Five Types of Facebook Likes

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[Illustration by Damian Yerrick; Creative Commons license]

By David Ryan Polgar

Everyone wants to be liked on Facebook. Similar to Sally Field’s famous speech at the Oscars (“You like me!”), the very concept of being liked can offer a sense of affirmation. It feels good to see that people care about your life or your commentary.

This, however, has led to the maddening pursuit of creating popular content. In an act of reverse-engineering, we are altering our conversation to fit the rapidly changing ways of the audience and medium. It is generally accepted that a social media audience will not read anything of great length, so posters have learned to become overly concise—often to the point to being trite.

In a world flooded with so many possible links to click, posters have learned to offer somewhat misleading titles in order to grab attention. For example, instead of posting “Check out my video from speech class about global warming” it would be changed to “This Shocking Video Will Change. Your. Life.” It’s called click-bait, and it happens because distracted users bite. (There is now even a parody site of click-bait articles, called Clickhole.)

Right now we put a great deal of focus on the number of likes that a post gets. We sometimes wrongly assume that there is a direct correlation between quality content and its popularity quantified through its number of likes.

The truth is more nuanced.

Why we like content is often influenced by the behavior of our friends, our relationship to the poster, the image we are trying to project online, and more. It would be nice to think that we aren’t influenced by the behavior of others, and that content becomes popular based solely on its merit, but our behavior clearly shows otherwise.

Here are FIVE types of Facebook Likes:

1. Genuine Like:

When you authentically connect with a post or picture, you may genuinely want to express your gratitude or approval. Similar to giving a thumbs up to a person holding a street sign you agreed with, you are giving you social media like without any ulterior motive.

2. Sympathy Like:

Although Facebook is setup to be egalitarian, some people seem to get a whole lot more likes than others. Occasionally you may see a currently un-liked post hanging in your feed that seems awfully lonely and sad. Nobody likes to be ignored, and an un-liked post seems like the wallflower hanging out by the punch at a high school prom. You invite it to dance by liking it.

3. Reciprocity Like (social media backscratching):

Despite Facebook’s egalitarian vibe, there is a constant shuffling of the social order. Likes can be a backscratching tool where one clicks the thumbs up based on an unsaid backscratching understanding, instead of a genuine appreciation of the post.

4. Bandwagon Like:

Facebook and other forms of social media prominently list how many likes something. Despite are assumptions that we are not influenced by the actions of others, science has clearly proven otherwise. A heavily liked post or photo is more apt to be liked in the future based solely on the initial popularity. Its display of being liked colors how we see it. This is why some companies pay for fake likes—popularity often leads to more popularity through the bandwagon effect.

5. Kiss-Up Like:

We’re all equal on Facebook; some of us are just more equal than others. Facebook allows us to rub digital shoulders with people we may admire or are trying to impress. Sending a Kiss-Up Like allows us to position, however briefly, our name in their social media orbit.

Video discussion of the FIVE types of Facebook Likes

Zack Morris on Tech Etiquette

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We all know his brick-phone, but we may have forgotten his guidance to put down our phones and connect.

By David Ryan Polgar

Everything I needed to know in life, I learned from my years at Bayside. I learned about integrity from Principal Belding. I learned about the dangers of drugs from Jessie Spano. And everyone’s favorite nerd, Screech, taught me the dangers of acting like Dustin Diamond as an adult.

It was Zack Morris, though, that taught me about tech etiquette. Alongside being the big man on campus and getting into all types of high school high jinks, he was able to offer some sage advice about being present in the moment.

While he is well known for his brick-sized cell phone, we may have forgotten his commentary about proper phone use. Long before popular YouTube videos like I Forgot My Phone and Look Up examined how we are often glued to our devices instead of connecting with those around us, Zack Morris tackled the issue.

Check out the episode Rent-a-Pop (Season 3, ep 7, 20 minutes in; available on Netflix), which features Zack’s rascal of a dad, Derek. Derek Morris is obsessed with his phone, so much so that he is oblivious to Zack’s life and has become an absentee father. When Zack needs his father’s permission to go on a ski trip, Zack decides it would be easier to hire an actor to play his father. When his real father, Derek, catches wind of the duplicity, the ski trip is off.

