Bonus Points?

Hold on, because I’m about to date myself.

When I was young…very young…my parents bought the first video game system that I’m aware of ever existing: Atari’s Pong. I remember their being rather exasperated at me when I curiously reached out in the middle of one of their matches to press the “reset” switch. Oops. Video games have come a long way since that bouncing virtual tennis ball: I remember pumping quarters into Frogger, Pac Man, and Star Wars games while my mother was grocery shopping. I phased out of that interest, and have never been a gamer in my adult life. In fact, they usually lead me to frustration (I got into a bit of trouble with a friend for throwing his X-Box controller in anger when I attempted HALO). So, my video game experiences today are limited to electronic chess (which I insist doesn’t really count, because it’s too intellectual), and a Pac Man game I added to my iPod more for the sake of nostalgia than anything else. I’ve even avoided Facebook games until recently, when I confess I have become slightly caught up in the Mafia Wars phenomenon, though this hearkens back more to role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, which was a longer standing addiction of my youth…but that’s a footnote, I think.

I make no secret of the fact that I openly dislike video games at large. I’m convinced that the trendy diagnosis of ADHD is a condition we’ve created, and electronic gaming is at least partly responsible. While I decry the claims that youth are more violent because of video games and scoff at the “life imitates art” debate, I just think that video games are, largely, a waste of time and damaging to one’s psyche with anything more than small amounts of exposure.

With the commonplace existence of online identities and social networking, however, I’ve began to see a bit of detachment in our real-life existences that should be augmented by electronic means…a sort of game-play mentality that gives me pause. I’m a huge fan of social networking, and I am a firm believer of the positive implications of this technology, mostly because I have experienced these positive implications, while, with some small effort, managing to avoid most of the negative implications (which I recently wrote about for Catapult Magazine here). I experienced the detachment of electronic media for the first time, however, about two days ago. I had re-connected with a former co-worker through LinkedIn, and asked this co-worker to generate a recommendation for me. While doing so, I suddenly felt as if I wasn’t in the real world, that I was making a move in an online game to earn more points or reach another level. This is partly the fault of how LinkedIn words their web copy (you profile becomes x% more “complete” with recommendations), and partly because, I think, I had just logged off of a Facebook game. It seemed distant to me until the next morning that this was a real person, a professional connection even, that I was contacting…a professional courtesy for which I was asking, not a number of points or a role of the dice in a game. The fact that this momentarily escaped my mind troubles me. Actually, it troubles me a lot.

While I suppose most things are okay in moderation, I am concerned enough to seriously consider abandoning what minimal game play I do engage in, simply because that momentary effect on real life connections carries with it huge dangers in my mind. Perhaps this is the two-edged sword of the advantage to being able to re-connect with former colleagues through social networking. If so, then the benefits outweigh the costs, at least for the moment. Game play is a basic human endeavor…one could argue that it is a human need…for distraction from the pressures of our insanely hectic lives. When the games overcome our perception of reality, however…then it becomes like those who attempt to become their characters from role-playing games and immerse themselves a fantasy at the expense of their reality. And I think that to be the key: fantasy is healthy and necessary, but it cannot occur at the expense of reality. There is too much of ourselves at risk when that occurs, too much of each other’s lives.

And life is always more important, because, just as it is not a dress rehearsal, neither is it just a game.

(Photo Attribution: / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dinner Conversations

Every now and then, you hear something profound.

Take, for example, a passing conversation I had with my sister-in-law at a Red Lobster over the weekend. She was discussing names for children. I made (as you might imagine) some comment about labeling people. She responded that we all do it when we name our children. And, me being me, I immediately wanted to say something about our horrible tendencies as human beings to limit ourselves with labels, but I couldn’t, because her comment, even though it hadn’t been in any way connected to this debate that I consistently have with myself, shut me up.

I’ve talked before about my (passionate) dislike of labels. I’ve also talked about the realization that naming a person is a sacred and powerful exercise, one that should not be taken lightly. So, where do the two intersect? Where does one end and the other begin?

