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Mindhacks, Crackdowns, and Clickstreams: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From limiting game time to rekindling the Olympic spirit, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

Students wearing a facemask while studying outdoors

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Even if students are masked, learning together IRL brings with it all sorts of benefits that are harder to come by when the classroom is virtual.

Higher Ed’s Higher Calling

The point of universities is for people to learn together, Agnes Callard argues in this fierce essay for The Point, and people seem to lose sight of this basic fact pretty much all the time. “I grant that the university is easy to misinterpret, because its innermost parts are hidden from view,” writes Callard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. “What’s visible is who gets in and who is excluded; the fates of its graduates; clashes between townies and gownies; five-year completion rates; public-relations catastrophes; IRS 990 forms. If you go on a campus visit, you see the buildings, but not what happens inside them.” And what happens inside of them, mostly, is high-minded socializing. “Good courses have all the messiness of human cooperation baked into them.” And most people need that cooperation, that constant reinforcement from peers and mentors, to keep pursuing what Callard calls “intellectual goods.” “The things people long for are: safety and security; fancy vacations and luxury goods; honor, power and acclaim; the warmth of family life and human connection,” Callard writes. “People don’t long for intellectual goods. You know the joys of intellectual engagement by experiencing them, and as you step away from them they fade from view. There are strange people who somehow, through a series of accidents, get and stay keyed onto intellectual goods on their own—the autodidacts I mentioned earlier—but the rest of us need constant help reorienting, because just about every worldly temptation pulls us in the opposite direction.”

I have a little more faith in people’s innate curiosity to drive intellectual exploration, but I think Callard is right about the core value that universities provide: a structure, motivation, and fellow travelers on hard-thinking projects that would be difficult and lonely to pursue solo. “I rely on my students and colleagues—including my dead colleagues, such as Aristotle and Plato and Leo Strauss—to redirect me when I lose my way,” Callard writes. “If I had left the university after college, I believe the intellectual life I occasionally glimpsed as an undergraduate would have faded into a nostalgic memory.” I worry about that, too, which is why I’ve tried so hard to keep at least one foot on a university campus, long after I was supposed to venture into the “real” world. Eric Johnson

Athlete who is missing his left arm below the elbow photographed in the middle of a long jump

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Hossain Rasouli of Team Afghanistan competes in the Men's Long Jump - T47 Final on day 7 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Going for Gold

Perseverance. Achievement. Unity. Words that define the Olympics. For me, they create that special feeling of inspiration I used to get every four years but has been harder to tap into as I've grown older (and more jaded). This week, though, I read an article that renewed my Olympic spirit. The 2020 Paralympics began August 24, 2021, owing to the pandemic, and conclude September 5. Before the Games, organizers were unsure if Afghanistan's Paralympic team—represented by Zakia Khudadadi (Taekwondo) and Hossain Rasouli (track and field)—would be able to attend the Games, given the instability in their country. But with the help of a variety of supporters, the athletes were evacuated from Kabul to Paris, where they were able to train and then fly to Tokyo. This is a monumental achievement of common humanity, but also personal accomplishment: Khudadadi will become Afghanistan's first female athlete to compete at the Paralympics since 2004.

Khudadadi and Rasouli's story led me to reflect on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a whole. The Games struggled to get off the ground, facing challenges ranging from the ongoing pandemic to staff resignations. During the Games, viewership plummeted and we heard concerns for athletes' health as covid-19 struck the Olympic village. I also watched the Games with an eye of cynicism, remembering the Russian doping scandal that rocked, but for many did not shock, the sports world. And then there are the persistent logistics nightmares that every host country confronts. Khudadadi and Rasouli reminded me that the Games are bigger than all of that. The Olympics are an opportunity for a truly global celebration, among a global community, of achievement and perseverance, which can (and often does) inspire new generations of athletes to push harder and reach for great things. While they are by no means perfect, the Games ideals remain aspirational. —Hannah Van Drie

double exposure image of virtual human 3dillustration on programming and learning technology

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Open your mind, man—to new ways of learning, to new memory tricks, to illustrative avatars of cyberspace!

Cram the Cram Sessions!

I am generally skeptical of “brain hacks,” the pseudo-science tricks that promise to make you smarter, faster, happier, more productive, etc. But after 18 months of feeling my brain melt away from Zoom fatigue, I’m feeling more open-minded about opening my mind—especially when it comes to memory, which is under assault not just from excessive screen time and digital distraction but by the simple fact that it has been a year or two or 25 since I was memorizing college lecture notes. Enter the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, “a 100-year-old formula developed by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who pioneered the experimental study of memory.” According to Inc. magazine, Ebbinghaus found that the vast majority of what we hear during an hour-long talk is lost within a few days, and the rate of forgetting is fairly predictable. “One day after the lecture, if you've done nothing with the material, you'll have lost between 50 and 80 percent of it from your memory,” writes Scott Mauz. “By day seven, that erodes to about 10 percent retained, and by day 30, the information is virtually gone (only 2-3 percent retained).” Not good news for a student prepping for a semester final or a nonprofit executive readying for an important follow-up meeting.

