Is Sharing Bad?

We often tend to describe social media as if it were the weather: that the torrent of outrage, trolling, and negativity is just a thing that happens in these ecosystems, like the rain. Tristan Harris, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, points out that all of these companies are very deliberately using anti-patterns to drive engagement on their platforms. In other words, since the thing that they are measuring on their platforms as benefits to sell to advertisers are clicks, comments, and time spent on the platform, they are using our own psychologies against us to drive these metrics. Since outrage drives the most “engagement” that’s what the algorithm pushes on us: that’s what it’s been designed to do. We’re subject to a constant firehose of outrage and negativity because that’s what gets us riled up, gets us to retweet, to share, to comment, thus the algorithm defaults to showing us more such content in the future and the cycle continues.

It is too early to say, but I feel that during this social winter, especially in the past two years, public opinion seems to be turning against these companies, or at least, Facebook, the one that seems the most malevolent and who has the largest footprint. People truly have begun to wake up to the fact that spending so much time on our devices, even when we are not being driven to outrage and distraction, is harmful to our health, or at least meant well-being. Perhaps Facebook will not take over the world.

What would social media look like without sharing?

When I think about the social platforms that make me the least distressed—that even seem worthwhile!—Instagram and micro.blog come to mind, as do newspapers, blogs, and other non-social online publications. One thing that both Instagram and micro.blog have in common is that neither has a sharing feature. I mean, you could conceivably hand copy someone else’s picture or post, but it’s not really designed to do that, and since it involves extra work, doesn’t tend to be a popular activity. In Twitter and Facebook, posts are easy to share, easy to promote into others’ feeds simply by liking or commenting. Since the most outrageous and provocative things tend to be the most “viral,” they are the ones that explode across the social network, riling us up. Maybe sharing is the problem. And the solution could be to make sharing harder, so that recommending something to another person required a bit more premeditation, a bit more work.

It is a choice these companies are making, to promote this type of content and these kind of interactions, it is a choice that they choose not to prioritize online brigades and extremists, as these groups and their sock puppets are very highly engaged. But always keep in mind, this is corporate strategy. It’s not something intrinsic to the Internet or even to social media. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Machiavelli vs. Plato

I missed this when it was originally published last summer, but this is a fascinating interview with Catherine Zuckert, author of Machiavelli’s Politics and professor at Notre Dame. I’m particularly interested in how she contrasts Machiavelli to Plato here:

What I did not see so clearly until I had completed the book was that in Machiavelli I had found the great alternative to Plato. Plato presents philosophy as the simply best form of human existence. Machiavelli challenges that conclusion by arguing that the most important aspects of human life are political. There is no great human achievement that does not presuppose the existence of a political order; yet political order is extremely difficult to establish, and even harder to maintain. As Xenophon indicated when he presented political leadership as the competitor to Socratic philosophy as the best way of life, great statesmen are characterized by extraordinary virtues—both practical and intellectual. Machiavelli goes beyond Xenophon, however, by showing how a political order can be founded and maintained that satisfies the desires of most human beings to secure their own lives, property, family, and liberty rather than serving the interests of a few.

Machiavelli represents, to me, a transitional figure in the shift from natural philosophy to that of modern science. He observes and reports the outcomes of political action with an empiricism that very much anticipates the way that scientists like Francis Bacon and Galileo would approach their experiments in the physical world.

Machiavelli’s writing desk in his villa

Machiavelli Recommended Reading

Here’s a bit of a select bibliography for Machiavelli. I’ve tried to keep it short, to only the books that I used the most or had the most impact on my work or feel would be the most interest to you, the reader of Machiavelli.

Essentials

Machiavelli in HellMachiavelli in Hell, Sebastian de Grazia. De Grazia’s book was really the starter pistol for Machiavelli. A wonderful intellectual biography, de Grazia goes into detail about Machiavelli’s life as well as his philosophy, seamlessly working an analysis of The Prince into Machiavelli’s life story. He writes with such affection and sympathy for his subject, it opened up my mind to the possibilities of creating something myself.

The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli, Roberto Ridolfi. The definitive Machiavelli biography, in my opinion. Sadly out of print, Ridolfi writes authoritatively and and clearly, much in the way his subject does. He has the ability, rare among academics, to write with clarity and concision. He is wonderfully opinionated, but his occasional tear downs of his academic rivals never descend to the level of pettiness, and he almost always wins the reader over in the end.

