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Impoverished Emotional Lives (theconvivialsociety.substack.com)
121 points by imartin2k on Oct 2, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments



Slightly paraphrasing Donald Knuth:

  The Internet is a great way to stay on top of things.  

  But I want to get to the bottom of things. 
Understanding, compassion, and emotional depth require reflection, concentration, and time ... a quiet walk in a garden does more for me than an hour of social media.


Just this afternoon I was reflecting on how, in many case, N hours of internet feels like nothing in your mind. It's a long stream of nice actions that rarely lead to a worthy memory. On paper it's great, you have free, high grade information.. but something is missing.


Perhaps leave some time for contemplation. It's getting really hard to just be alone with your thoughts; a whole industry is devoted to replacing it with more scrolling. It's still worth it though.

I love going on long motorcycle rides, because I get to let thoughts resurface, and to chew on them for as long as needed. I can't chase them online unless they persist for hours. I have to just think about stuff unassisted.

I often return from longer motorcycle trips with a sense of clarity that's hard to describe.

The same applies to long walks and hiking, if I can resist using my phone.


Your motorcycle riding reminded me of Attention Restoration Theory, where spending time in nature recharges oneself in pert due to the loosely held attention (as opposed to directed attention, like when we read or spend time online).


Nature is also extremely vibrant and dense, but no abstracted or symbolic. Trying to follow squirrels in forest or pick a path in dense woods will warm up your brain quite a bit.


Observing nature is a skill that needs practice. It's one of the most rewarding things you can learn.


It's basically an extended shower thinking session.

I started adding tea breaks to my work day and it helps too, if I can force myself to sit idle on the balcony.


funny cause i mentionned contemplation here https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=33060801

i also like hiking or biking because it massages my brain and revive subtle thoughts for free


Good comment - time to put the phone away for the day.


Real engagement, not passive. Even discussions like these aren't always memorable. It's like driving the same route to and from the office for years, at some point you start arriving home or at the office with little recollection of what happened in between. You weren't asleep, but you made few new memories if nothing out of the ordinary happened (days I remember: Seeing a red truck on its side off the road, the days deer or antelope cross the path, the time a cow decided to turn up on the road, etc.). So what are you doing on the internet? Just reading? Is it creating new memories, new connections? Sometimes, but how frequently? What if you try to actively engage with the material, make summaries, try out the ideas in a small project, anything.


right, thus I wonder about two things:

- disconnected events even if passive, like contemplating, or having someone around, doesn't cause the same kind of void

- being genuinely active on internet is hard, your brain is constantly battling the possibility of a sweet distraction in your browser tab


> a quiet walk in a garden does more for me than an hour of social media.

A quiet walk in a garden does something positive whereas an hour on social media would leave me feeling very negative and depleted - there's an inverse relationship between time spent on social media and how one feels. The more time spent there, the worse one feels. You could say this is "by design" - outrage increases engagement.


I hear this repeated a all the time. I can see how this might be the case, but I just don’t get it.

My social media is overwhelmingly positive. I see celebrations, beauty, fun, and love. Social media makes me happy and more connected.

Maybe it’s because I’ve deliberately curated my feeds and follow few people? If I see something I don’t like repeatedly, I unfollow.


> Maybe it’s because I’ve deliberately curated my feeds and follow few people?

Maybe. I guess I could say my Instagram feed is like what you're saying to some extent - mostly exercise tips, recipes, underwater photography, pics of friends having dinner, etc. But twitter on the other hand was terrible. I quit twitter in May as it was just becoming an outrage factory. Maybe I've been more careful with who I'm following on IG? Maybe IG isn't as amenable to political discussions and thus tends to stay saner? I'm not sure.


Twitter is fine if you very meticulously curate who you follow and list tweets by chronological order.

But yeah, I sometimes accidentally click a trending topic. That makes me a bit sad, mostly because there clearly are a lot of people out there who aren't getting the help they need.