This leads to a face-off between father and son, where Zack Morris lays the smack down on his dad’s poor tech etiquette.

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Derek: “The ski trip is off. Why couldn’t you just be straight with me? Why couldn’t you just tell me you were having trouble in school?

Zack: “Dad, I tried to tell you. You’re not that easy to talk to.”

Derek: “You used to tell me everything. What happened to us?”

PHONE RINGS

Zack: “That’s what happened to us.” [Derek talks on phone]

“See, that’s the problem. You’re always on that stupid phone.”

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Derek: “It’s just business. It’s important.”

Zack: “Is it more important than your family?”

[PHONE RINGS / Derek is on the phone talking. Zack walks to the corner of the room and covertly makes a call to his dad. His dad, not available to his son but always for a call, picks up the phone.]

Derek: “Derek Morris.”

Zack: “Dad.”

Derek: “Zack?”

Zack: “Is this the only way I can get through to you now?”

[Conversation; dawns on Derek that he’s been kind of a prick.]

Derek: “Son….son, when was the last time we sat down and had a long talk?”

Saved by the Bell Derek Morris 2

Zack and his dad have a conversation about baseball. The phone rings again. Derek, trying now to be a better father, tells the person on the phone that he is taking his son fishing.

I have no idea if Derek kept his promise to take Zack fishing after the canned applause died down and the episode ended. But one thing is clear: if you are looking to connect, put down your damn phone and talk to the person next to you. Take it from Zack Morris.

“See, that’s the problem. You’re always on that stupid phone.” -Zack Morris

Living Life Deeply: An Interview With William Powers

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By David Ryan Polgar

If I had a Bitcoin for every time I saw the word Luddite in 2014—well, I’d be a momentary millionaire. Even though the topic of healthy tech consumption has gained a lot of attention in recent years, it is still common to classify people as either a gadget-obsessed early-adopting tech fundamentalist or a tech-bashing Thoreau-worshipping Luddite. The general public, of course, is more complex.

“We tend to think in binary terms,” says William Powers. “There seems to be the sense that you have to be in one bucket. Most people are not in either bucket.”

Powers is the author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Since being released in 2010, the book has served as the foundational source and inspirational well for countless other books and articles on the subject. Numerous colleges and universities have selected it as a Common Read, and Powers has established himself as a leading voice for the burgeoning movement.

Consider all the various viral videos concerning tech balance in the last year: I Forgot My Phone, Look Up, and, most recently, a song about unplugging featuring Bert from Sesame Street. The tailwinds have clearly picked up since Hamlet’s Blackberry first hit the shelves.

“The response has changed since 2010,” states Powers. “At first it was dumbfounded—it was so against the tide.” According to the author, “There has been an awakening. People are realizing that there is a smarter way.”

Society, it seems, may have reached a breaking point with digital technology. “We reached the point where we were working for the machine,” says Powers.

The problem, as you can imagine, is not really the technology but how we are using it. An underlying theme of Hamlet’s Blackberry is the need to accept responsibility for the life we live, as opposed to merely scapegoating the screens. If we feel that we are working for the machine, as Powers mentions, we should question WHY we’re entrapped. Have we accepted our busyness as the new normal? Can we change the trajectory we’re on?

Now and then it occurs to us that we could do better, reconfigure our commitments and schedules so they’re not so crazy and we can breathe. But no sooner do we have this thought then we dismiss it as futile. The mad rush is the real world, we tell ourselves. We’re resigned to it in the same grim way that people in repressive societies become resigned to their lack of freedom. Everyone lives like this, racing and skimming their way through their days. We didn’t drop the anvil, and there’s nothing we do about it except soldier on, make the best of it.

There is a popular misconception that criticism regarding our tech use is merely a generational difference—older people not understanding younger people. The term that we often apply to the youngest generation, Digital Natives, “suggests that they live in an all-digital environment all the time and want to be there.  The young people are more nuanced,” Powers claims. “These tools are a part of life, but they’re [young people] not machines and they don’t want to be plugged in 24/7.”

The natives are restless. “Younger people,” says Powers, “have really been open to critiquing technology.”

