Choose Your Social Media Adventure

ChoicesWhen I was growing up, their were paperbacks where you chose your own adventure. You’d read a few paragraphs and the author would have you make a choice or roll dice to decide which part you would read next. As someone who grew up with much time to myself, I found myself ‘playing’ quite a few of these books and experimenting with things so that I could see the narrative twist.

Games at the time of this writing have become quite good at it.

It’s also what we do with social media. We make choices, decisions, whether consciously or not.

I play with it in what I once termed ‘Deep Writing’, but which I’ll now call ‘Deep Narrative Writing‘ because I think it suits it better and is less confusing than the tag for writing about deep learning (which some nutty people decided needed a tag other than ‘deep learning’).

The Conscious Choices

Everyone limits social media to a degree. It’s impossible to read everything, to consider every perspective, so we progress through our real world adventure by making choices. Some people are idiots, some are annoying, some are people we cannot stand for our own reasons, so we remove them from our networks.

Everyone also feeds their own confirmation bias to a degree as well – we pay attention to some people more than others, and this too is natural because to do anything, we have to decide quickly on how to progress.

The trouble is, invariably, what we ‘like’ is not what we ‘need’. Yet we do choose these (mis)adventures, and hopefully we learn things of value and also things that have no value if we have well developed critical thinking skills and a strong sense of self – a sense of self strong enough to have one’s own opinion that may not allow one to march in stride with the people whose arms are locked and marching down the information superhighway demanding, protesting, or believing what is best described as ‘nutty’.

I’m fairly certain everyone agrees so far on everything written – internalized, it should make some sort of sense. And yet everyone’s experience is different, and invariably, tribes form of like minds who… march down the information superhighway, demanding, protesting, and possibly believing something best described as ‘nutty’.

Somewhere in the not so distant past, whether something was nutty or not was decided by whether it was popular or not, which, if one pauses for just long enough to consider, is something best described as nutty.

Then we take sides and call each other nutty. Examples? Religions and politics are brilliant examples because every side believes that they are right.

Well, of course they are right. It would be unpopular to think otherwise, and therefore, people might describe that as ‘nutty’.

“You’re obviously right in what you think and believe as long as you agree with… me. Us.”, says everyone’s subconscious – the very definition of confirmation bias.

The Unconscious Choices

There’s an argument to be made that some of the conscious choices are for most people unconscious choices. By accident of the who, what, where and when of your birth, you may have grown up with a specific religion, grew up with a set of beliefs that shaped your politics, etc. This gets into the nature versus nurture debate to an extent if you drill down, but in the end it doesn’t matter. We all have similar biases.

That’s not what I’m writing about when I write of  the unconscious choice. I’m writing about the algorithms that shape what you see on the Internet, through social networks, search engines, and what you – simply put – simply like.

Search engines use algorithms to find what you’re looking for, and the key to them – the good search engines anyway – is knowing what you’re looking for. An example of this was while I was searching for television mounts in Trinidad and Tobago.

I wanted something that could hold a monitor 4 feet away from me. The trouble is most desks, including my desk which I do like, are 24 inches or less, which has the monitor too close for my liking with the bigger screen. I considered a wall mount, but I’m not a big fan of drilling into a wall when I may reorganize the space at any time. Shelving might be a good idea, but again – drilling. So, having never even seen a floor mounted television stand, I searched the internet for just that – not a stand with shelves, just a plain old floor mount stand that I could move wherever I wished and adjust as needed (something else to worry about with more permanent solutions)… and there it was on Amazon.com.

I didn’t originally know the right question to ask because I had to work through it. This is the failure of people who depend on only what they know asking only what they know about.

Then there are the algorithms across the internet which, because nothing is actually ‘free’ on the Internet, drives advertising revenues for websites (including social networks). So they record some information about you in the infamous cookies that no one has tasted, and they show you advertising based on what you view, as well as what other things on their collection of websites that you might enjoy. The downside of this is that it robs you of new experiences unless you try really hard – consciously – to explore. It’s gotten more difficult.

The social networks, though you have conscious choices of who or what you connect with, do not show you the choices. Facebook newsfeeds, as an example, would simply be unmanageable if you tried to keep up with everyone. So they, being ad-revenue based, guide you based on what you like, what you read, and you end up unconsciously in a cave of your own confirmation bias.

