September 22nd, 2015 · No Comments
A vast swathe of people now believe that it’s impossible to have intelligent debate online. This is not an unreasonable belief; scroll down on any newspaper website, let alone YouTube, and you’ll discover the shouting matches that inhabit most comments sections. Jessica Valenti recently wondered whether we shouldn’t simply shut down all comments, like Popular Science and, in part, The Verge, have done. Of the Guardian, she said:
My own exhaustion with comments these days has less to do with explicit harassment – which, at places like the Guardian, is swiftly taken care of. (Thank you, moderators!) Rather, it’s the never-ending stream of derision that women, people of color and other marginalized communities endure; the constant insistence that you or what you write is stupid or that your platform is undeserved. Yes, I’m sure straight, white, male writers get this kind of response too – but it’s not nearly as often and not nearly as nasty.
It is strange that she praises the Guardian’s moderators for taking down explicit harassment, but doesn’t consider that they could also remove the ‘never-ending stream of derision’. When The Times or The Telegraph choose which letters to publish in their printed editions, we don’t consider the letters that didn’t fit as having been censored. And just because web pages can be infinitely long doesn’t mean that newspapers suddenly have an obligation to publish everything.
It’s clear the writers and editors at the Guardian care deeply about combatting sexism and racism; that much is evident through the paper. That’s why I regard their refusal to properly moderate their comments to be an astonishing abandonment of principle. It is not a question of free speech or censorship – people may take their hateful speech elsewhere online, and rage at authors to their heart’s content. It just doesn’t have to happen on the article itself. And if it is a question of cost, then remove the comments entirely.
Unmoderated comments sections like the Guardian’s may start out well, but they inevitably succumb to entropy, giving prominence to those who have effectively unlimited time to shout and argue. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has considered trying to reason with ignorant commenters, only to conclude that they have far more time than me, and far less inclination to listen. The transient nature of articles and comments doesn’t help; why bother arguing that sexism is real for the tenth time on the tenth article?
But the real reason why I detest what the Guardian is doing is because their comments sections are, bit by bit, contributing to defeatism and pessimism. The unrepentent toxicity held within them makes it seem as if there’s no point trying to improve the world or change people’s minds. How many times we do hear “I’ve lost my faith in humanity after reading the comments”? In reality, the comments that are see are come from a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the population – but because they are supposedly open to all and they represent some of the little free conversation we see amongst strangers, we conclude that they are representative.
Well, they are not. And the Guardian’s comments are not representative of what could be possible in a well-moderated community. I’ve often praised Metafilter for it’s excellent moderation, and I was reminded of that by a thread in which someone complained their ‘completely harmless’ comments had been deleted for no reason. A moderator explained:
For context, this is about a couple of comments deleted from the thread about how pop songs are all written by the same guy (link goes to my note in the thread). The comments were about Taylor Swift’s short-shorts and her legs. My prediction was, this would cause a pointless derailing fight in the thread, so I deleted them. These were the comments:
“These kids today probably don’t have time to write. The energy they put into these elaborate stage shows. Plus TayTay walking around New York in her short shorts avoiding the paparazzi…”
“I got a kick out of one pic of Taylor and her legs sitting on the floor of a fabulous all white garret jotting down tablature.”
You may look at those comments and think, but there’s no outright harassment, how could they be moderated? Well, as a few people pointed out, they are sexist and gross. People are free to be sexist and gross in their own homes or with their friends – but not on Metafilter. When you read Metafilter, you do not conclude that the world is composed of sweetness and light; people often have strong disagreements there (but not violent disagreements). You would conclude, however, that it is possible for people to change and learn and be reasonable; that you can have faith in humanity.
And if you criticise Metafilter for not being representative either, because it has full-time moderators, then you would be criticising the entire project of civilisation; the idea that we can organise ourselves and improve our culture in a way that makes the world better, not worse.
