Face Time

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When I was a child, one of my favorite family outings in Chicago was to the Museum of Science and Industry. It had the coolest exhibits: a giant heart that you could walk through, a coal mine, and a real German U-boat you could climb into. But one of my favorite exhibits featured communication technology. It featured sleek new designs for telephones, including touchtone models that were just starting to appear in people’s homes.

In the communications exhibit were futuristic models called “picture phones.” Imagine the fun of dialing a number and seeing your friend across the miles as you spoke with her! Imagine indeed.

Somehow, the fact that this childhood dream of mine has become a reality hasn’t awoken my sense of wonder. My daughter in New York routinely “FaceTimes” me while walking the city streets or lounging in her apartment. I enjoy seeing her lovely face as we talk and try not to dwell on the little aging visage in the corner, the image that she sees.

FaceTime and Skype ostensibly solve one of the issues I have always had with talking on the phone. It’s important to me to see the facial reactions of someone to whom I’m speaking. I can gauge the subtext of their words better face to face. And for loved ones living in far flung places, these face to face calls are a small antidote to homesickness. (Remember calling home from college on Sunday nights when the rates were lowest?)

In my childhood, I imagined a “picture phone” as a giant screen on a wall in your home and wondered whether someone’s face would just suddenly appear there, catching you in your pajamas. My sisters and I would wait patiently in line for our turn to use the new-fangled contraption. We could not have imagined that in a few decades we’d be carrying tiny computers around and have the ability not only to see each other’s faces on the phones but communicate by email and text as well.

Still, even in this world of advanced technology where people would rather text or SnapChat each other than actually speak, there is no substitute for real face time. Coffee with a friend, stories shared around the table at family dinner, late night debriefings with our teens: these are the true opportunities to connect. In a world of endless possibilities for staying in touch, let’s never forget the most elemental of all.

For the Birds

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I have never really understood the purpose of Twitter. Communicate an idea in 140 characters or less. But why?

Sure, I can see the allure of posting pithy sayings that get a lot of likes. I can pat myself on the back for my cleverness, but that sense of self-congratulation doesn’t last. I can also see that Twitter might be a good space in which to vent, to spew out into the Twitterverse one’s anger or discontent.

But to me, the Twitter world creates more harm than good. Look at our current president. He spend hours rage-tweeting and creating angst. What is our Commander in Chief doing ranting through the night and revealing an enraged, bullying, and narcissistic personality to the entire world? And for Trump, the now-280 character limit doesn’t really work. Instead, he posts a diatribe through a series of tweets. If only the Unabomber and Son of Sam had had Twitter!

These days, Twitter wars erupt over all kinds of minutiae. Celebrities get into vicious spats, and we’ve even seen all-out fights over which chicken sandwich is the best. Even more dangerous, world leaders have taken to Twitter and nearly incited real wars. Whether it was Turkey vs. Greece or Israel and Pakistan getting into it, the war of words can come dangerously close to a war with real weapons. And, of course, our fearless leader takes to Twitter routinely to threaten friends and foes alike. His recent tweets threatening to decimate Iranian cultural sites caused an uproar. Sad when the U.S. president has to be scolded for publicly threatening to flout the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Twitter may have been the perfect commercial enterprise for the sound bite generation. But it is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse and general civility. This #NeverTrumper pledges to be a #NeverTweeter. Care to join me?

 

Tik Tok: Time’s Up

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My teenage daughter has found a new way to waste tons of time: the phone app Tik Tok. For the uninitiated, Tik Tok is a platform for posting short videos of yourself usually singing, dancing, or performing in some way. According to my daughter, it’s supposed to be the antidote to the glammed up versions of ourselves we’ve been posting on Instagram. (When I say ourselves, I mean the youngsters!)

On Tik Tok, you see, you can be silly and unpolished. Getting laughs is pretty much the point. Lately, the craze seems to involve posting intricate dance moves and having others compete with their own Tik Tok posts replicating the same dance. The whole thing seems terribly pointless, and the expenditures of time on the site are ridiculously wasteful.

Let’s face it. If you feel the need to post pictures or videos of yourself on social media, you are looking for attention and approval. It matters not whether the image is an airbrushed ideal you are trying to portray or a “Hey, I’m just a regular girl/guy” persona.

My daughter is the youngest of four children, and I am grateful that my three older kids grew up largely before the influence of social media. It has been a struggle to rein in my daughter’s addiction to her screen and insist that she get homework done, rest, and interact with her own family from time to time. I can’t imagine if I had had to deal with crazes such as Tik Tok four times!

I recall the advent of social online presences when my oldest child got AOL Instant Messenger on the computer. She would simultaneously complete her homework and chat with friends. Once my husband and I discovered an “away message” on AIM that included a mild expletive. We grounded her from the computer for a month!

In the good old days, I could also monitor what my kids were listening to music-wise. They were only allowed to download radio versions of songs that removed all the bad language. And although they did have iPods and could ostensibly get around that rule, they largely listened to their music in ways that I could hear.

