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.

The Beloved Distance of “A Christmas Carol”

christmas tree with synapses in the backgroundI’m at an interesting juncture, these days. Christmas is coming, along with all the attendant seasonal festivities. Hanukkah is over, after today, while the holiday parties, shopping, gift giving, card exchanges, travel, and so forth, are continuing apace. For me, the activity continues till that magical week between Christmas and New Years, when my work shuts down, and I have time to decompress and catch up with myself and finishing off my book.

And in the midst of this all, I can’t help but see all the holiday activities through the lens that writing Beloved Distance has permanently installed in my world view. So much of what’s happening around us — the connecting, the joining, the increased communication and reciprocity — parallels what’s happening deep inside of us.

It’s all unfolding in a delightfully fractal manner. Like those myriad miniature biochemicals released into the gaps between our neurons, we flow into malls and main streets, exchanging money for goods, like so many neurotransmitters docking on their receptors and keeping the flow of information going through our wiring. And just as impulses travel the lengths of our nerves countless times a day, the highways are full of travelers, the vast majority of us (fortunately) getting to our destinations. Some of us don’t make the trip, or we turn back before we get too far down the road. And then there’s the return trip home, mirroring the signals from brain and spinal cord that get us to pull our hand away from the candle flame or get off the Lego piece hidden in the carpet at 11:30 p.m.

There’s constant interplay between our bodies and outward lives. The reduced daylight prompts variations on seasonal affective disorder, which compels us to make up the difference with colorful displays that light up dark neighborhoods. We compensate. Sometimes we overcompensate. But we tend to take over-the-top reactions with good humor, in fine “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” spirit.

“As above, so below,” some of my friends say. And so it is. As within, so without — the same kinds of connecting we do on a microscopic, cellular level are playing out on a macro level. It’s all there, if you know where to look.

This time of year, I think a lot about Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”. Of course, it’s a popular story that’s got enduring appeal. It’s been remade and retold many times over. The version I think of most is the 1969 animation. By modern standards, it’s crude. It’s more cartoon than animation. But it’s the version I love most, since it reminds me of my early childhood when I was enraptured by the story — as well as the medium. Back in the day, we had three (not 300) television stations, and not all of it was fit to watch. So, when something compelling came along, it had my full attention, and in this particular case, I just loved it.

There’s a reason that story has stood the test of time. It explores our most innate and essentially human activities — connecting and contributing during the Holidays. It’s absolutely synaptic. And even more importantly, it warns us emphatically against refusing to participate. Its warnings don’t just apply to our social experience — they also apply to our neurology. And when you look at “A Christmas Carol” through a neuroscientific lens, you can find a whole lot of correlations with our innermost cellular processes — and what can happen when those processes go wrong.

I’ve got to finish up my last morning of work before my holiday time off. But tomorrow I plan to live-tweet to “A Christmas Carol”, calling out the places where it’s all about our Beloved Distance and the good that happens when we turn our separations into connections… as well as the bad that happens when we don’t.

Oh, this should be fun…

But for now, it’s time to get some work done.

What’s the *real* problem with the #NetNeutrality ruling?

steel cable frayed
It feels like everything is coming apart

I just read a fantastic article at The Atlantic – Net Neutrality Was Never Enough (how the internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life). It was a welcome respite of rational thought in the midst of the pitched battles raging to keep the (recent – and assumed good) regulations in place.

I’ve been on the fence, myself, about the issue. And I agree with the author that

In addition to being a public good that ought to be regulated, the internet is also an amplifier of panic, malice, and intemperance. Like it or not, those vices helped get the nation into the political moil it currently faces, from internet policy to immigration to taxation to health care—as well as to the validity of elections themselves.

With great power comes great responsibility, and it feels like we have some catching-up to do, as regards the latter.

In any case, it’s been tough to keep a clear head, when it comes to all the issues. The dire warnings about Terrible Things (with Capital “T”s) that can happen, if the Obama-era Open Internet Order were rolled back, sounded awfully familiar in form, as well as substance. This could open the door to despotism. It could make widespread surveillance that much easier. It could unfairly tax already strapped consumers and innovators. It was not a good thing, and we needed to join the fight to oppose it.

