The unbearable pointlessness of research

In Sweden we have just endured a minor uproar over Superstar Surgeon, Paolo Macchiarinis fall from grace. Macchiarini has been recently convicted of falsifying test results and continuing to perform his new operations despite controversy. Six of the eight patients who received his synthetic trachea transplant died since undergoing the procedure. Alarmingly highly regarded medical journal The Lancet, published a paper by Macchiarini and colleagues in 2011.

This confirms what many researchers fear – much of what we publish is at best nonsense and lethal at its worst.

Not that any of my writing has had an enormous impact. It is possible that my friends wash their jeans slightly less often with a slightly positive impact on energy and water consumption. But I do – on some level – recognise the feeling of meaninglessness.

Writing a scientific article is an exercise in slowly numbing your darlings. Baring your ideas to anonymous reviewer, receiving ruthless feedback, reading up on reviewers’ favourite theories, citing said ‘anonymous’ reviewers in a flattering light, rewriting, resubmitting. After the third or fourth re-submission your once poignant truth is watered down to limp, nearly unrecognisable shadow.

Being a peer reviewer is not much better. Spurred on by a niggling feeling of one’s duty to contribute to the scientific project, you begrudgingly accept to review an article based on an abstract vaguely in your area. After skimming the article, you realise that to review it thoroughly you will need to read five more papers and see the authors data-set. You try your best but you are never sure if you understood exactly what the authors intend and if your feedback makes their findings clearer or easier to replicate.

Is there any evidence that our hallowed peer-reviewing process actually makes articles better?  I haven’t seen any proof – regardless I continue the farce. Publications are the academy’s currency. The more articles you have, the easier to find a job, secure a promotion, write successful grant applications…

As a result a huge volume of our nonsense makes its way into the pages of scientific journals. Since Sokal‘s famous mumbo-jumbo acceptance to Social Text in 1994, there has been an increase in the acceptance of hoax articles, even in credible publishers like Sage and Elsevier. One researcher, John Bohannon, received more than a 50% acceptance rate for 304 versions of the same nonsensical research in 2013. This against the background of the more sinister proliferation of ‘instant article software‘ where software helps your research and put together articles. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what forms modern knowledge.

We have known about the pointlessness since at least 2005 when John P. A. Ioannidis published his eye-opening Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. And it is now more pertinent than ever with the recent Open Science Collaboration, who replicated 100 experiments from papers published in 2008 in three high-ranking psychology journals. Less than one half of the studies gave significantly similar results to those originally reported. What we publish is rubbish.

Yes, discrediting is the easiest game in town.  I actually don’t think that these experiments undermine the entire scientific project. They show, rather, that self-critique has grown bolder within the academy, which can only mean an improvement in the quality of research. And an improvement in our collective body of knowledge. Because that is the point of research.

This post was inspired by a seminar by Roland Paulsen who is presenting again at Lund Konsthall 6pm April 21st. See you there?

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If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention

Somehow a whole year has flown by since I last posted. A combination of professional and personal satisfaction – life is good inside my bubble – and the imperative to contribute to our collective betterment subsides. Contentment has a mellowing effect.

But I still want to be active in re-imaging a fairer world.

Because we still have huge problems to overcome. Run away climate change (1). Burgeoning gaps between haves and have-nots (2). Global displacement (3). The general failure of capitalism to deliver a high quality of life for everyone.

Yes I am still aware of these problems, but evidently I’m not riled up enough to be actively involved.  Comfortably numb as Isabelle put it yesterday. Or villa villains as other colleagues describe themselves, knowing full well the consequences of a consumerist lifestyle, one nevertheless indulges in everyday luxuries like cars, imported food, summer houses, international travel…

It’s not that I’m seeking a paranoid state of constantly finding conspiracies and pointing out evil masterminds behind everything. More that I want to be aware of the different elements in our social system. To see not just my own individual challenges, but also the challenges faced by less privileged groups. To deconstruct the mechanics underlying our social system. To understand how inequalities are perpetuated. To image better modes of existence. Making poignant arguments. Being active in debates.

