A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Conversation
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Can we talk for a minute about talking?

It seems that there is an increasing deficiency in simply being able to hold a conversation. We’re good at the agreeable stuff. There’s a familiar trajectory to most smalltalk.  A little something about the weather. List a couple random things we’ve done in recent memory. Maybe thrown in a mention of something delicious or trendy we’ve eaten lately. Everybody loves food.

We can go a mile wide.

Bring up some witty social media post we just saw, pivot to the latest celebrity inanity, grab our phone and play that video everyone’s been passing around, get riled up about the big game on Sunday, swipe through photos of the cute pet that one person just got…

But it’s all an inch deep.

When was the last time you talked with someone about your greatest fears? How you really feel about your job and the work you wish you could do? The family struggles and drama you’re dealing with? What you think the most important things in life are? What’s hard about being in a relationship with the person you’re with? What you think about death, and what that means about life?

It’s probably been awhile, right?

Maybe you are supremely emotionally intelligent, perfectly comfortable with yourself and what you think about the world, and encounter no adversity in life. If so, you should probably get to publishing a book for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, most of our conversations in real life take the form of our digital communication: short snippets that float right at the surface, and do just about anything they can to skirt existential depth and vulnerability. A mile wide and an inch deep is right in our wheelhouse. Not too long. Not too personal. Awkward-free and friction-free. Plenty of ambiguity to leave room for plausible deniability.

Indeed, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, argues precisely that: our devices and our preference to communicate through them are fueling an inability to actually communicate and relate to one another.

Many families Turkle interviewed mentioned that they prefer to “fight by text,” rather than hashing it out audibly with some brutal honesty and struggling through anger and disagreement to find reconciliation.

Just the other night, my wife and I went out to eat and watched the couple at the table next to us utter maybe one or two sentences to each other before fixating on their respective phones for the remainder of the meal. I couldn’t help but wonder if they broke from toggling through endless apps to text each other every so often. Should we get an appetizer? How’s your dish? Dessert? Apparently making eye contact and actually talking was either too much work or deemed trivial to the whole dinner-date experience. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen.

Many of us have a hard time turning off our phone or keeping it out of sight even when we are in the middle of talking with other people face-to-face. We look for ways to make stealthy peeks at notifications that come in, and respond to them like a ventriloquist who learned to type without moving her fingers instead of talk without moving her lips.

But what’s the loss, right? Maybe you prefer to stay a mile wide and inch deep with just about everyone you know. It would be agony to go deeper.  I get it. As an introvert myself, I’ve been in more conversations than I can count where I felt like I was just trying to find the escape hatch and get home alone with a book on the couch as soon as possible.

And isn’t it a wonderful convenience that if the chatter with the people you’re with–the family at dinner, a random acquaintance you bump into on the sidewalk, a group of friends out late–turns uninteresting or unengaging, you can simply duck out into a digital conversation through text or social media? If worse comes to worst, you can even use the phone as a smokescreen to suggest that you need to end your in-person conversation. When you’re potentially always interruptible because of the phone in your pocket, you can feign interruption.

But as Turkle profoundly observes, with the loss of conversation comes an equivalent loss in empathy. We are losing the fundamental capacity to recognize the basic humanity in each other, and live together communally rather than individualistically and standoffish. “Conversation is on the path toward the experience of intimacy, community, and communion.” If we can’t figure out how to be fully present here, talking together–for even just a little while, with at least a few people close to us–our own existential and emotional foundation crumbles and disappears. We need to be in conversation with other people for our own well-being.

And not just the pleasantries of the weather and mentioning an uncontroversial current event or two. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding…” You surely know this already from your own life experiences. Being a person comes with risk, and you have to risk the messy and demanding to get to the richness. In conversation, you might say the wrong word or pronounce something strangely; your thoughts might come out in a jumble instead of like a perfectly edited and polished text that you read and re-read until you felt good about releasing it; you might accidentally reveal a guilty pleasure that others will find laughable; you might veer into sensitive territory–pain and worries, personal demons, past mistakes; you might say something that pisses off or hurts the other person. That’s why continually pushing through the messiness and the demands to cultivate empathy is so crucial.

