The Internet as Mindspace

Photographer and bookmaker Craig Mod is one of my favorite writers on the web, and his Roden and Ridgeline Newsletters are among of my favorites. In the most recent issue of Roden, entitled Book World, he features an excerpt from Odessa Moshfegh’s new book Death in Her Hands, talking about some kids at computers in the library:

They looked like Benedictine monks sitting there tapping at their keyboards, faces wan in the cold blue glare of their screens. I stood and watched them impatiently. Each of them was agape, mesmerized. I could see that they were connected to something that had immense power over us. This was what happened when the mind-space was the Internet, I thought. One loses one’s sense of self. One’s mind can go anywhere. And at the same time, the mind becomes lame when it is connected to something so consuming.

This all struck close to thome, especially in the current time when most of my socialization and relaxation happens also happens over the Internet in some form or another (which I am not happy about). For me, “Internet as Mindspace” is an idea that didn’t occur to me until I read Moshfegh’s description of it, but as soon as I did it seemed blindingly obvious.

I think at some level, most of us know that being tethered to the Internet in the way described isn’t healthy. Even without being told, we can tell that doomscrolling is slowly eroding our mental health. We can feel, in some subconscious, visceral way, that our ability to process information is quickly reaching a saturation point, that our minds are getting dangerously close to some kind of informational breaking point. We know that we are slowly but surely (and then all at once) losing our sense of selves under a barrage of messages, notifications and stories fired at us over algorithmic feeds. Perhaps we realize that humans have not evolved to be connected, but at a distance, in this way, at all times, and that even though we are very good adaptation machines, maybe we don’t actually want (and shouldn’t have to) adapt to this digital environment.

I know, I know, this is all rich coming from an academic computer scientist who has a PhD in building better networks.

So what are we to do about this situation? Unlike some, I am not of the opinion that we need to disconnect wholesale, that the only way to win this particular game is not to play it. Though our social networks may be digital and intermittent and virtual, they are still our social networks, and for many, our primary or only social ties (whether or not that is a good thing and how to deal with it is a rant for another time). While drinking from a firehose is probably never a good idea, one still requires 8-10 glasses of clean water a day for health and survival.

For my own part, framing connectivity as being tethered to an immensely powerful mindspace seems a step in the right direction. It’s all too easy to pick up the phone and start scrolling until the feed seems like an extension of your mental processes. And having a reminder that your mind is indeed a separate space that can be intentionally disconnected is a step in the right direction. Solitude is not just a case of physical separation, but perhaps more importantly a subjective state in which we are isolated from the products and influences of other minds.

Talking of phones, I now keep Facebook, Twitter and Instagram only on an older phone that lives away from the couch and away from my desk. I still check them on a daily basis, but now I have to actually decide to do so, rather it being the default in the moments my mind has nothing better to do. Does it make posting and using them to stay on top of them harder? Yes, but I find the amount that I actually want or need to do so is actually quite small. Your mileage may vary.

Apart from social media, I’m trying to keep my reliance on the browser to a minimum. As I’ve noted before, I like having as few tabs open as possible. Over the last month or so I’ve also started using a desktop app instead of a browser app where possible (email, Facebook Messenger and Slack are the main ones). It’s good to just shut down something when it’s not in use, clearing up space, both mentally and computationally. My current phone, which gets all my non-social media notifications, stays close, but not too close. It’s about an arm’s length, sitting on my bed, outside my usual field of view when I’m working. It’s close enough that I can turn my head and take a look if I’m not doing anything else, but far enough away that I don’t see it when I’m focused on something else.

As an addendum to Moshfegh, the Internet is not a single mindspace, but a whole bunch of connected and overlapping ones, some more powerfully enticing than others. And with care we can pull them apart, choose to inhabit the ones that matter, the ones that have the most meaning and value to us. I’m a technologist who still believes that technologies can and should be used for personal and societal good. As such, I believe the Internet mindspaces still have value, but we have to know when to step away from them, and learn to keep them separate from our own minds.

