Seth Godin: “The internet has allowed an enormous amount of fake networking to take place.”…socialgood.html

(Originally tweeted here and here – Not on twitter? Join and Follow me!)

Just watched a brief two minute Q&A from Seth Godin, marketing guru. Godin answers a question from an audience member about social networking and small business. His response indicts social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter as potentially “fake networking.” And it’s hard to dispute his simple argument: if you have 5,000 facebook friends or 20,000 twitter followers, does it really matter if none of these people will go to bat for you when you really need them to? Networking has (traditionally) implied that a relationship translates into real action.

Godin is asking an important question: where does the rubber meet the road on social networking? It’s hard to say. The same criticism is levied by David Wong in his piece on 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable. Sure you’ve got a bunch of internet “friends,” but if all they are doing is sending you wall posts on your birthday and are otherwise nowhere to be found in your life, does it really matter?

I’ll save the flipside to this argument for another time. Here’s two quotes from the clip from Seth Godin:

Networking is always important when its real and it’s always a useless distraction when it’s fake. …

The internet has allowed an enormous amount of fake networking to take place.

Ok I have one more thought I want to share: my facebook/twitter policy: I keep my facebook profile somewhat elite and restricted to friends in realspace or internet-friends with whom I’ve had extensive interactions. With twitter, on the other hand, anything goes. I think social networking on twitter, as “fake” or cheap as it may be, still can serve a purpose. More on this later.

Also see my brief explanation of the difference between Facebook and Twitter.

Human Happiness, the Human Condition, and our Hunter-Gatherer Forebears

Bruce Charlton has made his a final proof of his 1999 book Psychiatry and the Human Condition available online in its entirety. The book book is described as, “an optimistic vision of a superior alternative approach to psychiatric illness and its treatment, drawing upon modern neuroscience and evolutionary theory.” From the parts of the book I’ve managed to read so far, this book could well be worth reading in full.

The part I’d like to focus on here is Charlton’s discussion of hunter-gatherers and their relative happiness. The subject of happiness and the human condition from a psychiatry/psychology perspective is of keen interest to me right now as I am just finishing up Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (Also see recent discussion on Is Technology Making us Miserable?).

Charlton’s take is that H-G societies were “leisured and egalitarian” and H-Gs experienced a “Golden Age for humans.” Though I’ve yet to read it all, Charlton says that the “scanty” evidence available to support this statement is “consistent and unambiguous.” I believe part of the evidence is the apparent diminished health of agrarian societies combined with the greater stratification of class and status systems brought about by division of labor. That agrarian societies would migrate voluntarily to cities to partake in the industrial-mercantile society just furthers the argument.

I intuit that the hyper-specialization and -isolation experienced by modern human beings doesn’t fit with our evolutionary programming, even as it provides us with amazing new technology and toys. Having said that, I see no reason a balance can’t be struck between the perks of modern existence (technology) and the biological programming of functional/fulfilling community (family) and a more generalist approach to productive activities.

More on this later. And I have more reading to do. In the meantime, read the two bits from Charlton’s book below, which discuss in detail relative degrees of happiness and whether or not the human condition (which Charlton argues hasn’t been designed to be happy) can be improved.

From Chapter 1, Psychiatry and the human condition

Degrees of happiness

The lifestyle of nomadic foragers involve little forward economic planning beyond the communal decisions over when and where to move camp, and the logistics of hunting and gathering. This means that most problems of life related to the social realm – especially around the question of competition for mates – and this lay behind the power struggles, disagreement, discussions and violence. And the primacy of social life in hunter gatherer societies is what has been the decisive force in human evolutionary history – the main focus for natural selection is within-species, human versus human competition.

In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level. Of the three kinds of society as described by Gellner: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and mercantile, it is probable that hunter-gatherers had the best life, overall. Hunter gatherer societies are the happiest and peasant societies are the most miserable – while industrial-mercantile societies such as our own lie somewhere in between.

That, at any rate, is the conclusion of anthropologist Jerome Barkow – and his opinion is widely confirmed by the reports of many independent anthropologists who have experienced the alternatives of foraging, agrarian and industrial society. The ‘naturalness’ of nomadic foraging is also shown by differences in the harshness of child rearing practices in different types of society. Child rearing involves varying elements of forcible training that are necessary to prepare children for their social role. Peasant societies typically employ extremely repressive forms of socialization, extreme discipline, restriction, and the use of child labour. Industrial mercantile societies (such as our own) are much less tough on children – but still require many unnatural behaviors (eg. sitting in classrooms or examination halls for long periods of time without speaking or moving). But nomadic foragers are able and willing to give their children even more freedom than the most liberal ‘modern parent’ – and such a relaxed upbringing of unstructured interaction with peers apparently prepares the child properly for the adult life to come.

