Our everyday contingent on obscure factors

…we’ve invited technical standards bodies, national- and supranational-level regulators, and shadowy hackers into the innermost precincts of our lives. As a result, our ability to perform the everyday competently is now contingent on the widest range of obscure factors—things we’d simply never needed to worry about before, from the properties of the electromagnetic spectrum and our moment-to-moment ability to connect to the network to the stability of the software we’re using and the current state of corporate alignments.

A Sociology of the Smartphone on Longreads

Liking leads unto despair

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By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg) [Public domain or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-new-more-rigorous-study-confirms-the-more-you-use-facebook-the-worse-you-feel

Everything Isn’t Always OK

connection-to-the-world

I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.

 

The Cluetrain anti-Manifesto: People are Corporations

I have no idea who recommended The Cluetrain Manifesto, but it ended up on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and it arrived in my local library a few days ago. I honestly thought it was a fiction book from the title, something along the lines of The Monkey Wrench Gang, perhaps.

Turns out The Cluetrain Manifesto is a breathless paean to the Internet circa 2001, about how the internet will revolutionize business (though the version I’m reading has been updated with some sobered hedging by the authors ten years later).

The primary thesis of the authors is that markets are at heart conversations, and that businesses will either enable the freewheeling conversations empowered by the Net, or fight a losing battle for control.

I don’t want to wave away the advances that the internet has engendered, as I think it’s too easy to downplay, especially for you young whippersnappers who don’t even recall rotary phones. It really has been transformative. But from the vantage point of 2016, we can also see that the breathless prognosticating of the original Cluetrain hasn’t quite panned out. We’re seeing the once wide open, seemingly endless forests of internet anarchy, Grateful Dead-and-Phish-tape-trading freedom turn into gated communities as glossy, ad riven, and manipulative as the corporate fiefdoms of old.

So what went wrong? Why aren’t we living in an unmitigated bliss of genuine, heartfelt connection to one another across digital divides?

While markets have indeed become more about peer to peer sharing, people themselves have become more like corporations. 

Ever heard the term “personal brand”? That’s right – as individuals, we now carefully cultivate and craft our online personas, targeting our messaging, delivering elevator pitches to our friends, and twisting our faces and extending our arms to capture selfies at perfectly calibrated angles.

Successful businesses today support our social posturing, while gathering our data, as defined by every click, post, and geospatial movement. Successful online personas, such as Kim Kardashian, harness the hall of mirrors to their advantage.

In this manner, we market ourselves while allowing ourselves to be marketed. The damning thing about all of this is that the internet of yore – that wild, ecstatic beast – is still right here around us but we gild ourselves into gated, controlled, glossy realms like moths to bulb. 

Why? Because that’s where all the cool kids are.

Outside of the Cluetrain, I’ve been grappling with this lately in terms of my use of Facebook. I deeply appreciate how the platform enables me to interact and relate to others. I’m not always the most personable person in everyday life, and Facebook helps me to communicate different aspects of myself with people I wouldn’t otherwise.

But it’s also a gated community designed to keep me posting and clicking so it can stay in business.

This is the Faustian bargain we make. And if I assume some kind of radical stance on Facebook and delete my account or just stop using it (both of which I’m considering), well, I’ve also then got to justify why I am still actively using Google services, or Twitter, or Instagram, or …

… Or even why I am so tethered to a smartphone in the first place. Do I really need to be notified the minute I get an email? Do I really need GPS instead of a map? 

Are the things I’m actually spending my time on each day adding meaning to my existence?

Would I do more of the things I really want to do if I didn’t have addictive attachments to social media? Would my relationships with people around me be more positive?

I don’t know. But I do remember the internet of the early 90s, back when I would spend summer nights chatting to random strangers on IRC. And yes, even then, we vied for social status with any nerdy signifier we could lay claim to, whether it was our handle, our ASCII graphic skills, our quick wit with a keyboard, or our creative use of asides. Even without the like buttons and the notifications, we found ways to develop and curate our online personas.

The difference is that nobody was really watching, outside of the Cheers-like regulars we came to know at our regular watering holes.

There was a freedom to it, and a loneliness.

Do I still have the wherewithal for that kind of thing? I’m not sure.

But surely in a day and age in which wildernesses both virtual and real are ever diminishing, it’s worth escaping from the everyday mall of mirrors–even if only for a blog post B&B–and exploring.

Thoughts at the End of a Rough Day at the End of a Rough Week

Down In It
Had a bad day and couldn’t fully breathe due to the tension, so I went for a walk after work–still dressed in my formal attire–out into the park near my apartment, passing by the inevitable gaggle of teenage boys standing huddled together in the trees near the entryway, going up the stairs and passing the stray couple dry humping on a rock and smoking pot, and finally immersed myself deep in the park with no one else around. Interesting how few people, other than the scattered runners and dog walkers and bird watchers, are really willing to walk deep up into it. Not that I’m complaining. I sat up at the top overlooking the Hudson River and a thought came to me that finally calmed me and let me breathe again. I was thinking about the sort of paradox that the further away we can pull our vision from humanity–such as by looking down at the planet from outer space or simply walking solitary out into nature, out into the woods, up on top of a mountain–the more interconnected we recognize ourselves with others; whereas the more densely we embed ourselves in human culture, such as in megalopolises or in nightlife or what have you, the more disconnected and isolated we can often feel from other people.

Maybe this was the thought that finally centered me and prompted me to return home because it articulated my sense of loneliness in the midst of my life in this here giant city while reminding me of the bigger picture. It allowed me to cast aside the self-importance that lies at the other side of stress and remind myself of the beautiful insignificance of being a part of something much greater than myself.

Planet Earth

Dialogue: Love, Faith, & Humility

This is the section from Pedogogy of the Oppressed that really made me begin listening to what Freire was saying and step beyond his language of “revolution” and recognize it as fundamental insight into the very heart of effective pedagogy.

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed–even in part–the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. . .

Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection. . .

If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity. . . .

Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. . . Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and the dialogue itself. . . . Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation. . . If I do not love the world–if I do not love life–if I do not love people–I cannot enter into dialogue.

On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility. . . Men and women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Someone who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.

Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). . .

Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence. . . False love, false humility, and feeble faith in others cannot create trust. Trust is contigent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true, concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed