Monday, November 21, 2016

10 People You Should Stop Listening To!

I'm being facetious of course. I actually don't have a list of 10 people to stop listening to simply and this isn't a command imperitive 'stop listening' like an edict issued by a cult to stop associating with non-believers because I strongly believe there is nothing wrong with indulging in some morbid curiosity from time to time. If you have a memetic immunity strong enough you can listen to anything you like.

Of course 'memetic immunity' is a made up concept, and those who can recall that brief period of 30 years where 'memes' were a concept of Richard Dawkin's that basically meant thought-genes or reproducing ideas and not shitty jokes clogging up your feeds, you can probably piece together that a memetic immunity is the ability to resist certain ideas. And of course, you may dismiss such a concept as redundant given that people demonstrate a resilience to ideas all the time - a relatively well known concept called confirmation bias. But pause.

Take a breath.

And consider it might be valuable to have some resilience to ideas you want to believe are true, a resistance to your own confirmation bias - one such resistance is the empirical method a process that works against our assumptions as we try to disprove our hypothesis to advance our knowledge.

With all that preamble though, I'm basically saying here are some behaviors to be wary of, so lets start with the list populaters.

Fun fact, I don't know anything about Liza Koshy. But the internet is full of content organized into lists of 3, 5, 8, 10, 15 and multiples of 5 onwards. Conan has an irregular segment called 'Buzzfeed is running out of lists...' and for the very reason list populaters are problematic, clicking on that link may send you spiraling into distraction - though technically it isn't list based content.

There was a time way back that I can't be bothered digging up, where I myself was seduced by the idea of writing lists as blog posts - and wary of my nemesis' caution that nobody likes a meta-blog I'll keep it brief and just say that what is problematic about lists I learned is that they are lazy and mechanical.

The reason the internet swarms with '5 reasons to...' and '3 warning signs...' and '10 telltale signs...' headlines is because a list is an easy framework through which to generate content. Furthermore if I were to set you the assignment of writing an essay '3 reasons suicide squad sucked' and '10 reasons suicide squad sucked' you would probably not find the second essay 3x harder than the first. This indicates that the number of items on any given list is often arbitrary.

I've sat and looked at organisational strategic plans and realised that the 5 action items for the forthcoming year aren't there because they've been carefully selected as the optimal uses of limited resources - but because the planners managed to come up with 5 ideas.

From my own direct experience the number in the title of a post is going to be arrived at in 2 ways. The author a) writes the article/script then b) counts up the number of points they've made and then titles the post/video accordingly OR the author sets themselves an arbitrary goal of things to say about a given topic (assume 10) then attempts to write on that topic and starts a) struggling at a lower number or b) bloats out to a higher number, then they rename the post accordingly.

List-headlines suggest or imply some comprehensive checklist, particularly when it pertains to advice - but rarely is this the case, simply because so many of them come out they are anything but comprehensive well considered reductions of any particular issue down to its essential core-components. So I feel it healthy to be skeptical about content organised into lists even from reputable or more serious sites than those that publish videos involving the words 'guys' and 'girls'. For the same reason a lot of smart people are aware that the 24 hour news channels have resulted in lower quality journalism, publishing a new 5 reasons blah blah blah are secretly terrifying video 3 times a week is not the best dedication of your attention. (yet the same smart people seemingly can't break their addiction to news content).

I don't deal in certainties, and prefer heuristics and as such tempting though it is to bridge a small gap of boredom with some list based curiosity, I'm betting against the credibility of the author precisely because they are probably shitting out content for contents sake. Few list shitters then I suspect treat like a 'drawing a day' challenge of artist to build up the discipline of drawing daily, or to warm up before going onto a more serious piece or to develop new skills and competences but instead to build up followers and try and train an audience that you are a ready source of distraction.

Another far more speculative thing to be leery of with lists is that they are easy to digest. A concession perhaps as to the scarcity of attention. Instead of reading a rambling length of prose like this they are giving you individually wrapped slices of processed thought for you. Almost like someone is giving you a 30 second cram prep to make a speech. I don't know how true it is or if anyone's looked at this aspect but it perhaps contributes to the worldwide phenomena of conversations becoming far more homogenous, simply because the content is delivered in a way to discourage behavior like 'active listening' which I'm not good at but generally involves rephrasing what you've just been told by somebody and clarifying whether that is what they are saying. Why do that if you just have 5 reasons 9-11 was an inside job? You just have to remember 5 things and you can regurgitate the case right up for whoever is willing to listen.

