Math is a belief system

I have resisted the siren call of TikTok. But some of its videos are so powerful they leave their orbit and end up on other platforms and catch my attention. Case in point is the “I don’t think math is real” video. I enjoyed Hank Green’s response to its response.

This young woman is asking all of the right questions that don’t just lead to a greater understanding of math, but actually joyous understanding of math.

And I get frustrated that often the way we teach math right now ignores these questions. How did Pythagoras, a dude who didn’t even have a flushable toilet, figure out an equation that we still use and is still useful today? Thousands of years later!

A truth so true that it’s more true than reality is. Every point in our universe has some bluntness. Every line has some wiggle. But in Pythagoras’ mind, there was a perfect triangle that, one that no matter how far in you zoomed in, the lines were straight, the points were pointy. One in which for every right triangle the area of the square made by the hypotenuse was exactly the same as the area of the squares made by the legs of the two triangles added together. Exactly!…

The idea that we teach people the pythagorean theorem without teaching them that mathematicians build universes in their minds that are more perfect than the one that we live in, in some ways, that’s wild! Sometimes it is brought up, and sometimes the fact that Pythagoras built a CULT promising SECRET KNOWLEDGE about this stuff and then actually delivered on that secret knowledge that was extremely powerful and wild that you can create a universe in your mind, that also is sometimes taught but not always! I mean come on! This young woman asks, does math exist? I don’t know. Did Pythagoras discover his theorem, or did he invent it? Does math both exist and not exist? Is it an artifact of our minds, or of reality? No one knows the answer to that question! But let’s let people ask it!

Fifth Hammer Brewing Company - Home | Facebook

Speaking of Pythagorus, some years ago I heard an episode of The Theory of Everything that kind of blew my mind when it suggested to me that math is a belief system.

Philosopher Daniel Heller-Roazen tells us the story of Pythagoras and the fifth hammer and how Kant and Kepler both tried (and failed) to record the universal harmonies Pythagoras once heard.

An ancient tradition holds that Pythagoras invented harmony. It is said that one day, he wandered by a forge and, hearing a wondrous sound come from within, ventured in to investigate. He found five men hammering with five hammers. To his astonishment, he discovered that four of the five hammers stood in a marvelous set of proportions, which, when combined, allowed him to reconstruct the laws of music. But there was also a fifth hammer. Pythagoras saw and heard it, but he could not measure it; nor could he reason its discordant sound. He therefore discarded it.

What was this hammer, such that Pythagoras chose so decidedly to reject it? In The Fifth Hammer, Daniel Heller-Roazen lucidly shows how that fabled gesture offers a key for understanding ideas of harmony in the broadest sense of the term. Since antiquity, “harmony” has been a name for more than a theory of musical sounds; it has constituted a paradigm for the scientific understanding of the sensible world. Nature, through harmony, has been transcribed in the ideal elements of mathematics. But, time and again, the transcription has run up against one fundamental limit: something in nature resists being written down in a set of ideal units. A fifth hammer, obstinately, continues to sound.

The Fifth Hammer: Pythagoras and the Disharmony of the World by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Zone Books

So much of nature is ignored when it is decided that it is not elegant.

See also: women’s bodies.

See also: music.

So much of music is not considered music by white Western music critics if it doesn’t match white Western European music theory. Western European Music theory’s foundation is based on the work of Pythagoras.

When the foundation of math erases so much, perhaps the question of whether math even is real, is exactly the question we should be asking in this moment.

How do you see the Internet?

“How to you see the Internet” is how Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York begins.

My answer to this question is: with a map.

The National Broadband Internet Service Availability Map confirms that in these parts, you can only get your cable from Cogeco.

If you scroll down the left sidebar, it will tell you that in these parts you can get your fibre from MNSI and Bell Canada. Bell makes you enter your address and will confirm if your dwelling is fibre ready. MNSI coveys the same information but using a map. If your pushpin lands in green, you are good to go.

Cell phone coverage is also available in map form. It never occurred to me that the cell phone towers would hug Highway 401 so closely until I noticed it on this map.

It appears that the raw information of these cell phone tower maps is provided by Industry Canada. I particularly liked this map made from the data for its simplicity.

These are maps of internet coverage. We can also work backwards.

The Mozilla Location Service (MLS) is an open service, which lets devices determine their location based on network infrastructure like Bluetooth beacons, cell towers and WiFi access points. This network based location service complements satellite based navigation systems like A-GPS.