Conversation is the verbal playground where we learn how to move and grow together. Sometimes it’s pure enjoyment and we feel like we could run around for hours. Other times we crash into each other, get tangled in a political or religious cargo net, or step knee-deep in some emotional or personal mud. But when we can see in someone else’s eyes their vulnerability and their uniqueness–their humanity–we come to understand their hopes, fears, and joys are much like our own. We begin to build greater trust, respect, patience, and support. We begin to build a real relationship. We can’t survive without each other–whether it’s the close intimacy of family and friends or the fleeting bonds of coworkers and acquaintances. A mile wide and an inch deep doesn’t get you there.

Actions Over Words

Yogi Berra
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In the classic film My Fair Lady, Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle goes on a marvelous musical rant in the song, “Show Me.”

Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!

She goes on to chastise merely talking about dreams for the future, longing for physical contact, how love is forever, and more, repeatedly demanding of others to actually show me!

Though the song is about romance in particular,

words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. Is that all you can do? Don’t talk…show me!

is insightful wisdom for life.

It’s easy to talk a big game. I’m going to be famous. I’m going to be an actor. I’m going to write a novel. I’m going to be president. I’m going to travel more. I’m going to be a better parent. I’m going to get healthy. I’m going to spend less. I promise I’ll do the dishes later.

The words sounds nice. Even praiseworthy sometimes. Wow, that’s fantastic! Way to be aspirational. It makes a person sound like a real achiever. But, of course, the words are empty without any follow-through. Hypocritical, really. You said you were going to do one thing, and instead you did another–or nothing at all.

Saying one thing and doing another is a rift in human nature inherent to each and every one of us. You and me, included.

It doesn’t take long to find examples more recent than Eliza Doolittle’s fictional Victorian England. American President Barack Obama is about to embark on an historic visit to Alaska to observe firsthand one of the states hardest hit by the early stages of global climate change. He plans to visit a number of different communities to bring attention to what’s going on, and give some fervid speeches about the need for worldwide action on climate. This is unquestionably an important trip, and hopefully putting the spotlight on places where climate change is already having a drastic, noticeable impact will shake some people out of lethargy or denial.

Except that there’s a huge action the Obama administration undertook recently that’s undermining the whole thing. A couple weeks ago, they granted final approval to Shell to drill in the Alaskan Arctic. It’s well-documented at this point that combustion of fossil fuels is the major catalyst of climate change, that we need to leave them in the ground rather than take more out, and that the Arctic in general is one of the most fragile places anywhere. If a spill should occur, it will be nearly impossible to clean up, and cause further environmental devastation.


Whatever your political affiliations or convictions, you don’t have to be a political scientist or staunch partisan to see the gulf between actions and words here. It’s hard to take the passionate words seriously when as recently as two weeks ago–in the very place you’re using as the example for your rhetorical force–your tangible actions were extremely contradictory. Don’t talk of climate change action. Show me.

I was moved this morning by (yet another) excellent profile of the brilliant Stephen Colbert as he prepares to launch his version of The Late Show. The TIME Magazine piece closes with the following story Colbert shared:

I went across the street, got myself a cup of coffee and looked at the theater from the outside for about an hour, and I realized that nothing we do right now really matters. I mean, we’ll do our best to have a good design and good logo and good marquee and hire all the right people and have the right sound and the right guests. But it doesn’t really matter until you go and do it. Everything is theory. As Yogi Berra beautifully said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

In the end, it’s the actions that matter–what you actually did or will do. We like gabbing about theory: university lectures, pub talk, dinner table chatter, cable news banter. We like flowery words: memes, speeches and sound bites, tweets and other snack-size sharable content. They feel good and profound. And they can be. But eventually we have to stop talking and just do the thing. It’s all about what happens in practice–the action. And if the actions don’t match the words then the words and all the theorizing were truly meaningless.


Whether for a social cause like the climate, or dreams for a career and the next chapter of your life, or simply taking out the trash…

May you be a person of actions over words.

What a Piece of Work is Man

Mobile Phone Video
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As if Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t already cool enough, he’s now in the first performances for his version of Hamlet on stage. When tickets were made available last year, it became the fastest-selling production in British history. There’s only one problem: as soon as Cumberbatch begins to utter to be or not to be, a handful of people yank out their smartphones to try to record the scene. To what end?

To share as bragging proof that you were there? To turn into some kind of remixed or reworked media like a GIF? To rewatch over and over as a self-made souvenir?

