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Yellow Roses

What We Read Matters

It matters for us, our families and our friends, as well as strangers you will never meet. Everything you decide to click on changes the world. 

This is why...

Read The Change You Want to See in The World.

I have talked about reading fiction, reading nonfiction, reading genres, reading large and reading small. Today, I want to talk about reading VERY small. Articles, specifically.

People flip through articles, like this one, with regularity on their phones and computers rarely thinking about the impact what they read has on the world. that’s right, the world. I don’t want to just talk about the effect it has on you, though that is important too.

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Whatever your feelings about his triumphs and tragedy, this statement is profound wisdom. The idea that the only guarantee you have that a certain change will be imparted to the world, is to try to act in accordance with that change, is not a bad idea.

What does this have to do with reading articles?

Let’s talk about “The Algorithm.”

I am not referencing a specific single algorithm but instead the notion of big data algorithms that drive everything we see and do online. An example will serve best to show the point.

There are few headline news articles about circus dogs in tutus in my news feed. I use several different sources for my data and none of them have ever shown one to me. I don’t know of any major news network, whatever that means in the age of modern personalized media, who do so either.

This is both sides of “The Algorithm,” at play. My news feeds, track what I open, how long I look at it, how far though an article I make it and what, if any, ads or other links I click in those articles. They know that you won’t catch my attention with dancing pink-frill covered dogs. The mass audience appeal of network news knows that few people have a strong interest in this either, so they also do not market to it.

In both cases my preference, the group preference, for what is read has driven the industry at large toward a behavior. I am one small pebble in a very large deep river, but I am still a small diversion to the great course. Which brings us to you. All of you. You are a pebble too. Just as a sand bag can stop the flow of Mississippi flooding, we at large can impact the world with what we choose to read.

Articles have a direction they lean, and a point to make. They have an intention to grab attention, and little grabs attention like bad news. We are genetically hardwired from years of survival in a harsher world to focus on, and pay attention to the bad things in the world. You can only be so happy, but you can be very dead, as the brain thinks to itself. An article pops up about how shooters are running rampant and how to survive mass attacks? Better read up, I might survive. That read drives your brain into a heightened state of fight or flight, which is bad for you by the way, but it also tells the news feeds that THIS is what we want to hear about. It is a pebble added to divert the flow.

Every article that you read from “The left,” which says the right are raging idiots who are coming for your freedoms, fuels a general state of divide. Every article that you read from “The right,” which calls the left fascist pushes the same divide from the other spectrum.

This is not to say we shouldn’t read deep and complicated, even sometimes divisive material. We should. But deep material and slinging insults are very different. There is nothing wrong with debate, and civilized discourse, but is that what we are supporting in a 25 second video or a 300-word spit take piece?

What we read can be the change we want to see in the world. If you want news to be good news, seek out good news. Read good news. Support good news. Support constructive web pages, that aim to push everyone forward higher and build one another up. Help give a voice to people who are helping others and enabling the world around them instead of fear mongering, or tearing it down.

Here are some sights to get you started.

https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/

https://www.positive.news/

Try an intellectual detox. Stop reading things that make you angry, stop encouraging only the yelling, and start trying to find the good out there to read. Drive the algorithm. It’s up to all of us.

Read the Change, Part 2: The Algorithm

Several people have commented on the last reading blog, Read the change you want to see in the world. Because of some of these messages, we will talk about it a little more and give it a little more meat in three steps.

First, well look briefly at the algorithm and the basics of how it works, and why it drives finance.

The second perspective will be how the interaction with an algorithm, and echo chamber it can create, drives our own thoughts. Here we will talk more about how can we escape from echo chambers, why we should want to, and more about why there is a huge difference between healthy positive debate, and click bait insults.

Lastly, we will combine those two things to discuss how the small moments of our reading choices can make a bigger change in the world than we may realize. Examples of quick questions to ask yourself as you surf the web will join with how to find more positive websites.

Off we go…

  1. The financial basics of internet traffic.

Let’s illustrate with an example.

Like almost every human being who has a connection to the internet, I watch YouTube for fun and educational purposes. Everyone who has noticed ad placements in the commercials of YouTube, or the direct product plugs by the larger stations will understand that at least in part, YouTube monetizes the content creators directly and indirectly. The stations which are about powerlifting and moving heavy things will advertise items related to the hobby. Makes sense.

I enjoy lifting weights. One of the main purveyors of weights in America is a company called Rogue. When I listen to stations about reading, and writing, which have nothing to do with weightlifting, I get advertisements from Rogue. Rogue did not pay the content creator of the writing station to advertise on the off chance of intersections of writers and powerlifters watching. YouTube knows I like to lift, and in the allotted time frames selects commercials which are tailored to me.

Similarly, on the side of my Google scroll bar there are advertisements for books, writing workshops, exercise equipment gardening supplies and bulbs to be planted. The items selected and shown to me across all the platforms I use are unique to me. If I were to go do a search on Bing, deliberately isolating all of my gardening purchases and all my garden life, Google would still advertise it, because these companies share the information about the users with one another to drive the database.

My Google, my commercials, and yours look nothing alike.

In short traffic is all about advertisement money and driving purchases.

That is a brief snap shot of me, but the companies which have all of the billions of gigabytes of data, know that about you, me, your mom, dad, sister, brother, friends, etc. They also know the patterns. If people who like ABC statistically also like XYZ the data will show this. Amazon thrives on that recommendation system. We have come to expect it, and to many of us it either operates invisibly in the background or we rely on it for finding our next favorite author.

Now let’s take that and move forward a little.

The funding of websites, and the people who do the funding, are largely automated, and even when they are not, the role the people and organizations at the hierarchy’s top are a money first algorithm.

Make. More. Money.

Map of the Internet

The map of the internet is complicated.

If 50 % of the time when you, or anyone for that matter, shop for say, garden gnomes painted with red hats, you also search for “How to set fire to my neighbors pine trees, they are always dropping pine needles on my lawn.” This may lead to searching for and purchase of gasoline containers and strike-anywhere-matches. (That's the strangest combination I could think of.)  

Two things will happen. Data association will drive advertisements on the gnome websites for the matches and containers, and the same will happen in reverse on the gasoline sites, driving an uptick in gnome sales.

Shifty fella. I dont trust him...

I selected one very innocent thing, and one questionable thing. The funding for one type of website, literally paying for advertisement space, will spill into the other because the algorithm says if you support the website for burning down your neighbors’ woods, you will make money on gnomes. This was a silly example, but many such correlation functions exist. Your time searching and your online purchases are are like voting for how the algorithm works.  

What you spend time reading when it is innocent, can get tied to, and fund, something that is less innocent because of your history. Even if you are behind a VPN and associations are blinded to some degree, (though many VPNs will also sell your data) total traffic still drives the money to the more questionable site.

In an alternate world, where nobody ever visited the website “How to set fire to my neighbors pine trees, they are always dropping pine needles on my lawn,”.com, (I bet THAT domain name is free…) the site would die off except for the raw effort of the person maintaining it. (And maintaining a grudge.) No advertisement money would flow in, no search engine recommendation would push it to the top. Other people wouldn’t find it unless they knew to search for it.

If nobody ever purchased a piece of gym equipment because of YouTube advertisements, Rogue would stop advertising there. If nobody clicked on the ads on the sides of the website, people wouldn’t pay to be shown there. The constant barrage works.

Key takeaways:

What you search, and when you search, are shared between platforms. Those searches, and how long you spend on those sites are tracked, and used to drive revenue. Revenue comes in the form of traffic, like old foot traffic past a store but now it is a digital space. That traffic also gives revenue by ad clicks and future purchases. The demand to have the most eyes on your advertisement, the most clicks and time on your site, will drive the algorithms to direct traffic.

Next

When we kick off the next reading section for this topic, we will look in more detail at the kinds of things which grab human attention, and keep it. Why this can be bad for us, and how it leads to echo chambers for both problems and solutions will lead into debate and positive site influence verses negative site influence.

 

See you next time. For now, remember, what you read, matters.

Read the Change, Part 3: What Humans Want

Humans seek out bad news. We are hardwired to do so. Here is an example of why.

You live in a small village, under the Dunbar number, just one hundred people. You have started your day, going about your hunting and gathering, and all seems well. Sarah is having a baby soon, your cousin Joe is getting together with his dream girl. Your parents are still with you, happy and healthy. The harvest is good. Everyone you pass today waves hello and tells you how good your new tanned leather jacket looks. All good news in prehistoric village A.

You head out to fish at the stream, and while you sit there a lion comes and eats you. You are pretty happy up until you are very dead. Meanwhile nobody mentioned to Joe not to eat those red berries, he has kidney failure now, he will be dead in a few days. Mom and dad didn’t get warned about the snake problem that has been happening, so they aren’t careful about leaving their shoes on around town, and get bitten, they died too…

Or… In an alternate version of this world, Joe is being warned by Sarah about the berries. Mom and dad live in constant fear and worry about snakes, and your best friend warned you about the mountain lions and you don’t get eaten. Everyone is a bit less happy but also a lot less dead.

We are hardwired to pay attention to bad news, because it is an important part of what made the human race get this far.

The hardwiring goes so far as to take place before the signal even reaches your self-aware brain. We are able to process snakes, spiders and similar such insects in chains of pictures faster than things like fruits, vegetables, loves ones faces, and cake. We are wired for survival. Bad news meant preparedness for the news, thus survival.

What does this mean for our algorithm we previously discussed? It means in part that we seek out bad news. We drive the algorithm, by feeding our time to things which are negative, or scary to us. The algorithm, seeing that negativity and fear is what brings in cash, because that is what brings site traffic will further reinforce the loop, and deliver us more bad news. People who are running the algorithms will gear news segments to keep you in suspense with fear, saying things like “What is in your water? Stay tuned for more after this…” That’s right. They were using it and banking on the fear and negativity reaction LONG before the internet reinforced it. They kept you hooked with fear.

We want bad news.

We want it so much we disregard good news. For example, over the past 40 years, the number of people in China with incomes below $1.90 per day – the International Poverty Line as defined by the World Bank to track global extreme poverty– has fallen by close to 800 million. China has done a lot wrong, no doubt, but that is still a positive achievement. Why don’t we hear about it?

Naysayers will yell from the sidelines, “…but barely 2$ in a day is still insanely poor.” Yes. I agree, but not as poor as less than that. Starting somewhere is still progress. When you look at the number of people who enter the middle class worldwide, we see similar proportional statistics. The world is in fact getting better in many ways.

“It’s getting worse too,” naysayers will scream.

Yes, in some ways, but not most. Any serious study of history will show that you really don’t want to have been born any time but now. Sections of the world will lead and follow, rise and fall, but as a species, we have improved. So why do we amplify the naysayers?

Because that is what humans want to know about. It is hardwired into us, to focus on the bad, because that is what made us get to here. Right wing American politicians are afraid of the left, because they fear their policies will bring about the end of the world. Left wing American politicians are afraid of the right because they are afraid their policies will bring about the end of the world. They both red and focus on news articles which are doom and gloom because the other side is an object of fear. They elicit our fear response.

I bet you looked at the spider first!

This means news feeds will send your way items about how the left and right are insane. (The side shown as crazy will depend on what way you clearly lean, remember the algorithm knows if you are blue, red or in between.) It fans your fear. This is very different from choosing to listen to a serious calm, rationale debate between sides. (And they do happen.) Listening to bit-pieces and twenty second video clips about how the world is coming to an end from climate crises doesn’t move the world any closer to being helped, it just fuels our need for knowing about the harmful things which are coming for you. Spending time on thoughtful articles about what we can do, and how our actions impact the world is harder, and takes time, and does NOT trigger our fear response. The brain isn’t hardwired for that.

BUT… If we spend time deliberately seeking out positive, complex messaging, we can teach our brain, and the algorithm, to behave differently. Much like meditation can teach our brain and body to relax, what we chose to feed it can do the same. While I am not saying every article needs to be a joyous piece and we don’t have to avoid knowledge of the coming difficulties, after all, we don’t want to be eaten by the lion, not everything has to be doom and gloom. We don’t live in a world as harsh as it once was.