In certain respects, we may be reacting to the unfulfilled grandiose promise that digital tech and social networks implies: more friends, more time, and more fun. Many of us, the young generation especially, may feel a sense of anxiety, alienation, and claustrophobia that wasn’t supposed to exist in this brave new world. The Future According to Zuckerbeg and Schmidt sounded like a utopian paradise. “Like all utopian visions, it was never going to fully deliver.”

Hamlet’s Blackberry is an essential read because it switches the power dynamic from the technologists that are selling us products and moves it to your own internal compass. How do you reach a healthy equilibrium between your inner self and external self? Have you focused too much attention on the external and not enough internally?

You quickly realize while reading Hamlet’s Blackberry that it is not focused merely on offering quick solutions to maintaining a healthy digital lifestyle. It is a soulful book filled with personal stories, useful metaphors, and insightful historical context that frames the issue as a deep, existential struggle. It is a struggle that has occurred with every major technological disruption throughout our history. What does it mean to be human? How can we not only live, but live deeply?

Hamlet’s Blackberry details the struggle that Powers went through to find his own personal balance. As a father and a husband, he wanted to ensure that his family was connected on a meaningful level. Too often, however, an overreliance on screens led to reduced state of being.

The point isn’t that the screen is bad. The screen is, in fact, very good. The point is the lack of proportion, the abandonment of all else, and the strange absent-present state of mind this compulsion produces…We were living for the screen and through the screen, rather than for and through each other.

The problem was that his internal/external balance was off kilter.

“You have to build an inner life where you don’t need to seek constant affirmation,” says Powers. “When we are able to stand alone and be happy we bring more to relationships.”

Powers is optimistic that we are headed towards a positive future. A future where we learn how to incorporate technology into our lives in a manner that offers enrichment, not escapism. “We are learning to emphasize the positive and de-emphasize the negative. We’re learning not to be dependent on technology.”

The crucial step towards creating a good life in the digital age is realizing the very power, and responsibility, that we have to mold technology to create a fulfilling life, not just allowing technology to mold our life. “We tend to forget when we create a new device,” says Powers, “that the magic is in us.”

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Hamlet’s Blackberry

William Powers / Website

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David Ryan Polgar is a writer, speaker, and educator based in Connecticut. As a Tech Ethicist he examines the ethical, legal, sociological, and emotional impact that technology has on our lives.

Leaving a Digital Footprint

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Digital Footprint

By David Ryan Polgar

Getting ready for your big job interview, you pick out your nicest professional attire. You spend extra time making sure not a single hair is out of place. Your shoes are shined. You remind yourself to sit up straight. Now, you open the door to your interview.

You fail.

Despite your best laid plans, here’s what the person across from you sees: you have a lot more clothes on today than featured on your Instagram account, your online rants make Ann Coulter blush, and, despite listing your major as Accounting, it seems a whole lot closer to beer pong.

Welcome to your digital footprint: the collection of pictures, status updates, tweets, and blog posts that create a major impression. It’s your online reputation, which, in a world where online and offline are increasingly becoming merged, is the same as your overall reputation. Given the common nature of Googling someone, your online reputation molds the first impression you give.

Your digital footprint is akin to you credit score: your past actions have a dramatic influence on your present and future. The mistakes you made years ago can live on to haunt you. It may not seem fair, but it just is. There are countless examples of people being fired or not hired because of their online reputation. Most common would be the Teachers Behaving Badly scenario, which, given their role, is set at a much higher standard.

There are, of course, ways that you can go about improving your chances that you have a positive digital footprint.

Google yourself.

You can do it when no one is looking. It is essential to assessing the impression that you have online, and crucial for determining if there is any damage control you need to do. You may also find that you have a googleganger, your online doppelganger who shares your name. Let’s hope that your googleganger is an upstanding citizen that pays their taxes.

While a lot of attention is placed on what YOU post online, it is also crucial to understand how your reputation is dramatically affected by what others say and post about you. You need only scan the comment section of your local paper to realize that people spill an incredible amount of vitriol online. More commonly, however, are pictures taken of you that are posted online.