Another line of evidence is patterns of voluntary migration. When industrial mercantile societies develop, they are popular with the miserable peasantry of agrarian societies who flee the land and crowd the cities, if given the chance. Not so the happier hunter gatherers who typically must be coerced into joining industrial life. My great grandparents left their lives as rural peasants and converged from hundreds of miles and several countries to work the coal mines of Northumberland. They swapped the open sky, fields and trees for a life underground and inhabiting dingy rows of colliery houses. Being a miner in the early twentieth century must have been grim, but apparently it was not so bad as being an agricultural laborer.

From a psychiatric perspective, then, there are sharp differences between ancestral societies and modern societies. In terms of their general social situation modern humans are faced with a wide range of new problems – although we console ourselves that for the bulk of the population life is much better in an industrial mercantile society than in a warrior-dominated medieval peasantry. Nevertheless we now live in a mass society, full of strangers who there is no reason to trust since they are neither family nor friends. Although resources are vastly more abundant, resources are linked to status and there are massive inequalities in their distribution.

This means that there is a much higher proportion of intractably low status people in modern societies than in the societies in which humans evolved. Since status is the most important factor in determining a man’s sexual attractiveness, this is a major source of dissatisfaction. Men will devote enormous effort and take great risks in pursuit of the highest status, but for most people in delayed return economies the odds are stacked heavily against them succeeding.

Improving human happiness?

Even if, somehow, the impossible were achieved and humans returned to the kind of egalitarian, immediate return, foraging societies in which we spent much of our recent evolutionary history – then unhappiness would still be common and intractable. Humans did not evolve to be happy – natural selection rewards reproductive success, not happiness. Happiness is – from this perspective – merely the ‘carrot’ which compliments the ‘stick’ of pain – a lure to draw us onwards, to make us strive – but happiness is a reward that we can never permanently grasp nor enjoy at leisure.

So much for the bad news. Happiness drives us, it is not a permanent state. And this really is bad news because there is little we can do about it, short of changing human nature. The good news is that this might prove possible – at least to some extent. Just as human ingenuity has landed us in the predicament of a sub-optimal modern human life, so the same ingenuity has proved a range of technologies of gratification through which we can attain a variety of surrogate satisfactions. – something that will be discussed more towards the end of this book .

Essentially the broad shape of society and its possibilities for happiness are the way they are for reasons that are accidental, unplanned, and intractable. We inhabit a society that grants few satisfactions and offers limited possibilities of fulfillment. It is also a society in which psychiatric symptoms are endemic and a major cause of human misery. In our favour we have increasing knowledge of the causes of human misery, including the understanding of psychiatric illness, and increased power to alleviate that misery provided by the armamentarium of psychopharmacology. All this understanding and therapeutic potential has arisen within the past few decades, and we have hardly learned how to use it.

My point is that the human condition of Western man is intractable in its fundamentals, but amenable to improvement in important ways. Things are worse than they might be. One aim of this book is to explore some of these means of improvement, and to do this will require an evaluation of the extent and nature of psychiatric illness.

The purpose of this book is therefore to suggest how knowledge and technology might be deployed to ameliorate the human condition. We are not talking about utopia, but we are talking about the potential for significant and worthwhile improvements in well-being for substantial numbers of people. However, power can be used for many purposes. And potential agents for good are almost inevitably also potential agents for harm. The possibilities for benefit from psychopharmacology is, although not universal, nevertheless immense. Whether these benefits can be realized under prevailing social conditions is altogether a different matter.

(H/T Mangan’s via Patri)

Is Technology Making us Miserable?…-miserable.html

An article surfaced on sometime in February (I think based on comment dates) by David Wong titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable“. It’s since made the top of Digg as well as making the rounds throughout the blogosphere. The premise of the article is that modern technology is making us miserable, lonely people. Despite the sad subject matter, it’s humorously written and worth the read.

Overall, I think Wong makes some good points. The overarching theme is one of technological isolation.

Captured in Wong’s “#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.” the Internet creates the tendency to rely on text-based communication over communicating by phone (better) or in-person (best). This is likely due to the control text-based communication affords — if someone calls you and you answer, you fit your life to their demands. If they email you, you can email them back whenever and put their demands on your schedule. Additionally, we have greater control over what we say in a text-based world, which means that we can shield our emotions better (among other things). Ironically, despite the care people put into wording emails and text-based communication to only say so much, the article goes on to point out how terribly inefficient text-based communication is. I can’t argue with this in the least as I’m daily confronted with my own preference of email over phone calls (even when I recognize the inefficiency) and see horrendous miscommunications resulting from loss of tone, misreading, etc. As Wong notes in his related “#4. Online company only makes us lonelier.”:

There’s a weird side effect to [living in Text World], too: absent a sense of the other person’s mood [experienced through body language and tone of voice], every line we read gets filtered through our own mood instead.