Do you think this maybe because of the positive connotations we ascribe to "contemplation in the garden" vs the negative connotation of "an hour of social media". I have also seen this before, where doing something with negative connotations makes me feel worse.


Connotations usually have some truth to them.


> a quiet walk in a garden does more for me than an hour of social media.

This is to me a weird way to put it, as we're probably doing both, and for different reasons. We all have different goals and expectations regarding social media, but I don't think compassion and emotional depth are the first and formost reason most of us are here for instance.

On the "social media" label, HN is one, but it works pretty differently from the others. Same goes for MMORPGs, drawing sites, reddit gardening communities etc. Putting all of it in a single basket makes the discussion a lot harder I think.


> On the "social media" label, HN is one, but it works pretty differently from the others. Same goes for MMORPGs, drawing sites, reddit gardening communities etc. Putting all of it in a single basket makes the discussion a lot harder I think.

I become very much confused when people conflate HN with social media since I more closely associate it with a forum than media. Forums I associate with discourse. Media I associate with pushed content. Sure, most sites blur the lines but it is also pretty easy to figure out the underlying intent. Twitter is about pushing messages to an audience, even if a handful of people try to encourage conversations. Reddit communities are typically for people discussing things, even though Reddit tries to push other content.


> Forums I associate with discourse. Media I associate with pushed content.

I see all services you describe as matching both, I assume your focus is really on the primary intent, or the ratio between the content publisher’s influence and the discourse amount ?

Content is of course pushed on HN as well: we’re discussing articles that are posted for our consumption, often from the people who produced the content or are related to the product described. Even when unrelated to the content, there is an intent from the user pushing the article to influence the readers in a way or another (a “thought provocative” piece will be promoting an alternative angle on common issues)

Twitter also has ton of discourse and it’s one of the few places where you’ll see an official statement from a gov. for instance be discussed in place, with lower restrictions on comments and sharing than let’s say Youtube for instance.


There's discourse on social media, often in the form of comments. IG comments, YouTube comments, etc. I bin HN in social media where speakers are generally unverified, expertise is little known, and there's little social punishment for lying. Arguably the quality of discussion is higher here than other places, but I don't think so. I just find the topics here more relevant than other places.


the internet is great for research though


I think the essay does not share my understanding of emotion. Emotions are a complex but transient physiological+psychological state in conversation with and reacting to events and thinking. The essay describes months of mourning as if people don't still grieve for months; the performative aspect of mourning constantly for months has gone out of fashion. People still grieve for months and years after the death of a loved one and the thought that somehow the internet has caused a shortening of grieving is a claim that would require much more than a substack essay for me to believe.

All emotions generally last at most 10 or 15 minutes. An emotional state can refresh due to rumination, current circumstances, etc. Losing my dog causes me to weep over multiple days, but it's not like I'm crying constantly. Instead, I cry when I would normally walk him. I cry when I would normally feed him. I cry when I go to bed by myself, without the sounds of my friend settling in too. On the same day I feel happy when I hit a new high at my gym. I feel hungry when I skip breakfast. I feel annoyed when a car booming music passes me by. It's not like I'm sad all the time even though I am grieving.

There is a conversation to be had about how social media affects the rhythms of the multiple transient emotional states humans go through regularly as part of normal behavior. But I don't think they shorten emotions specifically, because emotions are already pretty short phenomena. I would speculate they instead add in additional stimuli that affect what emotional states humans enter and how often they enter them.


I think this article is insightful, but I am compelled to short-circuit the conversation it would start, by offering a rude injunction:

Go touch grass.

Really, stop using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and their ilk. Restrict your use of media like Reddit.

OR you are doomed to be caught up in the mass emotional-intellectual toilet-circling that these platforms are a vessel for.

One of several quantum leaps in emotional vibrancy I've experienced over the last few years was refusing to scroll through Facebook anymore. It is right up there with not calling a toxic family member and taking an antidepressant.


