jeudi, novembre 20, 2014

Dumb and dumber: why we have surrendered to the Internet, and what we can do about it

Welcome to USA online.

You can check out any time you like (we might be checked out a lot of the time),but honey, you can never leave.

We are a nation of clickers, tweeters, bloggers, uploaders, video surfers and social media addicts.

What's it done for us lately?

Are we smarter?  Rocking those deeper friendships? Using our time more efficiently?


Retaining information (useful information, that is)?

Or do we, as author Nicholas Carr suggests in his book The Shallows , spend our time skimming the surface instead of digging deep - always on the prowl, never at rest?


Here's  the acid test:  do you find yourself checking your phone during the movies, in the car, at the grocery store, or, God forbid, in church? Weddings? FUNERALS?

Thought so.

The electronic revolution of the past few decades has done us a lot of good. No argument there.

Information we might once have spent hours searching for in some dusty library back alley is now at our fingertips.

High school friends we once hid in janitor's closets to avoid can find us on Facebook and great-aunt Mabel knows what we had for breakfast.

We can work across cultural, linguistic, and sometimes, even political boundaries.

The trove of riches seems endless: access to movies, first-run t.v. series, gardening tools. imported chocolate (a fetish of mine).

But in our virtually bloated world it is becoming increasingly possible that we have surrendered, without even noticing, the traits that make us different from other species - the capacity for reflection, for judgment, and even, perhaps for moral choice.

Because lists are all the thing, I created one for you - a short summary of five ways the virtual world has invaded, and in some cases hijacked our capacity to make wise choices.

Too much distraction.

As I'm writing, a story from my social media network pops up on the right side of my screen.  Five, four, three, two... if I don't click on it, right now, it will be gone. So I hustle on over.

Honestly, two hours later, I can't tell you what I was reading. I think it was about President Obama, and the Republicans - or something. Know what I mean?

How many times a day are you moved to laughter, or tears by a moving picture or story you see online? A seemingly unending parade of tragedies and facts, funny vignettes and passionate rants ceases after a while to inspire.  Eventually, it begins to overwhelm, to paralyze, to create a feeling of cynicism or inertia.

And that's not even to mention the dangerous power of online media in the wrong hands.

Too much access to our precious personal information.

My line of thinking generally goes something like; "I'm not doing anything illegal, so what do I have to worry about if the government, my cell phone provider and my main email link to the outside world know that I'm sitting in a Wegman's with a bottle of Aquazero waiting for my son to finish up his meeting?

But don't take my word for it.

Take that of Washington Post writer Caitlin Dewey:

"According to Google, I am a woman between the ages of 25 and 34 who speaks English as her primary language and has accumulated an unwieldy 74,486 e-mails in her life. I like cooking, dictionaries and Washington, D.C. I own a Mac computer that I last accessed at 10:04 p.m. last night, at which time I had 46 open Chrome tabs. And of the thousands and thousands of YouTube videos I have watched in my lifetime, a truly embarrassing number of them concern (a) funny pets or (b) Taylor Swift."

I doubt Ms. Dewey leads a secret life.

And I truly hope that you don't.  Because if you do, it's very possible that someone knows exactly where you were last night.

That would be Uber, the service you call for a ride and a spy. You pay for the ride. The spying is free.


Too much snark.  I have a great group of Facebook friends (in fact, I never see updates from at least half of them, so I suspect they are off living their lives).  

All of them, as far as a I know (and, as middle-aged woman with a medium to low public profile, I don't have thousands) are kind, polite men, women and teenagers who are a positive influence on others. I hope that's the way they think  of me, too.

Except when we hustle over to the dark side, that is.  Would you have the kind of (excuse me) dumbass argument with a friend over a cup of coffee or a dinner table?


I can't imagine how many friendships have been ruined because someone lifted a curtain on what they were really thinking - and we saw way too much.

Even if you are an innocent bystander to someone else's train wreck, it's hard to scrub away the gore.

Let's not even talk about Twitter: more carnage, less filling.


Too much sharing. 

Promise you.  Before I saw Kim Kardashian's rear end, I never once thought about it.  Now it's everywhere (Ellen, what WERE you thinking?).