Perhaps doing well-considered social critique from a space of comfort is more sustainable than an reactionary tirade to every micro-injustice. As long as one in involved.

Apathy is the real villain.

1 Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

2 Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the twenty-first century. Harvard University Press, 2014.

3 Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions. Harvard University Press, 2014.

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Train ride from Triangeln

For anyone curious about what (somewhat stylised (aka blurry)) train commuting is like is Sweden. Music ‘Family’ by Luke Howard.

Train ride from Triangeln from Tullia Jack on Vimeo.

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Rising surface temperatures and longer, more intense heat-waves will be the new normal according to the latest IPCC report. This will make everyday life very different, say a group of researchers at Pufendorf Institute, who last week organised a public event on Heat.

California’s heatwave, 2014,

The whole day lecture series illustrated some of the effects we will see: excruciating heat islands in cities, accelerating dependence on air-conditioning (and energy), thousands of deaths amongst children and the elderly and life-threatening out-door working conditions. Heat also threatens crops and ability to feed ourselves. Not to mention eco-systems and nearly certain extinctions of a host of insects, plants and animals.

It is a dark coincidence that the seminar was followed almost immediately by the record breaking heat-related-death-toll in India, which the Earth Sciences Minister, Harsh Vardhan, has now declared due to climate change.

The Heat research team was developing many solutions to threats from heat: increasing green space and water bodies in cities, heat resistant crops, physical labour during the nights and an early warning system for the elderly. Many of these initiatives will help us adapt to the upcoming problems.

But part of me still wonders why we are allowing climate change to become steadily more certain. Why can’t we come to a global agreement to halt carbon emissions? Why do we continually privilege the voice of industry and finance over the environment and people?

For me carbon emissions is no longer an individual choice. If my everyday actions made possible by industrialisation like driving, and turning on the lights, and drinking coffee are contributing to situation that causes people to die, I no longer want to have those options available. I want our global leaders to use the science from the IPCC report to create and apply immediate and international limits on activity linked to climate change.

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Vanishing diversity in supermarkets

I’ve arrived back in Sweden after some field work in Australia and India looking at cleanliness. I collected quite varied data and while it all seems like a massive jumble, I am looking forward to taking some space to think and digesting it all.

Three photos really stick out.

When I was living in Australia I remember thinking how similar the laundry aisles were, but I now feel like homogenisation of products is at a global level. I wonder if what we do is also homogenous at the global level? What is involved in normal cleaning?

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Capitalism, consumption, climate change …and everyday life

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report 2014

We have near universal consensus that climate change is real, and caused by us. The problems predicted since the early 70s are starting to manifest in increasingly violent global weather patterns; record storms have ravaged both of my home cities Malmö and Melbourne this year. And while writing this in Brisbane my grandmother and I have battened down the hatches while we wait out a hailstorm warning. Extreme weather is the new normal. Because of people.

Storms over Brisbane from my grandma's roof.

Storms over Brisbane from my grandma’s roof.


Yet I still insisted on flying home to spend Christmas with my family – sending masses of CO2 and other nasties spewing into the atmosphere. I blithely jump in the car instead of walking to the shops, become seduced by cheap knick knacks, go hiking instead of attending political demonstrations, WhatsApping friends instead of writing to local politicians, buying out-of-season avocadoes packaged in three layers of plastic… these everyday decisions seem so unconnected to the abstractness of climate change.

Why is it so hard for my brain to link my local, individual actions with our global, collective challenges?

I think the problem is that individual actions seem so insignificant in the face of these epic climate events. Not only insignificant but also unconnected. Hidden amongst the aggregation of all human actions, and by unpredictable response time. Obscured by long production chains. We rarely glimpse the murky underbelly of capitalism.


Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth. – IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report 2014

So, if growth is the biggest driver of the mega storms and other extreme weather events, why don’t we just stop growing? Many of the more recent economists agree that the modern world functions because of capitalism, and that capitalism and growth are two sides of the same coin. Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing – Murray Bookchin, 1990.

