Eclipsed

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades?

Social Media Today published a description this week of social media habits by age group. (Thanks to Mark D for the link.)  Two-thirds of people 50 to 64 but only one third of those 65+ use social media. By contrast, the overall rate of social media consumption is 86% for those under 30.

Those numbers aren’t exactly surprising, and no one’s going to lose sleep over a bunch of technologically tuned-out boomers, but the follow-on data give pause. The same article reports that while 9 out of 10 boomers are “interested in the news,” only half again as many are interested in the under 30 bracket.  More than half of those 60 and over vs. only 25% of people under 30 go “in depth.” Consumption habits show adults reading digital and online content and the “kids” predominantly watching videos.

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So as bad as you thought the problem is with people getting their impressions of the world through sound bites, you have to wonder what will happen when those who can only consume information by video get their hands on the levers of government and industry. My observations as both a manager and an educator (not necessary at the same time) are that we’re becoming, or perhaps have already fully become, a transactional society.  That means acting on the basis of immediate, short-term outcomes rather than taking the long view. It means treating interactions with other people as discrete events rather than as parts of an ongoing relationship. It means losing of threads of human contact and experience which have historically been the ties that bind. Little wonder that someone who views the world as a purely transactional, zero-sum game is sitting in the oval office.

It’s not news that we’re living in a highly fragmented time, and just plain sad that we so infrequently experience common purpose or experience. This hasn’t always been the case; there as a time when it clearly wasn’t.

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The last year in particular has seen families and friendships damaged, often irrevocably, by anger and politically-instigated intolerance. I’m not suggesting everybody ought to be friends, or that we normalize a bunch of vicious morons marching through their free country carrying the flags of mass murderers. Or that we act like a bunch of ostriches like a Facebook acquaintance who keeps celebrating her ignorance of world events like the objective is to have a nice dinner party. The damage is there, and it’s real, and I’m not ever going to pal around with a skinhead flying a confederate flag from the back of his truck. But I am happy to discuss substantive problems and solutions with thoughtful people, whatever their political persuasion.

brotherI have no idea how they teach it now, and shudder that there are lots of people who think of the Civil War as the “war of northern aggression,” but when I was growing up in Philadelphia they talked a lot about the Civil War being a “brother against brother” affair. As kids, we couldn’t understand how family members could end up figuratively or literally shooting at each other. It’s sadly not hard to see how that could come about through the dark lens of 2017.

So it was heartening yesterday, to watch the coverage of millions of people in cities across the eclipse’s path sharing awe and wonder, at the simple natural phenomenon of a celestial shadow. People clapped and hooted and exclaimed silly things, and in large measure fell silent as the moon fully “ate” the sun. Really, it was a spectacular day in so many ways. Apart from watching the real-time NASA footage, a lot of us got to play junior scientists with our homemade viewers, and a lot of others got to wear silly glasses that looked for all the world like a 1950’s audience at a 3D movie. It was all quite wonderful in a simpler time kind of way and revealed that there’s still some underlying visceral connection we can all spontaneously tap into…some shared humanity that, at least for a few minutes, renders us all part of the same whole.

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Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur in my thinking here (though 25 years ago I was incorporating leading edge technology into my startup company), but I think social media, an extension of electronic rather than paper or voice communication, has really screwed us up as a civilization. It enables the worst human instincts to propagate at the speed of light, it demands complexity be reduced to 140 character superficialities, it fractures personal interaction into impersonal fragments, it substitutes mass acquaintances for friendships, it causes us all to burrow deeper into isolation rather than collective experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades? Now that would be one hell of a totality.

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Ties that Bind

Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Immediacy.

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I think it’s overrated. Yes, it’s quite wonderful and gratifying in a subversive way to be able to access the universe on a 4×7 sliver of technology in your pocket. But is it really so great to be able to know everything there is to know about anything on a moment’s whim?

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time of card catalogs and trips to the library; of asking someone with more knowledge about a subject than you; for that matter of the “phone a friend” option on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The universe still had mysteries, and specialization meant unique access and value. Instant access to everything there is to know may be a form of democratization but it has diminished the value of expertise, with devastatingly predictable results. Fake news. Zero quality control on published information. Less person-to-person communication. Access to weapon-making skills on the part of insane people who always should have been locked away from society, but who now have the ability to cause untold damage because skills are at their fingertips that were formerly reserved for professional war-making machines like governments.

