Bitcoin entrepreneurs Chad Elwartowski and Nadia Supranee Thepdet have now been accused of breaching Thai national sovereignty with their seasteading homes created by Ocean Builders in Thai waters. The couple has been seasteading since March 2, 2019.
The moment I wake up. Seconds before I drift into sleep. I am on my phone, mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. Because that next post just might be it. What is it? I don’t know. Nobody does. But one day, one of us may find it. This is the endless hell of social media. A dopamine infused scroll-marathon has all (or most) of us in its tendrils. Thankfully, I am a reformed and recovered social network addict. And I hope I can help you take care of this problem too.
By Mason Mohon | United States
Brett Kavanaugh’s turbulent entrance into the Supreme Court will first be met with a potentially groundbreaking free speech case. The case is that of Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, No. 17-702. As CNBC reports, this case centers around whether a private operator of a public access television network is considered a state actor, which would leave it accountable to the free speech protections in the First Amendment.
Craig Axford | Canada
In a 2013 column published in the Huffington Post entitled Why Public Schools Don’t Teach Critical Thinking, retired high-school teacher Frank Breslin lamented the state of modern American education:
The minds of children need room to breathe, to be inspired by vision, and the health-bringing balm of many perspectives. They need exercise, play, and relaxation; in short, they need a sound body and spirit to have a sound mind. Rather than spending their magical years entombed in cram-school dungeons that prepare them for impossibly difficult tests, children need old-fashioned schools where every day they can learn something new in classrooms that echo with laughter and joy!
Unfortunately, it’s government policy to make sure schools are anything but the kind of places Breslin envisioned for students. By emphasizing standardized testing that evaluates how many predetermined facts a student can memorize rather than their capacity to conduct research and pursue their own lines of inquiry, America has created a citizenry increasingly predisposed to simply accept whatever they read uncritically. Now it is paying dearly for following that path.
At a time when we often bemoan the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together on much of anything, it’s worth remembering that the pursuit of standardized testing has been a thoroughly bipartisan undertaking; President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation passed in 2001 with strong bipartisan support. In the speech he delivered before the student’s of Ohio’s Hamilton High School prior to signing the NCLB legislation, President Bush spoke of the importance of “accountability” and made it clear that a strong emphasis on testing was key to determining whether or not schools were meeting expectations:
The first way to solve a problem is to diagnose it. And so, what this bill says, it says every child can learn. And we want to know early, before it’s too late, whether or not a child has a problem in learning. I understand taking tests aren’t fun. Too bad. We need to know in America. We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education.
When President Obama took office, he initially doubled down on standardized testing. He too was, at least at first, clearly convinced that what was needed was a more objective measurement of a student’s knowledge. Though President Obama’s “Race To The Top” initiative did call upon states to “develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity,” it still placed an extremely strong emphasis upon standardization to ensure these goals were being achieved.
However, by 2015, President Obama was doing a mea culpa on standardized testing. He announced the amount of time spent in the classroom preparing for tests should be limited. In one of the more reflective moments of his presidency, Obama stated, “When I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test.” He went on to admit that “too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning,” had caused more harm than good.
. . .
We live in a culture that places a high value on efficiency. Understandably, we want the next generation to have a firm grasp on certain basic skills that are essential to any real chance of success in the modern world. Reading, writing, and arithmetic — commonly referred to as “the 3 Rs” — are at the top of the list.
Unfortunately, the mastery of these skills doesn’t guarantee that a student has also learned how to put them to good use. While the United States has achieved a reasonably high literacy rate, increasingly people are using their ability to read and write to kill hours each day on social media rather than becoming informed citizens or otherwise enriching their lives.
According to a study just released by the American Psychological Association, the use of digital media by teens increased dramatically between 2006 and 2016. Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the lead author of the study, states that social media use during leisure hours doubled among high school seniors during that period. Among 10th graders usage increased by 75% while among 8th graders it increased by 68%.
“In the mid-2010s, the average American 12th-grader reported spending approximately two hours a day texting, just over two hours a day on the internet — which included gaming — and just under two hours a day on social media,” Twenge is quoted saying on the science website Science Daily. “That’s a total of about six hours per day on just three digital media activities during their leisure time.”