The combative tone was familiar and reminded me of so many other political flares that have been fired into the proverbial fog-filled atmosphere that hasn’t had a chance to clear the smoke from the last set of flares, before the next set get shot into the collective consciousness. Reading the warnings — how they were phrased, what sorts of imagery they used — sparked the same type of visceral sense I’d gotten during the last presidential election cycle. More of the same.

Of course, my sense of impending online doom is tempered by the fact that I was one of the first people I knew who actually embraced the internet before it was taken for granted. I lost count of all the hours I spent online at the local library in 1992, searching and researching and reading everything I could get on-screen on the dumb terminal that was connected to the fat pipe of the local community college. I was the first person in my family to have an email account. And I lobbied enthusiastically for my family members to get their own — especially my parents, so we could stop arguing about who said what, when (we’d have the email thread to confirm).

I can well remember the experience of having a computer that wasn’t hooked up to the internet. And I still get a visceral response to the sound of a 28.8 baud modem chirping and tweeting. I remember the surge of anticipation, followed by uncertain will-I-get-online-this-time? trepidation when the phone connection failed and the modem went silent… and then the satisfying prolonged digital siren song that meant I was connected after a second (sometimes a third) try. When I upgraded to a 33.6, it was a whole new world. And to be honest, I still kind of miss that connecting ritual. I might still have my old 28.8 modem around somewhere.

Those first few minutes of connecting  back in 1995 were a mix of hope and trepidation, because A) I was about to connect to the rest of the world in ways that were never before possible, and B) it was going to cost me. I could easily run up a hefty phone bill, in the course of just goofing around. I’d done it before, by accident. And I didn’t want to do it again. I had to be vigilant. I had to watch my time. In 1995, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to splash into the pockets of my ISP, so I had to make the most of every moment I spent online.

When broadband came along, and I was no longer paying per minute for a connection, everything changed. And I’m not sure it was entirely for the best.

I do know this — while I’ve turned that fascination into a solid career that’s let me provide nicely for my household, I’ve also lost a lot in the process. All those hours I sank into activities which ultimately didn’t produce anything useful or life-improving. All the energy expended on protesting issues which turned out to be bigger than anything I could have influenced. The friends I’ve (re)discovered, then remembered why we drifted apart as the old irreconcilable differences seriously disrupted my peace of mind. And the shift away from spending an afternoon curled up with a book, to sitting hunched over my laptop. Carpal tunnel. Back problems. Headaches. Extra weight that took years to work off. Online life has given, and it has taken away.

Was that a real puppy? I may never know. All I know is that those 10 minutes … 10 hours… however many cumulative days… are gone. And what do I / we have to show for it?

Here’s what: A sense of connection. To the world. To friends, family, and compadres. To ideas, thoughts, and concepts that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. Connecting online has become so easy, so relatively cheap, so ubiquitous, we just take it for granted.

Then along comes the reversal of Net Neutrality. And all hell breaks loose. Or so it seems.

Internet zealots warn of widespread blocking and throttling, not to mention pay-for-play fast lanes

And it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. Heck, that’s how it always used to be. The internet was slow and expensive and sparsely populated. And yet, we survived. What’s so terrible about interrupting our seemingly unassailable access to All The World All The Time?

Here’s what: It’s threatening our livelihood — as in, the thing that most bring us to life: our connections. The very idea of limited access is a dark cloud looming over the ways we’ve become accustomed to interacting with the world. And in a world where More Is Better, that limitation is blasphemy. How dare the ISPs and telcos that keep the floodgates of information open threaten the very lifeblood of our modern life? Indeed, the thought plunges us into  a chasm of uncertainty. When internet connectivity is the one given in our otherwise uncertain lives, threatening that puts us all on edge.

Even people like me who don’t think the way things are now, is the way they should always necessarily be.