As I’m learning right now in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, our brains inevitably filter feelings about the past or present (or whatever) based on our current mood. How much more amplified is this when the only communication inputs we receive are text-based?

Continuing my out-of-order analysis, Wong lists the related problems of “#1. We don’t have enough annoying strangers in our lives.”, “#2. We don’t have enough annoying friends, either.”, and “#5. We don’t get criticized enough.” These all relate to our enhanced ability to pick and choose the people with whom we associate over the Internet. The Internet has an amazing power to bring like-minded individuals to the same table where they all reinforce each other’s beliefs, congratulate themselves on their insights, and chide anyone who disagrees with them. This happens big-time in the blogosphere from what I’ve seen. For examples, just find any established political, health, or finance blog. The problem here is that we are empowered to surround ourselves with people who never challenge our beliefs or make us uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable and the price of sound ideas is constantly holding them to the fire to be tested. How do you do that if you effectively surround yourself with yes-men?

The flip-side benefit, of course, is immense: the Internet enables people with uncommon beliefs to find other like-minded folks.

Also, anyone who has spent any measured time on Internet forums can attest to the wide abundance of annoying people that you simply cannot escape. If you spend any time on forums (and even if you generally avoid them, they are still a fact of Internet life you’ll inevitably encouter), you will encounter annoying people who are nothing like you. Even when you can mute certain forum members, you still can’t completely isolate yourself from people you don’t like.

I’ve got little to say about “#6. We’re victims of the Outrate Machine.” It is probably part of the human condition for us to want to see/read about misery. It makes us feel better about our lives, after all. Sad, but true. So that we see all sorts of gloom and doom sites on the Internet? That’s just par for the course. The only difference is that people with crazy ideas (Conspiracy theorists) are now empowered to find each other and then self-reinforce within their group their own bizarre viewpoints. But perhaps like the abundance of porn apparently reducing violent sex crimes, maybe the ability for wackos to find each other and exchange high-fives about their strange theories will reduce the likelihood of domestic terrorism. Hard to say.

Finally, Wong’s “#7. We feel worthleses, because we actually are worth less.” reminds me of this huge graphical “how to” guide titled “How to not fail at life.” The gist of both Wong’s observation and the humorous graphic guide is that human beings are not hardwired to exist in isolation, doing everything for ourselves, and nothing for our friends. When our friends only exist in digital form, there’s just only so much we can do to engage them. It’s like the 20 birthday messages you get via Facebook. All these people see it’s your birthday and write on your wall. Does it make us feel better? Maybe. It’s possible it makes us feel worse — after all, this sort of communication takes so little effort and is so transparently prescribed as to feel hollow and worthless.

There is probably more to say here, and I’m very skeptical that overall we aren’t incredibly better off thanks to the communication empowered through the Internet. However, Wong’s points are well taken and stark reminders that technology affords us the ability to isolate ourselves, be lazy friends, and pretend to have a “real” life and “real” friends, when in the end, most of our online buddies will disappear just as soon as we stop posting on our forums or blogs or facebook pages. A balance needs to be struck between realspace and our virtual worlds.

Here’s Wong’s conclusion:

It ain’t rocket science; you are a social animal and thus you are born with little happiness hormones that are released into your bloodstream when you see a physical benefit to your actions. Think about all those teenagers in their dark rooms, glued to their PC’s, turning every life problem into ridiculous melodrama. Why do they make those cuts on their arms? It’s because making the pain-and subsequent healing-tangible releases endorphins they don’t get otherwise. It’s pain, but at least it’s real.

That form of stress relief via mild discomfort used to be part of our daily lives, via our routine of hunting gazelles and gathering berries and climbing rocks and fighting bears. No more. This is why office jobs make so many of us miserable; we don’t get any physical, tangible result from our work. But do construction out in the hot sun for two months, and for the rest of your life you can drive past a certain house and say, “Holy shit, I built that.” Maybe that’s why mass shootings are more common in offices than construction sites.

It’s the kind of physical, dirt-under-your-nails satisfaction that you can only get by turning off the computer, going outdoors and re-connecting with the real world. That feeling, that “I built that” or “I grew that” or “I fed that guy” or “I made these pants” feeling, can’t be matched by anything the internet has to offer.

