Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
 
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
 
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

 

Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

On Counterfactual Thinking and Negativity Bias

It seems that humans can’t help but think about the inevitable “what ifs” that we encounter in life — how things would have turned out  “if only” some factor or another was different. This is known as counterfactual thinking, and it is often problematic not only because we wrack our brains with  regret for having not taken a different path, but also because tend to only apply this train of thought to unfortunate circumstances.

Thus, counterfactual thinking works in tandem with another apparent human predisposition: a negativity bias that focuses more on the bad things that happen to us rather than the good. We’re less inclined to wonder how things could have been worse, because we’re more than happy with the results and would much rather milk the good fortune and move on.

All this makes sense: we dwell on the absence of something because our advanced cognition inclines us to wonder about such mysteries. And we focus on the negative because what hurts us is far more impactful than what doesn’t (with respect to applying this bias to news reports,  it works the same way: what tugs at our negative emotions is going to be more profound).

While there are many explanations for this tendency towards focusing on the negative, the point is, we can’t seem to help it. The bad things stand out the most, and subsequently, our regret at their occurrence makes us struggle with all the ways we — as individuals or as a species — could have prevented them.

But I believe we must make it a habit to notice the bad things that didn’t happen; to acknowledge that the absence of negativity is something to be cherished and pointed out, rather than taken as the default condition. What about making it home in one piece, when you could have very well gotten into a car accident? What about having your loved ones or your health, when the existence of both is ever so fragile? Indeed, the very fact that you’ve managed to live another day is something to be appreciated.

It is a tragedy of human nature — one very much observed throughout our history — that it takes something awful to happen to us to appreciate what life is like in the absence of that awfulness. Terrible things await all of us; inevitably, loved ones will die, hard times will come, and we will suffer and eventually expire. It can be a terrifying thought, but it’s all the more reason that we must stop and be mindful of the good times and precious moments while they last. The finiteness and fragility of life, and what is good, is precisely what makes those things so precious.

Education: An End In Itself

Whenever I’ve gone to an interview, I’ve often been asked how my undergraduate major – International Relations and Political Science, with a minor in Economics – has anything to do with the position I’m applying for. This implies that my education is only relevant, if not purposeful, insofar as it has economic value. This is all the more true considering that most of the course I took included such “soft” sciences as history, philosophy, anthropology, art, and law.

I didn’t take these subjects with the intention of making a lot of money. I had no such delusions about the economic potency of a piece of paper – which isn’t to degrade degree-seeking students or the non-monetary value of their plan of study, since having any sort of post-GED degree is still better than not. It’s just that getting a degree in itself is no guarantee of financial success. An education in and of itself is not going to make you money, contrary to what was (once) conventional wisdom.

And that’s okay. Indeed, I didn’t take these courses with money in mind at all. I didn’t pursue an education strictly for monetary enrichment. I studied because these subjects interested me, because learning is important for personal and societal well-being, and because I simply enjoyed them and felt enriched through the acquiring of knowledge.

Yes, making money is important. And yes, I had the luxury of learning for learning’s sake thanks to my scholarship, which makes my perspective somewhat biased. But my point is that my education is is my education. Learning about the world is a fun, fulfilling, and beautiful thing independent of its financial rewards.

Just because my current job has little to do with my major doesn’t mean my education was a waste of time, as some have said or implied. This once again presumes that my learning only matters if it makes me money and gets me a relevant career (and it also assumes that one’s career path is linear, as if everyone should jump straight into their job of choice rather than adapt to changing circumstances or desires).

It’s unfortunate that many in our society see an education as only a means rather than an end in itself. The value of an education shouldn’t determined solely by how much money it can make for you. While being financially successful is important, being educated and well-informed about the world should be valuable, period.

By all means, learn practical things and work to find a meaningful career. I’m not opposed to that. But learning about the world along the way – whether through a formal education, informal learning, or autodidacticism - should not be denigrated just because it doesn’t fit the commercialized paradigm of our consumerist, money-obsessed society. It’s just another way that our culture commoditizes and monetizes something that should have innate value.

But that’s a different discussion for a different day. Thoughts?

Self-Taught African Boy Impresses MIT

From  comes a fascinating story about a child prodigy skilled enough to earn the attention of the esteemed MIT. From the video’s caption (which includes additional links and information).

