What Makes a Person Do a Thing?

This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?

  • What makes a middle-aged man with a young family quit his steady job as a computer programmer and spend five penniless years retraining as a chiropractor?
  • What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
  • What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?

(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)

Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:

The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.

Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.

  • Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
  • Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
  • Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.

(All things I have done…)

If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing? The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.

I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things. Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?

Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?

In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London. I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects. For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.

I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this? Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.

Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.

Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study. I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%). This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.

So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.

Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?

Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination. You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.

For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action. Cycling around Britain was one such spine.

The idea bubbled up from a soup of disatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.

An inciting disatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.

Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too. The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast. So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).

This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?

There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship. But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey. No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.

I told someone.

That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend. While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.

That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage. It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door. For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?

Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles. The bike ride changed my life in many ways, but there was still something missing. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of my Thing.

Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?

Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there. I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.

At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.

Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, the Big Reason and the little reason.

  • The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
  • The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.

The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together. It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.

Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder. Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired. We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour.

A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.

  • I would not return to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
  • I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
  • I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt at school, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they gave me.

If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters. This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.

Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.

Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends. Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.

Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing. If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.

Side note on relationships versus friendship

Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful. Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.

Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show. But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.

What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.

  1. You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
  2. You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
  3. Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
  4. Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.

EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.

It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act. There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:

  • Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
  • If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.

So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.

This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power. Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement, the schools of Eton, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage. Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.

For the rest of us, we must “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.

Good luck!

No Stuff

My name is David Charles and I own 975 things. That figure would be comfortably over 1000, but those other bits and pieces are scattered around other people’s houses so I’m going to ignore them for the moment.

That figure does however include 12 colouring pencils, 11 batteries (mostly AAA), 10 incense cones, 9 screwdrivers, 8 magnets, 7 plants, 6 thirty inch bungee ropes, 5 souvenir coins, 4 feathers, 3 juggling balls, 2 old bits of wood and a partridge in a pear tree*.

(*Probably.)

Wait a second, wait a second. You counted all your stuff?

Oh yeah. I forget that’s a weird thing to do. I come from a family that has a proud history of counting stuff and putting the data into spreadsheets.

In my opinion, our magnum opus is my dad’s spreadsheet of everything he might want to take on holiday. Not so special, you might think, until I tell you that everything is meticulously weighed. The spreadsheet includes memorable data lines like “Credit cards: 1g”.

This means that he can, not only ensure he falls within stringent baggage weight limits, but also politely inform airport staff of any inaccuracies in their equipment when weighing his bags at check in.

Minimalist Culture

The idea for No Stuff comes not from my dad, but from the minimalist sub-culture. I don’t just mean traditional ascetics or hermit monks, but modern minimalists too, people who prioritise quality over quantity.

This minimalist culture is thriving online, where people boast at each other of how few things they have. It makes a nice counterpoint to the usual materialist urge to hunt and gather.

James Wallman’s book Stuffocation gives an excellent introduction to this new form of minimalism and suggests that we can all benefit because “memories live longer than things”. His book is a manifesto for experientialism, the doing of things, over materialism, the acquisition of things.

No Stuff: How?

Box Trial

One of the most memorable techniques for stuff reduction that I read about in Stuffocation is the box trial. According to this method, you pack all of your stuff into boxes. Over the course of the next thirty days, you can gradually repatriate your stuff into your life – but only if and when you actually need to use it. At the end of the month, everything left in the boxes gets chucked.

In lieu of boxes, I’ve done a countback on my spreadsheet instead. Of those 975 things, I estimate that I’ve actually used only 289 in the last month. By the box trial rules, I should chuck the remaining 686 unused baubles.

This is extreme. There are plenty of things that I haven’t used in the last month that I would miss heartily, like my beloved bivvy bag.

It does, however, make me ponder why I haven’t used my bivvy in the last thirty days. I have no answer to this ponder, which leads me ineluctably to the conclusion that I really should be using my bivvy bag on a monthly basis, minimum. Use it or lose it. Not a bad way to live.

The 100 Thing Challenge

But the box trial isn’t even nearly as extreme as the 100 Thing Challenge. The name gives it away really: live with 100 things or less.

Rules vary, but usually don’t include shared items like kitchenware, nor furniture or books. My count of 975, I should say, does not include kitchenware (none of which is mine), but does include 21 items of furniture and 102 books. Some people also count similar items as one, like “underwear” or “tools”, but I think that’s cheating (except for socks, which I count in pairs).

