The Death of a Genius
Earlier this week, Stephen Hawking died. It was a sad day for lovers of science.
Hawking’s breakthrough work from 1974 provided the world a new understanding of black holes. It also unified, for the first time, quantum mechanics with gravity — laying the conceptual foundation on which any attempt at a unified theory of physics must build.
There is, however, another important insight to extract from Hawking’s efforts — one that’s less often discussed…
Hawking began serious work on his breakthrough calculation a decade after he was diagnosed with ALS. By this point, he was unable to read books on his own or write down equations.
As the New York Times reports in their (excellent) obituary, Hawking had friends “turn the pages of quantum theory textbooks as [he] sat motionless staring at them for months.”
Unable to write, he then attacked the problem through mental “pictures and diagrams,” seeking visual intuition (
An Important Essay
Wu’s piece is both deep and scattered — an indication that the target of his inquiry, the role of “convenience” in shaping the culture and economy of the last century, is both crucial and under-explored.
His thesis begins with the claim that we’ve increasingly oriented our lives around convenience, which has benefits, such as reducing drudgery, but at the same time can leech individuality and character from our lives.
This basic idea is not new. Mid-century writers like Richard Yates were already quite concerned about related issues like suburban conformity.
But Wu distinguishes his analysis by identifying how consumer-oriented companies reacted to the destabilization of the 1960’s counterculture by instead focusing on making the quest for individuality itself more convenient.
“Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor…It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves.”
The irony, Wu points out, is that this convenient individuality turns out to be “surprisingly homogenizing.”
As he elaborates:
“Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook, It is...
Junger’s Radical Simplicity
Last November, journalist Sebastian Junger appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The conversation lasted over two hours, but it was the first two minutes that caught my attention:
Joe: You have a real flip phone?
Sebastian: I do have real flip phone.
Joe: And you said you didn’t go back to it, you never left…
Sebastian: I never left her.
Joe: You never went, like, iPhone…Android…never?
Sebastian: No, I never even thought about it
Joe: There’s no draw at all? Using the internet, answering email?
Sebastian: Well, I have a laptop at home and I do access the internet, yes.
Joe: But when you’re out, you don’t want to mess with it?
Sebastian: No, when I’m out, I want to be out in the world. If you’re looking at your phone, you’re not in the world, so you don’t get either…I just look around at this — and I’m an anthropologist, and I’m interested in human behavior — and I look at the behavior, like literally, the physical behavior with people with smartphones and…it looks anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don’t want to look like that, and I don’t want to feel like how I think those people feel.
Joe: Wow, that’s deep. I’m a junkie.
In addition to being provocative, this exchange is important because it presents a cogent example of a new type of thinking I’m pleased to see gaining prominence in our cultural discussion surrounding technology.
From Materialism to Humanism
The last thirty years, in particular, have supported an ethic of techno-materialism,...
Soros vs. Facebook
One of the big headlines from last month’s World Economic Forum at Davos was a scathing speech delivered by George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist and liberal activist decried what he saw as multiple threats to open society in our current moment, including the rise of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and the behavior of the Executive here at home.
Not surprisingly, what caught my attention was when Soros directed his ire toward social media.
As John Cassidy reports in the New Yorker, Soros suggested that these “tech giants”, in addition to “making excessive profits and stifling innovation,” were “causing larger social and political problems.”
Soros began with the social problems, noting that social media companies “deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide,” acting like casinos that “have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.”
He then turned to the political problems, arguing that these companies have an undue ability to influence people’s behavior by leveraging their massive data stores to precisely target messages that nudge users in specific directions.
This is nothing less, Soros claims, than a theft of citizens’ autonomy. “People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.” (See Jaron Lanier’s new book for an eloquent investigation of this idea.)
The Smoke Screen
In my opinion, the first problem — the engineered addiction — is the more pressing issue surrounding...
