Evolutionary biologists believe that human lighting preferences are the result of our trichromatic vision—rare in nonprimates—which makes us particularly suited to daylight and the perception of primary colors. There’s an anthropological component as well: For 400,000 years, humankind has been banishing darkness with fire. And Edison’s bulb is, at its core, a burning filament that casts the glow of a flame. Abandoning incandescent bulbs means abandoning fire as our primary light source for the first time in human history.
These lines from Dan Koeppel’s article in Wired magazine, "The Future of Light Is the LED," nails it. His explanation captures people’s — frankly, my — aversion to the horrible, cold light of compact fluorescent bulbs and the ritual cringe many of us experience each morning when our colleagues turn on the overhead tubes of life-sucking energy hovering above our cubevilles with a perky, “Let’s get some light in here!”
Photo by Daniel Parks/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Wishing for Less Time
by Leah Elliott, guest contributor
(photo: Leandro Pérez/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
I never used to go anywhere without my cell phone. It was not only a means of communication, but my sole timepiece, and not knowing the time made me crazy.
That all changed one afternoon when my oldest son was two years old. After four years of living in the Southwest and its two seasons of hot and hotter, we moved to the upper Midwest. I couldn’t wait to experience the change in seasons, so one crisp October day I packed up my son and a picnic lunch and headed to a nearby state park to see some fall colors.
When we arrived, I unfastened the buckles of his car seat, retrieved our lunch, and instinctively reached for my cell phone. Then I paused.
It was one of those rare days when I had no other obligations or deadlines. My husband was on a business trip, so there was no one waiting for us to come home. I asked myself, 'What if I just don’t worry about time today?'
I returned my cell phone to its resting place among the loose coins in front of the gear shift and turned my full attention to enjoying the afternoon with my son.
After our picnic lunch, we wandered over to a pile of fallen leaves. My son splashed through them up to his thighs, tossed them in the air, and giggled as I buried him over and over. “Wow!” he gushed appreciatively as gusts of wind rearranged the pile and made little leaf cyclones.
While he was enthralled, I felt myself growing bored and impatient. I wanted to pull out my “five more minutes” ultimatum and move on to something I deemed more interesting; but, without my phone, I would have had no way of knowing when five minutes had passed. Then I reminded myself, 'There is nothing you have to do today except be with your little boy.'
I gave myself over to the freedom of not worrying about what would come next. Right now, nothing mattered except sharing in my son’s joy of as he raced through those leaves.
We went for a walk and came to a bridge spanning a river. I let him run back and forth across it as many times as he wanted, a carefree “Whee!” accompanying each crossing. We wandered farther up the path. He peered at the insects hopping through the tall grass, and I was right there with him. The ability to share in his wonder and curiosity came naturally once I quit clinging to a preconceived schedule.
When he tired of walking, we headed back to the car. I welcomed the delay when some flowers caught his attention. We stooped and examined them to his satisfaction before moving on.
I can’t tell you whether that afternoon lasted one hour or four, but I do know that we both had the time of our lives. Eckhart Tolle points out that humans existed for millennia without clocks. Our modern obsession with time perplexes me when I remember this. I wish for less attachment to time. I wish for more afternoons when time doesn’t matter. I wish for my son’s ability to be fully in the present moment.
I have to live by the clock day-to-day to keep appointments, interact with the adults in my life, and meet my children’s all-important bedtime deadline each night. Whenever I can, though, I put all my clocks out of sight and out of mind. I let my children take the lead and slip into their world, where nothing matters but the present moment and time is reckoned in hugs and laughs instead of hours and minutes.
Leah Elliott lives with her two sons in Fargo, North Dakota, where she is working on a master’s degree in vocal performance. She blogs about carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism at The Whole of All the Earth.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Get published by forwarding your original work on our submissions page.
Plugged In to the Outer Cape
by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Sand dunes at Wellfleet. (photo: Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
“If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
—Sherry Turkle, from “Alive Enough? Reflections on Our Technology”
The founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self made this remark in the context of describing the awe she feels when she walks among the magnificent dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. I know well those sand dunes and the extensive tidal mudflats that mark the tip of the Cape.
Dr. Turkle thinks of these places as sacred spaces, and I agree. I take my earth science students there to witness the work of wind, water, and sand. And, for a week or two each summer, I go with my children so we can experience the flow of the tides. These are indeed remarkable places in the landscape ripe with possibilities for self-realization.
