Being Digitally Deliberate

Yesterday at work a coworker, feeling the winter blues, commented about how Facebook made her sad. It is a familiar topic. People read the posts of their friends and are sad that they aren’t having as much fun as others or feel guilty about not doing things their friends are doing that they feel they should do as well. For others, Facebook becomes a filter, seeing the world just through the eyes of friends who are very similar.

I also received an email from Ethan Zuckerman yesterday about a possible collaboration between CHC and some of his students. I picked up his book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. It explores the potential of meaningful connections while looking at how technology doesn’t always live up to hopes and expectations. He includes a quote from Thoreau,

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Thoreau recently, that 27 year old who went to Harvard and then lived in a tiny house that he had built. He was a hipster 170 years ago.

For Christmas, I received Books and Portraits by Virginia Woolf. It includes an article she wrote about Thoreau on his hundredth birthday for The Times Literary Supplement. It provides additional insights into Thoreau.

All of this comes together into an idea for the New Year. What if we chose to live our digital lives deliberately. What if we were to become a digital wandering autodidact, modifying our information diet to step out of the filter bubble and embrace the cosmopolitan attitude that Zuckerman proposes?

Perhaps this will shape some of my writing for the New Year.

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Becoming Santa

“What sort of Santa will I be today?” I thought to myself as I slipped on the Santa outfit that one of my coworkers had picked up at Marshall’s. It had been over a decade since I had last worn a Santa suit. It had been a decade of pain and hardship, suffering and learning. I like to think that I’ve come out wiser, kinder and happier.

The last time I wore a Santa suit was for a holiday party at a Fairfield County yacht club. My beard had not turned white yet, and some kids noticed the artificial coloring and made comments. Others thought they recognized me. The holiday party was just one more event in a long string of events for the enchanted lives of some of Fairfield County’s well to do and while the event was well received, it felt like it lacked the magic of Christmas.

My coworkers had organized an elaborate holiday party for the people in our community. With my long white beard,I had been drafted to be Santa Claus. There were concerns. Should I wear Google Glass? We talked about using Glass as a hook for publicity and as a tool to share information about kids coming to visit Santa. Should additional whitening be added to my beard? While it is mostly white, there are still a few grey spots. We decided that a natural beard worked best. I don’t speak Spanish and people wondered what to do about that.

There had been a big discussion in the media about a news commentator who suggested that Santa is white. I am white and I knew that I would be Santa for various young black children. Could I do this in a culturally appropriate manner?

Perhaps my biggest personal question is how I would respond to someone who questioned the existence of Santa.

Things were just too chaotic to make use of the Google Glass and they soon became just an ornament. Most of the kids were too young for it to mean anything anyway. Kids smiled as they waited in line. Some waved to me and I waved back. A few rushed up to give me big hugs. Many squirmed as I asked them if they had been good this year, but smiled when I added with a knowing chuckle and a wink, at least most of the time.

Most of the gifts that kids wanted were what you would expect; dolls, footballs, and remote controlled cars. I wondered how many of these kids would get what they were hoping for and how many would be disappointed. There were also some very touching requests.

One kid wanted a book and a chance to spend time with her friends and family. Another wanted her mom to be happy.

I thought back to some of the Christmases during my trying decade and wondered if my kids had made similar wishes. For people fighting depression, happiness isn’t just something you can switch on for the holidays.

One child said she wanted an apartment for her mother and herself for Christmas. “Where was she living now?” I wondered to myself. Were they staying with relatives? Were they in a shelter? If so, what sort of shelter? Was it our domestic violence shelter? I had noted that the girl asked just about her mother and herself, with no mention of the father.

How does Santa deliver to homeless children?

While our brief discussion was perhaps the most touching, there was a different discussion that perhaps pulled it all together. A mother dragged her reluctant daughter up to me. She explained that her daughter’s classmates had told her that Santa doesn’t exist and they made fun of her.

I looked at the daughter and asked her what she thought Santa was really all about. She gave a typical pre-teen shrug. I explained that the core of Santa is helping other people be happy. Unfortunately, for too many people these days, Santa does not exist. Too many people these days don’t help those around them find happiness. Too many people these days are too focused on their own wants and needs to help others. Perhaps for many of these people, Santa does not exist.

Ultimately, it is up to each one of us whether or not Santa exists. It is up to us whether or not joy is brought into the world this holiday season, and throughout the year. I asked the young girl to come sit next to me and smile to the camera; not for me, not for her, but for her mother. I asked her not what she wanted for a gift but about what sort of gift she could give to her mother.

By the end of the day, I had spoken with close to two hundred children. While I didn’t end hunger or homelessness, hopefully, I brought a little joy and happiness to as many people as I could, and that is how I became Santa this year.

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Smarter Happier Selfies

This evening, I sat down to my evening positive attitude adjustment, and found Howard Rheingold had shared on Facebook a link to Jason Feifer’s comments in Fast Company, GOOGLE MAKES YOU SMARTER, FACEBOOK MAKES YOU HAPPIER, SELFIES MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON

It was, in my opinion, a very well written response to Sherry Turkle’s recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, The Documented Life where she complains about Selfies.

My Initial reaction to Turkle’s piece was to write Sisyphus’ Selfie. I’ve been intending to write more on this, and I started to write a comment to Howard’s status. Yet as it grew, I thought I should really make it part of my blog post.

