Building Empathy Systematically

This talk by Megan Phelps-Roper is one of the most powerful and important TED Talks I’ve ever heard. These lessons are badly needed by me, by anyone who discusses politics or religion, by our president, probably by nearly everyone.

I continue to want to build some kind of system in which people could learn this way of thinking and practice with others with whom they would normally disagree. How could it be done? What protections would need to be in place?

I’m imagining technology at the moment (something that matches you up with non-anonymous people with whom you disagree about any political or religious issue, to have a friendly, civil conversation) but I’ve also imagined analogue methods of achieving the same thing.

I think each user would have to have “reputation” so the haters / trolls could be quickly weeded out (or steered towards those with proven experience dealing well with such attitudes).

If the system saw things were getting heated (A.I. detection?) it could prompt the users to shift gears / topics, pause the chat for 30 seconds. Or put up reminders about how to handle the uncomfortableness in a healthy way.

The key to the whole thing is that whatever happened, whether via technology or not, we maximize the parts of the experience that leave the other thinking, “that was a decent human being that I like, and with whom I happen to disagree sometimes.”

I’ve wondered if an analogue version of this would just use technology to match people up in certain geographic areas to meet in pre-selected, well lit, calm places (staffed with trained security) to converse over a table. Walk in, shake hands, talk for 30 minutes, and leave.

One hunch I have is that people who were new to these “empathy chats”, whether they were digital or in person, would be joined by a third person who was experienced. They would moderate and help steer and encourage, and set the tone when the two others were less certain.

I know this whole concept is pretty far out and more than a little harebrained. Likely very naïve or at least overly optimistic. But if you’ve read this far, I want to hear what you think. What are the strong points / weak points? What would prevent you from participating?

I originally posted this as a Twitter thread, but decided I wanted to also have it here on my blog.

Facebook Asked Me to Interview

Someone from Technical Recruiting at Facebook contacted me a few weeks ago saying that they have lots of roles at Facebook that line up well with my experience, and that she would like to set up an initial interview to see if we might be a fit.

I considered just accepting and having a phone call, but I thought better of it and decided that I should at least be up front with her.

Hey [REDACTED]!

I appreciate the offer of a conversation. I’d be open to a chat, but I have to put out a big warning that I’m probably not an ideal Facebook candidate for a couple reasons.

First, I’ve lived in the Valley before (I worked for Apple for six years) but I live in Minnesota now, and I intend on staying. So even if I were to get a job with Facebook, I’d want to spend 95% of my time in Minnesota.

Second, I deleted my Facebook account about six weeks ago. I have serious concerns about Facebook’s role in society at large. In the interest of transparency, I’ll give examples:

  • Facebook can negatively change our perception of each other, our culture and our country
  • Facebook can manipulate how I see myself and my own value (or lack thereof) to my friends and family
  • Facebook’s work to increase user engagement has been so incredibly successful now that it feels to many to be unthinkable to live without it, in spite of the fact that they admit having serious fears and misgivings about what Facebook might do with their information
  • Facebook can in some cases even damage relationships that could have otherwise remained healthy, if distant
  • Facebook’s business model seems to be directly at odds with a person’s need for privacy and control of their own information, and for that reason Facebook may be forced to favor commerce over a person’s emotional needs, or risk going out of business

I think even if everything else worked out, having opinions like that would be painting a huge bullseye on my chest, you know? So I want to be up front about all of it as much as I can be.

I would be really excited to help Facebook to overcome these issues, as incredibly challenging as they are. I think it will require changes to the priorities we carry with us into the engineering process that before now have never been heard of or considered. As you know from my LinkedIn profile, I myself helped to get a niche social network off the ground and bring it to a peak of over 125,000 users at one point, so I certainly believe in the good that social media can do in our lives and the world in general.

Thanks for the email.

Josh
651-[REDACTED]

I never heard back. I didn’t really expect to, but it’s an interesting sort of confirmation nonetheless.

Memories of Writing BASIC on the Commodore 64

My family had a Commodore 64 from maybe 1983 – 1992 or so. My friend Nathan and I would type in BASIC code we found in books he’d bring home from the library, just like this guy is doing, because we wanted to see what it would do. It was like having access to magic spells. How does it work? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. It’s magic! Let’s try it!

We’d take turns line by line, typing in one character at a time, reading them to each other.

Half the time, we made a typo somewhere 20 lines up and couldn’t find it, and certainly didn’t have the knowledge necessary to debug it, so we’d just move on. I was surprised when I saw how easy it is to edit code and add new code in this demo. I had no idea that was possible! Whoops. Though I guess I should give myself a break because I was 9 years old at the time, and no one was teaching me how to do any of this.

Brings back fond memories. Technology seems less magical now, and I don’t think that’s only because of my experience. Maybe the ubiquity of it has demystified it somehow.

I’m Leaving Facebook Permanently

I posted this to Facebook too, of course, but for posterity I’m keeping it here as well. I expect I will be posting a lot more here now that my Facebook account will be gone.


I’m leaving Facebook forever on April 1st. No, this isn’t a joke. You should leave too. Read on.

I read more and more stories like this every day. People with inside knowledge and real expertise and deep, powerful connections in the tech industry, encouraging people to get rid of their Facebook accounts.

It’s not limited to the WhatsApp guy. It includes Facebook’s first president Sean Parker and a former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya. The article I linked to says they “both expressed serious misgivings about Facebook and how it messes with people’s psychological and social structures.”

And I’m seeing it myself too. I honestly think the rising anger in this country, the building political polarization, the rise in all kinds of dangerous psychological trends… I know the human condition is deeply broken. But Facebook is making it worse.

And the thing is, since I’m here, I’m part of the problem. And so are you.

