Reading and Thinking Social media

Jonathan Heidt, citing evidence, urges smart ohones be banned from schools


1) Hugh Hewitt, “Why we should ban smartphones in schools,” Washington Post, June 9, 2023 (6:00 am EDT);

2) Jonathan Haidt, “Get Phones Out of Schools Now; They impede learning, stunt relationships, and lessen belonging. They should be banned,” The Atlantic, June 6, 2023;

Epistemology of truth Identity Politics Race Reading and Thinking Social media

History, activists, and the truth


1) Megan McArdle, “A fight among historians shows why truth-seeking and activism don’t mix,” Washington Post, August 29, 2022 (7:00 a.m. EDT);

2) James H. Sweet, “IS HISTORY HISTORY? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” Perspectives on History August 17, 2022;

3) Bret Stephens, “This Is the Other Way That History Ends,” New York Times, August 30, 2022.

Further evidence of the weakening belief in freedom of speech is provided by Megan McArdle, who recounts the latest brouhaha over an article by James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, who warned against the excesses of “presentism”, an excessive preoccupation with the present and the influences of current beliefs on the writing of history.

His basic argument is that it is a mistake for historians to allow themselves to be overly influenced by current debates and current views of what are right or permissible opinions.

It is distressing to have our attention called to this phenomenon, which one might term the infinite expansion of the present moment, which obscures the realities of the past and perhaps also the potential and some of the possibilities of the future.

One suspects that the phenomena is related to the growth of social media and its extreme focus on the present, and the increasing focus of television media on what is happening at this very moment, with all the excitement of the latest “breaking news”.

What is most disturbing in McArdle’s report is her account of journalists being criticized not for telling the truth, but rather for telling a truth which does not support the conclusions which activists want to support.

We need to build support among the younger generations for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the free play of ideas–all ideas. One might start with classic texts, like those of John Stuart Mill, and some history of what advocates of the Enlightenment like Voltaire and the Encyclopedists were pushing for in the eighteenth century.

Indeed, we are in great need of a renaissance of the eighteenth century mind, as its devotion to liberty and freedom of thought has come down to us in the last three centuries.

We have experience with Soviet and Nazi systems of thought control, and other examples on the Left and the Right, and the excesses and crimes to which they have led.

What is called for is a renewed and robust system of civic education, in the schools, in churches and other places of worship, and in colleges and universities at every level and in every corner of the land.

The Spirit of Voltaire

Epistemology of truth Propaganda Reading and Thinking Social media

How do we know what is real news and what is speculation or even fake news?

One of my readers on my Substack newsletter, Trenchant Observations, has posed a very important question. My answer and advice are reproduced below:


You ask, “How do we know what is real news and what is speculation or even fake news?”

This is a very important question.

My own answer and advice are as follows:

1. Draw on your education and your entire life experience in choosing the sources from which you get your news.

2. Curate yourself your own selection of news stories to read. Don’t rely on a news feed, which is in effect curated by someone else.

3. Choose one or more newspapers you trust, and get your news from reading them.

4. Think about what you read. Does it make sense? Is it consistent with news stories from other sources which you trust?

Informing ourselves about the nature of reality that surrounds and affects us is one of the most important things that we do. Our lives and our futures depend on having an accurate understanding of this reality.

Don’t be passive, and expect someone else to bring the news to you. Go looking for it yourself. What you find, actively pursuing accurate news and the truth, will serve you well, and repay you many times over for the small investment of time and effort that you make.

It should also be deeply satisfying, when we use our natural curiosity to investigate what is going on in the world.

Take note and remember the sources of any news that seems important. Consider making written notes.

Written sources are usually the best, as they can be checked and rechecked. Write down the names of good documentaries on TV or radio and when and where you saw them. Always seek confirmation of what you see and hear on radio and TV in written sources.

This is how I try to find real news and distinguish it from speculation or even “fake news”.

If you choose to read newspapers you trust, you won’t see much real “fake news”.

The Spirit of Voltaire


Subscribe to the Trenchant Observations newsletter on Substack, here.

China Data collection and surveillance companies Privacy Propaganda Social media Surveillance state

The dangers of Chinese-owned TikTok, whose algorithms favor Chinese propaganda views on Russian war against Ukraine; Many if not most users get their news from the Tik-Tok feed


Ezra Klein, “TikTok May Be More Dangerous Than It Looks,” New York Times, May 8, 2022.