BuJoPro No More
Last month, I wrote a post about the popular bullet journal (BuJo) personal productivity system. In this article, I pontificated on a potential variation I called BuJoPro that I thought might better accomodate the demands of high intensity jobs.
BuJoPro appealed to me because it promised to unite my disparate and admittedly ad hoc systems into one elegant notebook. I liked the idea of having a single analog artifact I could carry with me and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life.
Enamored by my own hype, I then spent a couple weeks trying out this new breakthrough concept.
It was not a success.
I’ve since abandoned BuJoPro and returned to my old creaky productivity system that consists of Black n’ Red notebooks for daily plans, printouts of plain text files for weekly plans, and a collection of emails sent to myself describing temporary plans and experimental heuristics.
I learned an important lesson from this experience: there’s a difference between simplifying the complexity of your productivity systems and simplifying the complexity of your plans.
Simple Systems and Complex Plans
As I first argued way back in Straight-A, overly-complex systems create too much friction — leading you to eventually give up the system altogether. It was this legitimate bias toward simplification that attracted me to the one-notebook minimalism of bullet...
Deep Advice from a Founding Father
In the year 1800, Alexander Hamilton sent his son Philip the following letter, which laid out a set of rules that Philip should follow to make the most out of his legal training after his graduation from Columbia College:
Rules for Mr Philip Hamilton[:] from the first of April to the first of October he is to rise not later than six o’clock—The rest of the year not later than Seven. If Earlier he will deserve commendation. Ten will be his hour of going to bed throughout the year.
From the time he is dressed in the morning till nine o clock (the time for breakfast Excepted) he is to read Law.
At nine he goes to the office & continues there till dinner time—he will be occupied partly in the writing and partly in reading law.
After Dinner he reads law at home till five o’clock. From this hour till seven he disposes of his time as he pleases. From seven to ten he reads and studies what ever he pleases.
From twelve on Saturday he is at Liberty to amuse himself.
On Sunday he will attend the morning Church. The rest of the day may be applied to innocent recreations.
He must not Depart from any of these rules without my permission.
To our modern sensibilities, this schedule might seem overly rigorous. But Hamilton, who along with Jefferson and Madison, was one our most...
A Diamond in the Economic Rough
Two weeks ago, the American Economic Association held its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Spread over three days and two different hotels, this conference included over 500 sessions.
Buried in the program, during the morning on the last day, was a grab bag paper session titled Radically Rethinking Economic Policy. The final paper discussed in this session should command our attention, because its coauthors include, in addition to four well-respected economics researchers, someone who I’ve long promoted as one of the most brilliant and outrageous thinkers pondering the digital world: Jaron Lanier.
The paper, which is titled “Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond ‘Free’,” translates the basic premises of Lanier’s 2013 book, Who Owns the Future?, into more precise economic terminology.
This short paper contains many points worthy of longer discussion. I’ll focus here on its main conceit.
The authors note that a core resource of the digital economy is the data produced by users of services like Facebook and Google, which can then be used to train machine learning algorithms to do valuable things like precisely targeting advertisements or more accurately processing natural language.
The current market treats data as capital: the “natural exhaust from consumption to be collected by firms” for use in training their AI-driven golden gooses.
Lanier and company suggest an alternative: data as labor. Put simply, if a major platform monopoly wants your data to help build...
The First Stirrings of a New Activism
The investment funds run by Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System hold a combined $2 billion in Apple stock. This ensured the business community took notice when earlier this week, these investors sent a letter to Apple expressing concern about the impact of the tech giant’s products on young people.
To quote the letter:
“More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.”
The investors go on to make several recommendations, including the convening of a committee of experts to study the issue, the introduction of better parental controls, and the funding of more research.
This letter received significant coverage this week so I don’t want to belabor its points or overhype its significance ($2 billion doesn’t provide that much leverage against a $900 billion Apple market cap).
But I’ve been asked about it quite a bit, so I thought I would share a few initial reactions…
Apple is the wrong target.
The iPhone was not designed to be addictive. Indeed, as part of my research for the book...
