Thumbs-Up, Thumbs-Down

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In the past few weeks I’ve had multiple experiences – first a trickle, then a steady daily stream – that’ve revealed a heartbreakingly common theme of being human. Many Readers are familiar with the thought experiment that shows the Law of Attraction at work:  holding an image in your mind during a normal day (a butterfly, for example) and noticing how many times you see images, or the real thing, from sun-up until sundown. It’s pretty remarkable – if you can maintain playful focus on whatever you decide you want to ‘see’.

The thought experiment I’ve been living recently first started (maybe 3 weeks ago) when a dozen or so of my colleagues were tasked with choosing teams for a project. Anyone could start the process of choosing – it began, and ended via email. But as those who were anxious to pick competent and capable friends began sending out Invites, others were left unchosen.  Memories from grade school athletics:  the unsparingly-cruel team captains selecting the best, or most skilled, players so as to avoid getting stuck with ‘losers’.

If you were in the small group of misfits no captain wanted (as I was, in most sports competitions), the lesson was unmistakable and painfully poignant:  no one wants you. In my colleague-teaming situation, this played out (via groupmail) in a very public way:  who was invited to join, and who was left asking to join. Yes, we’re all adults and this is Life, but still; it didn’t feel good. After all, we all want and need to be well-regarded; to be chosen; to be Liked.

In the 26 August “New Yorker” magazine, there’s an article titled “Trouble in Paradise” by Andrew Marantz. The piece focuses on the Tech industry’s efforts to confront its ‘demons’, in terms of its perceived (and fact-based) lack of ethics. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple and several others are being called-out for tactics that are now collectively referred to as “Human Downgrading:  …a reduction of human capacity…and human sensitivities” (p. 63).

There’s a ton of ‘psychology’, as it turns out, behind what these platforms do, and how they do it, in their quest for more and more presence in our lives. Turns out (many Readers might already know this), for example, an individual (not a Think Tank) came up with the idea of the ‘Like’ button. The button’s designed to gather data about our preferences, but also feeds our dopamine-hungry bodies in the same way that video games do:  by zapping our receptors with alternating challenges, rewards, defeats and punishments.

But what happens when we put ourselves ‘out there’, in the arena of social scrutiny, and we are not chosen? Or, we don’t get the number of ‘Likes’ we want and think we deserve? Studies are now showing that we grow panicky and anxious, sad and even despondent. Combatting the Awful Truth of the phrase “If It’s Not Insta, It Didn’t Happen”, Instagram in Canada has removed the ‘Like’ button entirely from its application, knowing full well what this means to the company’s bottom-line.

So after my “teambuilding” (a deliberate oxymoron, here) experience, I continued to encounter friends and family members who were feeling invisible, neglected, unloved and even shamed in their experiences and relationships. I’m not trying to imply that all of these outcomes are the result of being “on” Social Media, or, Under the Influence of Social Media, but the New Yorker article presents pretty compelling evidence of a connection. The Tech Giants (the humans running this industry) themselves seem to be in growing realization that much of their money-making relies on promoting and maintaining human emotions such as apprehension, uncertainty, insecurity and a sense of inclusion or exclusion.

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Who are these people Liking and Following us, and why does this even matter so much? What might Likes and Follows be a substitute for? I note the symbolism of a simple ‘button’, like Roman Emperors of ancient times:  “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as to whether or not a gladiator’s life should be spared. Wait – did you think that ‘Thumbs-Up’ was invented by Tech? (smiley emoji)

Ride at Your Own Risk

I gave up experimenting with Dating Sites a really long time ago. As in years ago. Turns out, the Interweb isn’t quite done with me in that regard. I used to take it somewhat seriously, scrolling through pages of pictures and profiles – especially after hearing about Real Life Success Stories within my own circle of single, divorced or widowed female friends.

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But my own experience brought me  a lot of really lonely, sad men (as in clinically depressed); really angry men; really young men who had clear mommy issues; and men who seemed to be shopping for a woman exactly like they would a piece of furniture. None of this truly important stuff gets revealed in a person’s Profile – intentionally. I get it. But, seriously? The Truth is going to come out during the first meeting, so…why go through coffee, or drinks and dinner and strained conversation that has to end with an awkward handshake? No thank you.

