I don’t usually dislike being right, but here’s to wishing I was wrong back in 2018…
In 2011, I created the stress- and anxiety-reduction app Personal Zen. I’ve written a good bit about the origins of Personal Zen, and my approach to digital therapeutics. But I write much less about how Personal Zen actually works. So here goes…
Personal Zen works by shifting our cognitive biases – invisible habits of thinking and paying attention. When we get anxious or stressed, we pay too much attention to the negatives and have less ability to see the positives in life.
The threat bias hijacks our fear brain and acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety.
For example, imagine you’re giving a public speech, and there is a smart audience in front of you, bright lights beaming down. If I have an amped-up threat bias, I would very quickly and intensely notice that there is this one person in the audience who is frowning, shaking his or her head, maybe falling asleep. I will fail to notice all the interested and smiling faces in the audience, and get stuck on this person. The natural result – I feel more anxious and stressed, I am on the look-out for further negative information, and I ignore positive evidence that I’m doing a good job. In this way, the threat bias drives the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, takes up mental bandwidth, and puts us at a disadvantage when there is no real danger to face – when the monsters in the closet are only in our mind.
Yet, there is an empowering message hidden in the idea of cognitive biases. Biases are essentially habits. When we have a bad habit, we are not broken inside, we just need to learn a new habit.
Personal Zen helps us form new mental habits. It embeds techniques that derail the threat bias, which in turn creates the space to learn new habits that help heal the anxious brain. Here’s how it works.
We see both an angry and pleasant face (our cartoon sprites) quickly pop up on the screen. The sprites then disappear, but only the pleasant sprite leaves a trail. Our task is to trace that winding trail. Because the angry and pleasant sprite appear at exactly the same time, our brain is forced to decide which to attend to first. By ALWAYS following the trail of the pleasant sprite, our brains learn to automatically focus first on the positive and disengage from the negative. We start building a new habit of attention: Follow the joy. It’s deceptively simple, but clinical trials show that using Personal Zen changes how our brains respond to threat and reduces stress and anxiety after as little as one session.
When I created Personal Zen, my fundamental dream was to create a mental wellness tool, or even an intervention for serious mental health problems, that is delightful and fun while also being highly effective. It has to be truly “snackable” so it can fit into our lives like a pocket ritual, a chill pill without the pharmacy, where in just a handful of minutes, we are empowered to create a moment of peace in our hectic lives and to find our own personal Zen.
I’m excited to announce our new venture, Wise Therapeutics, and the launch of the brand new version of our flagship product, Personal Zen. I am writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 health crisis. My team at Wise Therapeutics and I are offering Personal Zen free for six months in order to make this stress- and anxiety-reduction tool universally available. As we adjust to life under quarantine and beyond, I hope Personal Zen can provide support and be a tool in your toolkit for pursuing well-being in the days to come.
It’s been quite a journey to get to this day. I created Personal Zen in 2011, energized by hope and optimism …. as well as a deep sense of failure.
I became a psychologist and a researcher out of hope – hope that I could help improve the tools we all have to overcome problems like anxiety and depression. But a decade into my career I discovered that while we have excellent treatments and research, we weren’t giving people treatments that work and fit into their lives; Instead, we create treatments that are too expensive, too time consuming, too hard to access, and perhaps most importantly, deeply stigmatizing.
In 2010, while I was pregnant with my second child, I was wrestling with these issues. I decided, perhaps because I was contemplating the birth of my daughter, to give birth to something else – an app for that! Cliches aside, the next decade was a whirlwind of activity as I built and scientifically validated Personal Zen.
Flash forward to 2019, when I co-founded Wise Therapeutics with my partner and dear friend Raj Amin, an absolute guru in the health tech space. We now have the field of digital therapeutics, something that didn’t exist in 2010, when it was very much the Wild West. We are in an era of great digital health tools and forward-thinking companies, but digital health still isn’t working as well as we’d anticipated back in 2010. Why?
Using technology in the service of health is a very sharp, double-edged sword, with high potential costs as well as benefits. These costs are largely due to the elephant in the room – digital technologies have not been designed for our health and well-being. They have been designed for corporate profit. As a result, digital experiences designed for “engagement” are really just designed to keep us looking at our screens to click and buy more. We’re all starting to feel the exhausting burden of this.
