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Blaming The Messenger

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Human beings do stupid things; in fact we’re kinda known for it. We are impulsive, petty and opportunistic. (We are also all kinds of wonderful things but those aren’t what get us in trouble.) We make bad choices particularly in our youth. It’s why parents and sealed criminal records were invented. We tend to get better at staying out of trouble and accruing regrets as we age. But if we are doing any kind of living, mistakes will be made.

Recently there’s been some chatter about jerry-rigging the repercussions of our bad choices. This post-behavior regulating centers on the internet. You know, the internet, that thing that apparently not only has changed how we communicate and access information but has changed the very core of human behavior. Not. Nothing about human behavior has changed. The fact that bad decisions can now live forever and be accessed by all has changed. But people have not just discovered; lying, bullying or taking nude photos. Having a naked image of oneself has always been tricky (there’s a reason that prostitutes were often hired by painters.) Since the invention of photography a woman’s (it’s almost always a woman) life could be upended in later years by the discovery of racy photos. Many an aspiring actress has had to survive having early “modeling” photos published upon her newfound fame. The internet didn’t invent disseminating naked pictures. Nor did it create the motive to do so.

The internet did also not invent bullying, or the incentive to do so. It is tempting to say otherwise as reports of bullying have grown as internet usage has. Causation and correlation are very different. Sales of ice cream increase at the same time that sex crimes increase. Eating ice cream does not cause an increase in sex crimes, but both behaviors do happen in warmer weather. The internet has grown in popularity as our lives have become much more external. Our children’s first photos now happen in utero (or pee stick.) Those photos are shared with the world. Our children now “graduate” kindergarten and those photos are shared with the world. They are taught from the very beginning that life occurs with an audience in place. Every action, or inaction is captured in still or moving image. Life is a performance and therefore far more external than it once was. It is challenging to develop a strong sense of self (and hence esteem) when so little is done independently or internally. It can happen, but it is difficult. A shaky sense of self is a breeding ground for bullying. Strong, confident people do not bully. Children with parents who are in control, strong, authoritative and present, know there’ll be repercussions for their nasty behavior. The reported rise in children committing suicide as a result of bullying is sobering. Children with a strong sense of self will be miserable when bullied. But children with an internal life will turn off the computer (as instructed by a parent) and refuse to look at the nastiness. A child with a sense of self will find other outlets and activities outside of the bullying sphere. Do adults have to pay closer attention? Absolutely, but it’s not the internet that’s causing this behavior.

It’s not the internet that causes people to make false claims about products or services. Fake reviews have existed since there’s been something to review. (“The Epic of Gilgamesh is a must read!!!!!”) Even legitimate reviews are manipulated to sell. Open any old-fashioned print newspaper and you’ll see adverts with blurbs unrecognizable to the reviewer. It’s always been a buyer beware world. Unless a review is authored by a trusted source, it’s safe to assume it’s not all that reliable. Do we really need laws to try and regulate fake reviews on the internet? If it was even possible to regulate false claims (and it’s not) why focus on the internet? There are people promising me instant weight loss, better skin, teeth and hair every minute on television. My newspaper is filled with press releases posing as articles, blatantly selling products, people or places. When did being discerning become something we can regulate?

The internet and social media have changed the speed and range of our communication. Globally we have access to information and entertainment previously unimagined. It’s a little bit archive, a splash of Town Square, a news ticker and an entertainment center. Many people simply have no frame of reference for something so expansive and it is tempting to anthropomorphize technology. It’s a fool’s errand to regulate human behavior on the internet. Technology is ever changing and people will find ways around any awkward measure to regulate. Teaching our children (and reminding ourselves) that nude photos can be embarrassing, bullying is a pitiful behavior of the weak, and liars usually get caught would serve us better.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Flowerless STEM

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STEM is such an oft-used acronym that people outside of the education industry no longer think of flowers and plants when hearing it. The origin of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis is a response to the United States’ position in the international market. In 2006 President G.W. Bush initiated policies to increase federal funding to support STEM education and output as a response to concerns that the U.S. was falling behind. That same year the Unites Sates National Academies (comprised of; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council) issued a plan to federal policy makers to address their concerns regarding the declining state of U.S. STEM education. When the President and national academies directly involved with very lucrative industry call for action, attention is usually paid.