Tags: newspaper · web
September 20th, 2015 · No Comments
Two years ago, A History of the Future in 100 Objects was published. The book describes a hundred slices of the future of everything, spanning politics, technology, art, religion, and entertainment. Some of the objects are described by future historians; others through found materials, short stories, or dialogues.
Today, I’m making all 100 chapters available online, for free.
The book has sold a few thousand copies – reasonably well for a first author. More importantly, it was received well by the people whose opinions I value; I was invited to speak at the Long Now Foundation last summer by Stewart Brand, and it was praised by the BBC’s Stephanie Flanders and by Grantland’s Kevin Nguyen, who called it one of the ‘overlooked books of 2013‘. Next month, I’ll be speaking about the same ideas at the Serpentine Gallery’s Transformation Marathon.
So, at this point I’m much more interested in spreading the ideas far and wide. Of course, you can still buy the book via Amazon or directly from me (it’s very nicely formatted), but I’m just as happy if you read it on the web.
I wrote A History of the Future in 100 Objects because I’ve always been deeply fascinated by what’s coming next. I’m a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist by training, and a games designer and CEO by trade. It’s my job to think up new ideas and ways to improve people’s lives, and perhaps because of that, I’m optimistic – cautiously, skeptically optimistic – about the future.
The future that I want to realise is the hard-fought utopia of Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain Banks and Vernor Vinge, not the dystopia that dominates fiction nowadays. But I’m not naive, and technoutopianism brings me out in hives, so don’t expect me to tell you that technology will make everything better.
This book is my small contribution to the exploration of the future. It turns out that writing a hundred short stories was far, far more difficult than I had ever imagined, and in truth only some of the chapters hit the mark perfectly. But even so, I think there are plenty of fun ideas there.
Tags: adrian · book · future
Meet Maddie, and her very own invisible guardian elf, Gerry, one of Lapland’s finest. But when Lapland’s new CEO buys a new robot named SAFETY (Substitute Autonomous Friendly Elf TechnologY) to reduce staffing costs, Gerry’s decides to defeat the robot in a head-to-head trial, no matter what. Disaster ensues, and Gerry, Maddie, and the robot are stranded in a remote island in Finland. Only by working together can they return home in time. Fasten your seatbelts, because Elf ‘n’ SAFETY are coming!
We pan down past a blue sky, past the dreaming spires, to a beautiful, peaceful river. Willows droop lazily over their reflections, and blue-shirted boater-hat wearing students guide their punts downstream.
Brr–br-br-br-boom! Dubstep. A fleet of jacked-up punts with LED lights, spoilers, massive motorised punt poles, etc, slide into view, complete with gyrating dancers in skimpy outfits. One deep-black punt is the centre of attention; it’s Dominic Thatcher, with a first-class degree in engineering. And here’s the young turk, Brian Connor-Smythe, a fresher studying fluid dynamics. They draw up beside each other.
“I live my life a quarter mile at a time. Nothing else matters: not the college, not the department, not my lab and all their bullshit. For those one hundred and twenty seconds or less, I’m free.”
Who can make it to Iffley Lock in time? Will Brian discover the secret of Dominic’s illegal success in research? You’ll only find out, in The Fast and the Furious: Oxford Drift.
Tags: adrian · film · oxford · silly
Everyone in Britain is playing a game called Austerity. Some are playing the game with enthusiasm and conviction. Some are playing with calculation and cunning. And others believe they are not playing, when in fact they cannot escape the game.
Austerity is not a console game with expensive graphics, nor is it an addictive casual game for smartphones. It is a LARP: a Live Action Role-Playing game. Like other LARPs, this game consumes your environment and your life. Unlike other LARPs, Austerity does not take place on a disused Swedish naval destroyer and end after a weekend. You will live and breathe Austerity for as long as everyone continues to believe in it, which means it may have no end.
It has a beginning, though: the Second World War.