I take my geology students to the dunes and mudflats of the Outer Cape so that they can experience the vast time scales and spaces of earth system processes.
A satellite view of Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of NASA)
The Cape itself, as some readers may know, owes its existence to the great ice sheets that extended as far south as Long Island during the late Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. The mud of the tidal flats and the sand of the dunes are the glacial debris, reworked and sorted by the wind and water long after the ice sheet retreated north.
Other reminders of the presence of the massive ice cover in the region are cliffs above the dune fields — the edge of the glacial moraine (a pile of boulders pushed along as the ice pushed south) — and freshwater ponds of neighboring Truro and Wellfleet (“kettle holes” formed when stadium-sized chunks of ice broke off the glacier, became engulfed by glacial sediment, and then melted). All of these features stretch for miles and remind me and all my geologically time-traveling companions that 18,000 years ago — a seemingly long time — this portion of the Earth was covered by a one mile-thick sheet of ice.
Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary. (photo: Susan Cole Kelly/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Encountering this landscape cultivates in me, and I hope in my students, what Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” For me, this is a soothing feeling of awe and connection. Walking in the dunes or across these mudflats puts me in touch with deep time — for the particles that compose them may themselves be millions of years old, silt and sand moved there merely thousands of years before.
Although we walk among them today, the particles have been through many cycles of existence. Formerly they were part of a mountainous land mass; subsequently they were eroded, transported, and deposited at least once. Each grain has an individual history. Collectively they tell a story that encompasses swaths of time that hold all of humanity. I find this reality comforting.
The sands of Provincetown’s dunes. (photo: Leonarda DaSilva/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Dr. Turkle worries helpfully about the inner effects of digital objects. Though she acknowledges the benefits of digital connection, Dr. Turkle laments what people lose as they take to the dunes and mudflats with their earphones in and handheld electronic devices on and open. To her mind, people lose the ability to feel at peace in their own company. I agree, but also would like to suggest that by unplugging from the electronic world in such sacred spaces we increase our capacity to encounter entities larger than ourselves — vast time scales, and past and ongoing earth processes. Thus we enhance our ability to connect with the earth system of which we are a powerful part, and this experience lessens loneliness.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
On Bin Laden Killing Tech Blogging
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
MG Siegler, a blogger at TechCrunch, takes a whack at Mashable and tech blogging in general for their capitalistic opportunism of the Osama Bin Laden news now that advertising dollars are beginning to ramp up online.
Is there some type of competitive rivalry going on here? Perhaps. But his question of business ethics and gaming the news and search engines in order to make money with SEO land grabs is something that is surely not relegated to the tech world.
The national tragedy question aside, do savvy operators undercut their own business in the long run in order to make short-term business gains? What kind of ethical responsibilities, if any, do businesses and news outlets like Mashable have in making sure their results don’t crowd out the most relevant news for quick access? What does Google owe its customer’s when businesses flood the search market with results?
The information in the image above is not surprising at all. But still pathetic.
Imagine that, you write 35 200-word posts featuring the words “Bin Laden” in the headline and they pull in traffic on the day it’s one of the most searched terms ever.
Were any of those stories really about technology? A few, maybe. But none were given the actual attention that a story of such magnitude deserves. It was a pure traffic/SEO play.
Listeners Respond to Sherry Turkle’s Insights on Technology and Living Fully
by Susan Leem, associate producer
"(don’t) Cry" (photo: Pedro Klien/Flickr, CC by 2.0)
The fresh ears of our listeners and their own experiences of our show with Sherry Turkle are helpful in absorbing parts of her message that might have slipped by the first time. Following are several we found enlightening and funny:
Rick Silveira of San Diego, California taught me a new phrase:
"As I listened to Turkle’s unedited comments I am reminded of the FOMO factor, the ‘fear of missing out,’ and how social media fills that gap for some."
I can see it being a major force to keep people involved in social media. But what else do you miss out on while trying to quell that fear? I also loved that he was listening to the unedited version of Krista’s interview when this phrase came to mind, trying not to miss a beat!
