How Mobile has Hijacked Human Nature

We live in abundance; why does our attention feel so scarce?

Our biology hasn’t caught up to our technology. Today, we live in a time of abundance — abundance of information, content, and connectivity. Yet our time and attention

 has never felt more scarce — or scattered. How we manage the interplay between these dynamics is critical to our future yet completely unresolved. We are in uncharted territory.

Continue reading “How Mobile has Hijacked Human Nature”

Is Technology Making us Miserable?

“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.”…-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)

The Importance of Brain Tech and the Limits to Acquiring It

“There’s an idea articulated in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon that goes something like this: imagine there is a project that will take five years to complete. Imagine further that a technology that could be developed in a year would, once acquired, enable the project to be completed in only two years. Thus, rather than use existing technology to complete the project in five years, it makes more sense to acquire the time-saving technology first. Reality is considerably less predictable than this simple example allows, but it still illustrates a useful idea: acquiring the right technology first can save time and effort later.”

Near my desk there is a stack of unread books (And ebooks). They taunt me. What ideas are they holding, eager to be assimilated and used, but stagnant until I can find the time to read them, tease out the knowledge, and add it to my mental toolbox? There are limits on acquiring brain technology, and it seems they are presently difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

This is not my stack! — Creative Commons License photo credit: Annie Ominous

There’s an idea articulated in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon that goes something like this: imagine there is a project that will take five years to complete. Imagine further that a technology that could be developed in a year would, once acquired, enable the project to be completed in only two years. Thus, rather than use existing technology to complete the project in five years, it makes more sense to acquire the time-saving technology first.

Reality is considerably less predictable than this simple example allows, but it still illustrates a useful idea: acquiring the right technology first can save time and effort later.

This idea seems most relevant to acquiring brain technology, which I’ll define as the sum of useful ideas, useful paradigms, and knowledge. Modern-day prosthetics, also known as our mobile phones and laptops, are rapidly eliminating the need for this last bit of brain tech. The rote knowledge we need is almost always a google or two away (See the recent grind skill discussion on maximizing Google search). However, these prosthetic devices can’t yet do the work of a useful idea or paradigm.

Functional ideas and paradigms are the programs by which our brains process data. The better the programs, the faster we can process problems and the better our answers will be. The better our brain technology, the better our lives. It is for this reason that I take measures to acquire as much brain tech as possible. This is why I read books, blog (On the power of blogging), and follow my curiosity. It’s all in an effort to boost my brain tech, which I hope will improve my life as it improves my ability to solve problems and understand the world.

It seems simple enough but there are problems: (1) it takes a long time to acquire brain technology, it’s difficult or impossible to know what it is we should be seeking to know (2), and it’s hard to know when our existing brain technology is obsolete (3). I have no good ideas on how to attack the second problem, which is Black Swan-esque and thereby unforeseeable. Awareness that it exists may mitigate our base ignorance but then again, it probably won’t. Regarding problem three, seeking out new brain tech as well as simply sharing our own brain tech with others may help — as far as mundane tasks go, that is driver behind writing about Grind Skills.

I’m left to dwell on the first problem. My solution here is to filter through as much information as I can manage and mine out the useful ideas and paradigms. By filtering information, I usually mean reading books and blogs. On the blogging front, a feed aggregator is a must-have. And as far as reading books, get thee to a library (or!

Reading provides a starting point, but even here there is a problem. The volume of information that must be mined to find a single useful idea is immense. There is a brain bandwidth problem: I can only read so fast. Furthermore, even supposing I’m maxing out my reading speed*, I will inevitably read books and blogs that have broken ideas and paradigms (or none at all). How do I reduce the risk of wasting time and energy spent reading empty datasets (books/blogs)? I don’t know.

One workaround to my own bandwidth limitations is to leverage the bandwidth of others. I do this by surrounding myself with others who similarly seek out useful ideas and paradigms and are eager to share what they know. As far as the Internet goes, there again we see the power of blogging and the importance of a good, share-friendly feed reader. In real space, I think Nassim Taleb’s suggestion to “go to parties” is astute. Socialize (Don’t isolate yourself!)! Otherwise, observe others and ask questions.

