Journalist Matt Richtel’s ‘Deadly Wandering’ tells a harrowing story of technology’s dangers

By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Matt Richtel

Matt Richtel

On an early Friday morning in September 2006, a young man named Reggie Shaw climbed into his Chevy Tahoe for his long commute to work in Logan, Utah. Somewhere on a highway east of Logan, with the sky just beginning to lighten, Reggie veered over the yellow line and sideswiped a Saturn coming from the opposite direction. The Saturn spun out and was “T-boned” by a Ford pick-up, killing the two men riding in the Saturn.

From that tragic event comes the story at the center of Matt Richtel’s new book “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention” (Wm. Morrow).
Reggie Shaw, it was later determined, was texting on his flip phone at the time of the accident, which he initially denied. What followed was the seminal legal case that defined the debate about texting and driving.
Richtel, a reporter at the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the risks of distracted driving. In his book, he lays out the narrative of the Shaw case, what happened to Reggie and to the families of the victims, and how the events of that morning led lawmakers to look for a proper legal response to what can be a deadly habit.
At the same time, “Deadly Wandering” probes into the neuroscience of distraction, and the deeply seated neuro-chemical appeal of our ubiquitous hand-held devices.
“I didn’t want to write a book just about texting and driving,” said Richtel, who comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz to discuss his book Nov. 5. “What we’re talking about here goes well beyond what happens in the car. Why are we checking our devices all the time? Why can’t we stand idly in line at the grocery store, or at a stoplight, or with our homework, or with the spouse that sitting right across the table, without feeling that itch to look at our device?”
Chapters on what science is learning about how smart-phone and tablet technology are changing our brains are interspersed within the longer story of Reggie Shaw who later went to jail.
“This is not a screed against technology,” said Richtel of his new book. “It’s a wake-up call to be informed about the power of the neuro-chemical power of these things, in the same way we want to be informed about anything that has lots of power over our lives.”

Research suggests that checking in on your smart phone may release a dose of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates the pleasure centers of the brain. “Ninety-six percent of people say that you shouldn’t text and drive, and yet, 30 percent do it anyway,” said Richtel. “The only other disconnect I can find that is that stark is with cigarettes. Every smoker says it’s bad for you, yet they keep doing it. Why do these devices have such a lure over us.”

Today, Shaw is a crusader against texting while driving. “Deadly Wandering” is an often harrowing chronicle of how Shaw got to the point where he could admit his wrongdoing and atone for causing the death of two fathers and husbands.

“The Reggie story is so compelling because we can connect to him easily,” said Richtel. “The battle that happened after his deadly wreck is a metaphor for our own internal battle about how to pay attention, particularly on the roads.”

This is not, however, a morality tale. Instead of talking about the problem of texting while driving as an issue of responsibility and willpower, Richtel asserts that our powerful and appealing technological devises are changing our behaviors on a neurological level.

“People are getting in their cars every single day, people who are not malicious, who are not bad people, and yet they’re winding up in these deadly wrecks. Driving feels boring a lot of the time. And with every passing moment, we are becoming less tolerant of boredom than we’ve ever been. This thing is constantly beckoning us.”

Matt Richtel

http://www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_26823138/journalist-matt-richtels-deadly-wandering-tells-harrowing-story?source=rss

 

Jian Ghomeshi to #Gamergate: Our culture’s toxic masculinity crisis on display

When do we get to talk seriously about misogyny and violence against women? A list of opportunities we should take

 

Jian Ghomeshi to #Gamergate: Our culture's toxic masculinity crisis on display
Jian Ghomeshi (Credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch)

We don’t often get to talk about misogyny, toxic masculinity and male sexual entitlement outside of certain feminist and progressive spaces, whether those spaces are online or offline. In fact, just use the words “toxic masculinity” in a sentence and you’re bound to lose a lot of people straight out of the gate. People, even people who think rape is bad and that mass shootings are terrifying and preventable and that men shouldn’t threaten women with death for critiquing video games, bristle when you direct these conversations back to what seems to connect most of them, if not all of them.