According to the same Science Daily story, the steep rise in digital media usage has been associated with an even more extreme drop in the use of print media. The article states:
The decline in reading print media was especially steep. In the early 1990s, 33 percent of 10th-graders said they read a newspaper almost every day. By 2016, that number was only 2 percent. In the late 1970s, 60 percent of 12th-graders said they read a book or magazine almost every day; by 2016, only 16 percent did. Twelfth-graders also reported reading two fewer books each year in 2016 compared with 1976, and approximately one-third did not read a book (including e-books) for pleasure in the year prior to the 2016 survey, nearly triple the number reported in the 1970s.
Perhaps these trends wouldn’t be nearly as disconcerting if the rise in digital media use and the associated decline in the use of printed material wasn’t also coming at a time when so many members of the same generation were exhibiting such difficulty discerning between reliable news stories and “fake” news.
In a study coincidentally released just two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, Stanford University researchers reported students at all levels exhibited extremely poor skills when it came to conducting research and evaluating content online. According to the study’s executive summary, “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”
The Stanford study involved 7,804 subjects from middle school through university age. The sample comprised students from 12 states, including students from elite universities that rejected over 90% of their applicants and public institutions with high acceptance rates. Students were given age-appropriate problems to evaluate and research online including reasons to doubt the accuracy of content, assessing evidence, and verification of various claims. The results were not encouraging.
The Stanford team’s assessment of middle schoolers found that “More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story.” Among high school students shown a post entitled “Fukushima Nuclear Flowers” with a picture of what appear to be white daisies exhibiting what were alleged to be various “birth defects,” the students “ignored key details, such as the source of the photo. Less than 20% of students constructed ‘mastery’ responses, or responses that questioned the source of the post or the source of the photo. On the other hand, nearly 40% of students argued that the post provided strong evidence because it presented pictorial evidence about conditions near the power plant.” The caption gave no indication where the photo was actually taken.
University undergrads from three different universities were shown a tweet announcing “new polling” on NRA members’ views on background checks for potential gun purchasers. According to the Stanford study, “Results indicated that students struggled to evaluate tweets. Only a few students noted that the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm and explained why this would make the tweet a stronger source of information.” Only a third of the students paid any attention to the agendas of MoveOn.org or the Center for American Progress and how that might influence the content.
When it came to undergraduate students, researchers also noted “An interesting trend that emerged” from their tests. Over 50% of “students failed to click on the link provided within the tweet.” In addition, “Some of these students did not click on any links and simply scrolled up and down within the tweet.” Others tried to investigate, but searched using the CAP acronym for the Center for American Progress provided in the tweet. This type of search “did not produce useful information.”
. . .
The use of fake news to influence the election of 2016, reveals it isn’t just our young adults that lack the skills to detect and resist misinformation. Many of their parents and grandparents also lack the critical thinking and research skills necessary to place information in context and separate the wheat from the chaff. In many respects, the most troubling aspect of this problem isn’t our apparent gullibility but our ongoing refusal to do much if anything about it.
The focus on standardized testing is a symptom of an education system literally designed to teach students what to think rather than how to think. Memorization, not research skills and hands-on learning, became even more of a focus as successive governments drank the testing Kool-Aid. Time-consuming experiments or other projects were dropped to make room for lessons that drilled the right answers into students. Arts programs that fostered creativity and instilled an appreciation for culture were cut or eliminated altogether in the name of efficiency. Our schools became factories that mimicked the routinized schedules of the workplace while denying students the chance to ask questions, challenge the ideas being presented to them, and figure things out for themselves.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A recent episode of the BBC World Service podcast The Documentary highlighted work being done to determine the best approaches for instilling in children a basic grasp of what qualifies as evidence and the importance of understanding the basis of the claims they will inevitably hear from salesmen, politicians, and even family members over the course of their lives. The program, entitled You Can Handle The Truth, doesn’t just reveal how successful such efforts can be but how much delight children actually take in learning how to unmask poorly supported assertions and outright falsehoods.
The program’s host, the British statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter, traveled to Uganda to see the results of these efforts for himself. Researchers and educators in that country had been working with a Norwegian team on educational materials designed to teach elementary age students how to make more informed health choices.
The young Ugandan students were given a comic book that depicted individuals confronting a number of difficult choices. Among the most popular comic book characters is a parrot that, as parrots are known to do, repeats back everything it hears unquestioningly. Over the course of the school year, students discussed the various scenarios described within the book with their teachers and learned the importance of asking those making a claim what the basis for it was and how to better evaluate the answers they heard in response.
The Ugandan program involved 10,000 students from 120 schools. Sixty of the schools were placed in a control group. Students at these institutions received no additional instruction. In the remaining 60 schools, students participated in lessons and activities designed to provide them with basic critical thinking skills. At the end of the year, students from all 120 schools were tested and the differences between the control group and the test group assessed.
