Oct 272013

One of the reasons I don’t own a cell phone is that I know I’d become badly addicted to texting. On a recent episode of Bill Moyers and Company, MIT Professor and developmental psychologist Sherry Turkle talked about “the seduction” of “the sweetness of something new that’s coming to us on our phone . . . the neurochemical hit of instant connection.”

Turkle and Moyers also talked about the recent case of a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide in response to being cyberbullied. When Moyers floated the thought that the poor girl could have simply turned off or put down her phone, Turkle snapped, “No, she couldn’t. . . . the phone had become her lifeline . . . being part of her social world meant keeping on the phone.”

Watching the interview, I related to the “neurochemical hit” but not to the vulnerability Turkle described, until a few days later.

I used to send out little essays, similar to these blog entries (and in some cases identical) as an e-newsletter to friends and associates who subscribed through my business website, marcwordsmith.com. I sent one out last week, and checked the subscription service a day or two later to see how many were actually opened. To my horror, I saw that four old friends—albeit people I have not seen for quite some time—had unsubscribed  from the newsletter.

It sounds absurd, I know, but I was deeply hurt. Even if these particular friendships were not currently active, why would these individuals choose to reject me like this? Was it so awful getting an occasional newsletter from me, were they so turned off by me that they actually had to click the unsubscribe link?

To my great relief, I discovered that this had not been the case, after I explored the information on the subscription service website a bit more thoroughly. Rather, these old friends had been automatically unsubscribed, because emails to them had bounced. It took me the better part of an hour to ascertain this, and it made an absolutely enormous difference in my day.

Even though I haven’t spoken to any of these friends in months, if not years, and even though the “interaction” that I imagined had occurred was completely cyber—and indirect at that—I had been devastated. Maybe I’m overly sensitive. Maybe this signifies that I DEFINITELY should never get a cell phone. But apart from what it may indicate about me specifically, I believe it underscores Sherry Turkle’s point about the awesome emotional power of messaging technology and social media.

A group of Turkle’s students at MIT even admitted that they texted during her classes. Turkle recounted: “Basically, they said, ‘We are not as strong as technology’s pull.’”

I cannot quite imagine the pain of being an adolescent and receiving a continual barrage of putdowns and insults from my peers through the intimate medium of my personal phone, but I get that it would be utterly overwhelming, and I grieve for that girl.  I understand how she could have lost all perspective on what truly mattered and what possibilities her future might hold.

Just another reminder, I guess, to be kind, even on the keypad.

Oct 222013

Big Shadows

 I recently saw the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which chronicles the history of the website Wikileaks; its creator, Julian Assange; and Pfc. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who sent Wikileaks its most famous (infamous?) mother lode of classified national security documents (and digital video footage). In the end, I felt that in this age of massive information generation and ultra-secrecy, Wikileaks is a critical breath of fresh air. Any counterforce to the abuses engendered by secrecy is a light in a terrifying darkness. (Generally speaking.) I was also struck by how troubled were the main protagonists in this drama.

Manning was a small, effeminate man in an ultra-macho fighting force: mistreated, depressed, “isolated as fuck” as he described it to his cyber-correspondent Adrian Lamo (who eventually exposed him).

Assange, brilliance and boldness notwithstanding, apparently had a mild (at least) sociopathic side. He had fathered children by four different women in various places around the world, and was charged with sexual assault by two Swedish women. He eventually turned on his own Wikileaks colleagues and compromised the Wikileaks brand with his erratic personal behavior and wild statements.

I was reminded of an essay I’d read decades ago in a college psychology textbook, which included case studies of three historical figures who were widely considered “great.” Two of them were Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill; I’ve forgotten the third. The point was that all three of these heroes had appalling, even frightening personal character flaws, and that the people closest to them suffered mightily as a consequence. The essay posed the question: could these people have been equally great without their terrible shadow sides, or does the very quality of greatness entail some manifestation of its opposite?

In other words, can extreme talent or magnificence exist in a person without a corresponding set of obnoxious traits?