However, instead of confronting capitalism as the root of growing consumption and the resulting climate change, ecological economists are instead searching for ways to adapt and alleviate capitalism’s aims from pure profit to also incorporating environmental and social metrics. Tim Jackson made some progress here with Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy in 2009. But these don’t address the fundamental dependency of capitalistic systems on growth, let alone offer politically implementable alternatives: the capacity of capitalism to deliver higher living standards, along with the negative track-record of state-socialism in terms of both human and environmental impacts, has led to the total discredit of any non-capitalist approaches to development – Wilhite and Hansen 2012. Even if, while delivering high living standards in the now with one hand, capitalism takes away our capacity for high living standards in the future with the other: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient, and barrier free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable – Klein, 2014.

As the symtriotic relationship between capitalism, growth and climate change cannot be broken, and, as climate change is making our world an increasingly dangerous place for humanity (Rockström et al, 2009) something needs to be done. Increasingly mainstream economists (Easterlin, 2013; Smith, 2010; Wright, 2012) are, despite the challenges, agitating for an alternative to capitalism. Perhaps the most direct is Smith in 2010 when he writes: –

Since capitalist growth cannot be stopped, or even slowed, and since the market-driven growth is driving us toward collapse, ecological economists should abandon the fantasy of a steady-state capitalism and get on with the project of figuring out what a post–capitalist economic democracy could look like.

More than anything we need strong political action to achieve a sustainable global system. We need to find a viable alternative to capitalism, consumption and climate change, we need to make the hidden risks apparent. To provide a high quality of life both now, and in the future. But so far politicians have only pussy-footed around the issue: The cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions that scientists tell us are necessary in order to greatly reduce the risk of catastrophe are treated as nothing more than gentle suggestions, actions can be put off pretty much indefinitely – Klein 2014.

Isaac Cordal, Follow the leaders, Berlin, 2011.

Isaac Cordal, Follow the leaders, Berlin, 2011.

We need to tell our politicians to do something, we need to mandate them to take the critical decisions necessary to stop climate change. And that’s where everyday life comes into the picture.

Everyday life is where we encounter the problems. Everyday we are participating in capitalism; all of our decisions are political. Even doing nothing sends a message. The everyday is exactly where we can make a difference. Let’s get heard.




Acknowledgements: This post was very much inspired by a course I took on Consumption, Capitalism and Everyday life run by Arve Hansen and Hal Wilhite at the University of Oslo. Thanks guys 🙂

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Impressions from Sustainability Science Congress 2014: Equitable sustainability

I got to attend the Sustainability Science Congress 2014 in Copenhagen the other week, and write a blog post based on a quote that inspired me, which turned out to be “We want to have our planet, and eat it too” Andrew Simms, Chief analyst on the environment at Global Witness at parallel session “Social equity, development and global environment”.

It got me thinking that us children of the eighties often heard the catchphrase, ‘change not charity’. We believed that everyone given the right opportunities has the potential to work our way out of poverty, one of the fundamental aspects of social equality. A good livelihood leads to a society where everyone has a sense of purpose; schools are populated with teachers, hospitals have doctors, everyone has a job and enough money to pay for life’s necessities.

The social equity session delved deeply into the factoids surrounding social equity, and it’s close collaborator ‘green growth’ and many of the presenters showed that it is not such a simple story.

The vision of green growth is often evoked by economists, who argue that if we only grow the economy people will become empowered, engaged in sustainability and climate change will be addressed from the grass roots. Green-growth is a political darling, the panacea to the wicked problem of social equity. We can decrease poverty and increase sustainability at the same time. But how can we promote equity while trying to prevent irreversible climate change?

Despite dematerialisation attempts, economic growth is dependent on resource use, resources that are finite.  It’s well established that if everyone had an American lifestyle we would need more than 3 planets.  We do not have another three planets, so any attempts to grow our way out of inequality is doomed. Furthermore, aside from Merton discrediting the social mobility myth in the 50s, the burgeoning cleft between rich and poor sees us on the wrong side of this increasingly marginalised, with less say in decision-making, let alone say in environment issues.