Yep, reversing Net Neutrality poses an existential threat of sorts. And that’s bringing out the worst in people, who subsequently rely on their persistent internet connections to vent the full range of their consternation. Not only might this endanger the steady stream of movies and sports and gaming and other entertainment we’ve come to take for granted, but it’s impinging on our very ability to express ourselves wherever we want, however we want, whenever we want. If the new order is (supposedly) going to cost us more to tweet and post and consume, that puts a serious crimp in our 21st Century style.

But this is about more than style. It’s about who we understand ourselves to be, and how we create ourselves in the world. It’s about just how much we’ve come to depend on connection. And yes, true to the prevailing theme of my life, these days, it’s about Distance… Separation… How we understand the gaps between ourselves and others, how we bridge those gaps, as well as how we increase our knowledge about certain topics and reduce the “conceptual distance” which separates the state of not-knowing from knowing.

The crisis about Net Neutrality is, in my opinion, as much about our human need to connect, as it is about the threat of surveillance, control, or throttling innovation. It’s about us retaining our self-determination in the face of a rapidly changing world. And the drama extraordinaire is ample evidence of just how central connection across distance is to our very existence.

If it didn’t matter, we won’t be getting so worked up. But clearly, connection matters — today, more than ever before. How we’ll continue to work with it, remains to be seen.

What’s wrong now? Cycling through the agony and the ecstasy of the daily news.

hands holding smartphone
I should know better than to start my day, checking my phone

Every morning I get up and ride my exercise bike for 20 minutes. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I’d rather be doing something else. It takes a real emergency to keep me from my morning ride. What started out as a way to wake myself up (I’ve never been a morning person, but the working world is unsympathetic to my plight), has become a daily ritual that’s helped me lose 25 pounds over the past 2 years — and keep the weight off.

Sometimes I’ll lift free weights afterwards, but my primary purpose when I get up, is to get on the bike.

That’s really when I do most of my news-reading and social media checking. I don’t have a lot of time, in the course of the day, to keep up with current events. I’ve got a full plate at work, and I keep busy with a variety of other activities that don’t leave me a whole lot of time for Twitter or Facebook or (especially) Pinterest and Instagram and the other outlets for social interaction. So, I read while I ride.

Some days, I really question the wisdom of starting out the day reading the news. I mean, seriously. It feels a little masochistic, considering all the … problems we’ve got going on. War, pestilence, crime, a whole range of sexual infractions, and the endless political battles over really core aspects of our lives, like taxes and insurance and who gets in and out of the country. sigh. (I’m too weary to capitalize that.)

What a way to start the day.

Then again, I’m asking for it. Nobody’s forcing me to keep the news tab open on my browser and refresh it, first thing when I unlock my phone. So, I have only myself to thank for the sinking feeling that accompanies the breathlessness that sets in when I’m having a really good ride.

And every now and then, I get rewarded. If I can manage to scroll past the irritants at the top of my feed, something interesting now and then crosses my path. Something in science or technology. Something that sheds light on the nature of how we’re built, and gets me thinking about what it all means. And on a semi-regular basis, something neurological comes up.

I’ve been fascinated by the brain for years, now. Advances in imagery, along with increased computing power and the increasing availability of research papers online, have opened up the whole subject for me. I’ve participated in a couple of online neurology courses from the University of  Chicago and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (thank you, Coursera), and I’ve picked up a bunch of textbooks and classics from my favorite site of all time — abebooks.com. And over the past 10 years, I’ve become comfortable enough with the concepts and terminology, that I recognize topics of interest to me at first glance.

Here’s something I discovered today:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Microglia: The Brain’s First Responders

By: Staci Bilbo, Ph.D., and Beth Stevens, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: New knowledge about microglia is so fresh that it’s not even in the textbooks yet. Microglia are cells that help guide brain development and serve as its immune system helpers by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and discarding cellular debris. Our authors believe that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development, but also what causes Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease … schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.