My Great Country

 This kind of reminds me of America.

My perspective is distorted of course, having spent practically no time whatsoever outside of this country. Yet here’s how I see it.

It’s a great country. A flawed but real democracy. You can tell it’s a great country by the progress we’ve made over the centuries. Barely 200 years ago, the only citizens who truly had any rights were adult white males. Since then, slavery has been abolished, black people have gotten the right to vote, women have gotten the right to vote, unions demanded and got a 40-hour work week, Social Security and Medicare came into being, civil rights legislation was passed . . . and today we have a black president, as well as gay marriage and legal marijuana in some states, with more to come.

We have virtually unfettered access to information. (Yes, I said “virtually.” I don’t know exactly what or how much is kept from us; I’m sure it’s plenty, and I’ll return to that point later. But what we do have access to is absolutely amazing.)

Say what you will about America being essentially a plutocracy, run by the rich for the rich. I concede the large element of truth in this. But we are also undeniably a living, participatory society, where change occurs not just at the caprice of the powerful (much less as the result of revolution). Remember that rallying cry from just two or three years ago from gays and lesbians all over the country: “Evolve already, Mr. President!” And then the president finally gets on TV and says he’s thought it over and now he supports gay marriage, and shortly thereafter, the states are following suit.

Similarly with civil rights and women’s rights, powerful grassroots forces effected fundamental changes in our culture and in our laws. Similarly, pot laws are finally beginning to reflect the “reality on the ground” of marijuana usage in this country, though (perhaps because pot is an emblem of an entrenched culture war from the 1960s) it’s taken somewhat longer than some of us might have predicted in, say, 1970.

But does America too have a dark side?

Ha ha.

The nature of the dark, of course, is that you can’t see it too well. But thanks to the wonderful quality of information availability I alluded to earlier, anyone who cares to pay attention knows that America enjoys its wealth largely at the expense of peoples in other countries who endure chronic poverty, brutal dictatorships, environmental decimation, and worse—all so that our American businesses and economy may grow and prosper, the ultra rich can remain that way, and the rest of us can live in relatively luxury compared to most places on the planet.

Is it possible to separate America the country from America the empire? To love one, yet be revolted by the other? Or is this a self-deception, an unnatural split, forced by a fundamental contradiction in our lives that’s impossible to resolve?

When We Care to Pay Attention

If we do see what “American interests” cost other peoples throughout the world, this prompts the painful question of how to live an appropriate and ethical life in the face of what we know.

There is a devil’s deal we make just by virtue of being American citizens. We implicitly instruct our government: Do what you have to do to preserve our way of life, and don’t tell us any more than we need to know about how you do that.

Wikileaks tells us (and in some cases—with video—actually shows us) more than we need to know, should we care to know it.

Our Obsolete Privacy

According to polls, most Americans think Edward Snowden did a good thing by revealing the sweep of the National Security Administration’s domestic data collection on American citizens. It was interesting how the PR flaks from the national security sector spun the story. It was only “meta data,” they said on TV. Nothing too personal. Just the where and who and when of all your communications, not the what.

To keep you safe, we will cast a net so wide that none of your activities will be sacred or secret from us. Of course, we are not going to look into your bedroom to see what you are doing there, but we will know you are home. We won’t be listening in on your phone calls; we’ll simply always be able to track whom you called and when and where from, and for how long you spoke. We are not interested in the ‘juice’ of your life—merely the container of your life, the context in which it all happens. We need to know all this to keep you safe. As a condition of your existence, due the fact that there are so many extraneous agents who would harm you and disrupt the life you depend on, we must do this. Therefore, your life unfolds under a constant, invisible bubble of security surveillance.

I believe many people are quite comfortable with this, never wondering, What are the costs?

And if we cannot imagine any costs . . . how scary is THAT?

Let me phrase it another way: What is lost by accepting this arrangement?

(Not even to speak of the inherent dangers.)

Living Under a Cloud

 Meanwhile, in the so-called private (ha ha) sector, many of us now park our information—all the data we generate on our computers—in “the cloud,” which we deem more secure than our fallible physical hard drives.

