You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

The United States Cannot Be The World’s Superhero

There’s a natural urge to want something done when you see injustice. Human beings are wired for community, collaboration, and fairness. If someone or a whole group of people is wronged, we can feel in our gut that there’s a need for the wrong to be made right.

At a time when people around the world are as interconnected as they’ve ever been, with 24/7 media coverage of nearly every corner of the globe, we are constantly made aware of a multitude of conflicts, crimes, dysfunctions, and dehumanizing acts. Famine, war, oppression, poverty, and more.

Once you become aware, you feel the weight of the injustice and the longing for resolution.  

Who’s going to fix this stuff?

For some time now, there has been a widely held assumption that–as the world’s only true superpower–the United States will step in to right such wrongs. If there’s a brutal dictator, the US will remove them from power. If there’s a war, the US will show up with guns blazing to take over for the good guys. If there is famine or poverty, the US will provide essential resources.

That all sounds pretty hopeful and noble. Captain America will be there when things get bad! We all long for a force that can intervene no matter how dire and horrifying things get. That’s the appeal of superheroes. If only it were that simple.

With nearly 200 countries in the world, there’s no way that one of them–however powerful–can show up and rectify every act of injustice in the world. It would require an impossible amount of people, resources, and time. How much thinner can the United States stretch itself than it already has? How do you choose which international injustices get attention and which can be ignored?

Even if the United States or any other superpower could intervene anywhere and everywhere, countries are sovereign spaces. They have their own political systems, beliefs, identities, and goals. The US should not step in as it pleases–no matter how good the intentions. Millions of Americans were outraged at the slightest suggestion of foreign interference in our 2016 presidential election. How do other countries feel when the US barges in and imposes its will in much more drastic and consequential ways?

Frankly, the United States doesn’t have a great track record. There’s a long history of fragile and struggling states because the US intervened without a long-term plan for the prosperity and sustained independence of those places. Without a plan that meets those countries’ ideals and goals and respects their autonomy. More often than not, US intervention creates a vacuum, establishes what’s purely in America’s interests, or leaves things worse than they were before.

As often as possible, justice needs to emerge from within a country rather than heavily influenced by external forces. The United States and others may be able to provide support, guidance, or some resources from the outside. But they should definitely not be the primary actor and influencer within other countries. Too often it leads to destabilization and ruin.

And honestly, we have enough of our own injustices to rectify within the United States. A broken healthcare system. Voter suppression. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and economic inequality. Various local environmental disasters and a transcendent climate crisis that’s constantly worsening. And much more.

How might things be different if we had used the amount spent on the deadly, failed wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria–something like 3.5 trillion dollars and counting–on the wrongs within the United States?

What effort has gone into establishing more fair and accountable police forces? Toward fair and equal voting? Toward employment and a robust social safety net? Toward a renewable energy system and environmental restoration?

The United States can’t do it all. It often makes injustices in other countries worse. And there are already millions in American neighborhoods who are suffering and forgotten. America needs to learn how to be just in our own communities instead of arrogantly and brashly trying to be the savior of the whole world. If we must lead, let’s lead by example in the way our own country’s wrongs are righted. That would be truly patriotic and powerful.

A World of Hurt

Our bodies are shaped and altered by our experiences.

There’s a scar on my left ring finger that runs from the top knuckle through the nail. Anytime the scar catches my attention, the memory of the injury that caused it flashes into my mind. Here I am carving a stick with my pocketknife at summer camp as a teenager. One second, everything’s fine. The next, there’s a deep gash down the middle of my finger and red beads of blood dripping onto the dirt below.

When the memory pops back into my brain, it’s vivid–like I’ve traveled back in time. The place I was sitting. The trees. The streaks of sun beaming between them. My finger throbbing and anxiety starting to rise. The hike from where I was to the medic on the other side of the camp. Sights and feelings and even smells from years ago return. Crazy how a little scar can do that.

Each of us carries the stress, body blows, and trauma from our past. Everything from short-lasting irritations like kitchen burns and poison ivy to the deep, long-term effects of abusive family members or struggling to pay the bills. They leave physical marks and psychological wounds.

Bags under the eyes. Cuts, scrapes, and scars. Cavities, hangovers, and extra pounds in the midsection from emotional eating and drinking. Shortness of breath. A weakened immune system. Trouble concentrating. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling guarded or on edge. And many other impressions and effects.