My cheap self-enforced act to stop using Facebook for a month:

Every time someone come up on your feed (which you watch constantly you crazy bastards), hide them for 30 days. Eventually, within 5 days, barely anyone is going to be on your feed. You'll get to see that rarely seen message

"You are all caught up for now"

And thanks for writing this. It's been a year and I need another small break


I just unfollow people. It started like that then I realised that I didn't care about any of it. Now my feeds are blank.

However I follow your approach for subreddits. Old Reddit lets you remove subreddits from /r/all.

There's only HN and a heavily filtered Reddit left. I checked Reddit while logged out yesterday, and it's just awful. The purge is working.

The only problem is when websites suggest content to fill the void.


You know, deleting your account is way more effective.


My (probably useless 2c) opinion is that this something like "cheating", in the sense of conceding defeat and inability to deal with it, in a similar sense to the saying "if you hate something, you are defeated by it".

The stronger way to deal with it is to work out a relationship with the medium that doesn't harm me, and leaves me access to it should that ever be useful someday. Otherwise you're only waiting for the next mega addictive thing (say, TikTok) to come round and facing the same problem all over.

As someone with addiction problems (particularly of the computer variety) I know it's easier said than done, but I see shades of the "abstinence instead of safe sex" argument in there.


Unless you need the account for a reason or another.


And, have you got any positive prescriptions to offer? The social institutions that Twitter (and, let's be honest, television before it) replaced have since atrophied, and there's not much of a society to return to. Or, at least, it would seem from a certain "impoverished" vantage point.

So, please, without mockery, offer some positive prescriptions? Once one has "touched grass," then where are they to go? Join a bowling league?


Join nicer (online) communities, and aggressively filter out the rest.

I'm down to Hacker News, a handful of subreddits, and literally nothing else. I forget about the toxic internet like I forgot about the internet without an ad blocker.

I don't think that most of it needs replacing. I meet friends and friends of friends, and occasionally strangers, and I get plenty of interesting interactions that way. Twitter and the like were never a substitute for that.


Sure thing.

I get most of my social interactions through alternative spirituality groups I belong to.

Bowling league sounds great. I'll be attending a runner's meet-up this week. Can I run? Barely, but I want to get better.

I have weekly phone calls with long distance friends.

I have dinner / go to concerts with a cousin who lives 45 minutes away about once a month.

I have a domestic partner.

There are a number of other social pursuits that I want to take up, like using coworking spaces or makerspaces, and starting to cultivate a network of people interested in coliving.

It's challenging. I put effort into it. It's always top of mind for me to be cultivating my social life. It's very much worth it.


Same.

It took working at a social media company on ad ranking to make the thing stick; I saw how much effort is going into putting stuff in front of my brain that is sorted in terms of the likelihood that I will react to it.


Never got on Facebook, fortunately. Quit Twitter last May. I'm still on Instagram because I get a lot of good recipes, exercise tips and underwater scenes - I guess it seems lot more positive for me than the others, but possibly that's because I've been careful about who/what I follow there.


One (of many possible) ways to characterize the article is that social media, and our online lives, have restricted our emotional repertoires the way junk food has restricted our dietary ones. This resonates with me. A related phenomenon I've been thinking about -- or maybe it's the same exact one -- concerns limited emotional range.

Hypothesis: people still apply all their emotional machinery to the very restricted emotional universes that modern life presents, as they did to the full gamut of emotional experiences that people were built to deal with, but which modern life rarely elicits.

The implications of this hypothesis are unclear to me, but one candidate is that small and relatively unimportant issues that would hardly have been recognized in the past, become magnified so greatly that they can bring a group to the point of civil war or dissolution.


> restricted our emotional repertoires the way junk food has restricted our dietary ones.

/me wonders if you've read a little book "Digital Vegan" [1] :)

> Hypothesis: people still apply all their emotional machinery to the very restricted emotional universes that modern life presents,

Is modern life flattened with respect to emotion? Incendiary Twitter traffic and torrents of "hate speech" everywhere would imply otherwise. Perhaps the intensity has gone up, but the range and nuance has shrunk?