(H/T Patri)

Can Blogging Make You Happier? [Research]…ke-you-happier/

I can’t say any of this comes as a surprise — some recent (2009) research has found that blogging can result in greater feelings of connectedness and social bonding which can improve one’s sense of well-being.

Yeah, that sounds about right to me (See my post on the power of blogging).

The researchers found support for deeper self-disclosure from bloggers resulting in a range of better social connections. These included things such as a sense of greater social integration, which is how connected we feel to society and our own community of friends and others; an increase in social bonding (our tightly knit, intimate relationships); and social bridging — increasing our connectedness with people who might be from outside of our typical social network.

They also hypothesized and found support from their data that when these kinds of social connections increase or grow deeper through blogging, a person will also feel a greater subjective sense of well-being or happiness.

H/T to Seth Roberts.

“Almost no one regrets having kids.”


Via a shared Google Reader item from Patri Friedman came this article on EconLog, Parents and Buyer’s Remorse: Lessons from the Lost Newsday Study. The referenced study was done in 1976 on a random sample of Americans “and found that 91% of parents did not have buyer’s remorse.”

Since I am expecting to be a dad in August, this kind of information is good to know. The EconLog post also references a study done in 2003 that indicates that fully 2/3 of non-parents wish they had kids!

This makes complete evolutionary sense—we are biologically programmed to want to reproduce. Beyond it being in our DNA, family is one of the more lasting wealths you can create.

Here’s the relevant data from the post:

What does the Newsday survey say?  First and foremost, the hearsay about the rarity of regret is accurate.  In fact, since some people didn’t answer this question, fully 93% of the actual responses were positive.  Other interesting results:

  • Women had more regret than men: 9% of women had buyer’s remorse, versus just 5% of men.  While many will say this result is obvious, remember that there is virtually no gender gap on “desired family size.”
  • Young (under 25) and old (65+) had the most regret: 15% and 13% respectively.
  • Blacks had much more regret: 19%, versus 6% for whites.
  • Regret sharply falls as income rises.  13% with income under $5000 (in
    1976 dollars) had buyer’s remorse, versus only 4% with incomes of $25k+.
  • Regret sharply falls as education rises.  12% of drop-outs admitted regret, versus 3% of college grads.

Other interesting results: The survey also asked people how many children they would have if they had a “do-over.”  If you read the table, it looks like there is a moderate tendency to want more: Respondents have 2.66 but want 2.84.

OK, so what’s the take-away?

First of all, even though child-free advocates continue to cite the famous Ann Landers survey, it was discredited over thirty years ago. Almost no one regrets having kids.

Second, you might dismiss the Newsday results as mere status quo bias – “Everyone thinks that whatever they did was for the best.” But you probably shouldn’t. The 2003 Gallup study finds that about two-thirds of childless people over 40 wish they had kids. Buyer’s remorse is rare; non-buyer’s remorse is common.

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Seneca, like other Stoics, has a doctrine of nature that is remarkably close to that of Emerson or modern American environmentalists. The wise man (sapiens) will never be bored when contemplating the simple things of nature. The natural beauty of the countryside and the healthful action of the waves can have a calming effect . . . He also believed in the simple and strenuous life and the avoidance of luxury and decadence, and there are numerous passages . . . which decry the ostentatious, self indulgent practices of his contemporaries . . . Seneca has no patience for philosophy as a word game or a practice of engaging in hair-splitting arguments for their own sake. He rather sees it as a practice or way of life that all those who seek the good should investigate and adopt.

(From a helpful Amazon review)

Finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. I’ve only casually understood the Stoic philosophy prior to reading this book. As the above review notes, Seneca is concerned with making peace with death and living in accordance with nature. Seneca frequently cites the benefits of philosophy, which should be practical and useful. Fortune is something that should be looked on with ambivalence — neither should we get enamored when our luck is good nor depressed when bad. Happiness is a state of mind. I’m not positive, but it seems to me that Seneca originated the idiom to “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” (See the quoted bit below).

The Letters are a quick read at only around 230 pages. If you are interested in some ancient wisdom from a Roman philosopher, you would likely enjoy this book. Below are some passages I particularly enjoyed from the book.

  • “Look at the amount of punishment that boxers and wrestlers take to the face and the body generally! They will put up none the less with any suffering in their desire for fame, and will undergo it all not merely in the course of fighting but in preparing for their fights as well: their training in itself constitutes suffering. Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.”
  • “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen; but I do know what’s capable of happening . . . I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased. . . . for just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”
  • “Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties. There’s no justification for using our graves and all the variety of monuments we see bordering the highways as a measure of our stature. In the ashes all men are leveled. We’re born unequal, we die equal.”
  • “Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it.”
  • “For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.”
  • “One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage.”
  • “No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty, changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.”