December 2013 Archives

Away for a spell

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I will be gone until after New Year's day. My wife and I are taking a trip to India to celebrate dear friends' 50th wedding anniversary. It's too far to travel just for a few days so we are also taking a tour of the southern parts of India.

Are You Sirious?

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I don’t usually write two posts without the separation of a few days. It takes me some time to recover from the first one. But today I make an exception. Shortly after reading David Brooks’s piece, my eyes alit on the next item in the Opinion listings in the NYTimes, a movie review by Frank Bruni, that told me much more than the plot. Bruni was writing about the film, “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. Here is his quick summary.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man in love with the operating system for his smartphone-esque device, a sexy Siri that — or should I say who? — tells him not only when he has mail but what a terrific male he is, and does this in Scarlett Johansson’s come-hither coo. There was much fuss recently over the decision that Johansson was ineligible for the Golden Globes: Should a disembodied voice’s contribution be regarded as any less real than a visible, palpable person’s? The debate echoed questions in the movie itself, which was written and directed by Spike Jonze and was just named the best picture of 2013 by both the National Board of Review and (in a tie with “Gravity”) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

I bemoaned, in the Brooks post, the move toward reducing us to vassals of computers and the Internet, but here what has been the epitome of personal experience is reduced to a love affair with the voice at the end of our computer operating system, Siri for those familiar with the iPhone. The article is rich with Bruni’s comments on the impact of entering into a relationship with a “being” whose actions are like the genie in Aladdin’s tale: ask and I will obey, Master. You should read the whole column, but here are a few choice snippets.

I savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone. You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions. You can revel in the anecdotes that affirm your cynicism or articulate your fantasies, gullibly believing what’s actually performance art, like a young television producer’s tweet-by-tweet account of his smackdown of an annoying fellow passenger on a Thanksgiving flight. He was briefly a hero, his valor gone viral, until he revealed that he’d made the whole thing up.

This movie is all about making things up. Siri can sound like a compliant and loving partner, but there is nothing human about her. Real relations, as in the film, have moments of complete asymmetric satisfaction between the actors, one subservient to the wishes of the other, spoken and unspoken. But they also always must have symmetry and mutual care and respect. If we come to respect and care for a dissociated voice as if it came from a real person, we are in deep trouble. I haven’t seen the film, but will certainly view it, based on Bruni’s description.

If it were science fiction, I would not be so concerned, but this story appears to be something quite possible in the here and now. Bruni writes, “that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete.” Only if one assumes we are nothing but machines that that can no longer think and feel. Apparently such opining is quite possible and is encouraged by stories like this film tells. I will stop here and write no more until I watch the film. In the meantime, do read his column; it won’t spoil the movie.

Our Own "Brave New World"

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One of my favorites sources for this blog, David Brooks, is back at work on the New York Times after a long hiatus to promote his latest book. His column today is all about the increasing need for people to adapt to the computer in their work lives if they are to prosper in the future world that he and many see coming.

We’re living in an era of mechanized intelligence, an age in which you’re probably going to find yourself in a workplace with diagnostic systems, different algorithms and computer-driven data analysis. If you want to thrive in this era, you probably want to be good at working with intelligent machines. As Tyler Cowen puts it in his relentlessly provocative recent book, “Average Is Over,” “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.”

Then, Brooks lists a number of job categories which fit this prediction. Here is one of them: “Synthesizers. The computerized world presents us with a surplus of information. The synthesizer has the capacity to surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story.” There are seven more similar descriptions. But one is quite different and strikes me as quite relevant to my work.

Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

I find this quite depressing. Not that it will necessarily happen, but because Brooks (and others) write as if our lives will be dominated by the Internet and all the devices that makes it work. I believe strongly that there is much more to life than the “free bounty of the Internet” can provide. If not, the fate of the human species is not very promising. Flourishing, the condition I believe would be the centerpiece of the kind of world we would want to sustain, rests critically on our relationships with the whole world, not just the omnipresent computer. Brooks’s column could easily be mistaken for a book review of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. The world of ‘synthesizers” and “economizers” doesn’t sound like a world I would choose to live in.

Brooks’s partially recognizes that in adding the last category.

Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.

But he misses the point entirely in this technocratic way of thinking about the future; we can solve all our social problems by putting “experts” to work. If you are “disorganized” or “disaffected,” just hire a new kind of therapist, a “weaver,” to lift your spirits such that life takes on new meaning. Huxley’s answer for the disaffection of the totalitarian world of the future was “soma,” a tranquilizer-like drug he invented long before Prozac and Valium came on the scene, perhaps to deal with the same kind of issues.

Brooks and other opinion writers are rarely willing to dig deeply into the causes of the social problems they seek solutions to. Does he really believe that the “weavers’ can allay the disaffection already present in the country? Or are they, like soma, simply going to make disaffection seem like the normal way to be? If there is an answer to the tightly bound life of the future, it will lie in recovering the caring core of our humanness. Hopefully, there will be people who choose to become “connectors,” my addition to Brooks’s list. Connectors are people who teach and motivate (maybe cajole) us to recognize and act through connections (and relationships) to ourselves, to other people, and to the whole world out there, most of which lies beyond the reach of the computer and its grasping extension, the Internet.

Connectors can come in many shapes, ranging from the powerful figures in our society to much more humble people like parents and schoolteachers. Imagine what might happen if President Obama used his bully pulpit to encourage us to hug one another as a small beginning to actually care for one another. Imagine what would happen if schoolteachers would instill respect and care for people and the world instead to turning their students into the machines to serve the new world that Brooks and others picture. Imagine a world where those same teachers taught their students how to think for themselves so that they become capable of digging below the surface of cultural life to find what really matters.

