Gaslit on Twitter

Gaslighting is a catch-all term. I understand it as the act of relentlessly bombarding a consumer of information with a large amount of irrelevant statistics and facts to such an extent that the victim can no longer convincingly explain (even to themselves) their fundamental beliefs. There is a lot of talk of “gaslighting” in media environments where there is a single source of news. In India, nightly news shows are a great example. It is also relevant in environments where a news source is seen as biased. The biased news source’ reporting is criticized using a bunch of unrelated facts.

On the 28th and 29th of March 2022, there was a 2-day strike call in India. This news was reported by the New York Times, and crucially, it was included in the “Daily Briefing” newsletter’s Asia edition on 28th March, 20221. I had not heard about the strike. (Not surprising, as I don’t live in India and have been more out of the loop than usual lately.) None of the people I know in India mentioned it to me over the previous weekend. When I read about the strike, I did not think that NYT was reporting a lie. I accepted it as fact and went to a few Indian news websites to read more about the strike. Quickly, I started questioning what was going on and why real people (not “trolls”) were saying absurd things online. I am not the first person to go through this disorienting experience and I won’t be the last. I want to talk about why I felt disoriented, how I battled with this feeling, and how I managed to resolve my disorientation by doing some research.

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"Absurd Customer Service" - Part 2, Suggestions

I am not one to balk when it comes to writing rants and leaving it at that. However, when publishing rants, I think it is worthwhile to also think about the problems and try to figure out whether there is some solution to the problems that one is ranting about. Often, there is no such solution. If an easy solution did exist, there would be no need to find catharsis through the process of writing a rant. In the case of the Absurd Customer Service problem though, there are some solutions. Some of these are practical and can be adopted in our daily lives. While others are absurd; for the absurdity of the solution must mirror the absurdity of the problem.

(This is the second post in a 2-part series about absurd customer service experiences. You can read the first part here.)

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"Absurd Customer Service" - Part 1, The Problem

Over a series of several occasions last year, I experienced the absurdity rife in modern customer service. I don’t think that things have always been like this. Customer service was a pain and you would often by stuck on 30 minute phone calls trying to explain your situation to the other person. But there was a person at the other end. And after those grueling 30 minutes, they would understand your situation and do something to rescue you from it. My experiences did not conform to this pattern. It looks like this problem is widespread enough to warrant feature articles in magazines.1 Indeed, in all the cases that I encountered, the problem was eventually resolved in a miraculous and bizarre fashion; with my interventions seemingly making no impact on the course of things. My experiences were with multiple businesses and in different industries: telecom, banking, and retail. But I think that there are some common trends which can be pinpointed. These trends have made the experience of “reaching out to customer support” in India a painful and exasperating experience. In this, the first of a 2 part series, I briefly recount my experiences. Hopefully, the reader has not been through similar experiences and can read them simply as an amusing recounting of events that will never happen to them.

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Facebook is Unnecessary

Everyone agrees that Facebook makes them feel worse. It accelerates the “Fear Of Missing Out” anxiety that is quite strong even when you don’t know exactly what your peers are doing on a Friday evening. But people continue to flock to Facebook. Yes, Facebook is losing teen users1, but this is not a precipitous drop. In any case, these teenagers are going to other platforms which are arguably worse than Facebook for reasons that I will outline in this post. What is so interesting on Facebook? Why does it exist? What is it for? These are incredibly complex questions. I will leave that hardest-of-all tasks to the technology philosophers. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that became clear to me after a recent conversation: The existence of Facebook is an anomaly. Facebook’s target user base will never need to use Facebook: Facebook is meant to “connect people.” Their belief is that if you know what is on your friends’ mind, then you are connected to them. The better you know someone, the more connected you are to them. The more you will be able to appreciate the posts they make, both personal and political. But the better you know someone, the less you need a tool such as Facebook to keep that relationship alive and healthy. So, you don’t need Facebook to connect with the people whom you are closest with in the world.2 So, …, what gives? Why are you on a platform where you are connecting with a bunch of people whom you know only vaguely and care about at the superficial level? I have some thoughts about this dichotomy.

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Monthly Recommendations (February 2022)

The month of February is before the end of the financial year and the month that many governments release their budgets for the next financial year. They also talk (at length) about the policies that they are going to implement. To commemorate this annual exercise in long-term decision making, this month’s list of recommendations is about politics and government policy. We see examples of government policy gone wrong and those that worked out well. There is an interesting new theory about conservatism and the feeling of disgust (not just at liberal ideas, but a more generic form of disgust.) And there is an article about degrowth from Vox, which has been making the rounds periodically since 2019. It is worth looking back on this article periodically to understand how futile unilateral action can prove to be.