Not many people would argue with improved education and higher standards in any subject. But when an initiative seems reactionary and the response narrow in focus, there is concern. Determining that there is an industry, in which the U.S. is not leading the way let alone keeping up, is relatively unprecedented. It is no wonder that we’ve reacted so strongly and rapidly. It’s a little disconcerting to start to lose one’s superpowers. But to focus on one area of study is tantamount to remodeling K-12 public education into vocational training. To do this while ignoring what other factors make many other nations superior in their industry and education is shortsighted. There are so many cultural, political and traditional differences in the ways countries conduct their business and education.

There are places in which children attend school six days a week and are in lengthy after school classes well into the evening. (There are countries in which one’s work life is as intense and prescribed as well.) There are countries in which K-12 educators are highly trained and paid and are given professional latitude and respect. But we don’t seem to be selecting much from the international buffet table beyond STEM emphasis; and that is what leads to thoughts of shortsightedness. When the money and policies are focused on one area it is inevitable that other areas will suffer. It is often those areas that are less quantifiable but no less necessary in the modern world. Most often and most likely it is Language Arts, History and the Fine Arts that are left behind. Science, math, engineering and technology are fabulous tools to help to understand how our world works and how to work within it. But being well educated is more than being well trained in one area. Understanding the world around us and knowing how to communicate to that world in which we live, knowing how to write, speak, and process the written word are crucial skills; without them there is no sharing of STEM or any other discoveries.

Without a sense of national and international history we are destined to stumble through the world half-seeing. Without exposure and access to the performing and fine arts what (to paraphrase President Franklin D. Roosevelt) are we even fighting for? The arts reflect the times in which they were created and are vibrant and pulsing history lessons. They also stretch the intellect and help us to see the entire world in more vibrant hues. Education (unlike job training) is meant to open and fill our minds. We need to be taught subjects but also how to critically think for ourselves. Education should be broad, deep and challenging. We should bolster STEM studies, and we should also ramp up all liberal arts studies. There will never be a national consortium of arts organizations with serious economic juice. But it is certainly well within the power of federal policy makers to invest in well-rounded education for all.

We have never been a country striving to make everything the same. We celebrate our diversities. We get a kick out of our different dialects, names for foods, and local customs. We are a 31 flavors kinda people. Do we really want the primary focus of our K-12 system to be in one subject area? Where will the political scientists, playwrights and lawyers come from? How will we get well-rounded novelists, historians and Supreme Court justices? There’s no doubt that our education system is not what it once was. Schools are asked to do way too many things besides educate, teachers are not treated well, and funding is elusive. The answer is not to be found by sticking our fingers in our ears and muttering “la la la STEM.’ We’re better than that, we’re bigger than that and we’re certainly more interesting than that.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Education

 

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Talking About A Revolution

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Flextime, telecommuting and consulting are no longer the new kids on the block. Twenty years or so ago they were exhibits a, b and c in the revolution of the workplace. Flexible time was to address the fact that few people live in social isolation. Telecommuting took advantage of technology and reduced overhead costs. Consulting was (in theory) to offer flexibility to workers and (in actuality) to save companies lots and lots of money. It was assumed, that work is work whether a boss (or colleagues) can see it being done or not. Ah how adorably naive we were.

Coincidence or not what is considered ‘productivity’ in the workplace has changed during the same period that these words became de rigueur. It’s difficult, and perhaps irrelevant to determine which came first, but my money is on the vernacular as the forerunner. Somewhere post Working Girl, Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street office life changed. There was a time (think really big hair) that getting the work done; in relative isolation was the norm. Most industries did not dictate group work, teams, or even presentations. There was little time spent selling oneself internally or making sure one looked as if one was working. The latter really took flight with advances in technology. How grand it is to set one’s alarm or code one’s email to appear to be working at 3:00 AM on a Sunday (during a 3-day weekend!) It would be wonderful if this “look at me, I’m working” approach was not a direct response to flextime, telecommuting and consulting. After all the very raison d’être of exhibits a, b and c is to not be engaging in work as performance art but instead to be producing perhaps invisiblly to the naked eye.

The workplace can be a very paranoid place indeed. There’s something about a shared microwave that breeds immaturity and pettiness as well. (Seriously people don’t ordinarily go around stealing each other’s food and leaving fuzzy congealed cartons in the refrigerator. But in the workplace we’re all 15 again.) It is (almost) natural to pit oneself against others and when others aren’t visible things get complicated and messy. Of course it doesn’t have to be this way.