Connectors could lead parties into the wilderness (if it does still exist) so that we could begin to recover our sense of relationships with the non-human world. Care always takes place within a connected pair: the caring actor and the target of the caring action at the other end. Care requires consciousness to enable the actor to intentionally think about the other and what might be missing or necessary at the other end. Caring attempts to fill a missing piece of the other’s existential context. We can recognize this whenever we deem somebody’s action as coming from love.

Care is largely missing in the mechanized, numerical culture of today. Becoming extensions of the computer or the Internet can only make matters worse. It is fashionable to write about a completely mechanized future replete with robots and computer terminals, but it lacks a critical sense of what this means for human beings. We are not robots that can only perform the tasks for which they have been programmed to do. Our humanness rests in our authenticity to be ourselves, doing what comes from inside, certainly not what some machine out there forces us to become. It is unfortunate to see good thinkers like Brooks write as if the computerized world of the future is inevitable and we can be taught to live within it. Not much of a life without authenticity and care.

Such a world may well come to be; we do seem to be headed that way. But we do not have to become robots, real or metaphorical. To whatever skill sets these writers anticipate we will need, they can and should add something related to the need to remain human beings. We have already lost in our modern culture much of our understanding of what this means and how to act accordingly, but we can recover a consciousness of that understanding with help. I have used “connectors” here as one way to make that point. Whatever we do to adapt to the future must include some means to recover and sustain our human essence, that of caring. If we do not, the future of Homo sapiens is more likely to be resemble the condition Brooks and Cowen (who he quotes, above) describe.

Please Mr. Brooks and others like Cowen, when you write about our future, do not take such a inhuman world for granted. It may be a stretch for you, but try to think about the idea that “connectors” conveys, and add your own means for “humanizing” to your work. Those of us who are trying to recover what being human means so that we may flourish can use all the help we can get.

Flourish and the Search for Meaning

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It is said that it takes a crisis to bring out our innermost beliefs. This appears to be happened to a whole generation of young people in the US, the milllennials. They are featured in an opinion piece in today’s NYTimes Sunday Review by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker.

Today’s young adults born after 1980, known as Generation Y or the millennial generation, are the most educated generation in American history and, like the baby boomers, one of the largest. Yet since the Great Recession of 2008, they have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. The income gap between old and young Americans is widening.

The gist of the article is that these young people have turned to find meaning in their lives, rather than seek material rewards.

Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness. They report being less focused on financial success than they are on making a difference. A 2011 report commissioned by the Career Advisory Board and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

But it is not just their goals that I found interesting; it is how the article talked about them and about meaning. Here is a key extract.

Although meaning is subjective — signifying different things to different people — a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself. There is no one meaning of life, but rather, many sources of meaning that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections.

They are seeking the satisfaction that meaning brings from the search for and discovery of it. The numbers of those expressing this outlook has increased since the Recession of 2008, before which time they were often characterized as “narcissistic and flaky in their professional and personal lives, and [are] more selfish than prior generations.”

I find this shift very important to the subject that underpins my work on flourishing. Without using that word, I read this shift as evidence that the millennials are seeking a flourishing life, judged by how well they are taking care of the meaningful domains of their lives. “When individuals adopt what we call a meaning mind-set — that is, they seek connections, give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose — clear benefits can result, including improved psychological well-being, more creativity, and enhanced work performance.”

The article points out that this mindset and self-assessment are not the same as expressions of happiness. If true and lasting, this new characteristic bodes well for flourishing and the repair of our increasingly unsustainable world. The article uses mostly psychological language, but it also could be translated into the ontological vocabulary I use. I would say that this cohort is experiencing the fullness of “Being” instead of the unsatisfying Having” mode of life that Fromm (and I) write about. The reference to “connections” is more passive than what happens with them. Caring always comes via connections but when actors are focused on the distant end of the tie, not on their end.

Another ontological aspect is authenticity, which, most simply stated, refers to actions in the course of being. The source is mysterious, some have named it a “calling,” which I do not use because it has too many religious overtones. But if pressed to explain why one acted in such a caring fashion, the response is often, “because it was meaningful.” Meaningful actions are virtually the same as caring actions; and a meaningful life is one in which flourishing is possible.

Consumption theorists have offered many explanations as to why people consume unceasingly without deriving much in the way of happiness. Here I find the work of Tim Kasser very clear. Kasser (and others) have arranged people’s expressed values in an orderly manner and have been able to define two distinct (but with fuzzy boundaries) sets “intrinsic and extrinsic.” The arrangement is shown in the diagram which I found in several of Kassers’ papers.

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He writes “Goals next to each other in this circumplex [ the roughly circular pattern] are psychologically consistent with each other; that is, people who care about personal growth also often care about affiliation, and people who care about image are often oriented towards popularity. Goals on the opposite side of the circumplex are in conflict with each other; for example, spirituality and hedonism oppose each other, as do financial success and community feeling.”

My point in this blog post is to show that the search for a meaningful life is virtually the same as a search for flourishing. The difference is only semantic, not substantive. The difference between these two goals can be found in many places, the ontology of being, the psychology of values, and, directly, in the attitudes of this population cohort. All represent a mode of life that has broken away from the dominant unsustainable, materialistic norms of our present culture. Without leaving that culture behind, there is little or no possibility of flourishing. Any such leaving is bound to be disruptive and anxiety-producing, but, as the article concludes, it appears to be worth it. (Frankl refers to Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote a widely read book, Mans’s Search for Meaning)

Of course, nobody likes living through tough economic times — and the millennials have been dealt a tough hand. But at the same time, there are certain benefits to economic deprivation. Millennials have been forced to reconsider what a successful life constitutes. By focusing on making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than on more materialistic markers of success, they are setting themselves up for the meaningful life they yearn to have — the very thing that Frankl realized makes life worth living.