Nostalgia is an intoxicating brew. We venerate WW2, the last time Britain was Great, the last time the Kingdom felt truly United, the last time we had a national victory that wasn’t on the field of play. It’s natural to look back fondly on such times, acknowledging the horrors and respecting the sacrifice.
Wait, no. Not respecting the sacrifice – fetishising it.
This is Keep Calm and Carry On. This is Dig for Victory, ration books, Downton Abbey (sort of) and Doctor Who’s innumerable wartime stories.
Dig for Victory and ration books are real, of course. They were part of the civilian mission to harness the entire capacity of a country in the pursuit of victory in a total war. Likewise, war bonds and volunteering and sewing clothes for the men. Money was tight but it was necessary to be thrifty. Virtuous, even. And who can say that the war was not won by such virtuous sacrifice?
Austerity has those sentiments at its heart: sacrifice is necessary for victory against an existential threat such as the Nazis.
Today’s existential threats are the European Union, immigrants, a slightly high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a lack of respect from other countries. To prevail against such enemies, hard choices must be made. We cannot afford to waste money on shirkers, or waste money on fripperies such as arts and culture. We must cut taxes on entrepreneurs and reward hard-working families, because people who are not in families, and people who do not work hard, do not deserve anything.
Now, it may be that these hard choices often end up benefitting those who already have lots of money; but this is where the game becomes important as a justification and a distraction. If players are encouraged to emulate the heroes of WW2, to Keep Calm and Carry On, then we will be prepared to sacrifice anything to save the nation from existential threats: to cut social security, to close those theatres and museums.
Sometimes players get upset when they perceive that other players are breaking the immersion, as can happen in other LARPs. For example, we didn’t have all these foreigners back in WW2, so it’s wrong to have them here now. We didn’t have wind power and solar power either, so that must also be wrong.
But the truth is, we are all breaking the rules in Austerity. If we were really committing to the LARP, then we would be investing hours a day into community gardens and volunteer work. We would be living and fighting and dying, cheek by jowl, on the front lines, the baker next to the banker, the lawyer next to the labourer.
Real believers in Austerity would reinstate the two thousand British Restaurants, communal kitchens that would sell you a healthy meal for the equivalent of £1 in today’s money. They would serve a million meals a day to those who couldn’t afford any better, and they would make the country fit and strong.
Like other LARPs, Austerity is a sham. And like other LARPs, a lot of players don’t want to take on the hard roles – they just want to do the easy fun stuff; the sewing and dressing up and saving pennies while forcing other players to part with pounds. That is why the special mission in Austerity, “The Big Society”, was such a failure.
The real danger of the Austerity LARP, though, is that it’s not actually real. We don’t live in 1945 any more; we live in 2015. We do not face an existential threat to the nation (other than perhaps climate change). We are not obliged to spend £45 billion, or 2.2% of GDP, on a non-productive military. We do, however, have the money to spend more on the institutions that made this country great: social security, NHS, the universities, the schools.
We need to snap the fuck out this playtime and get real.
Tags: arg · economics · games · politics
Back when I worked out at gyms, I’d often be found on the exercise bikes. Unlike the other cardio equipment, it was easy to grip the heart-rate monitors, and it was intriguing to see the numbers skip up and down as I went through my routine. But after a few sessions, I stopped bothering. The numbers always followed the same predictable pattern and I wasn’t learning anything new or useful from them.
I feel the same way with fitness devices and the notion of the ‘quantified self’ as a whole. Regularly recording your weight, steps, calories, heart rate, and so on, is useful when you are looking for changes, whether that’s because you’re trying to lose weight, run faster, or detect an illness. It’s good for professionals who are pinpointing exactly how to improve their performance. It’s good for long-term reviews of your weight or heart rate over many months or years. And it’s good for beginners who don’t know much about how their bodies will respond to change. But unless you fall into one of those categories, it’s not really that useful to know that your heart rate was, on average, 70 bpm this week and 68 bpm last week.