These are ground-breaking insights, I know. I’m mostly just articulating a problem that has been on my mind. It’s great that modern technology has improved our understanding of the world and enabled us to outsource at least some of our brain functions to our gadgets (Thereby freeing up some bandwidth). However, it seems to me that the age-old ways to acquire wisdom, which is all brain technology really is, are the only ways we’ve got. Read as much as you can and share your tech with others**. And that’s what I’ll be doing until some other tech comes along and renders this brain tech obsolete.

* Speaking of brain tech, I’ve previously attempted learning to speed read. I’ve had no success with it though.
** I’m optimistic that this latter method (sharing) is being accelerated via the Internet.


Use a Feed Aggregator [Grind Skills]

If you regularly visit blogs, news portals, or other dynamic websites (This means you), you need to be using some form of feed aggregator to consolidate the content of all your favorite sites into one, manageable place. If you aren’t already doing this, you are wasting time and energy and simultaneously failing to keep up with the topics and ideas that interest you most. Even worse, you’re missing out on powerful means of learning knew ideas and knowledge.

RSS Logo Drawn In The Sand
Creative Commons License photo credit: kiewic

New to Grind Skills? See this post first.

Grind Skill Brief — If you regularly visit blogs, news portals, or other dynamic websites (This means you), you need to be using some form of feed aggregator to consolidate the content of all your favorite sites into one, manageable place. If you aren’t already doing this, you are wasting time and energy and simultaneously failing to keep up with the topics and ideas that interest you most. Even worse, you’re missing out on powerful means of learning knew ideas and knowledge. If you need a feed aggregator, Google Reader is free and incredibly easy to set up for existing Google (Gmail) account holders.

The Details — What is RSS / Atom? Simply put, they are two forms of XML coding websites use to syndicate content. Content syndication empowers Internet users to subscribe to a site through XML aggregating software — the aforementioned “feed aggregator” — without using clunky, cluttered email. Feed aggregators virtually eliminate the need to physically visit (As in, load in your Internet browser) your “must-read” websites. They check for the latest site updates on your behest, pull the entirety of content from whatever websites you want, and then dump all the newest, unread posts into an inbox-like format for your easy reading digestion.

By way of an example, there are nearly 70 websites to which I currently subscribe using Google Reader, my feed aggregator of choice. If I didn’t use a feed reader, I would have to try and remember all 70 sites I’m tracking and then visit every one of those sites numerous times per day to accomplish the same task that my feed aggregator has already accomplished every time I login. The Grind Skill angle should be obvious: a feed aggregator is technology makes you more efficient and effective at doing the things you want to do.

Google Reader — I am not an expert on all of the various feed aggregators out there and would be interested in hearing about any feed aggregators that readers have found particularly useful. I like Google Reader because it has an intuitive interface that allows you to search for feeds, categorize them into common groups, fluidly scan through the latest posts by site or category, tag content, search your feeds, email posts (this functionality taps your Gmail address book to auto fill email addresses), “star” content, and use hot keys to navigate around. You can even share posts with other Google Reader users with which you have had regular contact (More on this feature below). Because Google Reader is web-based, it requires no software and can even be accessed on your mobile device. If your browser supports Google Gears, you can even get setup to take your feeds offline for reading when you don’t have Internet access.

If you need to get setup on Google Reader go to and login with your Google/Gmail account. From there, click on the button at the top left that says “Add a subscription.” From there, you can search for sites by domain name, keyword, etc. and a list of possible matches will be returned. Alternatively for instantly adding subscriptions, if you see an RSS icon on a website, which typically looks like this symbol sans wings:

You can try it by right-clicking the linked icon above, copying the linked address, which is the Feedburner feed for all Justin Owings blogs, and paste that address into the “Add a subscription” dropbox and hit “Add.” Done!

Feed Aggregators Accelerate Learning — Beyond the immense time-savings you’ll realize from the feed aggregator grind skill, there is a less-obvious benefit, which is making you smarter: feed aggregators accelerate learning through focusing your curiosity while enabling you to take advantage of the work others’ put into reading their own feeds.

Curiosity is a precursor to learning. I am a curious cat, and my curiosity often leads to seemingly random pursuits of ideas and knowledge. These pursuits are exciting and of high interest to me, which is why I’m so likely to internalize and gain knowledge from them. However, just as my curiosity is unplanned and spontaneous, it is practically impossible to keep track of. A feed aggregator manages the human element, my forgetfulness and lack of focus, and “remembers” my interests for me. Even more impressive in the case of Google Reader, is that my aggregator suggests other feeds I might find worth reading by intuiting my interests from my existing subscriptions.

