Cal Newport's got a new book coming out, so he's making as big a splash as he can right now. He's appearing on podcasts, radio, TV, anything he can that gets interest in his book Digital Minimalism. His goal is to get some number of pre-orders, which (due to the structure of how best-sellers are calculated) will lead to a more vibrant appearance of popularity, allowing him more media appearances, to, again, pitch people on the ideas of his books.
Change one part of the algorithm – currently best-sellers count all pre-orders as sales on the day of release instead of the date of order – and this strategy, shared by many authors, changes. If best-seller lists replaced by a more Rotten Tomatoes-esque ratings system (which seems inevitable enough), it changes again. Change it to individualized recommendations out of a vast sea of a catalog, like on YouTube? And the strategy changes again. Looking at how much a small microstructure rule change on YouTube can alter the most successful content, we can see the algorithms and rules matter a lot.
I'd be interested in someone doing a study where (under the guise of paying people to read and review things on Amazon – a very real practice meant to operate in another very specific rule set) they see whether reading Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism leads to an increase in solitude beyond the time spent reading the book, on average.
When someone criticizes algorithms that've been used to manipulate your attention, I think it's extremely important to investigate their role in "the media" to try and get a firm grasp on how they relate to the system they critique.
Not to say there's a conflict of interest – although there is, a book author is espousing the dangers of social media, a major competitor to reading books – or that he's insincere. I'm sure his book is extremely sincere. But how much of the book itself is part of a larger system constructed to serve the needs of any audience that exists? I did not hear about this book from a friend or loved one. I did not see it on the shelf of a trusted acquaintance's library and presume it to be of general trustworthiness and utility. I heard it from a system no less mechanical than Facebook.
And if the book is a product of that system, a system that gives people essentially the thing they want with maximum ease, I suspect it will not be effective, even if it persuasive. There's an extent to which, if you really think the book is onto something, you ought not buy it. Writing, at least in this form – commentless, feedbackless writing – it's a solitary activity, as Newport would refer to it. But reading it is just another turn of in cycle of increasingly refined ideas being consumed because they appeal to your desire for more ideas.
That being said, we can have dialogues in this format. I've tried encouraging people to write longer letters and emails to each other. I think that's a good thing to do, even if email now has the push-update-hell system to it as well.
Previously, I thought it was an issue of mechanism – obviously, you couldn't compete with Facebook, but you could provide a mechanical option for something healthier. But just letters isn't enough. You need a public call to conversation. And that's what I hope this is. Take the time, write a solitary response, put it in your own space – I'll try and listen to you too.