Controlling what you see

Controlling what you see

Wed Jun 23 2021 tools-for-thought
I spend an inordinate amount of time on Youtube. Having noticed this one morning, I quietly told myself that I wouldn't check Youtube for the rest of the work session - only to find that I would unconsciously press "Y+enter" and let the address bar's autocomplete lead me to Youtube. I would find myself on the site, not remembering how I had gotten there. More importantly, the home page recommendations had learned my preferences incredibly well. As soon as I landed on Youtube, there would be at least one video there ready for me to watch. That morning, I got nothing done. Youtube's algorithm had figured out that I really liked watching short clips of Mad Men and provided me a steady drip-feed of them, which I gorged on instead of getting anything done.

Upset at this state of affairs, I found a chrome extension that disabled the "feeds" on a number of sites (Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, even HackerNews). This helped immediately. The unconscious, muscle-memory impulse to press Y and autocomplete into Youtube was still there, but when I opened the page, the algorithmic suggestions were all gone. Staring at the blank space, I would realize that I hadn't opened Youtube because I really wanted to watch anything, I had opened it because it was my impulse to do that while bored.

I'm convinced that algorithmic feeds are poisonous. Algorithmic feeds in apps are like cocaine in old medicines or asbestos in buildings, and someday they'll be seen to be just as barbaric.

In my view, the whole movement of [[tools for thought]] (Roam, personal knowledge management systems, etc, etc.) is to make computers help us think better. That was the point from the very start, it was what Steve Jobs meant when he called the computer "a bicycle for the mind." In the last decade, we've seen the very opposite - the use of the computer as an extractive tool, a weapon to siphon attention and harvest data.

Here's a radical statement: All applications should be tools for thought. Facebook should be a tool for keeping up with friends, Instagram should be a tool for browsing and sharing photographs. [[tools for thought]] [[Manifesto]]

Users should have complete control over what they see. I'm not saying algorithmic feeds don't have their place, but they should be something users opt in to. Andy [[Matuschak]] coined the idea of "programmable attention" as something [[tools for thought]] could enable. I will say that this already exists, only in the opposite, sinister sense - right now it's the platform programming your attention, not you.