Deep (Work) History
Recently, I’ve been reading through the first volume of Simon and Schusters’ magisterial 1954 four-volume essay collection, The World of Mathematics (edited by James Newman). In a chapter on Napier’s discovery of logarithms, written by Herbert Turnbull, I came across a neat story about the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe that I hadn’t hear before.
I thought I would share it.
In the sixteenth century, Brahe’s reputation and service had earned him the respect of the Danish King Frederick II. Wanting to reward Brahe, Frederick offered Brahe his choice of castles to rule.
Brahe, however, had no interest in the administrative responsibilities that came along with such holdings, writing: ” I am displeased with society here, customary forms and the whole rubbish.” He wanted instead to dedicate his life to science.
So Frederick made a better offer: he would give Brahe the island of Hven, located in the narrow straight between modern-day Copenhagen and Helsingborg, as well as the funding to build on it a grand observatory, which Brahe came to call Uraniborg — the Castle of Heavens.
As Turnbull reports: “Brahe…reigned in great pomp over his sea-girt domain,” making it into a palace of science where he could retreat and work deeply on his astronomical musings.
I don’t have any major conclusions to draw from this story other than the fact that it’s a nice piece of deep work lore — the type of contemplative nostalgia that...
A Self-Defeating Statement
Last week, Facebook posted an essay on their company blog titled: “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” The statement confronts this blunt prompt, admitting that social media can be harmful, and then exploring uses that research indicates are more positive.
Here’s the relevant summary of their survey:
“In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward…On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being.”
From a social perspective, Facebook should be applauded for finally admitting that their product can cause harm (even if they were essentially forced into this defensive crouch by multiple recent high level defectors).
From a business perspective, however, I think this strategy may mark the beginning of the end of this social network’s ubiquity.
Until last week’s statement, Facebook’s messaging embraced an ambiguous mix of futurism and general-purpose positive feelings (their mission statement describes themselves as a tool “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” whatever that means).
The company promoted the idea that they’re a fundamental technology, as much a part of the fabric of society as electricity or the internet itself. From this foundation, it was easy for the company’s supporters to dismiss critics...
Bullet Journal (BuJo for short) is a personal productivity system invented by a product designer named Ryder Carroll. You can find a detailed introduction to BuJo on its official web site, but I can provide you the short summary here.
The system lives entirely within an old-fashioned paper notebook. Each day you dedicate a page of the notebook to a daily log in which you create a bulleted list of tasks and events. As the day unfolds, you use shorthand marks to indicate a task is complete or needs to be migrated to a different day.
You can also take brief notes about the day, and, if needed, hijack multiple pages for more extensive musing. The next daily log can live on the next available page. (This idea that you format notebook pages on demand instead of in advance is fundamental to BuJo.)
There are some standard pages most BuJo notebooks include in addition to the daily log entries. An index at the front of the notebook is used to keep track of how the pages are being used. You grow the index as you fill the notebook. Each month also gets its own monthly overview and task list that are used to inform how you schedule individual days. And so on.
A good way to think about BuJo is basically a less-rigid version of the Franklin Planner system.
BuJo for the Overloaded
A lot of readers have...
On Doing Less to Get More
Jocko Willink is an intimidating looking man (see above). He’s also intimidatingly impressive. He’s a former Navy Seal who was awarded a Bronze and Silver Star in Iraq while leading Task Force Bruiser: the most decorated special forces unit in that war. He recently wrote a business bestseller called Extreme Ownership and now does leadership consulting.
He has a new book out and its title caught my attention: Discipline Equals Freedom.
I haven’t read the book yet, but I did listen to Jocko’s interview with the always-sharp Ryan Michler. Here’s how Jocko explained his book’s theme early in the discussion:
“If you want freedom, then you need to have discipline…the more discipline you have in your life the more you’ll be able to do what you want. That’s not true initially; initially the discipline might be things you don’t want to do at the time, but the more you do things that you don’t want to do, the more you do the right things, the better off you’ll be and the more freedom you’ll have…”
Jocko’s examples of this idea in action mainly concerned personal development. More discipline with your finances, for example, will eventually yield more financial freedom, while more discipline with time management will allow you to do more interesting things with your time.
