I used to have a crap ton of unhealthy habits but a real yen for new year’s resolutions. Sometimes I would even make resolutions while I was engaged in the very act of doing the things I was trying to stop. As a particularly ludicrous example, I remember a few times, years ago, when I would draw up plans or a “resolution” for how I was going to drink less or not at all at the very moment I was drunk and in the process of getting drunker.
Perhaps not surprisingly this never worked. And I eventually came around to figuring out that if I wanted to stop doing something the first step was to just stop doing it.
This year, after celebrating with a few glasses of sparkling water, I went to bed on New Year’s Eve around 9:30, put on a noise cancellation device, and woke up in 2018 feeling all right with the world.
And though I don’t much care for resolutions any more, there are still a few bad habits I’m trying to kick: Namely, I’m trying to give up refined sugars and avoid news sources and people that frequently rely on or resort to ad hominem arguments.
My reasoning for giving up the refined sugars is that they’re a collection of (incredibly delicious but) fattening, tooth-rotting substances with little to no nutritional value. And since I’m not the kind of guy who can eat one or two cookies, it’s best that I avoid them altogether. If it comes to bananas and kale, I’m ok at moderating. But when it comes to pure sugar, I’m like a much paler, hairier version of the cookie monster.
My reasoning for giving up news sources and people that resort to ad hominem arguments is that they’re (easy to read but) emotionally toxic and make me feel angry and unhappy. I like to say that I don’t like Deadspin, Gizmodo, angry rants on Facebook, Buzzfeed or any of that rubbish, but I still occasionally indulge. And the end result is usually the same as when I eat a bag of cookies: I feel swollen, angry, bloated, and hating the world.
The thing that got me thinking about refined sugars was when I was audiobooking the Eddie Izzard autobiography, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens. Izzard gave up refined sugar a few years back and rants about sugar in the book early and often. He attributes lots of negative things about his youth and early middle age to his excessive consumption of sugar.
But the line that stuck with me the most was when he said that refined sugar “destroys your tastebuds for real food.”
I had never really thought about it like that before, but it makes sense. The more your diet consists of refined sugars—chemically manufactured products designed to lure us with their sweetness—the more real foods don’t seem quite so appealing.
The thing that got me thinking about ad hominem arguments was the recent Sam Altman blog post about how he felt more comfortable talking about sensitive topics in China than in San Francisco. And how he thought this was a very bad thing.
I thought Sam made a very intelligent, reasoned, articulate case for the benefits of a society that is conducive to broader free speech norms.
But then of course the entire internet proceeded to shit all over him. Now, if you Google his name, the 4th thing that comes up is a Gizmodo article called “Sam Altman is an Idiot.”
Sam Altman is a Stanford grad, a wealthy and successful entrepreneur, and the head of the most prestigious startup accelerator in the world, at the age of 32. He is most decidedly not an idiot. If you are in a debate with Sam Altman and your initial conclusion is that he is an idiot, then that probably says more about you than it does him.
But that is the internet we have today.
I happen to agree with Sam. But I can appreciate that there is an intelligent, reasoned position on the other side of the debate. There is no easy way for a government or society to restrict the kind of speech we believe is unhealthy for our society while allowing the good stuff to get through, but it is possible that it can be done better than the US does today. And it is possible that the healthiest equilibrium is one that further restricts speech.
Since Sam is smarter than I am, I suspect he knows this, too.
But there was precious little reasoned counter-argument to Sam’s post. Instead, there was plenty of this.
At first, I didn’t think there was any connection between refined sugar and toxic online debates. And on the surface there is not. But over time, I started to notice how both began to seem very much alike.
They’re both easy and ubiquitous. And getting more easy and ubiquitous all the time.
Refined sugar is everywhere in the grocery store. Granola bars? Check. (Supposedly healthy) Soups? Check. Emergen-C for when you’re sick? It’s the first and the second ingredients. Fancy yogurt? Tons of it. It’s in damned near everything that comes in a package. It’s quick, tasty, tempting, and easy. And ad hominem arguments, they’re really easy, too. It’s easier to call someone you disagree with an idiot than it is to explain why you think they’re wrong—or to use your best efforts to persuade them on why they might change their mind.
I’ve had a blog for more than two years now! After two years and 170 posts, it’s had literally (barely) thousands of readers.
The most popular article I’ve written thus far is called the Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus. It’s about why capitalism is making it harder every day to be healthy.