But try to talk about toxic masculinity and you’re likely to get dismissed as a cynical opportunist pushing an agenda. Or a misandrist. (A “creeping” misandrist, even.) I saw that happen a lot over the weekend when women I follow on Twitter tried to talk about the Seattle shooting, in which a 14-year-old boy killed a girl and badly injured four other students, as part of a pattern we’ve seen before. It was a familiar script. When I wrote about Elliot Rodger’s misogyny after he killed six people in Isla Vista, California, I received a lot of angry emails telling me that I was politicizing a tragedy. It seems that, even when a killer leaves hundreds of pages detailing his racist and misogynistic worldview, we aren’t supposed to talk about those things. (We also aren’t supposed to talk about the data we have showing that 98 percent of shooters are men. Or, as the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti pointed out on Monday, research that shows that responses of “explosive anger” are ”two to three times more likely to occur in male teens, and twice as likely in adult men.”)

There is a dangerous and deadly pattern at play, and every day I read something that I file away as part of the growing list opportunities to talk about toxic masculinity, opportunities we should take. Because these aren’t isolated incidents, but the product of something more insidious and more dangerous. Sometimes, I keep actual lists. This week, my list looked like this:



1. Cop stole arrested women’s nude photos as ‘game’: docs

2. Teenage Boy May Have Shot Up His School Because His Girlfriend Broke Up With Him

3. Is GamerGate About Media Ethics or Harassing Women? Harassment, the Data Shows

4. Oklahoma City police officer accused of sex crimes released from jail for second time

5. CBC fires Jian Ghomeshi over sex allegations

Now unless you are of the belief that men are wired to be violent (I am not), then talking about our culture, how boys are raised to view themselves and others around them, seems pretty important. And to talk about this does not mean that all men are rapists or violent killers. And to talk about allegations of rape does not mean we are convicting men in the “court of public opinion.” It just means that there is something going on here, that these stories tell us something, and that the response to these stories reveal something, too. We need to look at and challenge those things.

So maybe we look at the story of cops stealing photos and treating a gross violation like a fun activity or an Oklahoma cop who is alleged to be a serial rapist and we question abuses of power and abuser dynamics in law enforcement. Maybe that can shape some of our thinking about why women don’t always report sexual violence to the cops. And while it may be impossible to know what drove Jaylen Fryberg to kill another student and himself, we have a very familiar set of circumstances that we can talk about instead of running away from them. We can look to the tragedy in Seattle and situate it as part of a larger pattern of violence that has revealed itself again and again and begin thinking about what addressing that violence might actually look like. Whether it’s gun control or healthy masculinity or both of these things.

And maybe then we can think about Gamergate and the harassment that has come to define this “movement” and we can question why so many people seem willing to look past that and lend credibility to serial harassers who have forced women offline and out of their homes. And while we wait to learn more about the allegations against Ghomeshi, we can still think about where our allegiances reflexively go when we learn about high-profile assault cases. Whom we believe and whom we don’t. We can ask questions about how the details included and excluded in reporting on allegations shape our view of those allegations. And we can listen to women who say that they didn’t speak out about harassment or violence they endured because they were scared that doing so would lead to more harassment.

Answers don’t always come easily. But a willingness to sit with and try to answer difficult questions is a minimum standard. Sadly, it’s one we’re failing to meet again and again and again.

Katie McDonough is Salon’s politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/27/jian_ghomeshi_to_gamergate_americas_toxic_masculinity_crisis_on_display/?source=newsletter

US child poverty remains at highest rate in 20 years

http://www.centurytimesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/83139367-child-poverty.jpg

By Andre Damon
27 October 2014

Nearly one in four US children lives in poverty, the highest level in 20 years, with a similar proportion not getting enough food to eat. These were among the findings of an article published last week in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, entitled Seen but Not Heard: Children and US Federal Policy on Health and Health Care.