If I’m not mistaken, we interact with this service whenever we make use of the HTML5 geolocation web api. “This will give you the best position estimate for the users device, based on all available sensors (including GPS) and all location services supported by their device”.

Where the Sidewalk begins

In September of last year, not long after I had shared my concerns that new police cameras could be used with facial recognition software, mayor Drew Dilkens told AM800 that he was in talks with Amazon to make Windsor the first city in Canada to have their police department connect to their Neighbors App which allows residents to readily share footage of their Ring security camera, without a warrant.

In response to this threat, I – along with with three fellow University of Windsor colleagues, Natalie Delia Deckard (Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology), Bonnie Stewart (Faculty of Education) and Kristen Thomasen (Law) – organized an event. The evening of talks was entitled “Safer Communities in a ‘Smart Tech’ World” and it was held on January 22nd, 2020 at The Performance Hall at the University of Windsor’s School of Creative Arts. Chris Gilliard was our keynote speaker, Bonnie was our host who introduced the topic to our audience, Kristen spoke to some of the legal context, and I spoke about concerns using a network technology lens.

My short presentation is below:

Hello. My name is Mita Williams and I am the Scholarly Communications Librarian at the Leddy Library of the University of Windsor. I have a long standing interest in how we can use technology to make our cities better – and what I mean by better, is more equitable, more sustainable, and more joyful.  Please subscribe to my newsletter.

For my short talk, I’m not going to talk about the direct threats to our neighbourhood safety and our feelings of community from the influence of Amazon’s Ring.

Instead, I am going to bring your attention to a designed secondary effect of consumers buying into Amazon Ring’s devices that could come into play even if the Windsor Police Service chooses not to endorse the service.  I would like to introduce you to Amazon Sidewalk.

But before I do so, I would like to make it clear that Amazon’s Sidewalk project is not related to Sidewalk Toronto, which is a proposal Sidewalk Labs, which is itself is from a subsidiary of Google called Alphabet.  Sidewalk Toronto is a proposal to turn Quayside – a waterfront neighbourhood in Toronto – into an integrated ‘smart city’ filled with sensors and new forms of public utilities created and maintained by private companies. Why are both projects called Sidewalk? I believe it’s because while the city street itself is understood as shared public space, the sidewalk is a thread of public space that crosses private property. 

Why are both projects called Sidewalk?  I believe it’s because while the city street itself is understood as shared public space, the sidewalk is a thread of public space that crosses private property.  But that thread of public space is tenuous. In Windsor, almost half of our streets don’t have sidewalks on both sides of the street. On arterial and collector streets, there are 78 kilometres with no sidewalks at all.

Amazon Sidewalk is something that is not simple to describe. It was announced late last year and it appears to be in some form of beta.

You see, Ring Doorbells weren’t designed to just be doorbells that share videos to your neighbours, Amazon, and the Police. Ring Doorbells have been designed to share low bandwidth “wifi” (called a mesh network) so that each Ring Doorbell can provide coverage of about 500 meters away. It only took 700 Ring Doorbells to provide coverage of most of the Los Angeles basin.  In doing so, Amazon created a private network that will allow future “Internet of Things” projects like a ‘smart dog tag’ that will tell you exactly where your cat is in your neighbourhood. But that’s the thing. Surveillance sounds awesome when you thinking in the context of your pet. It’s an entirely other thing when you learn that Amazon will be able to track you whether you buy their products or not.

I want to stress that there is nothing inevitable about Amazon Sidewalk. It will only be able to take root where there are willing consumers who have internet and if there is a regulatory space for the service to exist. Our next speaker, Kristen Thomason will address this legal space.

Before I give her the microphone, I would like to leave you with a reminder that there are many communities without internet. Canada’s North and many rural spaces don’t have affordable Internet. In 2017, 40% of Detroit’s population had no access to the internet at all.

To address this lack, is the Detroit Community Technology Project which seeks provide access to residents without through the Equitable Internet Initiative. This coalition of partners coordinate the Digital Stewards Training Program, which trains community members to build and maintain their own wireless communications infrastructure.

Instead of building a “smart city” perhaps we should follow the example of the Detroit’s Community Technology Project and build a “more equitable” “more just” and “more generous city, instead.

