So easy to get out of sync, it’s absurd

It's pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings
Image reads: It’s pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings. We can find ourselves out of our personal element at a moment’s notice, just by taking a wrong turn in an unfamiliar locale. Take a left instead of a right, and you can find yourself in a hostile situation, facing off with someone who’s armed and dangerous. You can actually end up dead – whether in the city, the country, or the suburbs. Or you can find your entire way of life displaced by events beyond your control – market  downturns, corporate mergers, even war. Whatever the scope, whatever the scale, the disorientation is intimidating. Destabilizing. Scary. Even in the most stable of unfamiliar circumstances – surrounded by friendly (but unfamiliar) co-workers at a new job – the conditions are less than ideal.

So, the Facebook drama continues.

Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical  about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.

So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.

I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible!  It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.

Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.

Sure, you do.

You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.

Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.

I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.

Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.

It’s all so precarious.

Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?

But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.

So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.

And how absurd that is.

In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.

And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.

Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.

That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.

And yes, it is absurd.

In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.

It’s absurd, really.

It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.

How bizarre.

And yet, here we are.

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Meanwhile, Facebook is trying to become more human

You may have heard that Facebook is changing its algorithm to show less public content in your feed. The goal is to get people to engage more with their feed, using the personal connections you have with real-live people, versus paying advertisers.

About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

And while I’m not actually on Facebook enough to notice a huge shift in my own life, a number of friends have commented on it. One more instance of Facebook just doing its own thing and messing around with the platform — love it or hate it — that a lot of people have come to depend on for keeping connected to their personal networks.

What I find particularly interesting about this move, is that it’s making the digital experience of Facebook more analog. And it’s making it behave more like our own neural networks, which rely on the analog synapses to transmit not only sense information, but also let us do something with/about it.

So, what does that mean? Digital? Analog? What’s that about, and who cares?

Ahem… here’s the high-level view:

Digital signals are binary on/off — they’re either there, or they’re not. And as data about the sensation of stepping on a tack travels — OW! OW! OW! — along your nerves, until it reaches your synaptic cleft, where it suddenly becomes “analog”, or varied. It’s just just about whether pain is there or not. It’s pain the context of the many, many neurotransmitters and synaptic processes which interact with the pain signals traveling along.

Very roughly, it’s like this:

progression of pain signals down nerves

Oh, look… a tack — OW! OW! OW! — and then when the pain signal hits the synaptic cleft, you have a slightly different experience, where more of your body is interacting with that data and doing something with it. Glial cells interact with the neurotransmitters. The little packets of dopamine or serotonin or histamine trigger interactions with other “stuff” in our system, and our experience gets “built out” by all that interaction. We feel things other than “just” the pain. It’s not just about whether our tissues are being damaged by a pointy object; it’s about everything that goes along with that. And after the pain gets to the other side of the cleft, the signal continues on as something that “just is”, rather than being something varied or subject to interpretation.

Until it hits the next synapse, where it goes analog again.

So, very, very roughly, that’s the difference between digital and analog.

And in a very real way, Facebook is trying to become more analog:

digital analog transformation

Shifting people from a digital Pissed Off / Not Pissed Off state, to being more thoughtful, more engaged, having more variation in the “signal” that’s transmitting through the vast network of interconnected Facebook users.

It’s a worthy goal, to get people out of the mindless On/Off state of intense arousal.

The only problem is… opioids. And how social media gets us addicted to them. It’s not just dopamine that Facebook triggers. Also, the opioids our own bodies produce (called “endogenous opioids”).

But more on that later. I’ll just leave this here, for now:

Facebook’s change may not make sense to a lot of people. It may seem cynical, or it might seem like too little, too little. But in fact, with this shift they’re actually more closely emulating the human neurological system, ostensibly in hopes of mitigating the damage from a predominantly digital experience.

We’ll see how that works out.

Brought together from a distance

 

setting eclipse moon near a small mountain
The setting eclipse near Mount Wachusett

One of the amazing things about distance is how it can really bring us together.

Watching the full blood blue super moon eclipse yesterday morning, and then watching rise that same moon rise last evening, I was struck by how that shared experience connected like-minded people — all because of distance.