While the Obama administration praises the “economic recovery,” the facts presented in this report show that since 2009 there has been an immense social retrogression in every measure of well-being among the most vulnerable section of the population: children.

“It shouldn’t be this hard for kids to grow and thrive in the world’s richest, most powerful nation,” said Bruce Lesley, one of the study’s co-authors and the president of the child advocacy organization First Focus.

The report listed a panoply of dangers to the health and well-being of children in the United States, including hunger, lack of health and mental health care, cutbacks in social spending, the havoc wracked on immigrant families by deportation, and others. It found, among all these, that by far the worst impact on the health and well-being of children is poverty.

The report notes that there is overwhelming popular support for government programs to fight child poverty: “82% of voters want Congress and the White House to cut child poverty in half within 10 years.” But with the upcoming midterm election only a week away, such a project could not be farther from the minds of US politicians.

The Obama administration’s 2015 budget proposal, for example, calls for slashing the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the Head Start preschool program, and the Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, by more than five percent.

The report found that 16.1 million children, or 22 percent, live in poverty. It lists a string of adverse health impacts, including “significantly higher risks of low birth weight, injuries, lower IQ, intensive care unit admissions, and infant, condition-specific, and overall mortality.”

The impact of child poverty affects people once they grow up, and even affects their children. As the report notes, “Childhood poverty is associated with substantially higher mortality rates in adults, regardless of adult socioeconomic status (i.e., even affluent adults who were poor as children have elevated death rates), and this increased mortality risk extends across 2 generations.”

The second threat to the well-being of children listed in the report is food insecurity. The report notes that sixteen million children, or 22 percent, live in food-insecure households. An enormous number of children—one in three—rely on food stamp benefits for nutrition, and 47 percent of food stamp recipients are children. The report concludes, “Food insecurity is associated with deleterious consequences for children’s health, including elevated risks of suboptimal health and hospitalizations.”

The report noted that budget cuts that went into effect last year have had a devastating impact on anti-poverty programs for children. For example, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides food assistance to children and mothers, was cut back by more than $354 million. It added, “Some in Congress are proposing SNAP [food stamp] cuts at a time when SNAP participants already experienced benefit cuts in November 2013.”

The report also noted that seven million US children, or nine percent, have no health insurance. Despite this, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, jointly funded by the states and the federal government, is scheduled to have its funding drop by 73 percent, from $21.1 billion to $5.7 billion, in 2016.

Congressional Republicans have proposed turning CHIP, together with Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, into a block grant or impose caps on the amount of healthcare funding individual children can receive. The report noted that such proposals “devastatingly restrict or eliminate benefits, underfund Medicaid, disadvantage children with even lower caps, and ration care.”

Among the most tragic elements depicted in the report is the effect of mass deportation on children. It noted that between 2010 and 2012, under the Obama administration, more than 200,000 parents of US citizen children were deported. As a result of these deportations, more than five thousand children have been put in foster care.

The report notes that one in three US children are overweight—which it refers to as a “pandemic”—and that 17 percent are obese. It relates these health problems to insufficient access to healthy food, both as a result of poverty and cutbacks to the funding of school lunch programs.

One in five children have mental disorders, and the rates are growing. “Pediatric mental-health and substance-abuse hospitalizations increased by 24% between 2007 and 2010, and hospitalizations for mood disorders increased by 80% between 1997 and 2010.” Suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers, and rates have gone up since the start of the recession.

Despite the widespread prevalence of mental illness among children, only half of US children with mental disorders receive any form of mental-health services, according to the report. On the state level, more than $1.6 billion in funding for mental health services have been slashed between 2009 and 2012, resulting in the elimination of 4,000 psychiatric hospital beds since 2010.

Whole areas of the country simply have no mental health care available to the poor, who tend to suffer disproportionately from the effects of mental illness. The report notes “35% of US counties have no outpatient mental-health treatment facility accepting Medicaid.” Only three percent of psychiatrists who practice alone accept Medicaid.