The results of that testing revealed the program had produced the desired effect and in a big way. All students were given 24 problems to solve or evaluate. Thirteen right answers were considered a passing grade. The 24 questions presented to students on the test were unique and had not been problems considered as part of the critical thinking curriculum.
In the control group, 27% of the students passed the test. In the intervention group, 69% received a passing score. Even teachers in the two groups were tested. Among the control group’s teachers, 87% passed, while the intervention group saw 98% of the teachers get a passing grade.
One of the problems the researchers anticipated but never encountered is one that will likely sound familiar to Americans; parents becoming upset as their children begin coming home from school with tough questions about cherished beliefs and cultural practices. Uganda is a country with a rich history of folk remedies and superstition. Researchers feared that having children go off to school in the morning happily accepting particular family or cultural traditions only to return in the evening wondering about the basis for the claims surrounding grandma’s famous herbal remedy could turn parents against their efforts.
However, Ugandan parents, at least so far, haven’t made a fuss. Their children are excited to be learning and take delight in being empowered to question their elders about things that have been taken for granted for generations. To everyone’s surprise, parents and other family members don’t seem to mind.
Sir David Spiegelhalter also took a trip to California for his BBC program. That state is currently considering legislation that will mandate media literacy education. Spiegelhalter paid a visit to one California classroom where students were asked to research various theories into who or what sank the Battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor on February 15, 1898. The sinking of the Maine ultimately led the United States into a war with Spain.
American parents aren’t likely to get too upset if their children conclude an American battleship that sank over 100 years ago went down due to an accident instead of a Spanish mine as was widely assumed at the time, but it’s hard to imagine many of them remaining silent when it comes to climate change, evolution, vaccines, or race relations. They haven’t so far. In just the past year Mark Twain and Harper Lee were targeted by the school board in Duluth, Minnesota because their books contained language that might make students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”
One of the appeals of the reading, writing, and arithmetic mantra is that learning these skills, at least in theory, doesn’t require teachers to raise too many questions or address contemporary controversies. Once a kid has the capacity to read, it’s just assumed they will figure it all out for themselves as an adult when and if they choose to. But learning to read is about more than just memorizing the alphabet and passing a spelling test. It’s about knowing how to think too.
The California media literacy bill failed on its first attempt in 2017, but it’s back again this year. If it passes, implementation will certainly be carefully watched to see what kind of impact it has on students being thrown into the sea of digital technologies we’ve created. Will they sink or swim? One thing is certain, however; it increasingly appears as though everything is riding upon their capacity to keep their heads above water.
In the August 27 issue of the New York Times, the author Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews two new books hitting the shelves: The Splintering of the American Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind. As the titles suggest, their authors rue the polarization, hypersensitivity, and inability to cope with controversies that now grips Americans right across the political spectrum.
But what got my attention wasn’t Williams assessment of these newly published works so much as the closing paragraph of his review. It was clearly more about us than it was either of the books he had just shared his thoughts on. Williams concludes:
What both of these books make clear from a variety of angles is that if we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert. Yet as the tenuousness of even our most noble and seemingly durable civil rights gains grows more apparent by the news cycle, we must also reckon with the possibility that a full healing may forever lie on the horizon. And so we will need citizens who are able to find ways to move on despite this, without letting their discomfort traumatize or consume them. If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble.”
The anti-democratic forces that are currently so vocal in the United States would no doubt frame the kind of educational goals Williams identifies as some sort of conspiracy to destroy their movement and they would be right. They will claim that any attempt to instill in children critical thinking skills and an understanding of the nation’s history, laws, and aspirations are biased because these efforts fail to treat their own anti-intellectual, unscientific, and undemocratic points of view as worthy of equal of time. Again, they will be correct.
Freedom of speech means everyone gets to express themselves. However, it does not mean that every idea deserves equal press coverage or even any press coverage at all. Thinking is hard work precisely because it requires us to critically evaluate the concepts we’re exposed to. It determines not only what is and isn’t worthy of our time and attention but which ideas have the potential to either threaten or enrich our lives and those of our fellow citizens. There are sound methods for making these determinations that have proven themselves over and over again, but they can’t do us any good if we refuse to learn them.