When I started running, I found it motivating to track my distance and pace with various gadgets. I stopped routinely recording my runs a few years ago when my habits settled down. These days, I run three or four times a week along two or three different trails, and I know exactly how long and difficult they are. It’s not that interesting for me to know exactly how fast I run because I can’t do anything with that data, and in any case, I can already tell.
There is a huge novelty factor for fitness trackers these days, precisely because everyone is now a beginner – even those people who were already running and walking. It really is interesting, for the first few months, to know how many steps you’re walking. But eventually it gets predictable and at least half the people stop using them altogether.
It’s refreshing that the Apple Watch dispenses with step counts as a primary measure, and to highlight three different numbers related to exercise, movement, and standing; and, by and large, to dispense with numbers as well. But I suspect even this simplified measure will get boring as well.
So if that’s the case for one of the Watch’s best features – fitness – what about the others? One week in, and I have a better idea of what the Watch is useful for.
Communication is, unsurprisingly, the killer app – just as it is for the iPhone. It really is much more convenient to receive texts on your wrist – and much less distracting. Often, when I receive a text or email on my phone, I’ll read it, and then I’ll mindlessly open up a whole bunch of other apps and end up wasting five minutes. With the Watch, I look at the text, and then that’s it. There is no temptation to fiddle with other apps because the screen is too small and frankly, it’s tiring to mess with it for more than 30 seconds.
Dictating texts with Siri is very good. But there’s one thing that’s even better – sending drawings to other Watch owners. In the two days that my partner and I have both owned Watches, we’ve sent a whole bunch of little drawings to each other. I am not a huge texting or emoji person but it’s a lot of fun to send drawings, and I’m surprised there’s been so little discussion about this. Perhaps it’s because so few people actually own Watches. Anyway – don’t let anyone tell you that these drawings are dumb or juvenile. They have hearts of stone.
The battery life continues to be perfectly fine. The more I think about it, the more irrelevant the complaints seem. The Watch can’t really function with the iPhone, which you have to charge daily. Now that we’re all accustomed to that ritual, adding another device on is not a huge burden. I usually end the day with 30-40% charge, which suggests that there is room for Apple to give users the option to keep the display on for longer, especially if they can improve power consumption in other areas.
Other quick observations:
- The Uber app is no good for summoning cars since it’ll only use your precise location, rather than letting you change it to, say, the corner at the end of the street. But it is useful to keep track of a trip in process.
- It’s fun to play around with the different watchfaces. I favour the ‘Color’ face, which I change to match my clothes.
- I’ve uninstalled practically every third-party app. I think this is a major failure for Apple, and it’s going to take some persuading for me to reinstall them. What’s the point of having 3000 apps on launch day when they’re poorly designed and no-one wants to use them? Everyone loses out.
Tags: adrian · apple · tech
It’s annoyingly slow. Apps that display information from the internet (social apps, news apps, transport apps, maps; i.e. most of them) can take a few seconds to open, and then a few more seconds to display your desired data. I’ve already installed and deleted entire swathes of apps that suffer from this issue; the NY Times app, BBC News, Twitter, Twitterific, Foursquare, etc.
Compared against the very first iPhone, the Watch is very impressive in its capabilities and speed. Compared against the iPhone 6, it’s hard to justify using the watch at all for these apps. The good news is that any performance improvements Apple engineers can eke out of the hardware will have a knock-on positive effect on the entire watch experience – and I trust that they will have every motivation to succeed.
In contrast, apps that communicate solely with the phone (e.g. Music, Overcast, Calendar) or on the watch (Stopwatch, Timer) are reasonably responsive and useful.
The screen is gorgeous, but small. It’s baffling and laughable that there are so many news apps on the watch. I suppose news junkies may find it entertaining to look at headlines, but the experience is so slow and poor compared to reading a screen of text on the iPhone that I expect few people will bother.
