Technology is meant to be a tool to enable us. To a tool-using species, tools are meant to fade into the background, to disappear and become extensions of our minds. But our technology often seems to be very insistent that it stays in the forefront of our attention. Worse, it often disobeys us, places restrictions upon us, or acts in ways that subtly disrespect or disempower us. Why?
Modern technology is less like a tool and more like an agent. An agent acts on your behalf, but it does not exist merely to serve you. It has its own values, its own interests, and there is no guarantee that those interests align with yours. In fact, most modern technology exists primarily to enrich the companies that created it. To some extent, that has always been true, but tools were too dumb to continue enriching their creators once they left the factory and entered your home. Modern technology has no such limitations, and unabashedly carries out its own agenda even while in your possession.
The resources of human attention, human interest, and human action are very valuable, and the your technology requires those resources to achieve its goals. However, you also want those resources for your goals, and this creates a conflict that your technology, smart as it is, would easily lose. To win, it must fight dirty, exploiting quirks in your psyche to subvert your interests. That's why it has to be in the foreground. That's why it has to disobey you. That's why it has to distract you. It must weaken you enough to extract your resources. Technology is still a tool, but it is not your tool; it is someone else's tool being used on you. You are not the ploughman, but the ox, and it is your yoke.
Technology has been called the great enabler. But who is it enabling and what is it enabling them to do? If it is not your agent, it is not enabling you. If it enables others to subvert your intentions, then it is, in fact, disabling you. This is the sorry state of modern technology: the great disabler. Humanity's most sophisticated Trojan Horse. A gift that ostensibly makes us greater while it compromises us from within.
I've been thinking about global catastrophes lately, for obvious reasons. An interesting thing to notice is the way that the global machinery of production and trade acts, much like a biological organism, at multiple layers of redundancy.
A common misconception is that hearts tend to fail by stopping, as per the classic hospital flatline scene where the defibrillator magically shocks a dead person back to life. In reality, hearts don't often fail that way (and if they do, zapping them doesn't help). What they tend to do instead is flail uselessly in a way that doesn't pump blood very well.
The reason for this is that literally every part of the heart wants to pump. Normally, that's controlled by a bundle of pacemaker cells near the top of the heart. But if that fails? Another bundle further down takes over. And another, and another. Each level of failure just makes things less efficient and more localised.
Similarly, when a pandemic comes along and screws up all our supply chains, the resources needed to manage and treat it end up being produced more domestically and less efficiently. Issues of supply and distribution have, indeed, been a notable feature of the COVID pandemic, from masks to toilet paper to hand sanitiser.
But when considering climate change, a more sobering thought comes to mind. An easy assumption to make would be that climate change is, in a certain sense, self-limiting: the consequences of fossil fuel consumption will disrupt large-scale production, which will also decrease fossil fuel consumption.
However, another possibility is that the large-scale production will be replaced by less-efficient small-scale production. If global-scale solar panel production falters, the slack will be picked up by national-scale fossil fuel power, which will itself be replaced by local-scale fossil fuel power if it fails. Each contraction comes with a decrease in efficiency.
In that case, the disruptions caused by climate change could lead to even higher emissions, as we increasingly trade efficiency for resilience.
I used to think I was okay at making plans, until I met people who are good at making plans, which led me to conclude that I am, in fact, bad at making plans.
An important difference I've noticed is in how we build plans on top of one another. If a friend knows you are working until 3pm, they might suggest having coffee at 3:30pm. This is really one plan (coffee at 3:30) stacked on another (work until 3). Intricate as it sounds, this is well within the remit of an okay planner. What good planners do isn't just make plans, but support the ways that others stack plans on top of theirs.
One part of this is providing good plan-building information. Things like if you finish work early that day, or you're working from a different location, or you have an appointment at 4:30. Even if none of these things make a difference to you, they might affect your friend's preferences. Maybe, if they knew, they would suggest an earlier time, a different day, or meeting closer to your appointment.
Another part is being aware of what information others might use to plan. Perhaps you once mentioned you like pickles, but you've since gone off them. Could your friend have made plans to go to a pickle cafe? Or perhaps you mentioned that this week has been very busy. Will your friend assume it's a bad week to get coffee when actually you would welcome the break?
And another still is structuring your plans in a way that is easy to plan around. Maybe your finish time is flexible, but 3pm is what you tell people in case they want to spend time with you.
All of these things require what is, at least to me, a higher-level skill. Not planning, but having an inherent sense of how other people are planning around you. Providing others with the information they need to make good plans actually means you need to do less planning to achieve the same outcome. This can make the process seem deceptively easy to an okay planner.
Lately I've been noticing how easy it is to become attached to incidentals. These are the things in your life that exist to serve some other purpose but aren't, of themselves, important. Incidentals are good! They support and implement a purpose by carrying its consequences forward into all the different parts of your life.
There are many different purposes that could justify the same incidental. Living in the city could serve the purpose of being close to a high density of people, or of being in a more politically liberal area. Owning fancy kitchen equipment could serve the purpose of training to be a chef, or of making your home cooking tasks more pleasant.
If a purpose changes, its incidentals should change too. However, sometimes the link between purpose and incidental becomes unclear, or is even broken entirely. When this happens, you're left with zombie incidentals: rituals and habits that now exist only to perpetuate themselves.
Sometimes, you acquire incidentals that never had a purpose. Maybe you make your bed every morning, not because you care about its aesthetic or psychological benefits, but just because your parents told you to and you've been doing it ever since. These are ghost incidentals: the uninvited spirit of a purpose that just hangs around haunting you.
These spooky-but-useless incidentals are mostly just a nuisance: piles of volitional clutter that merely distract you from their living and intentional counterparts. However, where things really go off the rails is when enough incidentals band together, dig in, and claim to be more important than the purposes they serve.
You can tell if you're afflicted because when some purpose-level opportunity comes along – a dream gig, a career change, an exciting adventure – you find yourself thinking "oh no, what will I do about my potted plants?" If this happens, your incidentals have unionised, and you are in trouble.
Fortunately, once you recognise them for what they are, troublesome incidentals are easily remedied: just stop sustaining them. Anything that demands your space or your efforts, or presents itself as an obstacle in the face of your goals, deserves an immediate ID check. Who are you again? Who did you come here with? I knew it! Outta here, you undead tankie freeloader!
It seems like a very strange phrase, self-empathy. Empathy is when you connect with someone's feelings or share their mental state. You, well... are yourself. How could you not experience self-empathy?
The problem is that we aren't only one self. Our future feelings aren't feelings: they're predictions. Our past feelings aren't feelings: they're memories. Who we are changes over time, and our mental state changes with mood, environment and situation. It's a little surprising that this adds up to any kind of self at all.
To connect with feelings that you don't feel right now is a particular skill. It's a skill you exercise when you decide whether to go to a party based on how you'll feel when you get there, or when you decide to relax or push yourself based on how you'll respond. It's also the skill you use to explain yourself to people, not as the you that you experience, but as the you that they experience.
Developing self-empathy takes a certain amount of distance. Understanding your feelings from the inside makes sense in the moment, but won't work later. You have to analyse those feelings while you're experiencing them to keep understanding even as your mental state changes.
On the other hand, it also requires kindness. It's sometimes tempting to believe that your past self was acting incomprehensibly because the emotions that made sense of their behaviour are gone. To develop self-empathy, you have to believe that your feelings were real, even when the only evidence is analysis that no longer feels true.