Step Away From the Algorithm

I started out this post with a sentence I didn’t expect to: I wrote I’ve been a user of Goodreads for many years now. I didn’t say “I’ve been using,” or even “I use”. Goodreads, of course, is a service which ostensibly acts as a social network for people who enjoy reading, and for many years, I think it served that purpose for me. Of course, like so much in the digital age, I started out using a different service, called Shelfari, which was eventually bought by Amazon. Amazon did what monopolies love to do and bought Goodreads later too, eventually merging the older acquisition Shelfari into the newer Goodreads.

I’ve recently learned that there’s unrest in the Goodreads community, largely because the site has been left nearly untouched for years now. It’s not too hard, given what we’ve learned about big tech companies, to see why. For Amazon, the real benefit for owning Goodreads has almost nothing to do with users, and likely everything to do with all the data those users generate. I’ve started to think of it this way: I think I use a service to keep track of something, in this case my reading habits over the years. The company in question uses that services for something else: to turn something I thought was tangible into a data point and turn and directly advertise to me in increasingly specific ways. Here’s some books from your “want to read” list that are suddenly on sale, one email says. People who liked this book also bought this other book, says another.

For Amazon, owning Goodreads mean they can access all that information and tie it directly to your Amazon account, giving them yet another place to directly advertise to you.

For me, my use of Goodreads over the past few years was partly to keep track of what I was reading, and partly to take note of other books I might enjoy. I also liked its annual goals feature, which encourages you to set a goal to read a certain number of books each year, and offers a convenient way to track your progress. Every single Goodreads email I receive gets promptly deleted, since it’s mostly a daily reminder of what friends are reading on the site, and how I have the same two books listed as ‘in progress’. Logging into the site recently, I was promptly met with a note that I was behind on my reading goal, and that I should catch up. I’m not behind, it turns out, I just hadn’t bothered with the chore that updating Goodreads has become.

Ultimately, I use this very digital tool in a very analog way. If I happen to read on my Kindle, I never allow it track my progress there. It takes the enjoyment out of the process of reading, and it makes it yet another thing to track and gamify. Sometimes that’s fun! See my enjoyment of annual book challenges above. But at the end of the day, it’s actual work for me to update, and Amazon gets to reap the rewards.

In learning about the unrest among Goodreads users, I’ve also learned about a new service called The Storygraph. It’s an interesting concept, but ultimately its faith in an algorithm takes away the best part of books to begin with: the human connection. The books I’ve most enjoyed reading have come from either people I know, or references within other books that made me want to explore further.

It’s clearer than ever that nearly everything we use online can be reduced into data. If we let it, that data will be hoovered in an instant to help and used to try to sell us more, or further track us wherever we go. I love the idea of a social place to share books, but now, I hope we collectively push back. Let’s use journals, digital or analog, to track lists privately. Let’s write and make videos about books like my friend Ashley. Let’s connect the dots between books in interesting ways like Austin Kleon, or keep a whole page of our websites dedicated to what we read like Patrick Rhone. Let’s go to local bookstores and get recommendations from people we meet there, or from staff who have all sorts of interests and reading backgrounds. If you want to go social, has an interesting way to view books people are talking about within the community.

Personal websites and blogs are the most analog forms of the Internet we have left. They’re the places we can go which we can decide what they look like, what we feature, what we want to give our attention. They’re random and weird and interesting, and they’re the best place we have on the Internet to keep things that way.

For the algorithm, users are the tool to achieve their end. The more you use (input), the “better” it gets at its job. Its job, though, is to keep you there and keep your attention and keep you buying. It doesn’t care what connection you made, philosophy you learned, or new idea you had as a result of what you read. But a human will. Whether that human is someone you know, or someone whose site you read and you send an email, a sense of shared experience and humanity can happen. Let’s stop being users and get back to being human.

Your Money or Your Life (Review)

Starting and running a couple of businesses was my first foray into really learning about finance, and personal finance was a natural progression from there. Today, I finished reading the original 1992 edition of Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life. I’d seen it referenced on a number of personal finance blogs over the year, and when I found a copy at a local used book store, I finally picked it up and gave it a read.

I won’t comment here on the methodology, other than to note that the concept of trading “life energy” for money is an interesting one, and the philosophy around thinking about how you would live your life if you didn’t have to work for money are questions I’d never asked myself, and now am thinking about often. Others far more savvy have pointed out that the investment strategies from 1992 very much do not translate well to 2020, but that said, the most recent edition of the book may offer something different I’m not sure, as that’s not the edition I read.

