Friday, March 17, 2017

Why I stopped checking my Facebook notifications

Ever had a neighbour or an acquaintance who is a gossiper and likes to cause tension and conflict among people? I am sure all of us can find one of those people around us. They usually come disguised as a friend. They approach you as if they are trying to help you by telling you what someone somewhere said about you behind your back. They are presenting themselves as your allay, your guardian angel.

But, this, of course, is just an illusion. What they really want is conflict and restlessness. They feed off other people's fears and insecurities. Whenever I think of them, I think of this song by Susan and Terry Jacks.

But, what does Facebook have to do with your evil gossiping neighbor? In my view, a lot. Facebook notifications are like that psychopath manipulative neighbour gossiper who follows you around with: "Hey, those people who you talked to a few days ago, they said something about you behind your back. Do you want me to tell you what they said?"

Even if you don't want to know what someone said about you, it requires mental effort to make the decision not to read what they said. And then, if you read, it requires mental effort to decide not to respond. Imagine making tens of such efforts in a day. That can become quite tiring. Most of us don't actually make that effort, but we check each and every notification. We read all the responses to our comments. We check each reaction to our comments in other discussions. We are made aware of every snarky remark or insult someone made about us. This too can be tiring and damaging.This is why I stopped checking my notifications. It has been about a month now since I last clicked that little globe in the top corner of my Facebook ribbon, and it feels great.

This might sound a bit extreme. Why would you avoid all notifications? Some might be benign or even nice or encouraging. This is true, and while you might for a brief moment enjoy seeing that positive feedback, if it is really important to those people who want to give you this feedback that you actually receive it, they can contact you directly in your inbox or on your wall. You don't need your gossiper neighbour to tell you that someone said something nice about you in your absence. This applies to negative feedback as well. If someone really feels strongly about some comment you left in a discussion last week, they can always contact you directly.

Avoiding Facebook notifications can act as a filter, a screening tool. Having to contact someone directly is usually more costly in terms of time and effort. Thus, only those who think the benefits of contacting you directly outweigh the costs will contact you. This way, you will increase the likelihood of talking to people who actually think they will benefit from talking to you in a serious and committed manner. You will also reduce the likelihood of having to deal with trolls or people who don't think through their claims before they post.

A decision to not check notifications does not mean that you will never respond to other people's comments in some discussion. It simply means that this discussion needs to be important enough to you and that you know on whose wall you can find it again, so you can go back and check the discussion. This way, you are filtering out those discussions, topics, and people who are not important to you and you are focusing on the important ones.

Thus, not checking Facebook notifications can serve as a filtering tool in two directions. First, it would tend to put you in contact with people who sincerely care about you and your views. On the other hand, it would put you in contact with people for whom you have a deeper respect and who you take seriously. Some golden rules of communication from the real world still apply in the digital world, and this is one of them--you don't have to throw a stone at every dog that barks at you. In fact, you don't even need to be aware of the barking most of the time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why everyone should know some economics

This is my welcome letter for my first year Econ 101 students in which I explain why everyone should know some economics.

I did my undergraduate studies, MSc, and PhD at the University of Guelph. I have been teaching at Waterloo since 2015, and I am also a researcher at the University of Guelph.

For many of you, this is the first time you are studying economics in a systematic way, and the most important question at the back of your mind is probably this: “Why am I doing this?” There are many reasons why you might be taking this course, and for some of you the desire to understand economic phenomena may not be the main motivational factor. This is perfectly fine. But, when one decides to dedicate most of his life to studying economics, one usually does this because of the desire to learn. I would like to share how I became interested in economics.

Sometime in the early 1990s, I lived in the former Yugoslavia, a country torn by war and extreme economic hardships. This was also the time of one of the worst episodes of hyperinflation in human history. I remember the days when my parents would get their paycheques from their employer. People would run to the store to spend their paycheque quickly, before the prices of everything doubled the same day. If you waited for more then one day, all you could buy for your monthly salary was maybe a kilo of sugar.

I, a high schooler at the time, was quite puzzled by this situation, especially because I saw a rapid decline in people’s well-being. I wanted to know why all this mess was happening. When I turned on the TV, our politicians were repeating that they needed to keep printing more money to help the citizens keep up with the rapidly rising prices. Many of you already see that there is something fishy in this story. I did too at the time, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the logical inconsistency in this story. There was nothing in my high school curriculum that could help me either. I loved chemistry, physics, and math but none of those disciplines could explain inflation or why people are living so miserably in my country. I also liked art, history, sociology, and geography, but I found no explanation for our economic hardships there ether.

Only after I started studying economics, I realized its tremendous power to explain why some societies are poor while others are prosperous. I also learned that our Yugoslavian politicians in the 1990s were lying to us. It is not the rise in prices that prompted the politicians to print more money. The causality run in the opposite direction. It was the politicians’ desire to fund the failing government programs that prompted them to print more money. Once the market was flooded with new money, consumers started competing over the dwindling stock of products, which caused a surge in the prices of everything.

This is only one social issue which can be vastly clarified using the economic way of thinking. For many of you, this will be the only economics course that you will ever take. But, in your future you will be deciding on important economic matters. For example, some future politician may tell you that introducing trade restrictions will be good for Canadian economy, and he or she may ask for your support in introducing laws that restrict trade. If I can teach you how to use the economic way of thinking to determine whether this, and many other proposed economic policies, will bring the promised consequences, I consider my mission accomplished.