What we read matters for us, and our health, as much as it matters for other people’s health. We can create an internet and reading environment that fosters good, by choosing to not constantly engage with negative or fearful items. Certainly, as content creators, we should not generate them.

Remember what you read can change you and the world.

Next up… The doom loop…

Read The Change… Part 4: The Doom Loop

This is not a video game reference. It is instead trying to pull together the ideas in this short series into what I call the doom loop.

Let’s walk through a scenario.

You, (general you and 1,000 of your friends…) read an article or watch a video. It is about how material XYZ in your house, which is in all your Tupperware, drinking cups, and even your couch can cause cancer and kill you. But only if used daily or you are exposed to it on a daily basis, so don’t worry. You panic, and you read three websites and watch two more videos about material XYZ. You then decide the only conscionable thing to do in a world where you have a child in the house is to replace them all. You hop over to Amazon and grab the cheapest glassware that you can find. Then you get a new eco friendly guaranteed couch.

Let’s say 15 other people in the 1,000 are also in that camp and make major life changes. The algorithm will pick up on your collective behavior. It knows what you purchased, it knows what you browed and it does in general understand the connection. The ads sent to your websites, which are tailored to you and your log in and therefore habits start to show more ads for ecologically friendly materials, and more ads show up on YouTube, about more dangerous materials. It will also send them to strangers who watch the same video assuming their behavior will follow yours in a correlation function.

You think to yourself, what is happening? Has the world gone mad? Why are there so many dangerous materials? How did I not know? You listen, and you change behavior again, and then a third time. More ads show up, more recommended watches pop up.

You are in the loop. Is it a doom loop? Maybe. Maybe not.

Some would argue trying to be more ecologically conscious can never be a doom loop. I selected this example to question what is “doom,” because picking a political side, which has featured in this series, is also not a doom. It is when we do not know we are in the loop, and can no longer recognize the echo chamber we built for ourselves that the doom begins.

Echo chamber: An environment or ecosystem in which participants encounter beliefs that amplify or reinforce their preexisting beliefs by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal.

You didn’t enter it on purpose. You acted once. But in that action, you tell the algorithm, I will spend time here. Time “here,” means that more ad revenue will be realized in this location. The ads flock to you, you reinforce the algorithm by your purchases, and the algorithm tightens its displays for you, showing you more of what it thinks you want to see.

The problem is that it can happen when it is NOT what you want to see.

A new example.

You read an article about murder. Your pick of which kind. High school shooting. Family dispute. Drug gangs. You spend a substantial portion of time reading the article or watching the video. The algorithm picks up on this. You see more advertisements about how this is a problem. Maybe it is accompanied by self-defense ads, gun ads, body armor ads, home security system ads, etc.

You read them because you are afraid. Your heart rate spikes, you are saddened and unhappy. You take no particular action to change anything, but you flock every day to the same information. What happens? You are in an echo chamber again. You become convinced that violence is higher or worse than it is, and while any murder is too much, you would overestimate the amount per capita and your own danger because your personal data set shows a disproportionate amount of it. You start to be afraid of strangers, or family members or whoever is the source of violence as you perceive it. You feel doom, and your blood work will show you do through hormone markers and blood precure rise.

It’s a doom loop.

Every echo chamber is bad. Let me say that again because I don’t believe it matters what echo chamber you are referencing. All echo chambers are bad. No beliefs, no facts, are valid if they are not reasonably challenged from outside.

But what we can accidentally do with the internet is not just an echo chamber which is bad for us, but one that as we have seen in this series, drives the entire internet to a particular behavior introducing new people to our fear or hate chambers.

We must be careful to engage with material which is broad, deliberately from conflicting points of view. We must read and listen carefully for when we are no longer hearing anything which contradicts us, and we are too comfortable. We must be careful when we are listening and EVERYTHING scares us. The world is measurably better than it has ever been, with points that need work, sometimes a lot of work, but not a cesspool of failure with bright spots.

Avoid echo chambers. Avoid them in the small things you read. Avoid them in your books. This channel has often said we should read widely. This is another reason to do so.

Remember what you read determines not only your future, but the future of the internet.

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