Ever since I started working in cybersecurity and privacy fifteen years ago, I’ve been trying to think of the simplest possible principles to guide my actions as I navigate the digital world. This is my online manifesto, principles I try to live by in my personal life and also to embed in my work:
I’m going to devote a bunch of my writing and thinking in the coming months to playing these ideas out in detail, in part to test how these work for others.
So how about you? Do you have principles that guide your behavior in the digital world? I’d love your commentary.
In the sections below, I’m putting flesh on what these principles mean to me. This is very much a work in progress.
There’s a lot of truth out in the world, but I’d be the last one to tell you that there’s one “truth.” In fact, I think there is room for people to have different truths—as long as we agree on how we’ll handle ourselves when we hold different versions of the truth. For example, you may believe in an omniscient deity and I may not, but as long as we both agree that it’s okay for us to hold different opinions about things that aren’t knowable, we can get along. Similarly, I may believe in one role for government and you may believe in another, but as long as we agree on some principles for how we’ll resolve our differences in shaping shared governance, we can all get along. It’s violations of these shared principles that have been for me the biggest problem in politics in the last decade, and especially the last several years.
So, truth is not one thing that’s out there, but rather a process of reaching understanding that is characterized by reason, verifiability, utility, and the absence of the qualities associated with bullshit (see below). Psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton MD suggests that truth can be easily known by testing how it feels: “Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Am I taking the welfare of others into consideration, or is it just all about me?” You can see that the former is truth. You know it when you see it. Need more? May I suggest that you start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, read for ten years, then come back to me with something simpler.
Let’s say, then, that truth is the opposite of bullshit: in other words, truth is good, bullshit is bad. It stands to reason that if you want to reject bullshit, you’ll want to spread truth. You want truth to be known, because of its qualities of making sense of the world, making it easier and more pleasant to navigate. But just like the intensity of how you reject bullshit is up to you, so is the urgency with which you spread truth. You’re not obligated to post every true thing you discover (I know sometimes I wear the patience of my friends a little thin with my habit of sending out “must reads” at 5 AM.) I guess you’re not obligated to share truth with anyone else at all. But I do think the world might be a little better place if people shared the truths that helped the world make sense to them. I’m always happy when someone shares that kind of thing with me. (My colleague Brian Hansford shared his thoughts on the tensions between sales and marketing on LinkedIn the other day, and I was blown away by how cool it was to see somebody sharing their honest and thoughtful view of the world.)
Bullshit is the opposite of truth. When you see something on social media that seeks to stoke outrage, to raise alarm for its own sake, to stir your emotions, or to throw stones at a perceived enemy, chances are you have run into bullshit. The aim of most bullshit on social media is to get you to “like” or react to the bullshit, and if your reaction includes spreading the bullshit to others, then it has done it’s job. When you react to bullshit, you reward the spreader of bullshit, sometimes with money, sometimes just with attention. But you increase the chances that you will see more bullshit. Basically, you’ve told the algorithm “I like bullshit,” and so you’ll see more bullshit soon. When more and more people like bullshit and spread bullshit, pretty soon you discover that the whole world is awash in bullshit.
That’s why it feels so important to “Reject Bullshit.” You can start by just not reacting to the bullshit that comes your way: when you see something that outrages you, pass it by. Ignore it. Or better yet, use the reporting functions of social media to tell the algorithms: “I’m not interested in bullshit.” Pretty soon, you’ll find that you get less bullshit in your world. Better yet, if we all stopped liking bullshit, the bullshit would (mostly) go away.
There’s a kind of activism in the world “reject” that may make you uncomfortable. I’m not saying you have to confront bullshit. You don’t necessarily have to become an anti-bullshit activist (though it’s perfectly okay if you do, as long as you work through the complexity of not giving bullshit too much attention by confronting it.) If all you ever did was ignore bullshit, that would be a great start. But you can also push back against bullshit, to be a little more forthright in your rejection (and if you can do it while still being kind, all the better).
A word about the term “bullshit”: I’m sorry for swearing; I wish there was a word that captured the nuances that bullshit captures without offending anyone, but I don’t how to convey what I mean without offense. In fact, the offense is part of what makes it the right word: bullshit offends the sensibilities of decent people not just for falseness, but also for its ill intent. That’s the thing about bullshit: it’s bullshit.
This one is so simple to say, but so complicated in application! How do you kindly reject bullshit, for example? The thing is, if you follow this principle dutifully, you almost can’t help but do the first two. But it’s worth calling out because it’s the lack of kindness that’s been such a big problem on the internet for so long. I won’t belabor this point: we’ve all seen the damage trolls can do, the enmity that exists when people hide behind obscure user names. We’ve seen how ugly political life has gotten when we villainize and stereotype others.
I’m not asking you not to feel anger or vindictiveness or cynicism or any other negative emotion. But I’m convinced we’ll be better off if we moderate those feelings in our digital interactions. When those harsh, negative feelings are directed at other people they elicit similar feelings (or defensiveness or retreat) in response, and they escalate and then the entire interaction gets sidetracked. It turns away from truth and toward bullshit. So I’m saying, feel all your feelings, then ask yourself if you can possibly express them with kindness.
I try to submit all my online communications to the kindness test. Whether I’m writing an email, a text message, a blog post, whatever, I ask myself: is this a kind way of making this point? And if it’s not–if I find myself expressing negative, angry, mean-spirited stuff, I put it aside and come back to it.
I’ve got a lot more to say on this one–including calling myself to account, because anyone who has known me for any duration knows that I sometimes indulge my sharp tongue. It’s true, I can be a real a**hole–but I always wish I had found a better way.