Early in the 19th century, the nervous system was believed to be a continuous network— essentially one giant cell with many spidery extensions bundled to form the brain and spinal cord. The discovery that nervous tissue, like any other bodily tissue, is composed of individual cells upended this theory, but the idea of interconnectedness persists.

Indeed, one of the most surprising findings in the neuroscience field in recent years is the degree of the nervous system’s interconnection. We ’ve learned that its cells are intertwined not only with each other but also with those of the immune system, and that the same immune cells that work in the body to repair damaged tissues and defend us from infections are also critical for normal brain development and function. 1,2 Some of these immune cells, called microglia, live permanently interspersed with neurons in the central nervous system and play crucial roles in nerve cell development, brain surveillance, and circuit sculpting.

Read the rest of the article here

This is the kind of news I love to read. Something that shows how much more we’re learning about how our internal systems work. It’s important we learn this, for it reaches beyond our biology and actually affects how we think about — and understand — ourselves in a larger sense.

We leverage our knowledge about our physical systems all the time in our larger lives. We talk about “stretching” ourselves, thinking about extending our abilities and professional capabilities in much the same way that we think about stretching our leg muscles before a run. We talk about “growth”, getting a palpable sense of increase as we draw on our lived experiences about growing up and watching things around us grow. We use physical metaphors all the time to wrap our heads around abstract concepts, and we don’t think twice about it.

That’s just something we do to make sense of our world so we can interact with it, master some parts of it, or at the very least learn a thing or two.

So, it’s pretty exciting for me to read about new discoveries and developments on a microscopic scale. Because even though everything’s playing out on a stage so small you need advanced equipment to see much of it, it’s still  playing out. And all those minuscule interactions are affecting us on an all-encompassing scale — they make up the difference in mass with sheer quantity, just as successful crowdfunding initiatives collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from a flood of relatively small contributions.

For me, seeing new research (which is so new it’s not in any textbooks) about how microglia interact with and support the nerve cells of the body… doing things nobody thought they could (or would) do… gives me a palpable sense of potential that’s absolutely massive. Those glial cells may be tiny, but the implications of their activities has real impact. And as our understanding about the literal jobs they do continues to deepen, we create new metaphors that parallel that knowledge — and widen how we think about the rest of our world as a result.

Scientists now realize that certain kinds of cells they’ve been discounting / dismissing for years actually serve a vital purpose that lets other cells function at their best. Where else might that be true in our lives? What else have we been discounting, that actually matters? The shift in our thinking might not be obvious, and it might not be instantaneous, but I’m convinced that it does happen. And it’s such a subtle process, we don’t even realize it’s happening.

I hope you’ll read the rest of the article  and have that same sense of discovery and wonder.

Because our bodies really are amazing.

And so are we.

The daily news notwithstanding.

… and yet, we’re so distant from each other…

woman at festival with crowd in the backgroundAs much as we may want to connect, it seems as though there’s always something keeping us apart.

We feel separate from the group. Or we don’t feel like the group even knows we’re there. We do what we can to find our place, to contribute, to belong… But somehow, we often feel as though we’re doing it all wrong.

Nobody really knows us.

We’re not sure anybody even cares.

And the rest of the world goes on without us… try as we might to keep up.

Sometimes, the harder we try to fit in, the harder it is to find a place that really works for us.

It’s the ultimate irony, really — we’re built to want to connect… we long to connect — and yet, it’s so easy (and often so natural) for us to feel disconnected, cut out, left alone.

Certainly, we all feel this, now and then. Some of us feel it more than others. But it’s something pretty much everybody has in common — and again, how ironic, that the very thing that sets us apart from each other, is one of the things that connects us.

I’ve thought about this a lot, over the past years, piecing together one clue after another, certain things made more sense… and of course, other things made less. And the thing that’s struck me, time and time again, is how we dance this intricate dance between separation and connection… joining and splitting up… merging and dividing… in countless ways in our lives and in the world.

It really is remarkable. And when we really dig into the true nature of our separation, our distance… and the ways that they actually connect us, the more wondrous and wonderful the human condition seems.

Not just seems. It is.