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Notes and Review - Exhalation (Ted Chiang)

Ted Chiang is a path breaking philosopher and fiction writer. I started saying that after reading his short story “Story of Your Life.” His second book, “Exhalation”, is a collection of short stories from 2019. It covers an even wider range of topics than his first collection. Chiang has the ability to zoom out of the present moment and write about human nature without providing solutions or trying to pose arguments about complex questions; instead, his writing makes the reader think about what they would do in that situation, and that is the primary method he uses to engage the reader in a discussion. This ability to inhabit someone else’ life for a period of time is the reason I read fiction, and the characters in this collection are put in situations where you want to be riddled by the dilemmas and struggles that they are facing. The striking aspect of Chiang’s short stories is the amount of time that one remembers their premise and key questions for. The key questions in a handful of his short stories have remained with me despite having last read them 3 years ago.

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Thoughts About The Beatles Documentary

I found out about the Beatles documentary from a podcast episode. The host was talking about a clip showing the Beatles legend, Paul McCartney, composing the song “Get Back.” The stunning part of this video was that he had started from nothing. He was idly strumming chords on his guitar, early in the morning. Ringo Starr and George Harrison were sitting across from him; they appeared disheveled, tired, and sleepy. The final Beatle, John Lennon, was nowhere to be seen. I watched this video a few times; hoping to get a glimpse of something around McCartney which gave him the inspiration to come up with the melody. I wonder if other viewers were watching the video looking for a similar kind of revelation. But there was nothing. McCartney had created the song out of nothing; like a vaguely remembered dream converted into a beautiful melody. I learned more about what the documentary was and where the footage had come from. (Admittedly, I went through this information gathering process in a frenzy.) This past week, some theater chains in Japan capitalized on the mania of Beatles fans by airing a 1-hour special, The Rooftop Concert, for a limited period of time. I watched the special, and here are some thoughts about my experience.

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Monthly Recommendations (January 2022)

For the first recommendations post of the year, I have picked out some of the best New Yorker stories that I read as I worked through my issue backlog from early 2020. I have given up on reading the New Yorker at the pace at which it is published. However, the articles that are included in each issue are rarely “current affairs” related and can basically be read and re-read years into the future. Lately, the role played by magazines in our reading diets has become clearer to me: They are published at a much faster pace than great fiction or non-fiction; while they are written by the very same people who will eventually produce those great works; so magazine pieces offer us a window into upcoming great work. (I think.) So, this month I have a mix of dealing with grief, bad governance as seen through the eyes of an official, compared with the impact of bad policy as seen through the eyes of a journalist, the “mad science”-y feel of triggering avalanches intentionally to avoid larger avalanches, and a disturbing article about the effects of late-stage capitalism on workers.

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Video Calls Are Tiring

Video calls are ubiquitous. Skype and its modern counterparts were the go-to tool for connecting people who were not in the same physical space. In the era when travel was possible, convenient, and exciting1, these tools were stopgap solutions; to be employed until the time that you could refill your “physical presence” account balance with people. Then, COVID19. Everyone was stuck at home. Travel became impossible. Video calls became the only way to meet some people. At work, the number of people that I interact with on a daily basis whom I have never met in real life has gone up from 0 in March 2020 to 5 this past week. I don’t think my experience is an outlier. The necessity of using this tool could not be escaped; neither could the feeling of tiredness that would always follow its use. What is the source of this tiredness?

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Nostalgia vs. Anxiety on Social Media

When Facebook came on the scene, the most attractive features on the platform for me were photo albums and life events. These two features in combination gave the user the ability to build a timeline of their life. Every trip that you go on, place that you visit, and dinner that you eat can be documented for the present and archived for the future. The photos and events were arranged as milestones that the user chose to retain when they told their story. The digitized nature of this data enabled the creation of works that were out of reach for the ordinary scrapbooker or the amateur video editor: The personalized Facebook “Lookback” videos, which were generated for Facebook’s 10th anniversary, were the biggest “proof-of-concept” of a world which was digitizing at a fast pace. I feel that Facebook was at “peak utility” back then. Nostalgia was the currency that the platform traded in effortlessly. Product managers at Facebook intuitively understood the value that they were creating in their users’ lives. Looking at the Lookback video is not like looking back at photo albums from a decade ago because in the latter experience there is no curation. However, Facebook’s usage is on the decline. Platforms that focus on creating Anxiety in their users’ minds are on the rise. Did something fundamental change?

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