Conversation — is there an app for that?

Smartphone usage is changing our face-to-face conversations–even when the phones are hidden:

[Her impatience] is characteristic of what the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis called the “app generation,” which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.

I’ve always thought that it was the act of programming computers that made tech geeks (like myself) talk like robots. Turns out the cause may simply be using them.

Theses of Technology

Some surprisingly good theses of technology by Alan Jacobs. He’s really not a fan of Kevin Kelly. A few of my favorites:

  • To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  • Mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
  • The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • [Kevin] Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
  • The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
  • What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test” [the Turing Test]—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
  • The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
  • Embrace the now intolerable.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
  • To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
  • The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.

The impact of the future

I recently read an article bemoaning the recent spate of dystopian and utopian movies; arguing that by visualizing dire fictional situations and how those characters get out of them, we dull our responses to the real-world dangers all around us. Rather than learning helpful attitudes and strategies, we learn to be spectators.

At least that’s what I think it said, because I couldn’t find the article again when looking for it. I did find several other interesting pieces referencing this topic, however, that are worth noting.

Todd Mitchell writes that “post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial“–specifically, the denial of deep-seated problems in our society, environment, and selves. He views it as a starting point for action:

In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society.

Noah Berlatsky uses Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (on my nightstand now) to argue that dystopias, to the utopian protagonists, are not “not a nightmare of the future, but a nightmare that there is a future at all—and a past, and a series of exciting events connecting the two. To be in history is to be in a dystopic narrative illusion.” To those who imagine a better world, a dynamic system is terrible–far better to get to a perfect place and never change a thing.

Claire Evans writes that what we need isn’t more far-future utopias or dystopias–rather, we need “something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality.”

But purely apocalyptic stories don’t help us reckon with reality’s slower, but equally devastating, emergencies – forests that vanish acre by acre, sea levels that rise a few millimeters each year, demand for consumer goods that gradually leech the planet’s resources…

The point is to show them not just how the story ends but how we might get through the middle – while we still have a shot at changing it.

In response to the newest installments of Star Trek and Mad Max, Brogan Morris writes that dystopias and utopias face different challenges in impacting society. Utopias can give us a free pass to sit back and let problems inevitably solve themselves:

Glorious utopian visions like Star Trek’s, though, all too often fail to address contemporary issues. Such optimism tends to ignore problems by implying the future is rosy regardless of our actions today…

Interstellar’s conclusion is troublingly cheerful, though: when an advanced, spacetime-manipulating future race comes to the rescue at the eleventh hour, humanity is saved. A sideswiping twist, to be sure, but one based in impossible pseudo-science, offering hope that’s totally out of our reach. It suggests our survival as a species is inevitable, if only we sit back and wait for something other than ourselves to save us.

While dystopias can leave us too depressed to act:

In Fury Road, what’s left of the human race continues to wage war and wring the Earth dry of fossil fuels, even though the planet is already a desert as a consequence of man’s actions (and simultaneous inaction)…its subtext couldn’t be more serious: we either divest and disarm, or lose the world to more chaos, more hardship, more despair.

The best approach seems to be providing hope without a free pass; challenge without despair; a thread of possibility leading out of the darkness:

It’s difficult to measure the impact of dystopian fiction on film. We know 1983’s speculative nuclear holocaust drama The Day After so depressed Ronald Reagan that it convinced him to rethink his ideas on nuclear proliferation…Such concrete examples of dystopian cinema having a direct meaningful influence, however, are rare. The best dystopian films instead tend to contribute to ongoing discussions or create indelible images of our fears of tomorrow.

In Stuart Candy’s 2010 thesis The Futures of Everyday Life, he notes that there isn’t yet a great framework for measuring the impact of futures work (especially the experiential kind he practices):

To discuss such seemingly disparate configurations in terms of their experiential features and impact enables a perspective which has X-ray glasses with respect to conventional boundaries of discipline, medium and setting; boundaries that hide their fundamental comparability…

A valuable next step in the research agenda suggested by this would be to design and implement more systematic evaluations, such as ethnographic observation or post-intervention questionnaires of participants across different conditions.

Futurist pioneer Fred Polak noted in The Image of the Future that in order to imagine a different world, we must mentally separate ourselves into the real and “The Other”:

Man is only able to conceive of the existence of The Other, the something which is basically different from the here and now, because his mental structure has a dividing property built into it. … It is the capacity for mental division which enables man to be a citizen of two worlds, this world and an imagined world.

Does imagining the “other” living in a different world cause us to draw closer to it, or to give up our hope of reaching that place? The key seems to be connecting our real selves to that imagined place, perhaps through experiences of the type Candy designs.

The Kony 2012 phenomenon gives new insight into these issues. As Dinaw Mengestu writes, Joseph Kony turned out to be more than “a click away”:

The most common defense of Kony 2012 is that it raises awareness. This is the new activist model – to raise awareness through the power of our celebrities…[But] no one denies that Kony should be brought to justice. Millions of Americans may not have known that before, but millions of Africans have, and thousands of people have been working valiantly for years to do just that.