Discourses on Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Mansfield’s translation is excellent. He keeps his prose spare and without flourishes, as is appropriate for Machiavelli. His introduction to the text offers some excellent guides to landmarks in the text that the reader should visit, and his choices of passages to highlight are wise and correct. Mansfield’s later writings (on modern society) are unfortunate, but he’s at his best here.

Deep Cuts

Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. This book of wonderful correspondence between Machiavelli and his friends, coworkers, and family formed the basis for many of the events I depict in the book. It’s probably more than you need unless you’re doing a particularly deep dive into Machiavelli, but if you have access to a library that has a copy, Machiavelli’s letters are well worth your time. He is witty, profane, and insightful, and these letters show a human side to him that I tried to capture in my book.

A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516, Luca Landucci. Another out of print book, if you have access to a good library network, look for it.

Florence the Golden AgeFlorence, the Golden Age 1138–1737, Gene Brucker. This is a wonderful coffee table book with lots of images of everyday life in Florence in the late middle ages and the Renaissance. Brucker has also pulled together some wonderful visuals from tax rolls and census data (such as existed) to give the reader an idea of what the population makeup, the types of jobs people had, and how much things cost. The illustrations are well chosen to give a good idea of what life was like in Florence in the Renaissance.

Thoughts on Strauss

While looking through my backups from my old Movable Type website, seeing if there was anything worth salvaging, I came across this post written in 2004 about Strauss’ book Thoughts on Machiavelli. I think it holds up, so I’m republishing here. The final paragraph refers to the Bush administration, of course, and it’s an interesting time capsule.

Thoughts on Machiavelli cover

I doubt many in the press have actually read Strauss, although they like to hint darkly about “Straussians” in the government. Strauss’ main contribution to philosophical discussion is that historical writings need to be understood in the context of the times in which they are written. Karl Jahn states it succinctly:

“The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are ‘outmoded’ and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch — usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than ‘outmoded’ ones.”

Hardly the sort of thing to send shivers up the spine. In fact, it sounds quite reasonable. The aspect of Strauss’ philosophy, however, that is most pertinent to the current political situation is his ideal of esotericism. Strauss believed that the truth was best known only to the few. His writing is deliberately subtle and difficult, to the point where it is often hard to discern precisely what he is arguing.

In Thoughts on Machiavelli, he projects his own ideals onto Niccolò, parsing The Prince and the Discourses searching for hidden, secret meanings in the books. He makes some good observations, but in his quest for the obfuscated meanings that he believes Niccolò must have hidden for his initiates, he comes to some rather absurd conclusions. One is sometimes reminded of numerologists imposing invented meaning on texts with their own peculiar methodology. For an excellent send-up of Strauss’ Kabbalistic tendencies, read Brad DeLong’s piece “Thoughts on Leo Strauss, or, a Product of a Procrastinatory Monday Morning.”

The fact is that Niccolò wrote in a very plain and straightforward manner, eschewing the flowery prose popular at the time, because he wished to be understood clearly. A close reading will, however, reveal some opinions that were too volatile to be written at the time. For example, in The Prince he gives examples of rulers who have killed the nobles in a region in order that they not rise up against him. Combined with his exhortation that some prince unite Italy to free it from the constant incursions of foreign powers, it seems Niccolò is advocating that someone conquer Italy and kill all the bickering nobility that would surely screw things up. I’m positive he would have preferred an Italian Republic, but anything is better than having Frenchmen marching through your city.

Machiavelli strove to be as clear as possible because he either wished to instill his republican ideals in a new generation (The Discourses) or he wished to sound a call to action to those in power to expel the barbarians from Italy (The Prince.) Neither goal is compatible with a hidden agenda that is difficult, if not impossible to decipher. He’s not writing philosophy for the sake of philosophers. He’s seeking to enlighten, to convince, and hopefully, to convert. The idea that he would hide his “true” meaning so deeply in the text that it would take 400 years to decipher it is not really credible.

