Futurist Retrospective

There are lot of ways that I’m a futurist.

I think that this is much to Karen’s chagrin. I tend to not just adapt to, but seek change in many ways, especially around technology. We were created as creators, after all, and I see the digital sphere as a grand, if occasionally misguided, expression of our creativity. That’s not to say that I grab every new toy that becomes available. Even if our budget were to allow, I believe in a spiritual discipline of avoiding materialism. I also believe that every technology should solve a problem for you, and that, if it doesn’t, it’s likely excessive to have it in your life.

That said, as the technology world goes, I supposed I’m still a bit of curmudgeon. I use some social media, but generally my perspective is that without it, we would have fewer problems. I read my news digitally, but I still prefer to read the paper every morning, even if it is in digital format. I use an RSS reader of sources that I know are reputable rather than allow someone else’s algorithm to feed me information. When I was splitting a lunch bill with some colleagues once, I asked if they had a PayPal account that I could send the money to, and they looked at me blankly as though I were an illiterate luddite.

There are also areas of my life in which I’m anachronistic. I refuse to use modern technology to make my coffee. I grind it in a hand grinder, measure the water carefully, and use a press for my morning caffeination. While my to-do lists are digital because I see a legitimate need to be able to access them from anywhere, any important thoughts or notes that I have about life or inspiration or reflection go into a leather traveler’s notebook that Karen gifted me for Christmas several years ago. There’s something about the discipline of slowing down long enough to write something by hand that is deeply important.

Some of my family finds this amusing. My father-in-law jokingly says that he likes watching me make coffee because I’m a “mad scientist.” I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten some strange looks on flights while journaling my thoughts. It’s just not something that one sees often any longer.

So, while there are ways that I’m a futurist, I suppose that these aren’t among them.

I remember a conversation some years ago with an old friend during our weekly meeting at a local coffee shop. We were discussing how, in Victorian times, everyone kept a journal. Publishing the private journals and papers of influential thinkers, often posthumously, has long been a valued practice in the academic community. I recall making the point in that conversation that blogs were the modern equivalent of this practice, only with the added benefit of inviting conversation from others on the thoughts recorded. Today, I think that I would be more uncertain of whether or not I was onto something there, and, even if I were, the algorithms of social media have all but degraded blogs to the backs of our minds (who has time to ready 200 word posts?) and, even if they haven’t in some circles, the beauty of a blog is the conversation, and almost no one comments on posts these days. So, even if I was correct and we were onto something important there, I think we’ve mostly managed to lose it among the noise.

There’s a theory out there that digital technology never actually makes anything easier for us (I’m specifying digital here, because I don’t think most of would argue against innovations like machines that do our laundry for us). As our work becomes more knowledge-based and less physical, we have developed the capacity to work from anywhere. While that’s a luxury that affords us more time, it also consumes more of our time because we can never switch it off. Sometimes I wonder if the Internet was a better place when it was a place we went to when we intentionally sat down behind a computer and initiated a connection, rather than having it in our pockets all of the time and always on. We’ve rushed to achieve so much, and we have largely succeeded. To paraphrase Captain America, though, they didn’t tell us what we’ve lost. There’s a point of connection that we don’t have if we see each other primarily on a screen.

I guess my point here is that everything becomes progressively more frenetic. And I know that I’ve written about this before, but it’s something that always seems to be on my mind of late, because everything keeps happening faster, and faster, and..it was too fast already when I began thinking about this topic.

I wish sometimes that we could go back. I think I’ve made it apparent here that I’m not against digital progress. It’s that I think that we hit a sweet spot some years ago, and things would have been really great if we had collectively pressed pause and broken free of the illusion that we can never appreciate this great thing that we’ve done, but rather have to immediately rush onto the next thing. And while that sweet spot would be defined slightly differently by different people, I really think that, if we could just rewind a bit…back to before social media spiraled out of control, back to before the web was in our pockets and on our wrists at all times, back to when people read books more than screens…I think that would be collectively better for doing so.