Our senior editor particularly likes this humor-filled, self-effacing response from Ken Hyatt, a retired chaplain in the U.S. Navy who now lives in Grantsburg, Wisconsin:
"Recently I’ve been catching myself sending emails to my wife while she’s sitting in the same room a mere arm’s length away at another computer. She has expressed valid complaints to this situation: "Just talk to me!” is her plea. This awareness has revealed my own hypocrisy when I rail at others who concentrate on sending text messages while ignoring the person with whom they’re conversing, or having lunch with. …
Finland, the land of my ancestors, has more computers, cell phones, and modern communications technology per capita than anywhere else on the planet. I have a growing conviction that it is the way we Finns deal with our fear of face-to-face communication, and by extension, a certain fear of intimacy. I have come a long way in that regard, but I have a considerable distance yet to go, as a 72-year-old who is still ‘on the way.’”
In another thoughtful reflection, librarian Marcia Jackson of Ashburn, Virginia describes her affluent neighborhood library where parents have continued for years to turn out for storytime in droves, as devoted parents do. But something is keeping them from really being there:
"I look out over the sea of faces and see adults texting, checking email, playing solitaire, etc… The other thing I see, which I find greatly ironic, is the obsession with taking photos of their kids with their smartphones. So, they can’t actually interact with the child yet they feel the need the record the moment and post the photo on their Facebook page or blog. The end result is that the kids are not the same… they aren’t getting the most out of their library experience and they’ve turned into little performers in front of the camera to get their parents’ attention.
As I sat down to clip coupons on Sunday (without any technology at hand incidentally), my own toddler rushed at me and begged me to stop because she knew I’d be out of commission for an hour. Sherry Turkle pushes us to think about what drives our relationship with technology, but, more importantly, reminds us of what we’re trying to protect and preserve — the ability to be more than just physically present, to be alive.
Our Robotic Moment: Turkle Says We Should Be Reframing the Questions about Technology and Our Humanity
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Humanoid robot ASIMO directs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (photo by: Honda, Ars Electronica/Flickr)
"The options are given in the description of the situation. We can call this the package problem. In the real world, situations are not bundled together with options. In the real world, the act of framing — the act of describing a situation, and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made — is itself a moral task. It’s often the moral task. Learning how to recognize what is and isn’t an option is part of our ethical development…In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”
In her latest book Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle cites this passage from Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiment in Ethics to raise an important point about context and decision-making. She is concerned about the way we set up such important social questions, “quandaries” she calls them, such as: “Do you want seniors lonely and bored, or do you want them engaged with a robotic companion?” A “robotic companion,” in fact, may not be the only solution or even a viable one to “lonely and bored.”
She wants to make sure we’ve considered moral issues not only when setting up a quandary, but also when responding to it. And as Appiah suggests, how you frame and respond to a quandary is a moral issue that is part of a person’s moral development and obligation. Turkle takes on this task by questioning how we think about our relationship with technology.
In our show this week (title "Alive Enough?"), Sherry Turkle asks how we can shape technology to serve human purposes and not the other way around. During one poignant moment of the interview, she tells a story about how children and others have reframed one of the most fundamental questions of reality, about recognizing “aliveness” and having a new kind of pragmatism about how alive something needs to be for its purpose.
"By the time of the Darwin exhibit in 2006 I think, my daughter saw a Galapagos turtle which had been brought up from the islands, this was the life that Darwin saw. And she looks at this turtle…and she looks at me and she says, because this turtle is sleeping, she says ‘for what this turtle is doing, they could have just had a robot.’ And it struck me that from her point of view, the fact that it was alive mattered not at all.”
The package problem around technology is that most people simply want to ask whether it’s good or bad for us, and not how it changes us. How it changes us can be as complex and as fundamental as how we recognize life’s worth.
About the image: (lower right) A giant Galápagos tortoise on display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibition. The diorama was labeled with a “Live!” sticker. (photo: Andrew D. Miller/Flickr)
Can We Love the Stranger on Facebook?
by Jennifer Cobb, guest contributor
"Disarmed the Thunder’s Fires" (photo: ZedZaP/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
As we approach Passover, I am reminded once again about the imperative of embracing the stranger, of diversity, as a foundation not only of a healthy democracy, but of our personal well being. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, delivered this message when he reminded us that during Passover we remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. As Sacks says, “The sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different than us, that we are not threatened by them, needs cultivating. This would lead us to see that 21st century as full of blessing and not fear.”
