Fredrick Taylor, has been divided into isolated, repetitive operations, put first on assembly lines, and now turned over to increasingly sophisticated robots.

Called "automation," this trend is moving from blue collar manufacturing work into white collar areas like flying airliners, producing legal research and documents, writing news and sports articles, making medical diagnoses, and so on.

automation puzzleIn general, the dominant movement of mainstream culture is to rank automation first, and human skills and livelihoods a very distant second. Self-driving cars are quite visible on the near horizon. 

The frequently stated mythology of all this is that it will create new jobs more suitable for your higher skills, and free you for a joyous life of art, and leisure.

Steps in the Right Direction

Beyond the fact that this is highly debatable, landmark psychological research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow, established that health and happiness are best served when you regularly achieve in your daily activities a state also called "flow."

flowThat happens when you are using the skills of your body and mind together to accomplish something challenging enough to fully engage your abilities. In fact, people rank themselves happier in this kind of "work" than they do in so called "leisure."

I could elaborate further, but let's sum up and get on to how we might cope. The bald fact is that there is a "software bubble" growing around each one of us. Its stated goal is to restrict the flow of information to you to what algorithms decide you will "like," on the one hand, and perform for you, on the other, more and more activities that demand skilled cooperation of your body and mind.

The first narrows your outlook and ability to achieve consensus, while the second undercuts what psychology says makes you happy.

If this sounds to you like a bizarre comic book scenario for the central goals of a civilization, as opposed to our reality—I totally agree. But again, how do we cope with living in a comic book?

But What Can I Do?

There's a lot to say about this, both on the micro and macro scale. Starting with automation's restrictions on your activities, a central strategy is simple: do stuff!

be activeGet away more from the touchscreens and keyboards and use your hands, feet, and mouth in direct interactions physical objects, sidewalks and paths, and real physically present people. Even if you are tied to the computer at work, arrange to stand up part of the time.

Develop some form of mental and physical skills around a hobby that gets you in contact with pencils, paints, wood, paddling, hiking, sewing, gardening, yoga, making music, or the like. Realize that, even if you want to binge watch Downton Abbey, you can still knit, tie macramé, or set up a treadmill so that you can walk—at the same time.

Use your computer's amazing reach to discover and support activities that fulfill your holistic body-mind's rich array of abilities. A major goal of technology should be to enhance people's skills, not merely replace them.

So start using it that way. Meetup.com, for example, was founded to shortcut social media and get you in the same room with real people.

The invisibly personalized information bubble is a harder problem. Supporters of this filtering argue that there's so much information that some kind of automated selection is necessary. True enough. But we should be able to adjust this ourselves, or subscribe to filters that are balanced in a range of visible ways.

information dietIn the meantime, it's important to click with awareness. You can broaden what is shown to you by making sure you display interest in various sides of a subject.

Beyond this, I want to refer you to Clay Johnson's The Information Diet. His very apt analogy is that being fed only what you like to hear is like eating only sugar and starch. He says we are "information obese." His new book details a number of excellent recipes for "healthy" information consumption.

It's also a good example of the sort of transparent discourse about software that we all need to absorb and support. As he points out, today, our brightest young minds are thinking, not about solving our global problems, but about how to make you click ads.

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