Even though I’m no longer on any of these sites, the Internet Jackals have found, and have been circling me, regardless. I’m thinking that there must be an algorithm for my gender and age, education and marital status, so that what little is actually there in cyberspace flags me as “prey”. If the men now reaching out to me (via Twitter, lately) weren’t so immediately obvious in their gushing compliments in limited English (I’m referring to two apparently Eastern European “Engineers”, living and working on “oil rigs out in the Baltic” that latched on to me about two weeks apart), I might be more amused, than irritated.  

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But the typical inference that I must be vulnerable to, and desperate for over-the-top seduction ( really bad poetry, in some cases) makes me want to respond back with expletives. I want to take some kind of action to defend and protect myself from these Internet Lotharios (bottom line, wanting cash, I’m sure). Whatever that might be. I’m still spit-balling ideas at the moment, since I’m expanding (not shrinking) my Interweb Presence.

One of the last “social-networking” sites I visited really had me feeling hopeful. Its purpose was to connect people actively engaged in what used to be called New Age pursuits:  what we might refer to today as Conscious , or Mindful Living.  Unfortunately, this was and still is one of those sites – Readers might know of others – that, even though you delete your account, actually keeps your information in a vault somewhere in cyberspace. Every now and then unsuspecting former members might receive the message:  “Hello! Look Who Likes You!”

OG Romantic Icon, Olivier as Heathcliff

And so it was, (yesterday) that a completely fabricated ‘person’ was delivered to my Inbox. This time, the “Engineer” (how is this career a ‘thing’ now??) lived less than 20 miles from me (supposedly), instead of on a rig in the Baltic. I decided to read his ‘message’…which was an Ode to my picture (still visible, apparently) and profile (how the hell was he still seeing something I’d deleted ?). He ended his Ode by asking me to text him (a New York number, 2,500 miles away from where I live) so that we’d have a “private and intimate way of getting to know each other”.  Of course:  ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ – the stuff of romance novels.

Curiosity got the better of me. I’ll admit:   I wanted to know if this guy was a “Dimitri’ or an ‘Alek’, so I asked him to share his real name. As though my question had cast a magic spell, complete with fairy dust, the man, the profile, and the internet presence was gone in mere seconds. Feeling satisfied that I’d outed yet another scam, I decided that “Ma” (a pretty bizarre nickname, right?) was actually an AI bot. His photo was too ‘Perfect Man’:  like the enemy-android (in his chiseled-face human form) from the Terminator I film.

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The point of all of this thinking about fake Internet Lotharios and their motives is not to alarm myself or any Reader. It’s just a reminder of how complex the Interweb experience can be. Some people enjoy a good game of ‘cat and mouse’:  they expect such weirdness and deception  and resolve to have fun with it.(I’m thinking about all of the people on YouTube who’ve taken the time to record and then call back ‘fake’ debt-collectors in the hope of ‘besting’ them.) It’s one thing when you go seeking It – whatever that edgy Cyber Thrill is. But it’s another feeling entirely when It comes prowling for you, disguised as a human being.

Time for me to Level Up, once again:  revisit my Privacy settings and bolster my sense of humor. Aside from all of the really good things it can be, cyberspace is also an amusement park “ride” that’s not for the faint at heart. As the signs always say, Ride at Your Own Risk.

Knowing the Difference

I’ve learned to practice — more and more as I relax into it — Gratitude, as part of my daily ritual:  thinking about and offering it – even for minor ‘pluses’ in a given day. Sometimes, in periods of off-the-charts stress, finding something to be happy about and grateful for – even something small – brings relief. It might be, that after a night of restless sleep worrying about an important choice I need to make, the neighbor across the street chooses to carpool, instead of firing up his Monster Truck at 4 a.m. (rattling my windows and catapulting me out of bed). Yes. Thank You.

One of the most amazing aspects of growing older and wiser (there are so many, really, but this one is Big) is the way that Perspective becomes one of the easiest life-skills to appreciate. The kind of Perspective I’m referring to here can only be gained (earned, actually), through time and experience on the planet. The highs and lows — celebrations and tragedies, successes and failures — allow me to understand what’s truly important, and what’s either a distraction, or totally meaningless in my experience.

By the time that penicillin was discovered in 1928, my grandmother had lost 6 of her siblings to bacterial infections that could have easily been treated with this medication. From her mid-30’s on, she had a belief in doctors and medicine that went far beyond rational. While pregnant with her first child, a doctor told her she was anemic. She agreed to be given oral doses of a liquid that made all of her teeth fall out and caused, so she later learned, her first daughter to be stillborn.