Personally, I love the idea of the challenge. I fantasise regularly about being able to fit all of my worldly possessions into a single backpack. But I’m also quite clear-sighted about the fact that this will likely never happen.

No Stuff Holidays

One alternative to grown up No Stuff is to play around, like when you’re on holiday.

Clara Benson writes about what I assume her editors at Salon forced her to call “the craziest OKCupid date ever”, which is a scandalously crass way of describing what was actually a fascinating experiment in No Stuff.

She and her date, Jeff, travelled through Europe for twenty-one days with no luggage, pretty much just a couple of credit cards, their passports and the clothes on their backs. Clara sums up the secret yearning we all have to throw caution and weight to the winds:

What would it be like to say no to heavy backpacks full of coordinating outfits, Lonely Planet travel guides, and cheap souvenirs?

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clara and Jeff had an absolute blast and No Holiday Stuff, far from being restrictive, was like all good positive constraints and the doorway to adventure.

The Rule of Thirds

Back in the real world, I will content myself with slimming down by one third. I will, by the end of this blog post, have got rid of 325 things, leaving me with “only” 650.

This is still, obviously, a massive numbers of things: more than twice as many as I need according to the box trial rules and nearly triple according to the 100 Thing Challenge. But it does at least mean I can lose at least two of my three bow ties. Why do even I own these things? I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit, let alone a Ferrari-red bow tie.

Why No Stuff?

Enough fun and games, here are five rock solid reasons for going on a No Stuff binge.

  1. Your environment dictates your state of mind. Less clutter in your life means less clutter in your mind.
  2. Possessing a thing causes mild anxiety about that thing. If I don’t own a car, I can’t worry about it being left out on the street and getting bumped and scratched.
  3. Why do I have a thing if I don’t use it? Why do I have 25 pencils, when I don’t use them? Could someone else be making better use of them? Yes. So give them away.
  4. Having less stuff that I don’t want means I spend more time with the stuff I actually do. In some way, you become the objects with which you surround yourself. It sounds stupid, but I would never have learnt to play the guitar if I had never gone and got myself a guitar.
  5. Likewise, the stuff you don’t use is still stuff in your possession, still stuff that is liable to become a distraction, an interruption or at the very least an irritant when you’re scrabbling around in your bottom desk drawer looking for your phone charger.

Out, out, damned wax!

So I have committed to throwing away, giving away, recycling and charitying 325 things. Some of these are easy to lose, like the empty tub of hair wax that I was mysteriously keeping for posterity. Some of these will be very hard to part with, souvenirs of far-flung adventures or gifts from long lost loved ones.

Almost four years ago, me and my friend Patrick wrote a superb Christmas song that involved various parts of the world and beer. For the video he skilfully created a “Cool Saharan Beer” out of a can of Carling and a home-printed label. Since 2011, that can has sat on top of my medicine cabinet. Now it is gone.

I know I won’t miss it, in the long run, but I cherish the memories it is attached to in my brain. I can only beg forgiveness and hope that this blog post, in some small way, is a fitting memorial.

Cool Saharan beer
Cool Saharan Beer (Limited Seasonal Edition)

No Clothes

When I’m on my own. When I come in from work. When I’m hot. When I sleep. When I wake up and stumble to the bathroom. I take every opportunity to be as naked as possible. I’m writing this, dear reader, dressed only in a towel.

But I’ve never gone naked in public before. I’ve never explored or experienced what it would be like to live without clothes.

Until yesterday, that is.

Studland Naturist Beach

Yesterday, me and a couple of friends caught a bus to Studland (oh, the jokes), where there is a mile long stretch of sand reserved for naturists. Climbing over the scrub to the shore, we see flashes of pink flesh poking around the dunes.

With a squeal for the bracing wind, we threw off our clothes and ran to the sea. The water sloshed around bits it wouldn’t normally. I could dive and jump the waves without anything holding me down. It felt good, but surprisingly not unusual.

Walking back bare-buttocked up the beach, we passed a gaggle of fully-clothed dog walkers. They were the weird ones, togged up in garish garb, training shoes, bow tied laces, double socks tucked into corduroy trousers covering up knickers, belt pulling everything in tight, a vest over a bra under a blouse, fleece zipped up inside a wax jacket, a scarf against the wind, topped off with a cap.

