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Thinking Your Own Thoughts in an Algorithmic Age of Mass Distraction

The past few years have come with plenty of disorder: Climate change. Political dysfunction. Pandemic. War. Artificial intelligence. The list goes on.

It’s hard to know what to think, let alone do, amidst so much uncertainty. It’s even harder in a culture dominated by an attention economy that cares not about thoughtfulness or discernment but about page views and screen time.

We are fed information—real, fake, somewhere in between—at such a dizzying pace that it crowds out time and space to think for ourselves. The attention economy is fast, frenetic, and frantic. The kind of thinking required to skillfully navigate disorder is slow, deliberate, and discerning.

Hannah Arendt, the twentieth century historian and philosopher, noted that if we lose the ability to think our own thoughts, if we become alienated from ourselves, we are at risk of falling prey to totalitarianism: a regime of total subservience. Sure, it could be a demagogue or authoritarian leader who takes control, but in our era, perhaps a bigger risk is that the algorithm takes control, or at the very least gives rise to an illiberal leader.

Agency And The Algorithm

In some ways it’s already happening. Just think about how many people who are generally smart and thoughtful—but also terminally online—hop on every trend, parroting whatever they think their tribe wants to hear and in the most explosive way possible, so as to satisfy the algorithm. It’s true even, and perhaps especially, if the so-called “trends” are brutal wars or devastating diseases. Everyone is suddenly an expert on middle east conflict, vaccination, and virology. The more extreme, the better.

It happens on the right and it happens on the left. Nobody is immune. People are simply looking to find their footing in an uncertain world, to come up with a story that makes sense to them; to feel like they are exerting control on something, on anything, amidst the chaos. But it’s worth stepping back and asking if spending copious amounts of time on the internet—perhaps especially social media—is working in service of you thinking your own thoughts and wisely responding to challenges, or if it’s actually just getting in the way? Are you telling the platform what you think or is the platform telling you what you think?

One thing is for certain: most corners of the internet are telling you how to think, and that is fast, tribally, and in a frenzy. Which are the perfect conditions for you to lose the ability to think for yourself altogether.

Being On The Internet, But Not Of The Internet

The solution is not to bury one’s head in the sand. Naivety may be bliss in the short-term, but in the long-run it’s a recipe for disaster. Nor is the solution to shun the internet, which has many positives (after all, here we are) and is likely to remain a significant part of our lives, for better and worse.

There’s an old biblical proverb that says you can be in the world but you don’t want to be of the world. Perhaps that’s the best guidance for the internet, too. You can spend time on the internet, but you don’t want to be of the internet.

If you want to think your own thoughts and respond instead of react, you must set constraints on where you go for information and how long you spend there. And you need to discern what, if anything, you do as a result of the information you acquire.

Here, having a strong sense of your core values—the qualities and attributes that matter to you most, your internal compass—is crucial.

As I wrote in Master of Change, your core values provide an anchor and source of stability, even when everything around you feels out of control. You can always ask yourself what it would look like to act in alignment with your values. Knowing your core values—and constantly evaluating how to practice them—is an effective way to ensure you think your own thoughts and protect your essential personhood. (It’s why the book devotes so much time and space to the topic, including how to discern and refine your core values.)

Without knowing your values, your work and life can all too easily become consumed by nervous energy, especially if you regularly inhabit mediums that reward it.

But once you know your values, you can strive to practice them day in and day out, and you can use them to help situate yourself amidst disorder. This takes time and deliberation, the kind not afforded by the internet. You need to step away from the noise in order to find, and protect, your signal.


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