Anyone who has ever tried to downgrade an operating system will tell you, though, that you can’t go back. We can only make the best of what we have and move forward. Perhaps if we just decided to settle in, though, and work on making the best of it before rushing into what’s next….

I guess that wouldn’t be progress, though. And I wouldn’t be much of a futurist if I recommended it.

Or would I?

Why We All Need More Red Ink

"Concentrated" by Andreh Santos, used under Creative CommonsYou remember what it was like, right? Those high school English classes? The days on which the papers that you had submitted the week before were returned to you, and you found them full of red ink conveying comments and criticisms, some of which just stung, along with the circled grade at the top?

The red ink phenomenon became worse, or course, in college, when professors, as we humorously turned the phrase, “bled all over” our papers. The comments and criticisms became more helpful, and more full of sting.

As I moved from writing papers to writing articles and op-ed pieces, the red ink from my professors paled in comparison to the red ink from my editors. Although the red markings had become digital by grad school, the sting had increased exponentially. In every case, though, the sting was a good thing, because, when heeded, it made me a better writer, a better thinker.

In the interest of putting what you’ve learned into practice, I gave my share of red ink, as well. Classmates frequently asked me to edit their papers before submitting them, and this even became a service that I offered as a freelancer for a while. The comment markup in the word processing document was not ink, but it was still red. Well, sort of. Something for which I was notoriously picky was grammar.

Rightfully so, of course. Submit a paper in grad school with grammatical errors, and your grade will suffer a harsh fate. This mentality, I think, is justified at this level of academic work. The care with which you craft the language of your argument is indicative of the care with which you pursue your discipline.While everyone is only human and prone to mistakes, typos just simply shouldn’t make it “into the wild” beyond a certain level.

So, what, I wonder, is that level?

I read a lot of blogs. Over the last three days, I’ve counted no less than four posts…one of which was about writing good web copy…that contained painfully obvious typographical errors and mis-spellings. Egregious oversights, such as missing articles and incorrect tense, peppered across posts that were on their way to making good points otherwise. These sorts of errors are severely distracting to me, to the level that I find it difficult to stay on track with the thesis of the post. I find myself distrustful of the writer’s competency in the subject matter, their reputation failing in my mind. After all, if one’s educational level is such as to permit such careless handling of the language in which one writes, how competent can one be in any chosen field? This isn’t some kind of advanced philosophy…this is basic language arts.

However, while I’ve witnessed first-hand how aggressively reading and writing skills are tossed aside in the public education system, I don’t think that my admittedly (and unfortunately) snobbish knee-jerk reaction is accurate in most cases (I’m working on the snobbish part). I think that, more often than not, what I’m seeing is the result of a lack of time.

To pay attention to these sorts of things, time, quiet, and presence in what you’re doing are all required to focus. That time is so fleeting to us now, flies so quickly from our grasp as we struggle to divide our attentions in so many different directions. Add to this what studies have suggested…that time to let the imagination meander with no external stimuli demanding action is necessary for the creative process…and the pressure to keep an editorial calendar full of content for blogs and other digital media easily becomes counter-intuitive for the writer. When we rush a process, the point of diminished returns makes itself apparent even more quickly, and the quality of everything suffers.

The result is that these sorts of simple typographical mistakes are either accepted as commonplace, or, even more frightening, not even noticed by most readers.

Even more frightening than that is the idea that most editors miss them. If those tasked with distributing the red ink are too rushed to do so well, how do any of us get any better?

Slowing down makes every project better, and time without producing anything is of insurmountable importance to the creative person. I’m really concerned that we’ve lost sight of both of these truths as we’ve succumbed to the lie that time is money.

As much as it stings…I think that we could all use a bit more red ink in our lives.

Image attribution: Andreh Santos under Creative Commons.

