Manufactured Distraction

glass-shardsLast week, as a hook into an economics lesson on globalization and trade, I played a short video called Shift Happens. The video uses a bunch of stats to illustrate how fast everything is changing. People change jobs with more frequency than ever. Students today may eventually work jobs that don’t even exist yet. We’re living in exponential times, the video asserts. In 1984 there were a thousand internet devices. In 1992 there were a million. In 2008 there were a billion. Twitter, founded in 2006, has nearly 330 million active monthly users. Facebook has 1.8 billion.

In class discussion afterward, we pointed out an ironic example of “shift” from the video itself. The video referred to Vine, a social media app for sharing 6 second video clips, as the “fastest growing app on the internet.” The video was made in 2013. Vine shut down two weeks ago.

The students then sat rapt, listening to my tale of growing up without social media. Facebook first popped up in 2004, my first year of college. You had to have a college email account. Each profile was static. No feeds or notifications. You had to click on someone to look at their profile.

The point in class was to get the students thinking about the need to be adaptable in a rapidly changing world.

The point for this blog post is that we’re entering uncharted psychological territory.

I’m happy I didn’t grow up with handheld internet and social media. It was enough to develop an identity in real life, without having to craft an online persona. I think I’m better off by learning to navigate awkward social situations without a handheld avoidance device to save me.

Ah, the good old days. Doesn’t every generation think something better about their own upbringing?

But there is something unique about this particular technological shift.

The average person looks at their handheld screen upwards of 75 times per day. The studies I found ranged from 60 per day to 90 per day, but each study had one finding in common: people’s estimates of the amount of times they looked at their phone were way smaller than the amount of times they actually looked at their phone when measured.

The average time period of each screen engagement was 30 seconds.

So basically, without being fully aware of it, we are interrupting ourselves every 15 minutes of our waking hours. Every 15 minutes we take a break for a 30 second burst of other stuff. Unpredictable bursts of exciting stuff. Kind of like a slot machine.

Never before has a technology or phenomenon systematically targeted the human attention span like that. Sustained concentration is necessary for all sorts of things. Thinking of solutions to difficult problems. Considering multiple perspectives. Checking yourself for bias or errors in judgement. Understanding something in depth. Self reflection. Imagination. Any human endeavor and all human culture is affected by this shift.

An experiment at UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center looked at the effect of “likes” on the teenage brain. The researchers found that the reward centers of the brain lit up when made to believe that their post had many likes, compared to a dimmer response to just a few likes. Additionally, teens were significantly more likely to “like” another user’s picture when it had many likes to begin with, compared to the same picture with a small number of likes.

As a brain accustomed to a drug responds with reduced intensity to the natural pleasures of life, so too a brain accustomed to the dopamine bursts of online media may respond less actively to the deeper rewards of slower processing. Some of these reward bursts, according to UCLA researchers, may be influenced by the whims and herd mentality of other users.

In my own social media use, I started to have the horrifying realization that I was bending my experience into shareable bites. Trying to draw traffic to the blog, I thought to get more active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I would look at a sunset and wonder if it would make a good post. I would hear a news story, think of an insight, and then start to trim the thought down to try to make it fit into 140 snappy characters, hoping to make a splash on someone’s 30 second window of attention. Maybe get some likes.

The freeing realization was that I don’t care to compete for bursts of random attention. And I don’t care to put my attention on the chopping block.

I am currently making an intentional effort to reduce interruptions. So far, I’m finding that what seemed urgently important two weeks ago, really isn’t anymore. It hasn’t been about shunning technology, but about using it differently.

I will report back soon with further reflections on this effort.

Fare Thee Well

ap-obama-trump-994x743“The great problem confronting us today is that we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live … and so we are in danger now of ending up with guided missiles in the hands of misguided men.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Lincoln University in 1961, titling his speech “The American Dream.”

Dr. King began that speech the same way President Obama began his farewell address– hearkening back to the Declaration of Independence, marveling about a country of self-governance founded on the principle that our equality is not gifted by the state, but rather exists in our nature. It is our God-given essence. Simply by our birth, we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In 1961, Dr. King claimed that the American dream is unfulfilled to the extent that poverty and violence and unequal treatment remain prevalent. He argued that the “interrelated structure of reality” tells us that no one is truly free unless all are free. Not only are the fates of Americans bound up with each other–white and black– but the fates of the entire world are bound up together. The speech predicted a new problem of globalization: “The world in which we live has become a single neighborhood … Through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development we must make of it a brotherhood.”

Some people blame Obama for his naïveté in dealing with world events. Shoulda been stronger and tougher. I saw him as having a grander, longer-term vision on how the world might, if it ever could, someday live in peace.

From his launch into the national sphere in 2004 to his last week in office, Barack Obama remained the perennial optimist, a believer in a positive human nature. This was somehow both a weakness and a strength. Hope. Unity. Yes We Can.

Dr. King spoke of the need to make the globalized world a spiritual brotherhood. That’s the same spirit Obama carried with him to the presidency. In his final State of the Union, and again in his farewell address, Obama waxed poetic about the struggles and virtues of democracy, and about the values that Americans have the responsibility to uphold.

Hope. Unity. Yes We Can. Yes We Did?

Obama admitted one regret during his last State of the Union: the country seems to be more divided as he concludes his presidency. Some people blame Obama for this division.