I don't want to present no possible solutions, so here are some to plug the gap that list based articles may leave on your touchscreen phone as you sit on the can at work on an unofficial break - mindfulness of course eliminates the phenomena of boredom in your life and is kind of a blanket solution for all media-consumption related problems. If you can't be bothered meditating though what I much prefer doing is looking up a specific concept:
Notice how there's an actual exhaustive list for the subject you are interested in. Look for specific concept rather than distraction. You could also try looking up the etymology of words, that often works for me as an insightful distraction.

Anyway, although this isn't a formal list, someone else you should probably stop listening to is Jon Oliver. And of course Jon Oliver is a pariah in this sense because he simply sits atop the heirarchy of people characterized as 'progressive' 'social justice warriors' 'PC liberals' etc. Of these I like 'progressive' the best because it is the most descriptive of the behavior. And I should clarify, I am not a conservative myself. I most often agree with the positions Jon Oliver takes, what I disagree with is the effectiveness of his methodology albeit he's more effective than most of his progressive fans.

The reason I like progressive as the prefered term is because it intuitively captures the naivete of such arguments. Basically it goes like this 'the reason this is bad is simply because you don't know it is bad, I'm telling you it's bad so now you know - now if you keep doing the bad thing you are bad and unless you want to be bad you must not do the bad thing anymore in order to be good.' Which is embarrassingly naive and almost universally tempting.

While doctors often suffer from ignorance of the domain specific nature of their learnedness (they are I'm told, notoriously bad investors) one thing I'm sure many of them do learn in their rookie years is that problems are rarely solved simply through informing. Smokers are not ignorant of the health risks cigarettes pose, or the addictive nature of nicotene just as overweight patients are not ignorant that eating healthy and exercising will reduce a lot of their needs for medical attention. I doubt you would lack the experience of knowing not to procrastinate on an assignment or not to buy some piece of shit and then doing it anyway for emotional reasons.

These are all straightforward easy to understand examples when compared with the sort of things Jon Oliver advocates with righteous indignation. Transgender issues are quite complicated, often counter-intuitive and largely irrelevant to most people's lives. It's not to say that they should be ignored because that's precisely what allows minorities to be oppressed consistently over time, but nor should it be a crusade to punish anyone that caves to quite common emotions and intuitions on the subject - furthermore for all the digging I've done on gender (it is fascinating) where I stand is incredibly vague making it an easy example to identify and pick as problematic.

More problematic though, is that however comprehensive Oliver's research is Last Week Tonight is not so much a satirical news program as a news program. And it isn't so much a news program as an etiquette mill. What's an etiquette mill? It's a place that introduces etiquette to a mass - this is how to behave if you want membership to a group. I'm sure I've written on the distinction between etiquette and manners quite recently, but for self-containment I'll reiterate - manners are a community building set of behavior because they particularly focus on establishing behaviors regarding the treatment of strangers. Etiquette is a community dividing set of behaviors because they focus on identifying members of an in-group.

Last-week-tonight could be a really great program, it seemed to be initially given that it only came out once a week (a contrarian approach to the 24 hours newstainment channels) and that they seemed to deliberately avoid being topical - a newsprogram that was truly investigative and seemed to have as its mission finding stories that were important rather than simply recent. To a greater extent than not, this holds up. What to be wary of, and failing an ability to be guarded perhaps to simply avoid, is checking in with Jon Oliver because you think he is smart and to learn what smart people think because that is what you should think because you are smart and you certainly aren't dumb like all those dumb people who don't understand Trans-rights, net nuetrality, the Indian election, the infrastructure crisis, football stadium contracts, state lottery ad nauseum.

Be concerned if you want to be an elite thinker, rather than a mythical and actual elite - the people who somehow do have an impact on the world but don't agree with you for some reason we never really think about. I mean be empirical, Oliver isn't the only one, Colbert and Seth Myers invested many many hours, much more than Oliver into ridiculing Trump and also Brexit. Yet nothing about making sure their audiences understood just how wrong these things were allowed both President Trump or Brexit to be avoided. You could be forgiven for saying that Brexit empirically doesn't prove shit, because these are all American commentators that did most of their commenting after the fact. But post November 2nd you have to conclude that all the information you absorbed, all that knowledge didn't ripple out and stop what you knew to be wrong from winning out.