Of course, “the cloud” is physical too, though the metaphor suggests otherwise and it doesn’t feel physical to us experientially, because we don’t actually see the storehouses of cold computers that actually hold all our trillions of bytes of data, the digital records of our lives, maintained inviolate for us and retrievable on demand.

I personally don’t store my data on the cloud. I feel like I’d be losing something if I did. Then again, the cloud probably tracks of all my keystrokes anyway.

Oct 132013

As I was growing up, I hated family vacations, because they forced me to miss critical episodes of my favorite TV shows. To lose the thread of a TV series was, to me, equivalent to losing some vital connection with the pith of life. (And back then, there was no Internet to access back episodes.) From ages 4 to 12, television was at the very center of my life.

Today, I literally cannot recall the last time I loaned my imagination to the fictional world of a TV series, but it’s certainly been more than 40 years. In the 1980s, many of my friends loved shows like Cheers, Thirtysomething, and Hill Street Blues, but I never bothered with them.

I briefly held a corporate job several years ago, and over the lunch table my coworkers would swap opinions about the various characters on Survivor. That conversation reminded me of elementary school.

 Great New Shows

Dan, the dude who runs my local video store (Occidental Video; Occidental, CA), is a terrific guy. I drop in there mainly just to buy chocolate snacks and banter with him. He tells me that all the best writing these days is in TV, not so much in movies anymore. Having worked in the motion picture industry, he has an informed opinion. He thinks I’m missing out, because I’m not following any of the sophisticated, brilliant modern shows. He has a hundred opinions about which ones I’d like. But I feel like I’m getting the best of them just listening to him, and that’s good enough.

It’s not that I haven’t been exposed. About four years ago, my godson had me watch an episode of The Wire. I found it taut and compelling, and I was so interested in the characters that I youtubed clips of the show later, but I was not remotely tempted to go back, watch old episodes, and fill in the blanks of the storyline. My godson’s girlfriend showed me an episode of Sex in the City; I found it trite and goofy much like the sitcoms of my childhood, except that it contained explicit sexual references and people actually uttered words like “penis.”

More recently, I’ve caught snippets at friends’ houses of House of Cards and Breaking Bad, and I even watched one entire episode of Veep and one episode of Arrested Development. And it’s not that I think these are bad shows or that the writing isn’t clever. It’s just that every time I watch, I am reassured that I’m not really missing anything, and that TV is essentially unchanged from when I was a lad.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that is so similar—something about a TV show’s rhythms, momentum, character revelation, prolonged facial expressions, progression to climactic moments, setup of conflict, and so on.

 Abstract Mind Realms

When I was a kid, I lived in a TV land in my head. I even imagined theme music demarcating different “episodes” in my life. TV, to me, was ultra-real, more vivid than the life I lived away from the tube. Now, I could glibly say that after all these years I’m still a recovering addict, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I just have no appetite for TV anymore; it’s more of an effort to watch than to not watch. At some point in my youth, I realized, viscerally, that TV was robbing me of something.

Nowadays, I allow other things to rob me, primarily the news, which I read every day online. Today is October 13, 2013; if our politicians can’t strike a deal, the country may default on its debt in a few days, and this really worries me. I’m all caught up in that story, which I have no power over and—whether it happens or not—has no bearing on what I’m doing with my life today, on my responsibilities to myself and others. I am but a passive witness to this drama and, whether or not it “ends well,” it’s sucking away a portion of my life energy, inhabiting far too much of my psychic real estate. I’m not even sure if it’s an improvement over TV. Probably not.

Like a popular TV show, or a major sports event, the news has the quality of a drama in which few of us participate directly but which we witness communally. The national headlines are a shared societal experience, like Breaking Bad or House of Cards. The news also gives strangers something in common to talk about, a universal reference point, like the Survivor characters of yesteryear. (Is that show still on?)

Many people in my vicinity tune out the news because they feel it distracts them from their own lived life. I can understand that. I won’t argue with that.