Capturing Lightning in a bottle: Ephemerality, Permanence, and Social Media

It is hard to imagine now a time before the internet.

Pre-internet, it was common to see on a person’s book shelf photo albums. Everybody had them. Perhaps they still do.

You would take a photo of things which mattered most to you. Most often, if not always, those photos were of children, family, and holidays. They were treasured people and moments we attempted to capture for eternity. Those moments we captured struck like lightning – often we could sometimes see them brewing on the horizon. But such moments, like lightning, struck fast, gloriously, and, as quickly as they arose, vanished. And when they did happen, we attempted in vain to capture that lightning  – those moments – in a bottle.

Some people were more obsessed with producing photo albums than others, capturing less unique moments that they still found interest or meaning in. There was, of course, a limit for everyone, given that photo albums took up physical space on a book shelf in a home. You couldn’t have limitless albums. So people had to actively choose which moments to keep and which to discard. Which ones really mattered and which ones didn’t. They had to be actively conscious of the meaning these things had.

Why are we so intent on capturing lightning in bottles? Our concern seems to lie in a widespread intuition that:

If something is valuable then it should be kept for as long as possible.

Or, maybe, the length of time some thing exists is necessarily tied to the value of that thing.

This would explains people’s concern about ‘leaving their legacy’ – for the value of their life, to them at least, is tied in part with how long their actions resonate or effect generations after their death. Sure, we admit that ‘nothing lasts forever’. But while we do so, we often think of that as being an unavoidable and regrettable fact of reality which we can’t over come. That nothing lasts forever should be something you come to terms with, but it is still lamentable.

Our desire for things to last for as long as possible, if not forever, is one powerful reason, amongst others, which drives our desire for particular types of technology. In technology we find a way of making that which was ephemeral permanent. Our memories may fade but our photos do not. And while physical photos might decay or be damaged or lost, digital ones will not.

We no longer have limited physical space in the way we once did. Film and albums turned into CD’s and DVD’s. DVD’s turned into portable hardrives. Hardrives turned into clouds.

We can now keep every moment of our lives available to us, if only we take the photo or record the video.

The removal of limiting space and resources has allowed us to deem every moment, event, action, as being valuable – we no longer need to decide between moments. And, in doing so, we keep everything in thinking that by doing so we keep something valuable.

The intuition here seems to be something like this:

For something to be valuable, meaningful, or worthwhile, it has to last. Indeed, for something to be valuable means that it must last for as long as possible.

If something does not last then it either wasn’t valuable to begin with, or it is a great tragedy for it be lost to time.

This obsession with equating value with the length of time something exists has been built into our technology too. We see it, not just in our computers, but particularly in social media. The very much dead MySpace, and (the now controversial) Facebook are evidence of this – our social networks, once established, remain eternal unless we actively ‘unfriend’ people. The photos we take and people we tag in them, once done, remain eternal unless we actively ‘untag’ ourselves. And new social media crept up that, too, fed our desire which was brought about by the widespread belief that ‘permanence = valuable’. Instagram, Twitter, etc., all made sure that whatever moment you had was an unchanging, permanent, thing.

But what has our desire to keep lightning in a bottle wrought us? Facebook was started in 2004. Our experiment in following the widespread intuition I have described has been going for 15 years. We have now seen, first hand, what making ephemeral moments into permanent stills gets us.

We are left with a proverbial graveyard of friends, moments, events, photos, etc., which no longer hold any value – if they ever did at all. We now greatly desire the right to be forgotten. We now see the value in moments being just that: moments. Short, sharp, ephemeral things which do not deride their value in how long they last, but the impact they have in the moment they happen. We have caught so much lightning that now all we have are rooms cluttered to the ceiling with glass bottles. When you try and capture too much lightning in bottles, you end up with a Facebook.

Our Facebook friends, groups, and events are a string of deadweight which get heavier and more unbearable as we get older. The photos we take of the food we bought at some restaurant no longer hold the value we thought they did. We can no longer get a fresh start or begin anew – our past, thanks to permanent social media, follows us where ever we go.

