Signal curation

Suppose there exists a universe with cheap telepathic technology. In this universe anyone can intrude into anyone's mind and plant any thought at zero marginal cost.

Suppose there exists a universe with cheap telepathic technology. In this universe anyone can intrude into anyone's mind and plant any thought at zero marginal cost. The target has a vague awareness of the intrusion, similar to the absentminded awareness of a slight itch. Due to technological limitations, thoughts can be planted only weakly. The effect on the target is about the same as if they read a short paragraph or saw a short video on a computer screen. If you spam the target, they'll notice the intrusion. They have the ability to permanently or temporarily cut you off, but no ability to turn off all reception. To opt out of this technology they would need to cut off all sources one by one.

In this universe you can expect individuals and organizations to use cheap telepathy to influence you to buy products, champion causes, support political parties, adopt religions, engage in pro and antisocial behavior, and modify your views on a wide variety of issues. You can expect new goods and services to be built. A company may offer a service that aggregates ideas from its users and beams the best ones into your brain. It's likely emergent behavior may arise from agents constantly attempting to influence each other, but the details aren't possible for us to predict a priori.

This universe is interesting and worth visiting. Its inhabitants can be lightly influenced and not commanded, so it probably isn't acutely dangerous. It's unlikely that your mind will be permanently affected, beyond the experience of seeing a different world. In school you've read for weeks at a time; this wouldn't be much different. You would be inundated with information from a much wider variety of sources, but it doesn't seem like it would considerably increase the risks.

Still, the trip is likely to be taxing. You may get tired of uninterrupted bombardment of information, but will be unable to turn it off. You may become susceptible to influence faster than you anticipated, and the tension between your existing worldview and the newly received information might cause psychological distress. You may find yourself facing important decisions but would be unable to find solitude to choose a course of action without undue influence. You may encounter circumstances that require you to extend your stay by weeks or months, and you don't know how long-term exposure will affect you.

Given sufficient resources and knowhow, how would you prepare for the possibility of an extended stay? An obvious first step would be to build a device that gives you the ability to turn off signal reception. This device would deliver you from information bombardment at the cost of disconnecting you from high value communication. It would be a passable first solution, but would require you to fluctuate between the extremes of overload and silence.

Ideally you'd build a device that gives you sophisticated control over incoming signal. It would be sensible to make sources opt-in; you'd start with silence and gradually give high quality sources access to your brain. To find high quality sources you would need a sophisticated discovery mode. You would explore in the discovery mode, but in normal mode you'd receive information only from your chosen sources. You may want to add specialized controls to filter out low quality signal from otherwise high quality sources. For example, you may want to set up a filter to exclude or limit signals that cause you to experience undesirable emotional states.

If you squint, and we live in the telepathic universe now, but without this filtering device. We don't exactly have this form of telepathy, but our technology has materially the same functionality that leads to all the same outcomes. In principle phones don't beam information into our minds, and we can turn them off. In practice they're ubiquitous and we always keep them on. Americans spend twelve hours a day looking at screens. We consume information from thousands of sources. Some sources are individuals motivated by seeing a number in a database go up. Others are organizations motivated to meet their unique objectives. It makes little difference whether the information is beamed directly into our brains, or whether the transmission is mediated by raster displays.

If you would be concerned about permanently moving to a universe with unrestricted telepathy without the ability to filter out signals, you ought to be concerned about here and now. Your sources of information have enormous influence on what you think, how deeply you think, and how you solve problems. Imagine the output of an htop command that analyzes how you spend your brain cycles on a given day. Would you be happy with what the report would look like? It’s shortsighted to be careless about the sources that set your cognitive agenda. You must be deliberate about your choices, and you must not outsource them to third parties that are optimizing for their own incentives.

We do not yet have a good signal curation device in our universe. There are structural reasons for this: we consume information through different protocols and user interfaces, programmatic access to these systems is curtailed, there is little interoperability and no direct access to the data infrastructure where the information is stored. The firms that offer these services have no incentive to give us sophisticated control over our information consumption. If Facebook and Twitter really tried to build good user-centric curation tools, their revenues would halve.

Over the past year I've put considerable effort into signal curation. I'm not satisfied with my current solution, but I've built up a series of tools and habits that at least made a dent in the problem. I've tried many different approaches; most failed. After much trial and error, here is what worked. This setup costs ~$1,200/year, though you can scale it up or down. It's some of the most useful services I buy, and would be one of the last expenses I'd cut if I had to.

  • Read twenty good books per year (~$300/year). Last time I wrote about how I read. Clusters of five books per topic, four clusters per year. Books have none of the problems with modern information-rich environment— you select the subjects, pick the sources, and descend to considerable depth. But they have an additional benefit. Because your time is fixed to 24 hours/day, spending more time on books means spending less time on low quality signals. A simple way to do less bad stuff is to do more good stuff. Books are the good stuff.

  • Read Twitter through Feedbin ($60/year) and Reeder ($15 fixed). Feedbin is an RSS aggregator, and Reeder is a lovely client for macOS and iOS. This is nothing new. But Feedbin has a killer feature: it lets you follow people on Twitter. For me Twitter is immensely useful because that's where the most knowledgeable people in the world post their insights. But because the product is optimized for engagement, these insights are drowning in addicting, low quality content. With Feedbin you can see tweets only from the people you want in chronological order, you can turn off retweets, and you can view it all in a client optimized for quality rather than engagement.

  • Subscribe to niche communities (~$500/year). Communication with likeminded strangers is one of the best aspects of the internet. But ubiquity of social networks increased variance in signal quality, and political polarization led to a chilling effect in public commons. You can solve both problems by finding Patreon and Substack creators who've built good communities around interesting topics. This gets you access to people and ideas in a way that's resistant to quality variance and speech stifling. (Another benefit of Feedbin is that you can use it to read email newsletters through an RSS client— in my case, Reeder.)

  • Use Feedbin actions. Actions are like Gmail filters. If you pipe Twitter follows and email newsletters through Feedbin, you can use Feedbin’s search syntax to mute low quality signal from high quality sources. For example, you can set up an action to mute anything with “Donald Trump” in it, and never worry about it again.

  • Subscribe to Superhuman ($360/year). A large amount of information is still exchanged over email. Much of it is transactional now (marketing emails, interaction with bureaucracies, coordination), but not all. I don’t know what sorcery went into Superhuman, but it makes email a pleasure. Is your time worth $90/hour? Superhuman will definitely save you more than four hours a year and you’ll never have the feeling in the back of your mind that you’re falling behind on email. It is excellent for processing signals that you can’t completely filter out.

This isn't a complete solution, but it's a start. The meta advice is to avoid free sources information, companies that give away free clients, and large media organizations. They don't work for you. If you follow the path of least resistance, they will impoverish your life. The more time you spend thinking about this information, the less likely you are to achieve your goals.

TL;DR: Your sources of information have enormous influence on what you think, how deeply you think, and how you solve problems. Be deliberate about how you choose them. Avoid free sources information, companies that give away free clients, and large media organizations. Read twenty good books per year, read Twitter through Feedbin and Reeder, subscribe to niche communities, mute low quality signal from high quality sources, subscribe to Superhuman for email.