Despite the disastrous prevalence of poverty and preventable disease in the US, funding for medical research is being slashed. The report noted that the sequester budget cuts slashed $1.57 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and $289 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report is a devastating indictment of a society that is going backward, not forward, in every measure of social well-being. These disastrous cuts in social services, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, are accompanied by the enormous enrichment of the super-wealthy, who have doubled their net worth since 2009.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/27/chil-o27.html

The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality

How invocations of “karma” and Zen are being used to justify deeply unequal systems of power

The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality
Steve Jobs, Satya Nadalla (Credit: AP/Paul Sakuma/Brendan McDermid/rnl, Kaveryn Kiryl via Shutterstock/Salon)

Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gave some shocking advice to a young businesswoman who was concerned that her male peers were passing her up for promotions: Don’t question the systemic sexism of corporate America, just trust in “good karma” to get you ahead. While his attitude made waves in the blogosphere, in fact it accurately represents a form of spirituality that is becoming popular in the West.

You know what I’m talking about. When I go to yoga, I’m often surrounded by wealthy white women who can afford expensive classes and Lululemon threads. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see exclamations of bourgeois spirituality (“Staying at the Waldorf tonight! #gratitude #blessed #100happydays #livelife”). Moreover, my actor friends seem to use karma and positivity as tools to help them achieve commercial success.

We might call this a belief in spiritual meritocracy. The implicit idea here is that our professional and financial growth depends on our spiritual merit, not on the presence or absence of social structures and biases. We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures. (Think “The Secret.”) We are told that we actually can have it all: a rich spiritual life, leading to a rich material life.

Of course, this is just the new-agey equivalent of the same old meritocracy myth that’s been floating around America since at least the 19th century; that in the land of the free, anyone can become rich if they just work hard enough, if they use the right brand of elbow grease.

Unless you are a rich Republican, decades of widening economic inequality should tell you how faulty this story is. While it is true that most successful people work hard, the meritocracy myth works more to justify an existing social hierarchy than to inspire us to make positive social changes.

So, for the same reason we look suspiciously on Horatio Alger-esque theories of social mobility, we ought to also be skeptical of their spiritual version, which says that underserved groups can get ahead not by standing up to power, but by focusing on love and positivity.



It’s times like these when I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s summary dismissal of “Western Buddhism.” Zizek cautions that while meditation may seem to come from an edgy counterculture, in fact Americans practice it in a way that is often consistent with consumerist capitalism:

“… although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement … One is almost tempted to resuscitate the old infamous Marxist cliché of religion as the ‘opium of the people,’ as the imaginary supplement to terrestrial misery. The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity … ”

In other words, rather than helping yogis become more socially conscious spiritual warriors, Buddhist meditation can get hijacked by the status quo. It only brings us a shallow peace that makes us less likely to question what counts as normal.

For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice, and I believe that there is some truth to Zizek’s harsh critique. As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.

One problem with a capitalist-inflected Buddhism is that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual cul de sac. I found that my practice was in an uneasy tension with my leftist politics. I found myself attracted to a glamorous Santa Barbara lifestyle that left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I found that it became easy to deal with disturbing images in the news by dismissing the suffering of others as the karmic products of their own poor decisions. (They’re just not being positive enough!)

Yes, I found myself tempted by tales of spiritual meritocracy.

Overall, I am happy that my Facebook friends and yoga moms are finding spiritual enrichment. But I believe that focusing only on the joyful aspects of spirituality can get us into trouble, if we aren’t careful. Every religion can get appropriated by the West’s consumerist ideology, and Buddhism is no exception. When we cultivate gratitude for our material wealth and ignore compassion for those less fortunate, comments like those of Nadella are a natural consequence.

