Friday, February 27, 2009


Now, even though it has been over three weeks since my last entry, some of you might remember that I was talking about media and communication. Throughout that entry I was holding to the ideal that there is no substitute for direct, physical human interaction. In this age of widespread 'enlightenment', we pride ourselves on knowing better than to consider ourselves purely physical beings. We have learned to pay lots of attention to our thoughts and emotions because we have discovered the important roles they play in life. I don't know if this is really a new thing, I have only been around for about 23 years myself, but I am noticing a tendency to overlook the importance of our physicality whether it be in communication, relationships, religion etc. Health issues aside (but certainly to be addressed in a later entry), we need to start giving our physical nature more credit. To that end, I will share a little thought I had this week.

I was listening to public radio and an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago was talking about her book Einstein's Telescope, about how the gravitational pull of dark matter creates curves in space-time that act as lenses to magnify objects much further away than we used to be able to look. Interesting stuff, but to jump to the relevant portion, she mentioned how we can see stars that are 14 billion lightyears away from earth. That means when we look at these stars, we are seeing them as they were 14 billion years ago. That is very interesting to scientists because that is around the time the universe seems to have started expanding, give or take a billion years maybe. As much as there is to be learned from such sights, and as cool as it is to look back in time, they are so old I can't help but feel like they are a little irrelevant. If we want to know anything about what those stars are doing right now, we will have to wait a long time. But by then, it will have become very old news once again.

This sense of disappointment, like we can't see the real star as it actually is right now, applies to other things as well. Our own sun for example. We always see it as it was about 8 minutes ago, never how it actually is right now. And when light is used to transmit data through fiberoptic cables or between satellites, well, we all know how awkward it is when someone being interviewed in Iraq pauses for 5 seconds before answering Matt Lauer's questions. Even over much shorter distances, like when you see your own little image in the corner of a videochat screen, there is very visible delay. And if you haven't ever thought of this before, the images you see of yourself in real mirrors even have a delay so slight you could never perceive it. Not only mirrors, but light and sound from the person across the table from you. We may be three feet from each other, but I am still interacting with a person who existed some fraction of a nanosecond ago. All this made me think that the closest I will ever come to interacting with someone completely in the present is to be physically touching them. Nerve signaling and brain function speeds may be circumvented someday, but until then physical contact is the most effective way to engage with someone in the present moment.

Physical contact is relatively rare in daily life and has a lot of mystique about it. What is more personal and private than touch? What is more comforting in the right context? Few things can send a louder message than how you touch someone. Or how you don't touch them.

So hug someone you care about today. And maybe kiss them too.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Combined Action

So for no apparent reason, at the beginning of last year I decided that I would do something almost no one does - stick to a New Year's resolution. It's always such a funny thing. People are so hopeful, so eager to identify the areas of their lives that need improving. Maybe its the euphoria of the holiday season still wearing off, but everyone believes that this year will be the year they do it. Then winter drags on too long and they forget about it as easily as the idea came. I am not claiming to be better than these people because I stuck with mine. It was actually sort of a fluke. I somehow picked something I ended up finding an incredible passion for. My resolution was to learn how to cook, and a year later I think I have succeeded, at least to the extent I had hoped (at the very least I've moved beyond mac and cheese and chicken nuggets).

With my recent success I was a bit more ambitious this year with three resolutions. I have dropped one, I hate to say, but I am chugging along with the other two. They take on the form of a strategy that is the subject for this post - combined, sustained action. But let me first tell you why I think many resolutions fail so quickly. Let's take one goal people strive for all the time (especially come resolution time); to exercise more. But what does that really mean? I think many people fail because "more" just simply isn't an easy concept to manifest. For example, if you go from never exercising to doing it once a month, technically you are exercising more, but I'd wager your goal was a bit loftier than that. Likewise, exercising 6 hours a day is more than anyone currently exercises (I hope), but that's because it isn't feasible, and also not what you were going for. Thus, setting an easily divisible, daily goal creates a digestible target focus on.

In light of this approach, the two resolutions I have stuck with have come in this form. They are as follows; 1. to exercise daily, and 2. to read 10 pages daily. This has given me very attainable and easily targeted goals. For example, when I go to bed at night an ambiguous answer is not possible to the question of whether or not I exercised or read 10 pages. I can't argue with myself about whether or not I did it, I simply know, throwing vague concepts of "more" or "less" out the window. I have to make a concerted effort to accomplish each task. Because of this daily sense of accomplishment, I also get daily reinforcement, and have ultimately looked forward to both activities.

Now, I think the ultimate concern when identifying a useful New Year's resolution is its effectiveness. And with my resolutions, effectiveness ultimately comes from scope. If you look at my day's activities, reading 10 pages takes me maybe 20-30 minutes, and exercising takes me less than that (so far it has been sit-ups and push-ups before bed). What is the impact of these actions? Not much. "Oooh, big deal, 10 whopping pages," right? Well, that depends on your scope, and is ultimately what makes each goal so attainable. In the course of a day, each activity doesn't take much extra effort and ultimately doesn't accomplish all that much on its own. But combined, well, there is your proper scope, for over the course of the month I will have read an average length book and done somewhere around 2000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups. Over a year that's at least 12 books and a meaningless number of sit-ups and push-ups. Now there's your impact. And I actually stick with it because again, on their own, each activity is not particularly challenging. But they are all part of a larger strategy. Combining small, repetitive actions to reach a larger goal.