Ezra Kein, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, observes that social media platforms largely control what we collectively pay attention to.

He draws attention to the dangers posed by TikTok, a Chinese owned company subject to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party, and the ways its algorithms may be manipulated to further Chinese propanda goals or to sow division among American users.

Significantly, China does allow its citizens to access the Western version of TikTok.

Klein notes that currently Tik-Tok algorithms strongly favor Chinese propaganda views on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

The Chinese have been working on mind-control techniques for many decades, as exemplified in the classic 1951 movie The Manchurian Candidate.

Klein urges the Obama administration to finish the job the Trump administration began, forcing a planned sale of the company in the U.S. That sale was canceled after Joe Buden won the 2020 election.

Klein’s column points out just one more way the consciousness of the Eighteenth Century mind is under attack.

Spirit of Voltaire

Reading and Thinking Social media

Average intelligence decreasing; screen use likely culprit

According to a recent article in VEJA, which gathers together the latest studies, the average intelligence of humans is declining. The time wasted on social media and political polarization are among the principle causes of this regression in human intelligence.

In a word, social media and political polarization are making us stupider.

What is to be done?


Ernesto Neves and Caio Saad, “Pesquisas mostram que a inteligência do ser humano está regredindo; O tempo desperdiçado nas redes sociais e a polarização política são alguns dos principais responsáveis pelo recuo, depois de décadas de evolução,” VEJA, o 1, de outubro 2021 (06h00, atualizado às 18h44).

da Data collection and surveillance companies Privacy Sea of Irrationality Social media Surveillance companies Surveillance state

Beyond Orwellian: Facebook glasses that record video and sound

Updated September 16, 2021


1) Chris Velazco, “Facebook’s ‘smart’ glasses put cameras on your face. Everyone around you should be aware; These glasses are meant to create content, but they raise privacy concerns,” Washington Post, September 9, 2021 (12:00 p.m. EDT).

2) Farhad Manjoo, “Apple and Facebook Are Coming for Your Face Next,” Washington Post, September 16, 2021.

The relentless advance of technology is taking us far beond George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and now threatens to obliterate all traces of our historical consciousness and the core values of our civilization.

A friend remarked yesterday, “With Facebook, human consciousness and rational argument are over.”

The Greeks worried that demogogues would mobilize  the people to overthrow democratic institutions and establish dictatorships or “tyrannies”.

They could not imagine, however, that tyrannies might be ushered in by relentless advances in science and technology, and that in the 21st century the modern tyrants would be those who gained control of companies that mastered the collection and control of information, and that even these modern tyrants would be subject to forces they had unleashed but could not control.

Allowed to grow and prosper outside the realm of government regulation, giant companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon grew and acquired increasing political influence over the government.

One can easily imagine the kind of totalitarian government which technology could make possible. One look no farther than China to see how far this process has already advanced.

In the 2006 German film Das Leben der Anderen (“The Life of Others”), one can already see the stultifying effect of the use of (primitive) technology to monitor the lives of independent-minded people, much less opponents of an authoritarian regime. The film traces the kife of a writer and his girlfriend in East Berlin from 1984-1991.

The film is important viewing because unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is based on observed reality.

30 years of technological advances have made even this chilling film seem anachronistic.

With new tools such as the Pegasus software, which has enabled individuals and states to tap into the phones of anyone, even foreign heads of state, massive invasions of privacy by e.g., Google maps, have become routine and are routinely accepted by the population.


1) Rebecca Klapper, “Israel Promises to Investigate Group Accused of Selling Pegasus Spyware to Governments,” NEWSWEEK, September 1, 2021.

Google’s geo-tracking through cell phone records now provides law enforcement (with a warrant))–and who knows who else–detailed information on individuals’ movements at every hour of night and day.

2) Associated Press, “Google records your location even when you tell it not to; Some services on Android and iPhone automatically store your movements even after you pause the ‘location history’ setting,” The Guardian, August 13, 2018
(19.30 BST).

3) Tony Webster, “How did the police know you were near a crime scene? Google told them,” MPR News, February 7, 2019 (9:10 p.m.).