Smartphones make it incredibly easy to take and post photos, often uploaded before thinking of the potential ramifications. A recent example is the the MLB pitcher Matt Harvey, who posted a picture of himself flipping the bird on Twitter. Backlash ensued and he deleted his account. The picture, however, will live on. There are no mulligans on Twitter.

Uploaders’ remorse.

The new normal is a world where previously forgettable moments are searchable and potentially held against your character. It’s best to think of everything you post in 2014 as being public. You may gain the false sense of intimacy online because you are sharing in the context of friends or followers, but nearly every post has the potential to be shared unwittingly. The intricacies of privacy settings on social media platforms are more complicated than insurance policies.

In many ways I’m glad that pictures and words from my capricious youth were not heavily documented, one click away on a search engine. Think about yourself. What would I find out about you if your whole life had been documented?

TV clip on Digital Footprints

Tech Balance: Tastes Great, Less Filling

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Tech usage has been a heavily debated topic so far in 2014. How much tech is too much? Should I take a digital diet? Should I use technology to reduce my overall use? Should I use distraction-blocking software? 

In other words, how do I create a healthy digital lifestyle? 

Unfortunately, the topic is still so young that we tend to view the concept of tech balance as a black/white issue. Either you are a tech fundamentalist or you are a Luddite (one who rejects technology). Your tech usage, of course, is nuanced. You can love your iPhone and your tech-free moments. You can enjoy playing Candy Crush and with your kids. It’s your life. 

Right now, however, many commentators (such as a recent piece in The New Yorker) are hunting for irony and paradox. They are looking at the issue through the lens of a purity test, which is inherently flawed.  It is seen as ironic, for example, that a person uses social media to promote tech-free times and zones. 

It’s 2014. Get used to it. 

In the future we will likely treat our tech usage like we treat food and alcohol. Let’s think about our relationship with booze. Is alcohol good or bad? 

Neither. 

Our relationship with alcohol is complicated, just like our relationship with technology. On one hand, alcohol provides a great deal of pleasure and is interwoven into most of our social situations. On the other hand, alcohol consumption and overconsumption has led to countless amounts of human suffering.  Therefore we try, with various degrees of success, different strategies to appreciate alcohol while also being cognizant of its associated problems. 

Personally, I enjoy drinking beer and wine. But I try to be mindful of my consumption. I use moderation. I make whatever rules I feel like. When I see advertisements that tell me to Drink Responsibly (see Consume Less Alcohol), I don’t pick apart the issue in an either/or framework.  

Just like tech usage. I can embrace the many benefits it provides while also trying to limit its downsides.  I find a balance that works for me, just like you carve out a lifestyle that works for you.  The goal is not to remove yourself from technology, but to reach a personal equilibrium that satisfies YOU.

We’re at Now, Now: Interview with Douglas Rushkoff

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Douglas Rushkoff / Credit: Seth Kushner

Douglas Rushkoff / Credit: Seth Kushner

By David Ryan Polgar

Our life has turned into an absurd moment from Spaceballs.

There is a scene in the Mel Brooks’ comedy classic that seems incredibly apropos these days. In a day and age where we are often recording our life behind a smartphone instead of actively being present in the moment, it eerily recalls a Meta setup in the 80s flick involving Dark Helmet, Colonel Sandurz, and the Corporal.

While seeking to track down Princess Vespa and company on a scanner, Sandurz gets a brilliant idea: let’s watch a VHS of Spaceballs: The Movie—the same movie they’re currently in.

After fast-forwarding through the very parts of the movie that we (the viewer) have watched up to this point, the video reaches the present moment. Dark Helmet and Sandurz now find themselves staring at a movie that is recording themselves in real-time. They are the movie, and the movie is now.

Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at?! When does this happen in the movie?!

Colonel Sandurz“Now.” You’re looking at “now,” sir. Everything that happens now is happening “now.”

Dark Helmet: What happened to “then?”

Colonel Sandurz: We passed “then.”

Dark Helmet: When?

Colonel Sandurz: Just now. Were at “now,” now.

Dark Helmet: Go back to “then!”

Colonel Sandurz: When?

Dark Helmet: Now!

Colonel SandurzNow?

Dark Helmet: Now!

Colonel Sandurz: I can’t.

Dark Helmet: Why?!

Colonel Sandurz: We missed it.

