Well, What Now? 10/13/14

4 min read

Oh, the Humanity.

We are more wired than ever. We spend large portions of our lives in the virtual worlds of social media, email, video games, and video gaming videos. But whether we are real or not, a lot of the rules and rhythms we’ve lived by in the pre-Internet era are going to be harder to break away from than we might think.

Warning: This video of a jet-pack-powered cat navigating among rainbows and unicorns may not be suitable for work.

For example, a study from Georgia Tech and Yahoo Labs of more than one million online reviews (on TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Citysearch, and the like) has found that weather has a major correlation with good and bad reviews, with the best reviews being written “on sunny days with temps between 70 and 100 degrees.” Our moods, whether positive or negative, continue to have a profound impact on our opinions, work habits, and what we consume, despite our immersion in a digital world over which we like to think we have more control.

CircleOfFriendsUniversity of Oxford psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar is the man behind the Dunbar Number, actually a series of numbers, which seems to govern the average size of a person’s social circle. The Dunbar numbers range from about five for a person’s support circle (often family), to 500 (acquaintance-level), with about 1500 being the highest number of faces to whom most of us can put a name. Dunbar numbers vary according to a person’s sociability, but only roughly. The point is: there do seem to be to limits to human friendship, which have to do with the average size of our brains. Maria Konnikova talks to Dunbar for The New Yorker and explores how our online “friends list” may or may not fit in.

Dunbar and his numbers will most likely be under discussion at a new Laboratory for Social Machines, which Twitter is funding at M.I.T. In addition to $10 million, the new research center will be given access to the entire archive of tweets going back to 2006, as well as the “firehose” of all real-time Twitter data. The goal, eventually, is to “develop collaborative tools and mobile apps that enable ‘new forms of public communication and social organization.’”

600px-The.Matrix.glmatrix.3One form of virtual reality to which you may not be giving a lot of thought: your online ad profile. Jer Thorp’s new work with The Office for Creative Research is a Chrome browser extension called Floodwatch that allows users to see all the ads they’ve been served while browsing as well as apply a number of filters and visualizations to the data.

According to Thorpe, the ads you are shown when you browse to a given page are determined by your aggregate history. As Thorp illustrates by having 10 strangers write profiles of him based on his ad profile, this results in a highly subjective, if not completely bogus, portrait of one’s self. Through Floodwatch, which can be used with an option to report your own ad data to the study through the plug-in, Thorp and his colleagues are hoping to understand “what the advertising industry is up to: who is competing for your eyeballs and how they are doing it.”

If you’re tired of feeling like a pawn in all of this: Good luck. Unless you want to access everything on the Internet through a pay wall, or go back to the old days of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature and microfiche, it seems your only option is to resign the game. Which may not be a bad idea, at least from time to time.

Turn off your phone. Go for a walk. Actually “check in” with the people on your actual “friends list.” Or just sit quietly and meditate. You don’t have to spend a year in complete silence, like Pema Chödrön, to benefit from some of the wisdom she has derived from it:

Distractions are not just phone calls and emails and outer phenomena. Our own mind, and our longings, and our cravings, and our fantasies and everything are also major distractions…you begin to realize that life is always pulling you away from being fully present.


Circle of Friends photo by Louise Dawson (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACircleOfFriends.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.

GLMatrix Screensaver photo by Jamie Zawinski (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe.Matrix.glmatrix.3.png) via Wikimedia Commons.