The other way a feed aggregator can accelerate learning may be particular to Google Reader and that is via shared items. Google allows you to broadcast items in your feed aggregator that you found particularly interesting, insightful, funny or otherwise worth noting. Your friends (as determined by your Gmail contacts) who use Google Reader will see your shared items and vice versa.

The power of shared items is twofold. First, there’s a reasonable probability that the individuals you regularly contact share some common interests with you. But with every Venn Diagram, there are certain interests your friends share that are either of no interest to you or have yet to be discovered by you. In this latter category lies an additional avenue for finding ideas or insightful posts that you may otherwise have never found! Furthermore, like you, your friends are scouring countless blogs but only “sharing” a small fraction of the content they read. This tiny fraction, the cream of the feed crop, has a high probability of containing novel or interesting ideas.

In short, not only do feed aggregators save you time but they can expose you to ideas and knowledge that make you smarter.

Update 3/12/09 10:02 AM: I just learned that you can now comment on shared items within Google Reader. This feature was just released yesterday. Comments are only visible to friends using Google Reader (for now). This is cool in that previously you could only write brief notes on shared items. Google Reader just keeps getting better!

Note — Presently, if you’re looking for a particular Google Reader user’s shared items, you have to find a link to where that user makes his or her shared items public. I make my shared items public at Justin Owings Google Reader Shared Items. You can also find links to the ten most recent posts on the front page of this site.

Grind Skills Reading

If you have questions or comments about this grind skill, please comment below or contact me!

Follow me on Twitter

On twitter and micro-blogging.

I have caved in to micro-blogging. I’m on Twitter, which I keep mis-typing as Twister (Brain fail). You can follow me at

I remember when I was first told about twitter a couple years ago by @MatthewKrivanek. At the time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would be willing to blog about the mini-events of their day-to-day lives. It seemed a bit vain. The name “twitter” put me off, too — after all, “twit” doesn’t have the greatest of connotations.

A long while later I stumbled upon Mobog, which is a photosharing site that users can link up to their cell phones either via MMS or email (I use the latter as I have a Blackberry Curve and unlimited data). Mobog made sense to me almost immediately as it took a tool most people have, cameraphones, and enables individuals to take snapshots of their lives. I used mobog a great deal when I was traveling in India. My family thought it was great because they could follow along with me on my travels as they were happening. That may not seem like a big deal, but traveling is an inherently spontaneous adventure, by live-blogging it with pictures, family/friends can vicariously travel with you. You can even ask them from around the world if they would like some item at a store you’re at (I.e. bangles in Baroda).

In short, live-blogging via photos has been a lot of fun. Twitter is simply live-blogging with words or photos (via

You’re still not convinced? Why the fuss? And isn’t this vain?

The fuss is simple. Full-on blogging serves a purpose, but takes a more concerted effort of time and energy. The cost of traditional blogging is not insignificant. The cost of micro-blogging via services like mobog or twitter, on the other hand, is next-to-nothing. I can quickly fire off a photo with a 100 character blurb on a dish I just made. I can micro-blog a sentence on a movie I just watched. It’s simple to fire off an email (or SMS). Since the expectation (nay limitation) on twitter is 140 characters, you can blog life that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Really, much of life is the stuff of tweets, where you go, what you see, what you eat or do — the stuff that stretches between the big events and big ideas you can blog 500+ words on.

Micro-blogging fills in the space between, thereby capturing much of the stuff of life.

Is it vain? Maybe but it is useful vanity. It keeps you plugged into your friends. In a way, it encourages you to be more active and do more interesting things. After all, if you’re only tweeting “just watched tv” for the umpteenth time, it won’t be long before you realize that a) no one cares and b) your life is kinda boring (not that I don’t watch tv).

Of course, getting your friends and family plugged in and using a service like twitter isn’t easy. But twitter is free and simple to set up. So give it a try and see if you aren’t surprised to find yourself a little addicted to micro-blogging.

You can follow my latest tweets either on or at this site’s home page.

Admin Note: Now that I have twitter set up, I might discontinue mobog as it seems a bit redundant. Just FYI if you see my mobog disappear.

