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.
Rampant drug use in Austin, Indiana—coupled with unemployment and poor living conditions—brought on a public-health crisis that some are calling a “syndemic.”
Jessica and Darren McIntosh were too busy to see me when I arrived at their house one Sunday morning. When I returned later, I learned what they’d been busy with: arguing with a family member, also an addict, about a single pill of prescription painkiller she’d lost, and injecting meth to get by in its absence. Jessica, 30, and Darren, 24, were children when they started using drugs. Darren smoked his first joint when he was 12 and quickly moved on to snorting pills. “By the time I was 13, I was a full-blown pill addict, and I have been ever since,” he said. By age 14, he’d quit school. When I asked where his caregivers were when he started using drugs, he laughed. “They’re the ones that was giving them to me,” he alleged. “They’re pill addicts, too.”
A claymation video with a grim plot line accompanies a blessedly straightforward if nerve-wracking tune.
Radiohead’s music often works like a puzzle, and it’s not clear whether many people ever solved the one posed by their 2011 album, The King of Limbs, whose funereal swirl only fleetingly provided the beauty and pop payoff that defined the band’s previous work.
Today’s new Radiohead song, “Burn the Witch,” blessedly does not hide its power. Sonically novel yet viscerally moving, gorgeous yet terrifying, it is the sound of Radiohead returning to do what it exists to do. The video is a claymation retelling of The Wicker Man, in which a police officer arrives at a town that is—spoiler alert!—secretly preparing to burn him in a ritual sacrifice. Thom Yorke’s lyrics speak of the kind of mass action and complacency that allows such a crime and, the logic probably goes, many other cruelties committed by societies.
The billionaire’s bid for the nomination was opposed by many insiders—but his success reveals the ascendance of other elements of the party coalition.
In The Party Decides, an influential book about how presidential nominees are selected, political scientists John Zaller, Hans Noel, David Karol, and Marty Cohen argue that despite reforms designed to wrest control of the process from insiders at smoke-filled nominating conventions, political parties still exert tremendous influence on who makes it to general elections. They do so partly through “invisible primaries,” the authors posited—think of how the Republican establishment coalesced around George W. Bush in 2000, long before any ballots were cast, presenting him as a fait accompli to voters who’d scarcely started to think about the election; or how insider Democrats elevated Hillary Clinton this election cycle.
The Republican front-runner’s repetition of a blatantly ridiculous story about Ted Cruz’s father shows his symbiotic relationship with the press.
Brace yourselves for shock, but Donald Trump said something ridiculous and baseless Tuesday morning. The subject was Rafael Cruz, Cuban-born father of his primary remaining rival, Senator Ted Cruz.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being—you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous,” Trump said during a phone interview with Fox News. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. I mean, they don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
Let’s clear a few things up: It has been reported, which is why Trump knows about it, but it was reported in the National Enquirer. Also there is no evidence for it; it’s bogus. Yes, the National Enquirer has been right about some things in the past, most notably John Edwards’s affair; no, that does not prove that it is right about this.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The comedian's n-bomb at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner highlights a generational shift in black culture.
Georgia McDowell was born the daughter of farmers and teachers in North Carolina in 1902. She was my great-grandmother, and she taught me to read, despite the dementia that clouded her mind and the dyslexia that interrupted mine. I loved Miss Georgia, though she kept as many hard lines in her home as she had in her classrooms. One of the hardest lines was common to many black households: The word “nigger” and all of its derivatives were strict taboos in person, on television, and on radio from any source, black or otherwise, so long as she lived and breathed. She’d kept the taboo through decades of teaching black students and raising black children. For most of my childhood, the taboo was absolute.
Journalists and policy makers can have a hard time describing the economy when “average” departs so markedly from what's normal.
There is an easy story to tell about the Obama Recovery. Devastated by a financial crash, the U.S. launched a historic comeback. The private sector added jobs in 73 consecutive months, the longest stretch ever. Unemployment is lower today than in the month Reagan left office. Real GDP has grown more than 13 percent since its most-recent low in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. That’s more than twice as much growth as in some western European countries, like France. Compared to how countries typically perform after financial crises, the United States has “probably managed this better than any large economy on Earth in modern history,” President Obama toldThe New York Times Magazine.
But there is an opposite story that is attracting widespread support and millions of votes: The recovery is a failure. Donald Trump is an IMAX projection of white working-class grievances, calling America “a third-world country.” Bernie Sanders’s supporters describe a country where poverty and financial insecurity are not bugs but rather features of a rigged economy. The pessimistic style is not niche: Trump and Sanders have amassed a combined 16 million votes.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.