WordPress bugginess on Android

This year I’ve been trying to reduce my use of social media, and of my phone. These two goals go hand-in-hand: if I don’t have social media apps on my phone I am less tempted to keep looking at it, checking for something new. It also means that when I get a notification on my phone, it is more likely to be a message (via SMS, or messaging apps) meant specifically for me, rather than some low-information notification to increase my “engagement” with a social media app. Together, this is a way for me to keep believing in the Internet, and ensuring that I’m using it, rather than the other way around.

Another aspect of reducing dependence on social media is investing more in my own, independent publishing platforms: this blog, and my website. For the time being at least, this blog runs on WordPress.com which has apps for all the common platforms.

Part of achieving the above is posting not just longer articles and links to this blog, but also pictures capturing memorable moments in my day-to-day life. This is something I’ve been using Instagram for, but since I took the Instagram app off my phone, I wanted to see if I could use the WordPress Android app to do the same.

The answer is: sort of. I initially posted yesterday’s Sunday Selection post without the image. I then wandered out to one of my favorite local cafes where I took the picture. But adding the picture to the post using the WordPress Android app turned out to be more troublesome than I was expecting.

First I added the picture to the post from my phone’s photo gallery, and updated it. Everything seemed to work, but when I checked the post, the image URL appeared broken. For some reason the app used a URL for local Android storage rather than the uploaded image URL. If I somehow interrupted the image upload or the post update, this wasn’t clear at all.

Second I tried to edit the post again to make sure the changes had saved properly. But when I exited the post editing screen without actually making any edits, the app designed to remove all paragraph breaks from the post. Luckily WordPress seems to keep a version history for posts, so I could go back to an older version.

Finally, I ended up deleting the image from the post, and then adding it from the WordPress media library (which had the proper uploaded version of the image) and re-publishing. This seemed to finally work.

So I managed to do what I wanted, but the fact that what should be a common use case was so buggy leaves a really bad impression. While I don’t want to go back to using other platforms for this, I’m now much less excited to use WordPress for this. For now, I’m willing to give WordPress the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this is a one-off use case, or these bugs will be fixed in future versions, but I certainly am disappointed.

Going ad-free

This blog is now ad-free.

I firmly believe that surveillance capitalism propping up the online ad economy is a scourge and existential threat, both to the open Internet and to civil society in general. We sorely need to come up with economic and business models that allow the creation and distribution of high quality information (new, investigate journalism, peer-reviewed science, cultural artifacts, etc.) without requiring consumers of such information to give up their privacy.

Aside. I have a related rant on why we should start paying for software and services (but also avoid Software-as-a-Service), but I’ll save that for later.

I don’t know how to solve the broader societal and economic version of the problem, but I can take the small personal step of protecting readers of this blog. So I’m paying the $4 a month to upgrade to the Premium version of WordPress.com to get rid of the (increasingly tasteless) ads. That seems to have gotten rid of the annoying cookie disclaimer as well.

Eventually I would like to move off of WordPress.com and transition to a lighter static site completely under my control, but this will do for now.

Happy reading.

Sunday Selection 2019-09-15

Hope everyone is enjoying a good weekend. By the time you read this, I will probably be attending the Commonwealth Pen Show. Fountain pens (and related stationery) have been the only halfway serious hobby I have been able to maintain in a while, but it can also be a mostly solitary. I’ve enjoyed being a part of some related online groups, I take the chance to meet my fellow pen people whenever I can. While I am off doing that, you can enjoy the results of my various ramblings around the web.

Why I Have a Website and You Should Too

I’ve had some kind of website or blog for over a decade now. The identity that you could with little effort, and no gatekeepers, put your words out on a global network for anyone to read and see has always seemed incredible to me. Over the last few years, I’ve been seduced by the siren song of social networks (as have many of us). I’ve also realized that they have been a double-edged sword that has cut us deeply in more ways than one. I’ve since started experimenting with smaller alternative networks like Mastodon and micro.blog. While they are interesting experiments (and I hope they succeed, for some definition of success) there is really no substitute to having your own website, under your own control.

We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of It Is Nonsense.

In many ways, learning how to become a fully-functioning adult is about how to properly take care of yourself (and eventually those around you). This is something that I’ve been learning mostly the hard way since I left college (where it was possible and socially acceptable) to not take very good care of yourself. I’ve gradually found a combination of regular meals, exercise, meditation, socializing and ample amounts of Netflix and books, that seem to be both necessary and sufficient in keeping my balanced and stable, physically and mentally. And the overlap with what gets sold as “wellness” is also thin at best. This article is also richly linked to references to other articles and studies, as all online writing should be.

How Does A Person Lose Track of their Diary

Continuing the theme of notebooks and journals from last night, this is a delightful read about a writer’s fascination with diaries, both her own and others’. Personally, I’m not entirely sure I find other people’s diaries quite so fascinating, but I have been reading more biographies lately. I think there is something very attractive (and just a little embarrassing) about learning about how other people live their lives, especially in an age where there seems to be no right and stable path on how to go about life.

Penny Dreadful

I told you Netflix as crucial to maintaining my sanity, didn’t I? I’ve been rewatching this short series over the last few weeks. It’s beautiful and terrible and exhilarating and depressing all at once and I love every moment of it. It also makes me want to read Milton’s Paradise Lost, but mainly so that I can pull out random lines from it and look all fancy at parties.

One of the lifestyle changes I’ve been wanting to make in 2019 is to reduce my consumption and to live in a way that is more considered and careful. I’ve already written about how I’m doing that when it comes to information and media consumption. In more material ways I’m trying to do things like take more public transport, eat out less, and reduce the amount of food and non-recyclable waste that I produce. I’m also trying to reduce the computational resources I use, and by extension the energy, human and natural resources used.

I’ve been a happy Linode user for several years now. I started using what was then their lowest tier at $20 a month to host some of my websites and small web applications. Over the years, I’ve been paying the same amount per month but been getting upgraded to more powerful virtual servers, until I got up to their Linode 4GB Standard tier: 4GB of RAM, 2 CPU cores, 80 GB of SSD storage and 4TB of network transfer. If that sounds like overkill for serving a few small websites, you’re probably right.

Linode is starting to migrate users from a monthly billing plan to an hourly billing plan. In the process of reading about the plan differences (spoiler: not much for small users like myself), I decided to re-evaluate how much computation I actually needed and used. The above mentioned specs were far more than what I needed, or could see myself needing in the near future. So I downgraded to the current lowest Linode configuration, the Nanode: just 1GB of RAM, 1 CPU core, 25 GB of SSD storage and 1TB of network transfer. That should be more than enough for my needs, and will cost me just $5 a month.

I could probably go even lower and do most of my hosting out of GitHub Pages, or an Amazon S3 bucket, but I find it useful to have an actual virtual server to run arbitrary programs on if I need to. I am planning on making some more changes to my computing usage in the near future. Currently the VPS runs Arch Linux with a fairly large list of userspace tools (including a full OCaml compilation stack). The lower specs will probably make compiling things on this VPS annoyingly slow, so in the future I’ll be compiling on my local Linux machine and just moving binaries over. I will also be switching over to using Alpine Linux to run an even lighter system. Also, this blog currently runs on WordPress.com. That has worked out pretty well, but for a number of reasons I think it’s time to part ways. I’ll go into those reasons in depth in a future post, and I will be moving the blog over to said Linode VPS over the next few weeks.

Now, I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make a huge impact on anything in the grand scheme of things. And yes, part of doing this a reason to just geek out on UNIX sysadmin-y things that I don’t do much these days. But still, I do believe that if a few minor changes can make a positive effect on the world (no matter how small), then it is worth investing the time and energy to make those changes.