15-Year-Old Kelvin Doe is an engineering whiz living in Sierra Leone who scours the trash bins for spare parts, which he uses to build batteries, generators and transmitters. Completely self-taught, Kelvin has created his own radio station where he broadcasts news and plays music under the moniker, DJ Focus.

Kelvin became the youngest person in history to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT. THNKR had exclusive access to Kelvin and his life-changing journey – experiencing the US for the first time, exploring incredible opportunities, contending with homesickness, and mapping out his future.

Unfortunately, the video, which may be a tad too sentimental for some, glosses over how Kelvin managed such a remarkable feat, mentioning only that he’s “self-taught.” I’d very much like to hear him explain the creative and exploratory process that led him to do something that even those of us with the resources can’t pull off.

Stories like this – of child prodigies and other unlikely inventors – always make think: how many geniuses out there are harboring innate talents and skills that will never be known due to poverty and lack of access to educational resources? There could be millions of people just like this boy who are denied the opportunity to realize their potential. Imagine if Einstein or Newton had been born in abject poverty, without access to books, schools, or the time to focus on intellectual pursuits?

This boy pulled it off against all odds, but he’s an exceptional case: there are many more like him that remain under the radar, much to the detriment of the world. At the very least, the globalized and interconnected nature of our world (led by the internet) is allowing us to uncover such talents like never before – but it won’t be enough. The world can’t afford to let generations of potential scientists, innovators, and inventors remain unappreciated and untapped. There is no substitute for human brain power, and like any resource, it needs to be invested it and harnessed.

Crisis in Comfort

Many of us have often wondered why so many people in modern society are dealing with high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide, when people who have it worse – those who are enduring starvation, abject poverty, disease, and the like – seem more psychologically and emotionally durable. Essentially, as societies become richer and more comfortable, we seem to trade physical pain for the mental kind. Why?

First, those who live in poorer and more unstable parts of the world may still have the same mental problems we do, it’s just that they don’t have the resources to detect them. Furthermore, in a state of survival, it’s not preferable or acceptable to admit to weaknesses.

Therein lies the second point: it’s been argued that, ironically, living without a state of crisis is itself a kind of crisis. When we have to struggle everyday to survive, we have no time to reflect – instead, we act quickly, decisively, and intuitively. But living comfortably (which for most of human history was a rare thing) means we’re forced to adapt to a condition in which we’re bombarded with worries. We think too much about too many things, and become paralyzed with complex philosophical and personal dilemmas we otherwise wouldn’t have time to worry about.

So goes the theory by the way. What say you all?

Disconnected

Studying war has always been strange for me. I’ve been doing it for many years, both for school and out of personal interest. My major, international relations, came into being shortly after the end of World War II, precisely to figure out the origins of human conflict and how to resolve it (obviously, it now encompasses far more than that). Chalk up the fact that I’m also a news junkie, especially for international events – which are sadly often violent in nature – and I’m steeped in human conflict.

Aside from the bouts of cynicism and melancholy that result from steady exposure to so much human misery, there’s also a sense of surrealness – I’m learning about events that have taken the lives of so many people, and ruined the lives of so many more, without really accepting that they ever happened.

World War II alone killed 50 to 60 million human beings, additionally traumatizing and wounding more than double that number, yet I read about it as if it were a fictional story. It was a real event, sure, and I’m certainly aware of its effects. But it doesn’t’ feel like it happened. I don’t connect with the millions of people who suffered horrific and senseless pain. I don’t feel the emotional and physical weight of it. Because I wasn’t there, I just don’t know what it’s like, no matter how hard I try.

It’s the same with current events too. The bombings, massacres, tribal conflicts, state-sponsored oppression – none of it really registers. It saddens and upsets me sometimes, but I don’t truly know what any of it is like. I’ve never seen or experienced it. It feels unreal because it’s not right there in front of me. When I read harrowing first hand accounts or see graphic images and videos, I can only connect so much. Try as I might, my mind is incapable of absorbing the full gravity of what I’m seeing.