4) Jana Winter, “HOW LAW ENFORCEMENT CAN USE GOOGLE TIMELINE TO TRACK YOUR EVERY MOVE; The recent expansion of Google’s Timeline feature can provide investigators unprecedented access to users’ location history data, allowing them in many cases to track a person’s every move over the course of years,” The Intercept, November 6, 2015(6:53 a.m.).

This situation has developed because the big information collection companies have acquired great political clout in Washington.

The future of privacy in the United States now depends on whether citizens and their representatives in Congress are able to impose strong government regulations on these companies. This may or may not be possible.

The ultimate safeguard of privacy in the 21st century may be the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. The Commission, particularly with its 2016 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), has so far proven to be much more resistent to the political influences of the big data collection companies than has the government of the United States.

The evolution of technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, while the political power of companies like Google and Facebook continues to grow along with their astronomical earnings.

To understand the interplay of the forces at work, we may gain some insight from fiction, particularly Dave Eggers’ 2014 novel, The Circle. However, a lot has changed since 2014. We can look forward to Eggers’ current understanding of the interplay of these forces in his forthcoming novel, The Every, scheduled for release on November 16, 2021.

One can only hope that electronic and other mechanisms for surveillance self-defense will be developed and marketed in easy-to-use form. The ptoblem here is that Google, Facebook, Amazon and other data collection companies have so much cash that they can buy out any  company that might pose a threat to their surveillance-based business model.

About the only hope for developing mechanisms of  self-defense against surveillance companies and the surveillance state (e.g., China) would be for a wealthy millionaire or billionaire to fund a private company to develop and market such mechanisms.

The Spirit of Voltaire

Reading and Thinking Social media

Living offline for a year; and the author’s Twitter experience

Aaron Rosenberg lived offline for a year, trying to understand what it was like in order to help him understand the subject of his academic research.

His experience is illuminating, particularly for those of us interested in maintaining the capabilities of our eighteenth century minds.

His approach was extreme, but the experience taught him some important lessons. He has found  that applying them has been more challenging than expected.  See the following account of his experience, which is definitely worth reading.


Charlie Warzel, “He Quit the Internet 2 Months Before the Pandemic; When Aron Rosenberg decided to try living offline for a year, he thought his sabbatical might be painful; It turned out to be easier than his return, New York Times, March 10, 2021 (7:07 a.m. ET).


My Own Twitter Experience 

I myself experienced some of the extraordinary pull of Twitter while following in extremely close fashion political developments related to Donald Trump’s attempts to hang on to power after losing the election on November 3, 2021.

The temptation to follow the news almost hour by hour was great, and Twitter was the place where you could follow developments even more closely.  The suspense, and the sense that something important might happen at any minute, kept my nervous system on high alert.

There was one other addictive aspect. By following key people and sometimes getting a notification that your tweet had been liked or retweeted or quoted, it was easy to succumb to the momentary illusion that you were having an impact on the discussion, and consequently on events.

You knew analytically that this was not likely to be the case.  Still, in some bizarre way Twitter was a place where you could react in the moment to news or other tweets, and in the excitement of the moment you could feel that you were having some kind of impact on the discussion.

And “Who knows?”  Regarding some aspects of the story where you had specific, relevant professional knowledge, perhaps you were. You can see my comments on Twitter @Trenchantobserv.

But after January 20, 2021, I was able to withdraw from Twitter, and from my obsessive watching of cable TV news channels. Almost all of the really important news eventually showed up in the New York Times or the Washington Post or other newspapers which I read.

I admit it. I’m a news addict. Maybe like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Payne or other Eighteenth Century Minds might have been too. What is different is the immediacy. They probably had to wait days or longer to to get their hands on some of the newspapers they read.

I “wasted” hours of my time on my Twitter addiction. But I have learned and am learning from the experience. Maybe it will help me break or at least sharply limit the time I spend reading newspapers online, succumbing to the at times irresistible pull of my news addiction. This is related to being a writer.

To be sure, David McCullough recounts how Theodore Roosevelt, during his years at Harvard, used to read up to 20 newspapers over coffee in the morning.  So at least I don’t suffer from a unique affliction.

On the other hand, I need to remind myself that I am not a freshman at Harvard, or anywhere else, I don’t have a political career ahead of me, and there are many other potential uses of my time.

Aaron Rosenberg’s experience is instructive. When thinking about my Twitter experience, I recall reading somewhere that the average life of a tweet is about 15 minutes.

Spirit of Voltaire