We are natural, physical beings. We have these strange and fascinating flesh-and-blood bodies. We are not indestructible. Nor do we float through the world as untouchable, immaterial spirits. Sticks and stones do break you. And words–in fact–hurt, too. Sometimes a single word from a certain person in a certain situation feels like a punch in the gut.

Our experiences change us inside and out. Hopefully, there are plenty of good experiences that change us for the better. It is universally human, though, that through the course of our lives we will live through a world of hurt. Things we didn’t ask for or want. Some heal soon afterward and are mostly forgettable (like a careless knife gash at summer camp). Others linger and fester and undermine our ability to function. After some hurts, it’s hard to go on at all.

As flesh-and-blood creatures shaped by an endless variety of hurts, there’s a deep need for each of us to really know ourselves so that we can move forward. Where we’re at and how we got here.

How do you feel right now? Content? Deflated? Energetic? Weak? Flexible, light, and free? Or tight, heavy, and aching? Do you have cuts and bruises in the midst of healing? New wrinkles in the corners of your face? A racing heartbeat? Has someone’s cruelness thrown you off track?

When we more clearly see what all of the different hurts we’ve experienced have done to us, we’ll better understand what needs to heal so we can find wholeness. Oftentimes, we need people we love and trust to help us fully see and recover. No one can go it alone–especially when you’re wounded.

It’s hard to be human. We each go through many unique hurts. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of damage in need of healing. How can you and I encourage each other’s healing instead of increasing the damage?

This Week in Upgrades: April 25

Hello, friend. Is it Monday again already? I hope the weekend treated you well.

I spent much of it cleaning the house from top to bottom, which–though probably not as fun as whatever you did–always feels good to complete. There will need to be some How To Adult cleaning posts in the future. I’ve learned a lot about what not to do.

In case you missed it, American currency is officially getting a major redesign. Pretty awesome that Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 (though not everyone was thrilled). It’s interesting to see how bills have evolved over time.

This week we found out that nearly half of Americans could not come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to. There’s some serious work to be done to help the middle class.

In more uplifting news, this week also gave us this video of 7 girls on appreciating culture rather than appropriating it.

Season 2 of Chef’s Table is almost here! Season 1 was so good.

Is “a thing” a thing?

We need to get serious about soda.

Is this why we procrastinate? Seems to explain why we’re bored, too. More reasons to do yoga.

Solar-powered planes aren’t practical for commercial flight yet, but they’re its green future.

Similarly, we whiffed on electric cars in the past, but hopefully we can get it right this time.

Have a great week!

Back to the Future

This Week in Upgrades: April 18

Hello, good people. How was your Monday? Still grinding it out? Maybe I can help.

These links may be going up late, but there’s some great stuff in here to get your week on the right track. Stuff like…

100 years of film in 100 shots. Fantastic.

Or, every Disney song ranked worst to best. Do you agree?

I 100% agree that top sheets are a scam.

Hopefully we all can agree there should be more women on American currency, and it seems like it’s finally going to happen on the $20. Long-forgotten Hamilton stays on the $10, a woman gets the bill everyone has in their wallet. Win-win?

Speaking of Hamilton, as the musical’s popularity booms, more critics have weighed in and not everyone’s a fan. Is the musical actually racist, though?

In fascinating science things, the tree of life just got a whole lot more interesting.

Homo sapiens is pretty interesting on its own (hence this whole blog). Maybe we’re not as civilized as we think?

One thing’s for sure: the automobile is a sham.

Here’s another good reason to take it easy on the fast food. Eat well and cook!

Have an awesome week! You got this.

Kimmy Schmidt
via GIPHY

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.

 

America’s Gun Violence Problem Can’t Be Fixed Without Dialogue

A thing is surely troubling when it brings the President to tears on live television. Undoubtedly, the widespread gun violence in America challenges the depths of our human sadness–no matter how you feel about guns in general. We think we’ve seen the worst, and then some new tragedy forces us into more grief and disbelief. In a speech to announce executive action on gun policy, and implore Congress for new legislation, recalling the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012 that killed twenty children and six adult staff became the emotional tipping point for President Obama. The tears came rolling down his cheeks, and it wasn’t Bengay in his eyes. If ever a gun massacre would galvanize everyone to fix the problem, the shooting in Newtown should have been it. The murder of twenty children, and the six adults overseeing their budding lives, should have been the end of political inaction. It’s still hard to comprehend three years later.

