An open letter to Cakexploder

I apol­o­gize; this has become very, very long and very, very dis­or­ga­nized. Slop­py brain­dump, but hope­ful­ly some jump­ing-off points here.

First I think there are some impor­tant terms you need to make less vague. This might begin with iden­ti­fy­ing the things you read on the inter­net (or in life in gen­er­al) that you feel *do* give you some “tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit.” Are all Twit­ter mes­sages worth­less? Why do you sub­scribe to that per­son specif­i­cal­ly? Are his tweets some­times poet­ic, pro­saical­ly clever, or oth­er­wise men­tal­ly engag­ing? Does he some­times link to news or prod­ucts or ser­vices that you would­n’t have oth­er­wise heard about, things that then *do* pro­vide “tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit”? Is it your fault for sub­scrib­ing, or is it his fault for pro­vid­ing worth­less con­tent? What about his real-life friends who fol­low him, won’t that tweet be of inter­est to them? As a fig­ure in the pub­lic eye, then, should he be required to have two Twit­ter accounts, a pro­fes­sion­al and a per­son­al one? What will you lose by unsub­scrib­ing from him entire­ly? Can the things of val­ue that he does pro­vide be found any­where else on the inter­net? Red­dit? Metafil­ter? TechCrunch? Deli­cious?

On the oth­er hand, did­n’t that tweet of his in fact pro­vide val­ue, since it is one of the things that prompt­ed you to think about this prob­lem and write a Tum­blr post about the sub­ject?

What qual­i­ties does a media item need to pos­sess in order to pro­vide you with val­ue? Are things not worth doing if they don’t alter the way you think or behave in the future? Do things need to be valu­able for longer than the time you expe­ri­ence them? If so, you might start with a brain­dump of all the things you can remem­ber that did change your life for the bet­ter, to begin to iden­ti­fy the qual­i­ties that make these things unique, as well as what chan­nels you received them from.

Where does humor stand in all this? Do humor­ous things, even the most humor­ous, per­ma­nent­ly or even tem­porar­i­ly change how you think and behave, beyond the time that you are expe­ri­enc­ing them? Is val­ue got­ten from re-telling a joke to a friend? From watch­ing a fun­ny movie or TV show with a friend? If so, is it because this involves relat­ing per­son­al­ly, in real-life? If yes, why is meat­space inter­ac­tion more valu­able than inter­net inter­ac­tion? Is it at all?

Con­sid­er this: In Novem­ber of 2007, I went to Lon­don for a week. By myself. I’d nev­er been out­side of North Amer­i­ca, and I found myself with some mon­ey, and decid­ed it would be worth­while. I delib­er­ate­ly did not con­struct an itin­er­ary so that I did­n’t feel dic­tat­ed or oblig­at­ed to see any­thing spe­cif­ic. I just want­ed to be there, for a week, walk­ing around, relax­ing, read­ing, stop­ping into pubs, and tak­ing pho­tos.

What did that do to me? Any­thing of val­ue? Frankly and truth­ful­ly, I don’t know. I know that I enjoyed it while it hap­pened. But am I dif­fer­ent per­son for it? Should I have spent the mon­ey on some class instead? If so, *why*?

I won­der if the prob­lem is that we *think* there’s a prob­lem. We are now, on the inter­net, haunt­ed by oppor­tu­ni­ty cost, and feel more pressed to be doing some­thing valu­able than I believe we would if we did­n’t have so much infor­ma­tion avail­able to us. Why does this change things? If a per­son enjoys play­ing backgam­mon, and anoth­er per­son enjoys watch­ing YTMND ani­ma­tions, why is one per­son bet­ter off than the oth­er? Backgam­mon does­n’t make you a bet­ter per­son. Yet some­how it feels more whole­some or valu­able, does­n’t it? Is it the meat­space thing again? Or do we need to recon­sid­er that maybe backgam­mon is worth­less? What about kite fly­ing? Kite fly­ing is an enor­mous waste of time!

I sup­pose that kite fly­ing has the prob­a­bil­i­ty of pro­vid­ing you with mem­o­ries of being with a friend or friends, some­thing you can look back on fond­ly, while you will nev­er look back fond­ly on read­ing Twit­ter. Or will you?

I’m remind­ed of this Cat and Girl com­ic:

I read Cat and Girl every morn­ing. As well as Over­com­pen­sat­ing, Scary Go Round, Achewood, and xkcd. Why? Why do I read them? Are they a waste of time? I was for­tu­nate­ly able to remem­ber this par­tic­u­lar Cat and Girl, as it is rel­e­vant to this dis­cus­sion, but what about all the ones that I don’t remem­ber, or that don’t ever get linked by me in an email? What about xkcd? Is xkcd at least a small por­tion of the rea­son I switched to Ubun­tu? Prob­a­bly. What good is that? I get far less done in Ubun­tu than in Win­dows because it is for­eign to me, but I enjoy the chal­lenge and the open-source phi­los­o­phy. Is that worth­while? Will the things I’m learn­ing about Lin­ux ever pro­vide me with val­ue out­side of using Ubun­tu? Should I care about that? Why can’t I just enjoy it for the sake of enjoy­ing it?