And in many ways, that’s probably a good thing. I’d probably be bedridden with depression if I could completely feel what all these unfortunate people do. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that this is something of an evolutionary development: the human mind was never intended to absorb so much data, given our origins as a tribal a widely dispersed tribal species. And certainly, our cognitive limitations help us to focus on what’s immediately around us – which is usually more important – rather than what’s going on farther away (look up “psychic numbing” and the research of Paul Slovik).

But still, I can’t shake off how strange it is to know that so much has happened in the past, and so much is happening now, that I’m completely oblivious to on a deeper level. Even as I speak, people are dying, being born, or experiencing a myriad of different events and emotions simultaneously. Seven billion stories are going on at this very second, some ending and some just beginning. Billions more are behind us, and (if all goes well) many more await us. Additionally, it’s grim to imagine that the overwhelming majority of these stories are rife with injustice, misery, and hardship – though there’s plenty of perseverance mixed in there as well, since that’s what humans have always done best, given the circumstances.

Thoughts of the Day – 10/23/2012

  • The idea that our public education system is dysfunctional is pretty much a given nowadays. Indeed, just about every Gallup poll concerning education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of American schools. Yet 77% of parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, which is the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.
  • So I still see anti-Obama signs that say something like “Castro/Stalin/Hitler/Mao wanted change too” – as if to suggest that only evil people run on a platform of change. Didn’t Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and our own Founding Fathers desire change too? I mean, isn’t Mitt Romney himself running to change things up (presumably dramatically)? Change in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s one thing to criticize certain types of it. But to essentially demonize the very concept of change shows just how absurd and petty our public discourse has become.
  • Many Americans, particularly self-identified conservatives, erroneously believe that the government spends far more on foreign aid than it really does: typically, most people think it’s 25% of the federal budget, when in actuality it’s only around 1%. Furthermore, when asked what amount they think should go to foreign aid, these same respondents – again, including conservatives – end up picking a percentage higher than 1%. In other words, most people inadvertently support more humanitarian aid than we actually provide.
  • I can think of no justification for paying an executive hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, bonuses, stocks, and other assets. Tens of millions of Americans are expected to work hard and do their job well without such incentives – indeed, low-paying jobs that offer little to no benefits make up around 60% of jobs recovered since the recession. So if a person needs an eight or even nine figure salary to do a good job, it says a lot about their ethics and integrity. Heck, in many cases they can still run a company to the ground and come away very rich, which defeats the original presumed purpose of paying them so much in the first place.

The Primacy of Death

It’s hard for people to remember that death is ubiquitous, that at any given moment anyone of us could disappear from this Earth forever. We go about our lives doing everything in our power to avoid this frightening reality: we don’t talk about death in casual conversation, and few people are ever exposed to it intimately. We tuck death away, both physically and psychologically.

Maybe it’s mostly my OCD that makes me overly concerned about this fact. I’m not sure if other people, especially younger ones, think and worry about death as much as I do. The fragility of life both frightens and terrifies me: it’s so much easier to die than it is to live. There’s no avoiding death – not only will it come for us inevitably, but even if we take every precaution imaginable, we never completely eliminate the risk of dying from some cause or another.

I read a story about a man, the father of two young girls, who died because – of all things – he was swarmed by a flock of swans, which caused his kayak to tip over, drowning him. A few weeks before that, a six year-old boy died met a gruesome end while helping his father with some yard work; he got caught be a wood chipper as he was disposing of foliage. That story reminded me of a woman who lost her infant son after a tree branch in Central Park, Manhattan fell upon them.

These are just a miniscule sample of the freak tragedies that play out everyday, somewhere in the world. None of these people woke up thinking that this would be their last day. No one expects to be drowned by swans or killed while posing for a picture at a scenic public park. If death were personified, he’d be the most keenly creative being in existence.

It’s strange to read these stories and not be able to relate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful that for the most part, I’ve never been intimately affected by death (though several friends both on and off the web have died). But it always strikes me how random it all is: it’s always those people, always, someone else that suffers this fate. We read up on it as if it were a story in a book, never truly making the connection that it could just as well be us.

We’re all powerless in the face of death. The most we can do is wait it out. Even stars that last billions of years eventually expire. Presumably, our universe will too (though who knows if it will begin anew). All things must come to an end. That makes existence precious and beautiful, and makes me value every moment on this Earth even more. But it can also be the cause of many sleepless nights, as I wonder if I, too, will be one of those freak deaths that people read about.