On Pi Day, are you able to resist temptation?
The bright colours?
The sweet flavours?
Maybe once a year it’s good for you. But what if you were force-fed sweets every day? That’s what’s happening today with information.
In an article in Wired, author Zynep Tufekci makes a comparison to food when describing the addictive power of information.
“…within the next few years, the number of children struggling with obesity will surpass the number struggling with hunger. Why? When the human condition was marked by hunger and famine, it made perfect sense to crave condensed calories and salt. Now we live in a food glut environment, and we have few genetic, cultural, or psychological defenses against this novel threat to our health.”
The author compares our food behaviours to our current addictions to highly processed data:
“Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite.”
There was a time when humans desperately needed food and new information. Once these needs are satisfied the ability of industry to exploit our lingering sense of need and push unhealthy variants and volumes became the next big threat.
With food, it is helpful to seek out existing traditions in which things have been figure out already. Healthy people eat in a manner that resembles the cuisine of their grandparents, rejecting processed foods and fad diets alike. To quote Michael Pollan, the food writer, “eat food, not to much, mostly plants.” So, if we were to seek healthy and viable traditions in the free flow of information, where would we turn?
Pi Day is a great place to start. In the late nineties, I stayed at the home of a family friend named Larry Shaw, a science educator at the San Francisco Exploratorium. During this trip Larry handed me a slice of pie on March 14. I didn’t figure out until years later that he was the creator of Pi Day. Larry looked like a hippie, and he had a great sense of fun. But he was closer-at-heart to a serious movement to empower people to disagree with those with power, and express disagreements through free speech.
We watched a brief documentary about the Freedom of the Speech Movement. In 1964 a man named Jack Weinberg was arrested for distributing political materials on the Berkeley campus. Students encircled the police car Weinberg was in. There was a 32-hour stand-off during which activist Mario Savio gave a compelling speech, saying:
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. …you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
In the era of social media and big data we are experiencing this same problem, but in reverse. In decades past, government and industry asserted legal power and made threats against the publication of some news. Coercion-narrowed perspectives whipped the public mood into compliance. When protests break out today, we know about it through social media in minutes, without the support of broadcast media. This should be the golden era of free speech. But it’s not.
Nowadays when you see news it is unclear if you are receiving something accurate. And if you are the one posting the video Tufecki asks “…is anyone even watching it? Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content producers?” It’s not the case that accurate news is reaching the broadest audience, and it’s not the case that you as a citizen can make your voice heard.
Social media offers a community experience that is equivalent to shopping for groceries at a convenience store.
Tufekci notes that the world’s attention is overwhelmingly funnelled through Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter. These entities
“…stand in for the public sphere itself. But at their core, their business is mundane: They’re ad brokers. …they sell the capacity to precisely target our eyeballs. They use massive surveillance of our behavior, online and off, to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most susceptible to…”
The author makes the case that freedom of speech is not an end in its own right. Rather, it is a vehicle through which we achieve other social goals, such as public education, respectful debate, holding institutions accountable, and building healthy communities. Consider Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech and you know he wasn’t in this so you could look at food porn or cat videos.
We shall seek the best possible recipe for our knowledge. We need to read books, watch well-produced documentaries, and talk to trustworthy friends who are knowledgeable on the right topic. We must be skeptical of those in power but even more skeptical about friends who coddle us with complacent views. Seek information that is healthy and fulfilling, and guard it like a borrowed recipe from your grandmother’s box of index cards.
And yet, enjoy small amounts of rumor and gossip, like the indulgence in a favorite slice of pie. You still get to have fun, once in a while. You’re still human.