FOMO and Social Media

I’ve been watching Twitter and Ditto feeds of people at SxSW, and, from a distance, I get a distinct sense of the social anxiety and FOMO that’s going on there. “FOMO” stands for “Fear of Missing Out” and it’s what happens everywhere on a typical Saturday night, when you’re trying to decide if you should stay in, or muster the energy to go to the party. At SxSW I see people wondering if they’re at the wrong party—the party where they are is lame, feels uncool, has too much brand advertising or doesn’t have anyone there they’d want to hook up with—and so they move on to the next party where they have to wait in line too long, can’t get a beer, or don’t find their friends, and so move on to the next venue where…and so on.

FOMO is a great motivator of human behavior, and I think a crucial key to understanding social software, and why it works the way it does. Many people have studied the game mechanics that keep people collecting things (points, trophies, check-ins, mayorships, kudos). Others have studied how the neurochemistry that keeps us checking Facebook every five minutes is similar to the neurochemistry fueling addiction. Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

There is a company that sells radar equipment to the police as well as radar detectors to the public. Clorox is one of the world’s worst polluters of water, and also sells Brita filters to get the bad stuff out of the water again. Lawyers create mazes that you have to hire a lawyer to escape. Similarly social software both creates and cures FOMO. If you didn’t know that party was going on, you’d be home contentedly reading your latest New Yorker. But since you do, you hungrily watch each new tweet.

It’s an age-old problem, exacerbated by technology. To be always filled with craving and desire (also called defilement, affliction) is one of the Three Poisons of Buddhism, called kilesa, and it makes you a slave. There is true meaning in social media—real connections, real friendships, devotion, humor, sacrifice, joy, depth, love. And this is what we are looking for when we log on. Most of the world is profane, not sacred, in the Mircea Eliade sense. So it is. But within it is the Emmy award speech of Mister Rogers, a Japanese man being rescued at sea, Abraham Lincoln, moms who comfort sick children, the earnest love that dogs have for people…

FOMO can be fought. Stay alert! En garde!

(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)

Salary Commensurate with Effectiveness

I was just read this phrase “salary commensurate with experience” in a email list I’m on, and thought perhaps it should be “salary commensurate with effectiveness” or “salary commensurate with excellence” instead. A lot is gained through experience, but experience teaches some and not others. Effectiveness and excellence, whether or not they were attained by simply having the knack or through the school of hard knocks, is really what you want to reward.

A WORD ON STATISTICS by Wislawa Szymborska


Out of every hundred people,

those who always know better:

Unsure of every step:
almost all the rest.

Ready to help,
if it doesn’t take long:

Always good,
because they cannot be otherwise:
four — well, maybe five.

Able to admire without envy:

Led to error
by youth (which passes):
sixty, plus or minus.

Those not to be messed with:

Living in constant fear
of someone or something:

Capable of happiness:
twenty-some-odd at most.

Harmless alone,
turning savage in crowds:
more than half, for sure.

when forced by circumstances:
it’s better not to know,
not even approximately.

Wise in hindsight:
not many more
than wise in foresight.

Getting nothing out of life except things:
(though I would like to be wrong).

Balled up in pain
and without a flashlight in the dark:
eighty-three, sooner or later.

Those who are just:
quite a few, thirty-five.

But if it takes effort to understand:

Worthy of empathy:

one hundred out of one hundred —
a figure that has never varied yet.

(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)

Lawrence Pearsall Jacks on Work

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

Technology is both constructive and destructive

“If we examine technologies honestly, each one as its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions, for good and bad. There is no powerfully constructive technology that is not also powerfully destructive in another direction, just as there is no great idea that cannot be greatly perverted for great harm. The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well”

Kevin Kelly, wrote this in What Technology Wants, where he advances a great argument that, ultimately, resistance to a new technology is futile, in spite of concerns that the new tech is dangerous, or has too many possible consequences, still unknown, and should be legislated out of existence. He writes that prohibitions are in effect just postponements, because inevitably new technologies will be adopted, no matter which Shogun bans guns from his beautiful, elegant, and ritualistic samurai sword fights.

Good, interesting, thought-provoking stuff.

Tinkering as Learning

John Seely Brown, who was the director of the amazing Xerox Parc for many years, and whose book The Social Life of Information was hugely influential in the tech industry in which I work, has a new book coming out soon, The New Culture of Learning, which looks great. You can download the first three chapters from the site.

He talks a lot about one of my pet subjects, Community Mentoring, the apprenticeship model of education:

Where traditionally mentoring was a means of enculturating members into a community, mentoring in the collective relies more on the sense of learning and developing temporary, peer-to-peer relationships that are fluid and impermanent. Expertise is shared openly and willingly, without regard to an institutional mission. Instead, expertise is shared conditionally and situationally, as a way to enable the agency of other members of the collective.