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Now it seems the only way to actually possess an information advantage, at least in terms of raw information, is to become an expert in something so arcane and technical that no one without formal training can actually understand it. Like nuclear physics. Or molecular biology. Or how the damn smartphone actually accesses a universe full of information virtually instantaneously. (Lots of us remember a quaint construct called a switchboard where wires had to be connected to make things work.)

I’m not railing against modernity, or being overly wistful about some gauzy mental movie set in the past. I am, however, suggesting that technology has got us all by the throat with an ever-tightening noose. We are at once able to access all of the information in the universe and, if the college students I teach are any indication, becoming completely unable to hold or articulate a substantive body of knowledge about anything. This is probably the inevitable outcome of the loss of a common body of experience.

Take the news, for example. Three channels of vetted, professional, credible evening news and major newspapers in every city once provided a common body of information. Today it’s 24/7 muckraking, with a focus determined by the ability to titillate rather than the obligation to inform. Or consider public service. We have a government that’s been so shredded by decades of prevaricating and dishonesty that we have no expectation that either political party is acting in the interests of the people. We were once horrified to the point of expulsion by Nixon. Today we’re barraged with horrifyingly obvious misbehavior, yet can’t muster more than a news cycle’s indignation over a candidate punching out a reporter. A frightening proportion of the “body politic” probably couldn’t name the three branches of government.

And it’s not just public issues. The loss of an essential knowledge base has swept into our personal lives as well in the age of apps that do it all. We’ve abrogated responsibility for such basics as monitoring our personal expenditures and budgets to the point that lots of college graduates can’t even balance a checkbook. Worried about something so basic no longer being taught … hell, how about basic arithmetic? Or that basic social interaction on a face-to face basis has been replaced by Instagram? Look, we’re all guilty to some extent; you’ve probably stared at your phone instead of your dinner companion at least once in the last few weeks.

What happened to thinking? Caring? Mattering? It’s all being swept away in a continually cresting tidal wave of information and misinformation. There’s a play I have acted in a couple of times called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, where the protagonist goes on a 15-minute rant about the loss of shared experience. The essential message is the one that’s common to those who look behind them for meaning: We’ve lost the ties that bind. It’s not the things we do or the tools we use but the importance of a common body of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.

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Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Intellectual Vitality

It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

I love this post from AARP’s Disrupt Aging:

Aging measured by one’s ability to jump up and down misses the point. You can jump up and down and do push ups while your brain turns to oatmeal mush. For example, I haven’t been able to jump up and down for years, I hate to go down escalators, but my IQ hasn’t dropped more than 10-12 points.

Some days oatmeal mush doesn’t sound so bad, but of course that’s fatalistic thinking and the reality is the loss of snap crackle pop is probably what is most frightening. Accustomed to thinking quickly, spontaneously, it’s more than a bit disconcerting to be looking around for words or names that should be right there. It’s pretty classic “senior moment” stuff, but uncomfortably noticeable as it progresses from occasional annoyance to regular state of being.

We’re used as a culture to thinking about vitality as physical, but I think the blog comment above puts a fine point on the relatively higher importance of – I don’t know, whatever the opposite of vacuity is. The value of age, apart from the actinic keratosis and disintegrating menisci and creaking joints, all of which point out how great a day is when you wake up and everything doesn’t hurt, is that our minds are incredible intuitive machines that have rebalanced their act in favor of reflecting over reacting.

On the emotional front, frustration has context, anger is less persistent, action is so neatly tempered by consideration. It’s not a black-and-white thing, of course, but it’s every bit as much in evidence as the physical signs or aging. On the intellectual front, things that are just plain hard to know what to do about when you’re coming up are obvious and easy, philosophical positions may not be any more logical but they are confident and clear, and the trade-off of absolute cognitive speed against just knowing isn’t ultimately such a bad one. Not being able to do things, whether skiing a black diamond trail or doing mental calculations, just don’t matter the same way.

OwlIn other words, we have finally figured out what brings us joy and what is not worth worrying (so much) about. Here’s another quote from the Disrupt Aging blog:

I’m 70 and I’m constantly learning because I still teach and do tutoring.  I used to repair my own ’66 Mustang and it proves valuable that I know mechanics when discussing repairs with a mechanic, especially since I’m a woman. 

Recently one mechanic told me that I needed a new catalytic converter.  Yes, I knew that the sounds I heard from under the hood were indicative of a possible distributor failure.  Yep, another mechanic (without my prompt) said that the problem was the distributor.

 It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

It’s not perfect, it won’t ever be perfect, but it’s progress. And not so bad at all in the universal accounting of things.

Scott@agespots