As I listened to the interview, however, I was struck by the thought that...
A Serious Consideration
In recent years, I’ve occasionally tackled an intriguing question: are distracting technologies partially to blame for our economy’s sluggish productivity numbers?
This is why I was pleased when many of you forwarded me an article titled: “Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention?” It’s written by Dan Nixon, a (serious) economist at the Bank of England.
In this article, Nixon explores the question I asked above. In doing so, he outlines two main “channels” through which the new technologies of the Network Age might impact economic productivity indicators:
My suspicion is that the second channel is the main culprit. As I’ve argued before (c.f., this article I wrote for HBR.org), the front office IT revolution, in which we hooked knowledge workers together with high-speed communication networks, has been a mixed blessing.
We assumed that slow communication and inadequate information was a...
The Disconnected Craftsman
Christopher Schwarz is a master furniture maker. In addition to working on commissioned pieces in his Kentucky storefront, he’s the editor of a press that publishes books on hand tool woodworking. In his spare time, he researchers traditional woodworking techniques.
In short, Schwarz is a classic craftsman. If you want to ask him about his trade, however, you’ll have a hard time getting in touch. In 2015, he stopped using (public) email. And he has no intention of going back.
As Schwarz elaborated in a recent essay, this decision upset some customers, some of whom tried to find ways around his no email policy by tracking down his personal address, or using the customer service address for his publishing company.
Here’s Schwarz’s blunt response to these efforts:
Please don’t waste your breath, your fingers or your 1s and 0s. These messages are all simply deleted. I know deleting them might seem rude. And some of you have told us how rude you think it is in long rants… which get deleted.
As he then explained:
Trust me. It’s not you. It’s me. I had multiple public email addresses for 17 years and answered every damn question sent to me…It was all too much. I was spending hours each day answering emails. It cut into my time researching, building, editing and writing (not to mention time with my family).
So he quit: he deleted his inbox, then...
Leonardo’s Life Hack
Last month, Walter Isaacson released his big new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I haven’t read it yet (though it’s inevitable I will). In the meantime, I listened to Brett McKay’s sharp podcast interview with Isaacson.
As the conversation winds down, McKay poses an intriguing question:
“[Leonardo] da Vinci lived 500 years ago, Twitter didn’t exit, Instagram didn’t exist, all these digital things that are distracting us, that make it hard to really observe, didn’t exist. So based on your research and writing on da Vinci: what can we learn from him about staying focused and observing intensely on things even in this crazy digital world that we live in?”
Isaacson, who spent years immersed in over 7000 pages of da Vinci’s brilliant, but also scattered and frenetic notebooks, dismissed the premise: “Yeah, he had distractions too.”
So how did da Vinci end up a creative genius still revered 500 years later? Here’s Isaacson’s explanation:
“What he was able to do is pause, and put things aside, and look at very ordinary things and marvel at them.”
In this observation about a past figure is a powerful suggestion for grappling with the endless information deluging our current moment. Technologies like the internet provide everyone the raw material to become a renaissance person, but to take advantage of this reality it helps to cultivate da Vinci’s ability to pause when something catches your attention, and to then...
A Conscientious Objection
Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, was interviewed onstage yesterday at an event held by Axios at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The topic was cancer innovation, but the conversation turned at some point to Parker’s time at Facebook during its early years.
Perhaps emboldened by social media’s recent PR problems, Parker, who told Axios co-founder Mike Allen backstage that he had become a “conscientious objector on social media,” was unusually candid.
Here are some of his remarks (as reported this morning by Allen):
As Parker left the stage, he joked that...
