Why This Newsletter?

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Anti-Social Media


Hogarth’s Gin Lane, 1751

In its early days social media were seen as a force for the good — people shared useful information and personal news with one another. That is still true, of course. But what few people anticipated were the negative, anti-social and even dangerous consequences of the growth of social media. (For example, just a few days ago a member of the House of Representatives had her Twitter account suspended for spreading “disinformation”, otherwise known as lies, to do with the COVID pandemic.)

I am an active member of a medium-sized church in central Virginia. Like all other churches and organizations of its type, our in-person activities have been severely curtailed for the last two years in order to protect our people and our community from the pandemic. To compensate we have successfully used Facebook and YouTube to help fill the communication gap. Nevertheless, I have advocated that we should stop using Facebook; I am uncomfortable with our church supporting an organization that is so ethically challenged. My analogy was with the Methodist church at the start of the 18th century. Drunkeness was such a major social problem that the church leaders of the time felt that they had no choice but to ban alcohol altogether.

(I recognize that there are always two sides to questions of this sort; Facebook allows many of our shut-in members to participate in our church activities, and there is no easy alternative. It’s a dilemma.)

The Dilution Effect

First class letters Credit: USPS

Another undesirable effect of social media, and of the internet in general, is that we are swamped with enormous quantities of trivial material. (The term “cat videos” has become become a short hand phrase to describe this phenomenon.) We are experiencing a dilution effect — much of the material on the internet is repetitive, tedious, foolish and tiresome.

With regard to personal information it could be that cat videos and the like do no harm; indeed they can foster healthy social relationships by allowing people to connect with one another and to maintain friendships that might otherwise wither. But when it comes to serious issues this dilution effect is more troublesome. There are countless web sites, blogs and social media posts screaming at us, “Look at me! Look at me!” And when we look at them we see nothing original, interesting or even properly researched.

In the area of climate change, for example, there are many, many posts which have the following structure.

  1. The climate is changing rapidly.

  2. The consequences are going to be very, very bad.

  3. Governments, corporations and other large organizations are to blame.

  4. Someone, somewhere needs to do something.

  5. So there.

(One side-effect of dilution is that, if you really want to communicate with someone, it is best to write them a physical letter with a first class stamp on the envelope. That form of communication has an impact because it is truly personal and because the writer has a financial investment in it.)

Our Response

In response to these problems, particularly the problem of spreading disinformation/lies to do with crucial topics such as climate change, it is tempting to say that we need to impose some form of speech control or censorship. But that response creates major difficulties of its own. People should always be free to say what they want to say, as long as they do not cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

However, it is possible that the situation is, to some extent, starting to resolve itself. Social media and many blogs may be seeding their own failure by committing the greatest sin of all — they have become boring. If this conclusion bears merit then there may be an opening for those who write and publish information that is high quality, well-written and of integrity. The audience will then self-select itself. This may be wishful thinking, but it may help explain the success of platforms such as Substack.

The focus of so much internet work in recent years has been on marketing, particularly search engine optimization. After all, “we all know that nothing sells itself”. Well, maybe what we all know is not always correct. Maybe quality writing will, at least to a degree, sell itself. We will see.

Learning to Read


The old Library of Congress

We are frequently told that writers must write so that their audience can understand what they are saying. If a reader cannot understand what is written then it is taken for granted that it is the writer, not the reader, who has a problem. Maybe the time has come to take a second look at that assumption.

Some years ago I was on a routine airplane flight. I was reading a book that was just text — there were no pictures or illustrations. (I don’t recall what the book was — maybe it was a Charles Dickens novel.) The person sitting next to me suddenly said, “I can’t do that”. I asked him what he meant. He said simply, “I can’t read”. The conversation did not progress beyond that point, but I assume that he could read a short report or Powerpoint presentation, but he could not read two pages of moderately dense text. At this point there is little value in saying that we need to improve writing skills — a person such as the passenger next to me is not going to read at all, regardless of the author’s skills. In other words, if we have trouble appreciating or understanding a classic work of literature then we need to improve our reading abilities. It would be a mistake to read dumbed down versions of the classics; we need to learn to read the original texts. (Of course, as with everything else in life, there is a balance. Some writers — 19th century German philosophers come to mind — seem to revel in needless obscurity.)

Response to Climate Change

By now it is clear that one of the greatest threats that society faces is climate change. It is also clear that our response to date has been feeble. The chart below shows the steady and seemingly inexorable rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere for the last 40 years or so. Superimposed on the chart are the dates of key international meetings (the latest was COP26) and major IPCC reports (I will explicate these terms in future posts).

Climate change and related issues such as resource depletion are going to create mass disruption. Whether they will lead to collapse is for others to decide. But there is no doubt that we are heading into very, very choppy waters.

So, we know that climate change is bad, and we know that we need to create some type of Net Zero society. But how do we get from here to there? Few people are realistically addressing that question.

 

climate change need realistic action Credit: Ian Sutton

No one has anything close to a complete answer to the “What to do?” question. What I try to do in this newsletter series is to provide realistic ways of addressing the question — with an emphasis on the word realistic. We hear from all sides that, “We need to listen to the scientists”. Fair enough, but it is now even more important to listen to the engineers, project managers and investors.

This means that we need to have serious, honest discussions and analyses as to what options are open to us and what can be realistically (that word again) achieved. We are not going to reach those goals through the use of conventional social media, for the reasons discussed above. My hope is that a more professional environment, such as that offered by Substack, will be more conducive to true problem solving.

We will see.