Saturday, January 28, 2017

Signs of Humanity in the Digital Age

As one who enjoys the benefits of the digital age, I am often looking for signs of the older technology, signs of human connection so often missing when two people think they are relating to each other electronically but really are not. 

So the news of progress in the retro world of games, paper and print, found in Bill McKibben's review of a new book by David Sax (The Revenge of Analog), is very welcome.

Sax, like so many others, is concerned that the internet and other digital media, instead of forming a community, has made us more isolated; two people on their laptops in the same room are in different worlds.

So it is good to know that, just as vinyl records have had a huge comeback, so has the Moleskine notebook, which like any paper notebook, invites the kind of creativity and spontaneous writing or drawing that Hemingway or Picasso would have used.  Many young people, along with their iPhones, carry a black notebook.  Why?  The digital world provides a lot of opportunity, Sax says, for wasting time, for dispersing our attention from one thing to another in an endless stream of information.

A paper journal, like a printed book, limits us, concentrates our attention, rather than disperses it.  Magazines that have increased their subscriptions in the old-fashioned print format realize that people still like to have a text with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's not that consumers today are neo-Luddites, reacting against technology; it's that the older alternatives can be more inviting and more conducive to the imagination.

Consider the growth in board games. People want to be with other people, to share with them, to laugh and compete in real time, face to face.  The negative effect of video games on the imagination is an issue, so it is good to know that simple games that bring people together are thriving.

McKibben's piece in the current New York Review of Books is worth reading and might motivate you to check out the book by Sax.  Both agree with many other observers and experts that the computer revolution has real drawbacks in leading people to self-absorption, isolation, and to taking online classes that bore them.  Students want and deserve instruction that doesn't merely present facts but establishes a relationship, just as nearly everyone I know still prefers the concentrated focus that a printed book offers over an e-text.

I think the lesson here is that we can have the best of both worlds--and that, like the recent presidential campaign conducted extensively by tweets, the electronic form of communication by itself is severely limited. Even dangerous.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dying and the Community

I just learned that a man I have known for more than twenty-five years died last year.  This news came as a great shock, even though he was neither young nor in great health.  The shock came from not knowing when I phoned his home to ask how he was doing.

He was not a close friend but always stayed in touch with people by forwarding humorous emails; he established a community online in his retired years, for which I was grateful. I am glad to remember him in that happy context.

His widow told me he was firmly opposed to having a funeral or an obituary or anything public. In this, I guess he is not unique, but it troubles me that no public notice, available in the media or online, is made of deaths. It seems to me that each birth and each death in a community is of vital importance and deserves to be known.

The reason for such privacy also bothers me. Is it a sense of shame about dying, some hidden fear?  Why does a man want to slink away like an animal in the woods and expire unsung, unheralded?  It seems to me his friends, including those of us who shared in his many emails, should be told so they can support the family with their thoughts and prayers.   I would think his family deserves to feel such support.

But it is not for me to be critical of my late friend or his family, only to remember him among all the others I have known who have left this world.

As John Donne wrote in his famous Meditation XVII ("For whom the bell tolls"), "each man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."  He was writing, of course, as a Christian in a society united by the shared belief that no one can be isolated from the community into which they are born and baptized.

It is impossible today to apply that way of thinking to our diverse, pluralistic society. But I still think everyone deserves a bit of public recognition at the end of life's journey.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Living in a Post-Truth Era

Michael Chabon's latest book, Moonglow, begins with a disclaimer about the factual basis of his narrative, which represents, he says, "the truth as I prefer to understand it."  Chabon, of course, is a novelist with a sense of humor; he makes things up.  Those in the public sphere--political leaders and the media--do not.

In the political world now emerging under Donald Trump, facts and reason are somehow suspect.  If a Republican disagrees with an assessment by a reputable Secretary of State (John Kerry), he is called a liar. If the incoming president does not like what the CIA reports, he rejects it as fake news.

Fact-checking the internet, as the editor of Snopes says, is seen by many conservatives as a left-wing conspiracy since everything in the media is not to be trusted, apparently, and reality itself seems up for grabs.

This is an Orwellian nightmare come to pass--lies are truth--and it's the most alarming and dangerous aspect of the Trump movement, which has apparently been in the works for some years as facts have become, for those who dislike them, a partisan issue.

The problem is that Americans no longer share the same mainstream sources of news (the major TV networks) since the social media and the diversity of cable news allow people to pick and choose where they get information. This means there is no shared, agreed upon standard of truth, of what is factual, and hence no basis for the trust on which the overall society is based.

Jeremy Peter, writing a few weeks ago in the New York Times, says that "fake news" has been expanding to include any facts that do not fit the right-wing ideology. He quotes a radio host, who said, "we've effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything they disagree with."  So all fact-checking reporters, trying to present a fair and balanced picture of reality, are challenged, and the result is mass confusion, chaos and distrust. The truth has, for some, become a matter of opinion.

I feel sorry for the people at Snopes, which for twenty years has been fact-checking urban legends of various kinds, since their efforts are now scoffed at in Tweets that have come to dominate the news.

What is real?  What is true?  To answer such vital questions, along with rationality, we turn to philosophers and other serious thinkers, not political hacks.  Unless we agree on facts as the basis of what is real and true, how can we proceed as the world's leading nation?  What is the basis of our trust? 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Thoughts for the New Year

Will this be a good new year?  I am encouraged by news (courtesy of Heartfulness meditations) that, in Asia, sports stadiums have been booked for the benefit of those who wish to spend today in meditation. Wow!

I can't imagine such a thing in this country, where money, noise, and football dominate the sports culture. Of course, many people today pray, I hope for world peace and (I hope) for the inner peace that makes interaction with each other peaceable. We have to work hard, day by day, for a less violent world.

How can we do less hating?  A message from Richard Rohr at the end of the old year reminds us that cognitive science shows that the brain holds on to negative thoughts (like Velcro) whereas positive thoughts slip off (like Teflon).  To retain a positive experience, he says, you have to intentionally hold on to it for fifteen seconds to allow it to imprint your brain.

This means we have to deliberately, consciously choose to love rather than to hate. The fear that leads to anger and hate comes easily, just as the memories of being wounded cling to the brain; but to re-wire ourselves to be positive, caring, and compassionate requires an effort. It takes work to remain each day in the present moment rather than recalling old hurts and hatreds.

As Rohr says, many decent people in our society, in churches as well as in politics, are much more at home with hate than with love; and they don't know this. They have not been taught to focus on the good.

So, to live in a loving way and thus to make an individual contribution to the greater good, requires great spiritual work. No one ever said that peace came easily.