Our Own Worst Enemies

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There has been a recent cry for Facebook to be broken up. The social media giant has too much power, argue critics. Robert Mueller’s report about Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election shows how massive amounts of disinformation were spread to the millions of people who use Facebook.

I’m all for regulating companies whose business practices are predatory and monopolistic, and I can certainly see how the success of such Silicon Valley behemoths as Facebook, Google, and Amazon can pose a threat to free commerce. But one of the reasons Facebook users were so easily swayed by bogus and slanted stories during the election is that they wanted to believe those stories. Many of us live in the echo chambers of our own belief systems. Whether it be from Facebook, TV news, or newspapers, we seek out information that conforms to our worldview and disregard or hold with intense skepticism those stories that contradict our beliefs.

In short, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to digesting information.

I certainly think our national security apparatus should deal more vigorously with avoiding a repeat of Russian or any foreign interference into our next presidential election. That won’t happen, of course, because Russian interference benefited Donald Trump, and he sees no reason it won’t help him again. I think we are past the point where anyone really believes Trump’s motivations are anything but self-serving.

What we can do as Americans is learn to take in information and opinions in a more critical and thoughtful way. Trump’s and Republicans’ complaints notwithstanding, there are still reputable news organizations and journalists working tirelessly to publish factual information about politics, the economy, foreign policy etc. When we hear or read things that sound hard to believe, we need to question those stories. “Pizzagate” comes to mind. There are also numerous nonpartisan fact-checking organizations that can confirm or refute what we are hearing from our leaders.

As a teacher, I used to work on critical thinking skills with my students. They learned about fallacies of logic, how statistics can be manipulated, and how language can affect the message. We need to do a better job in our children’s schooling to raise thoughtful individuals who are willing to question their own assumptions and test the arguments they encounter in the public sphere.

Facebook may indeed have too much power. Fox News might in fact be little more than a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints. But it is up to us, the American people, to take the time and effort to discern what is true and what we should view with skepticism. Only with thoughtful and informed citizens will our democracy be sustained.

 

 

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Our Dangerous Attraction to Ourselves

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An Israeli teenager plunged to his death at Yosemite National Park recently while posing for a photo. He had been trying to recreate a popular pose taken at Telegraph Rock in Rio de Janeiro wherein the subject dangles off the side of the rock. The difference was that Telegraph Rock is much closer to the ground than the site at Nevada Fall where the young man lost his grip and fell. (“Israeli teen who fell to death in Yosemite was posing for photo,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2019)

The impulse to document our lives has never been more widespread than today. We carry little cameras around in our phones and snap anything and everything: our friends, ourselves, our food. It’s not enough just to experience that hike to the top of Nevada Fall. We have to prove we were there. More than that, we have to garner lots of likes by pulling a foolhardy stunt like dangling off of a rock.

Our narcissism is actually killing us. A recent Washington Post headline reads, “More than 250 people worldwide have died taking selfies, study finds.” As the lead author of the study, Agam Bansal, points out,

“Taking a toll on these many numbers just because you want a perfect selfie because you want a lot of likes, shares on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, I don’t think this is worth compromising a life for such a thing.” (WaPo, Oct. 3, 2018)

Indeed.

Recently I had occasion to go through old photo albums, and I enjoyed the memories conjured up by the pictures there. Documenting vacations, holidays, and rites of passage for my children has given me something special to hold onto and recall in the future. But often we overdo the photos and videos of an event and fail to experience it in the here and now. And certainly, no one needs to remember that delightful piece of avocado toast we just had to take a picture of at brunch the other day.

Our modern penchant for selfies may be a sign of insecurity. Look at me, these photos seem to say. Don’t I look fun/athletic/sexy/cool? Maybe it’s normal to want to be seen, and we finally have the technology to make it happen easily. But we need to take stock of this self-centered behavior. Not only is it obnoxious at times, but it just may be the death of us.

 

Remembering Y2K

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I remember as a child doing the math to figure out how old I would be in the year 2000. That millennial milestone was such a far off phenomenon to my young self. But as it loomed closer, people around the world started losing their minds.

The reason for this anxiety stemmed from a so-called Y2K (i.e. Year 2000) bug in the systems of computers that it was thought would cause massive malfunctions when the year 2000 arrived. Back in the 70s when I was calculating what an old lady I would be in the Year 2K, we could scarcely dream of how many essential systems would be impacted by the computer revolution. Computers back then were giant, unwieldy machines held in university labs. My business school friends were always wandering around campus in a haze with computer programming punch cards spilling from their backpacks.