I think this concept of combined action applies to many other aspects of life. For an individual, combined action involves the aggregation of these daily choices that add up to something meaningful (eating one extra serving of fruit on any given day is a good choice, but ultimately wont cure cancer. But, done every day for the rest of your life, well, now we're talking. Small, simple, positive choices - added). Likewise, for a society, the combined actions of its citizens add up to something impactful. For example, when faced with an opportunity to help, maybe volunteer, you may find yourself asking "what difference can I really make, I am only one person." Or you've heard the argument against voting; "what's my one vote really gonna matter?" Baad attitudes, right? (though I cannot exempt myself from thinking along these lines from time to time) Because we all know that the combined effect of voting is an election, with winners and losers, and progress. But the combined effects of lending a helping hand, in any way you can, are no less obvious, no less important. If all of us chip in more, we all start to make a difference, with our combined action. It's like those refer-a-friend programs. Bring someone along and you've doubled your impact. So, just like reading 10 pages or doing a few sit-ups, the task itself is relatively easy on its own, the result relatively limited in its impact. But over time, my abs get rock hard, and more people get a warm meal, clothes for their back, or maybe the neighborhood gets a little cleaner, or you take a car off of the road for a day when you bike to work, or more waste gets recycled, or simply more smiles and genuine connections are spread throughout the world. It ALL adds up.

So maybe Gandhi was right after all, with his seemingly oversimplified answer to how to make a difference. In the end, we all simply must "be the change we wish to see in the world."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Waking the Watch Dog

One of my favorite parts of managing my Facebook profile is the section where I can list my favorite quotations. Some of them are funny, others rather serious, and some you wouldn't understand unless you were there. There is one quotation that I think has a lot to of depth to it, worth unpacking for you here.

I first heard this quote in a sermon about a year ago, and it is from the man who brought us the familiar phrase "The Medium is the Message", Marshall Mcclune. The quote of his that I have on my profile is basically a more interesting way of saying that:

"The content of all media is merely the juicy piece of meat held by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind"

It is quite the claim. There is so much fun, educational and useful content conveyed through media, how could it all just be a distraction? And what is it a distraction from? How is media like a burglar? What a negative metaphor for him to choose. What I usually think about media is something more along the lines of "There is nothing inherently wrong with [insert media], its just how you use it that can be good or bad." Marshall Mcclune heard people saying this and he thought that sort of thinking was "the numb stance of the technological idiot." Harsh.

So what's his deal?

One answer to this question is found way back in human history. All the way back when we had languages, but no formal writing system had been developed yet. Human relationships and the preservation of societal knowledge could only take place when people were physically in the same place. Then the medium of writing was introduced. It was no longer necessary to interact with another person to exchange information with them. Communication could take place over much greater distances in time and space. When telephones, radio and television each arrived, they brought with them the ability to exchange more and more information while allowing each individual communicator to stay closer and closer to their own living room. Now the internet, combined with cell phones and the 3G network, has time, space, and our own bodies playing less of a role in communication than ever.

Comparing the early state of human communication to its present state reveals a paradox. Long ago, human communication required physical presence, and so demanded full attention and a considerable amount of time to carry out, thereby limiting the number of events one could participate in during a given day. Today we have an abundance of communication events in our lives every day, each requiring very little time, and therefore less of our attention, and usually no physical presence at all. The paradox here is that as human communication grew, human interactions shrank.

I don't personally find this paradoxical trend to be appealing, but I have a hard time denying it is there. So how did it develop? Mcclune would say that while news stories, phone conversations, TV programs and wikipedia articles captivated us, the media that conveyed them went about the business of changing the way we live. The content of our media distracted our minds while part of our humanity was burgled away.

Now, Mcclune didn't mean to say that media are purely a negative force in society. There is no denying the incredible benefits of our communication technology. There are probably even many human relationships that are stronger today only because modern technology exists. The convenience of typing a short message to someone lengthens the list of people I am keeping up with, but every time I post on someone's Facebook wall, it also comes with the message "this is the way I relate to you." I have to admit that in my life I let these hidden messages be sent far too often. A may not see a friend who lives 20 minutes away from me for months at a time, even though I send them regular messages online, usually about how we should 'totally hang out soon'. The pressure to actually show up at their door and spend some of my time and energy enjoying our relationship is diminished by the soft, perpetual message from Facebook telling me "you are already staying close to them, thanks to me." I disappoint myself, but even worse, I have alreadt passed up several opportunities to make my life richer.

You can probably imagine other messages various forms of media are sending beneath the surface of their content. Most of them encouraging us to do more things, and to do them alone. And media are not only the obvious forms of communication that I have been discussing so far.
Clothing, furniture, buildings, food...they are all media, and they are all messages. What does a frozen dinner say? A glass skyscraper? A compact fluorescent light bulb? We do not acknowledge these messages very often, but it doesn't mean we aren't responding to them.

I think all we can hope to about this is be more aware of what we may unintentionally hear or say with media. We can keep the benefits without letting ourselves wander into the pitfalls. And this awareness can even be expanded into all areas of life, because after all, it is impossible to ever be doing just one thing. Which is actually another one of my favorite Facebook quotes...

P.S. I borrowed heavily from the sermon I mentioned earlier. Its awesome, so if you want it, let me know and I will send it to you.