Change has never come with a click, or a tweet; lives are not saved by bracelets. We all want solutions, but why should we think or expect an easy one exists for a twenty-year-old conflict in Uganda when we have none for the wars we’re engaged in now…

If we care, then we should care enough to say that we need to know more, that we don’t have an easy answer, but that we’re going to stay and work until we find one. You can’t put that on a t-shirt or a poster. You can’t tweet that, but you can live by it.

At the end of the day, there is change that you feel, and change that you live. We need to find ways to create more of the latter.

Research and believability in design

I always believe in research. No matter what the subject matter is. You cannot do enough research, because so much believability will come out of what’s really there.

Logic and the brain

Buzzfeed asked 12 scientists “What is the one fact humanity needs to know” if civilization was destroyed. Lots of good answers, but my favorite was from psychologist Dean Burnett:

People aren’t logical or rational by default, and it’s vitally important to remember this when trying to impart knowledge and guidance. Having some useful knowledge like atomic theory or the nature of gravity isn’t going to be much use if enough people don’t want to believe it.

I had an MRI done recently (purely for entertainment, through Klarismo), and it’s humbling to see that for all its capabilities and seemingly logical behavior, the brain is mostly wrinkled fat and water with electricity pumping through it. It’s a miracle that we can make sense of anything at all.

Burnett’s quote is a good reminder that if we want to make real advancements in society, improved technology (which has its own agenda) is not enough–we’ll need to deal with our monkey minds first.

All possible worlds

“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” – Voltaire, Candide

Carbs, fat, and politics

After years of pushing low-fat and high-carbohydrate diets, the federal health agencies have finally flipped their recommendations:

Following an Institute of Medicine report, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines quietly began to reverse the government’s campaign against dietary fat, increasing the upper limit to 35 percent — and also, for the first time, recommending a lower limit of 20 percent…the scientists on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for the first time in 35 years have sent recommendations to the government without any upper limit on total fat.

The guidelines themselves take a strong stance on sugars and refined carbohydrates as well:

Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence.

And it looks like those egg council creeps finally got to the scientists too:

Available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.

I switched to a vegetarian protein- and fat-heavy diet with lots of raw vegetables, oils, eggs, yogurt and nuts this year and I’ve lost significant weight and felt amazing. It’s fascinating to see the tides change as scientists finally have the tools and data to run big studies on nutrition:

Confirming many other observations, large randomized trials in 2006 and 2013 showed that a low-fat diet had no significant benefits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer risks, while a high-fat, Mediterranean-style diet rich in nuts or extra-virgin olive oil — exceeding 40 percent of calories in total fat — significantly reduced cardiovascular disease, diabetes and long-term weight gain.

But all of this threatens a huge packaged-food industry that thrives on shelf-stable grain products, and the political deck is stacked against change. Hopefully the evolving scientific consensus will bolster efforts like the ones led by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to move our eating back toward freshness, sustainability, and health.

Capitalism as cancer

It’s been extremely successful; then again, it has to be:

A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting social ecologist Murray Bookchin

How my 2-year-old son taught me to focus

I didn’t expect that having a toddler would improve my focus. After all, aren’t they supposed to be chaos embodied, a frenzy of activity, spraying attention in all directions? And certainly they take time and energy to raise, teach, and protect.

Yet toddlers also haven’t yet learned the cognitive mistake of trying to juggle more than one thing at once. Sure, my son plays with 20 different toys in 20 minutes. But he does so one at a time, first playing with a train, then putting it down and playing with a car, then putting that down to play with a different train. For him, attention moves smoothly between objects, without attachment and with total focus each time. While he is playing with a train, he has no thoughts or plans about the car right next to it. When he picks up the car, all thoughts of the train disappear.

He expects this of others, as well. My wife and I have been intentional about how we use technology around him, but sometimes the infinite abyss of a smartphone tempts me away for just a moment. My son has no tolerance for this split attention, and quickly corrects me: “Dada, will you put that down! Come sit right here!”

I’ve been working through the Focus series in my daily meditation this month. One of the key concepts introduced is that focus is not a static experience, but a dynamic one; moving from object to object, sensation to sensation. What matters most is not absolute sterility, but a robust and flexible flow that can adapt to changing circumstances.

What my 2-year-old son taught me about focus is that while the object of your focus might change, the quality and intensity shouldn’t. It is possible to focus completely on one thing at a time, and be completely present in each moment. It’s so easy, in fact, that a toddler can do it. What’s my excuse?

Fossil fuels, our starter engine

The fossil fuel deposits of our Spaceship Earth correspond to our automobile’s storage battery which must be conserved to turn over our main engine’s self-starter. Thereafter, our “main engine,” the life regenerating processes, must operate exclusively on our vast daily energy income from the powers of wind, tide, water, and the direct Sun radiation energy. – Buckminster Fuller

I reference this idea often but had forgotten the source. Buckminster Fuller, of course.