A running collection of ideas that haven't yet morphed into full-fledged essays. If one of these notes strikes a chord, shoot me an email or DM me @aaronzlewis, and we can riff on it. To get every-once-in-a-while updates, subscribe here. ✦
Towards a truly digital psychiatry. I think establishment psychiatry fundamentally doesn’t understand what it feels like on the inside to merge with digital media from a very young age. Instead of investigating and honoring the multiplicity of digital selfhoods that exist, it collapses them into pre-internet psychological language and pathologies. It uses concepts from the DSM-5 to understand what’s happening to kids' brains under digital conditions — tech “addiction”, ADHD, “depression”, “social anxiety”, “loneliness”, etc. Online, there are many different inner worlds, many different islands in the ocean of digital consciousness, many different ways that inner selves can be shaped and re-shaped. Classical psychology hints at this when it talks about how the brain is surprisingly “neuro-plastic” and “malleable”, but I don’t think it fully understands the breadth of subjectivities that digital media has produced. It lumps the Cambrian explosion of interior experiences under big umbrella terms that make us feel like we understand what’s really going on. This is in part because psychological shifts are very difficult to communicate using old-school conceptual language. They’re better shared in meme form or dense TikTok compilations. (These are mediums that most adults think are “unserious” — hence the communication gap).
As a result, psychiatrists and psychologists often end up applying old “solutions” to new problems because they only see what they’re already familiar with (i.e. old categories that were invented in a much different media environment). These modern psychological categories aren’t fixed laws of nature — they had to be devised by humans who were paying close attention to the feedback loops between psyches/environments. And they’re not even that old. Modern psychology has a lot of trouble dealing with the new diversity of squishy insides, which is part of why it prefers to reduce everything to the simplistic language of neuro-chemical interactions. The dopamine hits. The serotonin pathways. I’m wondering what a truly digital psychology would look like. A psychology that is attuned to the sheer novelty of the changes we’re living through and focuses on adaptive strategies that are aligned with the actual subjective experiences of kids. And I personally believe that the kids’ ability to understand and explain what’s happening to them on their own terms is criminally underrated.
Twitter’s collective unconscious. For all the talk about “context collapse”, there’s actually a surprising amount of shared context in the public square of Twitter. Part of what makes Twitter jokes/commentary work is that there’s a huge underbelly of collective background knowledge that that you can implicitly reference in any given post (e.g. popular meme templates, trending news, a viral tweet that you can safely assume everyone else has seen). With every day comes a new inside joke that’s shared between millions of people. All Twitter posts are inherently ironic (i.e. multi-layered) because they’re always born into a vast sea of whatever everyone else is talking about. When you can’t tell what a tweet is talking about, you automatically fill in potential referents from the shared background context.
Digital multiplicity. Different people “draw out” different parts of your self. I like the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves: “In each of my friends, there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.”
This is as true in digital space as it is in physical spaces. Writing in an iOS note feels different than writing in a text to my mom feels different than writing in a text to an editor. Each context brings out something different in me. Concept: a chat app that’s filled with a bunch of fake text message threads from people whose “presence” help me think differently. A collection of AI chatbots — based on historical figures, Twitter personalities, public intellectuals — that let me “talk” to a person without actually talking to them. What kind of thoughts might I have in “conversation” with McLuhan or Baldwin?
The Zoomification of poltiics. The virtualization of politics is going to have an interesting effect on speechwriting and rhetorical styles. One-liners, zingers, and applause lines fall pretty flat when you’re talking to a camera in the living room. The first microphones and amplification systems had an authoritarian bent to them. They let would-be dictators broadcast their message to “the masses”. The sound of a single voice could suddenly envelop tens of thousands of people, all at once.
What is the political “grain” of Zoom? Of pre-recorded speeches delivered from empty basements? There is a hollow, zombie-like quality to them. A sense of distance that comes with so many layers of mediation. At least television allows you to occupy the same “time zone” as the speaker. Zoom politics are asynchronous, detached, and discontinuous. But maybe they also flatten the perceived distance between politicians and ordinary people. Without all the trappings of fancy set designs and studio audiences and a stage presence — all of the things that scream “YOU MUST LISTEN TO MY AUTHORITAH” — the politicians fall back down to earth. They no longer seem quite as god-like or untouchable. They’re just vloggers/streamers like the rest of us.