In traditional forms of Buddhism, there are bits and pieces of teachings on karma that capitalism loves to pick up on. Our society emphasizes an interpretation of Eastern spirituality that does not threaten its own internal logic. It’s true, for example, that the Buddha taught that money was a blessing, and that one effect of an ethical way of life would be material prosperity. But it is hard for me to believe the Buddha would say that wealth inequality is solely the result of karmic patterns, and that we should ignore its hidden histories of slavery, colonialism and patriarchy.

The good news is that there may be a spiritual antidote for what Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism.” And I’m not talking about intermittent bouts of Catholic guilt. I’m suggesting that if we work to complement our gratitude with mercy and compassion for those who are less fortunate, we can move away from the surface-level spirituality that is really just materialism in disguise. And this may be what the world needs more than ever.

There are plenty of opportunities for us to be compassionate. For example, as scientists’ long-term projections of the effects of climate change become more and more dire, somehow American denial of anthropogenic global warming is on the rise. This kind of denial is only possible if it is not met with compassion for those who are already facing the extreme weather of hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, like the hard-hit women who are struggling to survive after flash floods destroy their communities. Cultivating compassion for those we usually ignore — whether that’s women in the global south who are facing the ugly end of natural disasters, inmates of American prisons, or businesswomen who make 20 percent less than men who do in the same job — is therefore both a spiritual and political imperative.

The point is not that we give up on Western spirituality, as Zizek seems to suggest. The teachings of Eastern religions are becoming more mainstream in America, but this is an opportunity as well as a cautionary tale. As we develop a more conscious lifestyle, let’s ask ourselves if we are deepening our spirituality, or just falling for the myth of spiritual meritocracy. May all beings be free from pain and suffering.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/26/the_dangerous_american_myth_of_corporate_spirituality/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

 

How “Archie” went from dull to daring

The world’s tamest comic series is now our most groundbreaking

Archie used to be the safest, squarest comic book franchise out there. But in the past few years, something changed

How "Archie" went from dull to daring: The world's tamest comic series is now our most groundbreaking

Like a lot of people, I used to get those little “Archie” digests at the supermarket when I was a lad. I remember enjoying them, but they didn’t have a big impact on me. Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the rest of the gang are clearly part of the collective unconscious, but they’ve never felt like essential reading. When I drifted away from comics for a while, books like “Maus” and “Watchmen” and “Daredevil: Born Again” stayed with me, but my Archies were the first to go. They felt disposable because the characters never changed. Nobody played it safer than Archie Comics.

Those days are a distant memory. Archie Comics is now known for taking wild chances and daring approaches that put Marvel and DC to shame. The debut of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and the announcement of the batshit crossover “Archie Meets Predator” highlight what’s been apparent for years now: The company formerly known for the squarest and most unchanging characters in comics has become one of the most adventurous and exciting publishers. From the zombie apocalypse to a forthcoming story by Lena Dunham, today’s Archie Comics are anything but disposable or predictable. Improbably, anything goes in Riverdale.

A brand new series—“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”—is the latest evidence of Archie’s willingness to take a radical new direction with an old character. Sabrina has been popular for decades, perhaps even more than Archie Andrews himself, thanks to the successful Sabrina series that aired on ABC and the WB. But Sabrina’s adventures, like Archie’s, have usually been fairly innocent teenage fare. Not anymore. Sabrina and her world have taken a more serious and historical turn in the new series written by Archie’s Chief Creative Officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and illustrated by Robert Hack: they bring surprising gravitas and depth to the concept of a teenage witch, giving Sabrina a backstory full of tragedy while keeping the teen shenanigans. Hack’s art reminds me a little of Tula Lotay’s surreal, boundary-smashing work on “Supreme Blue Rose.” There’s a dreamy feel—or maybe I should say a nightmarish feel—that also fits the series’ specific historical setting, starting in 1951 with Sabrina’s birth. The best trick in this magic-filled book is that even in an older setting with darker horror, Sabrina is still Sabrina.



