Open Thinkering


Tag: social media

On the paucity of ‘raising awareness’

This post is about philosophy, memes, and taking action. It’s a reflection on an experience I had this week which caused me to reflect on the paucity of ‘awareness raising’ as a tactic.

I studied Philosophy at university a couple of decades ago. One of the courses was on ethics and involved the trolley problem.

Trolley problem basic setup. A person is standing next to a lever which can divert the trolley (i.e. train/tram) onto a different track. If they do, the trolley will hit one person instead of five. CC BY-SA McGeddon, Wikimedia Commons

The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. The series usually begins with a scenario in which a runaway tram or trolley is on course to collide with and kill a number of people (traditionally five) down the track, but a driver or bystander can intervene and divert the vehicle to kill just one person on a different track. Then other variations of the runaway vehicle, and analogous life-and-death dilemmas (medical, judicial etc.) are posed, each containing the option to either do nothing, in which case several people will be killed, or intervene and sacrifice one initially “safe” person to save the others.

It’s a powerful tool to generate insights into your own ethical position on certain topics. These days, it’s rolled out to warn about outsourcing decision-making to the systems underpinning self-driving cars. And, of course, it’s now a recognisable meme.

Trolley problem where nobody is tied to the track. The words read "nobody is in danger" and "however, you can pull the lever to make the train get closer just so you can wave at all the people"

In my experience, most of the trolley problem thought experiments lead towards an understanding of supererogation.

In ethics, an act is supererogatory if it is good but not morally required to be done. It refers to an act that is more than is necessary, when another course of action—involving less—would still be an acceptable action. It differs from a duty, which is an act wrong not to do, and from acts morally neutral. Supererogation may be considered as performing above and beyond a normative course of duty to further benefits and functionality.

Interestingly, in a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, Theron Pummer suggested a twist on this. Pummer, who is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, has published a book entitled The Rules of Rescue. I haven’t read it yet, but to quote the summary on his own web page about the book:

Pummer argues that we are often morally required to engage in effective altruism, directing altruistic efforts in ways that help the most. Even when the personal sacrifice involved makes it morally permissible not to help at all, he contends, it often remains wrong to provide less help rather than more.

I have issues with Effective Altruism, which I’ll not go into here, but I find Pummer’s framing fascinating. Basically, you don’t have to help others in certain situations; no-one would think it was immoral or illegal to go about your business. However, if you do decide to help, then there’s a minimum amount of help that could reasonably be required.

This week, I was at MozFest House. I had a good time. As with all MozFests I’ve been to, there are exhibits with which you can interact. One of them asked you to use a touch screen to fill in details of the kinds of services you use. It then printed out a long receipt on the type of data that is gathered on you when using them. I asked the PhD students who had come up with the machine what I was supposed to do with this data. They intimated that they were merely raising awareness and didn’t suggest a single thing I could do.

I was left in a worse position than I began. One could say that’s the point of awareness-raising, that it’s about making people feel discomfort so that they take action. But if you’re going to make an intervention I would agree with Theron Pummer’s stance that there’s a certain minimum level of guidance to give. A first step, at least.

Contrast this with another interactive exhibit in which you received tokens for free coffee if you answered a series of questions about yourself. I managed to get three by lying and not providing personal data. Which, of course, could be said to be the point of the exercise: be careful about the data you put out there, especially for scant reward.

Once you see people putting in the minimum effort of ‘awareness raising’ you start seeing it everywhere. It’s particularly prevalent on social media, where it takes a single tap to reshare news and make others aware of something you’ve just seen. As humans, though, we tend to have a bias towards avoiding harm so social media timelines become full of doom.

I’m on a bit of a mission to get some more positivity into my life. Not in a mindless way. Not in an avoiding-reality kind of way. But rather following people who have noticed a problem and are doing something about it. Seeking out those who can take a step back and look at the wider picture. And, of course, those who share some of the wonder of the world around us.

Returning to logo

After time away from social media while on holiday, I’ve come to the decision to leave and return to You can now find and follow me at [email protected]!

There are several reasons for this decision:

  • Home timeline — Fosstodon has grown in membership quite a lot over the past couple of years, which is great in and of itself. However, the ‘local’ timeline is important to me, and as Fosstodon has grown I’ve found it’s less relevant to my context.
  • Reply-guys — there are some people (mostly middle-aged white guys) who seem to think it’s their duty in life to point out that a particular thing isn’t 100% FLOSS (Free, Libre, Open Source Software). There’s only so much of this I can tolerate.
  • Co-operation — while I’m still very much interested in making the world more open in every way (including Open Source) I think what the world needs more than anything is more co-operation. I’m a founding member of a co-op, and part of a network of co-ops. This is how the world gets better and, right now, I want to have my home timeline full of ways we can do that.

I was part of for a year from 2017-18. I left after some drama, which was ultimately resolved. In my interactions with the team while applying for membership, I’ve been informed that it was very much a learning experience and things are in place now (see the wiki!) to prevent such things happening again.

For those keeping track, I’ve now gone → → → It’s easy to migrate accounts, although posts don’t come with you (I delete them every three months anyway!)

