Category Archives: Modern Living

Why do people prefer to archive their life instead of living it?

When young-ish people do activities nowadays, like going to a party, to a concert or whatever, you’ll see many of them perceiving most of the event through the display of their phones, busy taking videos and pictures. It seems like it is more important to many folks to document what they’re doing than actually doing it.

Why do people rather record videos and photos of their activities than just enjoying the moment? If you ask them, most will pretend that they want to be able to remember what happened years later, and archiving it digitally is the best way to not loose track of what was going on. While that is true, undeniably, I suspect that most people will never look at most of their old photos and videos ever again. The predominant behaviour on the other hand is to immediately post and share the videos and photos, most likely in order to improve the digital depiction of one self. In other words it might be more important to people to improve on the way others perceive them digitally than really living what they’re pretending to be doing.

What is even more surprising than archiving real life instead of living it is that many people rather talk (writing messages) to other people on their phone than to the people they’re socialising with. Sure, whenever I get an email or a text, I feel slightly pressured too, to answer as quickly as possible. But only very few of my incoming messages actually have to be answered within one hour or so. And that won’t be much different for other people, so that can’t be the only reason.

Is it that we usually meet up with people that are less important than other folks we’re texting with? I don’t think that’s the reason either. So what is then? I think part of the answer might be the decreasing attention span of people. It might just be too hard for people to devote their attention for an extended period to the folks hanging out with them. The other reason might be social efficiency. Since we are already spending time with the people we’re hanging out with (even if we’re texting instead), we can socialise with other people on our phone at the same time. We can, in other words, satisfy the socialising needs of more people at the same time, even if we’re sacrificing the direct interaction with the people next to us. But since most of them are doing the same thing, it can’t be that harmful, right?

Do I do it? Well, certainly not the life-archiving part, but that’s mostly because I don’t really enjoy taking photos too much. How about communicating with other people on the phone while socialising in real life? I try not to. Call me old school, but I still find it a little insulting. However, I sometimes do it if I really feel that I have to answer certain texts in a timely manner. I also start doing it when the people I’m socialising with are doing it, basically to hold a mirror up to them; needless to say that no one ever gets my subtle behavioural critique though.

People should not be afraid of their governments. But actually they couldn’t care less.

After all has been said and done over and over, it still took me a fair amount of time to realize what bothered me the most about the NSA affair. Have we been really surprised by what the NSA is doing? Not so much. Is Edward Snowden a hero? Probably, but hero is too much of a militaristic term for my taste. Should we be okay with being spied on? Of course not. Isn’t the data’s content much more important than the meta-data that the NSA is tracking? Not at all. But those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear? Quite on the contrary.

The idea of spying massively on people is not new. Most classic dystopian stories like 1984 are centered around an omnipresent all-seeing eye kind of state. Even in our own recent history we had governments like the German Democratic Republic in Eastern Germany that massively spied on their people with severe consequences for major parts of the population. So not much about what we’re seeing today is a genuinely new phenomenon.

The graphic novel V for Vendetta also draws the picture of a dystopian state, and the main character that tries to liberate the oppressed people states at some point one of the most iconic sentences about dystopian states: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

I always liked that sentence, and I still do. Now interestingly, while it should apply to the current situation, it doesn’t. It’s actually the other way around, although the government is spying on the people.

Edward Snowden himself closed with the following words in his famous interview with the Guardian, speaking about what he fears to come out of all of this:

The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They’ll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won’t be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.

But people are not only not willing to stand up, they, by and large, couldn’t care less. To me, that’s the most interesting thing about the whole thing. And even I feel fairly detached about the matter. But haven’t I been idealistic once? Haven’t I swore to myself to being one of the first to stand up against any form of state-sanctioned oppression or state-sanctioned undermining of civil rights? And yet, here I am, shrugging my shoulders. Is this what getting old feels like? You give up on your ideals? Maybe. But even if so – sadly enough -, this can only be half the truth.

Because I’m not the only one. There are millions of young people that must have had the same thoughts that I had at that age. But apparently they don’t care either. Is it the openness of the Internet that transformed our innermost perception of privacy and of the importance of privacy? Do we first need to see with our own eyes how our governments might use our own data against us?