Dark Helmet: When?!

Colonel Sandurz: Just now.

Dark Helmet: [A beat] When will “then” be “now?”

Colonel SandurzSoon.

Dark Helmet, clearly disoriented, could have been suffering from what prominent media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “Present Shock.” Present Shock is the feeling of trying to capture an ever-fleeting moment that is constantly slipping away. It is a feeling that many of us get in today’s multitasking world where traditional narrative timelines have collapsed and we are bouncing around in the distracted present.

Dark Helmet was in two places at once: he was both living his “real life” and playing a part in a movie. While this scene may strike us as absurd, it is incredibly similar to how most of us are living in 2014. We exist as both an online avatar and a real-life person. Facebook even creates a Look Back movie for us, recasting our moments on the platform as a movie that catches us up to the present moment. Our always-there tech devices allow us to divide both space and time with ease. It’s what Rushkoff has coined Digiphrenia.

I recently spoke with Rushkoff about this phenomenon, along with other hotly debated issues surrounding our evolving relationship with technology. Rushkoff is the author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, now out on paperback. Rushkoff has also penned several influential books on technology and culture, such as Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Given his expertise, I wanted to know his thoughts about hotly debated topics like Google Glass, WhatsApp, and being able to create a space for uninterrupted contemplation.

In regards to Google Glass, what bothers Rushkoff the most is that yet another tech innovation is being coopted by the corporate culture of always being on and always working.  “Like most wearable technologies, they are trying to make it easier to be two places at once,” says Rushkoff. “It creates more socially-acceptable ways of dividing our attention.” Similar to Bluetooth users that project an always-working vibe, Rushkoff sees Glass wearers as dedicating a certain amount of their vision to work.

“I still respond weirdly to Bluetooth guys,” says Rushkoff. “I look at that and think of them as working for The Man.”

An often overlooked aspect of product adoption is the role that social etiquette plays is determining either success or failure. If people respond weirdly to Glass wearers, and that response doesn’t quickly erode towards acceptance, it would spell danger for the mainstream potential for Glass.

“Augmented reality is fine for industrial situations,” says Rushkoff, citing the positives that Glass may provide airline pilots incorporating crucial data. On the other hand, “Augmented reality is troubling for social situations.”

Google is trying to get ahead of the various misgivings people have towards Glass by posting a rebuttal of sorts.  One area of constant debate and worry is the recording capabilities of Glass and the privacy concerns from it. While Google maintains that the privacy concerns are overblown and that all recording is clearly indicated by a red light, this doesn’t lessen Rushkoff’s unease with the device.  “I don’t yet trust our smartest engineers or the marketplace to make our decisions,” he declares.

Right now those intelligent engineers are trying to figure out the tech desires of Millennials. Silicon Valley is noted for minting twenty-something millionaires and billionaires with hot ideas, but it is also famous for providing rapid fluctuations from media-darling to has-been status. Given that, tech companies are in constant search for the Next Big Thing.

Facebook, not wanting to be Myspace, has been outlaying a fury of cash with investments in virtual reality and texting services. Their recent $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp exposed a potential sea change in our preferred medium of communication.

“Kids,” says Rushkoff, “have a desire for a more ephemeral relationship.” What they want, according to Rushkoff, is something that is superlight and worry-free.  Tools such as WhatsApp and Snapchat seemingly provide less potential for embarrassing online material such as an inappropriate Facebook post. One might speculate that their rising popularity is a reaction by Millennials concerned with their digital footprint. What Rushkoff has discovered, however, is that it is usually just the wealthy users who are concerned with their footprint.

Millennials are also, compared with Gen Xers and Boomers, more apt to push the line of appropriateness with the content posted online. If the goal today is to rack up as many Likes as possible, the ends may seemingly justify the means. Whereas Gen Xers and Boomers debate the distinction between fame and infamy, this is non-issue for the younger generation. “The metrics on their images don’t distinguish between infamy,” states Rushkoff.

These issues were explored in the PBS Frontline special,Generation Like, which had recently aired when I spoke with Rushkoff. He was the producer, co-writer, and correspondent for the feature. The special garnished a good deal of media attention, so Rushkoff was being pulled in multiple directions. I was curious if he was still able to find time for quiet reflection. For a man noted for groundbreaking ideas, I wondered how he dealt with the bombarding media request that might keep his mind distracted and on the surface.