Connectivity Issues while Abroad

Below is a comment I left for David D. Friedman (Law’s Order, Machinery of Freedom, Future Imperfect) in response to his post G1: The Saga Continues. “DDF” had taken a trip to London with his brand-spanking new G1 Android and was hoping to get it working while on the trip — he was unsuccessful. In India, I was faced with trying to get my unlocked T-mobile Blackberry 8320 up and running (and also a working USB modem for my laptop — I preferred the redundancy of EDGE/GPRS connections over tethering for ease of use and diversification of providers). Below is my response to DDF’s post, which relays my experience in depth and hits on a few observations I’ve made having made it through the experience.

Warning: unless global cell phone provider issues are a concern, this post is likely to be very boring to you. If anything, just read the bullets! I am including it below simply for the record.
Continue reading “Connectivity Issues while Abroad”

Asus eee 900 laptop

As being able to stay functionally connected while traveling is an important part of my work1 and having drooled over one of these for nearly a year, I finally took the ultra-portable plunge and picked up an Asus eee pc laptop (900 series) off ebay. Boy is it small:

I got the 900 eee with Linux (Xandros), quickly activated the “advanced desktop”, and by the next morning had already determined to install Linux Ubuntu 8.042 (Note: Ubuntu on the eee marked my first Linux OS install) so I could run compiz fusion3 and have greater program flexibility.

There are ample reviews on the 900 eee (as well as the 700 series), so I won’t get into all of that here. However, I’d just like to share a couple of first impressions:

  1. Size. It is difficult to appreciate the size of the eee from pictureas on the internet. I don’t have particularly big hands. The phone in the picture is a Blackberry Curve. The nearest everday-object comparison would be to take two DVD cases in your hands. The eee is only a smidge bigger. It is awesomely tiny. The 8.9 inch screen is solid, packing in 1024×600 pixels, which makes web browsing easy, with little (none so far) side-to-side scrolling
  2. Typing. Review upon review critiqued the keyboard as small and difficult to type on. I was a bit concerned that the keyboard would be difficult to touch-type on. I was happy to discover that concerns were entirely misplaced. There is certainly a learning curve on the eee’s diminutive keyboard; however, rather than let words convince you, here is some hard data:
    • I completed the “Enchanted Typewriter” at on my full-sized laptop keyboard at 99 net words per minute.
    • Within 30 minutes of starting up the eee 900 in Xandros, I got 65 net wpm on the “Zebra” test.
    • A couple days later, I’ve managed 78 net wpm on the eee 900 with mixed use (flipping between the full-sized laptop and the eee laptop.

    My only difficulty on the eee’s keyboard has been the apostrophe key, which I frequently miss for enter. With a little practice, I figure that won’t be too “small” a problem to overcome!

  3. Linux » Ubuntu: A complete Ubuntu noob, I’ve been pretty solidly impressed with the ease of installing Ubuntu on the eee. I’m eager to try sticking Ubuntu on my Asus G1S-B2, and thanks to, it seems I can do this without having to reformat the harddrive! More and more I believe that Microsoft and Windows are going the way of the dinosaur. Innovation is in the open source community!4

It will take a bit more use to form a conclusive opinion of the eee 900, but so far, I’ve been nothing but impressed. Ultra-affordaable5 ultra-portability? Done. And if the emergence of competition is any indicator (it is), this market is only going to keep growing. Yay for technology!


1 Though I regularly work on a full desktop-replacement lappy (Asus G1S-B2, quite a powerful system for graphics processing), it weighs in at over six pounds and as its over twice the dimensional size of the eee, it requires its own backpack. As such, its hardly conducive to traveling. As it’s a fairly powerful machine, it’s also not cheap — almost 4X the cost of the eee. This simply makes me even more wary of traveling with the G1S in fear that I might lose it or have it stolen.
2 Here is a list of sites that I ended up using to get Ubuntu Hardy working smoothly:

3 This is a lot cooler than it sounds — “compiz” is a GUI that does a number of things, one of the coolest being that it allows you to rotate amongst the four desktops on a cube-like interface. To see what I’m talking about, check out this video. It puts Vista and Apple O/S to shame.

4 What does that tell you about the “benefits” of intellectual property law? Microsoft was built on IP law — meanwhile, Linux is thriving entirely without IP law and the rent-seeking behavior it induces.

5 The eee 900 can be had for $550 or less. Mine was purchased off of ebay and is the 20 gb version.