Yesterday morning, my partner and I watched the moon as it sank in the west, as the upper left-hand side was gradually obscured by the earth’s shadow. We hadn’t realized that the moon would be setting at just same time when the eclipse was at it’s peak and the moon turned red. But as we watched it sink towards the horizon, trees hiding its descent, we realized if we didn’t do something, we were going to miss the full drama of the eclipse.

We were both still in our pajamas, and it wasn’t practical for us both to get dressed and rush out the door, so I slipped on my shoes, grab my coat and hat, and drove off in search of a good vantage point. There’s a high hill near our home where you can get great views of sunsets and moonsets. So I headed in that direction. Careful, careful, down the twisty, windy roads… careful, careful, in the morning commute time.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that in mind, either. The road, which is a secondary route that doesn’t see much traffic even during rush hour, had a line of cars all driving fast in the direction I was headed. It definitely wasn’t in the direction of work, and I suspected that the other drivers were just like me — realizing at the last minute that we couldn’t see the eclipse from our cozy home vantage points… determined to get up to the ridge for one last look at this awesome eclipse.

As we motored up the road, we would slow down a little bit at spots where we could see a glimpse of the moon. All we really wanted was to get one last good look — get maybe a picture or two and really enjoy the historic sight. After all, if something happens just once every 152 years, it’s worth enjoying as best you can.

I didn’t get all the way up to the top of the ridge, but I did find an overlook in a private drive with an unobstructed vantage point. And I wasn’t the only one. Somebody else I had pulled into that spot before me. We were both trespassing (just a little bit) and the other driver had her emergency blinkers on, as if to say, “Yes, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but bear with me for just 10 minutes until the moon sets.”

In my mind’s eye I could see lots of other people out on the road at just that moment, looking for the perfect space space to watch the moon make its final dramatic descent… all of us looking to the same point in the distance, some 225,000 miles away, a common point of focus for hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people all at the same time time.

This is the thing the distance can give us – a shared vantage point that’s far away, which has such a close and intimate association for so many of us. I don’t know anyone who dislikes the moon, and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t enjoy the silvery wash of full moon light on a cold winter’s night.

And come to think of it, the very reason that the moon can shine her light, is because she really is so far away from the sun. Being that far away, the moon isn’t occluded by the earth or other celestial bodies (except on special occasions like yesterday). Being over 200,000 miles away from the earth, and over 93 million miles away from the sun, the moon is far enough away to not get toasted to a crips by the sun’s heat, but it’s close enough to bathe our planet in light at night. It’s far enough away to be seen by billions of people, and close enough to be observed with the naked eye.

And now that the moon is waning (she’s 98.6% waning gibbous), and we settle into the next month of the new year, I wish us all enough distance to get some healthy perspective on life, and enough nearness to let us see our way through.

Endings and Beginnings – On the last Friday in 2017

sparkler throwing off sparksSomething about this time of year strikes me as incongruous. It’s winter. So what? The days are short, the nights are long, and I feel more like hibernating than celebrating the change from one year to the next.

The whole “New Year” thing has always seemed a little contrived to me. Birthdays or anniversaries or other dates people pick out as important always seemed so arbitrary, like inventions people used to add structure and meaning to their lives.

And in fact, they are. But while my growing-up years were filled with skepticism about how important they are/were, I get it now. They matter to other people specifically because they add structure and meaning to their lives. And that’s not a small thing.

Within the context of writing Beloved Distance, the New Year makes even more sense to me, now. Something about thinking about distance, living distance, making peace with it, even making friends with it, has made me more aware of just how important it is for us to have those markers that tell us where we are in the course of our life’s journey.

Time stretches out in all directions, looping back into a past that we may or may not want to remember. It leaps forward, as we anticipate what will or will not be. It’s deep and wide, shallow and narrow. And the temporal distance between where we were and where we’re going needs to be measured.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure”, they say. And as our annual holidays — Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Years — roll on by, we mark yet another turning, another completion of the cycle.

To be honest, I’ve never been much for New Year’s celebrations. My idea of a good time, is going to bed at 10:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and waking up to a quiet New Year’s Day. I like the silence after the flurry of (someone else’s) celebration, when most of the world is sleeping it off. I find it contemplative. I’m also relieved that it’s over. When I’m tired, my hearing becomes acute, so when I stay up till midnight, all the firecrackers, shouting, and general hullabaloo feels like the world is shouting directly into my ears.