Interesting development I saw; Royal Marines started introducing "emotional intelligence literacy". Unsurprisingly the recruits hated it and thought it was "politically correct sissy stuff". Upshot was a measurable decrease in losses and incidents resulting from hot-headed decision making, poor judgement in the heat of anger etc. Emotional Intelligence now features highly in selection.

It may be that the highest "EQ" self-exclude from social media.

[1] https://digitalvegan.net


The digital vegan idea is interesting and I hadn't heard of it -- thank you. I think physiological metaphors have much to offer in thinking about online life. A sort of 'emotional hysteresis' akin to insulin resistance is another one I reach for frequently; and, like with IR, fasting seems to be a surprisingly effective intervention for the digital version of the pathology, though of course you have to apply it repeatedly to counter the 'dietary' excess.

> Is modern life flattened with respect to emotion? Incendiary Twitter traffic and torrents of "hate speech" everywhere would imply otherwise.

Maybe an example will be helpful to make this less abstract.

Most Westerners are far safer, physically, than they have ever before. They are less likely to starve to death, get eaten by a bear, be murdered, die of exposure or of an infected hang-nail. And yet, I suspect that even in the midst of this relative luxury and safety, we are just as miserable as when danger from all causes was drastically increased.

Put more mathematically, I suspect that people react emotionally to a problem of magnitude 4 as people 200 years ago reacted to a problem of magnitude 9, because progress has skewed the distribution of modern hazards so radically that the far ends of the scale are almost never experienced. So in a world of small problems, the largest small problems feels large because the brain is bad at absolutes.


200 years ago the western world reacted with magnitude 9 to the thought of an independent woman or African American, or a homosexual. Shockingly some westerners still do. While we've moved further towards a post-scarcity world, forced artificial scarcity to prop up 200-year-old economic models has become problematic. Perhaps you now have this potential access to more "luxury"(education, healthcare, housing, transport, communication), but no way to actually afford it without massive debt. You end up with a lot of people feeling insecurity about their future & the end goal of society as a whole.


There's something to be said for what you're saying. It is for sure legit that a pretty consequential risk today -- saying something dumb on Twitter and becoming unemployable in your chosen career for 5 years -- is not a thing that had to be worried about before. I acknowledge that this really does happen and it is a real thing for some people. In order to make a comment that was not completely larded with disclaimers, I didn't mention this kind of thing in my original remark.

However.

I don't care how much it hurts to be canceled, or how ponderous your student loans are, or how sad you are that you can't afford a house. Shortly before my own lifetime, my parents worried about being ruined for good when an industry moved out of our Midwestern town. They wondered how they would literally eat if that were to happen. Where could they go? What could they do? Even in the midst of current uncertainties, these worries are laughably remote for almost everyone not on the far tail of the socioeconomic distribution, a membership that includes far fewer people than ever before in history. I volunteered at a homeless shelter during peak COVID. The state of those homeless folks, vs the state of my family from the rural Midwest a few decades earlier, would be unfathomable to those who had not personally witnessed both.

Progress is real. That it doesn't _feel_ real for some is exactly my point.


Was your family being threatened by bears? Why do you mention 200 years ago initially, but your anecdote is from the 90s? Do you think they were crying wolf or overreacting and not appreciating the 170 years of progress that preceded them? Perhaps progress isn't as swift or tangible as you think it is?

I think appealing to the past generations being "a tougher breed" to undermine the current concerns of now is a weak argument. A lot of people were just told to shut up and know their place or literally die.


I use the example because I can speak to my and my family's experience directly.

I think life or death -- the prospect of starving or being homeless without recourse from relations or from society -- is different from the prospect of being stressed for other reasons. That people mistake more benign stressors for "life or death" these days is the hypothesis I am proffering.

And while I expect that you intend it as a dunk, I'll grant the point unreservedly: I very much _do_ think people were tougher in previous eras. When I read about the lives of our predecessors, and what they endured and how they bore up under it, I feel disgusted with myself. They were not perfect moral gods, but tougher? Jesus, yes.