It all looked so complicated.

A Society of Clothes

We take clothes for granted in this society. Well, some of us do. The rest obey this most basic of social norms on sufferance.

One of my friends was on her period. “I feel much better naked than wearing clothes,” she told me. “If I was wearing knickers I’d be worried about staining them. It’s so much nicer.”

Earlier in the day we’d been non-nudist swimming on Bournemouth beach. It’d been a right faff, trying to preserve our modesty in full sight of an Italian restaurant, hopping around holding onto towels while trying to pull up pants. My friend ended up with a massive wedgy. Ridiculous.

Clothes are also a tool that we can use to sexually tantalise or enhance ones natural charms. There is an interesting difference, for example, between being skimpily dressed and being stark naked. A skimpily dressed woman, in a mini-skirt and a push-up bra, is called a slut; a stark naked woman is a bohemian or a naturist.

Likewise (although facing significantly less opprobrium and social disapproval), a man oiled up in a posing pouch is a poser; a naked man, bits flopping about, is simply not.

When we strip, we are more likely to become innocent and defenceless. The strip-tease is arousing right up until the final moment of complete nakedness. Then the show is over.

Clothes of Shame

When Adam and Eve realised their state of nature, they felt shame and covered themselves up. But what if it worked the other way around? What if they covered themselves up and only then felt shame about their state of nature?

This actually seems to be the most likely explanation. Shame, according to Brené Brown, is a learned condition. Only when people point and laugh at our wee-willy-winky do we go red and cover up with a towel. I’ve got a 1-year-old niece and she is utterly shameless, prancing around without a care in the world.

The movement against body shame is usually directed at unrealistic fashion shoots, where models are air-brushed into impossibly pneumatic poses, which we’re supposed to somehow emulate.

Slim but not thin; curvy but not fat; six-pack and shoulders but no back hair: these computer assisted models are risible and should be air-brushed from history. But surely the ultimate ambition for the body positive movement is for all of us to feel comfortable naked. That’s comfortable not just in private, but also around each other.

Naturists, people who make a lifestyle of their bare bodies, I’ve realised, are not the mad ones.

Freedom Fighting Naturists

The most famous naturist I know (and the man who inspired me to do this positive constraint) is Stephen Gough, otherwise known as the naked rambler. Stephen successfully naked rambled from Land’s End to John O’Groats twice, in 2003-4 and 2005-6, but has spent most of the years since in and out of prison.

That the police and the Crown Prosecution Service feel so strongly about a man’s buttocks peaching around the Lake District is a sign to me that our civil law is still suffering a most Victorian malaise.

It’s clear that nudity isn’t for everyone. As I can attest from our Autumnal escapade on Studland, Britain is pretty chilly in the nuddy, and even Stephen Gough misses the convenience of pockets. But why the devil shouldn’t we be allowed to go on the occasional ramble exactly as god intended?

The End of Public Decency

Of course, the day public decency laws are repealed will doubtless see some outrageous displays of indecency, but that’s what you get for keeping us bottled up for so long. After a while, outrage will simmer down to normality. After a while, doesn’t your partner’s body lose its capacity to shock and surprise?

By the way, if you’re worried about cleanliness, then you need to stop and think for a second. You just shook that besuited man’s hand: does he sprinkle when he tinkles? And who’s just turned that door handle? An unsavoury butcher, a careless dog handler, an inattentive urologist? You have no idea, but somehow you survive.

There are some encouraging signs that we might be heading towards a more naked world, a world that the gymnosophists believe will be happier. To make this happen, all we need is you.

Your Turn: Be Naked

Head down to Studland, or your local naturist beach (map here). Naturists have enjoyed Studland beach for decades and local group Studland Nudists campaign for their rights and fight “nudist harrassment”. The National Trust, current custodians of the beach, welcome the bare-bodied and also serve ice cream.

The World Naked Bike Ride is an annual event that takes place in 70 cities in 20 countries, including 18 in the UK. The main focus of the ride is to challenge the supremacy of the metal apparel that many humans wear to travel on the roads (cars). But traditional clothing is also, as the organisers say, optional, making this an excellent opportunity to be publically naked.

