(n-1)-thoughts, n=4: Covid, Twitter news, and Douglas Adams

Covid days

This is my first post in some weeks. Admittedly, I am one that can easily lose track of time as I get absorbed in one calculation or another. But that is not the reason for my lack of writing.

It was my turn to experience Covid for the first time. For the first 7-10 days, it hit me quite hard relatively speaking as being a person who is vaccinated. The second week I mostly struggled with a persistent dry cough, fatigue, and weakness. I remember reading at the height of the pandemic people with Covid saying that it felt like ‘being hit by bus’. I struggle to understand what this actually meant, because I imagine being hit by a bus to be a rather gruesome event. But, in the peak of my own Covid days, I think I finally realised the true meaning of the words.

Thankfully, I am feeling better now. Although super busy catching up with work and developing some new calculations for potential papers, I look forward to getting back to posting on my blog. When I don’t write for a while, it starts to impact my mental health. It’s just something that I greatly enjoy. It helps me process, sometimes even indirectly, and can even help stimulate news thoughts, much the same with reading a good book. There are some very nice physics papers that I would like to write about. One in particular offers what I thought was a rather astounding result. So I’ll probably start there, and then also continue uploading my old string notes based on Polchinski’s textbooks.

Twitter news

I prefer a world where Twitter is not so important. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Twitter. It has some fantastic communities. When I use the app, it’s primarily to check for fun maths posts, science news, history papers, or cool new archaeological finds. I also enjoy some of the technical F1 discussions, or the odd bit of literary discussion. When it works – that is, when my feed is adequately filtered so that I don’t have to skim through pages minutiae, such as when people feel the urge to share every passing thought or post what they had for lunch – I find that Twitter can be an enjoyable and certainly also positive experience.

Granted, my experience is limited and intentionally curated: I tend to keep to small communities in which discussion is generally reasonable, where the flow of information is well-assessed and knowledgeable. Sometimes there is constructive debate, sometimes deep disagreement, and other times challenging questions are asked or interesting perspectives offered. I’ve found that Twitter can also provide opportunities to interact positively with others in ways that may have not been otherwise possible. For instance, Steve Brusatte, a very well-known palaeontologist, wrote to me to say that he hopes I enjoy his book. (The book was fantastic, by the way). I thought that was awesome. I also enjoy interactions with other scientists, reading about what they are working on; and, during the pandemic, it allowed me to follow some leading virologists and epidemiologists – including some at my university – to track the latest studies and policy discussions.

Twitter may not be worth $44bn for these reasons – I imagine instead it is because of its power to decide elections that makes it so valuable to the right people – but, at least for me, it is within such a limited context that I’ve found it useful and at times a valuable information feed.

But I also know that Twitter can be a cesspool. I am keenly aware that it faces many problems and challenges. The way in which the social media platform is structured seems to often nullify the very goal it was supposed to realise, assuming a priori the goal was social and democratic in the first place. In much of the literature, introductions to social media ecologies often speak praisingly about the promise of social media without addressing critically its many obvious social and political complexities. Managing the preservation of free speech, combating hate speech, ensuring inclusivity, and encouraging greater representation (to name a few) are all hot-topic issues. As an extension of the social world, the platform is also plagued by toxicity, the constant drone of stupidity, identity politics, inconsequential opinionizing, and petty bickering.

(The last I saw, only 15-20% of the UK population use Twitter, and it is reasonable to think that the amount of people that actively post and engage on the platform is much smaller. I think it is comparably similar in the US. So, perhaps one explanation is that, at least in general, it is much more an abode for extremists and activists will to battle over their ideological worldview than an honest reflection of the average citizen. I’m not entirely sure).

One of the fundamental problems with Twitter, and really social media in general, is its lack of accountability. There is a fine line between banning users without reasonable explanation and justification – or banning users because of political speech that may not be deemed agreeable according to whatever metric – and banning users whose speech incites violence or hate. I’m sure most readers of this blog would agree that speech that incites violence is unacceptable. But what about speech that – whether in bad faith, out of ignorance, or otherwise – spreads misinformation? We live in what is generally a post-fact, post-truth society; communicative reason, or its absence, within this context is where misinformation for one group is what another group believes. What people think is true is much more important and meaningful than what is actually true. Hence, the polarisation of political viewpoints and attitudes – the underlying trend that gives authority to ideology over objective methodology – is legitimated in so many different ways.

As the Twitter continues to grow increasingly powerful, the lack of accountability becomes increasingly magnified. I am not just speaking of bans due to political speech, which I think is quite troubling (even when I might not agree with that speech); the subtlties between information and misinformation; issues with corporate agents and social media influencers, who are invested in propagating a certain message or viewpoint to sell their products; or the way in which powerful people with investment in certain political and economic outcomes may use the platform to shape important historical events (however honestly or dishonestly). I think what is perhaps most troubling is that Twitter, as a social ecosystem in itself, has become an echo chamber for groups that, instead of promoting healthy engagement, strengthens the legitimisation of communication driven toward confirmation bias and cognitive prejudice.

Social bias and prejudice, as rampant as it is actively enabled, generally forms a massive part of what shapes people’s opinions and political viewpoints today. Perhaps it has always been this way. But in the digital world, paradoxically, the manifestation of a type of behaviour that seeks only information that reinforces opinion – certainly an artifact of a deeply human impulse – seems to easily become extremised. One manifestation of this is of course the ‘click bait’ phenomenon. ‘The headline confirms what I think’, and then move on. But even in the best case toy example in which two rational actors may be discussing a topic in a mutually encircling way, social media platforms like Twitter function on the basis of the reduction of information to mere snippets and at the cost of substantive analysis. In opinion, it is not the abundance of thought that is the problem in our historical present; it is the lack of slow, substantive and meaningful thought that ails us. Twitter is the perfect example.

We can extend the discussion down more philosophical paths and also consider the way in which this has impacted the role that “facts” and “truth” (and their absence) play in a society increasingly lacking in its support of rational faculty. If people weren’t so easily influenced by everything they read, then maybe the problem of social media and its symplistic information streams (i.e., read a meme and decide it’s representative of one’s worldview) would be mitagated to some degree. There is a reason why current and past US Presidents, and likewise why current and past British Primeministers, speak at the level of GSCE english (or lower) when delivering public speeches. But, given the emerging patterns of simplistic information streams and what drives this emergence (which is certainly a complicated array of forces, including increasing public demands for transparency), the prevailing trend is one of reductionist and equally ideologically-form-fitting narratives (typically confirmation bias consumed with greatest ease and with least friction against one’s established worldview).

This brings me to the news this week that Elon Musk has bought Twitter. Inasmuch the news sparked anger and consternation on one side, there is another group that has celebrated the announcement, entrusting Musk the responsibility to manage accountability. He is, afterall, a self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist’ (for consistancy sake, let’s ignore the obvious contradictions in behaviour). It’s like any of the buzzwords that characterise the strange identity wars going on. The concepts are largely dumbed down on either side so that everyone has an opinion, made accessible in such a way that the framing of issues require no expertise or well-defined knowledge. Going back to Musk, in my opinion, it is a fool’s game to be absolutist in anything; but the sentiment obviously sticks in a time when freedom of speech is percieved by many to be under threat. And yet, as Twitter has taught me, hyperbole about one’s principles can easily become an idiot’s fable.

I have a hard time believing that, under Musk’s ownership, anything fundamental with Twitter will change. If he indeed percieves Twitter as the online town hall where people can debate important issues, then I suppose what’s left is to lament the loss of the principle of debate; because Twitter is certainly not the venue. It’s like, with so much energised attention on freedom of speech within social media ecologies, where a person may without thought say anything, we are quick to preserve the sacred right that a human being is completely entitled to an opinion without evidence and then just as fast forget that as soon as such an opinion is expressed as fact it becomes a lie. Indeed, in my most pessimistic moments I would say that social media, in helping manifest the much deeper separation of reason from social discourse, has eagrly retained the idea of free speech at the loss of the rationality that makes it meaningful in the first place.

A quote by Douglas Adams

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.

To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

– Douglas Adams