Yet here we are at the start of 2016 with gun violence in America still to be reasonably addressed. Yet to be addressed at all, really. The executive action by President Obama is not completely meaningless. But as grade school taught us (and for non-Millennials, Schoolhouse Rock!), it is the legislative branch of the government that passes meaningful laws. And they’ve done an appalling job with guns so far–whether you’d prefer to talk about “gun rights” or “gun control.” In 2013, for example–just after Sandy Hook–an assault weapons ban and an amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases were passionately introduced, only to be later defeated in the Senate.

But perhaps even more depressing was the pervasive, antagonistic response to what amounts to a very minimal amount of change from the recent executive action. Before the Tuesday speech even happened, a number of conservatives and gun lobbyists were decrying the President’s effort as illegal, unconstitutional, power hungry, and more. It was reflexive in the worst kind of way. Rhetorically trigger-happy. Constructive conversation in Congress is dead, and now a possible small step forward can’t even be stated in the public square before it’s assaulted. The politicians and lobbyists barricading all progress, for violence incomparable to nearly any other developed country, really need to do some soul-searching.

Because we can’t fix this problem without them. If that’s you, we can’t fix it without you. People who already want new legislation don’t need to be persuaded. I’m preaching to the choir for many of you reading this. 86% of Americans favor a law requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases in the United States, with a centralized database across all 50 states. Statistically, if politicians were merely representing their constituents (as they’re supposed to do), 86 out of 100 Senators and over 370 Representatives in the House should get behind such a law. The only explanation at this point is that many of the politicians who make and vote for the laws that we need are the very obstruction to progress.

Is it because they’re evil incarnate, or dumb? I don’t think so. If anything, they’re probably too savvy. They’ve figured out how to appease special interest–the NRA most of all–and deflect public pressure at the same time. Complaining about constitutionality, legality, and the President’s supposed self-aggrandizing, makes it appear on the surface that a politician is working really hard for preserving a traditional version of America. But as Obama wondered in his executive action speech, “How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?” This is not about the 2nd Amendment–it’s about sensible policy for those guns so that possession doesn’t infringe on safety and freedom.

But if you shut down the conversation before it even starts, nothing’s ever going to change. We need a real conversation that includes everyone–gun collectors, hunters, victims of gun violence, academics, politicians, and even lobbyists if they’re willing to dialogue with reason and empathy. We need everyone to talk together about the guns, ammunition, and gun features like automation and magazine capacity that no citizen should possess. We need everyone to discuss the kinds of gaps that enable guns to be sold–legally or illegally–when they shouldn’t. We need everyone to have a thorough, thoughtful dialogue about the mental illness that should prevent some people from having a gun, and how to provide them with the support they need to get well. (Nearly ⅔ of gun deaths in America are suicides. Do most people even know that?) We need everyone together to have an honest conversation–not one-sided defiance–about whether more guns is actually a solution to current gun violence problems or not.

Everyone–you, me, them, us–needs to be part of the conversation, and solutions. The more anyone avoids it with rhetorical posturing, the more they appear complicit with the status quo. No one can possibly be OK with what’s happening now–no matter how much money they receive.

 

The Common Good, Part 1

When someone says the economy, what comes to mind?

Does it feel like something that applies to your daily routine, or some kind of abstraction–a massive machine running in the background? When the nightly news talks about how the stock market performed, do you directly connect that with what’s going on in your life?

When you think about your job and your income and the things that you’re able to do when you’re not working, would you say that you’re well-off? Or do you wish that things were a bit different?

Why do we work in the first place? Why do you work where you work now (if you have a job)? There are likely a number of reasons. Some people genuinely love what they do–they keep coming back to it with eagerness every day. Others work to keep busy–maybe not in love with their labor, but busyness is better than boredom or unemployment. Still others work one or two or three (or even more) jobs simply because they’re trying to make ends meet. They don’t have a choice.

Even if you’re not in such a desperate and heartbreaking situation as working multiple jobs for low income, surely the great majority of us on some level are working to earn money. Few are those who can do what they love most or who are in such a stable financial situation that the paycheck is an afterthought. And even many of those who are quite well-off with what’s in their bank account continue to show up to work everyday to try to increase that amount.

Money–even for those who have plenty–keeps us returning to our daily grind. Why is this?