But it’s only once a year, so I just put up with it. It’s all over in a matter of minutes, anyway. I can handle just about anything for a few minutes.

Especially when it matters. And welcoming in the New Year does matter. It’s a marker along the way for us — for all of us, regardless of race or creed or class. It’s something we all have in common, after an extended season of disparate faith-based celebrations that sometimes seem at odds. Thanksgiving has evolved from a warm-feeling feast day to a grim reminder that history doesn’t always correlate with our fond (and manufactured) memories. Hanukkah is its own event, eight days of strengthening a sense of belonging to those who celebrate. Winter Solstice slots in there, celebrated by folks who deliberately differ from the mainstream. Then comes Christmas, with the 21st Century inevitability of accusations that non-Christians are trying to dilute the “reason for the season”.

The whole holiday season has turned into one extended practice of subgroups solidifying their ties by both drawing their own ranks closer and accentuating their differences from those outside their particular fold.

But then comes New Year’s. And what a relief it is. It’s a welcome break from the constant schisms, the bickering between “cousins” of faith. The New Year brings us all together. Like the ocean pulling away from the beach, to build into another wave, the tensions of the holidays collect into a soon-to-be-shared communal celebration that signals we can all get back to our lives as part of something bigger than all of us.

So, yes. For all its incongruity, for all its contrived sense, New Year’s is important. It’s a vital marker along the way that places us in the grand continuum, which lets us tie off the last year, put our failures behind us, celebrate our successes, and give us a chance to think about how we can do better.

We might be making it all up — or at least some of it — but it still matters.

Perhaps because we make it up as we go along.

Oh, but we love our distance…

hands reaching out to each otherOkay, I know we’re all supposed to strive for unity. We need to reach out to each other, cross the divides between us. Connect, cooperate, unite.

Especially at this time of year, when the holidays bring us together with friends and family in our annual rituals of connection.

Separation leads to suffering, we’re told. This is our season to overcome it.

We’ve all experienced the pain of separation at some time or another. There’s no denying that it can be excruciating.

At the same time, though… we still love our distance. The separation between us actually draws us closer together. It makes us more keenly aware of how much we need to connect.

Try this:

Like in the image above, hold your hands just an inch or so apart from each other. See how long you can do that, until they’re drawn together. They may seem to have a life of their own, as your palms meet or your fingers intertwine.

Now try this:

Hold your hands, palms facing, an inch apart. Leave them there for a count of 10. Now, slowly draw them apart… feel that? Feel how each hand pulls on the other, almost like there’s an ever-strengthening magnet between them?

That’s the connection we experience from separation. And that connectedness across separation actually animates our entire bodies. The gaps between our neurons — the synaptic clefts — are the sources of neurotransmitters which pass information throughout our systems. And the total distance actually adds up to thousands of miles, when you tally it all up, end-to-end.

That’s a lot of distance.

And we love it.

We have other types of distance in our lives, as well. Whether we’re starting a book that begins with an intriguing premise (and promises an ultimate resolution at the end)… or we’re watching a football game between two teams that are so evenly matched that nobody knows who’s going to win… we’re incorporating distance into our lives. It’s the journey across that distance which intrigues us, pulls us in, and holds us rapt until we reach the “other side” of that gap between what-is and what-will-be.

We love our distance. We’d better… we’re chock full of it.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re involved in a merger…

railroad tracks mergingTwo companies come together, with the intention of becoming one entity.

One got bought, the other paid the tab (or will pay off the investors that made the deal possible).

One is now “owned” by the other, and it’s reasonable to expect they’d — sooner or later — both join together in an undifferentiated whole.

But is that necessarily what should happen?

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that each company has its own distinct culture. Sure, they’ve very similar, but they have been operating separately for years. And no matter how similar they may be, there are some undeniable, subtle differences.

For the sake of unity, what do you do? For the sake of the future of the company, what do you expect to happen? That the two will merge in harmonious accord? That all differences between the two will be ironed out, subsumed in the inevitable blending of corporate cultures, as badge numbers are swapped out and brand logos are altered? That everyone who differs from the new direction will float away in the grand scheme of things, gravitating towards situations that suit them better?