…as well as a dozen other favorite topics of mine: play as a means of learning, constraints as a stimulus for, rather than an inhibition of, creativity, and so on. I wish I could figure out how to get my hands on the whole book. There is a great page of resources on the site as well, for further exploration.

Here is an interview with John from the site, talking about tinkering as a mode of knowledge production, an idea reinforced by my recent visit to MakerBot.

(Thanks for the head’s up, Scott!)

Mark Mothersbaugh meets Richard Branson

Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO tells a story:

Wow, was it ’77 or ’78? I remember it because Northeast Ohio was under a blanket of snow about 30 inches deep. At that point, everybody in the band had quit their day jobs just to be totally dedicated to the band, so people were letting us sleep in their living rooms or wherever we could sleep. We got a call from Richard Branson — we were all in our 20’s back then. He says, “Hey, wanna come down to Jamaica?” And I’m looking outside at the snow — I’m wearing a winter coat to try to eat breakfast in this cold apartment — and I said, “Yeah, I’ll come down to Jamaica.”

So Bob 2 (Bob Casale) and me went down. To make a long story short — I’m trying to think of how to paraphrase this — he had a bunch of guys from Virgin Records with him. We were in this nice hotel room. They brought out all this Jamaican marijuana. In Ohio, we didn’t have drugs at all. Instead of the summer of love, we had the summer of agony over and over again.

And they were asking us what we thought of the Sex Pistols, and we said, “Oh, we really like ’em. At their last show in San Francisco we were there, and they came to our show, and it’s a shame they broke up, blah, blah, blah.” “And what do you think of Johnny Rotten?” “Oh, we think he’s great. We think he should totally change what he’s doing and do something new.” And they go, “Well, that’s great, because Johnny Rotten wants to join Devo and he’s in the next room. And we have members of the press from all over England with us here, and I’d like to take everybody down to the beach and make the announcement that Johnny Rotten is joining Devo.”

And when he said that, I remember looking at Richard Branson, and I realized he had the mandible and these protruding teeth of a brain-eating ape. And I became scared of him after that.

Cheating vs. Learning

Photo via Flickr:
Photo via Flickr:

I’ve never understood cheating, probably because I never cared much about my grades. I instinctively knew that the grades didn’t measure anything meaningful — usually just my ability to quickly memorize information I’d just as quickly forget. I was good at this, and so did well on tests when I bothered to try, but I didn’t have any truck with them after a while. My test scores were highly variable as a result, and I didn’t want or need go to Yale. But I loved learning, which was different from doing well in school.

I came across this video in my travels around the web. It is a video of Professor Richard Quinn of University of Central Florida telling his class he has discovered that many — it turns out more than a third! — cheated on their exam. In an article in Inside Higher Ed it says “Experts in cheating and testing security have said the UCF incident is generally no worse than what takes place in many universities” and this doesn’t surprise me.

I’ve said before that entrepreneurship, one of my primary interests, is something that flourishes under an apprenticeship and not a factory model of education. I’m not sure what the business students in the UCF class were aiming for. The lecture usurped by the cheating conversation was meant to be about “Mergers and Acquisitions”.

Quinn was accused by the students of being lazy, and offering a ‘test bank’ test offered by the textbook publishers. Teaching from a textbook is almost always crappy teaching, so the whole system is flawed. It seems to me that cheating is the almost inevitable consequence of test-giving and test-taking. It doesn’t have to be this way. The best method for assessing learning progress is self-assessment, with the input of someone passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. This would require a lot of trust in the student, but also more work on the part of the teacher — who would not really be a teacher at all, in the traditional sense, but a person in love with a certain topic, probably a practitioner of the subject in question, maybe retired, maybe active.

Here’s my idea of what an ideal school would be like, borrowed from David Albert’s book And the Skylark Sings with Me a book about a family’s experience in home and community based education. It’s how I’ve envisioned, but never articulated, my own perfect school.

Wikileaks and Free at the New Museum

Free, Lauren Cornell’s prescient show at The New Museum in New York, is the museum show of our times, presaging the whole Wikileaks dustup, and showing the shifting power dynamics and the glimpse of the human in a world of flowing data.

The show assembles works with insight into the current digital and data culture; as Cornell says in her essay written for Free “The internet is not just a medium, but also a territory populated and fought over by individuals, corporations, and governments; a communications tool; and a cultural catalyst.” The quintessential example of this tension is the work by Trevor Paglen who exhibits photographs of secret military operations, military satellites, and observatories that serve as spy stations. These have been discovered by collaboration with amateur astronomers and other internet denizens, using a combination of government-supplied and individually assembled data, then photographed and published, revealing the hitherto hidden.