How to Live
In 1910, Arnold Bennett published a short volume titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. He was alarmed with the way the newly emergent British middle class seemed to waste their time outside of work. The average salaryman of this era doesn’t live, he noted, but instead “muddles through,” wasting time — that “inexplicable raw material of everything,” the supply of which “though gloriously regular is cruelly restricted.”
Bennett being Bennett decided he could tell these muddlers how to live better. So he wrote this guide.
I come back to this book from time to time. If you look past the standard Bennett snobbery and occasional dash of Victorian ornateness — “inexplicable raw material of everything”…really? — it’s both surprisingly pragmatic and relevant to all sorts of contemporary issues.
In my latest skim, for example, the following passage caught my attention. It’s Bennett’s summary of the standard post-work evening for a British white collar worker:
“You don’t eat immediately on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll; you caress the piano…. By Jove! a quarter past eleven. You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to...
Segment’s Focus Problem
Things at Segment, in other words, were going well — with one exception: their employees were having a hard time focusing. Concerned, the company ran an internal team survey and discovered that the “chatter and noise” in their industry-standard open office was the biggest cause of distraction (not surprisingly, “group slack channels” was the second biggest cause) .
So Segment decided to do something about it.
In a move that you could only expect from an advanced data analytics company, they programmed an iOS app to measure office noise levels and ran it on the iPads mounted outside the office’s conference rooms. They then crunched the resulting data and found that some parts of the office were more noisy than others, with the loudest areas around a factor of two louder than the quietest (see above image, in which red corresponds to loud and green to quiet).
Armed with this data, they rearranged the seating in their open office. As they described on their company blog:
“The teams needing the most verbal collaboration — Segment’s sales, support, and marketing teams — moved to the naturally louder parts of the office. The teams needing the most quiet — engineering, product, and design...
A Persistent Answer
Ben Orlin is a math teacher who publishes the clever essay blog, Math with Bad Drawings. Last year, Orlin had the opportunity, during a press conference at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, to ask a question of Andrew Wiles, the Princeton Professor (now at Oxford) who in 1994 finally solved Fermat’s Last Theorem.
As Orlin reports on his blog, he asked the following:
“You’ve been able to speak to an unusually wide audience for a research mathematician. What are some of the themes you’ve tried to emphasize when talking to a broader public?”
Wiles’s answer, according to Orlin, can be summarized in six words: “Accepting the state of being stuck.”
As Wiles elaborated, research mathematics unfolds as follows:
“You absorb everything about the problem. You think about it a great deal—all the techniques that are used for these things. [But] usually, it needs something else. So, you get stuck.”
At this point, he explains, “you have to stop…let your mind relax a bit…[while] your subconscious is making connections.”
Then you “start again.” Day after day. Week after week. Until, one day:
“You find this thing…Suddenly you see the beauty of this landscape…[before,] when it’s still some kind of conjecture, it seems really far away…[but now] it’s like your eyes are open.”
Wiles admitted that the enemy he fights against most is “the kind of message put out by, for example, the film Good Will Hunting.”
And, in particular, the idea...
At last week’s New Yorker TechFest conference, superstar Apple designer Jony Ive took the stage.
At some point during the presentation, Ive was offered a softball question about the ways the iPhone has changed the world. Ive’s response was surprising: “Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.”
Asked what he meant by “misuse,” Ive responded: “perhaps, constant use.”
The fact that Jony Ive, the guy who designed the iPhone, is worried about the way people engage his creation, emphasizes an important point: there’s something broken about our current relationship with our technology.
Our culture was quick to accept the idea that we’d end up checking these things constantly. We shrug our shoulders and laugh about life in these modern times.
But Ive’s small statement sends a big message: you don’t have to accept this.
(Image by Kempton)
When US Marine Akshay Nanavati returned from Iraq he struggled with fear. But instead of giving in to the negative forces dragging him down, he turned his life around. In his new book, FEARVANA, Nanavati tells his story and explains how anyone can follow his path in overcoming hard things in life. I was honored to blurb this book. If this topic resonates, find out more here.