And we have seen how such things can either destroy lives or ruins careers.

But these facts are something older generations like mine and those before have come to grips with. Younger generations are sharply aware of how things should not be permanent. They have learnt, from growing up in this brave new world, that only some moments should be kept forever; that the value of some moments is not directly tied to how long they last.

This realisation is what has helped technology pioneered by Snapchat (and successfully stolen and better implemented by Instagram). After all, Snapchat’s whole selling point is precisely that your moments wont last. And it is that exact selling point which enabled Snapchat, a company with seemingly no way to successfully monetise, to become a multi-billion dollar company simply in virtue of having such a large user base.

The ephemeral nature of their product even threatened Instagram for a time, until they were able to replicate the technology. And now it is these moments – these stories – which are proving more popular with users (particularly younger ones) than Instagrams original function – a permanent place to put your highly curated photos and videos.

Our experiment with turning the beautiful fleeting moments into deformities of themselves to sate our desire for keeping the valuable with us forever has shown how ugly things get. We are learning the hard way the drawbacks of such technology – one of the main reasons younger generations do not take up Facebook, but prefer more ephemeral social media.

Our realisation is changing how we engage with social media, and how such media engages with us – and our desire to the let our past – regardless of how important we might think it is – in the past, spurns on the right to be forgotten.

Perhaps then, what we need is a formalised spelling out of our revised intuitions about value and time and the relationship between it. We need to be reminded that, sometimes, what makes a friendship, a moment, or an experience beautiful is precisely because it does not last – its beauty lies in the time in which it occurred and cannot be replicated or kept in perpetuity.

What we need in our technology, it seems to me, is for social media to respect, and be responsive to, our ephemeral nature. As beings in time, we experience only the now, and have only memories of the past (which are consistently restructured over time, or simply forgotten). Social media, in large part, does not respect or is responsive to such things. Our social networks change constantly as new bonds grow and old ones whither – why have a social network if it does not reflect our ever changing lives? Why should we not have social media, or technology, that changes as we do?

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How Philosophers can help Companies clarify concepts

In this entry of the philosophers-and-business series, I aim to flesh out the 2nd unique skill one gains through philosophical training. To reiterate the three:

  1. Philosophers are trained to focus on the ‘why should’ question.
  2. Philosophers are trained in conceptual analysis and development of conceptual frameworks.
  3. Philosophers are highly sensitive to methodology, intuitions, and arguments.

In one entry, I explained, in broad terms, how each were learnt and their upshots for business. To summarize, conceptual analysis mattered for business because it helped clarify communication and ideas, as well as consider how crucial such work is for the increasingly pervasive efforts of soft A.I. and data analysis.

For this entry, I’m going to explain what concepts are, why philosophers are uniquely trained in thinking about them, and their importance for companies. This entry proceeds as follows:

A) What is a concept?
B) What is conceptual analysis?
C) What is a conceptual framework?
D) Why are philosophers uniquely trained in doing conceptual work?
E) How does all this help a company?

The take away from this article is this:

Concepts are an essential part of our mental cognition and how we understand the world. The clearer and more defined our concepts are, the better and faster progress we make. Conceptual analysis matters for companies because, without it, they significantly decrease their effectiveness in the marketplace.

A) What is a concept?

Like all things in philosophy, what a concept precisely is, is controversial. But I think most would agree that concepts are the basic building blocks of thought. Without concepts – without defined categories of objects or ideas – we would have no way of differentiating between the things we see, hear, experience, etc.

For example, suppose you are sitting at a table. To even understand or imagine that, you need to have an idea – a concept – of ‘sitting’ and ‘table’. And your idea of them differentiates ‘sitting’ from other types of things, such as ‘standing’, ‘squating’, etc. And ‘table’ differentiates an object from others, such as ‘spoon’, ‘bowl’, ‘tree’, etc. One way of putting it might be:

If you don’t have a concept of a thing, you wont recognize it when you see it.