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The old cliche ‘You get what you pay for’ doesn’t always apply, but it usually does. The things we value typically come with a price attached because what’s worthwhile takes some effort to produce, use, and maintain. This is as true for physical products like laptops and refrigerators as it is for services like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
The current public debate surrounding the deplatforming of Infowars demonstrates just how wrong we’ve been to accept the services our social media platforms provide free of charge. In hindsight, we should have known the ability to communicate and develop online relationships with people on the other side of the globe was going to come at a cost, even if that cost turned out to be hidden rather than in the form of the usual direct hit to our wallets.
We are finally beginning to realize that we, the users of these platforms, were the product all along. The companies that developed the online services we use have to make money somehow. Collecting massive amounts of data that can be shared with advertisers and political campaigns turned out to be a pretty good business. Unfortunately, it also turns out to be amoral.
When what is being mined is information about a platform’s users it doesn’t matter if those users are clicking on salacious posts, fake news, nutty conspiracy theories, or hate speech any more than it matters if they prefer vacation photos, the New York Times, science podcasts, or happy birthday messages. The point is to gather the most information possible about the population by whatever means necessary and to amplify exposure to the identified preferences. This effort includes vacuuming up all our weird searches and documenting our often unconscious bias for instantly gratifying if frequently rather unedifying content.
Madison Avenue knew that sex and other provocative messages moved the merchandise they were peddling long before social media came along. What an internet that consists largely of free online services algorithmically amplifying some of our worst tendencies provides is a far more efficient delivery vehicle. That If given the choice between a free TED talk or free outrageous videos depicting a guy shouting crazy theories into a microphone the latter would enjoy a disproportionate competitive advantage should have come as no surprise to those familiar with evolutionary biology. Alex Jones is the information age’s equivalent of the guy on the savannah shouting about a hungry lion lurking in the grass while the best TED lectures are more like a story being told about a lion to a group sitting safely around the campfire.
While everyone finds it difficult to consistently resist the so-called clickbait, that doesn’t mean we won’t discover that the internet equivalent of the old campfire stories are far more satisfying experiences in the end. We shouldn’t conclude our innate tendency to gravitate toward instant gratification is evidence we find said gratification more meaningful in the long run.
Our current social media environment emerged as we were just beginning to truly explore the possibilities the internet had to offer. As a result, it developed in an ad hoc fashion. Young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg were playful experimenters with a technology whose reach and power they couldn’t have foreseen. When Zuckerberg and his college roommate Eduardo Saverin first created their social network, they weren’t imagining something with global reach. It was initially intended to extend no further than their fellow Harvard classmates.
But now Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other social media have achieved a scale and breadth that poses a threat to the very democratic institutions that gave them room to emerge in the first place. These services are available for free to anyone with access to a computer and a few extra dollars to give to an internet service provider each month.
This fact distinguishes social media networks from the books that entered mass production after Gutenberg invented his printing press in the mid 15th century. While books became considerably cheaper and more readily available in the decades that followed Gutenberg’s creation, they still required some financial investment and demanded a fair amount of time to read. Social media is a time suck to be sure, but the way it consumes our spare hours and attention is considerably more fragmented.
Smartphone technology means social media and other websites are sources of information we can easily engage with while waiting for our morning coffee, whereas a book requires us to commit ourselves to a certain degree of solitude and concentration in order to be readily absorbed. In addition, books and other non-electronic forms of the written word don’t demand an immediate response. They are mediums that come with time to reflect and absorb their contents provided as byproducts of the technology.
Markets, if they are functioning properly, provide societies with the collective means to place a price upon the products and services people find meaningful. That’s why we still typically pay for books. Even our public libraries are financed through our tax dollars and donations. It is largely by avoiding these sorts of direct private and indirect public contributions that social media has been able to accumulate billions of users globally.
This huge population of “subscribers” gives the impression that the public finds the services Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and others provide truly meaningful. But given individuals are only asked to pay if they have something to sell or promote on these networks it’s impossible to know to what degree the average user really values them.
Research shows it’s meaning, not happiness, that ultimately matters most when it comes to human well-being. According to an August 2013 article in The Atlantic regarding research into the relationship between happiness, meaning, and health those that report greater meaning but less happiness generally enjoy greater health than those that report happiness alone or neither happiness nor meaning.
[Researchers] Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.
“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you as adversity,” says Fredrickson.
Of course, just because social media is generally provided free of charge doesn’t mean it’s devoid of people who find at least some meaning interacting online. However, if we accept the standard principles of market economics it almost certainly does mean these online services have far more people participating for purely hedonic or other shallow self-gratifying reasons than would otherwise be the case if they came at some small cost to subscribers.