Related Reading on Amazon Sidewalk

What is Amazon Sidewalk, which devices use it, and how does it work?, Pocket-lint, Maggie Tillman · 26 September 2019

Amazon Sidewalk extends your network range, but security is already in question, CNET, Alison DeNisco Rayome, September 26, 2019

Introducing Amazon Sidewalk: Get connected convenience beyond your front door. By Day One Staff ( on September 27, 2019

Amazon may soon be able to track your phone’s location even if you don’t use any of its products or services, Business Insider, Aaron Holmes Sep 29, 2019

A New Wireless Standard: What Is Amazon Sidewalk?, How-to-Geek, Josh Hendrickson, October 10, 2019

First past the post

Yesterday I was at a full-day karate intensive. After hours of exercises, the day ended with the class being split into three groups. We were told to learn the names in our group. Then we were informed we were going to have a relay race of sprints, army crawls, and crab-walks.

We were told to cheer our teammates on by name. Such is the power of groups and group competition (including the fear of letting your group down) that everyone involved threw themselves completely into this relay. Myself included. All my bruises from that day came from the race.

I mention this short story because I was impressed by the deft application of group psychology. How else could you ask a room of exhausted people to dig in deep and give everything they had left to give?

I also mention this because today is Canada’s federal election and polls and as I write this, the polls are still open. The power of party politics and partisanship is an overwhelming force. But it can also be manipulative. Like the relay race, it’s worth noticing that our politics are designed to be this way.

I haven’t written much about this election because frankly, I’m mad at all the parties. I’m mad at the Liberals for breaking their promise to end ‘first past the post’ and I’m mad at the NDP and Greens who refused to consider ranked ballots as a step towards electoral reform.

It’s very telling that politics is frequently framed as ‘a race.’

A day of Alexandrias

Years ago – I think I was in on a high school field trip to New York City – I stumbled upon and bought a calendar illustrated by Lynda Barry and another woman cartoonist, that resembled this one. It featured amazing illustrations such as Elvis With Ponytails and most days were annotated with astrological insights and ‘on this day’ birth dates of writers and musicians that Barry loved.

I’ve always wanted to make my own version of the Lynda Barry Experience Calendar and every year, I make a couple half-hearted attempt to collect ‘on this day’ facts for my future calendar. Today, as I was organizing my Google Drive, I stumbled upon a spreadsheet where I started to collect calendar-worthy facts. Before I put it in a directory, I thought I would add an entry for today.

This is how I discovered that today is a day of Alexandrias.

Today is the birthday of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is 29 years old.

It is also the Feast Day of the Blessed Alexandrina of Balasar.

I don’t know whether AOC was named after the Blessed Alexandria. Curious, I looked her up and learned that the Blessed Alexandria was not a saint (I thought only saints had feast days) but is considered as something that is new to me: a victim soul.

The concept of the victim soul derives from the Roman Catholic teaching on redemptive suffering. Such a person is said to be one chosen by God to suffer more than most people during life, and who generously accepts the suffering, based on the example of Christ’s own Passion.

And how did the Alexandrina of Balasar suffer?

At 14 years old, in March 1918 an incident changed her life. Her former employer along with two other men tried to break into her room. To escape them, Alexandrina jumped 13 feet down from a window, barely surviving. Her spine was broken from the fall. Until age 19, Alexandrina was still able to “drag herself” to church where, hunched over, she would remain in prayer, to the great amazement of the parishioners. During the early years, Alexandrina asked the Blessed Mother for the grace of a cure. She suffered gradual paralysis that confined her to bed from 1925 onward. She remained bed-ridden for about 30 years.


It reminded me of this synopsis of Women Talking:

A group of Mennonite women suffer for years from mysterious midnight attacks, purportedly the work of demons come to punish them for their sins. Eventually, they discover the assaults are not the work of demons but of men—their own husbands, sons, and neighbors. While the men are held in a nearby city, working to make bail, the women gather in a hayloft to talk, and to decide what to do. They propose three options: do nothing, leave, or stay and fight. The book takes the form of notes from those meetings, taken by the only man they trust, August Epp. The format ventures towards tedium, but miraculously never gets there, and through August’s perspective manages to be both damning and dazzlingly hopeful. At one point, the old man whose hayloft they are squatting wanders over and demands to know what’s going on. “We’re only women talking,” replies one of the women. Indeed.

Do I have to tell you that her novel was an imaged response to real events?