Many thanks to Kev Quirk and Mike Stone for setting up Fosstodon, and for the excellent moderation team! I’m looking forward being a member of the community again and, of course, still being part of the Fediverse 🤘

Context collection, not context collapse

On holiday last week, I read How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy by Jenny Odell. It’s an inspirational book, based on a blog post she published a few years ago; I should have read it when it first came out.

Part of the 'How to Do Nothing' book cover

I’m going to quote a fair few sections of it, out of order, to make a few points. First, it’s really good to see so many authors of non-fiction books I’ve read recently to say that they’re explicitly anti-capitalist.

My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

Odell has in her crosshairs the ‘attention economy’ which largely is synonymous with centralised social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. What I find interesting is the way she weaves her own story and sense of place around her philosophical and historical investigations of what it means to be human.

It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important because of the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention. In both cases, there’s a tendency toward an aggressive monoculture, where those components that are seen as “not useful” and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or by Facebook) are the first to go. Because it proceeds from a false understanding of life as atomized and optimizable, this view of usefulness fails to recognize the ecosystem as a living whole that in fact needs all of its parts to function.

Places, by definition, have context. You are in this place doing this thing. Social media feeds, on the other hand, suffer from what danah boyd calls ‘context collapse’: lots of things posted by different people one after another with no semblance of cohesion.

Like Odell, I spent many years on Twitter in particular, playing to the gallery and thinking in tweet-sized chunks. It does not lead to a flourishing life.

I think often about how much time and energy we use thinking up things to say that would go over well with a context-collapsed crowd—not to mention checking back on how that crowd is responding. This is its own form of “research,” and when I do it, it feels not only pathetic but like a waste of energy

While I’d argue that things were different in the very early days, nowadays spending a lot of time on centralised social media services is an exercise in thinking with the herd. Outliers are ostracised.

William Deresiewicz warns… in “Solitude and Leadership,” a speech to an audience of college students in 2010 [that by] spending too much time on social media and chained to the news cycle, he says, “[y]ou are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.”

The apotheosis of this is shaping your ‘personal brand’ so that others have a fixed view of who you and what you offer. This is acquiescing to a capitalist frame of reference where value is extracted for the benefit of others.

Ultimately, I argue for a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.

Odell suggests that we should disengage from such personal branding activities and instead engage in activities which she calls ‘resisting in place’.

To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.

So, instead of presenting oneself as a unified, unchanging ‘brand’ separate from others and the world, Odell suggests that we should recognise that we are unavoidably shaped by the interactions we have with others and the world.

What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is not just that it results in a probably very boring (and bored) person; it’s that it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world. Although I can understand it as the logical outcome of a very human craving for stability and categories, I also see this desire as, ironically, the intersection of many forces inside and outside this imagined “self”: fear of change, capitalist ideas of time and value, and an inability to accept mortality. It’s also about control, since if we recognize that what we experience as the self is completely bound to others, determined not by essential qualities but by relationships, then we must further relinquish the ideas of a controllable identity and of a neutral, apolitical existence (the mythology that attends gentrification). But whether we are the fluid product of our interactions with others is not our choice to make. The only choice is whether to recognize this reality or not.

One way of thinking about two different ways of interacting online is to differentiate between connectivity and sensitivity. One is about unambiguously spreading information, the other about encountering others.

Writing about the circulation of information, Berardi makes a distinction that’s especially helpful here, between what he calls connectivity and sensitivity. Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information among compatible units—an example would be an article racking up a bunch of shares very quickly and unthinkingly by like-minded people on Facebook. With connectivity, you either are or are not compatible. Red or blue: check the box. In this transmission of information, the units don’t change, nor does the information.

Sensitivity, in contrast, involves a difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous—and this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in time. Not only that, due to the effort of sensing, the two entities might come away from the encounter a bit different than they went in.


So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in-person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both. Obviously, online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being online, but also arguably for profit, since the difference between connectivity and sensitivity is time, and time is money. Again, too expensive.

As humans, we tend to only notice big changes; small things that drip-feed escape our notice. We don’t tend to think they’re particularly important. This is true of small changes to seasonal temperatures that over time constitute climate change, but also applies to changes in our behaviour.

An example of this comes from James Williams who, writing about ad blockers on the University of Oxford’s ‘Practical Ethics’ blog, explains what’s at stake: nothing less than our freedom. Odell paraphrases him as saying that what we see as merely irritating actually prevent us from flourishing.

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

What we need to be doing, therefore, is to be seeking out spaces for context collection rather than context collapse. I like this way of framing things, as it’s both a philosophical and practical approach. I’ve already had discussions with the Bonfire team about ways in which posts can be displayed in ways that are neither algorithmic nor merely pile one contextless thing after another.

If, as I’ve argued, certain types of thought require certain types of spaces, then any attempt at “context collection” will have to deal not only with context collapse online, but with preserving public and open space, as well as the meeting public and open space, as well as the meeting places important to threatened cultures and communities.

This book has really made me question what I’ve been doing (and what I will be doing in the future) online. Not more of the same, that’s for sure.