That trick was perfected in the ongoing series that inspired this new spin on Sabrina: “Afterlife with Archie,” which makes Riverdale’s zombie contagion feel appropriately deadly while maintaining the essence of the characters. “Afterlife” is a genuinely moving comic and a helluva accomplishment, thanks in no small part to the moody, evocative art of Francesco Francavilla, whose visuals create a recognizable yet new Riverdale that’s about as safe as the prison from “The Walking Dead.” The critical and commercial success of “Afterlife” led to “Sabrina,” much as the title of “Afterlife” plays on “Life with Archie”—a series that followed two parallel versions of Archie: one who married Betty and one who married Veronica. Both universes culminated in the death of Archie earlier this year. Marriage, death, zombies, alternate universes: Archie has embraced the biggest possibilities of both real life and comic books.

I asked Archie co-CEO/publisher Jon Goldwater about the company’s innovations, and he said they have a “story first” philosophy, but “don’t want to feel limited or tied down by what’s come before or what anyone else is doing.” He says the current era began about six years ago when he told editors and creators that “everything was on the table. No idea was too crazy and nothing was too precious.” From that meeting came Kevin Keller, who Goldwater believes is “the most important new character at Archie since the original five of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and Reggie.” Keller, like older members of the gang, also appears in multiple versions and universes: he’s already been a superhero and senator.

The company’s confidence is reflected in the recent announcement of “Archie Meets Predator,” which might be the weirdest team-up or mash-up by any publisher. But there is a precedent for this series (a collaboration with Dark Horse Comics) at Archie. As Chris Sims discussed in Comics Alliance, the company’s new creativity isn’t entirely unprecedented: there have been some crazy Archie stories over the years. The best is probably “Archie Meets the Punisher,” a combination of the most unlikely genres imaginable: teen soap opera and vigilante pulp. That’s like “Gilmore Girls” and “Dexter” having a crossover. There have also been “Archie Meets KISS” and “Archie Meets Glee,” so this is another area of the Archie-verse that’s open-ended to say the least.

Archie Comics is taking chances with less-familiar characters too. Though not well-known, Archie also owns some superhero characters, which they’re rebooting with a new line called Dark Circle: they will include the Fox, the Black Hood and the Shield. The Shield is an especially noteworthy character for reasons old and new. Created in 1940, the Shield is an all-American hero in the vein of Captain America—but who preceded Captain America by a year. In fact, the creators of Captain America changed the original shape of Cap’s shield to avoid confusion with the Shield. For the new Shield series, a woman will be taking up the mantle of this underappreciated hero. Like the female Thor and books like “Rat Queens,” “Harley Quinn” and “She-Hulk,” the new Shield is an example of growing female presence in comic book characters and fandom.

Archie is learning something DC is figuring out with series like “Batman ’66,” a continuation of Adam West Batman: readers are cool with multiple, inconsistent, far-out versions of beloved characters. Also, when you free a character from the prison of continuity—the tangled web of what really happened and supposed counts in the main version of a character—you’re free to tell better stories with greater consequences. When you let stories stand on their own, you can marry Archie, or kill him, or make him fight Predator. Now that the elasticity of the Archie crew has been embraced, it’s hard to imagine any genre or team-up that’s not fair game. Sci-fi Archie? Archie vs. Archer? Who knows?

Anything seems possible in Riverdale. Young me would have been shocked to read that sentence. Who would have guessed wholesome, simple, predictable Archie Andrews would end up the poster boy for the bizarre, complex, freewheeling possibilities of comics?

Mark Peters is a freelance writer from Chicago. He writes jokes on Twitter and is a columnist for Visual Thesaurus and McSweeney’s. He is also Comic Book Fella on Tumblr.

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/25/how_archie_went_from_dull_to_daring_the_worlds_tamest_comic_series_is_now_our_most_groundbreaking/?source=newsletter

The Impulse Society

How Our Growing Desperation for Instant Connection Is Ruining Us

Consumer culture does everything in its power to persuade us that adversity has no place in our lives.

The following is an excerpt from Paul Roberts’ new book, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.