Between 2005 and 2009 in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls (as young as 3) regularly woke up groggy and bruised, their sheets smeared with blood and semen. Some members of the conservative patriarchal community blamed demons; others attributed these reports to “wild female imagination.” In reality, nine men in the close-knit community had been breaking into houses every few nights, spraying the sleeping inhabitants with a drug designed to anesthetize cattle and raping them while they lay unconscious.

WOMEN TALKING By Jennifer Reese, New York Times, April 10, 2019

All the notable Victim souls listed on Wikipedia are all women.

It is as if the Church has co-opted women’s suffering.

Happy Alexandarias Day!

Beware the new creation myths

I’m slowly making my way through Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women. I had to admit, I had skimmed a not insignificant amount of the first two chapters of the 1991 anthology of Haraway’s early works because I wasn’t particularly interested in Haraway’s close examination of early primate research.

But for reasons I will soon explain, I’m now much inclined to properly read those early chapters. I now realize that Haraway’s work in studying early primate scientists is a significant foundation for future insights in her subsequent work, such as this one, that begins Chapter Three, The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology.

Part of remaking ourselves as socialist-feminist human beings is remaking the sciences which construct the category of “nature” and empower its definitions in technology. Science is about knowledge and power. In our time, natural science defines the human being’s place in nature and history and provides the instruments of domination of the body and the community. By constructing the category nature, natural science imposes limits on history and self-formation. So science is part of the struggle over the nature of our lives. I would like to investigate how the field of modern biology constructs theories about the body and community as capitalist and patriarchal machine and market: the machine for production, the market for exchange, and both machine and market for reproduction. I would like to explore biology as an aspect of the reproduction of capitalist social relations, dealing with the imperative of biological reproduction. That is, I want to show how sociobiology is the science of capitalist reproduction.

Between World War I and the present, biology has been transformed from a science centered on the organism, understood in functionalist terms, to a science studying automated technological devices, understood in terms of cybernetic systems. Organic form, with its hierarchical and physiological cooperation and competition based on “natural” domination and division of labor, gave way to systems theory with its control schemes based on communications networks and a logical technology in which human beings become potentially outmoded symbol-using devices. Life science moved from physiology to systems theory, from scientific medicine to investment management, from Taylorite scientific management and human engineering of the person to modern ergonomics and population control, from psychobiology to sociobiology.

This fundamental change in life science did not occur in an historical vacuum; it accompanied changes in the nature and technology of power, within a continuing dynamic of capitalist reproduction. This paper will only sketch those changes, in an effort to investigate the historical connection between the content of science and its social context.

The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology”, Donna Haraway, Radical History Review (1979) (20): 206-237.

In this paper, Haraway compares and contrast the biological research work of chimpanzee-studying psychologist Robert Yerkes and ant-studying “father of sociobiology” E.O. Wilson as a means to show the “transformation of biology from a science of sexual organisms to one of reproducing genetic assemblages”.

But there’s another reason why I want to give the attention needed to Haaway’s work. It feels timely again.

Some months ago at the library where I work as a librarian, one of the library staff told me that there were several requests for the library to get a copy of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I did some cursory research and found that it was a New York Times Bestseller from an Isreali academic.

And then I dug further to find out why a broad overview of the history of humanity was on the best seller list and found out that the works of Harari are adored by the CEOs of Silicon Valley:

Less than a decade ago, Yuval Noah Harari was a junior professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stuck teaching a world history survey course because none of the senior faculty would deign to take it on. Today, he’s listened to and praised by the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who reviewed Harari’s latest book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Harari speaks at the World Economic Forum at Davos, TED, and TimesTalks. At the time of this writing, his books occupied the top two slots on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list… And it’s all due to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book based on that survey course that no one else wanted to teach—a book that has leapt far beyond the original audience for which Harari intended it and has been embraced by the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

The History Disruptor: Why has Silicon Valley embraced a little-known Israeli academic?” Slate, By Laura Miller, Nov 01, 2018

I haven’t read Sapiens but I have read this 6,500 summary called ‘If Sapiens was a blog post‘. And after reading a bunch of reviews of the book, I think I understand the hook of the book. From Slate Magazine again:

Another foundational idea in Harari’s take on history is that “fiction” is the superpower that has enabled homo sapiens to access unprecedented power over other species. The other primates can’t manage stable communities of more than about 150 members. But following what Harari calls “the Cognitive Revolution”—marked by the development of language—“large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” It isn’t merely our big brains or our opposable thumbs that have made us the emperors of the planet; it’s our ability to work together en masse, mobilized by shared beliefs

Is this why Mark Zuckerberg was such a massive booster of Sapiens when it first came out? Is it because its premise that human civilization is dependent on story-telling is deeply attractive to those industries involved in creating movies, memes, and advertising platforms?

