Against Waldenponding


Against Waldenponding is an issue of Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter from 2018.

The term “waldenponding” is a reference to Thoreau’s Walden, in which he experimented with complete self-reliance and removal from society. The modern version is similar, but more specifically an attempt to remove the pernicious influence of social media on one’s mind. Social media is seen as nothing more than a device to cause FOMO and shorten your attention spans so that you will click on ads as your mental state deteriorates.

Notably, those who Waldenpond do it not just as a periodic “device fast” or retreat, but as a fundamental aspect of their lives.

Rao says that this is a bad idea, for unconventional reasons. He posits that a tech-enabled society forms a “Giant Social Computer in the Cloud” (GSCITC) which is comprised of idea-sharing on all levels, from tweets fired off with no thought at all to long, thoughtful essays on deep topics. The GSCITC is thus humanity’s best hope at solving problems to which traditional mechanisms are failing to adapt.

Retreating from this computer has the following effects:

  • It leaves the power over society to others who are heavily invested in the GSCITC and want to use it for their own gain.
  • On some level, people rationally realize that they play a part in this computer, and so they feel something missing when they disconnect from it for too long.
  • You miss out on the flow of ideas to you, which can lead to higher-level insights and potentially even personal gain for you in various forms.

But participation in the GSCITC is one step away from anonymous. You may be a unique part of it, but you are not a special part, and so Rao calls this the Fear of Being Ordinary, or FOBO. Much more than any fears about social media tearing down our mental state, the truth is that we can’t accept that our contributions won’t matter in more than an aggregate sense, and so we don’t participate at all.

The correct approach is therefore not to run away, but to navigate intelligently.

A real adept oughta be able to meditate on the angriest, most toxic twitter stream, consume the bile, and turn it into nectar: actionable insight you can bet on in the real world.
A real adept ought to have strength-trained attention so they can spend an hour either reading a tweetstream or a once-in-a-generation history-disrupting philosophy book. No hack designer or advertiser should be able to lock them down in the 0.1-10 second range.

Just because the intense stream of information can lead to short attention spans and surface-level analysis doesn’t mean you have to give in to that. Don’t fall for it, and don’t run away from it, but embrace it and intentionally learn to deal with it.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, please send me a note on Twitter.