I am not trying to be apologetic here. I am just surprised by how less people care, including me.

Once upon a time in Japan, one year ago

The following is an old blog post from last year that I’ve posted on a different blog that I’ve now closed. In restrospective not much has changed since then in my views. I have to admit, however, that some thoughts are fairly pathetic – I guess I was still overwhelmed by everything when I wrote it.

I’ve spent the first couple of days in Tokyo and went then to Kyoto. Tokyo is an incredibly large city packed with skyscrapers. If you go up one of the high buildings around the center to get a good view, it seems like the city is never ending, like the whole world is covered with skyscrapers. Like the Death Star (without being dramatic here). It’s almost surreal. Let there be no doubt, the skyline of New York is one of the most impressive sceneries, but compared to Tokyo, Manhattan is just a very small district in this gigantic city. It has multilayered streets all over the place. It is also the first city I’ve seen that has cars but no parking spots.

I’ve spent the rest of my time in Kyoto. It is the old royal city south of Tokyo, much smaller and greener than Tokyo. The best way to get around there is to get yourself a bike. My colleague was so friendly to give me one of his bikes which made it perfectly easy for me to visit all the places I was looking for. Japan in general and Kyoto in particular are beautiful. The people devote quite some attention to small little details. Every tree has been brought into perfect shape and each plant’s color is intense. Lime green. Crimson red. It’s just a form of art. It’s like stepping into a science fiction movie. Which sounds cliche and overgeneralizing but to me it was.

As you may know, one of the most important occasions for Japanese people is the so-called cherry blossom season, which is a two weeks long period in which the cherry blossom trees bloom. It usually takes place by the end of March, but this year the trees started to bloom a little later, so I was lucky enough to enjoy the trees at full peak. People are sitting under the trees and have picnics. It is a national celebration called “Hanami”, and most Japanese people get a warm tone in their voice when talking about their cherry blossom trees. You don’t really get it at first, but you start to understand after some time that the Hanami means a lot to them. It also shows you how much of a national tragedy Fukushima was, as they didn’t celebrate the Hanami last year.

When you go by the river in Kyoto, you see many people sitting around just looking at the river or the trees besides the river. They just enjoy the beauty of the moment. We have somehow forgotten how this works; we are always obsessed by using our time as efficiently as possible, even our free time.

For me, life has always been about choosing between hedonism and delayed gratification, and I think that is pretty typical for Western cultures. Hedonism, I always thought, might give you an instant gratification, a good fun, without giving your life any meaning. You’re missing the big picture and you might as well lose yourself in perpetuating meaningless stuff over and over again. Delayed gratification, on the other hand, seems to give you the big picture. It allows you to focus on doing something you might not enjoy too much, but you are promised to be rewarded later on for doing it.

I’ve always interpreted the carpe diems along these lines. Steve Job’s quote “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life” seems to support this interpretation. You should always have the big picture in mind.

But what I now begin to understand is that delayed gratification tends to build up endless chains of in-order-to-thinking, postponing the gratification possibly infinitely long. “I’ll be dead soon” also means that you might as well be dead without being ever gratified for whatever it is you’re doing. Your big picture might not even work out as you planed it, and then you’re screwed.

Looking at the Japanese culture, I now realize that it is neither necessary nor desirable to choose between hedonism and delayed gratification. You should focus on the big picture, but you should also try to enjoy life every day. There is so much beauty in this world. We just need to relearn how to see and enjoy it. Today might by your last day, so don’t waste it doing stuff that you hate. Don’t waste it following other people’s dreams. I might be completely off the point to identify this as being a Japenese thing. (Edit: I am now pretty sure I was off the point.) Maybe it was just me thinking along these lines when I was there.

