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Walking Out the Lockdown

It’s mid February. The dead of winter. It’s cold and there’s a fresh blanket of snow on our street that’s about to be completely saturated with salt by city-appointed snow removal workers. I love winter and being outdoors, but the salt is everywhere. It’s insidious. Crunching incessantly below my feet as I walk in any direction, like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard.

We throw down obscene amounts of salt in the city of Toronto. I wonder about the environmental implications of all that salt and various engineered snow-melting mixtures entering our water; the impact on trees, shrubs, the local wildlife, our dogs’ paws. Is it really so necessary? It’s as though there’s a refusal to acknowledge the very existence of winter, that any discernible accumulation of snow must be completely eliminated — immediately — from city sidewalks, private and commercial properties because, god forbid, someone could slip and fall.

I love walking though. It’s an easy, healthy activity during these ongoing lockdowns. As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out:

“Walking is one of the simplest and most strategic things you can do for yourself. It takes little preparation, minimal effort, no special equipment, and it can contract or expand to fit the exact amount of time you have available.”

Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Walk — Deborah Grayson Riegel

The CDC goes on to say, a moderate-to-vigorous walk can improve the quality of our sleep, thinking, and learning and thwart any symptoms of anxiety. Regular walking can also boost memory and attention. Our brain cells build new connections (important as we age) and our creativity gets a charge too!

After a long brisk walk I feel invigorated and better able to think laterally and come up with higher quality solutions to problems at hand. The doldrums of thought are effectively banished. An inspiring Wade Davis talk comes to mind:

“Creativity is not the motivation of action, it is by definition the consequence of action. You have to do what needs to be done and only then ask whether it was possible or permissable. Pessimism is an indulgence, dispair an insult to the imagination just as orthodoxy is the enemy of invention.”

Feeling Great at 65, ideacity 2019 — Wade Davis

Now, I am turning off the computer. Getting up off my ass and going out for a walk.

If Facebook Didn’t Exist…

Here’s a crazy thought: if Facebook didn’t exist would the world be a more peaceful, empathetic place?

How much real-world violence would never have happened if Facebook didn’t exist? One of the people I’ve asked is Joshua Geltzer, a former White House counterterrorism official who is now teaching at Georgetown Law. In counterterrorism circles, he told me, people are fond of pointing out how good the United States has been at keeping terrorists out since 9/11. That’s wrong, he said. In fact, “terrorists are entering every single day, every single hour, every single minute” through Facebook.

Adrienne LaFrance, Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine

Imagine a world without Facebook, also WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok and every other popular social media platform. If these networks didn’t exist I wonder what the hell most of us would be doing on our phones all day. It’s possible things like distracted driving, continuous partial attention and digital echo-chambers wouldn’t be persistent problems.

Our phones used to be simple voice calling devices. No GPS, no high-definition cameras, and no constant connectivity to centralized social media platforms. This connectivity we now all have following us around in our pockets has exacerbated a range of anxiety disorders, particularly among our kids, who now must deal with cyber-bullying. Throughout the industrialized world we now see a crisis of social and political divisiveness with the United States of America perhaps leading the way.

Of course bullying and political divisiveness have been around long before the Internet, but social media coupled with widespread smartphone use have arguably made these things much worse.
Back in 2017 one of Facebook’s former VPs, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke out and made stunning remarks about the platform he and his ‘user growth’ team of engineers helped create:

“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” He added, “[There’s] no civil discourse, no cooperation; [only] misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem–this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Indeed, social media has become a troubling conduit for misinformation.

Facebook’s original motto was Move fast and break things. Once a sort of inspirational hacker ethos built around the idea of using technology in disruptive and innovative ways. In software development this approach would focus on rapid prototyping and iteration of releases over more methodical planning, user testing and feedback.
Another of Zuckerberg’s mottos was the seminal Make the World More Open & Connected. Now, in the wake of rampant misinformation of widespread voter fraud leading to the Washington D.C. insurrection, these old mottos are cringe worthy.
Facebook (and Twitter) now wield incredible power to influence and divide people on a massive scale. Break things? Mission accomplished. Social media plays an undeniably significant role as much as we’d like to think it’s entirely Donald Trump’s fault.

Vicious versus Virtuous News Cycles

What garners your attention — vicious or virtuous news?

NPR journalist Lulu Garcia-Navarro sheds light on something called doomscrolling which she describes as the self-destructive behavior of only consuming ‘bad’ news online.