Obviously you can speak to your family's experience, but your argument seemed to suggest they would have no room to complain compared their predecessors from 170 years ago. I don't know your exact family's story, but 30 years ago was not that long ago, and the problems faced then, many still face today. Homelessness and hunger are still major issues. Medical debt is still the largest contributor to bankruptcies. On top of this you have a major pandemic, re-stoking of cold war tensions and women's rights being rewound to the 70s.

When I look back at history I am more disgusted with the rampant exploitation that occurred, which made lives harder, an issue yet to be solved in the modern era. Sure people survived, but living a hard life is nothing anyone should aspire to, nor a reason society should be telling someone to "suck it up and stop whining".


> people react emotionally to a problem of magnitude 4 as people 200 years ago reacted to a problem of magnitude 9

A most interesting thought that I'll reflect on. Thank you. Anecdotally, I've seen adults turn pale, silent and shaky at the prospect of a lost smartphone.


Interesting points, but I don't think it goes deep enough. The rhythms of social media contribute to people's emotions, but they are also a function of people's emotions. There's a ton of parallel evolution in social media because it's seeking the intersection of capitalism's incentives and what people respond to.

I think it also ignores that social media creates opportunity for both emotional stunting and emotional growth. One of the reasons I'm still on Twitter is that it allows me to get perspectives on the world that I would never normally encounter. People all across society, people with very different experiences. Personally, I've grown a lot in the broadness of my empathy through years of frequent encounters with people just talking openly about their lives.

To make that work, though, I need to avoid spiraling down into many of social media's traps, like doomscrolling or pointless argument. Which in turn requires stronger emotional regulation than I had before. So used correctly, I feel like social media is an opportunity to practice the sort of intellectual and emotional skills that lead to good self-regulation.


Why does the author write in such laughably pretentious language?

> It is the emotional register that accounts for the Pavlovian alacrity with which we attend to our devices and the digital flows for which they are a portal

Why not just say "it's the feeling of being addicted to social media"?

Another example:

> I skim the surface of each emotional experience, but rarely can I plumb its depths or sound out its meaning.

This isn't a satire but I wish it was. If the author has something to say, maybe they should actually make an effort to say it instead of larping as a philosopher


If that's just how they write, then they aren't pretending, i.e. it's not pretentious. I don't think it's a particularly good sentence, however.


In hindsight pompous would've been a better word


yet his articles routinely get to font page and he has a ton of readers. goes to show how useless or overrated most writing advice is, such as speak plainly or write simply.


> The rhythms of digital media rush me on from crisis to crisis, from outrage to outrage.

I relatively agree with this, but I don't think social media is special. I think we are almost all blown about by our own lives, by the small world about us, and by the larger world about. Digital media has little impact here; the same would be possible via telegraph: we are in touch with one another, with larger currents. That has impacts.

I tend to think we need better means to reflect. We should be chipping in with what we are feeling, declaring how invested we really feel. And re-assessing our views & our investments latter. Rather than just a long history of meaning & caring stacking ever infinitely upwards, we should re-assess, review ourselves, where we are invested, check what we were feeling, declare whether we are feeling the same. Reflection is a missing component, and important given how exposed the individual is, how easily the self is stripped away, amid the barrage of otherness that we are so suffused in.

Overall there's a ton of obtuse barely usable loose ideas presented to strongly as how-things are in this article. It's unintelligible entirely me to me how we reach conclusions stated in the intro that we feel to little, are too impoverished. Overload does not equal absence, nor is this grappled with nor explained. Although I agree that social media lacks important functions of reflection & stepping away, I don't see how that leads at all to the dire conclusions, and I don't think there's anything inherent that prevents us from developing better reflective practices with the connected media we already have.

