As we look back on the first 10 years of the new millennium, the ubiquity of the Internet and the growth of all its social networking possibilities, from email to Blackberries, iPhones and Facebook, is surely one of the most significant changes to emerge from the decade. Granted, the changes began a decade before that. But the past 10 years has seen a phenomenal boom in the growth of Internet access and usage ... up 1600% in the Middle East, 1300% in Africa, and more than 300% worldwide, so that Internet users now number more than half the total population of the world, according to Internet World Stats.
We can now easily connect with friends on different continents without waiting two weeks for a letter, talk via computer without the expense of international long distance, and share new baby or other photos with hundreds of friends and relatives in a single posting, via personal Web sites and Facebook pages. My next-door neighbors, who are from Turino, Italy and just had a baby, even hooked up webcams around the house so the distant grandparents could watch live videos of their new grandson playing, feeding, and sleeping from half a world away. With chat rooms, email, Skype, Facebook, and the worldwide Web community, the possibility of being isolated or without someone to "talk" to is far more remote.
But are there hidden costs to all this connectedness? Is it possible that for some, there is loneliness, not safety, in numbers? Two essays by Willaim Deresiewicz in The Chronicle for Higher Education--one last January, and one penned only a few days ago, argue that it is. In his most recent essay, Deresiewicz quotes two studies, one from 1985, and one from 2004, that show a marked decline in people who have a "close confidant." In 1985, only one out of 10 people said they lacked such a person in their life. In 2004, that number had climbed to four out of 10. And that was before so many blogs and social networking sites expanded the number of options (and distractions) for how we spend whatever social connection time we have.
So as we spend more time connecting to the world, it appears that at least some of us may be trading off depth for breadth. We are at once more connected and less connected, depending on how you look at it. But that's not the only impact that concerns Deresiewicz. In his essay from last January, entitled "The End of Solitude," he talks about the impact of constant connectivity on our comfort with being quiet and alone. Just as boredom comes from a discomfort with idle time, he argues that loneliness comes not from being alone per se, but from discomfort over being alone. Just as a small child has to learn to put themselves to sleep, we have to learn how to be comfortable with being alone. And that takes practice ... practice that is far easier to avoid with all the distractions of constant connectivity.
The essays are an interesting read on the history of friendship, social values, and how evolving technology has affected our social connections, from the evolution of the suburbs to the advent of the Internet. And whether you agree with his assessment of Facebook and its impact on social connection, he raises some interesting and valid points.
Without question, there are certain elements that exist in inverse proportion to each other. An Olympic gold-medal athlete has deep expertise in one area, but generally trades off experience and knowledge in other subjects for that one field of excellence. You can go deep, or broad, but generally not both. Quality begins to degrade if increasing quantity is demanded in the same time frame. If you have 10 priorities, you really have none. The same goes for intimacy. Just ask anyone who's tried to balance multiple intimate relationships at the same time.
Friendship is less demanding than a more intimate and vulnerable romantic connection, but the same principle applies. I've noticed, the more times I've moved, and the more people I've met, how much harder it is to keep up with all those friendships on any significant level. Acquaintances are easy to maintain with casual, group emails and Holiday notes. But real friends? They take time and energy--both to develop, and to nurture or maintain.
Facebook, Twitter, Group Emails, texting and other mass communication and connection vehicles don't preclude anyone also taking that time and focus to develop a few deep friendships, any more than they preclude taking time to read, think, or get comfortable with yourself, alone. But they do throw more potential and tempting distractions in the mix, as well as a slightly guilty feeling that we should be keeping up with all those people. In our increasingly immediate, non-stop society, all of us struggle to find enough time for family and friends. And the more of that already-squeezed time anyone spends maintaining a broad network of Internet, text, Facebook and Twitter friends and updates, the less time and energy they have to devote to any one friend or person. It's just simple math.
Once upon a time, books and conversations were the only distractions we had. We also tended to stay in small, local communities, so we had years to develop ties with one small group of people. Is there a link between our moving away from those communities and the development of more media to assuage the loneliness and distance that ensued? I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me there was. But in any event, the media and distractions came. First radio and movies. Then TV. Then videos. Then video games, the Internet and the cell phone. For the past 50 years, there's been some passive way to avoid facing silence, alone with yourself, if you really wanted to.
At the very least, the increase in connection and distraction possibilities increases the need to make choices among all the options. There is no technology that can speed up the time it takes to have an intimate, personal, and unique conversation with a single friend. But it can increase the number of friends, past and present, with whom I could have those conversations, either via email or just through the reconnection magic of Internet searches. So the temptation is there to become scattered--and in trying to keep up with all, to end up keeping up well with none.
Does that mean that our friendships are in danger of becoming less deep, or that the increased distractions mean we've gotten worse at learning to be alone, in silence? Maybe. But only if we've allowed it. Avoiding scatteredness--in social connections, anyway--is simply a matter of prioritizing and letting go of things that are less important. And getting immersed in distractions is a choice. For those who are afraid of being alone, there have always been distractions. For those of us who recognize the value of silence and deeper connections, I doubt the advent of new technologies will suddenly change our craving for those things.
Indeed, as I've sat in a snow-bound Connecticut house, curled up with a bad cold the past few days, I've remembered again the beauty of a slower pace of living. One that allows for a long chat with an old friend, a well-developed thought, or the joy of spending time over a piece of writing not due two hours later. But I also love being able to keep in frequent touch with lifelong friends who live in Paris, in ways we never would if it took mailing international letters, instead of email, to connect.
As always, it's a matter of balance; of being master of the sorcery at our disposal, instead of letting it master us. Of course, balance itself is a skill that, like being comfortable with solitude or a deep friendship, requires patience, dedicated effort ... and evolves, in most cases, with age, experience, and time.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Heterosexual women today, in certain milieus, find themselves placed into one of two categories: too young to settle down, and too old to find a man. There is a window of opportunity to get married, but it is ephemeral almost to the point of non-existence. It falls at a different age according to region, or the idiosyncratic biases of one's circle, but hovers around 27. "Too young" refers not to teen marriage, but to any commitment entered into by a grown woman deemed still a child by those around her.
Here's how it works: A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression "find a husband," is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.
How those three little words sound around the world
I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram's electric-shock studies showed that people will obey even the most abhorrent of orders. But recently, researchers have begun to question his conclusions—and offer some of their own.
In 1961, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram placed an advertisement in the New Haven Register. “We will pay you $4 for one hour of your time,” it read, asking for “500 New Haven men to help us complete a scientific study of memory and learning.”
Only part of that was true. Over the next two years, hundreds of people showed up at Milgram’s lab for a learning and memory study that quickly turned into something else entirely. Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer—dubbed “the teacher”—would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition—and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.