Religion in Japan obviously is quite different from ours. The original Japanese religion is Shinto and now coexists with Buddhism. There are many temples for both religions and some of them are even mixed. The Shinto religion is a polytheistic nature religion, where you basically have gods for everything. But instead of going there to just praise a lord, you pray for health or fertility or good luck in an exam. Your relationship with the god is much more demanding from your site. What I found particularly sympathetic were trees that they’ve put in front of the temples on which everybody can attach small papers that you want the god to take care of. If you think of fortune cookies, you basically take the good wishes with you and let the restaurant deal with all the bad stuff. It’s an optimistic and non-fatalistic way to deal with the future.

I probably don’t have to tell you much about the food: it’s incredibly good and fresh, and the Japanese dishes that we get in the Western world are only just ten percent of the different kinds of dishes that you get here. Many of them were exotic but also very tasteful. Be careful when trying Japanese sea cucumber though, which tastes pretty terrible, at least from my point of view. And even some Japanese people admitted that only a small fraction of them actually likes sea cucumber, so I think you’ll be on the safe side if you don’t like it.

In comparison to Japanese dishes, our food looks like it’s prepared by some uncivilized barbaric tribe. Instead of using elegant chop sticks, we get a set of tools to work on the food in order to get the stuff into manageable pieces. Even when you consider Western food like steaks or whatever, it’s a good question to ask why it’s not already cut. It would be much nicer to eat.

Everything, every ritual is carried out with the uttermost perfection. If people hand you stuff, they always turn it around in front of you before giving it you so that you can see the item in the right order. And they always give it you with both hands. This gesture somehow turns a simple action like giving you some stuff into an almost transcendental celebration.

People seem to have a fundamentally different understanding of how people should behave in society. Let me give you two examples. The public places and streets in Kyoto have no trash bins, but there is also no trash lying around. Not a single thing. I first thought that you’re probably going to be punished quite badly when being caught throwing stuff on the ground, but that’s not the thing. People see public places like their own gardens. The public is themselves. So why should they throw garbage on the ground? That just doesn’t make sense. Of course, our society has a completely different take on this. Throwing garbage on the ground in public places? As long as no one sees me, who cares?

Also small-scale stealing seems to be out of the picture. People let their bikes just stand around, leaving bags of stuff that they just bought in the baskets, and go into a shop to buy some other items. They just leave their bags and bikes without attendance. That’s amazing and it seems to just work like that.

People also seem to be generally friendly and kind. Although many do not speak English, people always try to help you, even if it takes them quite some time to accompany you to your desired destination. As a practical advice, you should take any directions that people give you with caution, as people sometimes rather give you a wrong direction than telling you that they don’t know where you should go. From what I’ve understood it’s about not giving you negative feedback. It’s about not losing your face, and that goes for both parties.

So go with the flow and try to be polite and sensitive yourself. I’ll definitely come back soon.

Modern Living: Information Overload

We live in the era of abundant information – in particular it is the real-time information that competes for our attention. And our peers obviously know that all this information is immediately available to us, so we are supposed to stay informed. It has become common sense to react quickly to new information and to be aware of it.

There are several different kinds of digital information that we are flooded with on an hourly basis.

First, there are social networks like Facebook or Google+ that keep you up to date with your friends’ interactions, activities and thoughts. You might feel like you’re missing out on some important information, so you find yourself checking your wall every now and then. However a lot of time is spent reading through spam postings. Then there is the real-time service Twitter that feeds you with the newest bits of information of people that you follow. Again, you have to spend an awful amount of time reading through the spam tweets.

Second, there are the classical news portals like the New York Times that provide you with serious news about politics, the economy, sports, arts, culture and all that. Since you’re supposed to stay informed, you regularly check the news sites throughout the day to see if something important has happened. Most of the time, however, you spend time reading some lurid or funny articles that you wouldn’t define as being of any importance to you. In fact, you would be happy if you hadn’t spent time reading them, but since you stumbled upon them, you felt the immediate urge to consume them.

Third, there are special interest blogs and sites that feed you with information about particular subjects. Usually, there is only a handful articles that a really worth a read from your point of view, but you still have to check all posts to see what deserves your attention. And again it happens that you get distracted by posts of no particular importance to you.