Zuckerberg explains his latest book-club pick on his personal Facebook page: This book is a big history narrative of human civilization — from how we developed from hunter-gatherers early on to how we organize our society and economy today.

Why Mark Zuckerberg wants everyone to read an Israeli historian’s book about the human race, Business Insider, Richard Feloni, Jun. 16, 2015

Or is it because the men involved in Silicon Valley are highly invested in a particular telling of the story of sociobiology. From Laura Miller’s Slate review:

This idea isn’t new; sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson have often characterized religion as a fiction that creates advantageous social unity. But this argument often goes hand in hand with a macho strain of atheism and evolutionary psychology that trumpets both the obsolescence of faith in the age of science and an exaggerated focus on “selfish gene” scenarios in which a ruthless competition underlies every aspect of human existence. An even cruder version of the same attitude can be found in online communities of incels, pickup artists, MGTOWs, and other alienated men, with their pseudoscientific mythos of alpha and beta males and the women who will or won’t sleep with them.

In a Harari twist, Sapiens inverts evolutionary psychology’s usual fetishization of raw male dominance by stating that “even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.” The pervasiveness of patriarchy among human cultures he regards as an enduring puzzle: “How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

The History Disruptor: Why has Silicon Valley embraced a little-known Israeli academic?” Slate, By Laura Miller, Nov 01, 2018

Haraway’s 1979 comparison of early primate research and E. O. Wilson and her conclusion that “sociobiology is the science of capitalist reproduction” seems strangely relevant. Again.

Truth be told, the reason why I wrote this blog post is because of a cartoon essay.

Tim Urban of Wait But Why is currently publishing installments of his magnum opus of The Story of Us. And I’m somewhat disturbed that Tim Urban finds it necessary to explain our present day society through evolution and … sociobiology. Again.

The series is just starting and I’m not sure where the Story of Us will go from here. Maybe Tim will get to Haraway and other feminists for insight. But I doubt it.

To think like the schemer or lisper

This weekend, I’ve been reading up on the Xenofeminism Manifesto by the collective Laboria Cuboniks (2015).

Injustice should not simply be accepted as “the way things are.” This is the starting point for The Xenofeminist Manifesto, a radical attempt to articulate a feminism fit for the twenty-first century.

Unafraid of exploring the potentials of technology, both its tyrannical and emancipatory possibilities, the manifesto seeks to uproot forces of repression that have come to seem inevitable—from the family, to the body, to the idea of gender itself.

If nature is unjust, change nature!

Verso Books

The XF manifesto itself is not long – its just over 4000 words – but the text is dense, layered, cryptic, and poetic.

Xenofeminism indexes the desire to construct an alien future with a triumphant X on a mobile map. This X does not mark a destination. It is the insertion of a topological-keyframe for the formation of a new logic. In affirming a future untethered to the repetition of the present, we militate for ampliative capacities, for spaces of freedom with a richer geometry than the aisle, the assembly line, and the feed. We need new affordances of perception and action unblinkered by naturalised identities. In the name of feminism, ‘Nature’ shall no longer be a refuge of injustice, or a basis for any political justification whatsoever!

If nature is unjust, change nature!

XF Manifesto

This kind of language is why I’m trying to spend time with the text as well as reading supplementary articles to help me tease out its meanings. I found the two episodes dedicated to the text from the podcast General Intellect Unit as being particularly helpful to grounding the work in context. Without them, I would not have been able to understand this particular passage from Overflow 0x19:

Is xenofeminism a programme? Not if this means anything so crude as a recipe, or a single-purpose tool by which a determinate problem is solved. We prefer to think like the schemer or lisper, who seeks to construct a new language in which the problem at hand is immersed, so that solutions for it, and for any number of related problems, might unfurl with ease.