But the acceleration of technological progress meant that by the year 1999, computers were running utilities, telecommunications systems, military weaponry, and all manner of operations that affected day-to-day life. Therefore, when news of the Y2K bug appeared, people started planning for Armageddon. We stocked our basements with water, batteries, and nonperishable foods. Most people I knew made plans to stay close to home with their families rather than go to lavish New Years Eve parties out on the town. The widespread panic gave new meaning to the famous Prince lyrics, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.”

Y2K fears proved to be largely unfounded. Other than minor glitches, most systems sailed through the New Year without a problem. People woke up on New Years Day to the dried up Christmas trees and other remnants of holiday revelry that they had on previous New Years. Life went on.

It’s important to remember in tumultuous times that there were many events in the past which caused people anxiety and worry. In some ways, our country has always been on the brink of conflict or disaster of one kind or another. Our politics have always been fraught. Our young people have always been criticized for not being exactly like us old fogeys  seasoned veterans.

As 2019 approaches, let’s remember Y2K and, as my husband likes to say, “Don’t panic. There will be plenty of time to panic later.”

Happy New Year!

 

Phone Home?

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My son’s iPhone died recently, and it was sort of like losing a limb for him. He emailed us to inform us about it and to let us know he would be going to the Apple store to see if the phone could be saved. My husband asked him to borrow a friend’s phone and give us a call to talk about the options should the phone not be salvageable. The only wrinkle was that our son has no idea what our phone numbers are.

This is one of the casualties of the digital age. No one memorizes other people’s phone numbers. And no one keeps a paper address book so that they can retrieve the number even when their phone is on the fritz. Instead, a dead phone means the total loss of all the contacts stored within it. I pride myself on memorizing numbers easily. Just ask me to rattle off my credit card or drivers license number. But even I struggled when my other son got a new phone number through his work and I tried to memorize it. Since the number was stored in my iPhone contacts, I didn’t really need to dial (antiquated term!) the number. So it took me months and deliberate effort to commit my son’s number to memory.

This difficulty with phone numbers is not the only loss that has come with the digital age.  Our dependence on technology has affected other parts of our lives. Take, for instance, the art of writing. The vast majority of people never put pen to paper, choosing instead to send emails, type essays on the computer, or jot notes electronically in their cell phones. I can foresee a future in which pens and writing implements actually become obsolete. Yet research has shown that people retain information better when they physically write it down on paper. (Just ask any shopper who left her grocery list at home on the counter!)

Our ability to gather information has also become dependent on technology. Without the internet, most people wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do research. We wouldn’t be able to find phone numbers and addresses of local businesses. Some of us would have a hard time getting our shopping done. My cousin went back to college in the not too distant past to get a bachelors degree in a new subject. When called upon to do a research project with a small group, my cousin went old school. She gathered a number of books on the subject, sat her group down, and had them sift through the information in the books to solve the hypothetical problem posed in the assignment. The small group of Millennials were a bit dumbfounded by this method, but most agreed that they got a lot out of searching for information in this way.

Advances in technology are beneficial to productivity and often make life easier for us. I’m grateful for all the ways technology has helped me perform household chores, kept me warm or cool depending upon the season, and made it easier to find what I’m looking for. But just as the use of calculators made people forget how to do basic arithmetic, the use of computers (including those mini ones in our pockets) has caused some of our basic mental and physical skills to atrophy. I think a balance between the old and the new would be a helpful way to get the best of both worlds.

Maybe E.T. could have phoned home more easily if he had just written down the number!

SMH!!!!!

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In one of the opening episodes of the HBO series The Newsroom, a young intern is tasked with sending flowers to a staff member who recently lost a loved one. Her boss confronts her about the message she had included with the flowers: “So sorry for your loss. LOL????”

“I thought it meant ‘Lots of Love,'” the intern explains apologetically. Mind you, one would think a Millennial would be more well versed in the latest slang: textspeak. Since the invention of texting in the 1990s, the popularity of communicating by cellphone text has exploded. In fact, my kids will rarely answer if I call their cellphones. But they will answer right away if I text them. And no, they are not unable to speak because they are in the Situation Room dealing with a crisis in the Middle East.

Along with the convenience of texting came the inevitable abbreviations that make texting quicker – but also more confusing. I’ve had to ask people (mostly my kids) the meaning of such shorthand as “LMK,” “IDK,” and “SMH.” Textspeak has started to feel like a special lingo for the young – with nuances we old fogeys can barely grasp.