Inwardly Linked, and a Downward Spiral

LinkedIn pen

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I hate the monster that Facebook has become. I avoid that network at nearly all costs (as the digital sagebrush blowing across the face of my dusty profile will attest). I use several other social networks, though (you know, the non-monsters), and one of them is LinkedIn. This is because, in my new vocation especially, it’s how you get jobs. LinkedIn profiles are just what you do, and what you use, if you work in the world of technology.

I like LinkedIn, though, because it’s relatively isolated and specialized as a network, which is exactly what a professional network should be. I post professional items of interest there that generally wouldn’t go into my other networks, mostly because they just wouldn’t be of as much interest to people elsewhere. In that way, it remains a bit of a mystery to me, because (here’s a shocker) I really don’t get corporate culture. I don’t understand business-speak. I sometimes roll my eyes at the digital  presences of those who are acting professional, as all of us do, in the workplace…that is to say, different than they would anywhere else. That doesn’t take away from the fact, however, that LinkedIn has its uses, and they are very credible uses, at that.

If our culture has ever been guilty of anything, it’s the lie of the self-made-man. “Work hard, play hard” has somehow morphed into “work until you drop if you know what’s good for you, and then play if you have any time and/or energy left.” America is, if anything, a culture of hard-workers. Perhaps I sound cynical as I say that, but as it becomes easier and thus more expected to work from anywhere, then it becomes more natural to work all the time. And, because that’s often the professional expectation in today’s world, it also filters down to the educational realm. The drive to succeed in school at earlier and earlier ages (read: pre-university) becomes more and more intense, robbing children of their childhoods way too early.

Don’t hear me say that I don’t value education…quite the contrary (as our daughter’s love of books and extensive vocabulary would prove, to say nothing of the bookshelves of old grad school books lining our walls).  I think, though, that pressure to achieve doesn’t belong in our academic settings before the university level.

So, the story that ran a few days ago that LinkedIn will now allow children as young as thirteen years of age to have profiles caused my heart to sink. Because a professional  presence isn’t something that a thirteen-year-old should ever, ever have to concern themselves with. They will reach an age when they have to do that all too quickly, when they spend increasingly long hours at their job just to make ends meet, at which point, no matter how much they might love what they do, something of their innocence is lost.

This is, at the end of the day, a profit-seeking move for LinkedIn, I’m sure. They have to, after all, compete with other networks (although that is something that I don’t understand…they do one thing well, and I’m a firm believer in stopping there). This will prove a profitable venture for LinkedIn, I’m sure, but it will prove a socially costly mistake if it leads us to expect higher professional and academic achievement from our children at earlier and earlier ages.

Let them learn. Let them play. Let them hold onto those days to which many of us wish that we could return.

And let’s not make them rising corporate stars quite yet, okay?

Photo Attribution: Sheila Scarborough under Creative Commons  

I Don’t Like Facebook, But I’m Not Suspicious

Susan Cain called it the “extrovert ideal.” Those of us who are introverts know it well: the fact that more boisterous and talkative people than ourselves rule the professional and social landscapes around us, and look upon as perhaps being not well because we are…different.

And, no, before you misread that, I’m getting some sort of martyr complex or assuming a victim mentality. I’m simply saying that a disproportionate amount of extroverts seem to call the shots in prominent spheres of influence. Actually, I’m not even saying that…Cain is.

I thought of that when I read this hypothesis that those who shy away from having Facebook profiles may be antisocial or “suspicious,” because two recent attackers who made the news had avoided social media profiles. This is such a wildly nonsensical statement that I have difficulty justifying it with a response…and none of the responses that I can formulate off-the-cuff would be free of inappropriate language.

I’ll just say this: not wanting to have your entire life public, or even a large part of your life public, does not make you a sociopath. It likely just makes you an introvert. I’m an introvert. I have many friends who are. We’re not sociopaths. We just re-charge our batteries by having alone-time. That may be different from how you re-charge your batteries, but different doesn’t equal wrong.

Also, for those of us who are more tech-savvy, Facebook is the lowest-common-denominator, a poorly designed site that has devolved into a dysfunctional monster that vacuums up our data with complete disregard for any form of privacy. Many of us eschew Facebook profiles…either delete them or use them sparingly…for that reason. That doesn’t make us sociopaths, that means that we disagree with how this particular monster makes use of our information.