I think it’s time to go. Not “time to go until they promise with sugar and a cherry on top they’ll never do it again”. Just time to go, and not come back. Ever.

Let another network rise that respects me and my privacy, respects my personal agency and personal opinions, and isn’t from the outset so fundamentally incapable of making the right choices socially. We cannot reward that behavior any longer by remaining present. I refuse to.

Here’s what I’m going to do, and I encourage you to do the same.

I’m going to keep my Facebook account active (so friends have a chance to read this message!) for the next few days. On April 1st, I’m deleting it permanently, not just deactivating it. And I’m not coming back. Let April Fools’ day be a reminder that Facebook has fooled us all, and we won’t play the fool any longer.

For practical purpose, if you leave Facebook, and you should, you should also make sure friends know how to get ahold of you without it. I’m still going to be on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/joshlewis And my blog, as long as I’m alive and probably for a little while after I’m not, is here: https://blog.joshlewis.org/

Share this message if you agree. But more importantly, on April Fools’ day, stop playing the Fool. Click the big blue button: https://www.facebook.com/help/delete_account

Apple & the Sensational Press

In the last day or so you may have started seeing even more sensationalistic news about Apple than usual. This time, it’s about the claim that Apple is slowing down older iPhones in order to sell new iPhones.

This article at TechCrunch by Matthew Panzarino has the real story. I strongly recommend reading this one to be best informed.

I want to talk about another issue too. It’s related.

I’m so deeply disappointed in some members of the press for the way that they sensationalize stories. It’s nothing new, I know. The fact that I often only notice their sensationalistic tendencies when they’re talking about a subject I actually understand hints that they might be doing this all the time, and I just don’t know it.

On this particular story, I’ve seen absolutely terrible articles by CNET and Business Insider already. Business Insider even went so far as to make it sound like Apple had confirmed, hat in hand, that they were throttling old iPhones in order to sell newer iPhones. They’ve done no such thing.

How can we hold the journalists responsible for these kinds of things accountable? I understand that I could just stop reading stories from those publications, but I imagine that sometimes the writer who publishes the story isn’t the only one responsible for this problem. They may have even been compelled to write something they didn’t personally agree with, or even understand properly, by someone higher up who is motivated to bring in more clicks and more ad revenue.

How are we to know who is to blame for gross misrepresentation of the truth? Is there nothing we can do? Do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater? It’s terribly ironic that these things are coming from the very organizations we patronize for the sole purpose of bringing us the truth in a timely manner. What a terrible abdication of duty!

The Calcified Persona

This might be ignorant of me, but I’m putting these thoughts into the public space so that 20 or 30 years from now you can call me out on being wrong about myself, OK? That’s the informal agreement you’re entering into with me by reading this.

It seems from my vantage point that many people reach a point in their lives where they close themselves off to new things. This could be new scientific discovery, new art, new political thought, new music, or even simple things like new habits, new personal preferences, new beliefs about the simple, everyday things of life.

I think that’s kinda sad. I don’t want that to be me. My aim in writing this is to make a public commitment that I will not allow that in myself, ever.

There is so much flavor and nuance and amazement and beauty in the world, it is practically packed to the gills with it. Why shut yourself off from that? Maybe at first glance you don’t perceive it’s there, but don’t turn away just yet. Look a little deeper. Trust what your friends and loved ones tell you through their own amazement and enjoyment, and spend the time.

As we get older, we often have even more of that kind of time, so one would think as a person gets older they’d be using that time to expand their horizons. It seems that’s often not the case. My “ignorance alarm” tells me there’s so much I don’t understand yet about life and aging, and that once I get there I’ll see why. We shall see. But my intention is to always broaden myself.

Having said that, I totally understand that there’s no moral obligation to enjoy new things. Or even to notice them. So I’m not arguing that it is wrong to stop learning and changing. I mean, hey, if something is perfect, you’d be wrong to change it, right? But the chances that something is perfect are incredibly, extremely, ridiculously low. Believing you’ve found perfection should at least call for healthy skepticism.

I also acknowledge that there are areas of life that I have literally no interest in. Certainly, no one is obligated to love literally every activity and every subject. But I think a person isn’t living their full life when they close themselves off more and more over time from more and more things, drawing inside themselves, disconnecting and becoming calcified.

So let’s not say that calcification is a normal part of aging. Let’s not accept it in ourselves and others. Encourage the people you love to live their lives as broadly as they can, with as much connection as they can. And when you see calcification happening in your own life, fight it!

Work & Nothingness

People kinda tease me because I keep my desk at work fairly clear. I actively remove everything from it. I’ve removed my lamp. I’ve put all my old desk toys in a box under the desk. I put my phone under the desk and forwarded my calls to my cell. I’m considering drilling a hole or two in the desk so that most of the cords can be invisible and just come out where they’re needed. And it goes even deeper: I don’t have much in my backpack. My car is usually empty.

But these are just surface-level symptoms of a larger mindset. The real question is why. It’s given me so much joy, I want to share it. So, why do I do this?

What I’ve found is that as you approach nothingness, the only thing left you have is the work you’re doing. You’re there to do the work. So do the work. If there’s something else for you to do, something else to look at, something to be distracted by instead of doing the work, get rid of it. Do the work.

The more work I do, the more I find that this principle of ruthlessly removing the extraneous is really central to excellent creation. It echoes what I wrote years ago here and I’m shocked to find I don’t back away from that nothingness these days. I go forward, closer and closer to it. It’s beautiful.

I should say that I understand there are plenty of people who can focus without any distractions, even if their desks and their lives are crowded with all kinds of junk. I’m not one of those people. So if you find that you aren’t one of those people either, try nothingness. You’ll acclimate and you’ll love it.