The premises of capitalism

But what tools do we have to tackle inequality and sustainability? Modern societies are premised strongly on capitalism. Most of our systems: food, health, education are built using a market mentality. Efficient use of inputs, competitive evaluation, profits. This is evident in the hospital system where doctors compete for ‘lucrative’ diseases and try to send less lucrative diseases to other hospitals. The capitalistic system confuses us as to our real purpose, whether that be curing diseases, teaching classes or preparing food. We perversely see everything in financial terms. And we only want to see charts that go upwards.

We cannot convince capitalism to stop growing, just as we cannot convince a human to stop breathing. All attempts to make capitalism ‚green’ or ‚ecological’ are bound to be futile because the essence of this system is permanent growth“ Murray Bookchiniv

Growth is the answer to poverty, yes, but growth is also the epitome of unsustainability. We simply do not have enough resources for everyone alive today to live western lifestyles, let alone unborn generations.

Western lifestyle equals the good life?

For me this is a really clear call to think about what we actually want from life. Does everyone want to live a western lifestyle with accompanying stress, isolation, and resource intensity, or do we want to have more fulfilling lives? Where happiness, quality of life and our natural environment take the centre stage.

Social equity is not necessarily about bringing everyone to the level of the west. Social equity is about renegotiating what is important to living a good life. The answer lies in talking, engaging everyone who will be effected in creating long lasting and conscious social and environmental sustainability.  In the words of Torsten Krause “Without ethical deliberations no social equity and no long-term sustainability”.

This post was originally published on Sustainability Science Congress 2014.

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Critical vs. practical

I’ve just been at the inaugural LUCID Young Researchers Conference along with a host of other young guns all interested in sustainability challenges from both the natural and social sciences and just about everything in-between. Beyond being impressed by the variety of ways in which the presenters are tackling different aspects of sustainability, I was really taken by how much everyone cares about their topics. The genuine eagerness to do good.

Despite such disparate topics, I felt there were two main approaches to doing good. The more highly represented was practical problem solving; taking a real physical problem and working through solutions. On the other end of the spectrum was a more critical approach; using abstract knowledge to imagine new paradigms. While there is no dichotomy, my impression was that every project is oriented towards one of these two poles.

This was given stark contrast at the final panel session when Andrea Nightingale poignantly appealed for more criticism of the status quo to break us out of spiralling environmental degradation, while Kimberly Nicholas made an equally impelling case for research to be accessible and accountable to the people and problems in front of us. I was glad that the two approaches were represented, as without practical problem solving we become overwhelmed and paralysed, but without critical reflection we focus only on the symptoms and end up perpetuating problems (for example the rebound effect). Sustainability needs both problematising and problem solving.

In my research it’s made me reflect more about addressing inconspicuous consumption linked with cleanliness expectations. Do I want to find more sustainable ways of reproducing cleaning routines, or do I want to spend the next three years reflecting on resources consumed in following social conventions? Can I keep sight of the bigger picture, while still taking smaller steps, making smaller gains?

Thanks to the organisers for bringing this onto my radar, and congratulations for a organising a great conference: David Harnesk, Emma Li Johansson, Chad Boda, Torsten Krause and Sandra Valencia.

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Thou shalt be attractive

Michael Leunig wrote these 4 words 7 years ago, and they resonate even more today. Becoming bound up by ideal modes of being. Agitating over status, appearance, performance. Hiding beneath narcissistic farces, so shiny and impenetrable, idiosyncratic realities are smothered, vulnerabilities denied…

A friend told me recently that she liked vulnerable people.

My immediate response was to wonder at the kind of creeps I keep company with, but I’m coming to appreciate her more and more. When a colleague admitted that interviewing people terrified him I immediately sympathised ‘Me too!’  When a friend told me she was homesick a sleuce of, until then, unarticulated feelings opened up to meet hers and our sharing deepened the experience, our friendship. I secretly admired their courage, their self assuredness in their imperfections. Being vulnerable gives you the chance to connect with people. Being attractive invites adulation and isolation. Vulnerability is something I inadvertantly seek in others, but am rarely willing to reveal. I want to be admirable and relatable. Have and eat my cake.

Leunig’s essay on pressure to be attractive expresses this in his peculiarly beautiful way. It’s so perfectly imperfect I’ve posted it word for word.