What I find most fascinating about this book is just how far ahead of its time it was: issues the author’s were citing at the time are very real today. They emphasize a great deal how much consumerism and its focus on consumption can tax the planet. Certainly we can see the effects our constant use of resources has had in terms of climate change and its resulting swings, but if you look further, we have extensive issues right this very moment resulting from constraints of a supply chain that relies very heavily on China. As it turns out, much of what we rely on for cleaning and sanitation is manufactured in China, and at the moment, much of said manufacturing is currently at a standstill while the COVID-19 virus is trying to be addressed and contained.

There’s a lot of issues at play here, certainly, but it’s all undoubtedly connected. I remember foreign exchange students in college remarking about how cheap things are to buy in the US. And while that’s true to a degree, what’s likely more true is that that cheap price drove up consumption while also driving down working conditions in the locations where said products were manufactured. These are externalities, and they’re becoming more and more expensive over time.

The other striking aspect of YMOYL is its focus on identifying what is enough, and uses an idea called a fulfillment curve (thoughtfully written about by Trent Hamm on the Simple Dollar in 2008) to help you visualize your own sense of enough. It’s 2020, and I know I have more than enough, and I know that many out there do as well. Where do I see this playing out? In social media and its heavy use of advertising, and even today’s concept of being an “influencer”. Through having the newest phone, tablet, computer. The myriad unboxing videos of gadgets and items. Targeted advertising which tracks your interests across the internet and “shows advertisements for things which might be relevant to you” (otherwise knowns as things they know you don’t have, but most likely would want if you’re shown it). The list goes on.

Finally, I loved how YMOYL places emphasis on finding what brings you fulfillment in life, and discourages our very real tendency (and very problematic cultural phenomenon here in the US) to equate our jobs/careers/professions as an inherent part of our identify. In fact, Suze Orman unintentionally spoke to this really well in a recent People article where her point of view was contrasted with that of the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement. Suze Orman mentioned the boredom that might come from retirement and cited an example of a friend who retired and missed working. That isn’t a problem with financial independence, or even retirement; that’s a problem with a culture obsessed with work, career, and growth at all costs. It’s simple: the US has a culture that lives to work, rather than embracing the potentially simpler life that could come from working to live. Her friend likely equated working with having a purpose and finding fulfillment, but as YMOYL points out, you can have a purpose while not needing to work; and what’s more, you can work if said work brings you that sense of purpose and fulfillment; you just don’t have to rely on it as your only source of income or even something necessary to your income, so you can exercise much more control over the work you do.

I know, for me, I realized last year that I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a hobby. Writing on my own website again has rekindled an old hobby that I long enjoyed, before life became graduate school, work, work, work, paying off student loans, and more work. As I think about my own student loan debt, I also think about how much the total US household debt has once again set a record by the end of 2019, totaling more than $14 trillion (if you follow that link, hit the ‘max’ button to see the astonishing visual showing growth of debt over the last 20 years). Given my student loan debt, I’m not currently in a place where I can stop the pace of my work, but it’s something I’m diligently working to improve, and this book has given me new insight and lots to think about. It’s also helped change the way I talk to friends and family, and do whatever small part I can to start changing the culture of this country.

I finished reading reading My Brief History this afternoon, and after a trip to two local book stores in two days, have found myself picking up a used copy of what seems to be an original eduction of Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money Or Your Life. I was first introduced to this book from The Billfold, but this is my first time picking it up to give it a read. It’s already different than I expected, in a good way, indicating right out of the gate that consumerism is not only a big part of our collective financial struggles, but of significant environmental impact.

I have found as I have been focusing on paying down student loans and thus cutting out most non-essential purchases, that I not only save money, but I find less desire to then purchase things. It’ll be interesting to see where this book goes, and also if I at some point find myself wanting to read the updated edition to see how it has evolved.

I’m currently reading Stephen Hawking’s My Brief History, and found myself surprised, then not surprised, when he noted that people reacted negatively to the cover of his mass market book, A Brief History of Time, because he was a person with a disability writing it:

“The book was intended as a history of the universe, not of me. This has not prevented accusations that Bantam shamefully exploited my illness and that I cooperated with this by allowing my picture to appear on the cover. In fact, under my contract I had no control over the cover.”

What’s so interesting about this seemingly thoughtful concern is that it presumes that a person who presents with the appearance Stephen Hawking did was, as a result of their disability, incapable of making their own decisions on the matter.