There are a couple of problems related to the way we digest digital information today. First and foremost, there is the problem of scanning: most of the incoming information bits are not relevant to us. But we have to commit our attention to every single item – at least for a short amount of time – to take the decision whether it is of any relevance to us. In other words, we are filtering through the content.

Second, there is the problem of content aggregation: information bits that would belong to each other coming from different sources are not grouped together. This entails the problems of invalidation, duplication and subsumption. We want to read information bits that belong to one context in one go. We do not want to read information that is not valid anymore or if there is updated information available. We do not want to read the same content twice. We do not want to read an article that is contained in another one (because we then read content twice again).

Third, there is the problem of temporal relevance. On the one hand, we need to decide whether this information piece needs our immediate attention or if we can consume it at a later stage. On the other hand, we need to decide that when we are about to consume an information piece, whether it is relevant anymore. If it’s not, there is no point in still reading it, even if we’ve decided to save it for later (but intentionally not that late) in the first place.

There are a couple of software solutions that try to solve the problem. Google News, for instance, aggregates news and presents them in a uniform way. At least for news, that solves the problem of duplication and aggregation. However, you never know whether the aggregation shows you real duplicates and you don’t really know whether one article is subsumed by another. There is also no way of invalidating news – there is only an implicit invalidation given by temporal distance and number of readers per temporal distance, but that isn’t necessarily the right way of invalidating news.

Other software systems like Flipboard or Prismatic ask you for your interests and then try to compile a personalized dashboard with information pieces published by news sites, blogs and your social networks that you might enjoy. However, the algorithms are not transparent to its users – sure, there is a lot of statistics going on and association rule mining and all that, but that’s not transparent to the layman that just wants to consume information relevant to him – and therefore not successful in solving the problem of filtering accurately. They might filter information out that would have been relevant to you. Even more problematic, they filter information types that are completely new to you, so you couldn’t say whether you’re interested in it or not. In other words, the discovery of new information is not possible with such systems in a satisfactory way.

The problem of temporal relevance is not handled in any useful way by any of these applications.

To my mind, a combination of both software and people could help to ease the problem of information overload. The software would be more of a framework like Wikipedia that allows people to commit their capacity to solve the problem of collective information overload.

First, the problem of filtering could be solved in several ways by involving human people. Instead of letting software filter information streams for you, you could instead subscribe to filtered and aggregated streams that are published by people that you put your trust in. There could be a filtered and aggregated stream by Guy Kawaski that features the important articles from the important tech blogs about the relevant new valley hot shots. There could be a filtered and aggregated stream by Kofi Annan on important articles on international policy. And so on. I would trust experts much more to filter information for me than any algorithm.

Second, the problem of content aggregation and the entailed issues could also be solved by human people. They could mark posts as invalidated, as duplicated, as being a subsumption and so on. They could even digest the most important information that is contained in a lengthy article. In many cases, I would rather subscribe to the digested version of economic news that just outlines the article’s facts about a company.

Third, the problem of temporal relevance can also easily be decided by the people. If there is an article about movie history, there is obviously almost no temporal relevance at all. If there is a feature on the upcoming soccer game, it is only relevant as long as the soccer game hasn’t happened.

All this can be decided by the people. A software system would give people the capabilities to act on the information in such ways and to promote a peer reviewed system like Wikipedia to prevent biases and vandalism. What would happen really is that a small fraction of people devotes their time to filter, tag, digest and select information so that a large fraction of people can save time – because today, all these things are done in parallel by people. And that seems like a waste of time from a society’s point of view.

Modern Living: It’s about time

There is no doubt that we are lacking time. Even our youngest students are cutting down their sleeping time to the viable minimum [Ny Mag]. The market of personal productivity tools is a booming Web 2.0 business. Self-help and self-organization books are ranked top 10 best selling books for a couple of years straight now [Amazon]. The burnout syndrome, a form of depression that occurs when people feel persistently unable to fulfill all demands that life is putting on them, has become one of the most diagnosed psychological illnesses.

Paradoxically on the other hand, we are increasingly procrastinating. There are more people playing computer games for a longer time than ever before [PC Gamer]. Despite all prophets predicting the death of television, it has never been as popular as today [LA Times]. People spend hours repeatedly checking their Facebook wall and all the links and videos that other people share with them. So it seems like there should be enough time after all. What is going on here?