Aquascutum 2009

Aquascutum 2009

Cringing with shame, the homely run the gauntlet of our streets.

Huge banners of the dictator line the freeway where I dodge hurtling trucks, frantically searching for the lane that leads to the road that leads to the peace and safety of home. These same photographic images I have also seen in the streets of the city from which I am in weary flight – images of power looming over the streets and byways to remind all citizens of the great dictator’s supremacy and fierce determination.

The images are huge, and to carry them, steel structures have been built along all the busy human passageways of the city so that the hearts and minds of citizens must run the gauntlet of the dictator’s taunting and insincere gaze.

The dictator has youthful skin and often wears no trousers – or else has them slightly undone to reveal a very fine and enigmatic pair of underpants. And how lurid the swelling of the tyrant’s lips; how compelling the soft bulging of the dictator’s warm and sumptuous breasts.

The limbs are long, smooth and airy, the smile is loaded and the eyes wide with promise, while the buttocks, lightly bound in scraps of rich lace or dark silk are presented like some dazzling and exotic wisdom to the passer-by whose sullen buttocks cringe in the darkness in shame and pale despair.

There is no escaping the image of the great tyrant – and no refuge from the dictator’s dire commandment: Thou shalt be attractive.

By this, the dictator means attractive in any of its many forms: charming, strong, good-looking, successful, groovy, brilliant, amusing or rich – so long as one is also feeling not quite attractive enough and not really quite good enough.

The citizens tremble at the thought of failure and rejection. It keeps them busy and subdued like slaves. How they run for the tyrant, how harshly they judge themselves and each other; how picky and bitchy and hypercritical they are as they fret about status, appearance, performance and 10,000 other little compliances.

It is difficult to imagine any time in history when so many people claiming to be so free have lived in so much fear of being unattractive.

See the young girl in her room; she is looking at herself in the mirror; she is alarmed because she thinks her bottom is too big. She will have to go without food and fret and make it smaller. See the man.

His hair is going grey; he must soak it in chemical pigment or be cast into the abyss. And the worried woman. Her face is sagging and creasing; she must have it injected with lies and smooth deceptions to make her feel good about herself. Somehow love’s promise seems to have failed her.

The French have a phrase for such human tragedy: “mal baiser”, meaning to kiss badly, or more poetically, “to be badly loved”. I think perhaps that modern humanity is badly loved.

Ah, that old subject that brings us into ridicule. To be loved surely means to be known and emotionally held and to be taken seriously for who we really are. To love means to clearly see and to know, to be attentive and open to; to engage with the truth of, to bear and take to heart. Not just another person but all creation as we find it.

But we would need to know and reveal who we are before love could exist, otherwise there is no organic ground for real engagement. Yet such a precondition for love, such revelation and intimacy, would create a vulnerability that many would find unbearable. Fear of intimacy being more powerful, it would seem, than fear of terrorism.

“The more I reveal myself the less you will love me” is the prevailing maxim.

So we must not only maintain the false self as a natural defence, but we are now given the opportunity to develop it as an asset.

The company executive learning the hand gestures and the shit-eating smile, the writer collecting the language of cool, the singer correcting the human voice on a computer, the anxious young man adopting by osmosis those winning looks, winning words and winning moves – all compulsively smoothing out peculiar wrinkles or divesting the personality of unique and embarrassing characteristics in the name of aspirational self-improvement. Learning how to make it look like the real thing – anything to stave off the thought of abandonment and oblivion in an unforgiving world.

It gets particularly bad when artists, the traditional keepers of authenticity, begin to paint pictures that look so much like art, for as Lao Tzu said so wisely a long time ago, “true art does not look like art”. We might also extend this to say that true love does not look like love.

The “phoniness” that Holden Caulfield observed so constantly in Catcher in the Rye is learned very young; it’s a compulsory subject at the dinner table in many childhoods. The acquisition of charm becomes second nature because things go better for some children when they are pleasing and not too real, or idiosyncratic.

Institutional education reinforces the message and continues the process of supplying humans with two faces in the cause of worldly advantage, and turns out grinning depressives by the truckload. In school we may learn the line “unto thine own self be true”, but we also learn about the disaster we invite when this advice from Shakespeare is put it into practice.