However, the way Strauss’ esotericism relates to the current administration is somewhat tangential. I believe that those in the government, the so called “neoconservatives” also subscribe to this theory of esotericism. John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, writes that they “have created the most secretive presidency of my lifetime … far worse than during Watergate.” Opacity, secrecy, and knowledge only available to a very select few are hallmarks of Straussian thought. The administration has engaged in vicious personal attacks on those who have broken ranks and told what they knew, people such as Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill. As John Dean says, “this is a presidency that does not like the truth told about their activities.”

What Facebook Is Doing to Publishers

There’s a fascinating interview on Splitsider with Matt Klinman of Funny or Die, who recently had to lay off its entire editorial staff due to Facebook’s devouring its entire revenue stream from their video shorts. He’s very candid and forthcoming about what it’s meant for the company, in a way I’ve seen few publishers be:

The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet.

Now this is true for news organizations as well as comedy sites. Klinman has some interesting insights on the way that Facebook has a flattening effect on the sites that we view: so that a link from a Macedonian content mill looks very similar to a Washington Post front page story.

I hope this heralds a move more generally toward the open web, although, as a proprietor of an independent site on said web, I am not a disinterested observer. Still, I see in pieces like this and elsewhere, a general realization that Facebook is not an ideal way to experience the internet, and may even be harmful. That this idea is moving beyond technical elites (who had always been snobbishly skeptical of it) is heartening to me. Does it mean a return to the open web, as I hope? Likely not as a mass movement, but as an underground movement of people moving back to feed readers and blogs and away from over reliance on social media, perhaps.

Why Micro.blog is Not Another App.net

Micro.blog is an interesting initiative from Manton Reese, who is dissatisfied with the way that conversation on the Internet has been captured by a few private social media giants. Brent Simmons, inventor of NetNewsWire, describes it like this:

But if you think of the years 1995-2005, you remember when the web was our social network: blogs, comments on blogs, feed readers, and services such as Flickr, Technorati, and BlogBridge to glue things together. Those were great years — but then a few tragedies happened: Google Reader came out, and then, almost worse, it went away. Worse still was the rise of Twitter and Facebook, when we decided it would be okay to give up ownership and let just a couple companies own our communication.

Simmons is currently working on an open source feed reader that will incorporate support for a bunch of different feed formats, and will perhaps have support for Micro.blog as well. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how it would tie into existing modes of web publishing (like WordPress, as I do here). I don’t know if something like Micro.blog would solve the many discontents of social media, but it seems like a step in the right direction. Then again, it may be something that appeals to a small subset of the Internet community; techy members of Generation X who look back fondly on the early days of the open web and are interested in setting up and managing their own web sites. But I do fall squarely into that subset, and I am looking for ways to communicate on the Internet without the toxicity of Twitter, this may represent a way out. It’s worth a try.

Happy Thanksgiving

Hope you are all having a happy Thanksgiving, or if not in the States, a nice normal Thursday. We baked an apple pie for after dinner, decorated by my daughter, who is really into Hamilton (obviously):

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Went for a walk this morning, over by the Gore Estate in Waltham. Here’s the old town line marker, with a W for Watertown, I’m assuming.

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And here’s the Gore Mansion itself:

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Enjoy your day!

Meditation in an Emergency

You are not your train of thought. The mind is constantly thinking. If our minds are not thinking, it’s either because we are at rest, or we have allowed something else to do our thinking for us. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, just that when we read, or watch a video, we are allowing our minds to go along for the ride, to allow thoughts to come into our heads that our minds did not create. Which is sometimes good. But not all the time, which is where we are today. We have a surplus of content and entertainment that our ancestors could only dream of, such that at any time, we can outsource our thinking for a while to an external provider. The Internet, for example.

If you have used Twitter or Facebook at any real volume, you will be familiar with the feeling that you are being carried along by a torrent. It is very unlike the feeling of reading a novel or other lengthy text. New and surprising and punchy tidbits are coming at you constantly, at just beyond your ability to keep up. They hijack your train of thought. In a very real way, when you have been reading Twitter for too long, it becomes your train of thought. If you accept that you are your train of thought, then your social media stream can become wrapped up in your identity in a very real way. You find the thoughts of others triggering emotions in yourself, and you internalize the turmoil and commotion.