So concepts allow us to make sense of the world, by having definitions of things and then seeing what out there fits with those definitions. For a thing to be a type of thing, it needs to fit with our concept of it. For a square to be a square, it needs to fit the concept of a square, i.e., an object with 4 sides, 4 corners, all of equal length.

B) What is conceptual analysis?

Conceptual analysis is the task of thinking seriously about concepts – what they are, what they should be, and how we understand our networks of them. When we perform conceptual analysis, we are looking for both the necessary and sufficient conditions which must be met for some thing to count as belonging to that conceptual class.

For a feature to be necessary means that some thing must have this feature to even have the chance of counting. For a feature, or features, to be sufficient means that some thing must at least have these to count.

Take, for example, a square. What are the necessary features of a square? 4 corners and 4 sides, all of equal length. For some thing to be a square it needs those things – but are they sufficient? It seems so. So, we have such conditions and now we can identify squares and non-squares.

What about something more complicated, like ‘dog’? What are the necessary conditions of ‘dog’? We might start with something simple like having four legs and fur. Is that sufficient though? It would seem not, since cats too have four legs and fur. But to count as a dog, such features do not even appear necessary – we know some dogs have less than 3 legs, and some do not have fur, so it appears these features aren’t even necessary, let alone sufficient.

So while simple geometric shapes might be easy enough to figure out, more complex concepts, such as biological species, justice, rights, flora, etc., are not.

C) What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework, simply put, is a network, or graph, of concepts and the relationships they share one another. In recent years, conceptual frameworks have been given a more technical name: ontology.

More often, an ontology is subject or domain specific. For example, an ontology of pizza toppingsbiological specieschemicals, etc. An ontology (aka conceptual framework) tells us what concepts and categories exist with the subject domain, the properties of those concepts and categories, and the relations between them. Consider the following ontology:

examplefoodontology.png
A food ontology

The above conceptual framework provides us with a graph which presumes to show the accurate concepts and relationships between them. For example, an E-Additive is necessarily a Food additive. And a food additive is necessarily an Ingredient. And then, depending upon the Ingredient, it can either be a Food of itself, (and thus necessarily a Product or Service) or a ‘Thing’.

An ontology can become a complicated affair, depending upon its domain and scope. But they are obviously useful and, when done properly, incredibly powerful – they map out the concepts of our minds and allow us to properly trace ideas in neat and accessible ways. Just as importantly, they have become indispensible when dealing with data analysis and computer systems.

D) Why are philosophers uniquely trained in doing conceptual work?

How we form concepts is a complex matter. Regardless though, philosophers deal with analysising them more, I think, than other academic fields. And when some particular domain begins to question its own ontology or concepts, it starts doing philosophy. When biologists question the taxonomies of creatures they observe or the relationships between them, they start doing philosophy of biology.

How does one analyze a concept? We can’t seem to appeal to the empirical world, for doing so would beg the question in favour of a particular conception over another. Rather, philosophers perform conceptual analysis by reflecting upon our intuitions, and then justifying or revising them accordingly. This is better understood through example.

Consider something like ‘knowledge’ – what is it? Most say think to ‘know’ that proposition P means one believes something which is both true and they have evidence or justification for believing. So to ‘know’ that ‘the earth is round’ means that a person (a) believes ‘the earth is round’, (b) has evidence or justification for believing it so (such as photos or empirical data), and (c) the earth actually is round. Intuitively, this seems correct.

However, consider the following:

A person is looking out into a field and sees a sheep shaped object. That person might believe “there is a sheep in the field”, and they would be justified in believing so because they see a sheep shaped object.

But suppose the object they are looking at is not a sheep, but instead a large sheep-shaped rock. But behind that rock is an actual sheep. Does this person really know “there is a sheep in the field”? Well, consider this:

(A) They believe there is sheep in the field.
(B) they are justified in believing so they see a sheep shaped object.
(C) there actually is a sheep in the field.