“I spent the last three days just canceling things,” says Rushkoff. The big attention hit, while beneficial in the immediate for his Frontline special and book, has certain downsides for a big thinker in need of a certain level of calm. “It’s coming at the expense of my sanity,” says Rushkoff. “And it’s preventing me from creating the time and space to write my new book.”

Rushkoff’s next book will explore digital currency. His newfound strategy of finding the adequate mental space to have quality thoughts came about after he tried to contact his writer friend at BoingBoing. Instead of receiving an instant reply, something expected in 2014, he was greeted with an automated message stating that the writer is working on a book and will not be replying unless the message is essential.

It was a wake-up call for Rushkoff, who realized that he had to gain better control over his time commitments and mental distractions. He had to find a way to use technology instead of feeling used by technology.

We’re at moment in time where we are having a serious conversation about the role of the technology in our lives. Outside of the distractions that may get in the way of quality thinking, we have concerns more fantastical in nature. Sci-fi concepts that once seemed far-fetched, such as Singularity, now get discussed with a straight-face. When we try and imagine the future, commentators have drastically different predictions about how it will play out.

While Rushkoff can’t be sure about how it will shake out, he does declare that he is on Team Human. His main goal, he says, is to “impress on people the specialness of our humanity.”

I’m also on Team Human, entering this brave new world with an eye towards maintaining a semblance of authentic interaction no matter how virtual our future becomes.

Welcome to the now, now. Let’s see how we deal with it.

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Stay in touch with Douglas Rushkoff

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David Ryan Polgar is an attorney, educator, and author of Wisdom in the Age of Twitter. His site Overplugged examines our evolving relationship with technology, partnering with noted Cyber psychologist Dr. David Greenfield.

 

Google Glass: Cool or Creepy?

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Google Glass Polgar

Even though Google Glass has not been widely released to the general public (you currently have to apply to be a $1,500 “explorer”), it has already spawned a heated debate about how we incorporate technology in our lives. In other words, as a recent New York Times article asked, are they cool or creepy?

 

I vote creepy.

 

Why? Wearing Google Glass is the antithesis of mindfulness. Instead of focusing on the present moment, the ability to have an augmented reality segregates your mental and physical state. Talking to a person wearing Google Glass can be a disorienting experience. Are they talking to you or their Glass? Are they finding out information about you while having a conversation? Are they present?

 

A few weeks ago I got into a conversation with a woman wearing Glass. Or, should I say, I tried to get into a conversation. While she was sitting alone and projected availability to converse, I never really knew. It was a few awkward minutes of, can I talk to her?

 

Every so often I would hear her utter, “Okay Glass.”

 

Finally I wiggled my way into a conversation. She mentioned that being in the East Coast (Connecticut), where Glass is much less common, she was getting a lot of odd stares. Google is obviously betting that over time you will start accepting augmented reality as normal instead of potentially antisocial.

 

I wouldn’t bet on it.

 

Although I am a fan of many of Google’s products, Glass is headed to be the next Segway. Or flat-line in its adopted use like Bluetooth headsets. It will be embraced by industrial fields and potentially the service industry, but the general public will continue to have a negative visceral reaction to the mental confusion it brings.

 

Confusion is creepy.

 

 

Life after Death Online

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By David Ryan Polgar

Facebook notifications are useful for providing birthday reminders. I can’t say that I’ve ever bought a “virtual gift” to send a friend, but I do appreciate the nudge to send someone a birthday wish. Glancing at the end of the month, I see that my friend Michael will be turning another year old soon. Only problem: Michael is dead.

Do I wish him a happy birthday?

Social media in 2014 includes socializing with the dearly departed. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to separate the living from the dead. In the offline world it is obvious: the living are walking while the departed are confined to coffins or urns. The online world, on the other hand, is more ambiguous: there is nothing to clearly establish that one’s online avatar belongs to a living, breathing person by the same name. They may be dead, the profile may be run by a representative, or, arriving soon, their avatar may be producing original content based on a computerized personality that has been created to mimic the living person.