Cumberbatch, for his part, is pleading for restraint. The Guardian posted a video of him on the street post-performance asking reporters to work their information-disseminating magic and get the word out. “…There’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor being onstage…it’s mortifying. And I can’t give you what I want to give you which is a live performance that you will remember, hopefully, in your minds and brains–whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent–rather than on your phones.”

What has happened to our sense of appreciation and capacity for enjoyment without capturing, posting, and hashtagging? It’s not enough to be at a thing: we have to record evidence of the thing, share the evidence of the thing, and replay the evidence of the thing again later–almost as if we were never even there and we need to prove to ourselves that we were.

Through the lens and microphone of our multifarious pocket technologies, we distance ourselves from what’s on the other side, and eliminate the possibility for the kind of memory our brains have developed to record in their own biological way: complex, emotional, sensory-rich; deep in story, context, and potential for recollection.

Have you ever been alerted by a smell that suddenly brought you back to a vivid moment earlier in life? Something that reminded you of that one day at your grandparents’ house, or that one concert with your high school friends, or that road trip with your lover? When the memory was formed, we were silent and still enough to knit together thousands of little strands of experience into something that we would remember in our minds and brains. Remember for a long time. Something that could transform who we are as a person. Something that would shape our future for the better by connecting us to the rich human experience we were in the midst of.

In a tech-saturated world, we have to put limitations on ourselves to maintain a healthy ability to appreciate what’s there right in front of us. To recognize skill and artistry. To observe beauty. To see truth embodied. To experience a transcendent moment. Perhaps even to feel a sense of healing and wholeness. If you think it’s ridiculous to get those things from standing still for an hour and letting the world wash over you, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. Let the great performers perform unimpeded and unfiltered–Benedict Cumberbatch, that musician you love, Mother Nature, and anyone else–and be transformed by moments and memories that will long outlive and exceed the likes you’d receive for cutting it into an oversimplified, shareable file.

The Gaps

Everything is Vapor
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You know the moments. You’re on the elevator with a complete stranger. You’re just outside of the fitting rooms while your significant other is trying some things on. You’re stuck at a stoplight or a bus stop. You’re waiting to be seated at a restaurant. You’re waiting to receive your food at a restaurant. You’re waiting for the bill at a restaurant. You’re on the couch at home by yourself with nothing to do. There’s a space—a gap. It must be filled.

What is that space? We don’t really want to know. Everything was going smoothly—time well spent. I was engaged in something good, something meaningful. Now I’m bored/confused/anxious. Quick, fill the space with something!

With what? Maybe Candy Crush. The instant gratification feels nice for a bit. Maybe send a text for no other reason than to send a text message. It’s been a little while since I talked to that person anyway. Maybe I just received a text message? Better check. Maybe that feeling I thought I felt was actually my phone trying to get my attention. Yes, someone needs me! I have purpose again.

Or put headphones in and stream a song or two. Or tweet about something random. Or open up some tabs and start perusing what people are buzzing about in cyberworld. Is there some celebrity feud going on?

Have you ever caught yourself trying to fill the gap?

We don’t do well with the stillness. We’re uneasy about being amongst strangers when we have gobs of friends online. Uneasy during moments of utter quiet or uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.

We think we’re in sync when we’re doing what everyone else seems to do: constantly moving from one thing to the next, sometimes doing multiple things at once, turning downtime into some sort of activity that makes us feel good. The gap, the bit of unscheduled time, is an abomination—it has to be filled with something. The gap feels like the nothingness of the empty universe—like our mortality bumping into us. You only live once. Better fill it up with stuff. If I can go from thing to thing and plow through the gaps then maybe I can avoid my mortality altogether. Objects in motion stay in motion, right?

In the gaps, we often feel that we’re missing out. Here I am basically getting old on the couch doing nothing, and I just saw on Instagram that everyone else is living the life of their dreams. But perhaps there’s something even deeper that we’re missing out on. After all, if you’re at an amazing concert and you’re still checking your phone in-between songs during the show—still feeling like when you check that everyone else is living the life of their dreams and you’re not—you have a problem.

What if the gap is not nihilistic space infiltrating our lives, but precisely the unstructured, unallocated time we need to rediscover some of what’s great about ourselves and our world. Maybe uncertainty about what happens next is not wasted time, but a chance for serendipity.