Perhaps. Certainly, all of these things will happen, to some extent.

And yet, there’s more to the story. Because people are involved. And no matter what we may plan, design, or engineer, people will always do what people do — remain separate to some extent… join to some extent… and continue with some modicum of creative tension between the two states of mind and being.

Separation… distance… closeness… alienation… the eternal dance goes on and on.

Such is life.

Why write? Why think? … Why not?

glowing light bulbI’ve always gotten in trouble for thinking the way I do.

Not necessarily for specific thoughts I’ve had, but the manner in which I think.

While some people think / philosophize / study in order to master a subject, establish their expertise, or carve out a corner of the intellectual landscape as their own, I think to explore.

Life is absolutely fascinating, and there’s so much to dig into… connecting the dots… seeing the correspondences… finding out what leads to what and what else is on the horizon.

Frankly, I’m more interested in asking interesting questions — with or without decent answers — than I am in reaching definitive conclusions. And that’s true, all across the board.

It gets me in trouble. It always has. And it’s probably not going to stop, anytime soon.

Some of my most dramatic troubles used to happen with a guy who’s now one of the up-and-coming stars of American philosophy. He’s published a number of books and a bunch of papers, and he was invited as a guest lecturer at a British university not so long ago. He’s apparently a pretty big deal in certain circles, and I’m really happy for him. The last time I saw him was about 10 years ago, and he was amiable — a lot more amiable than I was expecting, actually.

See, he and I used to really go ’round. Our families were connected, and we ended up in each others’ orbits repeatedly. On good days, we had some amazing discussions. We could talk about just about anything, and when we were on the same wavelength, our exchanges were some of the most invigorating I can ever remember having.

On the other hand, if we were out of sync, he had a bad habit of attacking me. He’d get really intellectually aggressive, pressing me on points, not giving me much room to think… even physically attacking me on several occasions.

Of course we were something like 8 or 9 years old, at the time.

Back in the day, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal when we kids scuffled.  I often tussled with other kids — from the neighborhood or my own family. It was just one of those things we did. But the scuffling that happened with my philosophical compadre was… different. It didn’t seem to happen just because he wanted to horse around. It felt more like it was a direct physical attempt to dominate me, to put me in my place, to establish superiority over me, when intellectual attempts fell flat. If my self-created rival (who I always thought of as a friend) couldn’t win his point with words — because he was arguing to win, whereas I was thinking out loud to explore, and there really was nothing to win — he’d use his larger size and heavier weight to overpower me.

Literally.

Supposedly, he nearly killed me, once… according to my mother. She said something about him trapping me in a closed space where I could have smothered? I have a faint recollection of that, but it was really just one in an extended series of attacks from him.

He’s famous, now. He’s got a wife and kids, and he’s all set. I’m happy for him.

I’m also happy I’ve gone my own way. Far from that counter-productive sort of exchange, where there have to be intellectual winners, there have to be losers, and anyone who doesn’t participate isn’t worth the breath of arguing with them.

To be honest, I don’t have much use for that approach. I understand how people can be into it. I understand the draw. I’m just not interested, myself. I’d much rather find a meaty problem and dig into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies, ruminating, marinating, celebrating the intricacies of life on earth. A wide open world where there are no absolutes doesn’t intimidate me. It invigorates me. I figure, I’ll find out in the end… or not. Either way, it’s just how life rolls.

And life should be free to roll. No necessarily in ways that flatten others without regard for their well-being (because that would impact my well-being in turn), but in ways that widen the world and expand our options. In ways that add meaning to life and flesh out our purpose, that shine a little more light into the corners of our experience that often go unnoticed or undervalued. We’re learning so much more about neuroanatomy, so much more about biochemistry, so much more about how our “wiring” works — that electrical / chemical network that helps make us who and what we are.

The whole point of thinking and writing and publishing, for me, is to expand. My mind is pretty open, but it could be even moreso.  My options are pretty extensive, but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what else is out there? My understanding of life is finite and human, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grow in all directions. There’s a whole lot else I’m interested in finding out, and thinking, writing, philosophizing, are just some of the ways I have at my disposal.

So, why not use whatever tools and resources I have available, to see what else is out there?

Why not?