This person meets all three given criteria. But surely they do not know – they just got lucky! That is, it is counter-intuitive to suggest that this person actually has knowledge. If so, then our theory is incomplete – there must be more to knowledge than merely having a justified belief that just so happens to be true.

What has happened here? The strategy is to start with our intuitive notion of some concept, produce a theory from that notion, and then try and find counter-examples. Counter examples might defeat a theory of a concept in two ways:

  1. The counter example fits the theory, but does not intuitively appear that it should.
  2. The counter example does not fit the theory, but does intuitively appear to be a member of that concept.

In this knowledge case, our counterexample fits the theory, but intuitively feels like it should not. Given that, we need to revise our theory of the concept to make it more defined and reflective of what we have in our minds.

E) How does all this help a company?

You might wonder then, so what? How does this help me or my clients? Well, if you or your clients use something like Google, or Facebook or literally any type of technology and chosen one type of technology over another for its ability to quickly get what their after, it is certainly because of the power of that platforms ontology – the conceptual framework. 

There is, after all, a reason why people choose to use one search engine over all others – because it is highly effective (sometimes, scarily so), and that comes down to having a powerful and well defined conceptual network which allows it to effectively sift through the overwhelming information in their databases.

Companies have become highly sensitive to the importance of data analysis, especially given the power of computing. But analysizing data is useful without some way of making sense of it – and that’s one point where conceptual analysis comes in. Ontologies allow us to partition data into highly accessible and understandable information – but this can only be done so when the concepts within that ontology are clearly defined.

Such information is invaluable for a company, but the insights which can be gained from data mining are only as good as the concepts and frameworks with which the computer system and the data scientist has to work with.

Having a philosopher – someone who is specifically trained with conceptual analsysi – on a team dedicated to such an endevour would pay high dividends for any business wanting more milage out of their databases.

Action Planning and Goal Setting: III

III

 Actions must successfully lead to the goal. Since it is always unknown whether our actions will move us closer our end, we need to continually reassess both the goal and actions. But when should we reassess our aims? It seems utterly foolish to never reassess since our actions could have consistently failed to draw us any closer to our goal. Yet it seems unproductive, if not impossible, to continuously reassess our position after every action.

I think an optimal strategy for reassessment would be at milestones: points in our action plan that we judge (whether rightly or wrongly) to be strategically important for accomplishing our goal. We can call these milestones sub-goals, because they serve as short-term goals and are not ends in themselves. Sub goals contrast with our final end, that which we can call an ultimate goal, as (a) it should be an end in itself, and (b) no goal should succeed it.

Sub-goals are an important part of an action plan. A good sub-goal will have three attributes. First, a sub-goal will give the appearance of being an end in itself. That is, a sub-goal appears meaningful and does not just seem like an unnecessary grind or box to tick. Second, a sub-goal will be a strong motivation for an agent. This second attribute is generally a consequence of the first point. Third, a sub-goal should provide a clear and obvious path to the next goal (whether that goal is the next sub-goal or the ultimate goal itself).

Sub-goals should serve as necessary success points for an action plan. If you succeed on all sub-goals, one will (most likely) reach the ultimate goal. However, upon failing a sub-goal, according to the current action plan, there is no chance of arriving at the ultimate goal whatsoever. Since a sub-goal serves as a pivot point of an action plan, whether one succeeds or fails can change the course of the entire plan, or the abandoning of the ultimate goal itself.

So, the time in which we should assess our position is at the point of a sub-goal, whether we have succeeded or failing in achieving that goal.

As aforementioned, I described a sub-goal as having the appearance of being an end in itself, as opposed to an ultimate goal that actually is an end in itself. In the next post, I’m going to tease apart this difference, and explain how I conceptualize such a distinction and how distinguishing the difference between the two can help the construction of action plans themselves.

Action Planning and Goal Setting: II

II

If a constraint of goal forming is that an aim must be within our power to accomplish, then we should think seriously about what actually is within our power and what is not. Prima facie, the things that constrain what is possible for us to bring about are imagination, luck, and resources.