But if we assume that, for the sake of argument, every user that now uses Facebook (or Twitter, Youtube, etc.) for free really does value the service the company provides, then these same people should be willing to pay some small charge for the continued privilege, even if only reluctantly. If nothing else, as paying subscribers they would likely receive greater privacy protections and enjoy less exposure to unwanted advertising then is the case now. After all, Facebook and other social networks would have a strong incentive to protect the personal information of its individual users if these users suddenly became the primary source of revenue.
Fees to access social networks wouldn’t need to be exorbitant. A small flat fee or a charge of a few cents per post would generate billions in annual revenue assuming companies like Facebook retained most of their current users following implementation. In Facebook’s case, even a 75% decline in active accounts could still easily generate two to three billion dollars a month in revenue for the company. Presumably, the remaining 25% would consist primarily of those that really appreciate the service and would, therefore, be less likely to post trivial, misleading, false or derogatory material.
For low-income customers social media companies may want to provide a means for people to apply for waivers or lower rates. Free or discounted access could also be provided to students or seniors. But even taking the time to apply for such benefits would demonstrate a willingness to invest a little personal effort into obtaining access, and personal investment of any sort means that in the end the users that are left would be, by and large, those that find social media truly meaningful.
Let us pause here to remark on a major recurrent dynamic that has shaped the course of attention industries: ‘the revolt.’ Industries may have an inherent tendency to ‘nestle everywhere,’ but when the commodity in question is access to people’s minds, the perpetual quest for growth ensures that forms of backlash, both major and minor, are all but inevitable…But the revolts can also take another, more dramatic form that is central to our story. When audiences begin to believe that they are being ill-used — whether overloaded, fooled, tricked, or purposefully manipulated — the reaction can be severe and long-lasting enough to have serious commercial consequences and require a significant reinvention of approach. ~ Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads
The impact to the social media world of a population of invested clients as opposed to passive users is difficult to specifically predict but it would certainly be profound. As customers instead of products, subscribers would very likely have to be empowered to take a greater role in shaping the information they wish to read/view instead of allowing an algorithm to make all/most of these choices for them. Those seeking to get users’ attention would have to compete for it instead of purchasing data from the company and targeting them with clickbait built around their predetermined biases and interests. Advertising could be extremely curtailed or eliminated altogether in such an environment, allowing for a greater focus on ideas, art, music and quality video productions. People increasingly could log in to be inspired as well as to stay in touch with people they care about instead of feeling infuriated when they slam their laptop shut.
The first tentative invitations to invest in the media we want instead of passively accepting the media that’s been handed to us have already been sent. This article will first appear on Medium, which provides unlimited access for $5 a month (US) and allows readers to “clap” for the content they appreciate. Writers posting on Medium share in a portion of the $5 fees the company collects from its members based upon the popularity of and engagement with their articles.
Patreon is another example. As its name implies Patreon is built around the old-fashioned idea of patronage, enabling creators to solicit funds from fans directly without having to seek corporate sponsorships or other means of support. Though no doubt most writers, artists, musicians and podcasters using services such as these don’t make a living off them, they can at least supplement their income while producing the kind of content that actually enriches our culture instead of fuelling conspiracy theories and rage.
Newspapers too are increasingly ending the misguided practice of providing their content for free online. They’ve learned the hard way that not asking readers to at least donate to support the generation of quality reporting cheapens their product. Arguably, the abundance of free news is one reason for the erosion in public trust the press has experienced in recent years. Our local, regional and national news organizations do not exist on the same playing field as the crank on Youtube spouting his theories on what brought the Twin Towers down or speculating about whether or not we really landed men on the Moon. However, when the products of both the conspiracy theorist and the reporter are available at no cost the illusion that somehow each is offering a perspective worthy of our time and attention receives at least some unintentional validation.
While writing of freedom in his revolutionary pamphlet The American Crisis,Thomas Paine reminded his readers “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” He continued, “Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its good; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
Both the means and the content of communications in a free society have consequences for the preservation of that freedom. The ads bought on Facebook as part of the Russian misinformation campaign every intelligence agency agrees took place during the 2016 campaign are said to have cost only around $100,000. Services that rely solely on advertising for their revenue will inevitably be used for such purposes again. Indeed, they probably already are. If how we communicate with friends, family, and with our fellow citizens isn’t worth a few dollars a month to ensure our social networks are serving us instead of inadvertently undermining our democratic institutions or advancing other nefarious agendas, then we should be asking ourselves why we’re wasting so much time on them in the first place.
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