I've looked at this myself, and here's what I feel might be a good approach to enacting meaningful change - if 5 months ago someone simply asked me 'Trump or Clinton' and I said 'Clinton' I didn't need any more information from the media to know how I felt. But I did, I watched with voyeuristic glee monologue after monologue of the entertaining things Trump did every day. Which in hindsight tells me I wasn't getting armed and equipped with effective knowledge - know how that I could use to effect something somehow. I was hunkering down in a shelter and hoping the storm would blow over.

I find myself skewered by my own need for personal consistency - I can't hold my head in sympathetic embarrassment for all those certified fools known commonly as economists and financiers who couldn't admit that the GFC debunked neoclassical economics and gaussian based risk management, They are almost a decade on doing the same shit and teaching the same shit.

It isn't like progressives aren't informative. They are people with a hard on for the frontiers of knowledge. By keeping up to speed with the forefront of human thought they are emotionally invested in a simple recipe for navigating life, and frustrated by life's inability to conform with an assumed universally applicable informational advantage. Frustrated but seldom defeated.

Be mindful firstly that it's impossible to tell if you are incompetent. Mark Twain had this beautiful caution that reaches across a century now -  'The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.' So if you think you are smart pick an easy target for folly like a 9-11 truther or vaccine skeptic and consider that whatever fragments of information they find sufficient to convince themselves of their position in the face of contrary evidence suspect that you may too have been easily persuaded to take a stance on some/any topic that you actually know next to nothing about.

Then get empirical, as you applaud the Canadian Prime Minister for remarking that it's 2016 so equal cabinet positions for women, remind yourself that it is 2016 and their are people walking the earth who haven't foresaken hunter-gathering lifestyles yet (and are possibly/probably recruiting) It's 2016 and young people are discovering Led Zeppelin and Seinfeld every day, and Jesus' admonition to first remove the log from thine own eye is still up-to-the-second-relevant appreciate the irony of calling someone out for reducing gender to a binary when you yourself fail to recognize 'progress' as a spectrum.

So apart from accepting that informed etiquette doesn't work, what else to plug the Jon hole that remains? Finding an in group that appeals to your sense of alienation within your own community can be hard to go cold turkey on - may I suggest just watering your beverage of choice down? Seth Myer's closer look segment is more frequent and quite similar to Last Week Tonight in Sentiment but with less emphasis on finding neglected news stories. It does come with one advantage though - Seth himself is less charismatic than Jon and as such you are less likely to put a halo around him and second guess when he tells you how it is.

I also recommend looking for listeners as well. Much better to listen to a listener than a teller. Malcolm Gladwell is great, he feels passionate about his topics and has that rare ability to not be emotionally invested in any of the solutions or findings he has sought out. He's a genuinely curious person, his indignation seems sincere rather than a reliable comedy shtick to wack like Oliver's more righteous breed of indignation. Dave McCraney's podcast/blog series is great because it deals with bias' fallacies and irrationality - a perfect antidote for those frustrated by the limits of reason to reach emotional people.

Lastly, it almost goes without saying that you should stop listening to the news. And by news I'm tempted to say 'actual news' but it feels inappropriate. I was watching old footage of Jon Stewart appearing on something (not his own show) some years ago so I am not going to bother digging up the clip but he dropped a very curious but important concept in the interview. He mentioned that Fox News viewers were consistently found to be the most misinformed. It occured to me then and there that you can actually objectively measure a lot of the time - how informed or misinformed someone is.

Climate change makes for an easy example, because it is a hard science. That means indisputable facts are known - so you can just like administering a test on algebra - determine what someone knows and doesn't know. It would be tedious to constantly test the population in this way, but less so to actually objectively grade news sources on whether they are informative or anti-informative.

I myself was persuaded long before Jon Stewart, that one can actually increase they're level of informedness by reducing their intake of information. I was persuaded by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his 'narrative fallacy' is worth looking into. I was convinced though on the uselessness of news by reflecting on the most usefull piece of news I'd ever known to have been broadcast. It is documented in Eli Wiesal's autobiography 'Night' recounting his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

If ever there was news anyone could use, it was what Shlomo offered his fellow Jews one evening when he ran into town and informed them that German's were rounding up Jews, deporting them and killing them. And they ignored this most useful piece of news ever, and hence we have the book 'Night'. Which above and beyond having news services that deny the severity and origins of climate change, we need to keep stock that we aren't particularly good at hearing news we don't want to be true. So why then, devote so much time to watching the news and 'getting informed'?

It's really a mystery to me. 

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