Cave? Yes, eventually, you find yourself walled in within something that Plato himself described in the Allegory of the Cave when the world was significantly simpler. In the age of social media, Cavafy’s “Walls” gains new meaning:

Walls, Constantine P. Cavafy

Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.

And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the walls.

But I never heard any noise or sound of builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world.

But What Can I Do?

Simply put, be aware of it and be critical of your own media. Where you find walls, you also have the capacity to insert windows and doors in that cavern the world has built for you.

Should you step outside, you may find the world an interesting place.

Blind

BlindedWherever I worked, I usually tested the hierarchy’s patience with my ‘going out of scope’. It started in secondary school, actually – I remember the day – when I had gone off wandering outside of the Chemistry curriculum (but within the textbook).

I’d been doing my own notes independent of the class – things that I found interesting. I didn’t understand a curriculum. I was just having fun learning, and so I had foolishly thought that my work would be appreciated when I showed my work to the teacher.

He wasn’t impressed, particularly since I wasn’t doing too well in his class. He wanted me to focus on the curriculum – but no one had given me a curriculum, they’d given me a book. He told me I would continue to get bad grades in chemistry until I focused on the curriculum.

What we both didn’t know at the time is that I didn’t care about the grade, I cared about learning stuff. This could have been a pivotal moment for me in formal education, but it wasn’t. That would come almost 2 years later when I decided I needed to pass their tests.

Similar stories followed me throughout my careers. I was never interested in what society thought I knew, I was always interested in what I could learn. At first, there was little benefit, but later on in my careers in Medicine (USN), software engineering (all over) and writing it came in very handy because I not only knew things that others didn’t, I also didn’t think like others did.

Since I wasn’t interested in their prizes, I didn’t have to play by their rules. And since I didn’t play the ratchet game of educational landmarks, I didn’t limit myself and didn’t stop studying things after I got to a certain point. So many people languish, letting the fluid education they have become concrete, set in stone.

In solving problems, this became my greatest strength – that I was immune to siloed knowledge. It drove managers and CTOs nuts at times, having a software engineer wandering around and talking to users and people who supported software, an unheard of thing in modern software development, but well within normalcy in the elder practice. Know the users, know the uses. Know how it’s used, know how it might break.

Plan for everything.

But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

As a software engineer, I usually found myself in trouble with management because I was always doing things ‘out of scope’. I’d wander around at times, talking to people who supported or used software I was working on for a few different reasons. At one of the last companies I worked for, I was told repeatedly that upper management saw me wandering from my desk too much.

My Director at the time thought I was unfocused, and yet every project I was given was done on time despite my wanderings outside the building or over to other departments. He wasn’t wrong, he just wasn’t right, and in retrospect I think he wrote that to pacify upper management. Either way, I didn’t really care, but saying that was a great way to make sure I got a crappy raise.  I ended up getting a crappy raise anyway, but in a way that was my fault for not negotiating harder.

What had happened was pretty straightforward. The company had some complex software systems, and when I started the then most senior software engineer was on his last week. I learned as much about the systems as I could over that week, trailing him, getting to understand the big picture of the spaghetti code that interns had written. The few with true specialized knowledge held onto it as their job security.

I learned a lot in that week, but not enough. Nobody who was interested in solving the problems actually knew anything, nothing was documented, and so I began writing things down as I had been taught as a young Software Engineer at Honeywell. Some of it was accused of being wrong by those whose job security was threatened, and my response was that they should fix the Wiki. They never did, of course.

Things changed within the company, part politics, partly near revolt in the Software Department (another article there!), and so structures that were once fluid became siloed. This isn’t as much of an issue as people might think if people actually document what they do appropriately, and it’s shared with the department overall – so there were problems that arose because the software complexity, and entropy, had gotten to critical mass – and problems arose that required someone to be outside of the silos.

At around that time, I was asked to a meeting about some issues and I stayed quiet the entire time. One of the company’s officers asked me to stay after the meeting, and my Director was there too. He asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

So I explained to him that since everyone was off doing their own things, and that I had no insight into how things were actually changing in the software across multiple teams, I felt blinded. Where once I had a working knowledge of the systems, I no longer had it because I wasn’t able to see what was changing, and how it would affect the systems on a larger level.

There was a silence. Nothing changed. And after a few system screwups that brought the entire system down, caused by undocumented and sometimes ill advised changes in the code by people, including myself (mine were documented)… I gave up.

I knew we were working blind. However, people who had never peered behind their version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave couldn’t see, and because they couldn’t see, they didn’t care.