Serendipity. Today, it sounds like something really old-fashioned: the sort of thing that typifies romantic comedies on videotape. Someone just got a new job in a place they think they’re going to hate; someone’s flight is cancelled and they’re stuck in town for another night; somebody has to go to Smalltown, Nowhere for the weekend, with seemingly nothing to do. But—surprise, surprise—that’s exactly where they magically run into the person who ends up being their soulmate.

Could it happen in real life? Of course.1 in 3 people now find their spouse through online dating services, but that means 2 out of 3 still discover each other in-person. Some find it through friends and mutual acquaintances. Others, through participation in some kind of common activity: at work, at a bar, in class, and the like. There’s something poetic and pleasantly old-fashioned about romance found without any assistance from an ideal match algorithm or swiping through profiles in an app. Serendipity can work wonders for relationships.

But I doubt most of us expect to find the love of our life while waiting for our fitness class to start or stuck in line getting our morning coffee. So what else might be serendipitously discovered in the gaps?

Good ideas, for starters. For many, open periods of time are when their brain begins to dance around through countless bits of experience, thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and then make interesting—sometimes unlikely—connections between them. When we’re perpetually filling in the gaps as they come, we’re crowding out the potential for our mind to do some of its most unique work. There’s an opportunity there to slide into your creative process. It could be exactly the moment you find that melody you’ve been hoping to come up with, that thing you’ve wanted to write but didn’t know where to start, or pinpoint a change you need to make in your life that you hadn’t noticed before. Oftentimes, the best stuff shows up when we’re not trying.

What else? In the company of strangers, we might have interesting conversations we would never have otherwise. As an introvert, this is really difficult for me. In an elevator or on public transportation, or anywhere else a person can get stuck with people you don’t know, I feel an urgent need to get my eyes locked onto my phone to appear too busy for small-talk. But in the times that I’ve risked it and resisted the urge, I’ve been fortunate to talk with people from all sorts of backgrounds. You’ve seen your social media friends post pictures of their cat and their lunch before; you probably haven’t heard anything like what the person across from you on the train could tell you if you’re up for talking.

OK, and what else? Ultimately, so much of the world is there for discovery. Have you ever people-watched? It’s the best. Seriously. Humans do some of the craziest, weirdest, most self-centered, colorful things. In just about any public place, you have a front row seat. Look around for a couple minutes, and you’re likely to see something absolutely hilarious or ridiculous. Maybe then you Tweet about it–because it has to be shared. Or maybe you just keep it to yourself, because that one’s too priceless. You might need that memory to bring you back to a good place on a bad day, or maybe the good ideas bulb lights up and you realize what you witnessed would make for a perfect part of something you’re going to create.

If you had desperately busied yourself with your phone or something else to fill the gap, you would have missed something great.

If you’re going to have fear of missing out, have fear of missing out on the unexpected. Not the concerts, the vacations, and the get-togethers at the new spots all the hipsters are going to. Those kinds of things will always be around, and if you’re an active enough person you’ll get to do lots of them over time. Be concerned about missing out on the sparks of creativity and unique encounters that are only going to happen once and then disappear forever. Too few of those and you’ll really feel some anxious emptiness in your life. The gaps are there to remind you that some of the best things are not planned or expected, and you’ll miss out on them if you’re always trying to do something else. The gaps hold everything together.

You Suck at Driving (And So Do I)

On July 1, one of Google’s self-driving cars was rear-ended. It’s the 11th back-end slam they’ve incurred on the open road, and this time there were some minor injuries to the passengers riding inside. Overall, the autonomous vehicles have been in 14 accidents, and not a single one was the fault of the Google-mobile. Each time, terrible human driving led to an unnecessary collision.

We know about these incidents because Google self-driving car project director, Chris Urmson, is openly talking and blogging about them. The whiplash-inducing collision did not have a police report filed, even though officers were at the scene, making it one of the likely millions of crashes that are more hidden from public awareness than ones that were officially filed. Based on all available information, reported and unreported crashes, in 2010, “there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.” Those are hard to wrap your brain around.

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but living in the Los Angeles area–one of the most car-saturated places in the world–I get genuinely worried when I see some of the people behind the wheel or about to be. Not just the drunks or the sleep-deprived; those are blatantly disqualifying for driving, and should be immediately reported. As worrying are the regular people who clearly have bodies and minds that are not fit for driving at any time, or are noticeably preoccupied.