The policies and strategies of our 44th president are certainly up for criticism, but I think history will remember him positively for his idealism. He wanted opportunity for the children of undocumented immigrants. He wanted to protect the environment. He wanted to legitimize military action by joining with allies and getting congressional approval. He wanted to stop gun violence. He wanted everyone to have access to health care.

I will remember him for being a good dude. He was a class act and a role model for a young man these last eight years. He was sharp, thoughtful, reflective. He was funny. He cared about morality, and his eloquence matched his heart. I could count on him for a touching speech during a time of tragedy, or a witty rejoinder to a sportscaster poking fun at his March Madness bracket.


Obama’s presidency agitated many people. Including the 45th president, who began his ascent of American politics by spouting an unfounded conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not an American citizen.

Like the manipulating narcissist he is, Donald Trump held a press conference in September 2016 claiming credit for bringing the ‘birther’ issue to rest, reassuring the world that Obama was, indeed, an American citizen.

Donald Trump cares nothing about the American story or the American dream. He aims to vindictively repeal Obama’s signature legislative healthcare achievement and build a monument to his own racist campaign in the form of a wall on our southern border. He attacks the character of war veterans and civil rights heroes when they criticize him, but praises repressive foreign leaders when they compliment him.

Two weeks after his election, Trump settled a $25 million fraud lawsuit for operating a fake university, where he used his image of business excellence to con hardworking Americans into giving him money. Only no one seems to care about this fraud settlement, because he has created so much outrage and chaos with his conflicts of interest, cabinet picks, media bashing, blatant lies, inflammatory tweets, and a host of other scandals.

Trump is a unique threat to American democracy. Which is why Obama spent much of his final speech urging Americans not to take our democracy for granted.

In the 1960s Dr. King called for “creative protest in order to break down all of those barriers that make it impossible for the dream to be realized.” The idea was using non-violence to show moral superiority of the cause. To gnaw at the conscience of those in power and, thus, create laws to ensure equal treatment. Laws were a temporary fix. Long-term, King envisioned a world where the hearts and minds of all races, religions, and nationalities were transformed. A world where everyone would live together in peace.

I’m not sure what creative protest Dr. King would have in mind for an American president with no conscience. But the dreams of King and Obama are in grave danger.

Dr. King ended his American Dream speech, as Obama did in his farewell address, with a call to action. He called for the students in the audience “not to be detached spectators, but involved participants in this great drama that is taking place in our nation and around the world.” He vowed to be maladjusted. Though everyone wants to be well-adjusted in life and in society, there are situations that call upon men of good will to maladjusted. To not give in to the status quo, but instead to fight for a deeper purpose– like the principles of the Declaration and the possibility of a universal brotherly love.

“It may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted … I believe that it is through such maladjustment that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”


The End is Near

end-times-copyWhen the year turned 2000, everyone was worried. Would computers work the same after Y2K? Or would there be massive power outages and chaos? Maybe the world was ending. But, I mean, was it even the turn of the century? Doesn’t that technically happen in 2001?

I was in eighth grade. Our math teacher warned us that our calculators wouldn’t work in the new year, so we better learn these calculations by hand. He was storing water and canned food at home.

Y2K turned out to be a buzzkill. The world didn’t end, and it wasn’t even the turn of the century. All we got were these “00” glasses that people awkwardly tried to extend to 2010 and beyond.

Then there was 12.21.2012. People thought this might be end of the world. According to the Mayan calendar, this date marked the end of a 5,125 year time period. Perhaps a cataclysmic event loomed. Others countered this gloomy theory, predicted the dawn of a new age of peace and harmony.

In 2017, people mostly feel relieved that 2016 ended. Instead of an exciting start or a blank slate, it feels like we are flushing something unpleasant down the toilet. Problem is, one of the unpleasant parts of 2016 is now President of the United States.

But this is not a political screed. This is not me screaming on a busy street corner: Hey everyone, wake up! Donald Trump is about to control the nuclear arsenal! Run for your lives! This is not me hoarding water or moving to Canada. This is not me, afraid of being thrown in a political prison, deleting all critical writings from my blog.

The New Year is a time to reflect and to look forward. Any transition is ripe with opportunity to enter the doorway with intention.

So here are three New Year’s resolutions:

  • Unplug to connect. My urge to connect with the world often causes me to scroll through social media. This is the biggest lie of the decade. I want to spend more time this year striking up real conversations with members of my community, and learning stories. I want to spend more time reading books, magazines, and newspapers–things into which individuals have invested time, research, and reflection.
  • Pray, in my own way. To act with intention, I am convinced that a person needs to connect with some deeper reality. To avoid going through the motions, a person needs to get in touch with deeper desires. Some may call their deeper reality God. Others might call it getting in touch with their emotions. All I know is it takes place in silence. In nature. In slowing down and being aware of interior movements. I want to cultivate more of that this year.
  • Stay mindful to the personal sphere. I tend to be an optimistic person, but I am not optimistic about the world right now. So be it. I still have students in the desks in front of me. I have friends and family. I’m getting married this year. There’s plenty of good things to keep at the center of attention. Plenty to be grateful for. Living simply, living well…This can be a heroic act in disruptive times.

Happy New Year to everyone reading this blog. I appreciate your time.

Stay human in 2017.