Welcome to the future of dying. Your soul may get to go to Heaven and the Internet.

As our world is becoming increasingly digitalized, we are erasing the normal boundaries that separated the living from the dead. Throughout the course of history we have been on a quest for immortality, and now we may have made it feasible in certain respects. In the online world you never need to go away. In fact, your post-death avatar can continue to act in ways that suggest that you are still physically living. In the case of Michael’s birthday reminder, it is mentally jarring because I associate Facebook profile photos and birthday reminders to those that are living. I’m being hit with a certain analog versus digital world dissonance.

Two major questions that couples typically discuss regarding their end of life are: Burial or cremation? Also, at what point should you not resuscitate a loved one? Now there is a new question: what happens to their online existence once they are physically dead? Who, if anyone, is going to keep up their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram account? We tend to laugh the first time we’re posed with this question.

This is not a sci-fi scenario or a joke. This is now. This is a question we are going to have to deal with. Do you want a post-death online presence? If so, in what fashion? Should you have a memorial site on Facebook?

Services are popping up to satisfy a desire to have a post-death social media presence. One that has received a good deal of attention is LivesOn, a system for staying on Twitter after you have passed. Run by an administrator of your choosing, you would create a style now that is utilized to send out 140 character missives after you are long gone. Their slogan is: “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”

Death, it seems, in no excuse to let your Klout score decrease.

Consider what a major dilemma this is presenting. In a pre-online world, it was safe to assume that if you saw me moving my lips and making words then the words coming out of my mouth we from me. Now that we have moved to an increasingly online world where our bodies are less verifiable, it is less guaranteed that the words connected to my corresponding picture are authentically mine.

What can be mentally confusing about this scenario is that it blurs the line between the start of life and the end of life. It is what noted media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls the narrative collapse. We are moving away from the strict confines of a clear start and a clear ending (a narrative book versus a video game) and have reached a point of fluidity that alters space and time, the living and the dead.

Let’s imagine that I am diagnosed today with terminal cancer. Do I want to communicate to loved ones after I die? Should I setup a reminder to wish my wife Happy Anniversary every year?

This type of post-death communication comes up in Susan Schoenberger’s novel, A Watershed Year. One of the major plot points of the novel has a potential love interest character (Harlan) die early on from cancer. Unbeknownst to the main character, Lucy, Harlan has set up his email account to send out timed messages to Lucy that start arriving well after he has left the earth. Part of the story is how Lucy incorporates Harlan’s advice into her life, along with the struggle to understand a man who becomes more transparent after he is dead.

Schoenberger came up with the idea back in 2004; well before the concept of post-death emails were a actual option. When I talked to her about the reaction to Harlan’s emails, she stated that most of her readers find the concept romantic.  There is always a fine line between a romantic gesture and crossing the line towards “creepiness,” so it will be interesting to see how society responds to our evolving technology with post-death communication.

In 2014, it is becoming more common to establish timed emails to send out after we pass. The question then becomes, should we?  I asked Schoenberger if she would use a similar technology. “If I knew I was dying and had some time to plan for it, I might write letters to my children or record a message for their future children.”

It’s a natural impulse. New technology is allowing us to add a great deal of texture to creating an enduring legacy. Despite the shifting of time, planned post-death emails offer authentic words from a living individual who is now dead. It’s a more precise message in a bottle that washes ashore on command.

I haven’t heard from my father since January 2013, when he died of pancreatic cancer. No message in a bottle. There are many days that I wish—expect, perhaps—an email from him. Reminders to pick up firewood, plant my tomatoes, or pick his blueberries. For a man noted for his gallows humor, post-death communication would seem to open up a world of comedic possibilities.  Alas, nothing.

But what if I could chat with him right now? Would I?

new endeavor out of MIT will be allowing just that. By using Artificial Intelligence (AI), an avatar is created that is based on the life experiences and writing patterns of the deceased. Their websites asks, “what if you could be remembered forever?”

This is a complicated question we are going to be wrestling with soon. Expanding AI is opening a door into complicated philosophical questions. If I receive an email tomorrow from my father that was written before he died, I can clearly associate it with my once living father. If I chat with an avatar of my AI father, is it really him? If I treat the avatar as my father, is it bothersome that humans can be reduced to an algorithm?