There is a conundrum buried in this idea. Communication technology has been the driving force of change in the 21st century, the source of much of our contemporary blessings and fears. Thanks to technology, the world has shrunk rapidly. One needs look no further than the events unfolding in the Middle East to understand the power of technology to connect and inspire. At the same time, technology mediates so much of our communication, raising the question, “Can we truly learn to love the stranger if we meet them on Facebook?”
There are those who believe that social media is expanding the diversity of our networks, exposing us to others in new and powerful ways. A recent Pew poll indicates that Internet users have more diverse social networks than non-Internet users and are more likely to join groups, both online and offline.
There is some indication that those who join online groups are also more engaged in their local communities. Keith Hampton at the Annenberg School argues that social media offers new pathways to diversity through what he terms “pervasive awareness.” Pervasive awareness offers the continual, asynchronous exposure to many aspects of our online friends’ interests and activities, giving us a broader understanding of those we are connected to and uncovering greater diversity in our existing relationships.
There are others who fear that, as we spend increasing amounts of time in tightly constructed worlds of our “friends” and pursue news and information based on our personal interests, we are constricting diversity by living in echo chambers that continually recirculate our existing beliefs. This is what Nicholas Negroponte termed the “Daily Me.” It is not just our conscious choices but personalization tools built into technologies that are exacerbating this tendency.
Eli Pariser, the first executive director of MoveOn.org, made a concerted effort to follow people online whose views differed from his own. He noticed that over time those voices started to disappear. Facebook and Google were curating the information he saw based on the “preferences” indicated by his clickstream. Pariser commented that the web “shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not what we should see.”
Beyond the debate about whether or not social media is exposing us to a greater diversity of “strangers” is the deeper question about the nature of the self we reveal in this medium. Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Alone Together, shares the story of Brad, a teenager who has chosen to give up Facebook. Turkle writes:
“In a profile, there is no room for error. You are reduced to a series of right and wrong choices. ‘Online life,’ Brad says, ‘is about premeditation.’ He sums up his discontents with an old-fashioned word: online life inhibits ‘authenticity’. He wants to experience people directly. When he reads what someone says about themselves on Facebook, he feels he is an audience to their performance of cool.”
As Rabbi Sacks wisely reminds us, it is only when I am most uniquely myself that I can “contribute something unique to the heritage of humankind.” The knowledge and expression of our most unique selves requires a commitment to authenticity, to knowing who we are in the most profound sense. This is hard work, even among friends. But it is when we encounter the other in their unique authenticity that we are enlarged. This is when the power of what Rabbi Sacks calls the “dignity of difference” is unleashed.
Social media and communications technology can offer maps that show the way toward the other, clues about who they are and some of what they experience. But we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into confusing the maps with the reality. We must remain vigilant in our pursuit of embodied encounters that allow us to look into the eyes of the other and receive them deeply.
May we not, this Passover, forget that slavery can take many forms. One of the most insidious is slavery to the belief that technological progress releases us from the hard work of tikkun olam, of healing the world through our own unique and authentic humanity.
Jennifer Cobb is a business consultant specializing in marketing and strategy for public and private sector organizations. She has a degree in ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is the author of Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. She lives in Berkeley, California and blogs regularly at The Spruce Blog.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
When Did My Luddite Parents Become Skypers and Texters?
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
(photo: Lars Ploughmann/Flickr)
A few weeks ago, my dad crafted his first-ever text message. He was with my sister, who was on the brink of becoming a mother. His text is classic Dad, a singular mixture of humor, complaint, and anxiety:
"Well we’re here in the hospital waiting for [your sister’s] turn. She’s very calm, which I am not. I don’t think I’ll be able to have lunch until it’s over, which is OK since the soup in the coffee shop doesn’t look too good anyhow. I think it’s kale and it doesn’t look very hot. We’ll keep you apprised about the soup situation and about the baby too. Love, Dad"
Since my baby niece’s entry into the world, I’ve received scores of digital pictures — more than were ever taken of me or my sister during our first week of life. I’ve been experiencing aunt-hood from a geographical distance. But with technology in the mix, I’ve been able to interact with my niece as a pixelated being in ways that weren’t possible when I was a kid.
Now my parents are eager to learn how to Skype! To my amazement, a digital revolution is unfolding in the suburbs of New Jersey as monumental life changes inspire my parents to use technology in new ways.
Has this kind of thing happened to you? What changed in your life that inspired — or forced — you to turn a corner with technology?