By imagination, I mean our ability to find action plans that will bring about our goal. Many things have been taken to be out of our grasp. Going to the moon, for example, or the idea of a wireless connection accessible anywhere on the planet might be another. Or a machine that can compute high amounts of data in every home or pocket.

Our imagination limits our ability to see how we can achieve the goal. The inputs of our imagination seem to be knowledge and creativity. Knowledge of how the world is help us figure out how unlikely a goal is to be achieved, while our creativity helps fill in gaps where knowledge ends. For example, while going to the moon might have been thought a pipedream, those with enough knowledge can gauge how difficult achieving a moon landing could be and, given the end of knowledge, creativity picks up to figure out how to bridge the gap.

By luck, I mean those things outside of our constraints. For while creativity can form a plan to chart the unknowable, it is always an uncertain hypothesis until tested. And, that uncertainty is what we intuitively call ‘luck’. Getting a computer into every home was lucky because nothing like it had been done before. We cannot account for certain variables, but only do the best we can and hope our creativity got things right.

By resources, I mean the time, energy, knowledge, creativity, money, and other things required to achieve some goal. Knowledge of our resources allows us to make better, more calculated decisions about how we ought to approach a goal. Suppose you have a goal of producing a piece of software – you have to figure out how to produce it. Do you know how to code? If so, do you have time to do it? And, if ‘no’ to either question, is the goal still achievable given those resource constraints?

I imagine the relationship between imagination, luck and resources is recursive, with the action plan needing to be updated incrementally as the plan itself is implemented. Given a stage of an action plan, new information is added, resources are used, and those uncertainties have played themselves out. But a problem remains as to when we are to update an action plan and reassess our goal. In the next entry I want to consider one model of how action plans are updated and how goal assessment fits into that picture.

Action planning and Goal Setting: I

I

Since ending my thesis, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the decision-making process. Specifically, the condition/s needed for there to be action, and what the relationship is between those conditions. Thus far, it seems to me a necessary conditions required for action are goals. A goal, it seems to me, is a desire to bring about of some state-of-affairs at a later time (that is, a time after the present).

Goal forming has certain constraints. First, it appears that goals need to be achievable by the agent, or agents, who form them. For example, a desire to travel beyond our solar system would be better described as a hope or a dream, rather than a goal. Second, goals are future orientated projects; goals can’t be aimed at a past time or present moment. If I desired that I had eaten a salad instead of a burger, such a desire could not be described as a goal, but rather a regret. With such constraints in mind, it doesn’t even seem we can rationally conceive of forming such goals (or even maintaining them).

If the above is right, then actions require aims that are (a) future orientated and (b) are within the agents own power to bring about (i.e., a goal). And action planning is just forming a series of actions that bring about the aimed for state-of-affairs (i.e., a goal).

This means, according to my view, that actions aren’t possible unless there is some goal in mind. Goals give our actions meaning – they give us a reason to act and justify our actions not just in our own minds, but others too. Goals help us constrain the possibly infinite set of actions we could take. For example, if I form the goal to eat a salad, then (if I am to act rationally, i.e., actions that will achieve the goal) I make all non-salad eating actions non-possible. Only actions that will result in eating a salad will be open to me. And being a creature of finite resources, I’ll form an action plan that results the shortest number of actions to achieve my goal. Goals are a necessary condition for the occurrence of all actions between the present moment and all times prior to the goal.

One interesting observation in all this is the relationship between goals, action, and time. We could summarize such an observation as: to move forward, we need to plan backward. What does this mean? I have already explained how goals help direct our actions in the future (i.e., moving forward). But to know how to act requires forming a goal and then figuring out how to achieve it. To do so, it seems, requiring working out actions in reverse order; the step leading to the goal, the step before that step, etc. (i.e., plan backward).

The past, then, cannot guide our actions but only constrain possibilities. Just because in the past Jane played football does not mean she must continue to do so. However, what Jane is capable of achieving will be limited due to the large quantity of resources (e.g., time, energy, etc.) she dedicated to football. We are limited by our past but not held hostage by it.