XF Manifesto

When I first read the text over, I completely glossed over the fact that Lisp and Scheme are computing languages, and so when the question is asked, is xenofeminism a programme, the question also raised is, is xenofeminism a program? And — what does it mean to think like the schemer or lisper? At the 48 minute mark of General Intellect Unit’s episode 028 (Xenofeminism, Part 2) was the explanation I needed:

Now this is a reference to the Lisp family of programming languages of which Scheme is a member and that the gist of why that’s important is that, if you are a programmer and you are presented with a problem, like, I dunno, taking a bunch of .csv files and sending them where ever, if you are using a language like Python then you sort of sit down and write Python that solves the problem. with Lisp or Scheme or languages from this family, these languages are so flexible that what you end up actually doing is you create a sublanguage where you can express the problem, then you use that to solve the problem. So, it’s a kind of classic thing about Lispers is that they end up writing their own languages that fit the problem domain and then solve the problem using that second tool.

“To think like a schemer or lisper” is never going to be a metaphor that is going to be widely understood or adopted, but it’s a powerful concept nonetheless. And I think I found a great example of this approach.

Alexis Hope: Building Joyful Futures

At the re:publica 2019 conference, keynote Alexis Hope gave a talk called “Building Joyful Futures” (ht) “a reflection on intersectional design with “sharp edges,” on the Make The Breastpump Not Suck Hackathon, and on the upcoming menstrual health hackathon, There Will Be Blood.

How do we build joyful futures? Who gets to imagine and invent them? And what can hacking a Breast Pump teach us about designing for equity?

Many narratives about innovation and progress center the “lone genius” and his or her (usually his) ambitions to change the world with a singular, visionary idea. But this is not how radically better futures are imagined and created—instead, they are created in community, often unrecognized and unsupported by institutions that broadcast visions of the future. As a technology designer at the MIT Media Lab, I challenge my institution to consider: whose voices must be centered in our innovation spaces to imagine and build many possible utopias and preferable futures?

I will share what my team is doing to change how institutions like ours undertake “innovation work.” In particular, we reimagine the hackathon—a staple in technology design spaces—to center equity and inclusion, focus on marginalized and stigmatized topics, value non-technical skills, and ask technologists to contend with systemic and policy issues. I’ll share the work that goes into organizing large-scale, inclusive community innovation events, lessons learned from the ways that we messed up and changed course, and where we’re headed next.

It’s not enough to gather a diverse group of people, expecting them to magically arrive at a radically better future. In fact, doing so is likely to surface tensions. Bringing people together to design for equity requires cultivating a spirit of joy and play, which helps people and institutions build relationships across lines of difference. Approaching this work with a generative spirit, and prioritizing the comfort of people who have been made to feel unwelcome in innovation spaces, are key to both community-building and creative problem-solving. Joy and play act as strategies of resistance in toxic times — they help restore us so that we can do the difficult and creative work of tackling systemic problems, together.

Building Joyful Futures: Alexis Hope

In other words, Alexis and her team took the time to learn the full nature of a problem domain, built a community with those already in that space, and only then began to write the language of the program/programme to find the ways to address the problem.

I’m not sure Laboria Cuboniks would agree but this sounds XF to me.

YouTube, mental health, and parasocial relationships

For reasons I don’t quite understand, there is a part of myself that takes note every time I come across a story about the mental health cost of being a YouTube celebrity. I don’t understand fully why this particular topic fascinates me so because I don’t even know who are the most popular YouTubers even are. While I do have a small set of subscriptions on YouTube, they tend to be of explainers and not personalities.

And yet I am persistently worried about the mental health of the YouTube celebrity.

If you don’t quite understand what YouTube can do to someone’s mental health, I recommend this episode of Reply All called #125 All My Pets.

Taylor Nicole Dean was a self-described shut-in, a teenager who lived in her parents’ home, surrounded by exotic pets. And then she started making videos on YouTube.

Reply All, #125 All My Pets

All My Pets is an extraordinary episode because the story is largely straight exposition. Reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni didn’t have to infer what changes can happen to a young person who suddenly has an audience of millions – she had the good instincts and luck to capture that transition and she lets the story speak for itself.

My daughter follows several YouTube channels, which are mostly let’s plays of Minecraft and Roblox. To respect her privacy, I won’t name them – but I can tell you that the creator of one channel has been known to take breaks from producing their channel for their mental health and has even taken time off producing their channel so that they could directly help/support another YouTuber going through a mental health crisis.

I’m only going to address mental stresses for YouTube creators in broad strokes because I’m more personally interested in the mental health of the audience than the creators of YouTube channels, but I believe that if you have watched your share of YouTube channels, you will hear YouTubers allude to some of these problems.