There are some in their golden years–not all–whose cognition, hand-eye coordination, or general bodily strength and dynamism has diminished to the extent that they likely should not be on the road. Every so often crashes suggesting this as a cause become newsworthy. In February, a 92-year-old driver became panicked in his minivan in a parking lot and pinballed into 9 vehicles. It’s hard to understand how a focused, competent driver would do what he does in the surveillance video of the incident. Thankfully no one was hurt. Crashes like this make you wonder why all states do not require people to eventually retest on the actual driving portion and not just an eye or written exam. Only a few do.

Before this whole thing takes an ageist turn, let’s quickly note that the highest rates of reported crashes are among drivers 16- to 24-years-old. Just as in later years our bodies are less than their peak, in our teenage and early adult years they are still forming toward their prime–especially the faculties necessary for driving well. When we’re young, we make a lot of mistakes on the path to developing mature coordination, sensitivity to context and spatial awareness, and sound decision-making. When I was 15-years-old with my driving permit, I cleared the side view mirror clean off a parked car with the side of my vehicle while breezing down the street. Asking teenagers to command a vehicle is probably the most complex, demanding task they’ve ever encountered in their lives to that point. It’s undoubtedly compounded by the ubiquity of smartphones and the compelling urge to engage with them anytime they’re close at hand.

Which, of course, affects drivers of all ages. I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve seen on the road with one hand on the wheel and the other tapping and swiping away on their phone. They think vehicles grinding to a halt is an ideal opportunity to send or read a text, photograph, or another kind of message. And it often continues as the gridlock loosens and things are moving at regular speed again. Driving is an immensely involved task, and this kind of distraction is obviously dangerous, but most don’t appear to care. Several surveys suggest that the majority of drivers think they can smartphone and drive without any complications.

In fact, we all seem to be increasingly thinking of driving as more of a time suck when we could be doing other, “better” things. I’ve got that call to make; that text to reply to; that novel to finish; that album to listen to; that trumpet to play (Urmson’s team observed this actually happening). As Sheila Klauer notes in her book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, which Urmson cites, people “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat.”

Whether it’s the immaturity or decline of our bodies, distractions or substance-induced impediments, or just general human error, our frailty causes a lot of unnecessary collisions–a lot of unnecessary injuries and deaths, property damage, and general heartache.

With roadways full of only self-driving cars, it all could be made obsolete.

The Google vehicles’ culpability-free streak is over nearly a million miles of driving. Urmson notes, “Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted.” They are free of the limitations and inherent vulnerabilities that human drivers have. Unless a car is hacked (certainly possible, but probably preventable) or goes rogue on the driver (quite improbable, but that Ford Anglia in Chamber of Secrets was pretty bonkers), there aren’t significant foreseeable negatives. Even if the vehicles are expensive when they’re first publicly available, with the security they would bring there is much to be saved: insurance costs, necessary emergency infrastructure, vehicle replacement, road repair, the productivity and priceless individuality of people protected from fatalities, and more.

And, intriguingly, with autonomous vehicles, people of all ages get to retain their autonomy and dignity. If you’re 16 and inexperienced–parents hesitant to give you the keys on a Saturday night–or not yet licensed, you could quickly meet up with friends on the other side of town in a self-driving car. If you’re 85 and know that your mind, vision, and strength aren’t what they used to be, you could still run errands of your own accord, ride to your child’s house for a weekend road trip, or go out dancing with your soulmate. If it’s your 40th birthday and you have bacchanalian inclinations, you can fulfill them. The only errors you might make on the ride home are throwing up in the cupholder, passing out in the backseat, or bringing home a one-night stand that you later regret. That’s worlds better than potential drunk driving fatalities. Everyone gets to be where they want when they want.

Isn’t that precisely what we’re all after in getting behind the wheel? Don’t we crave a license in our teens so we can finally be the master of our mobility? Don’t we clutch our license with aged knuckles because we can feel the independence slipping away? It’s difficult for us to be dependent on others to get around and at the same time realize the kind of dignity and freedom we crave. The promise of self-driving cars means we can all be safe, egalitarian travelers. We’d rather be doing other things en route, anyway.

This Week in Upgrades: July 18

Grazing Cattle
ciuciumama/Bigstock.com

Grist is doing a series on the ethics of eating meat.