I have a deep sense that we are so much more than an algorithm. Now where do we draw the line?

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Modern Mind

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[Maria Konnikova. Photo credit: Margaret Singer and Max Freeman.]

By David Ryan Polgar

Sometimes I get lost in my own town.

Given the fact that I see the same roads and buildings time and time again, I usually allow my brain to slip into autopilot mode. This isn’t something I’m proud of. It isn’t that I have knowingly decided to not pay attention, but that I have not made the conscious attempt topay attention.

It’s everything that mindfulness is not. If mindfulness is the state of being aware, my brain sometimes toggles to the other end of the mental spectrum—mindlessness.

“It is very easy to slip into mindlessness,” says Maria Konnikova. “Zoning out is the default, paying attention is more difficult.”

Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author ofMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is also a noted science writer contributing influential pieces to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Scientific American. Konnikova has a tremendous gift to boil down the latest findings in the fields of neuroscience and psychology into practical advice, insightful commentary, and enjoyable reading. Mastermind has broad appeal because at its essence it is a book that explores ways to become a better thinker, utilizing Sherlock Holmes as the mythological ideal.

Sherlock Holmes represents the ultimate active observer, utilizing heightened senses to deduce any tangled web into a line of logical analysis. His famous sidekick, Watson, is a stand-in for our intuitive mind that is far less aware of our surroundings and mental processes. Holmes is engaged, and Watson is disengaged.

Konnikova’s goal is not to rid us of entering a Watson state, but instead to appreciate how our brain works and hence know when to think like Sherlock Holmes. As Konnikova points out inMastermind, “We don’t notice everything because noticing everything—each sound, each smell, each sight, each touch—would make us crazy.” In other words, sometimes we need extreme focus and other times it’s not necessary.

The mind can often seem mysterious, but Konnikova does an excellent job shedding light on the brain’s biases. By understanding the intricacies of our cognitive function we can become the master of our mind.

One way to better understand our brain, as Konnikova discusses in Mastermind, is to think of it as an attic. Holmes was mindful of the “furniture” he put in his attic, and aware that all information was taking up valuable space. Certain tidbits were worth remembering, while others were purposefully discarded or ignored.

Unfortunately, our brain attic is closer to an episode of Hordersinstead of an issue of Architectural Digest.

In an age when many of us feel overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of information, emails, texts, tweets, pictures, and Facebook updates, Sherlock Holmes stands out as someone who is able to be calm and reflective. “People are becoming exhausted,” says Konnikova. “Sherlock Holmes presents a moment in quiet.”

Picture Sherlock Holmes in your mind: you see a relaxed man sitting in a comfortable well-worn leather chair smoking a pipe.

Picture your average 21st century thinker: you see a spastic individual tapping away on a Word document while checking their Facebook page, switching over to Gmail to send a few messages, and then glancing over at their vibrating phone.

Powerful thinking derives from a quiet mind, according to Konnikova, and our tendency to multitask is hindering our ability to find mental calm. Multitasking is one of Konnikova’s two crusades (the other is our lack of sleep). “Multitasking makes us less engaged,” says Konnikova. Quality thinking, on the other hand, relies on engagement and curiosity.

Many of us struggle with maintaining focus for prolonged periods of time. Besides the countless distractions aiming for our attention, there are ample opportunities to fill any moment that may have formerly been used for active thinking. Technology may not have eradicated poverty or war, but it certainly has eliminated any room for boredom.

While Konnikova values her time without technology, she does not in any shape or form blame technology for its tendency to tap into our default state. “Focus is always difficult, and always will be difficult,” she says. It is up to us to take control.

When Konnikova needs to get work done, she puts her smartphone in the other room. Nothing takes away from a quiet mind like a buzzing phone. 

Konnikova also utilizes a distraction-blocking software called Freedom. Freedom allows a user to block the Internet for a set period of time. By deleting the potential for distractions and time-sucks, the user is free to focus.

Perhaps in order to truly master our mind, we need to master our tech. It certainly helps with quieting our mind and bringing us closer to Holmes.

Maria Konnikova’s website

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

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