In the most recent issue of the prestigious American Economic Review, a group of well-known economists published a paper titled “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” It presents the results of one of the largest randomized trials ever conducted to directly measure the personal impact of deactivating Facebook.
The experimental design is straightforward. Using Facebook ads, the researchers recruited 2,743 users who were willing to leave Facebook for one month in exchange for a cash reward. They then randomly divided these users into a Treatment group, that followed through with the deactivation, and a Control group, that was asked to keep using the platform.
The researchers deployed surveys, emails, text messages, and monitoring software to measure both the subjective well-being and behavior of both groups, both during and after the experiment.
Alfred North Whitehead was an early 20th-century mathematician and philosopher. He’s known, among many contributions, for his magisterial three-volume treatise, Principia Mathematica, which was written with Bertrand Russell and attempted to reduce all of mathematics to implications of a master set of logical axioms (Kurt Gödel, of course, had other ideas about this particular endeavor).
Whitehead later turned his attention from mathematics toward the philosophy of science, and then on to metaphysics. In total, he published 23 books between 1898 and 1948.
What does it take to produce cognitive output at such a high level? Bertrand Russell gives us a hint in the following scene from his autobiography:
“[Whitehead’s] capacity for concentration on work was quite extraordinary. One hot summer’s day, when I was staying with him at Grantchester, our friend Crompton Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say how-do-you-do to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.”
One of the things that worries me about the shoulder-shrugging manner in which our current culture is diminishing uninterrupted thinking is that I can’t help but wonder how many potential modern Whiteheads, growing up in a world of fragmentation and connectivity-primacy, will never make it to writing their own masterpieces.
As one of my readers helpfully pointed out recently, chapter 18 of this book contains the following prescriptive gem about how to succeed in an endeavor that requires you to create value with your mind:
I recently finished Edmund Morris’s epic new Thomas Edison biography. It took me a while to get used to his reverse chronology structure (he works backwards from Edison’s later years to his earlier years), but once I did, I found it riveting.
One thing that caught my attention from the book was the degree to which early 20th century Americans were exposed to rapid technological change. We think the arrival of the internet and smartphones were a big deal, but these innovations were trivial in magnitude compared to the arrival of electricity.
Constraints that had been constant throughout all of human history — the darkness of night, the slow pace of information dissemination — were obliterated in just a few decades.
Edison was born in an age of horses and sailing ships. His death was broadcast worldwide via radio waves, and whole cities — their streets clogged with cars and their skies blotted with steel-girded buildings — temporarily powered down their ubiquitous electric lights to honor his passing.
These changes naturally led to some reactionary technophobia (though, as I argued in a recent op-ed for WIRED, there wasn’t as much of this resistance as popular commentators like to imply). I’m interested in this historical moment of technophobia, as skeptical technology commentators such as myself, or Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, and Douglas Rushkoff, are sometimes associated with this tradition by our detractors.
It’s been about a month since I proposed the Analog January Challenge. Accordingly, I’ve begun to receive reports from those who’ve made it through a full four weeks of enhanced analog activity.
I thought it would be interesting to share one of these case studies…
One of the first reports I received was from Edward (not his real name), a young man living in London, who ended up traveling to Florida to visit family during the month.
Edward claimed that jet lag complicated the READ piece of the challenge, but he still managed to finish two biographies, a non-fiction book on psychology, and Gone With the Wind. He also started Little Women, as he figured it was probably smart to have read the book before going to see the Greta Gerwig film.
As for the MOVE piece, Edward noted that “London really does save my butt on this one.” While in the city, he found it both easy and enjoyable to walk its historic streets, observing his surroundings and allowing his own thoughts to keep him company. When the “crazy city noise” got overwhelming, he’d find refuge in Hyde Park.
Edward’s time in Florida, on the other hand, was a different story. As he explained, unless you live in one of the Sunshine State’s big cities, “the incentive to move for any reason is severely curtailed.”
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