Think about what money does. Money is the way we quantify and exchange value as a collective. Increasingly, many things in the world can be bought and sold. All of those goods and services are assessed a value in terms of the dollars they’re believed to be worth or what people would be willing to spend to get them. Anyone with enough earned value–money–can quickly hand it over to acquire things. Amassing money can become an end in itself.

Money enables us to get stuff. The more money we have, the more stuff we can get. The more work we do–more hours or higher wages–the more money we have to get more stuff. More, more, more.

And there’s plenty of stuff.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans were predicted to spend over $630 billion on holiday shopping in 2015. That’s spending on stuff that’s purely for fun, in a short period of time. Through the year in 2014, the average American spent over $6,700 on food, $17,800 on housing, $1,700 on clothes, $9,000 on transportation, $4,300 on healthcare, $2,700 on entertainment, and $11,000 on numerous other things.

Each of us, over the course of a year, is spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on fast food, gas for the car, additions to our wardrobe, trips to other cities, medicines and beauty products, drinks at the bar, cleaning supplies for the house, gifts, and every other thing money buys us.

There’s a seemingly endless amount of stuff (to complement our endless pursuit of piling up more money). But what is stuff, exactly? What does it do for us?

Some stuff fills our wants. Some or most of the $630 billion for the holidays could surely be spent on a number of other more important or more meaningful things. It’s not stuff that we must have. I say that as someone who absolutely loves Christmas. I baked cookies and watched classic movies all week (Home Alone, anyone?), and there was more than one present under the tree for my wife. It’s a wonderful holiday of giving and receiving and sentiment. This isn’t about making you feel guilty for the money you spent on holiday gifts. But Christmas and the other Winter holidays don’t have to be so much about stuff. What might we be able to do together besides a drone or hoverboard for all with even $50-$100 billion of that $630 billion–one or two fewer gifts per person?

Of course, there are plenty of times when we should treat ourselves. Life would be utterly boring and incomplete if we were always calculating out and removing things that are merely pleasurable wants. Sometimes it just feels right to have some ice cream, buy a new pair of shoes, or head out for a cocktail. Go for it.

But, crucially, a lot of stuff fulfills a part of our human experience that is an actual need. It’s hard to endure without healthful food to eat, a place to live, a way to get around town, proper healthcare, and much more.

Stuff, whether it’s primarily for pleasure (want) or a fundamental necessity (need), fulfills many of the longings and requirements of being human. Stuff is important. And therefore money is important if we’re going to live comfortably. And to get an adequate amount of money we need a job of some sort.

Jobs, money, stuff, humanity. Our national conversations (in America) usually work in that order.

NEW YORK CITY - SEP 5: New York Stock Exchange closeup on Septem

Politics and political commentary is so often about the simple categories of job creation and unemployment. How many jobs were created last month? What’s the unemployment rate? If those things seem solid, apparently we’re all supposed to think the economy is good–and that each of us is in good shape then.

But if those basic metrics are out of sorts, then we start talking about money–loans, interest rates, inflation, wages, debt. Should we raise the minimum wage? The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates. Student debt is at an all time high. The dollar is weak.

If the money metrics are off, then the chatter moves to stuff. What’s the price of gas? What’s the cost of a gallon of milk? What’s the cost of tuition? Are the social programs in place working for the stuff people can’t afford themselves? Can people buy cars and houses and the rest of the American Dream?

The US leads the world with about 70% of our GDP coming from consumption–in other words, buying stuff. The way things are set up now, if people aren’t acquiring stuff, the economy is a sinking ship. Hence the strong emphasis on the jobs to have the money to get the stuff.

Rarely, if ever, do we talk about our human condition–the deepest, fragile, most profound part at the heart of the whole thing. All of the needs and wants–the ones we all share, and the ones that are unique to each of us individually–that define who we are. No human condition, no humans. No humans, no community.

When you think about the economy, do you think about this?

What if we started there and went in the other direction? Humanity, stuff, value, work. What if stuff, our system of value, and work were all concentric circles that always had to support and strengthen the humanity at the core? What if governments and public policy started not from securing and expanding a free market and gargantuan financial institutions, but basic human needs and desires?

Now that could be interesting.

Perhaps it would change everything about how we understand the economy and our lives together in society.

But that will have to wait for Part 2. We’re just getting started.

 

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.