I’m definitely grateful for living in a time of so much advanced scientific information, technology and innovation in general. But lately I’ve also been thinking, adjusting my perspective, about how many innovations are a tricky balance of benefit and detriment.

A lot is being said (and studied) about the ways in which personal technology is impacting our lives. When Television came on the scene (our family’s first was a black and white model – hard to imagine, now), it was quickly decried as The Idiot Box, and The Boob Tube. The end of Reading; the end of Conversation; meals eaten on “tv trays” instead of at a table; and networks subtly shaping our buying and spending habits through advertising.

It’s an escalating addiction, Technology. The more I incorporate it into my life, the more my life seems to demand the latest versions of ‘whatever’;  so that Having is way better than Not Having. I get the big picture; I see the inevitable way that innovations will continue to improve our lives, but also make us more dependent on them (and less so, on one another).  I’m not exactly embracing it unilaterally (the way that my grandmother did the wisdom of the medical field); but I’m not rejecting it either. It’s an uneasy communion, for sure.

I’m at the age now where I can appreciate Knowing the Difference. Life before television; before the Internet, computers, smart phones, smart speakers and smart homes; virtual experiences that  might feel preferable to reality. We’re all transitioning – along with the technology of our time – and I am right there with those anticipating The Next Upgrade.

So, this  isn’t a dystopian rant. It’s an expression of extreme gratitude for Knowing the Difference, in the experiencing of Life. What it was before, and what it is now. “It’s all good,” we tell ourselves. Actually, it’s going to be exactly what we choose to make it:  Choice being the operative word. I’m feeling thankful, to have the ‘age’ and experience to know what the choices actually are, and how profoundly meaningful they will be.

“Talkin’Bout My Generation…”

(Channeling The Who to begin this Post…) Here’s my question for today:  Other than for sociologic discussions, why do we need to isolate, characterize and compare Generations of human beings? It seems to me that we’re already in our ‘corners’ on all kinds of topics, ready to advance with fists up, to argue, fight and defend. Or, we’re ready to cower meekly when others shove us into one-size-fits-all boxes.Why is it that birth generations have become fodder for even more discord? I mean, do we need more?

The Greatest Generation (aka, The Silent Generation). Baby Boom-ers. Generation X, Y and Z (how insulting that Mainstream Minds have so far been unable to create more flattering ‘tags’ for those born after 1965). What purpose do these labels serve? How can they possibly be representative of all people born into certain timespans?

Yesterday I read an editorial by a prolific journalist, commentator and author who writes for the New York Times. His piece was titled, “Will Gen Z Save the World?” Fact: you’ll get no argument from me that our Earth and the people on it need saving. But the implication of the editorial was that everyone else prior to Gen Z has already screwed-up or given up. So now the survival of our planet and its inhabitants rests on the shoulders of those born after 1995. No Pressure, right?

Not to say that 24 or 25 year olds aren’t up to the task; but, what does this say about everyone not in this group? Are they, like the Roman emperor Nero, just blindly playing their fiddles while Rome burns? I don’t know about you, but I’m more aligned with the character Howard Beale, in the movie “Network”. His famous rallying cry  “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” is still hailed as a pivotal moment (righteous tirade) in U.S. film (and social) culture evolution. (Especially appropriate, here in the States, right now.)

According to a nationwide Pew survey conducted in 2018 (as noted in the editorial I’m referring to), thousands of American citizens were asked what, if anything, brought meaning to their lives. An overwhelming number of respondents (of all ages, btw) reported feeling besieged by depression, drug and alcohol dependency; a bit fuzzy about meaning and purpose; and struggling with a nationwide moral-compass spinning cartoonishly, out of control.Once again, you’ll hear no disagreement from me about the confusion and chaos, despair and divisiveness coating our hearts and minds like toxic sludge. But – how far back do we go, to arrive at the beginning of how this current situation evolved?

Looking at the way we put people into buckets, we tend to start with The Silent Generation:  stoic, penny-pinching Depression-era survivors who, incidentally, also heroically joined with allies to defeat Hitler. They came home from World War II and celebrated by creating a tsunami of babies:  These Baby Boom-ers were raised in households focused on Exsitential Lessons. Finding some kind of work (e.g., mowing lawns) just to have pocket money was a motivator starting at around age 10. The drive continued, to college or trade schools; making money and busting all kinds of materialistic moves in the world. Their actions may seem a little selfish in hindsight, but such were the expectations.The common belief now seems to be that this group has done little beyond consuming too much and trashing the earth. To add insult to injury, Boom-ers are also showing remarkable longevity.