Fortunately, there’s a way to stop informational entropy from taking hold. Take 10 minutes to review the material a day later, then another five minutes of review a week later, and another couple of minutes a month out. That, supposedly, will train your brain to hold onto all of that newly acquired knowledge, signaling to your own mind that this is important enough to commit to long-term memory. “After that, monthly brush-ups of just a few minutes will help you keep the material fresh,” Mauz reports. It certainly sounds better than trying to review a whole class worth of material the night before the exam. —Stefanie Sanford

five children gather around another kid playing a game boy

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Boys play video games after a class at the West Point Training Center August 2, 2006, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province of China. (Hope they got all their gaming in 15 years ago...)

Game Over

“Spiritual opium.” That’s how Chinese state media recently described video games, immediately wiping several billion dollars from the market value of some top Chinese tech firms. (To say nothing of really leaning into Marxism. –Ed.) The sharp words from public authorities turned out to be the prelude to even harsher action, with internet regulators imposing a limit of three hours per week of game time for minors. That includes an outright prohibition against online gaming for young people from Monday to Thursday, and just an hour per evening on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. “The new rules underscore the extent to which Beijing is intent on curbing gaming addiction among youths and pushing its future workforce toward more productive pursuits,” reports Bloomberg.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with Chinese state media, but “spiritual opium” seems about right for the mindless mobile games that have exploded in popularity over the last several years. The Financial Times put the strict regulations in context of broader pressure on China’s rising middle class, where parents and professionals feel many of the same stresses as their American counterparts. “For many residents of its larger cities, their lives have become riddled with anxieties that belie the broader sense of progress—from seemingly unattainable home prices to the hothouse pressure of securing the best education for their children and coveted places at leading universities,” write FT reporters Tom Mitchell and Thomas Hale. “And in the background there is the fear that nags at almost every ambitious parent—the possibility that their kids will grow tired of the race and seek refuge in the world of video games and the internet.” The FT analysts even point to China’s high-stakes college admissions system, the gaokao, as a key driver of social and economic angst. Turns out that the meritocratic arms race is every bit as strong in the People’s Republic as it is in the United States, which hints at just how hard it will be to satisfy the ambitions and expectations of a rising generation across the world. —Eric Johnson

Computer mouse caught in trap

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If only there were a way to stop our fingers from clicking on all that tawdry trash content recommended for us in our feeds...

What is Clickbait? You'll Never Guess Where You'll Find It Next!

Have you ever tried browsing Netflix? It's kind of a disaster. It's like the algorithm throws everything into a because-you-watched group hoping something connects. Part of that is undoubtedly the streamer's AI, but reflects it having too much stuff. Content is the currency of the digital realm, and Netflix’s rush to scale through licensing and acquisition (and now original programming) helped build a behemoth. Recently, though, as the search function illustrates, it feels like things have taken a turn for the icky. Lurid and often misleading promo images. Terrible titles that titillate with grabby questions. Cheapie cash-ins on big-budget blockbusters. It’s the streaming equivalent of wandering into the sleazy corner of Blockbuster (remember those?)—except it's actually more insidious, as Dan Kois observes in Slate: "As competitors begin to nip at the streaming giant’s heels, Netflix seems to be flirting with the tantalizing tools that web editors discovered a decade ago or more: the curiosity gap, the sexy thumbnail, the misleading image. A homepage is a homepage, after all, and these days, Netflix has discovered clickbait."

Of course! How could I have been so blind? As a digital editor, I've written my fair share of gross SEO-friendly headlines. "Who is this?" "What is that?" Always based on what's trending or racing up Chartbeat. (When I worked at Newsweek, my best performing story was a cheap aggregated article headlined "What is a Millennial?" No, I won't link to it.) As Kois saw in his feed, this tactic, which hollowed out online media, has come for Netflix, with shows like Who Killed Sara? and Why Did You Kill Me?, and bad promo images presenting The Big Lebowski as an action movie (it's not) and Sex/Life as "a certain kind of breezy trash: Skinemax for the 21st century, with just a little bit of character development to help it go down easy," he writes. Kois is willing to give Netflix the benefit of the doubt—“it’s probably a confluence of a few surprise hit titles and a machine-learning algorithm that’s just figuring out this particular flavor of human gullibility”—but, look, it even has a show titled Clickbait about a family man "abducted in a crime with a sinister online twist" and the efforts of friends and family "to uncover who is behind it and why." So. (#ouroboros) However we look at it, though, it’s important to note what’s happening at the streaming media leader. The lesson of 21st century media is that if something gets clicks, others will follow, and even more cynically. And hasn’t clickbait colonized enough of our culture? —Dante A. Ciampaglia