Optimistic Considerations

In retrospect, my parents modeled a bit of an “us vs. them” thought process during my childhood. This showed up more profoundly in some spheres than others, and there a few ways that it was actually helpful. For example, my parents were careful stewards of our finances. Frivolous expenses were quickly identified and pro-actively prevented, and advertisements selling such wildly un-necessary items were painted as someone wanting to trick you into giving up your money to them for something that was far from worthwhile.

As I moved forward into the world and into various educational and professional pursuits, I found myself quickly disabused of this “us vs. them mentality” in most areas of life. It has unfortunately and persistently hung on in some ways, but most frequently its just a whisper in my head that tells me to not spend the money on something that I was considering purchasing.

Even there, though, I have to be careful. Being impulsive with one’s finances is never a good thing, but there’s such a thing as letting those same finances rule you, as well.

Last week, I had a break from class. I’m not on a large campus right now, but attending a small arts school that’s far detached from the parent university’s main campus. As such, I spend my time in one of two buildings that are across a pleasant Massachusetts street from each other, and nestled among various other small, local shops and restaurants. Immediately next to the building in which I have class, there’s an independent bookstore that I wandered into during my break. I love these types of bookstores… an environment that feels precarious in our digital marketplace. This one had a wealth of different books in different genres, ranging form political non-fiction to plays to current bestsellers. I paused and glanced through some acting books, and then flipped quickly through a book on dancing. I found myself wondering about the number of titles on performing arts, such as acting and dance. While I’m certainly no dancer, I’ve read my share of acting books, and I know that a very few of them would be classified as excellent books. I’ve become a bit wary, in fact, of such non-fiction, and found myself glancing dismissively through the dancing text. I could suddenly hear that old caution from my parents echoing in my subconscious…this was someone trying to trick a reader into paying for something that wasn’t worthwhile.

Now, before you look at me too judgementally, I stopped this thought process in its tracks quickly. I can’t judge the quality of that book, because, as I said, I’m no dancer (even though I did marry one). I think that the “us vs. them” mentality is harmful in this area, though, because a desire to be a good steward of one’s money can lead one to forego books with suspicion that may, in fact, be excellent books. I hold onto what may perhaps be a naive belief in other writers: most books aren’t written to take advantage of a marketplace in which they can make money for stringing together words. The vast majority of writers are honestly trying to contribute their thoughts to the public sphere, and we all benefit from this.

Now, of course, the opposite can be true, as well…readers that will buy any book because of its subject matter, with complete disregard to the fact that it may well be a poor book. I see this often in religious spheres, my own faith included, and perhaps specifically. This is an exception, though, and not the rule.

What this comes down to is my tendency to distrust others, which frequently isn’t a good thing. We are all better for hearing one another’s thoughts, and we can’t truly know if we disagree with those thoughts until we’ve heard them out.

I’m not saying I’ll buy that book on dance, but the next time I see a book like it, I’ll do my best to push down that nagging suspicion in the back of my mind.

Hello, My Name Is…

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had an issue with name tags.

It may have started in high school, when I had a summer job in a fast food place. You know: hot, lousy job, tacky uniform, managers who breathe down your neck, that sort of thing. Your name tags had to always be visible. That’s where it started, I’m guessing. I remember hearing a comedian somewhere around my senior year of high school doing a routine, and he said that, if you’re thirty and your job still involves wearing a name tag, you’ve made a serious error somewhere.

I don’t think that last part is true (many civil servants prove it to be incorrect), but his saying that reinforced my feelings somehow. My passionate distaste for name tags has continued to present day. On the rare occasion that I’ve had to wear an ID badge for work because I’m in a different building than usual, or when I’m attending a conference or that sort of thing, I practically tear it away as soon as I possibly can. I’ve been known to take my name tag from the registration table, shove it in my pocket, and be the only person in the room without one. I really do hate them that much.

Why, though? It’s difficult to believe that one or two bad jobs in high school and college turned me against name tags altogether. Besides, they’re such a common fixture in today’s workforce that it’s difficult to avoid them…although I’ll find a way if it is to be found. It’s sort of a small thing with which to have such a big problem. I mean, I’m picky, but not that picky.

Then, last weekend, I realized part of the reason. I was attending a welcome luncheon on Sunday afternoon, and I was sitting at our table with our daughter in my lap while Karen went through the serving line. There was one other guy who had returned from the line, and sat opposite of me at the table. I wanted to initiate conversation with him, but let’s face it…while I’ve been taught all of the social appropriateness necessary, I’m still a significant introvert, so finding conversation starters isn’t really a finely tuned skill set for me. My leading question is usually, “So, what’s your name?” And I go from there.

There was no point in that, though, because a quick glance down provided me with my table-mate’s name. Asking him was pointless. I already knew that he was “Kevin.” My strategy had been derailed, and I was left to improvise…which is far more energy than an introvert is typically prepared to expend.