“This is literally the world’s dumbest problem.” Hunger and food waste happen simultaneously in the United States. Is an app the solution?

“Is the WI-FI working for you at all?” Too accurate.

Beneficial bacteria, like those found in your favorite yogurt, may contribute to our emotional stability.

Many Native Americans are in food deserts and suffer from obesity. How can it be fixed?

IBM introduced Tone Analyzer, which can tell you if your messages are passive aggressive.

Is Instagram the best social media network?
Back to the Future is going to be rereleased into theaters for its 30th anniversary. Is this real life?

A Connected Childhood

Joshua Tree Desert
Baldukas2015

My wife, Amy, and I spent the weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. It was incredible. Unseasonably comfortable weather for the desert. Total silence. No electric lights for miles, so we were able to see the Milky Way amongst countless stars. Little, if any, cell signal. Coincidentally, one of the first things I came across upon our return home in the city was this video from Nature Valley.

Three generations of family recall their favorite activities of their childhood. The elder two generations are all about the outdoors. Fishing, forts, picking fruits, team sports, sledding, wild animals. The youngest generation, those who are kids right now, convey a preference for tablets, texting, binge-watching, and a lot of digital connectivity overall.

Now, of course, the main purpose of the video is to sell granola bars. Nature Valley is trying to get you to buy a product by amplify a sentimental feeling of the wild and restorative qualities of nature, as well as nostalgia for the simpler way of life you experience when you’re small. To be honest, Nature Valley granola bars are not one of the first snacks I’m looking to buy when I’m going outside. They disintegrate and piñata onto the ground once you open the package. You’re more likely to feed a bird or a crawling creature than you are yourself. But let’s set aside the whole commercial, marketing side of the video for a second. When marketing works well, it’s expressing some kind of truth, some kind of feeling that already exists in the air such that when they tell it in a crafted bit of storytelling you want to buy their product because it seems like a necessary solution.

What is the video trying to say about how people spend their time, especially as children? Does that correspond to how things are?

It’s undeniable that children are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media; older children and teens, more than 11 hours. A lot of that time is television, but other devices are catching up fast. For some children, the media use starts as early as just months old, with toddlers who do not yet even speak poking around on their parents’ phones and tablets.

So simply based on a few statistics and general observation of kids’ habits, it makes sense that today you are more likely to find a 13-year-old on the couch multitasking through apps with the TV on in the background than hiking a trail or throwing a ball. That’s not inherently bad. The amount of hours, however, is rather startling—particularly for older children. If you’re spending 11 hours of a day in front of a screen, there’s only 13 other hours available for sports, non-digital activities with friends, eating, sleeping, pooping, and activities of personal interest—including any outdoor ones. The sleeping part alone should take up 7 or 8 hours of those 13, so that really only leaves about 5 for all of the rest. Not a whole lot to work with.

It’s particularly concerning when any child is starting to lose touch with reality. The online world has an “intense pull” and is definitely “highly addictive.” As the one youngster observes happens while he’s gaming, “I forget that I’m in a house, that I have parents, that I have a sister, that I have a dog. I just think I’m in the video game.” The merits of the outdoors aside, when you start to lose track of the reality of even the physical space inside of the house, and your relationships with family who live in it with you, that’s a genuinely disturbing situation. I don’t think the grandmother’s tears are for show.

But before any adult gets too judgmental about the habits of a little dude like him, we’d better stop and take a look in the mirror ourselves. Any current adult’s childhood may have been filled with campfires and tee-ball in the city park, but we’re all just as active online now as any child is. Our social situation, especially the available technology, is prime to enable digital absorption whether you’re an actual kid or just a kid at heart.

Parents and Grandparents—and adults, in general—as the more seasoned and (hopefully) astute among us, “have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world without being swallowed whole by it.” Kids learn by example, and often imitate the patterns and activities of those older than them. Adults should first take a look at their own device use.

How’s that going for you?

When you’re chastising children for binge-watching, are you leveling your critique at yourself too for watching a whole season of a show in just a couple days last week? Are you as quick to check your phone’s notifications as a child is with theirs? Do you interrupt the people you’re actually with in person to prioritize a call or message from someone far away? How often do you make time for fishing or fruit picking or pickup sports now?

