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.
This morning I went on Democracy Now to discuss my critique of “class-first” policy as a way of ameliorating the effects of racism. In the midst of that discussion I made the point that one can maintain a critique of a candidate—in this case Bernie Sanders—and still feel that that candidate is deserving of your vote. Amy Goodman, being an excellent journalist, did exactly what she should have done—she asked if I were going to vote for Senator Sanders.
I, with some trepidation, answered in the affirmative. I did so because I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself. So I answered.
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.
After a pair of poor showings in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina drop out of the race.
The Republican race is headed to South Carolina with two fewer candidates. The day after finishing sixth and seventh in the New Hampshire primaries, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced on Wednesday that they were suspending their campaigns.
Fiorina was always a long shot—she was practically a political newcomer, having only run one unsuccessful Senate campaign. And while her record at HP was vulnerable to attack, Republican figures saw in her both private-sector experience and a woman who could counter Hillary Clinton’s monopoly on a “historic” woman’s candidacy. While many political professionals sniffed at Fiorina’s candidacy, remembering that 2010 Senate race, she broke out after a commanding performance in the undercard to the first Republican debate. That earned her a promotion to the main stage at the next debate, where she scored another victory. But it was all downhill from there. Dogged by questions of honesty and unable to earn media attention, her campaign faded quickly.
Issued last summer, the rules are the centerpiece of the White House’s climate-change-fighting agenda, and they play a big part in the recent, tepid optimism about global warming. Without the proposal of the plan, the United States couldn’t have secured the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, last December. And without the adoption of the plan, the United States almost certainly won’t be able to comply with that document. If the world were to lose the Paris Agreement—which was not a total solution to the climate crisis, but meant to be a first, provisional step—years could be lost in the diplomatic fight to reduce climate-change’s dangers.
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
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.
For decades, some psychologists have claimed that bilinguals have better mental control. Their work is now being called into question.
In one of his sketches, comedian Eddie Izzard talks about how English speakers see bilingualism: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed! Good lord, man. You’re asking the impossible,” he says. This satirical view used to be a serious one. People believed that if children grew up with two languages rattling around their heads, they would become so confused that their “intellectual and spiritual growth would not thereby be doubled, but halved,” wrote one professor in 1890. “The use of a foreign language in the home is one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation,” said another in 1926.
A century on, things are very different. Since the 1960s, several studies have shown that bilingualism leads to many advantages, beyond the obvious social benefits of being able to speak to more people. It also supposedly improves executive function—a catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.
The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours.
We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.
All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.