Jill Magid’s work, Becoming Tarden, emerged out of a collaboration with the Dutch Secret Service (the AIVD) in which she met with 18 agents, who did not reveal their identities to her, and of whom she drew textual portraits. Around 40% of the text was censored by the AIVD, and the original, uncensored work, exhibited at the TATE in London in an enclosed glass case, was confiscated by the Dutch government, who subsequently forbade the show to travel to other venues. The red-covered paperback exhibited at Free publishes the censored version, including blank spaces where the texts have been deleted.

Lisa Oppenheim gathers the photographs American soldiers stationed in Iraq have taken of Iraqi sunsets and posted on Flickr, prints them, and then holds them up, re-photographing against her own, local sunsets in an act of tribute and attempt at communal experience. The gulf yawning between her experience and theirs is thus demonstrated. The sense is that their lives in a war zone cannot be known, and only a gesture made to demonstrate fellow feeling.

Pervading the show is this sense of how the ‘data’ – the ‘facts’ if you will – tells us something, but fails to capture the human drama, the story, the suffering, the lived lives behind the information gathered and arranged. Images of people caught on Google Maps “streetview” appear in Jon Rafman’s work, Martijn Hendrik shows texts of people responding to the video of the Saddam Hussein execution; Joel Holmberg asks earnest questions on Yahoo! Answers – all show the gap between the impassive data-gathering technology, human inputs and the strange hybrid that is result of those interactions. The final quote in Magid’s Becoming Tarden is from Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit, where the character “Tarden” appears:

All that time and trouble, and still the record is a superficial one: I see only how I looked in the fraction of a second when the shutter was open. But there’s no trace of the thoughts and emotions that surrounded that moment. When I die and my memories die with me, all that will remain will be thousands of yellowing photographs and 35mm negatives in my filing cabinets.

As Julian Assange’s defense against sexual assault in Sweden shadows his defense of the release U.S. diplomatic documents on Wikileaks; as the human and the data combine; as we appear in surveillance cameras, and leave behind traces on the internet, we find ourselves in a discomfiting alien netherworld well demonstrated by this exhibit.

Free will be up until January 23, 2011 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY

Hollis Frampton's Friend's Dream

Years ago I had heard, second hand, about a dream recounted by Hollis Frampton, the experimental filmmaker, that fascinated me. I’ve referred to it many times in posts on this blog, but hadn’t found the text of it until a few weeks ago when I started working on an essay for the acclaimed show FREE at The New Museum, curated by Lauren Cornell. It comes from an essay he wrote called A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative (.pdf). I will be referring to this text in my essay, which will be published on the Rhizome site, and hopefully here as well. This is the dream:

Lately, a friend has complained to me that his sleep is troubled by a recurrent nightmare, in which he lives through two entire lifetimes.

In the first, he is born a brilliant and beautiful heiress to an immense fortune. Her loving and eccentric father arranges that his daughter’s birth should be filmed, together with her every conscious moment thereafter, in color and sound. Eventually he leaves in trust a capital sum, the income from which guarantees that the record shall continue, during all her waking hours, for the rest of her life. Her own inheritance is made contingent upon agreement to this invasion of privacy, to which she is, in any case, accustomed from earliest infancy.

As a woman, my friend lives a long, active, and passionate life. She travels the world, visits the moon, marries three men (amid scores of erotic adventures), gives birth to a daughter…becomes a Nobel laureate…In short, she so crowds her days with experience of every kind that she never once pauses to view the films of her own expanding past.

In extreme old age – having survived all her own children – she makes a will, leaving her fortune to the first child to be orn, following the instant of her own death, in the same city …on the single condition that such child shall spend its whole life watching the accumulated films of her own. Shortly thereafter she dies, quietly, in her sleep.

In his dream, my friend experiences her death; and then, after a brief intermission, he discovers, to his outrage astonishment, that he is about to be reincarnated as her heir.

He emerges from the womb to confront the filmed image of her birth. He receives a thorough but quaintly obsolete education from the films of her school days. As a chubby, asthmatic little boy, he learns (without ever leaving his chair) to dance, sit a horse, and play the viola. During his adolescence, wealthy young men fumble through the confusion of her clothing to caress his own unimaginable breasts.

By the time he reaches maturity, he is totally sedentary and reclusive, monstrously obese (from subsisting on an exclusive diet of buttered popcorn), decidedly homosexual by inclination (though masturbation is his only activity), hyperopic, pallid. He no longer speaks, except to shout, “FOCUS!”

In middle age, his health begins to fail, and with it, imperceptibly, the memory of his previous life, so that he grows increasingly dependent upon the films to know what to do next. Eventually, his entire inheritance goes to keep him barely alive: for decades he receives an incessant trickle of intravenous medication, as the projector behind him turns and turns.

Finally, he has watched the last reel of film. That same night, after the show, he dies, quietly, in his sleep, unaware that he has completed his task … whereupon my friend wakens, abruptly, to discover himself alive, at home, in his own bed.