The screen size also makes it difficult to understand and use complex apps, like Maps, Citymapper or Transit. Apple and third-party developers are clearly trying to address this through tricks like Force Touch and by simplifying interfaces and use cases, but they need to do much more work to make the apps useful.
The fitness tracking, on the other hand, is excellent. It counts my steps and distance accurately enough that my Fitbit is not long for this world. The built-in Activity app is also really quite well-designed and motivating, to the point that I fear for the future of third-party fitness tracker app developers. Consider the advantages that Apple has over them:
- Apple’s fitness tracking app is pre-installed, both on the watch and on the iPhone.
- It has access to private APIs and sensors; third-party apps can’t yet track heart rate, operate independently of the phone, or function in the background quite as well.
- It can be added to watchfaces as a ‘complication’. That alone is enough to elevate it over any third-party app, and I doubt we will see that capability opened up within the next 2-3 years.
I received the watch yesterday morning and proceeded to fiddle with it throughout the day. I initially blamed its slowness on our poor office internet, but it became clear later in the day that it was just slow, period. Tried a lot of third party apps, and deleted almost all of them.
Went to the British Library to see the Magna Carta exhibition. Didn’t fiddle with the watch much at all, except to:
- Play music and podcasts
- Occasionally look at my step count
- Let a kid play around with it (he’d been staring at it for ages, his mum was amused)
Battery was still at ~80% by 4pm – very respectable. Then went for a 1 hour run, tracking it as an ‘Outdoor Run’, which took the battery down to ~60%. The watch was initially very distracting and reminded me why I stopped wearing GPS watches – frankly, I don’t need to know my distance or calories in real time. Plus I only realised afterwards how to change the distance units to km (it’s by a force touch on the ’start run’ screen, obviously).
When I run, I wear my iPhone on an armband so it’s really inconvenient to switch between music and podcasts, or to select specific tracks. The watch – despite its slowness and small screen – made doing those things perfectly easy, which was delightful. For me, that alone is practically worth the purchase price, given how frequently I run and how much I enjoy listening to podcasts and music.
I expect that other people won’t care about that stuff at all (maybe they only listen to a set music playlist, or they keep their phone in their pocket while running, or they don’t run at all) but perhaps there will be other things that they really appreciate. The ability to see the weather or read tweets on my watch isn’t a big deal to me if I have my phone in my pocket; but if you don’t have pockets, it’s a much bigger deal.
So, we’ll see.
Tags: adrian · apple · running · tech
There’s an article by Maggie Brown today suggesting the Arts Council/BBC-backed ‘online gallery’ The Space is, effectively, a waste of £16 million of public money. Here’s what The Space does:
The Space is an online gallery where visitors can explore exciting new digital art, made by the most talented contemporary artists, shared around the world. We commission new talent and established artists from all art forms, as well as across the creative industries, and technical and digital worlds, through open calls and partnerships.
I have been frustrated by The Space for some time. I am all for the public funding of art, and in particular, digital art, and £16 million can go a long way. But right from the start, there were warning signs. For example, the first round of project proposals had to adhere to strict data formats; if you had video, it had to be in a particular format so it could be imported to their online portal, which would be viewable on phones, tablets, computers, TVs, etc.
Sounds sensible, right? Doesn’t it make sense to have a single website for 51 projects instead of 51 websites all being made separately (and expensively)? The answer is, hell no:
a) If you’re going to fund exciting new digital art, one might expect it to come in many different forms; forms that are going to be difficult to fit into even the most flexible template. So why force them?
b) Even if everything was video, why not just put it all on YouTube? It’s free, it works, it’s better for discovery, and it helps build your social media following.
Now, to be fair, many of the projects weren’t merely video or audio-based. One of the most popular projects was the radio broadcaster John Peel’s Record Archive. It’s an interesting website which does what it says on the tin; put pictures of his archive online. I don’t quite see how it qualifies as ‘digital art’ though, and it has dreadful navigation and accessibility issues (the note cards for each record do not appear to have any readable or alt text, for example).