The most prevalent problem I have heard from my self-aware and self-reflecting YouTubers have mentioned, is the constant struggle balancing producing content that is good – that being, material that is experimental and interesting to the creator – with producing content that is familiar, well-trod, and already known to be popular. I have a feeling that if I was more well-versed with YouTube I would know the name of this particular genre of video.

One example of the ‘I am struggling with quality vs quantity vs having a life’ (beginning and then at 6 minute mark)

Another example I can personally draw from is from the Cool Ghosts channel, which one could call a video-game based spin-off from good people who make the Sit Down and Shut Up board game channel, except that the creators wanted to make something much more experimental.

“Not an apologies video”

Cool Ghosts moved from being a recognizable video game review channel (although one in which every game was described as ‘the best game ever’) to one that took the format of a TV show from Hell. During one such episode, they reviewed the game, Passpartout: The Starving Artist, which provides another perspective on the challenges of making art for work and the danger of growing a contempt for your audience.

“The intersection of creativity and work”

Matt Les, of Cool Ghosts is profiled by this Guardian article that I highly recommend: The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’ :

Algorithm-led content curation makes creators feel disposable, challenging them to churn out videos in the knowledge that there are younger, fresher people waiting in the wings to replace them. For YouTubers who use their daily lives as raw material for their videos, there is added pressure, as the traditional barriers between personal and professional life are irreparably eroded.

At a recent party at a conference for YouTubers and streamers, Hourigan was standing with a group of YouTubers when he quipped: “I think every YouTube career should come with a coupon for a free therapist.” Everybody laughed, he recalls, but “in a sad way”.

“By the way,” he adds, “I’m medicated and have a therapist.”

The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’ :

My favourite advice for YouTubers suffering from existential angst of being so close to their creations, comes from Hank Green who tells YouTubers to diversify your identity:

Find ways to value yourself outside of the metrics of social media. That might be how you feel about your creations. It might be a small community of talented people that you respect and are part of. It might be classmates or colleagues. And, if at all possible, invest in your identity as part of your communities and families. Value your life as a sibling, a child, a parent, and/or a spouse. Value your life as a member of your town or city or neighborhood. Value yourself outside of your creations.

Searching for meaning in attention and influence is excellent fuel for ambition, but life is long and this is not the only job you will ever have. It is not the only reason you matter and it is not the only gift you bring to the world.

How am I Not Burned Out? by Hank Green, Sep 8, 2018
More advice, told with humour and humility

This post was inspired by this video that I watched a couple of days ago called Dream Daddies and Fearful Fathers: How Indies Can Cope with Being Terminally Online by Leighton Gray following the advice to watch from this tweet by Andy Baio:

I also strenuously recommend this video because Leighton Gray not only draws on her own mental health breakdown related to her creative work – which one could surmise was partially brought on from the extraordinary expectations that was placed on her by fans and by herself – she also shares what she has learned by looking at the systematic problems of social media that are borne by creators and audience members, alike.

It was because of Gray’s video that I learned of the concept of parasocial relationships:

Parasocial interaction (PSI) is a term coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Viewers or listeners come to feel and consider media personalities almost as friends.[1] PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, characters, social media influencers) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them.

Parasocial interaction From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you consider ‘production values’, ‘good editing’ and ‘tight and meaningful stories’, as important, you might have a hard time understanding the popularity of so many, many YouTube channels. You might be flummoxed why the kids love watching other people play video games. What I have come to understand is that for many channels, the audience experience is not to consume content but to hang out with someone cool or someone like them:

Garcia and Cassell both like to compare their channels to a neighborhood pub. Streamers become favorite bartenders, charming and constantly available. Viewers, swapping messages in chat, become fellow-regulars. There might be the occasional bar fight—Twitch can be as noxious as anywhere else on the Internet—but the tone is typically convivial. Viewers generate inside jokes, ask for life advice, even discuss their experiences of grief or depression. (They also pair off, as two of Cassell’s moderators did.) “There are two ways to look at Twitch,” Cassell told me. “One is that it’s people playing video games and other people watching, which is what ninety-nine per cent of the world sees. But the other side of Twitch is that you are playing a game with someone on the couch. There’s a level of interaction that’s just not there in standard media.”