Our sweets are getting sweeter and our booze is boozier and our drugs are getting more potent. Our social media are getting better at devouring our time and attention resources, our streaming TV channels are getting better at making us binge, and our news sources are getting better at getting our clicks. Those sites that don’t pull off this feat cease to exist. The ones that survive keep getting better at getting and keeping our attention.
This means that our entertainment today and our tasty treats are more enticing than at any time in human history. Yay 2018! But it also means that it’s never been harder to resist these temptations. Boo 2018!
A nuanced, thoughtful discussion is a like a kale green salad with cashews and a touch of lemon. A personal attack on a celebrity is like Count Chocula with chocolate milk and extra marshmallows. Or, if you’re an adult, it’s high-end Malagasy chocolate with caramel and sea salt. You know the former is better for you, but man, chocolate, caramel, and sea salt?
I remember the first time I ever went online, back in 1995. I couldn’t tell you why now, but whatever reason, the first thing I thought to do was to see what I could find about one of my favorite bands, an obscure country-rock jam-band outfit from San Francisco called Dieselhed.
As a teenager growing up in suburban Denver, I didn’t know a single person who liked Dieselhed. But online I found so many—a whole world of people who traveled around the country to watch their shows, record live tapes, and exchange Dieselhed music.
I knew at that moment, then and there, that I had found my people. I knew, then and there, that after the internet, nothing would be ever the same.
If Gizmodo had written an article in response to Sam Altman’s post with the headline, “Contra Sam Altman, here are seven reasons why social shaming of certain forms of speech will provide greater benefit to society than allowing them to continue,” nobody would have read the article. Since their actual post title, “Sam Altman is an Idiot” is the 4th thing that comes up when you Google the man’s name, we can safely assume that lots of people did read it. Or, at least, clicked on the link.
Avoidance of hyperstimuli is more about what’s left after you get rid of the sugar high than it is about dumping the sugar high.
In lives with less porn, endless sugar, obsession with athletes who play sports on TV, and Netflix and chill, there is more love-making, nutritious food, play, and real human interaction.
And in a world with less shouting online, there is more calm and quiet. There is less feeling that our society, our world, and our own lives are damaged beyond redemption.
We know that salad is better for us than gooey marshmallows. The question, of course, is what do we do with this information?
We could picket our local grocery store with a sign that says, “Down with Frosted Flakes!” but something tells me that’s not likely to be effective. And so, too, an organized boycott of Deadspin and Gizmodo and all sites of their ilk is unlikely to change much.
I believe in nudges and thoughtful choice architecture, but there’s a limit to how well that will work. Because if Facebook optimized for what was healthiest for you, rather than what was most likely to attract your attention, it would just be replaced by another social media platform that was better at getting your attention.
Capitalists are as content to sell you a Hanes t-shirt as a Coach purse. Businesses are looking to make money, and they’re willing to cater to those who want to blend in and to those who want to stand out. They’ll sell you sugary snacks or rolled outs or anything in between. People will find a way to sell you what you want to buy.
Right now, we’re buying (by clicking the links for) the shouting online. We’re buying the insults. We’re buying the personal attacks.
I have the sphere of influence of a small rodent. I know that this blog post will not move the needle of online discourse. But I’m hopeful this resolution (totally unrelated to the turning of the calendar year) to avoid toxic online conversations and people will improve my life. That I’ll be less anxious and upset. That I won’t have that constant, unrelenting feeling that the world is rotten to its core.
As I learned with Dieselhed way back when, there are niches for everything online. It’s just about grooming your little online garden so that it’s a reflection of the life you want. Maybe Metallica’s fan pages were 100,000 times more popular than Dieselhed’s—I’m sure they were. Doesn’t matter.
It’s good enough that you can find your people, and to know that they’re out there.
 There are plenty of intellectual types who resort to this garbage, too. One writer who’s recently lost me is Nassim Taleb. I’ve enjoyed much of his writing, particularly this, but then there’s stuff like this, where he calls intellectual-yet-idiot a class of caricatured straw academic who, as best as I can tell, is just a composite of the opposite of him. Sure, he’s a smart and often innovative thinker. But name-calling is still just name-calling. It’s lazy and cheap. It doesn’t reflect well on you even if you’re a writer of Nassim Taleb’s stature (particularly if you’re a writer of his stature).
 I never actually became friends with any of those people.