Good leadership can create an environment of collaboration and support. A leader who understands how flexible work schedules and home offices can be beneficial will make it work. An organization that rewards productivity, stewardship and penalizes wastes of time, money and people will create more harmony among workers. But to do any of these things demands very skilled leaders. Perhaps there are people born with an innate sense of organizational behavior and social psychology, but I’ve yet to meet them. Being the best widget designer, or bond trader or scientist does not prepare one for being a great supervisor. It might seem a minor point, the cultivation of good bosses, but an awful lot hinges upon it.

As the ‘look at me I’m working’ approach becomes more popular, productivity is not necessarily increasing. Technology and real life lend themselves to working remotely, yet workers are often penalized (overtly or subtly) for availing themselves of the options. Neither of these workplace revolutions supports our economy or employment. Having people work more, do less and burn out quicker is not sustainable. Marginalizing talent who avail themselves of company policies is shortsighted. Much is said about preparing young people for the workplace. Enough cannot be said about preparing workers for leadership positions.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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The Kids Are Alright

 

Wailing about kids today is a wholesome and robust tradition. Contrast and comparison is also a very effective way to understand one’s own self. “Parent Orientation!; my father slowed the car down when we got to campus!” when spoken out loud might expand one’s understanding of one’s own self-reliance. About two generations now have been grumbling and pontificating about the self-absorbed populace planted and sowed after 1980. Those in the earliest crop are now parenting themselves. Many born before 1980 or raised outside of the family-friendly entertainment industry/my child is an honor student/kindergarten graduation influence, find themselves wondering what will become of all these kids when they reach adulthood and discover there is no audience? Don’t worry; it’s not gonna happen.

No one grows up and enters their elder’s world anymore. In the 21st century our industry is ideas (via technology.) We are not building cities, roads and bridges. We are not harvesting national resources and building empires. Most of our cultural institutions and landmark buildings are just that; institutions and landmarks. There are not many young men and women going into the business of their parents’. Even if the ‘business’ goes by the same name, it probably looks quite different day-to-day. If dad went into his dad’s profession of banking, the work wouldn’t have varied that much. Sure dad would now be working with or for women, and maybe there would be no smoking, but the actual work; money in, profits out, wouldn’t have changed all that much. But by the time junior comes along the business is international and technology is king. Junior and his cohorts have never heard the term “banker’s hours” and if they did would assume it refers to 24/7. There are very few paths left where one could actually follow footsteps. Each generation now machetes their way through.

Nowhere is this more evident than in media and technology. Reality show proliferation doesn’t happen by accident. Dozens of channels specializing in ‘Queen for a Day” programming is calculated. It’s calculated by the television staff whose orientation to the world renders a “Look At Me!” premise totally plausible and laudable. It’s calculated by a television staff who also knows (or projects onto) its audience; “Who doesn’t want to be the center of attention?” And social media is not the result of a whole lot of leftover parts. Slowly but surely developers discovered that there was an insatiable appetite to ‘be seen.’ Certainly social media sites such as Facebook are a wonderful tool for connecting and reconnecting with friends. But it’s also an easy way to create a familiar and familial sense of importance. Status updates are filled with information that only a (helicopter) parent could possibly find interesting. Twitter is possibly one of the greatest ‘democratizer’ of our time; allowing for personal curation and access to previously unattainable information. But it’s also a way to type incessantly (and perhaps inanely) in the pursuit of attention.

Media and marketing have become so linked as to often be indistinguishable from one another. There is nothing surprising about this evolution. It is the natural by-product of generations who would not see a value in doing anything without an audience. All entertainment media now integrates Twitter and Facebook into their production. Try to even find a television program without a hash tag prompt on the lower left corner or a promo to “Like” the show on Facebook. Much of this marketing is relatively noninvasive and at times even informative. It’s nothing to shirk or even bemoan, but it is quite telling.