And do I really care what Ashton Kutcher thinks about Uber?

 The Daily Beast is betting that I do. 

A lot of what is tweeted and retweeted, shared on FB and downloaded from internet sites of all sorts is fast food for the mind that often leaves bad taste behind.

The real damage occurs when someone shares (we are naturally social people) something sensitive, like childhood sexual abuse or a struggle with addiction - and then finds him or herself the object of online vitriol.

Your heart is precious,   So are your relationships. Think hard before you open them up to comment, because you never know how a pathological stranger might ruin your day - or someone else's life.

Finally: isn't it possible that perhaps there are too many lists, charts, and explainers?

Ten things you really need to know about mowing the grass.  Five key facts about stink bugs.  Relativity theory,  explained in one chart.

In the spirit of full disclosure (only not too full, I don't want you to be horrified): I write listicles. I probably will continue to do so.

People read them.  Readers share them.  The universe of explainer sites has exploded over the past five or so years.

But does this motley assortment of arbitrary ideas plucked from the mind of a geek stuck behind his monitor in Duluth, or even that of a near and dear friend, mirror what's important in real life?

On that, the jury is still very much out.

What can you do to a. reduce temptation and b. reclaim your mind and soul?

 A short, and totally arbitrary list from this geek in southeastern Pennsylvania:

1.  Take a hike.  Really.   Escape from the barrage.  You'll be surprised at how capable you are of original, unmediated thoughts.

2.  Read a book with real pages.

3.  Pick up your phone and call a friend, instead of messaging them.

4.  Exercise your eyes by going to a museum, or the local park.  The world is both bigger and smaller than what we see online.

5. Focus.  Appreciate.

6. Be present to your life.

It's short. It goes by fast. You know this. Why are you sitting here, reading this? Get going. I am.








vendredi, octobre 24, 2014

Whose life is it anyway?

It's time, I thought as I trod up and down on the Stairmaster.  Time to talk to the superintendent, or the headmaster.

But that's crazy, another voice said. Nothing like mass murder by a depressed or an enraged student would ever happen at my son's high school.

I'm pretty sure that the teachers, the administrators, the kids at Marysville-Pilchuck High School never thought that their homecoming prince would stride into the cafeteria, kill a fellow student, wound four other students, and turn the gun on himself.

We don't know where he got the gun.  Given that he was probably not more than 15, he might have taken it out of his father's closet, or known where dad (or mom) kept the key. 

I have neighbors who have guns for target-shooting and hunting.   I suspect that other people in our quiet exurban community have them. But I also know that the percentage of people who own these lethal weapons continues to decline.  

Yet, paradoxically, we live in a country where it has become easier and easier to carry guns in public, to take them into grocery stores and national parks, to buy as many as we can stuff into our closet - to let nine year old girls onto target ranges.

And there are enough people who believe that President Obama (timorous about the gun lobby) and the Democrats (many of whom are huge gun-rights advocates wholly owned by the NRA) want to take their guns away (abject stupidity) so that, massacre after massacre, nothing seems to change.

But it's not just guns. Guns are a symptom of a much larger problem. From video games to movies to the abuse that goes on behind closed doors, we marinate in violence.  In colleges, hazing rituals can kill. .

Some call it freedom.  But is a nine-year old who accidentally kills her instructor on a rifle range free?  Are the students of Marysville free? Is my family free when we have to game the odds that the irate driver behind us or the guy in the movie theater arguing with the usher might have a handgun holstered under his shirt?

Perhaps we need to rethink our definitions of freedom.

I'll tell you one thing.

I'm darned tired of seeing weeping children on a playground, clutching the hands of their parents. The pain in their faces sears my soul, as it perhaps does yours, too. 

Sick of hearing about policemen and sheriff's deputies mowed down by madmen (good men with guns who never had a chance). 

What's perhaps most frightening is what it says about us - sheepish and angry, defiant or ashamed, divided between those who want to be the biggest bully on the block and those who are sick of being bullied.

I don't want our kids to think we have to live like this. 

Or that they might, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, have the terrible misfortune to die that way.