School House Rock. I keep on wondering why there’s nothing like School House Rock, but for how society actually works in 2020. Dark money, shadow banking, legislative lobbying, private equity, financial engineering, ideology supply chains, institutional investing, mortgaged-back securities, data-powered gerrymandering, the history and political philosophy of the 401(k) etc. There should be a really easy way to learn about the history behind all of the financial instruments we use and their purpose/function in the broader scheme of things.
Preserving perceptual bundles. I think it’s shockingly easy for humans to lose touch with modes/styles of perception that used to be ubiquitous. Why? Because these experiences are basically impossible to communicate with words. People often go their whole lives without realizing they have “aphantasia” or some other quirk of interiority. Religion is (in part) a psycho-tech for preserving these interior experiences across long stretches of time. Without some kind of shared language around them, they could slip away. But then people conflate the words (symbols) with the perceptual experience they point to. It’s a delicate dance. See: B.F. Skinner and the 20th century behaviorists trying to convince everyone that actually there is no such thing as interior experience — we’re just input-output NPCs. “The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong, but that they could become true, that they are actually the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society” (Hannah Arendt).
I wonder if television chipped away at our visual imaginations without anyone even realizing it. The slow, subtle, gradual transformation of interiority. The generation that grew up with it wouldn’t even know that there was anything missing, like the people with aphantasia. Like, maybe 17th century people all had super powerful imaginative abilities and we can’t even begin to understand just how HD they were. The medieval rules around memory palaces seem to suggest that this is the case. Why else would they give very specific instructions re: lighting and object placement, etc.?
On algorithms for thought. Algorithms for Thought is an interesting umbrella term for the constellation of therapy techniques that have emerged over the last few decades. Everything from CBT to NVC to Authentic Relating to decision journals to gratitude journals to weekly reviews to daily check-ins to Agile and more. Basically what Scott Adams refers to as systems over goals. It seems like syllogisms and dialectics were the OG algorithms for thought. When Aristotle and Plato and Socrates first started doing logic (another “Algorithm for Thought”), they blew people away. They were doing weird new things with language. Displaced referents. Concepts. Ideas detached from contexts and individuals. It’s easy for us to forget that this way of using language had to be invented. And it was, of course, made possible by the ultimate tools for thought: writing and the phonetic alphabet. Teaching people “critical thinking” meant teaching people algorithms for thought: the most famous example of the medieval era being Aquinas' four levels of exegesis. Dialectics were really powerful because they were not only a general purpose “engine” for thinking, but an all-encompassing philosophy of Progress and the Moral Arc of the Universe.
Algorithms for thought is the psychological equivalent of exporting agency to the built environment. It’s “Don’t Make Me Think” but for your own habits of mind. It’s like the habit-tracking apps that alleviate the pressure of moment-to-moment decision making — the existential dread of “What next?” I can imagine there being a whole entire class of people who basically make a “thought algorithm” for every thing in their mental/emotional lives. I guess this is the ultimate goal of a state like China — turn everyone into predictable thought algorithm executers. Maybe Algorithms for Thought is the ultimate, futuristic tool for political control. If you can offer thought algorithms to your citizens, you don’t need to spin narratives à la Edward Bernays, Walter Lippman, and the other 20th century PR pioneers. Perhaps the great divide of the future will be between people who design their own Algorithms for Thought and people who only use off-the-shelf solutions. But it’s not hard to imagine a world in which the idea of designing your own Algorithm for Thought is as far-fetched as designing your own shirt. Sure, there are some people who do it. But it’s more of an artisanal hobby than a normal, everyday activity.
TikTok perception. One thing that fascinates me about TikTok is the deconstructionist way of seeing and hearing it implicitly encourages. The app’s creation tools make it easy to take the sound from someone else’s video and use it in your own. A user-generated sound can easily go viral, detached from the video it originally belonged to, if lots of other creators use it. This means that when you’re watching a video on TikTok, you’re not just taking it in as a whole — you’re deconstructing it in your mind, thinking about the sound separately from the visuals, trying to figure out how you might re-appropriate it for a new video or meme.
It’s common to see comments that say something like “this sound is gonna blow up” even if the video’s visuals are not that interesting. This is similar to when you see a picture that’s almost begging to become a meme template. E.g. Trump holding up a blank whiteboard, or something. For people who create a lot of content, the TikTok mode of hearing seeps into everyday life. All of the sounds in your environment become fodder for future videos. It’s a different way of perceiving, like that feeling when you gain the ability to hear individual instruments in a song.