I don’t envy younger parents. A tech-saturated world is only going to get more advanced. Soon parents will be grappling with teens having virtually reality sex and killing off their enemies in not-so-innocent VR games. I guess I should be happy for the relative innocence of Tik Tok.

Still, I think the clock needs to run out on Tik Tok. I still have to get my daughter through her senior year!

OK Boomer

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The latest expression to make the rounds of popular culture is a dismissive quip younger people aim at their parents and grandparents: “Ok, Boomer.” This snarky bon mot is used to insult the generation that did not grow up with a smartphone growing out of its hand and often finds itself exasperated with the habits of Gens X, Y, and Z.

“Ok, Boomer” is partly a defensive response to criticism. Every older generation criticizes the younger one for their softness, their entitlement, even their style of dress and choice of music. Rather than bother themselves with a reasoned response to such criticisms, young people will simply hurl the disdainful “Ok, Boomer” at their critics.

Sometimes I applaud such a response. For instance, a young woman in the New Zealand legislature cut off a heckler during her speech on the climate crisis with an “Ok, Boomer,” and then resumed her oration without missing a beat. Indeed, when it comes to certain subjects, reasoning or defending just seem to be a waste of time.

Yet I resent being lumped in with climate change deniers, people espousing intolerance toward minorities and gays, or others, many of a certain age, who hold antiquated and mean-spirited views. We Baby Boomers are no more homogenous a group than any other social, ethnic, or religious demographic. Indeed, the Baby Boomer generation can take credit for the Civil Rights and women’s movements, as well as the beginnings of environmental activism in the Sixties and Seventies.

I also dislike it when younger people mock their elders for having a hard time with modern technology. I’d like to see them try to dial a rotary phone or type on a manual typewriter – or read cursive for that matter. As a meme I’ve seen on Facebook puts it, “Never make fun of me for needing help with computer stuff. I taught you how to use a spoon!”

Like many expressions, I’m sure “Ok, Boomer” will wane in popularity eventually. In the meantime, I’d like to assure you young whippersnappers that I’m an OK Boomer, and I’m not going to take any of your guff. As a 1967 self-help book would say, “I’m OK, You’re OK.” Let’s leave it at that.

Dystopian Lit Is Giving Me Nightmares

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I have been reading a lot of fiction lately about a future dystopian United States – from the vampiric world of Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy to Octavia Butler’s nightmare Parables to Margaret Atwood’s scary land of Gilead in The Testaments, a sequel to the acclaimed work The Handmaid’s Tale. And I’ve got to say, I’m feeling more than a little unsettled.

You see, the worlds created by these masterly writers seem all too close to current realities. One of the themes that runs throughout dystopian fiction is that of an Earth ravaged by human excess and the resultant climate change. While many deny the existence of man-made climate change for political reasons, there is little doubt that the Earth is warming and that this warming is already causing sea levels to rise, Arctic and Antarctic ice to melt, and weather-related devastation in the form of high category hurricanes and arid lands being ravaged by wildfires.

Another theme of dystopian fiction is that of totalitarianism taking hold. In Margaret Atwood’s two books about the fictional land of Gilead, an ultra right wing faction has seized the White House, suspended the Constitution, and created a total police state. In Butler’s book The Parable of the Talents, a presidential hopeful promises to restore order to a lawless and broken country through heavy-handed means, including lynchings and burnings. Most ominous to me in reading Butler’s novel is this politician promising to “make America great again,” a slogan we have heard only too often in recent history. Yet Butler wrote The Parable of the Talents in 1998.

That’s what is so scary to me about dystopian fiction. Writers such as Butler and Atwood seem frighteningly prescient in their imaginings of future worlds. In some of Atwood’s other novels, pigs are implanted with human brain tissue, drones are used to spy on citizens, and for-profit prisons make ordinary people’s lives a living nightmare. None of these imagined realities seems out of the realm of plausibility.

In times of fear and stress, people are often willing to suspend their own freedoms in order to be protected. We saw this immediately after 9/11 when the Patriot Act was passed with little political opposition. We now allow agents of the federal government to search our possessions, x-ray our persons, and deny our right to carry particular nonlethal items just in order to board a plane. Technological innovations of the past two decades have also threatened to destroy our privacy in ways reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s classic 1984.

The other day my daughter asked me if I thought it would be possible for the United States to become a totalitarian state. I told her that the Constitution is only a document. It takes the will of the people and their leaders in government to assure that it is enforced. Today we are seeing individuals in the executive and legislative branches of our government refuse to abide by the norms and stipulations of that document. To my mind, it is not that far-fetched to imagine a group like the “Sons of Jacob” in The Testaments overtaking our democracy and turning it into a dictatorship.

Perhaps I should start reading other types of fiction for a while. These dystopian novels are giving me waking nightmares.

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.

 

 

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.