“Is This Helpful?”

The first book I checked off my list this year was one I had heard about thousands of times since I was little but never actually read: 1984 by George Orwell.

I think what finally got me over the edge was this Reading List for the Resistance from Jason Kottke, so thanks Jason.

I very much enjoyed the book, and in a way, I’m glad that I waited until this very instant to read it. I think my younger self would have dismissed it as delusional and irrelevant, as I tend to retreat from science fiction the moment it feels implausible to me.

Reading the 1949 novel now though, at a moment in which the stiff boot of authoritarianism threatens to become part of American lives for the first time, I’m struck by how prescient it now seems.

There are a lot ideas from the book that feel more and more familiar in today’s world, but the one I can’t get away from is the concept of newspeak. For those who haven’t read the book, newspeak is a new language developed by the oppressive government that drastically reduces the amount and complexity of words in order to drastically reduce the amount and complexity of thought amongst the citizenry. The idea is, if you can remove say, 95% of words from the English language, new generations will not be able to formulate the undesirable thoughts represented by the eliminated words (think “coup”, “resistance”, “steal”, etc).

The end result is something of a pidgin. Very basic sentences, using a tiny subset of words, representing the minimal amount of thought necessary to keep the wheels of the totalitarian society running.

It strikes me that many of our communication channels today — while not being created with any sort of negative intent — may have ended up with similar properties:

  • SMS: “wut r u doin 2nite?”
  • Twitter: “Make America Great Again! #DrainTheSwamp”
  • Facebook: “OMG this story. FML.”

… and there are more. For the past several years, we’ve been moving from an information diet of deliberate, substantive reading to a staccato of disconnected one-line thoughts, culminating in a walking, squawking pile of disconnected one-line thoughts who now has the keys to the White House.

The purpose of newspeak was to deprive people of their reasoning capabilities, and the effect was exactly that. I don’t think the original purpose of SMS, Twitter, Facebook, et al was to deprive people of their reasoning capabilities at all, but…

… might they be having the same effect nonetheless?

In other words, the form need not have ill intent for the function to have ill effect. Much like nuclear energy.

As I type this post, I think about how hard it is — for me at least — to write long-form content, as compared to 5 or 10 years ago. I’ve heard similar thoughts from others, many of whom haven’t touched their blogs or Medium accounts in years. I wonder where that feeling comes from. I can think of a few sources for me personally:

  • The feeling that I can probably fit an article I want to write into a Tweet or two and be done with it.
  • The feeling that I’ve consumed so much information in a typical day that it seems like everything that needs to be said is already being said (and then some!).
  • The feeling that the things which seemed important or interesting before the election are not important at all now. For example, I can’t even think of a single design-related subject that feels important enough to write about right now, in comparison to other issues that need attention.
  • The feeling that most reading occurs on Twitter and Facebook now.
  • The feeling that what I am even semi-uniquely qualified to write about isn’t really what’s important anymore.

I am reminded of something John Gruber has written frequently, and that is “clear writing is the result of clear thinking”. John has used it to point out how poorly written product announcements usually mean that the product itself isn’t very well thought out, and the converse for well written product announcements.

I’m beginning to worry that the absence of clear writing (in both what we consume *and* what we choose to not produce on our own anymore) are leading to distinctly unclear thinking. There are the obvious cases like millions of people getting brainwashed into believing Hillary Clinton was involved in some sort of pizza chain pedophilia ring, or millions of ACA-insured people not knowing that the ACA and Obamacare are the same thing, but I worry that even the “relatively unpoisoned” among us are going through at least a bit of a poisoning right now. When information pollution is all around you — not just in content but also in format — you can’t help but breathe some of it in.

I won’t give away the ending of 1984 to those who haven’t read it, but Orwell unfortunately didn’t provide us a map to get off the trajectory we are on. I haven’t devised what that map looks like either, but I’m doing some things personally this year to avoid getting pulled into the smog:

  1. I deleted pretty much all social apps from my phone and turned off notifications for anything that is not a 1:1 or otherwise urgent message. I still use Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, but only via their mobile web versions. I may go a step further and lean entirely on Nuzzel to get the stories I need to know about. It works great for separating the wheat from the chaff, and Twitter is still the most plentiful source of both wheat and chaff.
  2. I now ask myself “Is this helpful?” before tweeting anything. The answer isn’t always yes, but it eliminates a lot of unnecessary, cynical stuff and saves that energy for more substantive writing.
  3. I’m donating time and money to causes that I haven’t been active enough with. The ACLU seems especially important right now so they have been at the top of the list. We are also heading down to Haiti in a few months to help build schools. It’s important to remember that even if you think our country is in a bad spot right now, there are people across the world who are in even more dire conditions.
  4. I’m concentrating all of my product and design energy on ideas which can help bring disparate groups of people together. Self-segregation might be the biggest existential threat to our country right now, and I can’t think of a better use of energy right now than to help cure that disease.
  5. I’m trying to read a lot more books and write a modest amount more long-form. The reading part hasn’t been any more difficult than just committing blocks of time to it. The writing part has been harder, but what has helped is refraining from any commitment to publish before I start writing. In other words, it’s ok if I end up with 2000 words that end up not being useful or coherent enough to publish… it’s the exercise that counts.
  6. In general, I’m trying to resist the increasingly staccato rhythms of life and media. If I get to the point where each day is filled with a few multi-hour, completely uninterrupted blocks of time, that will be when the best energy comes out. Those blocks have always been when the best work in the world gets done, and to think, many of us have almost none of them anymore!

It’s really hard staying motivated when 25.5% of the eligible voting population of your country just threw you into kakistocracy out of pure spite, but the other way to look at it is that most of the country — by far — isn’t cool with the incoming administration either, and the best thing that could come of this is a “rock bottom” that results in us making some positive changes in how we consume information, how we treat each other, and how we live our lives. Several years from now, I want to be able to look back on this time the same way people look at other natural disasters. Without that terrible earthquake, we would have never improved our building codes. Without that terrible flood, we would have never built those levees. Without that terrible hurricane, we would have never rebuilt this amazing city. Without that terrible disease, we would have never developed antibodies against it.

It doesn’t require giving any credit to the disaster. The disaster will always be a complete fucking disaster. But it does involve using the disaster as an opportunity to take a hard look at what got us here and rededicate our energy towards things that will get us out.

Specifically, when we spend our energy creating anything, we should stop asking “do people want this” and start asking “is this helpful?”

(This post also available on Medium.)

5 comments on ““Is This Helpful?””. Leave your own?
  1. Ben says:

    I, and my RSS reader, appreciate the longer pieces and look forward to more.

  2. Devon Shaw says:

    It’s an important distinction that shortform content like tweets, Facebook posts and screencaps of random postings/sayings are highly susceptible to troll behavior, falsehood, photoshopping/doctoring and out-of-context discussion. The viral post about the guy on Facebook not knowing that the ACA and Obamacare were the same thing was, in fact, a troll and has been locked/removed from various subreddits because of the lack of authenticity. When you traverse the land of shortform, you need the tallest boots possible to wade through the muck of incomplete and/or incomprehensible drivel, because the very format itself is wholly incapable of sustaining articulate discussion. This was never more apparent than when Eric Garland went on his mammoth 127-tweet tirade back in December. People were praising it as a “Federalist Papers of our time” (whatever that means), but if you actually laid out the tweets end-to-end in full longform paragraphs, it became immediately apparent how poorly-written and considered it really was.

    It doesn’t help that the modern trend of discourse moves at the speed of Twitter, because it’s driven by people staking out positions to control the agenda of the discussion rather than actual investigative journalism. It’s *all* fake news, in a sense. Perpetually incomplete; lacking context. We used to have a chance to marinate in editorials and consider our positions. Now you’re only heard if you shout loudly and abrasively enough on the internet. Technology has created such a severe regression in communication and articulation, I wonder if we’ll ever truly gain it back. We were promised an enlightenment — if we could keep it.

  3. Mike, I hereby *demand* (ok, politely suggest) that you also read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit) where he writes that “[t]he great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

    Also, it’s great to see writing on an independent blog like this.

  4. Mike D. says:

    Devon: Yep. While that Obamacare/ACA FB thread was entertaining, my first thought was to refrain from forwarding it because it seemed potentially fake. I think you’re definitely right about the staking out of positions as quickly and aggressively as possible being a huge culprit in what we see today. Some of the ideas I’ve been marinating on go directly towards eliminating this phenomenon. In other words, moving from a tug-of-war to more of a three-legged race.

    Steven: Thanks! I just read it. Really really good.

  5. Patrich Shaw says:

    Mike – Love to know more when you are ready about self-segregating. I ditched my social media accounts last month for many of the same reasons you mention. And have been starting a list of indicators that is might be time to pick up and leave. Not necessarily because I think they will come true, but because I want to know the difference, in advance of “the sky is falling!” and something more clinical. My list is started over here: https://patrickcshaw.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/leaving-the-land/

    I’ve been reading your stuff since the days of flash based text replacement!



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