The metaphor of the expanding fragile modern self is quite apt. To personalize is, in effect, to reject the world “as is,” and instead to insist on bending it to our preferences, as if mastery and dominance were our only mode. But humans aren’t meant only for mastery. We’re also meant to adapt to something larger. Our large brains are specialized for cooperation and compromise and negotiation—with other individuals, but also with the broader world, which, for most of history, did not cater to our preferences or likes. For all our ancestors’ tremendous skills at modifying and improving their environment, daily survival depended as much on their capacity to conform themselves and their expectations to the world as they found it. Indeed, it was only by enduring adversity and disappointment that we humans gained the strength and knowledge and perspective that are essential to sustainable mastery.

Virtually every traditional culture understood this and regarded adversity as inseparable from, and essential to, the formation of strong, self-sufficient individuals. Yet the modern conception of “character” now leaves little space for discomfort or real adversity. To the contrary, under the Impulse Society, consumer culture does everything in its considerable power to persuade us that adversity and difficulty and even awkwardness have no place in our lives (or belong only in discrete, self-enhancing moments, such as ropes courses or really hard ab workouts). Discomfort, difficulty, anxiety, suffering, depression, rejection, uncertainty, or ambiguity—in the Impulse Society, these aren’t opportunities to mature and toughen or become. Rather, they represent errors and inefficiencies, and thus opportunities to correct—nearly always with more consumption and self-expression.

So rather than having to wait a few days for a package, we have it overnighted. Or we pay for same-day service. Or we pine for the moment when Amazon launches drone delivery and can get us our package in thirty minutes.* And as the system gets faster at gratifying our desires, the possibility that we might actually be more satisfied by waiting and enduring a delay never arises. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the efficient consumer market abhors delay and adversity, and by extension, it cannot abide the strength of character that delay and adversity and inefficiency generally might produce. To the efficient market, “character” and “virtue” are themselves inefficiencies—impediments to the volume-based, share-price-maximizing economy. Once some new increment of self-expressive, self-gratifying, self-promoting capability is made available, the unstated but overriding assumption of contemporary consumer culture is that this capability can and should be put to use. Which means we now allow the efficient market and the treadmills and the relentless cycles of capital and innovation to determine how, and how far, we will take our self-expression and, by extension, our selves— even when doing so leaves us in a weaker state.

Consider the way our social relationships, and the larger processes of community, are changing under the relentless pressure of our new efficiencies. We know how important community is for individual development. It’s in the context of community that we absorb the social rules and prerequisites for interaction and success. It’s here that we come to understand and, ideally, to internalize, the need for limits and self-control, for patience and persistence and long-term commitments; the pressure of community is one way society persuades us to control our myopia and selfishness. (Or as economists Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis have put it, community is the vehicle through which “society’s ‘oughts’ become its members’ ‘wants.’ ”) But community’s function isn’t simply to say “no.” It’s in the context of our social relationships where we discover our capacities and strengths. It’s here that we gain our sense of worth as individuals, as citizens and as social producers—active participants who don’t merely consume social goods, but contribute something the community needs.

But community doesn’t simply teach us to be productive citizens. People with strong social connections generally have a much better time. We enjoy better physical and mental health, recover faster from sickness or injury, and are less likely to suffer eating or sleeping disorders. We report being happier and rank our quality of life as higher—and do so even when the community that we’re connected to isn’t particularly well off or educated. Indeed, social connectedness is actually more important than affluence: regular social activities such as volunteering, church attendance, entertaining friends, or joining a club provide us with the same boost to happiness as does a doubling of personal income. As Harvard’s Robert Putnam notes, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”

Unfortunately, for all the importance of social connectedness, we haven’t done a terribly good job of preserving it under the Impulse Society. Under the steady pressure of commercial and technological efficiencies, many of the tight social structures of the past have been eliminated or replaced with entirely new social arrangements. True, many of these new arrangements are clearly superior—even in ostensibly free societies, traditional communities left little room for individual growth or experimentation or happiness. Yet our new arrangements, which invariably seek to give individuals substantially more control over how they connect, exact a price. More and more, social connection becomes just another form of consumption, one we expect to tailor to our personal preferences and schedules—almost as if community was no longer a necessity or an obligation, but a matter of personal style, something to engage as it suits our mood or preference. And while such freedom has its obvious attractions, it clearly has downsides. In gaining so much control over the process of social connection, we may be depriving ourselves of some of the robust give-and-take of traditional interaction that is essential to becoming a functional, fulfilled individual.