How to Get Rich Playing Video Games Online: For the stars of the streaming service Twitch, success means working around the clock” By Taylor Clark, The New Yorker, November 13, 2017

Leighton Gray shares a reading and playlist (called The internet is bad actually) that supports the points that she makes in her talk and that I’m currently working my way through this list. On the topic of parasocial interactions, she recommends the following:

This video is two hours, too long but there are some extraordinary moments in here

What I am now looking for is a video or essay on the complicated and sometimes fraught nature of the parasocial relationship between the YouTuber and their audience that’s appropriate for a pre-teen, namely for my kids.

In the meantime, I try to keep up with who they are watching and I sometimes watch videos with them. When I do so, I give them commentary. I tell them what I like (“I like that this YouTuber protects her privacy by giving herself a fake name”) and dislike (“I don’t like prank videos because they are usually cruel and have a tendency to escalate”), as well as establish some firmer boundaries about what they are allowed to watch (at least in my presence).

I am also trying to be more mindful in my own viewing habits. I’ve largely stopped watching my favourite game streamer, for one. I also take note when the creators I follow are self-reflective enough to know their influence and applaud them when they step away from using their influence, even when they stop making the kind of YouTube video that I love the most:

Belonging vs. Computation

One of the benefits of reading several books at the same time, is that occasionally a chapter that I have just finished from one book will somehow find resonance in another. Today I felt this, despite that James Bridle’s New Dark Age and Adrienne Clarkson’s Belonging are very different books.

From the blurb to New Dark Age:

As the world around us increases in technological complexity, our understanding of it diminishes. Underlying this trend is a single idea: the belief that our existence is understandable through computation, and more data is enough to help us build a better world.

Bridle’s chapter on Computation is exceptional. There is so much I would love to share but I will leave you this excerpt:

To take another example from aviation, consider the experience of being in an airport. An airport is a canonical example of what geographers call ‘code/space‘. Code/spaces describe the interweaving of computation with the built environment and daily experience to a very specific extent: rather than overlaying and augmenting them, computation becomes a crucial component of them, such that the environment and the experience of it actually ceases to function in the absence of code…

That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google sets out to index all human knowledge and becomes the source and the arbiter of that knowledge: it became what people think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people – the social graph – and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships. Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality – and, once conditioned, neither are we.

James Bridle, New Dark Age, p.37, 39.

Belonging, on the other hand, is a set of Massey Lectures from journalist and former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson that addresses the paradoxes of citizenship. In her first chapter she tells several stories that express how our identity and our sense of belonging are deeply dependent upon each other.

If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity. Under extreme circumstances, each and every one of us is capable of a mentality that brings about the abandonment of children, the lack of cultivation of human relationships, and the deliberate denial of love.

Adrienne Clarkson, Belonging, p. 3.

To bring these two ideas together: Like an air control system mistaking a flock of birds for a fleet of bombers, software is unable to distinguish between the model of the world and reality, and if we let ourselves become conditioned to substitute our standing in social media with our sense of belonging in our social structures, neither will we.

What if the grasshopper was right?

Today the poet, Mary Oliver died. I don’t read much poetry and until today, the only words I knew of hers were these two lines:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?

But today I finally read the poem from where those lines are from:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

-- Mary Oliver

And so I did not realize that this poem was about a grasshopper and about how to be idle and to be blessed.

Which makes me think that this is a poem might also be about Aesop’s fable, The Ant and Grasshopper

The fable concerns a grasshopper (in the original, a cicada) that has spent the summer singing while the ant (or ants in some versions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food. However, the ant rebukes its idleness and tells it to dance the winter away now.


What is the morale of the story? Who is right? The ant or the grasshopper?


From what I remember of the ant and the grasshopper, is the ant is hard working all year round building his house with his community and gathering food and resources and the grasshopper likes to jump around, playing in the meadow enjoying himself. When Winter comes, Ant is prepared and ready to get through it. Grasshopper, is not. The message is that hard, steady work pays off, and jumping around, simply for enjoyment, does not.

I think this way of thinking is dated. Our economy no longer supports slow, steady efforts that pay big dividends. It used to be that one got a job and worked till retirement and then got a pension for the rest of one’s life. This is no longer true. One needs imagination and entrepreneurial skills to be successful today, so maybe finding your passion by jumping around the meadow, and identifying what makes one happy is a good exercise.

Instead, consider this answer:

Or this one:

Or this one: The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.