I started off:

I must say, as an active participant in LambdaMOO back in the mid 90s and a friend of many of the researchers and cyberanthropoligists that became involved there. I've always found Turkle to be a bit full of herself (and other stuff).

I read her Op-Ed and found that my opinion of her hasn't improved over the past 18 years. I've been meaning to write a blog post about her article, very similar to Feifer's, but perhaps from a slightly different angle.

This is where I decided to merge the comment into this blog post. One person suggested, why not just call Turkle a Luddite, and then went on to repeat various assertions of Turkle that are tangential to the article, claiming them to be facts.

I think Luddite is an overused word amongst technophiles and so I want to present a slightly different idea.

Marc Prensky, in his famous article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants presents the idea of people who have grown up in a digital culture as digital natives. Those who have moved into a digital culture, having grown up in a different culture are digital immigrants.

In my mind, this fits nicely with some of what Turkle talks about. Yes, growing up in a digital culture does change the way we think and act. Yet this also points to the biggest problem with what Turkle has to say.

She is looking at digital culture from the viewpoint of a digital immigrant. For example, her comment

We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.

This sure sounds a lot to me like that old grandmother living in the immigrant community complaining about how people these days just don’t do things the way they used to in the old world, and how much better the old world was.

I pause to think a little more and glance at my daughter creating something in Mindcraft. She is a digital native. Me? Having been on the Internet for over thirty years, and on bulletin boards and programming computers long before this, I tend to think of myself as a digital pioneer, or perhaps a digital aborigine.

Yes, working with computers for all these years has changed my way of thinking. A critic might compare it to the way mercury changed the thinking of hatmakers, and my children might have other comments about having a Dad that has been online longer than they have.

Yet I relish my experiences with technology and I’m glad that my children are having even greater experiences with it. I love the camaraderie of other digital pioneers or digital aborigines.

Through my discussions with friends on Facebook, I’ve also found myself talking about Jacques Ellul, whether or not people need to learn to program, representations of transhumanism, The Power of Patience and Civil Religion and how it relates to prophetic religion, the social contract, the way we interact through digital media, and if there are implications for a Great Awakening.

And, for that matter, I let a young college student from Iran borrow my Google Glass this afternoon, so he could take a selfie of him wearing Google Glass, standing next to a robot.

Technology does change the way we think and act. There is much that needs to be discussed about it. I’m happy that Facebook has given me topics to Google and become smarter about. I’m just not sure that Turkle is really adding much of value to the conversation.

Sisyphus’ Selfie

Sisyphus paused, his feet braced, his left arm extended against the boulder, holding off the inevitable. With his right hand he fished his smartphone out of his pocket and took a selfie.

The first selfie had been a challenge. His muscles were strong but sore. It was hard for him to hold the boulder in its place with just one hand. His friends mocked him. What was the purpose of the selfie? Why bother interrupt his routine?

But through practice, he became better at it. The selfies went from showing weary anguish to having a certain artistic flair, catching the angle of the setting sun just right. Once, he even managed to capture an image of an eagle flying away with Prometheus’ liver. Some of his friends started taking selfies as well and selfies became part of the routine. Push the boulder up the hill. Take a selfie. Watch the boulder roll back down.

Yet there was still something missing, that sense of repetition. So today, Sisyphus tried something different. He captured a brief video of the boulder careening down the crevasse.

The endless loop soon went viral.

Thinking About Civil Religion

Does any of my FACEBOOK friends have any insight on civil religion?

It is one of the things that I love about social media, the rare opportunities to get into interesting discussions beyond the reposting of articles that people find interesting, intermingled with pictures of family life.

I’m not well versed in discussions of civil religion, but I read around a little bit. I am especially interested in the social contract, so I found the relationship interesting. I responded,

Random thoughts... According to Wikipedia civil religion was coined by Rousseau in The Social Contract as the glue that holds society together. I'm a big fan of the idea of the social contract and believe that we are at a point where we need to renegotiate the social contract. In this case, because of how the Internet is changing interactions between people. Yet it is these points of changing social contracts that bring about times of great awakenings. Civil religion and prophetic religion entwine.

Another topic I’ve been very interested in, and less versed in than I would like is great awakenings. It feels like we are at a point where a great awakening is needed.

So, I started thinking, is there a relationship between civil religion and great awakenings? My search led me to Civil Religious Revivals and Awakenings. It didn’t lead me in the direction of civil religion and great awakenings but it did give me a bunch important ideas.

The starting point is breaking apart ‘civil religion’ into different civil religions. Do we have different civil religions depending on whether we are living in blue states or red states, depending on further nuances of geography or political opinion? Are our civil religions determined by race and ethnicity?

Remillard’s article was full of interesting links. I was pleased to see that he is on Twitter and so I followed him there. This led to an article in the Washington Post, Like Pope Francis? You’ll love Jesus.

I’ve been fascinated by all my liberal friends getting all excited about Pope Francis. Elizabeth Tenety does a good job of exploring different reactions to the new Pope. It seems like the response of various American civil religions to a prophet religion.

Perhaps we are seeing an underlying battle between competing different civil religions and a manifestation of a prophetic religion. How will it play out in this age of increasing wealth disparities and climate change, amplified by changes in how we interact through electronic media?

I don’t know, but this is a great topic to be discussing on social media.

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