So off into society we go to win such favour and fortune as suits our fantasy and to perfect the everyday and sensible duplicity that has been set in motion until eventually we may even become powerful, stylish, clever and charismatic according to the currency of the day – and who knows, we may end up with a chat show on television or in politics with a high-voltage electrode taped to our genitals.

And all the while, the redeeming possibility of intimacy with the world and a true loving of life is diminished – a loss that gradually makes us ill and sends us into the emotional exile called madness. The alienation we feared too much is the very alienation we end up making for ourselves and making for our society. Which leads us to the civil world, to democracy and to politicians.

How impossible the lives of those who present themselves for election and the scrutiny and judgement of a badly loved electorate where many duplicitous citizens have forgotten what human authenticity looks like and where honesty is at once admired but also detested as an offensiveness liability. Who could survive this life of fierce and malicious appraisal?

Maybe a sleazebag, a crook, a lunatic, a martyr, a saint. In a small way we are all electioneering politicians in search of some little power.

Painful to watch and painful to be – a seeker after approval: upstanding yet crawling, smiling yet deeply hurt, eating and breathing and exhaling conflict, composed while decomposing. And above all, needing always to be somehow attractive.

Little wonder that many politicians go barking mad inside and end up doing weird things in brothels and boardrooms; little wonder they finish up hating those whom they serve, crawl to and run for, no surprise that their anger becomes so monstrous that by proxy they become violent and unleash sadistic wars with righteous conviction in the unconscious belief that they have earned it.

But it’s OK. Such speculation about humanity must be worthless and untrue because it is essentially unattractive. The great dictator may rule the lives of modern humanity with extreme cruelty and ruthlessness but hope and security are provided in return: the security in believing that the shit will never hit the fan and the glorious hope that the pigeons will never come home to roost.


Michael Leunig
The Age, August 24, 2007

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Slaves to devices

We are as close to telepathy as we’ve ever come. Thanks to mass communication we can call, message, chat, flick, swipe, poke, follow, talk to any number of people. We can let others know what we are thinking. And find out what other people are thinking. Right now. On the train, at work, in the kitchen, the moments before I fall asleep.

Banksy, Mobile Lovers, 2014

Banksy, Mobile Lovers, 2014

Interactions with friends are nearly always augmented with devices: book a table, google this, find that boutique, ask twitter’s opinion, take a photo. We keep our phones close-to-hand. It’s not uncommon for five of us to be sitting together, all checking our devices together. All sucked away into our online realities.

The on-line reality where everything is blithe and pithy and over-sharing is rife.

Well, superficial over-sharing at any rate. I’m never revealing my unmediated self. I follow the precedents of celebrity over-sharing lead by the Kardashians and Kutchers who’s personal struggles are perfectly performed. Tilted to gain sympathy, spruik a viewpoint, increase their cultural capital. I follow suit. We all do in some way, use our devices to show how perfect we are.

But what is happening beneath the perfect narcissistic farce? Instead of immersing in the myriad of human stories, experiences, collective wisdom, I click refresh. Ping, like Pavlov’s dog the red notification signal sets off chemicals in my system, I want more replies, likes, comments, shares. I loose hours, days, weeks maybe in frenzied clicking sprees, cramming my craving full of notification crack. A device zombie, numbed by cheap validations. The hypnotic screen pacifies my human curiosity, pre-scripting cheap interactions with the world. Even if I break the trance, I’m soon jittering to check again, just quickly. My attention span now comes in ten minute skims, insatiably seeking instant gratification.

I have thought quite seriously about committing Web 2.0 Suicide.

But one of the reasons I haven’t yet redressed my addiction are the very tangible benefits to come from these vast, if superficial, social networks. My device has made my life much more convenient. Richer. Connections have been rekindled, travel companions kept track of, housemates found, restaurants recommended, languages trained, forests navigated, public transport organised, ideas shared, events organised, people brought together in real life.

But at what point do our slaves enslave us? And is it a zero sum game? Is it possible to have both the modern conveniences of connecting at a surface level with many, but also the real satisfaction of connecting with another human being?

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