Another project was Will Self’s ‘digital essay’, Kafka’s Wound, published by the London Review of Books. It is an excellent piece of writing. The digital part, however, is laughably bad. The first thing you see on the website is ‘visual index’, a network of circular pictures that link to bits of video, audio, and additional material embedded within the essay. What is it for? Are people meant to use it before the read the essay, without any context? Or should they use it afterwards, even though it has no labels and after the reader has presumably already read the material they were interested in, along the way?
The embedded media is a mixed bag. Some of it is very relevant, other bits (particularly the music) appear to there simply to make up the numbers. Worse, the embedded media is hidden behind cryptically-labelled buttons to the right of the essay. You have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s very disruptive to the process of, you know, reading.
I don’t mean to pick on the essay – like I said, it’s very good. But it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘digital art’. And this is one of the better projects The Space has funded.
Now, you can expect missteps in the first year of a new organisation like The Space. In fact, you might even welcome them — but only if it looks like the organisation is learning. Sadly, an independent report by MTM, commissioned by the Arts Council and the BBC to evaluate The Space, pulled all the punches it could.
One major problem with the report lies in the people they approached to evaluate the projects. Said one arts organisation of the Will Self essay:
A completely different approach to how you experience an essay – you can interact with it and create your own navigation.
No. No. No. A thousand times, no. Anyone who genuinely believes this has no place in evaluating any kind of digital art. Another person said:
It’s such an interesting approach – it feels really new and inventive.
Really? Had this person never seen an essay online with embedded video and audio?
Or, on John Peel’s Record Collection:
It’s a wonderful archive, and it’s interactive – audiences can play and explore.
It’s a sad, sad day when ‘clicking through an archive’ equals interactive. If that’s the bar we’re setting, I despair. Once again, it’s not that I think the archive is bad – it’s that I think it’s not technically or artistically innovative, and so it’s not deserving of being funded by a body specifically created to fund ‘exciting new digital art’.
The audience figures were also, in my view, disappointing. Between May and October 2012, The Space attracted a million visits from 630,000 unique users. Now, a million sounds like a lot. But is it, really? Consider that £3.5 million was invested in 51 commissions. That means they’re paying £5.56 for each user; and who knows what the average visit time on each website was.
When you look at the audience breakdown, it becomes clear that only six of the 51 commissions attracted more than 10,000 unique users. My blog gets 3000 unique users per month. In other words, it’s very likely that my blog outperformed over 80% of all commissions by The Space in terms of audience numbers. That is awful. It’s not even a very good blog.
I could go on, but the whole enterprise just depresses me. I was recently interviewed about the possibility of the public funding of ‘art games’ (my words, not theirs) in the UK. Such a thing would be tricky, but also extremely exciting. I conjured up visions of the bounty we could expect for a mere £100,000 or £200,000 — and just imagine how many projects and how many artists could be funded with a massive £1 million! Think of the amazing Twine games, the hard-hitting Papers Pleases, the touching That Dragon, Cancers that could realised — with popular projects easily able to command hundreds of thousands of visitors each, if not millions.
And then to discover that £3.5 million was spent on these commissions, and another £16 million recently. It is a disgrace that we are spending so much money and getting so little, when we are missing the incredible opportunities that genuine digital art — not just games, but at least including games — offers.
Why have so few people spoken out about The Space? Because it’s funded by the Arts Council and the BBC. Here’s a quote from Maggie Brown’s article:
…I consulted a digital arts expert, who would speak only off the record. “It’s strange,” he said. “All that money thrown at it, and it’s bloody awful, very undercooked.”
He’d only speak off the record. We’re not talking about the CIA here, for fuck’s sake – but I don’t blame him for being worried about his career. If you’re an artist, who wants to make an enemy of the BBC or the Arts Council?
I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel again tonight and was reminded of the story behind the film’s McGuffin, a fictional priceless Renaissance painting named Boy With Apple.