What concerns me more, however, is the cultural impulse that drives the desire to do what everyone else is doing. This apparently leads some employers to think that not having a Facebook profile means that you have something to hide, and to consider you a risk. Beyond the complete non-sequitur of thinking that one may not be a fit employee because they choose to act differently in a particular area…because they don’t conform to the extrovert ideal…there is something that concerns me more, here.

And that is, that Facebook now has us exactly where it wants us.

This particular social network has become so ubiquitous as to be the social norm for everyone. Because it monetizes your personal information as its business model, it wants everyone’s information, because that means more money for the company. So, it has succeeded in applying the social pressure on everyone to make them think that they have to have a profile on the site if they want to be considered normal.

To quote the title of a book I once saw, “normal is just a setting on your dryer.” I say, forget normal. Forget the monster that wants your information. I maintain a Facebook account because it remains the only way to reach certain friends, but I will delete my personal profile at my first opportunity. That doesn’t make me antisocial or a sociopath. It’s a choice of lifestyle. I would point out that many of us who dislike Facebook still make regular use of other social networks.

So, don’t let society pressure you into being normal. And, if they accuse of being a sociopath or some sort of nutcase, then feel bad for them. The extrovert majority, like the Fresh Prince’s parents, just don’t understand.

Definitions and Blogging

It’s not just that I don’t like Facebook, I suddenly realize. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just not a huge fan of social networks.

To explain that, though, let me draw the distinction about which I had a recent epiphany. Well, a mini-epiphany, at least:

I’ve determined that I prefer blogging platforms over social networks. And I consider Twitter a blogging platform.
— Dave Brown (@truthscribe722) July 12, 2012

You see, what I love about circulating thoughts through the public sphere is the ability we have to throw our ideas out there for whomever might read them. Perhaps this is just a writer thing, but I don’t think so, because I see the same thing happen with photographers and artists that I know. We put our work or our ideas out for consideration, and then enjoy the conversation that (hopefully) happens as a result. The connections that result from those conversations tend to be good professional networking, and you end up meeting some really fascinating people.

So, back to that distinction. What I love using and participating in are blogging platforms. I was a blogger long before social networks were the norm, and I’m still connected with some of the very bloggers that I began conversations with in that first year of writing here. What I enjoy about connecting with people online are not status updates or location check-ins, although those things can be fun and useful. I enjoy creative expression, people generating things for others to read, watch, or look at, and then discuss. Working with this as a sort of definition, I include platforms that I originally thought of as social networks as blogging platforms, such as Twitter (which is technically referred to as a “micro-blog”), and Tumblr. These can be used as status updates, but are better used in spreading your ideas, your humor, links of interest…in short, your thoughts, not just what you had for dinner.

One weekend, Karen and I were out with friends who are not big social-networkers. I was looking at something online as we were walking up the stairs at an art gallery, when one of them asked me if I was tweeting. “Do you think anyone cares that you’re walking up stairs right now?”, was her question.

That is the danger that social networks fall into, and what gives them a bad reputation, certainly. It is also, I think, what differentiates blogging platforms from social networks.

Social networks have different uses, primarily in keeping in contact with others. As much as I have come to dislike Facebook, I keep an account there because it is still the lowest common denominator: if I want to get in touch with an old friend and aren’t sure where they’ve been for the last year, phone numbers and email addresses can change, but I know that they will have a Facebook page.

And, lest I forget, Facebook has had other positive impacts on my life, as well.

So, hearing what others are up to and where they are at this moment can be interesting, and I enjoy seeing others’ vacation photos. What I really want to see, though, are what they think about things, what they’re reading and why they like or dislike it, what projects they’re working on. That’s why I prefer blogging, and why I think that the speculation of the death of blogging as a medium is vastly over-stated…because the definition of blogging is really bigger than it seems at first blush, don’t you think?