Pros and cons are debated and on-view ( books, articles and on the Internet) about Boom-ers and subsequent generations, with finger-pointing and labeling in all directions. But the truth is, each generation is unique in the challenges it faces, growing up and then entering the world. No single group of people can or should take all of the blame for our society’s dysfunctions;  nor should “X, Y, or Z” be assumed to be the only groups in possession of the morality, sensibility, intelligence and motivation needed to get-moving on fixes (as the writer of the editorial directly claims the Z-ers are).

Most people feel anxious when confronted with significant, or unwelcome Change. This is especially true now, with so many high-stakes topics to deal with globally, and all at once. But for each generation of human beings so far, there’ve always been challenges to navigate. It seems to me, that humanity has much more to concern itself with in the Now than calling-out past or current generations.

Our world is more complicated and dangerous than it ever has been. This we know. What are the Forces at work, causing us to focus so intently on our differences, rather than on our commonalities? Not one of us can go back and re-write the time or circumstances of our birth. We just have to “Deal”: whatever it takes. Spoken like a True Boom-er, I know; but it’s a lesson I learned from The Silent Generation, and feel it’s pretty much worth passing-on.

My Take on the “Fear of Missing Out”

If I wasn’t on social media just a little bit, I’m sure I’d have no idea of what “FOMO” is. Having said that, the “Fear of Missing Out” is actually a topic of study that’s slowly been extending beyond the impact that social media has on our well-being. According to fairly current (2018) psychological research conducted among a large sample of first-year college students, conflicting feelings about ‘what I want to do’ vs. ‘what I have to do’, are clearly issues for younger people. In my profession, I’m taking all of this in with great interest.

The findings of the 2018 study (you can find it in “Psychology Today” archives) were what you might imagine:  college students felt ambivalence and boredom in their studies, and fantasized about the more exciting lives they heard, saw, and read about. This is where social media comes in, creating or adding-to a sense of dissatisfaction and ‘The Grass Sure Looks Greener Over There’ mentality. But the weird part of the study results was this:  the sample group overwhelmingly reported feeling symptoms of “FOMO” (anxiety, being a ‘biggie’)  even during activities that were extremely pleasurable. “This is great – but, should it be even better?”

Digging deeper into this mental and emotional phenomenon (which scientists consider very real, potentially damaging, and more common in Western culture), theories about ‘loss-aversion’ and ‘hyper-competitiveness’ as drivers behind the Fear of Missing Out make it a much more relevant area of study. Consequences of FOMO just might be more destructive than we thought. The good news, according to research that’s been gathering momentum since around 2015, is that FOMO dissipates as people grow older. As time goes by, life becomes much fuller, and mental space is prime real estate. The Fear of Missing Out evolves into The Fear of Mental Overload.

In my own progress from child to adult, I never experienced FOMO. This wasn’t because there wasn’t social media ‘back in the day’, but because of the atmosphere in my household. I tend to believe that the way we’re raising our children has much to do with how we approach balance in our lives:  the Have to Do’s, versus the Want to Do’s. As a little kid, if I so much as looked bored or uttered what sounded like discontent, I’d be sent outside to pull weeds. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time finding ways to entertain myself, if my neighborhood pals weren’t around.

When I graduated from high school at age 17, I found a part time job at the community college where I’d just enrolled. I moved out of my parents’ home (they threw a fit, but I was almost 18) and found a studio apartment close to the college. Between my job and my classes, ‘adult’ life had kicked-in one hundred percent. Moving into adulthood was like crossing a very wide, fast- moving creek (I’m a back-packer, so this ‘visual’ works for me). I looked for rocks to step on; careful of the mossy ones (always dangerously slick); planting my steps carefully; focusing on my feet and continuously moving (standing still makes balance harder). I actually “fell” quite a few times over the years: twisted ankles, skinned knees and soggy boots. But I believe that the ‘struggle’ was key:  I never really had time to Fear. I was either focused on the small steps I needed to take, and in the process of taking them, or, in an exhausted heap after a hard day. Self-reliance and independence are crucial pieces of the ‘becoming an adult’ puzzle, but they’re also the ballast – the weight – the “gravitas” that allows us to retain our identity and individuality as we grow older and even wiser.

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