At the risk of claiming the ever popular “all is good in moderation” stance, this is a post more of questions than answers, and will certainly be short of epiphanies, because this idea has caused me to think and question, and I’m still in that process. I remain adamant that to label something is an act of our need to understand, to bring a concept or occurrence down to a level where we can grasp its nature. Labeling something, theoretically, gives one power over something, as in diagnosis. Labeling assists us in knowing about things better, but not necessarily in knowing the thing.

So, I think that the thin line may lie there: while labeling assists us in knowing about something or someone, naming helps us to actually know something or someone, because naming is a gesture of relationship, not analysis; of connection, not mere intellectual inquiry. After all, she’s right: we do do this all the time, with people, not just concepts. While labels run the (enormous) risk of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies (again, diagnoses spring to mind, along with a myriad of other things), naming seems almost to be shaping a destiny in advance. Think about the etymology of your friends and loved ones’ names. I imagine most if not all of them bear out the meanings of our names.

So, while I continue to voraciously push back on labels, I am in awe of the power of a name, and am determined to use it wisely, as it was not a power to be wasted or used flippantly.

Turns out vacations are good for inspiration, even when I’m slacking from typing words onto the screen. Who knew?

After Glow

Yesterday afternoon I succumbed to Karen’s wishes in which movie we would be seeing at the local theatre. The final decision was a $1 showing of Star Trek, which neither of us had managed to take in at the time of its initial release. I’ll condense my overall feelings about the movie by saying it was well done, though slightly courageous in its far-reaching impact to the Trekkie universe specifically, and the science fiction genre at large, a genre which I happen to hold very dear.

This came after a long and occasionally heated debate between Karen and myself after adjourning to a nearby Starbucks to discuss what we had seen. Of the group of people that went, Karen and I were alone in our discussion. In retrospect that was the thing about the afternoon that stood out the most to me (I’ll save my conclusions about science fiction for another post), because I think its indicative of how we take in entertainment and treat art in our culture overall.

One of my acting professors in college said that part of the experience of theatre was going out for a cup of coffee after the show with the group you saw the show with to discuss the show. A play or a movie of any quality (okay, okay, I know that can be hard to come by in Hollywood) is going to present questions for discussion, hard issues with which we should wrestle, predictions or revelations of current and future cultural flaws that merit exploration. Should we fail to bounce these ideas around in our minds at least, and at best work them through in conversation with others, then they fall flat. A critical part of the experience is lost.

Similarly, think of the last time you read a good book. Did it not immediately produce a recommendation to friends? That recommendation likely included a synopsis of why you thought so highly of the book. If the person to whom you recommended the book read it, then you had a great deal of potential discussion in which to engage afterward. For example, I recently began exploring Salinger’s short fiction at the recommendation of a friend. After reading Nine Stories, we began discussing Salinger’s stories over our weekly coffee meeting. Not long ago, I recommended this same collection to another friend, who is reading it currently. He wants to talk about it as well. The cycle continues.

To be fair, some of those who watched the movie with us yesterday discussed it with us following lunch today. I’m glad…the movie is actually too good to waste by not discussing the story arc. Whatever the issues a movie or play or book presents, it merits discussion, whether you agree with it or not…discussion about whether you agree with it or not, and why. I’m hoping that this lack of discussion I’m observing is an exception rather than a rule. I hope that, if it is more commonplace, that it is not due to an eroding of critical thinking on a large scale. I’m more inclined to ascribe it to the passivity with which we consume art on demand, immediately leaving one story to latch onto another, without ever taking time to process what it is we just experienced. I think this passivity is more often the case because when I see friends become involved in discussion about a film or play or book, they seem to latch onto it hungrily, eating the thoughts ravenously and finishing with eyes that gleam in want of more.

This is indicative of how little it actually occurs, in any case. Let’s talk more over coffee, shall we? Besides, a cup of coffee after every movie may even boost our economy. See? Everyone wins.