If you’re not quite ready for a public display of nudity, then try your local sauna (not the red light ones). Let it all hang out and slowly sweat away any vestiges of shame.

As we dressed to go home, we watched a Muslim couple cavorting on the beach. Mr was taking photos of Mrs’ scandalous nudity. She was wearing clothes, of course, but her hair was uncovered, hijab thrown to the winds. They wrote their names in the sand to celebrate their love.

Freedom from the tyranny of garments comes in many guises.

No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation

This might sound like a small thing, but it’s really not. Wait a minute – my mistake – yes, it is a small thing. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a satisfying and worthwhile positive constraint.

My case study concerns the London Overground network, but this little behavioural change is applicable to any mode of busy public transportation where you have to press a button to operate the doors.

The Overground Buttons

If you use an Overground train in London, you will observe a strange confluence of panic around the door when the train arrives at a station. This is because, unlike on the London Underground, the Overground train doors don’t open automatically at every station; you have to press a button.

As a consequence, when my bit of the network started running in 2010, I needed to learn quickly, or risk being left stranded on the platform or trapped on a runaway train.

You still sometimes see bemused and bewildered travellers, who have been patiently waiting for the doors to open, suddenly start impotently flapping and flagging as their train sallies on without them.

Or you might spot the occassional traveller who’s managed to get onto the train thanks to the button-pushing skills of another, but has not learnt the technique themselves and thus can never disembark, standing at the doors in horror as stations come and go, from here to West Croydon.

On the Button Competition

There are three buttons to operate the doors: two on the inside and one on the outside. I can guarantee you that, ninety-nine percent of the time during peak hours, all three buttons will be pressed, almost simultaneously, by three different commuters. To leave one of the buttons unpressed is mildly scandalous behaviour.

I used to be one of the button-pushers, of course. I used to feel total disdain for the other chumps who tried to press my door’s buttons. Idiots! I’m the fastest draw in the East.

The train slows, I take up my position at the door, shoulder to shoulder with my hapless adversary. The brakes jolt, a warning beep, a light goes on and our fingers jab down on the buttons. Triumph!

A moment’s hesitation, though, and my finger hits a button whose door has already started to open. The humiliation of defeat is total. I can only avenge myself by beating him to the stairs.

What I want to know is why we do this. It only takes one person to open the door. It shows a distinct lack of awareness, surely, to fail to see that there are three other people who’ve had their fingers poised over the buttons ever since we left Wapping.

Do these people (myself included) think the others are such inept button-pushers that they might cause a delay of up to twenty milliseconds in the time taken to step down from the train and join the crush for the escalators?

Or perhaps they suspect that the other three buttons are mysteriously out of order and only theirs will have the magical Open Sesame effect?

Whatever the reason, this button-psychology is a remarkable example of how individual members of a crowd can be relied upon to act as if they were completely alone. And that kind of thoughtlessness is exactly what we can attack with a positive constraint.

Feel Like Transport Royalty

Now almost everyone knows the idiosyncratic ways of the Overground. Now there are so many newbies eager to prove themselves that it’s no longer a matter of life-and-commuter-death to be a button-pusher.

So, while the four self-elected button-pushers take up their posts, I prefer to wait for the chosen one to open the doors for me. I do still feel an urge to press the button myself, but delight in not obeying that urge.

Instead of behaving like I’m the only person on the train, or the only person who can use his digits to operate machinery, I am conscious of my fellow travellers and know they’ve got me covered.

It’s like someone politely holding the door for you: it feels nice, like I’m a bit special. It doesn’t matter that these people don’t realise they’re doing me a favour, but maybe I should start saying thank you.

Advantages of No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transport:

  • You can relax, free of the anxiety to press the button first. Travelling on public transport is stressful at the best of times, why contribute a mote more?
  • You’re giving others the childish pleasure of operating a machine. I call this the Science Museum Effect. Kids love pressing buttons.
  • Not touching the buttons means you have slightly less exposure to the myriad bacterial and viral contaminations that thrive on public transportation.
  • You feel vaguely royal, travelling with your own personal doorman, your majesty.
  • You can position yourself directly in front of the double doors, with your doormen flanking you. Because the doors open from the middle outwards, you will be first off the train, and straight onto the red carpet, presumably.

Disadvantages:

  • If you are alone, you should ignore this positive constraint and just press the button. I don’t want to be responsible for you missing your stop.