I find myself unable to read long arti­cles on the inter­net any­more. I have so many starred items in Google Read­er that I don’t want to think about it. Not to men­tion my “read­later” tag on Deli­cious. The inter­net has become to me what TV is to so many peo­ple. It’s just the default thing I go to when I don’t know what to do. Or out of habit. 99% of the time I’m at my com­put­er, it’s because I just sat down there, opened Fire­fox, clicked my Gmail and Google Read­er book­marks, and then clicked around until there was noth­ing new to stim­u­late me. Can’t be both­ered to go through my starred Google Read­er items and actu­al­ly sit and read one. Why not?: Because there are too many! Which one should I read, *and why*? Oppor­tu­ni­ty cost.

Maybe here’s the trou­ble: We have too many queues.

Have you ever fan­ta­sized about your hard dri­ve crash­ing? Or your Google Read­er data being lost? I have. In 2003 my lap­top was stolen. It was so refresh­ing! Mean­while I have copies of most Dai­ly Show episodes from the last three years, because I used to tor­rent all of them. Why can’t I delete them? Why do I keep “burn Dai­ly Shows to DVDs” on my men­tal to-do list? Get rid of that shit fer chris­sake!!

Have you ever con­sid­ered how you might go about tak­ing your life offline? How that might look? Writ­ing let­ters and mak­ing phone calls instead of emails and tweets and Face­book sta­tus­es; maybe even a REAL phone at home so that you can’t be both­ered at any minute of any day, and you can speak with friends with the lux­u­ry of a big, com­fort­able hand­set against your ear? No dan­ger of being dis­con­nect­ed? Learn­ing about new music from Mag­net and Fad­er and The Wire, buy­ing the music that sounds inter­est­ing in them, or on their sam­pler CDs? Read­ing arti­cles in Wired and The Econ­o­mist rather than and Slate? Sub­scrib­ing to The New York Times? Lying on your car­pet lis­ten­ing to records with­out hav­ing to check their, Wikipedia, and MySpace pages?

As you think about liv­ing like that, think: What on the inter­net is TRULY irre­place­able? I sent this valen­tine to some­body last week: I only knew about it because I had a sub­scrip­tion to in Google Read­er. ilike is a blog that most­ly posts pret­ty pic­tures of retro British archi­tec­ture. What do I get from it most of the time? Noth­ing, oth­er than the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see pret­ty things. But when that valen­tine was linked to on the blog, it affect­ed my “real,” meat­space life, even a real meat­space rela­tion­ship. What would I have sent if I had­n’t learned about it? Does this alone con­clu­sive­ly demon­strate that my sub­scrip­tion to ilike is valu­able? Or does it do more harm than good? How much time do I *real­ly* waste pass­ing over its more bor­ing posts in Read­er’s list view? I sub­scribe to a lot of typog­ra­phy blogs too, just because I like typog­ra­phy. Isn’t it ok to just *like* typog­ra­phy, just because I like it?

I just began read­ing a book from 1978 or so called “Four Argu­ments for the ELIMINATION of Tele­vi­sion,” which argues that the medi­um itself is beyond reform. As I read it, I try to imag­ine that the author is talk­ing about the inter­net, to see whether his case applies here, too. He describes what it feels like to hear a news report of some vio­lence in a dis­tant con­ti­nent, fol­lowed by the sports scores and a com­mer­cial for laun­dry deter­gent. This expe­ri­ence robs the impor­tant sto­ry of any real­i­ty it might have oth­er­wise had. It is com­part­men­tal­ized, con­tained, requir­ing no more thought than it took to hear about it. Isn’t this even *more* true on the inter­net, when every page has dozens and dozens of hyper­links that are clam­or­ing to inter­rupt you?

Or is *all of this* just back­wards, nos­tal­gic, tech­no-apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing? Peo­ple once argued cen­turies ago that the PRINTING PRESS, *the god damn PRINTING PRESS*, would dumb peo­ple down. And, lat­er, that *type­writ­ers* would turn peo­ple into bad writ­ers. Is this the same thing? Or is the inter­net so pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent in the way that it manip­u­lates our atten­tion that we do need to wor­ry about it?

Also impor­tant to con­sid­er: Is the con­tent itself the prob­lem, or is it the way we relate to the con­tent that is the prob­lem? And how are these two things relat­ed? Is dick­ing around in Google Read­er ok if I set aside an hour to do it in each night, with a beer or a cup of tea and some music play­ing? Rather than just click­ing book­marks like a rat with his paw on the cocaine but­ton?

An arti­cle I read some time ago that I think of occa­sion­al­ly. It’s osten­si­bly about “email addic­tion,” but real­ly relates to a lot of the ways we inter­act with the ’net.