Also, it bugs me a lot that the author acts like emotions are only experienced in the limits of an experience. I think about the things I run into online regularly enough. I feel like the author only regards the emotions I feel right then when I'm on the site. But I feel like I'd have these emotions whether I was using social media, reading a newspaper, or on broadcast media. I am connected to the world & those feelings extend into my life. The author seems to miss that.


Easiest life hack ever - pay attention to the passage of time during events which you wish to remember as taking "forever", and don't pay attention to the passage of time during events which you wish to remember as passing more quickly. This is the root of "time flies when you're having fun" and "a watched pot never boils".


> our emotional lives tend to be impoverished in an online context

When you realize that when you pay attention to something and are getting negative results, then you become very selective about what you pay attention to. You just have to select and curate the things that excite you in a positive way, and nurture that. This applies online as-well as IRL/AFK.


I think people are just angrier and I don't know why this is. it,s not just limited to politics...angrier about everything


A while back I became unhappy with my tendency to check internet things throughout the morning. I wasn’t on social media really, though I’d scroll Twitter here and there. I justified it for a while because I wasn’t doom scrolling, but waking up early and then having nothing meaningful to show for my waking hours by 10 or 11 felt grim.

I decided to walk instead. I allow myself a podcast, but I often don’t bother with one these days. I just get dressed and go right out the door.

I guess it has been since late May, rather than stare at a screen hoping something interesting happens, almost every day (I’ve missed 3) I’ve gotten up and walked for anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes. Usually by 6am. It has been infinitely more gratifying than anything on a screen in the same time frame.

The bizarre part is that at one point, my brain was positive I’d get bored or be unsatisfied. Although I had the urge to do more with myself, it was like some addiction in me was insisting the walks would be a waste of time.

The number of personal matters I’m much more in tune with because of these mostly short walks is a bit astonishing. I was depriving myself of so many opportunities to think for myself about even mundane parts of my life that actually matter so much. Things I push aside to let myself disappear into a screen. Things I care about, but never seem to matter as much as the next page of results. All manner of little things that weren’t getting the opportunity to appear in my mind’s eye because I was too focused on the firehose of random crap called the internet that I don’t actually care much about.

It is a bit of a wake up. If this little bit of time with myself can yield so much, what about with people I care about? Without media present. Instead of time I’d maybe otherwise use a screen. How much more can I get out of this simple practice?

As it turns out, it depends a bit on the person but generally the answer has been a lot. One of my sons loves walking with me now — he can chat forever about virtually anything and he really opens up. A friend enjoys it a lot, but struggles with feeling like he has the time to… Kind of like I did at first, too. My wife enjoys it, though she seems to speed walk to turn it into exercise and it becomes sort of a task sometimes, haha.

Overall I’d say I agree with the article. Technology generally fails to deliver the same depth, although it succeeds in consuming as much or more time. As I get older, I strive to spend less time with it despite that it’s how I earn a living. For all the marvels it offers it still can’t give me anything like laughing with my son and taking in a sun rise. Or the peace of early morning, before the city is awake when you can hear the birds and rain and the breeze. These things are precious. Twitter is not.


“ “It is the emotional register that accounts for the Pavlovian alacrity with which we attend to our devices and the digital flows for which they are a portal,” I observed in 2017. “

Stroke your own dick harder. You lost me at this nonsense.


This is when I thought "this person needs an editor". This article has many flaws.


Karl Marx predicted this. See: Estranged Labor (1844)

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts...


Karl Marx did not predict this. He predicted estrangement from labor - from being emotionally dissociated from the results of your work. He didn't predict being estranged from (or worse, because of) your non-work interactions with others through media.


He absolutely predicted that. According to Marx, in capitalism, relations between people become predominated by their relations to capital. It is not a separate phenomenon.


Really? HN didn't become Facebook, even though HN is tied to the capitalist class just as much as Facebook is. I have exactly the same relation to capital when I use HN as when I use Facebook (or would, if I used Facebook), and yet the alienation is much higher with Facebook.

Marx didn't predict this. McLuhan did. HN is a different medium from Facebook (and deliberately so).




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