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.

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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.

It’s always nice when this happens


You know those days, when you’ve been going full-speed ahead for a week, and then you realize that you’ve got all of the absolutely, positively, critical, non-optional tasks out of the way?

That’s where I am, today. After nearly a week of traveling, then chasing deadlines on Friday, running errands yesterday morning, followed by an effervescent all-afternoon/evening event, and a long drive home after dark, it’s finally sinking in that today requires very little of me.

And that’s perfectly fine.

It gives me time to think. About things that I haven’t been able to think about as deeply as I’d like. You know… work and all. Seriously, researching and writing books that have very little to do (directly) with your day job is a singular experience. Unique. And solitary. Because when you leave it all on the field after every day at work, you’ve gotta find a way to dig deep and come up with the motivation (and the moxy) to create something very different from what dominates your daily life.

Maybe your daytime colleagues are interested in the kinds of ideas that light your fire in off-hours. Maybe they’re not. Maybe people who get paid to work in the field(s) you venture into out of love and all-consuming passion notice you’re there. Maybe they don’t. In any case, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things — it really can’t — because what matters in the end is The Work. And the ways that the Work builds out and shapes your life in ways that no day-job, no official title, and no amount of professional acclaim ever could.

That being said, here I am at the nexus of my passionate interests, lingering road-weariness, and a full day to do with as I please. Sweet.

In a way, the weariness is useful. It keeps me focused. It keeps me from allowing my attention to wander too far afield. I don’t have a lot of bandwidth today, and my free hours are sufficiently precious to me to compel me to make the most of them. Monday is just around the corner. What can I do with myself and my ideas before then?

… hmmm …

Oh, I know! Let’s talk about who’s gonna care about this book, Beloved Distance. I was at a friend’s birthday part, yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned the book to a handful of people there. I never really know if other people are nearly as fascinated as I am about the intersection of science and the-rest-of-life, but it turns out, I was in good company. I had some great conversations with people who are concerned about the ever-widening schism between science and spirituality, and who don’t think there should be one.

Now, when we talk about spirituality, that can cover territory from devout Catholicism to Sufism to cross-quarter ritualizing Paganism. It can even extend to agnostics or atheists who feel a connection to something bigger than themselves that they don’t want to personalize. “Spirituality” has become a very useful catch-all for people to connect with one another on a metaphysical level, without getting dragged into dogma.

Of course, the “spirituality” moniker has its drawbacks — it can become a little too fuzzy, and it can be used to justify some actually harmful practices. Co-opting indigenous ceremonies and marketing them to high-priced clients craving a spiritual experience isn’t just questionable from a “spiritual ethics” point of view. It can also be downright dangerous. In only one example why it’s important to “keep it local”, certain Amazonian hallucinogenic ceremonies have a very practical reason for requiring strict diets before drinking the magic elixir that makes you vomit into that plastic trash can: some ceremonies can actually deplete necessary neurotransmitters, and dietary restrictions help offset the potential harm.

But I digress… of course I digress! I have the afternoon to myself, and I’m gonna write what I danged well please 😉

Let me return to the line of reasoning I started with — namely, who’s interested in Beloved Distance. And why.

The folks at the birthday party hailed from all walks of life. A construction contractor had a great conversation with an acupuncturist. And a freelance photographer and artist who supports herself caring for children spent a while talking to a technologist. A nationally syndicated radio show host chatted with a woman studying to become a wildlife rescuer. And an office manager for multiple programs at a nearby university caught up with a workshop facilitator who’s house-sitting for friends for the month of February. Each one of them had a perspective very different from my own — big distance there. And yet, each shared a desire — a need — a longing — for connection. All of us were keenly aware of our differences, and yet those differences drew us that much closer to one another, as we looked for points of contact, avenues that let us merge in meaningful ways.

See, here’s the thing — our human differences are often dramatic. Our politics, our money situations, our personal lives often stand in pronounced contrast to so many others around us, even our closest friends. We know we’re separate. And yet, that doesn’t stop us from actually finding ways that we can bridge the distance between each other and blend into the middle, creating a separate sort of dynamic that’s greater than the sum of each party.

And knowing that our time to connect was short yesterday, we all made the most of it. We didn’t mince words. We cut to the chase. We asked the questions you don’t normally ask in “polite” company. We answered the questions just as candidly as they were asked. We brought up subjects that we often couldn’t outside our intimate sphere. We settled the occasional argument with a mix of patience and exasperation, but always some element of letting each other just… be.

And in the end, each of us left that evening well-fed in many ways. Yes, we shared food. Yes, we had tea and cider and kombucha and coffee. Yes, we ate birthday cake (well, most of us, anyway) and enjoyed the candy that had flown out of the smashed piñata. And we also got fed in ways that went far beyond the physical. As we split up and went our separate ways into the evening, that sense of fullness traveled with us. Across the miles, hours later, it still lingers.

On the screenshot of my Windows Task Manger above, you can see the spikes where the CPU had plenty to do… then as I closed applications, it calmed down and settled into this even keel:

And so am I, now, as I settle into the rest of my afternoon.

I have time to think, which is the most precious (and limited) commodity of my current life.

May you have such a wonderful Sunday, if you’re reading this on such a day. Or, if it’s some other day, may you also find ways you can reduce the digital/electrical spikes and settle into knowing your own mind as only you can know it.

Peace…

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 neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

I’m in no position to substantiate or refute this, but I will say: Though neuroscience may be irrelevant for some, I find it incredibly useful as another source of information that helps us understand how we’re put together, and how all our parts work in concert. Neuroscience and philosophy comfortable occupy complementary “spaces” in my approach to understanding life.

I’m not much for the schism between body and mind. That strikes me as more useful for folks whose sense of identity hinges on their perceived ability to bend the physical world / experience to their mind’s (apparent) bidding. It’s less useful for me; I’m more interested in their interplay and understanding the unfolding dynamics.

I’m also more interested in seeing how each discipline makes room for and augments the other, rather than establishing how they disqualify each other from participating in our ongoing search for meaning. Why settle for less, when you can actually have (and learn from) both?

Footnotes to Plato

Benjamin Libet, neuroscientist

A few days ago, over at my other blog, I published an article that I touted on my social media as “the last piece on free will you will ever need to read.” That was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The specific point of the post was to explain in some detail the ancient Stoic take on human decision making, what I and modern psychologists prefer to call volition rather than free will (given how loaded with metaphysical nonsense the latter term is). I also wanted to see how the Stoic position squares with the findings of modern science. As it turns out, that ancient view is highly compatible with what contemporary cognitive science says about the matter, but this is neither a miraculous coincidence nor indication that somehow the Stoics managed to anticipate scientific discoveries that would be made more than two millennia later. (Which…

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