Doomscrolling (aka doomsurfing) interestingly shows up on Webster’s (article, not a dictionary entry) and is characterized as: “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.

While this sounds insidious and avoidable, one could argue, has there really been any ‘good’ news lately?

Think of those nights you had trouble falling asleep. Lying in bed with the phone, screen glowing, scrolling through the headlines. Page after page, link after link. Google’s algorithms seem to know exactly what you like to consume. It’s like a train wreck that you can’t stop watching. You don’t want to stare, but you just can’t look away.
Facebook and Reddit are prime examples of social networks saturated with infinite scrolling feeds of pseudo-news and infotainment that have been called ‘behavioral cocaine’. In some ways it’s like the digital equivalent of a casino interior: designed without natural light or clocks with lots of glittering stimuli causing you to temporarily lose track of time and become oblivious to the outside world.

Over the past few months our global 24-7 news cycle seems to be relentlessly focused on negative events: the latest covid outbreaks, rioting in the United States, political corruption, the growing surveillance state, systemic racism, rising unemployment, the dire consequences of climate change. Tucker Carlson has an endless stream of divisive hot-button topics from which to rant.

Turn on your television, go anywhere online and you’re bombarded with a tsunami of doom and gloom information about the perilous state of our world. “These are unprecedented times” and “This is the new normal.”

How many times have you heard those words this year? Everything is cancelled. Stay home and hunker down. Travel only for essential purposes we’re told.

This so-called “new normal” world we’re living in feels disorienting in many ways. Wearing a mask out in public; plexiglas partitions and hand sanitizer stations at grocery stores, shopping malls and restaurants — basically everywhere; fist pumps instead of handshakes; spectator-less sporting events; our children’s education increasingly going online; businesses unwilling to accept cash payments for goods and services. Will these aspects of daily life become permanent fixtures in our society?

Let’s meet for a drink and chat, I say to a friend. I call the local pub to book a spot on the patio but I’m told there are no seats available today. “We have a table available Saturday afternoon @3:30pm”, the hostess says. That’s ok I say. We instead make plans to meet on my friend’s driveway with a couple of lawn chairs six-feet apart. All good.

Remember the good ol’ normal days when you could just walk over to the pub spur of the moment and share a pitcher of beer with 1/2 dozen people? No, the new normal apparently involves pre-booking everything. I imagine all those unused beer pitchers are now being recycled into safety partitions or PPE face shields for our frontline health care workers.

Some days it feels like we’re stuck in a Black Mirror episode. This week it’s a lab experiment conducted by a higher intelligence designed to test various anxiety-inducing stressors on the human psyche. By seeking out ‘good’ news one of the characters discovers salvation from the psychological tyranny of incessant global pandemic updates.

Ongoing reports of the emanate global economic and societal collapse conjure up a dystopian Philip K. Dick short story. Our story begins with negative news endlessly repeating through a neural-interactive simulation until the main characters eventually figure out a way to hack the programmatic brainwashing and escape to a better world. The planned exodus from earth is led by a small, well-financed consortium of Silicon Valley tech entreprenuers with ambitious plans to colonize Mars.

Back in the real world, many of the people I talk to are inclined to just stay home and postpone trips abroad. Physical distancing on a 2-1/2 hr flight doesn’t seem all that doable.
The global travel and tourism industry, worth approximately 2,893 billion U.S. dollars in 2019, is now largely decimated as a result of the global pandemic and is indeed going through an incredible shift. But perhaps this upheaval was inevitable. The Boeing 737 MAX plane crashes earlier this year in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people now look like an ominous precursor the airline industry was on an unsustainable trajectory in terms of prioritizing cost-cutting engineering initiatives over passenger safety.

This afternoon a bunch of printed ADs arrived in our mailbox.

A local cosmetic and dental implant office. Headline: “Behind Your Mask Is a Beautiful Smile”; large image of woman wearing a surgical face mask. The AD goes on: “High efficiency HEPA/MERV 17 air filtration systems and all required PPE keeping your safety in mind.” The second AD, a local auto dealership leaflet with the headline: “We Are Open For Business!” (all caps, big). The AD continues: “Now offering enhanced protocols to help ensure your health & safety!”; (medical iconography) “Enhanced Safety & Sanitation Protocols.” That’s basically the extent of the message.

None of this feels normal or unprecedented. Just surreal.