Mental Pivot #72: Philosophy, Collapse, Algospeak
An introductory anthology to essential philosophy topics, the problems of context collapse and content collapse, and the evolution of language in response to online moderation.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”—Thomas Edison
Note: While the above quote is credited to Edison, it’s likely misattributed (see: “Reliable Quotes in the Age of the Internet?”). Despite the questionable provenance, it remains a favorite.
I hope you enjoy this week's recommendations…
1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology: This collection of 150 short, introductory essays covers a wide range of philosophical topics. I’m particularly fond of the site because it’s intended for a general audience and the concise articles can be read in 5-10 minutes. Students of philosophy will find entries for all the usual subjects like ethics, epistemology, and logic.
Don’t Make Bad the Enemy of Good: Herbert Lui reminds us that being bad at something is an essential stepping stone on the journey to getting good: “Perfect things come from good things, and good things come from bad things.”
From Context Collapse to Content Collapse: Content collapse, as defined by Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) “is the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once distinct types of information.” When a cacophony of content—news, personal communication, opinion, entertainment, instruction—is jumbled together through digital information feeds as “updates”, how do we separate the signal from the noise and make sense of it all?
Your Brand Needs to Be Easily Summarizable: “Successful products are initially defined by one killer feature, personal brands by one big idea.” I wish I could summarize myself so succinctly.
A Story about Planning for Desert Storm: Fascinating account from retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst William Sayers. “Despite all the big talk and incredible claims…the Army had nothing to use as a basis for planning…in the end, Schwarzkopf just had to pray that we had enough combat power when our troops rolled across the line…he had a lot of opinions to choose from, but nothing solidly based on history. And frankly, I don’t think the situation has changed in the intervening 30 years.”
The Controversial Question to Make a Contagious Vaccine: In 1999, the first and only self-spreading vaccine field trial was conducted, on a wild rabbit population, on Isla del Aire, an island off the eastern coast of Spain. Since then, scientists have weighed the costs, benefits, and uncertainties of deploying self-spreading vaccines.
Internet ‘Algospeak’ Is Changing Our Language in Real Time: When social media platforms censor specific phrases and ideas via algorithmic content moderation filters, end users turn to inventive new euphemisms and vocabulary. “Algospeak” describes new terminology used in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game that pits media platforms against their users. For instance, instead of using the word “kill” (which can demonetize a YouTube video), creators might use “unalive.” It’s upside-down Orwellian.
The Legend of the Music Tree: Ellen Shell chronicles the tale of an ancient, one-of-a-kind mahogany tree discovered in the Chiquibul Forest in Belize in 1965. Two decades later, its timber was successfully excavated and ultimately caused a sensation among collectors, craftsmen, and luthiers for its unique visual patterns and allegedly superior acoustic properties. Of note are the acoustic guitars crafted from the tree which sell, on the low end, for $30,000 per instrument. As the author discovers, the (perceived) value of the tree resides largely in its mythical narrative, not unlike fine wine.
She Was Missing a Chunk of Her Brain. It Didn’t Matter: “A woman grew up without her left temporal lobe, which highlights how amazingly plastic the brain is.” In particular, the frontal lobes are critical for language learning and comprehension. Despite her atypical brain, she obtained a graduate degree, learned a second language, and managed a successful career.
Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid: Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) employs the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and its aftermath as a metaphor for what happened to America in the past decade: “the fragmentation of everything.” Haidt takes aim at social media and what it has done to individuals, groups, and our institutions: “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.” It’s a long piece, but worth your time.
Odds & Ends:
Free Learning List curates “the best free edu-things on the internet.” Curious minds will find helpful lists for a variety of categories including YouTube channels, podcasts, online courses, blogs, and more.
Wonder Tools Newsletter is published weekly by Jeremy Caplan and spotlights useful apps, sites, and online resources to boost your productivity
Refind is a content discovery tool that sends curated articles to your email inbox or via mobile app (iOS and Android). Focus your attention on what’s really relevant to you.
The Sample: A newsletter discovery tool. Based on your interests and feedback, The Sample sends a new newsletter recommendation to your inbox on a daily or weekly basis.
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