Does Nature Valley’s technophobia hold up? Sort of. Today, childhood is irreversibly shaped by devices. They’re not going away. We have to figure out how to raise children to use them with healthy limits. And healthy limits are possible. But it’s not just children who need them. How long was it off-camera before the older two generations in the video reached for their phones to respond to a text from a friend or see what their sibling just tagged them in on Facebook? By the end of the 1950s, there were several million televisions in the United States, so those were entrenched in society well before the current generation of kids. We’re all culpable.

We all need to evaluate the hours we’re spending with screens, and how we might bring that back into balance. Nature is undoubtedly a helpful corrective. For myself, being in a National Park, in the midst of the tranquility and inability to connect through my phone even if I wanted, was deeply refreshing. I still snapped some pictures with my phone’s camera. And I had much tastier trail snacks than a Nature Valley granola bar. As the trip progressed though, I felt less of an urge to grab my phone out of my pocket and simply take in the scenery with the lenses I was born with. I felt my habituation for constant connectivity start to dissipate into the same stillness as the gentle breeze drifting through the California desert. I wanted to simply talk and laugh and tell stories and be present with Amy. No digital addiction could ever compete with the joy, complexity, and allure of being with her—especially while exploring the wilderness together. There are memories and recuperation in the outdoors, whether it’s a neighborhood park or preserved backcountry, that will long outlast a shared photo on social media or a Netflix retreat.

Perhaps the most important thing we should take away from reflecting on the Nature Valley video is to do whatever we can to retain an unspoiled, childlike sense of adventure with the world. At 9 or 90, there are more things out there and places to go than will ever sate the desire for amazement and entertainment. And they’re best shared together: with parents, siblings, friends, or anyone else. Let the digital be a bridge only if necessary. When you can’t get out of the house or the office. When others are across the city or on the other side of the world and you aren’t able to be there. When you need a reprieve from the insanity of your day and your only escape is a streaming video. Otherwise, grab a legit snack (and some water) and get outside somewhere. The online world only seems closer to a child’s fantasyland than the real world does if we forget nature is there for adventuring.

This Week in Upgrades: July 11

Braces Teeth
kninwong/Bigstock.com

Have a great weekend!

Why men always think women are flirting with them. The Science of Us

Screen addiction is taking a major toll on children. Probably not a surprise, but no one seems to be doing much about it. New York Times

Habits of people who are achieving work-life balance. Solid list. Fast Company

People age at dramatically different rates. What do you think your real age is? The Guardian

An animated history of transportation. Just brilliant. The Atlantic

Performance wear for classical musicians. Is it a baselayer or a tuxedo shirt? Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? Violinist

According to one researcher, “we are very close to having gene therapies that can restore hearing loss from a wide range of causes.” NPR

Introducing probiotic skincare. Absurd or ingenious? Slate

Braces are more popular than ever. “The choice to leave one’s mouth in aesthetic disarray remains an implicit affront to medical consumerism.” The Atlantic

What is Technology, Exactly?

Cuneiform

The last post, Why this Blog?, was a fresh start for what Upgraded Humans is about: the relationship of people and technology. It’s an imperfect relationship—like teens in the awkwardness of adolescence trying to figure each other out—rather than a harmonious, flourishing one—like a married couple in their golden years. It takes time, understanding, and maturation to get to a relationship with that kind of mutual prosperity. Many of our technological innovations and abilities are relatively immature—as is our understanding of technology.

Thanks to the genius of Marshall McLuhan, we saw that whenever we think about a particular piece of technology, there are four fundamental questions we need to ask to understand how it impacts us as people. What does it extend? What does it make obsolete? What does it revert into? What does it retrieve?

To ask those questions and begin to reflect on the answers, though, requires that we can identify technology in the first place to ask the questions about it. We need to talk about one more question before The Four. What is technology?

We all have a pretty intuitive sense of some things that definitely are technology. We know it when we see it. Smartphones, of course, and related devices like tablets, laptops, and headphones to go with them. We’d also probably think of most of the ways we get around: cars, trains, buses, motorcycles, boats, airplanes, and spacecraft (Well, someday spacecraft. Keep working SpaceX!). And we’d also be quick to include other things that plug into an outlet or have batteries: Hello Kitty waffle irons, hairdryers, microwaves, televisions, Xboxes, lamps, and cameras.