There are lots of real things to worry about. We can wring our hands over K-12 curriculum or childhood obesity. We can worry about higher education accessibility for our ‘best snack providers.” But we needn’t worry about how these kids will fare once the camcorders are turned off. As long as there are iPhones (or their yet to be born offspring) and mirrors, they’ll be just fine.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2012 in Childhood, Media/Marketing

 

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We Got Trouble*

A study has been conducted which examines depression and computer usage.  The researchers evaluated participant’s indications of depressive characteristics and correlated those to computer usage.  People who viewed email compulsively, or viewed a lot of videos on-line also showed signs of depression.  The report concludes with recommendations for a software to alert users of depressive behaviors.  Any intervention or awareness regarding mental illness is a good thing.  But before we start organizing a keyboard awareness day or choosing a color for our ribbons and rubber bracelets, let’s consider this study.

Isn’t the very crux of depression that of an inward orientation?  Are we at all surprised that people who are depressed are not out in the world socializing?  Isn’t the desire to turn on the computer actually a positive sign?  (Versus drawing the curtains and taking to one’s bed?)  Virtual connections are virtual, but sure beat cutting off all contact with the world.  Why would the researches make such a concerted effort to ignore the possibility that increased screen time leads to depression?  I’m not trying to start a rumor or anything, but could it be that they were funded by a mental health software company.

In the end, all this internet sound and fury is reminiscent of the Great Television Scare or Video Game Scourge of years past.  Comic books, dime store novels and packs of sen-sen conjured these same fears once. None of these trends/novelites have the power to ruin.

Depression is an illness it is not an allergic reaction to circumstances.  Do people enter a depressive state due to cataclysmic life events?  Certainly.  But that is a depressive state not depression.  Potato Potahto?  Not exactly.  There are many serious differences between a normative response to sad and/or traumatic events and that of a state of being.  For one thing a depressive state has a beginning, middle and end and a cause.  Knowing there is a cause to feeling so bad is the difference between night and day.  Having your world close in and become gray and fuzzy for no discernible reason is both frightening and self-perpetuating.  Our natural inclination is to move towards pleasure and away from pain.  If you can not see pleasure, if everything you see and feel is dark and thick and unrelenting, you’ve no reason to believe that there is a different world.  The darkness is the reality and it can be difficult to claw your way towards something you can’t detect.

Social isolation can certainly exacerbate depression.  Humans (even the most anti-social of us) are meant to interact.  (As a species we would perish without the desire to mingle.)  However people with depressive tendencies are a diverse group.  Their depression can be triggered or worsened by physical changes (hormonal transitions, illness, sleep deprivation, etc.) by life changes (moving, job changes, marriage, divorce, etc.) by nature (cycles of the moon, seasons, etc.) or by a myriad of other triggers/events.  That said, as an illness whose hallmark is inward focus, forced external interaction can be very effective.  Volunteer work can alleviate symptoms of depression.   It would seem that the very act of doing something for someone else, gives the brain a break from its persevering.

Living in a culture which extols the virtue of self above all else is powerful nourishment for the growth of depression.  If we were to pay attention to all the messaging, we should be painstakingly obsessing over every body part/function and moment in our lives.  We are to chronicle every; party, meal, trip, pee stick, grade promotion, softball game, and sonogram to the world and thereby give us the patina of great significance (Because It Happened To Us.)  We are encouraged not to experience life and its many moments, but to “create memories.”  So much self-consciousness is not good for the self.  Isn’t it a culture of; “your special day” “best snack provider-friendliest-rookie-player trophy” and general sense of entitlement that is far more socially isolating than technology?

When the first books were mass printed, the townspeople were up in arms.  What would happen to communal oral storytelling traditions.  There goes the neighborhood!  The first home radios caused some anxiety no doubt.  Families were now holed up in their living rooms staring at a box.  Little did they know, that box-staring was just beginning.  Television took people out of communal movie theaters (which were/are communal only in the sense of shared germs, smells and noise, not in any actual ‘communing’)  Personal music devices were said to be bad, yet I have never seen a campaign to bring back the boom-box, and I’ve never quite understood how the iPod affects behavior any differently than transistor radios did.

Invention and innovation do not come from the sky to do evil to our land.  They are not the flying monkeys.  Products/progress succeeds because there is a hunger that it satiates.  The fact that consumers represent the population and are thus diverse and include those with mental illness, is expected.  How one behaves, with or without technology will always be a lens into an individual’s inner workings.  Unfortunately it will always be far more tempting to design research or blame which looks to demonize the new and inanimate.  Mental illness, criminal behavior, gambling and pornography obsession are real issues.  Spending our valuable resources to shout; “No, no, look over here, the internet is to blame” does not seem wise.

*The Music Man – Meredith Wilson (1957)

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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