First, I think that there are two main reasons contributing to all kinds of procrastination. Procrastination is giving us short-term incentives and almost instant gratifications, being it of social, entertaining or achieving kind. From an evolutionary point of view, our brain is geared towards short-term successes rather than going the extra mile for the long-term perspective. The other main reason might be related to fear. It seems favorable to postpone a stressful situation for a little time, when the situation might give you negative feedback or the impression that you need to apply even more in order to succeed.

Second, the information overload of our contemporary societies is eating up a lot of time. News is being broadcasted almost instantaneous on many different channels, and you are supposed to stay informed. This also holds true for our fields of expertise. Tech people for instance have to read a whole bunch of tech blogs and articles, economy people have to check every bits of news about macro and micro economical developments, scientists have to check all new publications of their fields (and the publication rate is steadily increasing), and so on. Then there are your social feeds, hobbies and brands that you love, such as a favorite musicians, authors, directors, actors etc.; although it’s a blessing that all this information is available on the internet for us, it also takes a lot of time to digest all of it. And yet we often get the feeling that we’re under-informed.

Third, there are many more things to do compared to earlier times (I am mostly referring to the first and second world here), and all these things are competing for your attention. Both the digital revolution and the rural exodus are contributing to that fact. As a consequence, you always feel like you’re missing out on something. This particularly holds true for your professional life. Now that we finally have the freedom to actually do everything (I know, I know, I am oversimplifying here), we are scared that the grass might be greener on the other side. We tend to think that we are making a mistake by sticking to a certain profession. There is also a number of studies concluding that an increased number of choices actually makes people more desperate than preselecting choices for them [TED].

Fourth, it seems like we are trying to pack increasingly more duties, responsibilities and training into young people, while we are not leveraging the fact that people get older and older. By stretching the load to higher ages, we could disburden the young and middle-aged people, involve the elder people and at the same time cope with the problem of paying their benefits. I think that in general, the phenomenon of delayed gratification is a trend in our cultures that might seem rational on first sight but overall is not beneficial to the individuals’ mental well-being.

Fifth – and I think this one of the most important reasons, at least in your professional life –, since the beginning of the globalization and the free markets, we, as people, are increasingly competing with each other all around the world. So by simple game theory, it follows that if my competitor is working harder and longer, I should also boost my workload, unless I am okay with missing out on a job, a patent, an invention, etc.; this trend will clearly continue, assuming, of course, that political systems won’t change in a substantial way. And this trend obviously is independent of technological advances.

I neither want to propose any solutions nor condemn any of the observed phenomena – I am struggling myself on a day-by-day basis with the feeling of not having enough time.

To give you my two cents, I think it helps to assume that you only have one life. I do not claim that you only have one life and I do not want to digress into a discussion on whether religion, atheism or agnosticism makes sense or not – I just want to stress that assuming that you only have one life really helps you to make the right decisions. And if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to do different things, don’t do something that you don’t like. You should try stuff to see whether you like it, but if you don’t, do not stick to it for whatever reason. It also shows you that indefinite delayed gratification is not a good strategy to follow. I will write another blog post on that topic.

To my mind, our nowadays societies are still fixed to anachronistic patterns of educating people, putting people to work and retiring older people. I am fairly sure that this will gradually but in the end substantially change within the next decades. I will cover this in another blog post.

As for the issue of information overload, I am very confident that technology will find a solution to that problem within the next years. I will write another blog post on that topic.

Finally, I don’t think that there is any viable solution to the problem of global competition. There are interesting concepts like basic income guarantee and so on, but even they don’t change the general pattern of being better off by doing more than your competitor. And I think that in general, liberal democratic systems have been proven to be quite motivating and fruitful for moving forward.

Speaking of time, do we all perceive time at the same rate? And if so, is this perceived rate of time an inherently human thing or do we just learn to synchronize our perception of time with our peers while we’re growing up?

And as a follow-up question: is this question rather a philosophical or a neurobiological one?