Selling, signaling intentionality

Several days ago I wrote about the importance of living intentionally; the need for intentionality in thought and action. Responding to a piece by Tim Wu in the NYT, I cautioned against dispensing with convenience as a blanket reaction to a lack of meaning or thoughtfulness about life. I submitted that instead, technological conveniences are tools for specific ends, and to consider what your ends are, and engage the appropriate tools accordingly.

Technology is often a bogeyman or scapegoat when social critics need something to blame for perceived undesirable changes in both local and global changes in social behavior and health. Most recently our relatively overnight connection to smartphones and tablets and attendant applications (“apps”) has garnered much of the negative attention over recent years. Other criticism extends to potential deleterious effects on our mental abilities, as we offload various skills and memory requirements to our phones. In an interview with economist Tyler Cowen, economist Robin Hanson responds to this criticism with some optimistic skepticism, essentially appealing to opportunity cost:

The trend that I’m aware of is that when we have tools to help us do something, like remember phone numbers, we get worse at that thing because we offload the task onto the tool. Then, we get better at other things. We put more investment into other things. So plausibly, in whatever category we get better tools, we will simply reallocate our mental resources to other tasks that we don’t have tools for.

Hanson has recently written a book called Elephant in the Brain, which discusses findings regarding the human tendency towards signaling behaviors, particularly in richer societies, where we are in varying degrees freed from the need of long hours simply sustaining a bare existence. Signaling, roughly speaking, is behavior which has the purpose of providing information to others, above and beyond any other ends we may be pursuing through the behavior. From the book description:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior.

Full disclosure, I have not yet read the book (but I do intend to). However, I am maybe temperamentally(?) oriented to be amenable to this understanding of human behavior. I’ve previously argued with various people against the general existence of altruism, and after reading this book, I may revisit these beliefs and their implications in a future blog post. However, at this current time I want to tie the concept of signaling back into what may turn into an ongoing discussion about living intentionally, especially as it relates to our relationship with technology.

Apoora Tadepalli writes for Real Life Magazine on the ironic online phenomenon surrounding the “analog” life organization tool of bullet journeling, noting that a significant part of bullet journaling, ostensibly an intentionally offline activity, is in practice heavily wrapped up in social media presence.

A bullet journal on


The bullet journal was devised and patented by a Ryder Carroll, who has capitalized on, as Tadepalli describes it “a general anxiety about unplugging from digital devices as a mode of self-care”, and has attempted to position bullet journaling as the pivotal activity in living intentionally.

At the end of this year, Carroll will be releasing a lifestyle guide on journaling and self-care aimed at “empowering you to think and live with intentionality.” (He has also given a TEDx talk on “How to Lead an Intentional Life.”) The book, he says in an Instagram caption, would be incomplete without a compilation of all the Bullet Journal success stories out there, so he requests that followers send in their own accounts of bullet journaling and how it changed their lives. Bullet journaling, like self-care and like self-presentation to audiences online in general, is all about intentionality: what you intend to do, how you intend to be seen, how to be (or at least seem to be) more thoughtful in how you direct focus. But are these intentions being engulfed by their aura, by the tales we want them to tell? “Bullet Journal is no longer just my story,” Carroll declares in his post, “it’s ours.”

I have no issue with bullet journaling itself. I see it as another technology or system, just like old Franklin Covey Planners or Google Calendar. If someone finds that it works for them in helping them set goals and see them through, then that’s a positive. Furthermore, I would argue that there’s an accountability aspect that can be accessed through social media, and we know that accountability increases goal attainment success. Those good things aside, at what point does the signaling aspect overtake the ends and activities being signaled? To what degree are people likely, mostly, signaling. Hanson?

In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.

Of course, one might want to discriminate between conscious and unconscious signaling, like economist Bryan Caplan does. What percentage would Hanson say are consciously signaling?

Bryan Caplan: When you give that over 90 percent–signaling share, how would that change if you defined signaling narrowly as conscious signaling, as I generally do?

So it only counts as signaling if you actually are doing something that you don’t want to do while, say, pretending that you do, or you are actually doing something where your true motivation is not the stated motivation. What would that do to your signaling share?

HANSON: It would probably drop to 30 percent or less.

An interesting conundrum arises with a population and activity that is heavily engaged purportedly in both intentionality and signaling. As Tadepalli describes it:

 it is hard to say what this kind of journaling habit would look like without this photography. It consists as much of consuming the online community’s images as it does of producing a personal to-do list. Bullet journaling thus raises a question that pertains more generally about how self-documentation for an audience affects the lives we are trying to document. Aesthetic concerns would seem to contribute little to conquering a to-do list, but in the context of social media, they convey a mood that serves a broader sense of accomplishment. Social media sharing foregrounds how in journaling, self-documentation and self-presentation can become inextricably blended.

Tadepalli takes the opportunity to turn her guns on the self-care industry at large, along with an idealogical sideswipe at capitalism:

But even as we use image-making and copying to escape the meanings and purposes imposed on us, the same processes leave us vulnerable to the imposition of new meanings. The self-help industry epitomizes capitalism’s ability to perform this double movement: It tells us to free ourselves even as it says there is something missing in our lives, and that spending money is the best way to fix them both.

The swipe at capitalism is ill-informed, but also bears acknowledging in relation to the larger point being made here. Capitalism has demonstrated itself to be an excellent form of economic organization (or disorganization, thought of in another way) for providing people what they want – and what people want (demonstrated by economic demand) may not be what they think they want or will say that they want. If we believe Hanson and the psychological literature, people frequently are not introspective about what is driving their behavior as well as distressed about their behavior and outcomes from said behavior. Subsequently, people may demand what appears helpful but is not helpful in actuality, in addition to consciously or unconsciously needing to be seen to demand these things. Enter bullet journaling +Instagram, etc. Hanson addresses this, although not directly:

People do things to appear like they’re trying to help, but because their audience hardly knows what actually helps, they don’t pay much attention to doing things that actually help. They just do something that looks like it would be a reaction to someone who felt like they wanted to help.

The more that people knew what actually helped or not, then the more that would pressure people who were trying to help to show that they have this feeling to do stuff that really helped, which would be great.

Signaling itself isn’t necessarily bad, in fact Hanson notes elsewhere in the interview it more or less is an is, and expecting the broad population to not engage in signaling, even unconsciously, is probably unrealistic in our current world. Ultimately, it seems to me, the problem with a phenomenon like bullet journaling is the same problem underlying social movements: Our built in desire for sociability and the inherent demand for signaling involved with socializing is at least potentially in opposition to living intentionally – and most people may not actually understand what it means to live intentionally anyway. Thinking and living intentionally, especially early on is hard, and isn’t amenable to Instagram or 140 280 characters. However, like with anything else, the more you engage with your life intentionally, the easier it gets. Hanson:

I think if you’re eager for these big innovative changes in how you look at things, I think there’s a peak, somewhere in the middle, perhaps. There’s two contrary effects.

One is that the more you know, the more you can learn. The more you know about many different fields, the more intersections you could make, the more easier it is to read each new textbook, the easier it is to understand each new thing they’re presenting. And so there is a scale and scope economy of knowing more over life.

People will often claim (maybe signaling!) they love innovation. Enter pictures of innovative things on Pinterest or Instagram. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with those things in themselves. It’s a matter of process. If you want to live intentionally, social media and spending your money should be somewhat if not far downstream in your process of life change, not the first step. Those selling an ability to signal, and especially those waiting to sell your signaling, will still be waiting when you finally need a bullet journal.

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