As you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, the painting was not made by a merely talented set painter, but by an acclaimed English painter, Michael Taylor. I love it when creators imbue their works with such meticulous attention to detail — it makes it worthwhile imagining what other things lie within their universes — and I love it just as much when audiences and critics go along with the game.
Tags: arg · film
Saw two very good movies recently:
‘71 is a fantastically tense and beautifully shot thriller about a British soldier stuck behind ‘enemy lines’ during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was particularly impressed by the economy of the script; the writer clearly – and correctly – trusts the audience to figure out who the characters are and what it is they want.
Big Hero 6 was a lot better than its initial kid-tastic trailers let on. Sure, it was obvious that the San Fransokyo was going to be amazing, but thankfully my fears about stupid fart jokes were, for the most part, allayed. Instead, I got a tremendously exciting and often quite emotional movie where a bunch of grad students save the day by doing scientific research. Sequels please, Disney!
November 23rd, 2014 · 3 Comments
Eight years ago, I lamented to a friend that I was spending too much time keeping up with my RSS feeds. RSS feeds are generated by websites and they tell you when they’ve published new content; the feeds, and feed-readers like NetNewsWire and FeedDemon, and eventually Google Reader, became popular partly as a way to follow the posts from the then-nascent world of blogs. So, a little like a proto-Twitter, except with no limit on the amount of characters a post might contain.
I had subscribed to around 150 websites. This was not a large number by the standards of the time; many bloggers followed hundreds of feeds. But I wanted to read every posts from every website I subscribed to, which was the equivalent of half a book every day. Like a lot of people, I have a compulsive desire to ‘finish’ things and get numbers down to zero (emails, to-do lists, washing up, etc.), even if it’s not really that useful or interesting.
My friend told me that he followed precisely zero RSS feeds and what’s more, didn’t read the news that much either. “Most of it isn’t important,” he said, invoking his decades-longer experience of the internet. Inspired, I cut out two thirds of my feeds and got on with my life. RSS feeds no longer ruled my reading.
But now I have a different problem. Today, it’s easier than ever to find and read (for free) world-class long-form articles about all sorts of interesting subjects, and if you’re willing to pay a small amount for magazines like The New Yorker, you’ll have more piling up in your inbox every week. I love reading these long-form articles; they’re much easier to get through than books, and so you can learn about a much wider variety of topics in a more timely manner. Indeed, many long-form articles are better than the books that they occasional beget due to lean, unpadded nature (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell).
Unlike my blog RSS feeds, it’s not as easy to cull my long-form article sources. After all, surely as a responsible citizen, I’m practically obliged to read a 9,000 word article about drone warfare, or a 5,000 word article investigating how a future King Charles III might reign, or another 9,000 word article on the tests one must pass to become London cab driver — along with the threats from Uber? It takes up almost all of my reading time.
And when I’m not reading, I’m listening to 17 podcasts. I was actually shocked by the number when I just counted them now – 17! To keep the ‘unlistened’ count to zero, I find myself listening on my walk to work, while I’m running, on the tube, doing cleaning, any spare moment. At first I saw this as a wonderfully productive use of empty time, but I’ve belatedly realised that some amount of empty time is valuable in and of itself.
Articles, blogs, podcasts – these things are a great source for ideas and inspiration, and for learning about the world. Yet there’s such a thing as too much inspiration and too much knowledge if you don’t have enough time to process them. Cutting out some publications and podcasts will help, but as with my RSS feeds before, it’s not a long-term solution.
A while back, I became interested in the idea of a ’secular sabbath’ where you unplug from the internet for a day a week. I don’t know if that model is perfect because, ideally, it relies on you having lots of friends who live nearby to talk to, whereas a lot of my friends are now scattered around the world, but there’s something to imposing a structure on your time in a way that quietens the world’s ceaseless demands for your attention. A very interesting problem to explore.
Tags: adrian · tech