But we might not immediately think of other things like: clothing, tables, weapons, shampoo, prescription medications, musical instruments, books, language, governments, forms of taxonomy and naming, farming, clocks, credit cards, and houses.

Yes, these too are technology. Why? What makes technology, technology? Our good friend Marshall McLuhan has an answer for this also. He used the word media instead of technology, a more communication-centric way of talking about it, but the definition still fits. So what is it?

All forms of technology are human creations that extend or amplify some part of ourselves.

That’s it. Simple, yet profound.

Technology is first and foremost something that humans have created. We make it. It doesn’t grow in the woods. It doesn’t appear out of the heavens. We create it, and modify it, and improve it, and expand it, and sometimes abandon it. Modern English is much different than Egyptian hieroglyphs (though our increasing use of emojis and GIFs is making things a little more similar). Thousands of other languages have arisen and gone extinct well before any of us were born. The current iPhone is much different than the original, music-only iPod, but we could track that evolution from one model to the next. And every smartphone is a particular arrangement of metals, chips, glass, rare earth elements, and other components that would never come together in the form of a phone by the wind or the sea or the tectonic shifts of the earth. We conceived it and we made it.

What technology does is extend or amplify some part of our selves. You probably noticed this is exactly what the first question in The Four Laws of Media asks. You’re brilliant. The best way to begin to understand the effect of a particular technology is to first examine and understand what human ability it extends. Whether it’s a limb, the senses, our brain, or something social between people, every technology is an extension of one or more of the abilities we have.

The wheel or wings—of a bike, car, airplane, or otherwise—extends and amplifies the locomotion of our two feet. We can go faster and farther, and more comfortably so. It’d take you a long, grueling time to walk and swim to France (Unless you live there, of course. If so, bonjour!). Weapons are extensions of our fists, fingernails, and other body parts we might fight with. Shampoo, “age-defying” lotions, first-aid, prescription medications, and other products we put on or inside our bodies, enhance the body’s ability to remove dirt, fight pathogens, heal itself, and perform normal organ functions. Books and notes extend our capacity for memory, organizing our thoughts, articulating long ideas or stories, and sharing them with other people. Musical instruments extend and enhance our singing voice, our sense of melody, and our capacity for self-expression. Naming things extends our capacity to organize and interpret the expansive array of plants, animals, and other things that make up the world around us.

Socially, governments extend our ability to live together by a communal rule of law and shared understanding of the common good. Money extends our ability to assess and exchange value with one another. Telephones, streaming video, and other electronic communication allow us to speak with and view each other across great distances. Industrialized agriculture, refrigeration, and cross-country transportation extend our shared capacity to grow, store, and move the food we all need to eat.

And on and on. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of examples of technology when we understand it properly.

The major complication of technology, and one of the motivations for Upgraded Humans, is that though in the beginning human beings controlled the construction of each of the extensions and enhancements, once they’re made they often begin to control us. That’s where the need for the Four Laws comes in. If we don’t reflect on those questions, particularly if we don’t understand which natural human capacity that a certain technology extends, we’re likely to be nudged in ways that might not be good for us by the technology we were originally the master of.

So a few last questions for now.

How did you end up with a Hello Kitty waffle iron?

What things had you not thought of as technology that you realize are technology based on our definition?

Does thinking about it as technology—as an extension of an ability you have—change the way you see what it does and what kind of power it has?

Does that reveal anything about the power it has over you and the way you need to take back the reigns?

Comment below! Send ideas or pictures of things other people would never think of as technology. And, as always, thanks for reading.

This Week in Upgrades: July 4

LEGO Conquerer
cjmacer/Bigstock.com

Happy 4th of July!

The chemistry of firework colors. Still waiting for perfect red, white, and blue. Nautilus

More and more of us are demanding quality, ethically sourced menu options from fast food and chains. Where will it all come from? Eater

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on mercury emissions, what is the future of the EPA’s authority? NPR

Another reason nature is the best. Pacific Standard

In a Q&A, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicts we’ll soon share emotions digitally, among other things. Popular Science

Have you tried Apple Music? What do you think? Here’s one review. “In Apple’s glory years, Steve Jobs turned simplicity into an art form…It’s starting to seem as though Apple no longer abides by that religion.” Yahoo

How Instagram shapes the social dynamics of high school. Fast Company

LEGO makes 60 billion bricks per year. Good reason to transition away from oil-based plastics. Good Magazine