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.

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.

Mindfulness: The Fascination of Sherlock Holmes

SherlockBBC’s Sherlock (which airs on PBS in the States) has enjoyed three seasons of incredibly high praise. Season 3 (or Series 3, if you’re a sophisticate) just aired after a two-year gap from when Season 2 finished, and it was one of the most anticipated TV premieres in recent memory. It also was just plain brilliant. If you’ve never seen Sherlock, or if you’re not caught up, you should really do yourself a favor after you finish this post.

I bring up this modern-day interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character because there is an intriguing renewed interest in Mr. Holmes in recent years. Most classic works don’t enjoy a resurgent favorableness like this. The Benedict Cumberbatch rendering is one of three active adaptations alongside CBS’ Elementary and the Robert Downey, Jr. version in film. Not to mention a bestselling nonfiction book entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Maria Konnikova, Viking Adult, 2013). Why so much Sherlock?

All three contemporary iterations are edgy, energetic polymaths who exude their own kind of suaveness through the success they achieve by their brainpower. But anyone can be smart, of course. The compelling thing about Holmes is not that he is just a bit more intelligent than any Joe on the street or professor in a university—it’s that he has an incomparable ability to observe and capture detail and context that everyone else misses. He exhibits a particular quality we might call mindfulness or awareness. By practicing some intentionality of focus in the moment, he is able to be fully present with what’s before him and notice things that fly by people who are preoccupied. A lot of holistic experts have made this quality a point of emphasis recently.

Our world is saturated with things demanding our attention. We can see upwards of a few thousand advertisements in a day. We conspicuously update the presentation of ourselves that we like across a variety of social media platforms. Some people experience phantom vibration syndrome because their smartphones have conditioned them so thoroughly to expect a notification at any and all moments of the day. We try to text while we drive, and fail at both in the process. Our cumulative technological innovation has all but erased the distinction between the rhythm of night and day, resting and waking (or working).

We’re disconnected from any natural cues in front of us: sunrises and sunsets, changes in the smell of the air, the story in the facial expression of the person next to us, the nuanced flavors of our morning coffee, the gentle touch of a loved one full of longing for uninterrupted conversation, and so many more. Instead, we’re surface deep across too extensive and too disparate demands for our attention, which leads to us not doing much of anything particularly well.

In this kind of a climate, Sherlock Holmes seems virtually superhuman.

We’re compelled to an artistic presentation of someone like Sherlock because we wish we had that prodigious awareness ourselves, and it seems like an unachievable skill. But as Holmes often declares, his observations and deductions are “obvious.” The ability is actually rather unremarkable—it’s what anyone can do if they took the time (but maybe a bit less perspicaciously than Sherlock). It seems remarkable because most people don’t carry out the patient, intentional “tuning in” to be truly mindful.

Few of us will use mindfulness to solve crimes like Holmes, but a little more attentiveness in our everyday lives could go a long way. For starters, there’d probably be a lot less accidents or near accidents on the freeway—particularly where I call home in Los Angeles. But beyond collisions and everyday annoyances, there are friends giving you signs that they need a shoulder to lean on but don’t want to burden you by asking; coworkers who are overwhelmed by what life has thrown at them and need even just a small moment of relief; whole neighborhoods, streets, and communities that need someone to have their eyes open long enough to notice their distress and that political deadlock isn’t fixing anything.

Here we have an opportunity to go much further that the “high-functioning sociopath” that the Cumberbatchian Sherlock describes himself as being. His talents are astounding until we realize that we are quite capable of such things if we actively practice being present in the present, and that our mindfulness can have an impact far beyond criminal mysteries or showing off. The game is on.

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