For instance, I was unaware that if a person texted me an invitation to do something and I simply responded, “Sure,” that would mean that I was only begrudgingly willing to do so. Similarly, in an attempt to seem cooler than I actually am, I once answered my daughter’s request with a simple “K” for “okay.” Little did I know that just typing “K” implied that I was mad at her. Ditto for using “…” as an ellipsis for one’s thoughts.

Who knew that simple abbreviations and punctuation use (or the lack thereof) could carry such emotional weight in communication? I find myself peppering my texts with hundreds of exclamation points like an overly peppy high school cheerleader passing notes in English class – rather than the sober-minded woman who qualifies for the senior citizen discount at the movie theater.

Emoji use is also fraught with the potential for misunderstandings. Is that a smile or a grimace on that round yellow face? Should I use this winking emoji, or will that come off as flirting? What if I accidentally select the vomiting or poop emoji and send it to a friend?

For millennia, the younger generation has found ways of separating itself from the older one. They develop unique tastes in music and fashion. And they create their own special language to bond with their tribe while remaining opaque to the elders they are leaving in the dust.

The problem is that we Baby Boomers still think of ourselves as the younger generation. We try to stay young with our skinny jeans and skinny lattes. And we will continue to butcher the new language of the young – textspeak – as long as we have the use of our opposable thumbs and our everlasting urge to be:

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Dropping Out of the Digital Age

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I’ve decided to drop out of this century. I realized I am hopelessly out of date today when I completed a survey for my local library. When asked about digital materials and library resources, not only did I have no use for them, I’d never even heard of most of them. No, dear library, I don’t want ebooks or audiobooks or apps on my phone. Just give me an old-fashioned paperbound book and a cup of tea, please.

Then I noticed articles in my newspaper about the gig economy, and I don’t even know what that is. Also, states like Alaska and Vermont are offering to pay people just to move there and work remotely for a company in another state. What is that? Whatever happened to the kind of job where you get up, get dressed, and drive or take the train or bus to an office/school/restaurant/store and work there for 8 hours?

My daughter’s schools and camps now insist that all documents be scanned and uploaded to their websites. No more mailing or even faxing! No wonder my postal carrier looks glum these days. Online classes and bill payments, electronic grade reports, medical MyCharts. Sure, I feel totally secure having all my personal medical information on the web -NOT!

There is some evidence that I’m not alone in my discomfort with runaway technological progress. A recent report indicates that a large majority of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of owning or riding in a driverless vehicle. Ironically, all the titans of tech in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools where use of technology is verboten.

I admit that I like the convenience of ordering online, Googling, and even playing games on my phone in doctors’ waiting rooms. The digital age has even made it possible for me to share these curmudgeonly thoughts with a wide audience.

But I lament all that has been lost as we focus on our phones and other electronic devices. Face to face conversation, cursive handwriting, letter writing – they all seem to be facing obsolescence. Let’s face it. Anyone under 40 is incapable of balancing their checkbook by hand. (My kids don’t even know what balancing a checkbook is.) Call me crazy, but I would rather order my broccoli cheddar soup from the Panera cashier than punch a bunch of buttons on a machine and make my lonely way to a table, where soon, no doubt, a robot will deposit my food.

So I am dropping out of the digital age. You will find me at the library reading real books and writing in my paper journal with a pen. And if you see me, please stop by for a face to face chat. I’m still doing those.

 

No Comment

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I have been avoiding the comment section of Facebook posts lately. Other than wishing my friends a happy birthday or anniversary, or sending a complimentary word about a family photo, I have tried to stay out of the fray of these comment threads – especially political ones.

First of all, I doubt that my arguments with other Face-bookers will change their minds. Whether the subject is Donald Trump, gun violence, sexual harassment or racism, people have their strongly-held beliefs, and I’m just not going to change them. Worse, arguments on Facebook often lead to ill will. Without the social filter of physical proximity to the person with whom we are arguing, we tend to get more strident and offensive.

I’m also trying to eschew online comments because they are bad for my own mental health. Every time I enter the fray of a heated argument on Facebook, my blood pressure starts to rise at some of the responses I get. The only way to calm myself down is to refer to the point above and realize that my righteous indignation will change nothing.

Still, it’s very hard for me to refrain from offering my opinions. I grew up in a very argumentative household where it was almost a badge of honor to shout the loudest and make one’s judgments heard. Yes, family dinners did often give my poor mother a headache.

Also, I like to think of myself as a maven. I fancy myself in possession of lots of knowledge and wisdom, and I just know others would benefit from my sharing it. Well, in the context of Facebook or other social media, not so much.

So I will continue to work on repressing the need to comment on Facebook posts while still being my friends’ online cheerleaders. It won’t be easy, though. I shudder to think what would happen if I got an account on Twitter.