Consider our vaunted and increasing capacity to communicate and connect digitally. In theory, our smartphones and social media allow us the opportunity to be more social than at any time in history. And yet, because there are few natural limits to this format—we can, in effect, communicate incessantly, posting every conceivable life event, expressing every thought no matter how incompletely formed or inappropriate or mundane—we may be diluting the value of the connection.

Studies suggest, for example, that the efficiency with which we can respond to an online provocation routinely leads to escalations that can destroy offline relationships. “People seem aware that these kinds of crucial conversations should not take place on social media,” notes Joseph Grenny, whose firm, VitalSmarts, surveys online behavior. “Yet there seems to be a compulsion to resolve emotions right now and via the convenience of these channels.”

Even when our online communications are entirely friendly, the ease with which we can reach out often undermines the very connection we seek to create. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist who has spent decades researching digital interactions, argues that because it is now possible to be in virtually constant contact with others, we tend to communicate so excessively that even a momentary lapse can leave us feeling isolated or abandoned. Where people in the pre-digital age did not think it alarming to go hours or days or even weeks without hearing from someone, the digital mind can become uncomfortable and anxious without instant feedback. In her book Alone Together, Turkle describes a social world of collapsing time horizons. College students text their parents daily, and even hourly, over the smallest matters—and feel anxious if they can’t get a quick response. Lovers break up over the failure to reply instantly to a text; friendships sour when posts aren’t “liked” fast enough. Parents call 911 if Junior doesn’t respond immediately to a text or a phone call—a degree of panic that was simply unknown before constant digital contact. Here, too, is a world made increasingly insecure by its own capabilities and its own accelerating efficiencies.

This same efficiency-driven insecurity now lurks just below the surface in nearly all digital interactions. Whatever the relationship (romantic, familial, professional), the very nature of our technology inclines us to a constant state of emotional suspense. Thanks to the casual, abbreviated nature of digital communication, we converse in fragments of thoughts and feelings that can be completed only through more interaction—we are always waiting to know how the story ends. The result, Turkle says, is a communication style, and a relationship style, that allow us to “express emotions while they are being formed” and in which “feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated.” In other words, what was once primarily an interior process—thoughts were formed and feelings experienced before we expressed them—has now become a process that is external and iterative and public. Identity itself comes to depend on iterative interaction—giving rise to what Turkle calls the “collaborative self.” Meanwhile, our skills as a private, self-contained person vanish. “What is not being cultivated here,” Turkle writes, “is the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” For all the emphasis on independence and individual freedom under the Impulse Society, we may be losing the capacity to truly be on our own.

In a culture obsessed with individual self-interest, such an incapacity is surely one of the greatest ironies of the Impulse Society. Yet it many ways it was inevitable. Herded along by a consumer culture that is both solicitous and manipulative, one that proposes absolute individual liberty while enforcing absolute material dependence—we rely completely on the machine of the marketplace—it is all too easy to emerge with a self-image, and a sense of self, that are both wildly inflated and fundamentally weak and insecure. Unable to fully experience the satisfactions of genuine independence and individuality, we compensate with more personalized self-expression and gratification, which only push us further from the real relationships that might have helped us to a stable, fulfilling existence.

 

http://www.alternet.org/books/impulse-society-how-our-growing-desperation-instant-connection-ruining-us?akid=12390.265072.bjTHr8&rd=1&src=newsletter1024073&t=9&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

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