I think that the underlying reason that I dislike name tags so much is because they make it that much more difficult for me to socialize. The underlying reason for that, I think, is because they remove natural conversation between two people. That, in it’s attempt to make it easier to get to know those around us, actually makes it more difficult to do so. Names, after all, are highly significant and powerful. Learning someone’s name and speaking that name is a profoundly spiritual, if everyday, experience. I think that having our names pinned to our chests rob us of that somehow…transforms the act of connecting two people into a mechanical experience.

There’s my reason for disliking name tags revealed. So, if I meet you at a conference or something like that, and I intentionally ignore your name tag and ask your name any way, it means I really want to meet you and know your name. And I really want to do that myself without annoying badges coming between us.

Practical Applications

While there’s a risk of deifying our technological progress, I think that the nature of the information age has raised some really interesting commentaries on our view of ourselves as a society.

Interestingly…or, perhaps, strangely, depending on your point of view…this occurred to me by way of a navigation app.

Just before re-locating to New England, I was turned on to a nifty little smartphone application called Waze. If you haven’t heard of it, this is basically a crowd-sourced GPS application that provides turn-by-turn directions just as your GPS would, while also permitting you to report things like road construction, speed traps, and accidents. Waze’s servers then collect this real-time data, determine where traffic is completely clogged, and then anyone navigating with Waze gets re-routed around the pending hazards.

What’s interesting about Waze is that it incorporates a sort of game component: the more hazards you report, the more points you earn, and eventually you “level up.” This keeps people motivated to use the application, which is important, because the more people who use the app, the better the app becomes. Even driving around with the application running in the background and not using it for navigation lets you take advantage of hazard reports from other drivers around you.

So, what does this spiffy little technological innovation say about culture? I didn’t really appreciate this until I moved and got the pleasure of dealing with Boston traffic every day. The sort of traffic that transforms Interstates into parking lots. I’ve always preferred dedicated devices for things like navigation, because, honestly Garmin has always done it the best. Having input about traffic data has become invaluable when dealing with this volume of traffic for my daily commute, though, and being able to get around major traffic jams has saved my punctuality a couple of times.

And, anyone who knows me will tell you, my punctuality needs all of the saving that it can get.

The cultural aspect, though, is that this is bigger than just being about my convenience. Using this application has made me feel a sense of responsibility to other drivers, because I know that my reports are helping them get around the traffic in which I just unexpectedly found myself stuck, or to avoid getting caught in the speed trap that I just drove by. I feel motivated, not by the game aspect of this application, but by the knowledge that I know that I’m helping other drivers, and that other drivers are helping me, with the shared goal of surviving the least attractive two and a half hours of our day.

We are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. As it turns out, there’s an app for that.

Words of Mass Consumption

Many centuries ago when I was an undergrad student, I was sitting in a communications course analyzing, as I recall, that most obvious method of ideological communication in a society obsessed with automobiles: the bumper sticker. In particular, we were talking about the phrase, “he who dies with the most toys wins.”

A tad materialistic, maybe?

I think about this occasionally because I’m really sensitive to the language that’s used in everyday discourse, because I think that it says a lot about our perspective as a society. In particular, as everything we use shifts progressively into the world of new media, and the music and books and movies we purchase arrive by way of download, I’ve found myself immediately concerned by the fact that verbs such as “listening,” “reading,” and “watching” are replaced by the umbrella usage of “consuming.” I’m sure you’ve heard this used if you’re a bit geeky at all, or even if you’re not. The phrase came as a natural result of developing online methods of carrying data. Much of the data that a website, for example, contains is referred to as “content.” Thus, when we read or watch of listen to the content of a website, we are said to be consuming the content.

The reason that this bothers me is that consuming something is not the same as engaging something. Consuming something is the result of an appetite. The verb carries the connotation of absorbing, using up, or devouring. I don’t want the things that I write to be consumed, because then my words and thoughts are simply one more way of temporarily quenching one’s appetite. I want my readers to engage what I write: to read the post or story or article, think about it, and engage in conversation about it, ideally with their friends and hopefully with me as well. Consuming is none of those things. Consuming is selfishly sucking something up and being done with it.

Consuming is utilitarian, and art of any medium should never, ever be used in a utilitarian manner.

I think that this phrase is the natural result of a culture that places a price on everything and everyone, and transforms every medium of expression into a commodity. My words and your words…or your music, photographs, painting, or however you express yourself…are not commodities created simply to be sold. Our work is more valuable than that. Our thoughts are more valuable than that. When our thoughts are consumed, they are treated as less than what they are. Or than what we are.

“Consuming content” robs us of the value that engaging and discussing the thoughts and works of others could bring. I really think that we should change that phrase, because it shapes the way we think. When we think we want to consume something, we must first possess it. That implies that we always want to possess more as we devour more.

Perhaps he who dies after having consumed the most content wins? That’s not really the culture that I want to be in. Do you?