The brain is a thinking organ. I realize this sounds almost absurd, but bear with me. The brain thinks in the same way that the heart beats. It’s just what it does. If you are still for long enough, letting your thoughts emerge and float away without clinging to them, you’ll find that after a time, things slow down. We tend to give our own thoughts a lot of weight, and invest them with a lot of importance  for no other reason than we thought of them. So the brain is thinking all the time, sending out thoughts in a constant stream. But these thoughts are not you. They are just notions that your thinking organ is throwing out there because that’s what it does. You can let these go. Just as The lungs breathe, the heart beats, the brain thinks. Just because you think a thing doesn’t make it true, or even important.

a drawing of a bird

Drawing Apps on the iPad

So I’ve been working on the iPad recently and have tried out some different apps for making art. I figured I’d get my thoughts down and give my impressions of the drawing apps that I’ve used. Also, I’m hoping to get some feedback on other apps I could try to achieve the effects I’m looking for. I’m using a 10.5-inch iPad Pro with Apple Pencil.

The Adobe apps: Adobe Sketch and Adobe Draw

These are both free apps and very full-featured. I can only guess that Adobe is starting us off with free goodies to get us hooked as these are not “lite” apps by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps someday in the future, Adobe will drop the hammer and make use of the apps dependent on subscription, but for now, they are free. Both apps have a similar user interface, with brush selection along the left and layers along the right. Sketch is pixel based, Draw is vector.

Adobe Sketch:

Adobe Sketch has a good assortment of brushes and drawing tools. It doesn’t have a particularly good pen tool however (perhaps they expect you to go into Adobe Draw for that) the pen tool just below the pencil in the screenshot is more like a marker, and doesn’t really allow you to do crisp variable width lines of the sort I’m partial to. The pencil effect is not as sensitive or variable as it is in Procreate or the Apple Notes app (which has a really excellent pencil effect.)

 

Adobe Sketch Screenshot

Adobe Draw:

I really like the way that Adobe Draw allows you to create just incredibly complex, sharp and clean vector images. The resulting image is very clearly a computer generated artwork, and in that it’s very true to itself and its nature. So I’m philosophically quite partial to it; it’s not trying to be something it’s not. That said, I’m still enough of a traditionalist that I prefer my images to look like ones that were drawn by my hand on paper.

Adobe Draw Screenshot

 

Procreate

Yes. That’s really the name. I think of all the apps I tried (admittedly, only a few so far) Procreate may be my favorite. Although I like Adobe Draw’s extremely clean, sharp lines, Procreate is the app which has allowed me to approach my own personal style most closely. Fans of Machiavelli will recognize the doorway to Machiavelli’s Albergaccio, where he wrote the Prince and the Discourses. The UI is a bit more complex than Adobe’s, but there are a lot more (and better) types of tools to use.

Zen Brush

Here’s a bit of a fun app. If it had layer support and support for image resolutions other than screen res, I’d rate it higher, but it does a really excellent job of simulating sumi ink on paper, with options to use black, gray or red and wet or dry ink. There are a number of traditional papers, textures and backgrounds you can select. It’s quite nice:

Zen Brush Screenshot

Please feel free to direct me to any good drawing apps you feel that would be good to try. I’m still trying things out and experimenting. Although I literally stood on a stage and promised to make my next book entirely on paper, even doing calligraphy for the text, it looks like I may be moving in an opposite direction entirely. Who can know what the future holds?

 

Machiavelli’s Albergaccio

In 1512, when the Medici returned to power in Florence, they banished Machiavelli to his villa in Sant Andrea in Percussina, a small hamlet in the hills a few miles south of the city. There Machiavelli wrote the Prince and the Discourses while in exile. He called his villa his “Albergaccio” self-deprecatingly, as it was and is extremely rustic and somewhat run-down. It’s currently the home of the Chianti Classico Association and a houses a small museum to Machiavelli. I visited in 2003 when doing research for my graphic novel Machiavelli.

Below: Machiavelli’s studio. The location is just as he describes it, however, I’m not sure how much of the furnishings are authentic. The desk looks like it could be. There is a nearby chest, not pictured, which is almost certainly from his time.

Exterior. Note the Machiavelli arms above the door (in the center): four nails and a cross.

A panel from Machiavelli. As you can see, I used the photo above for reference.

New work. Here’s another view of the front entrance, drawn digitally:

The entranceway to Machiavellis Albergaccio

 

If you’re interested in seeing more of the Albergaccio, I’ve created a Flickr album of all the photos I took while I was there that will give you a more complete sense of the village and the building itself.