Illusory Endeavors

The age-old question: if you could know your future, would you really want to? Would you want to know when you would achieve major milestones in your life? Perhaps you would. Would you want to know who you were going to marry? Sort of takes the fun out of the exploration, doesn’t it? Would you want to know exactly from what profession you were going to retire? Would you want to know exactly when your life would be over, and under what circumstances?

Of course, various artists have explored this topic in depth over the decades, and humanity appears largely void of this sort of precognition…lucky us, to not have to make the call.

This story, however, makes it sound as though we may be landing in the neighborhood:

The implications of this are frightening, unethical, a direct result of our God complex, and catering to the narcissism of the parents, to say nothing of the negative ramifications on the children in question.

A valuable part of childhood is exploration. Personality develops as exploration occurs. Exploration leads to multifaceted individuals…you know, the “Renaissance person” that seems so rare as our culture forces us to mold ourselves into a single label so that everyone knows where to file us in their heads. We are so desperate for these labels that we seem to now want to confine our children before they even have a chance to explore. The scientist interviewed in this video openly states that he will encourage a specific set of parents to push their child into business pursuits, because of quantified test results that would seem to indicate that the child will be strong in this area. As though we can quantify a human being, reducing a person to numbers and formulae in order to predict what they will be most successful in pursuing.

Two goliath ethical train wrecks present themselves to me here: First, the forcing of persons into categories. I’ve spoken here before of how everything in life interweaves, becomes a lens through which we can view everything else…essentially the Burkian principle of communication theory. From a psychological perspective, I’ve often seen…especially in adolescents…the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy take hold; that is, living out what someone has convinced you of because you aren’t aware that there is another alternative. Imagine a person with Harvard potential refusing to further their education beyond high school, even though they want to, because they have been told that their family is one of farmers, and that this person is capable of nothing other than agriculture. There is nothing wrong with agriculture…if that is what this person chooses to do. The point is that this hypothetical person’s not being encouraged to see outside of this box limits their potential in such a way that they may never even realize that they were robbed. There is a similar principal at work in diagnoses: while naming something gives you power over that thing (or problem), there comes with this power the danger of identifying yourself with that label (“oh, I can’t help it…I’m bipolar.”), and thus an absence of effort to improve or change.

This is what will be forced upon these children, based on some tests and numerical read-outs. This set of numbers, you’re an artist. This set, you’re a scientist. How about a set that indicates you should be a janitor? What happens when you know people…you know, have connections to those testing your child, who could make it really look like they could be a business administrator or national leader? Who will watch those watchmen? More practically, and from a less nihilist perspective, who will encourage the child who received numbers stating he/she should be a chemical engineer to pursue their passion for the violin? What if, in failing to do so, a future first chair for the London Philharmonic goes unrealized because the violin was considered taboo for a talented child as they were forced by parents toward being that chemical engineer?

And, at the risk of returning to my soap-box, who said you could sum up a human being in numbers, anyway? The children who are subjected to this testing are being robbed under the cruelest of circumstances: the premise that they are being given a gift.

The second ethical issue is our worship of success at the forsaking of all else. In an industrialized culture, and an increasingly industrialized world, East or West, we value people based solely upon what they can produce. The product is all-important, and if one cannot contribute, then they are less important to the society as a whole. Personal welfare and family time are expected to be sacrificed at the altar of the next business deal. Vacation? That’s for the weak. Sick time is for the weaker. After all, if you’re not at work producing something, then of what use are you?

The concept of viewing a man or woman as being of inherent beauty and worth simply because they are human has been lost in our rush to build, create, and accumulate wealth. While building and creating are natural human pursuits, and are good things in and of themselves, they are never justification for the harm of another human being. Ever.

Yet, mankind (at the risk of a sweeping cliche) now takes this one step further, not only pushing production at the expense of intrinsic human value, but programming a child from birth as to how exactly they will produce.

So, applaud this engineering marvel and scientific breakthrough, while looking at how it will benefit you, if you choose, but do so knowing that it benefits one at the expense of the humanity of another, and, in so doing, reduces the humanity of us all. I hope this is not a true prediction of our brave new world…