The Four Pillars of Personal Zen. So how can Personal Zen – or any digital therapeutic – live in this potentially toxic digital ecosystem? Personal Zen takes a fundamentally different approach, taking the best that technology has to offer while disrupting the digital disruptions of our lives and well-being. To do this, we pursue what you might call the Four Pillars of Personal Zen:
Science: From the beginning, and before many others appreciated the importance of clinical validation, we scientifically tested the effects of Personal Zen. Now, five randomized clinical trials later and counting, we give our community of users a scientifically honed tool, not snake oil.
Effortless: Personal Zen is designed to be non-invasive, used on-the-go, and no therapist required. Our goal is to bring barriers to an absolute minimum so that taking the first step towards mental wellness and stress reduction is easy and seamless. Use Personal Zen on the subway (like I do as a New Yorker). Use it before a big meeting. Use it on the toilet. Because as the next Pillar describes, it just takes a few minutes a day, a few days a week.
Micro-intervention: Personal Zen is all about the power of small. No need to get stuck on the screen for hours – we already struggle with that! As a micro-intervention, our research shows that the “active dosage” to reduce stress and anxiety is about 20-40 minutes a week. This can be divided over multiple days so the extra screen time is only 5 or 10 minutes anytime, anywhere. Slightly more concentrated use – around 20 minutes – can have immediate positive effects to boost resilience in the moment.
Delight: We believe that pursuing mental wellness should be delightful, not stigmatizing, not demoralizing, and not cold and clinical. We’ve designed Personal Zen to be a beautiful, elegant experience that you can reach for anytime.
Read more about how Personal Zen works here.
I had the pleasure of being on stage at the Rubin Museum with two wonderful artists (and human beings!), Candy Chang and James Reeves. In 2018, they created a participatory art installation for the Rubin Museum called A Monument for the Anxious and the Hopeful. Each day visitors added new hopes and anxieties, totaling over 53,000 anonymous submissions. I have been working with Candy and James over the past year to make sense of these submissions and what they reflect about the personal and the public, about intimate experiences of hope and anxiety and broader societal shifts. One of the most beautiful aspects of this project was the degree to which people engaged and found solace in the work.
Indeed, when my family and I entered the Rubin museum in 2018, as past visitors of the museum we were used to admiring the giant spiral staircase winding up the light-filled foyer and the exquisite Tibetan sculpture of a lion standing guard at the far wall. So, we were excited and a bit stunned to see something that seemed completely out of place in this museum devoted to Tibetan, Indian, and other Himalayan cultures – a giant wall, half blue and half red, covered with hundreds of white cards. As we approached, we saw that there was writing on each of these cards. It seemed like a secret message in plain sight, waiting to be decoded. This was The Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful. Visitors were invited to share their anxieties and hopes by finishing one of two sentences, printed out on thousands of cards: I am hopeful because …- or – I am anxious because…. Then, visitors placed the cards on hooks fixed to a wall, divided by two colors – blue for hopes and red for anxieties.
As we talked through what we were seeing, my then 6-year-old daughter Nandini was the first to get it, saying “They want us to make the art!” She took a card that said I am hopeful because and completed the sentence with one of the words she had mastered spelling – love – and proudly placed it one of the hooks fixed to the wall.
We came back to the Monument every few months to help “make the art.” We always took time to read the massive wall of cards. The shared concerns and moods wove together like a patchwork quilt, each piece different but somehow connected. Written by thousands of visitors over its year-long exhibition, the words on the cards seemed to move together like a wave, ebbing and flowing with thoughts and ideas, at times playing off each other, contradicting each other, and forming themes and variations.
News headlines often drove the focus –political dramas, gun violence, suicides – and other times, anxieties were deeply and painfully personal, about being loved, safe, accepted, about whether family and friends were okay. “I don’t know where to go next.” “Racism is destroying us.” “I don’t know if I will find love again.” “My daughter is struggling.” “I despise wisdom because it gives me false hope.”
Yet, the cards on the wall did speak of immense hope, conveying in a few words that we have still have love, dreams, and faith, so it will all work out in the end. “Love connects us.” “No matter how lonely you are, the world lends itself to your imagination.” “People with bad GPAs can still be successful!” “She said yes.”
On that first visit, my then 9-year-old son Kavi noticed an interesting pattern – the cards for anxiety were often the same as the cards for hope: I’m anxious because I have a job interview; I’m hopeful because I have a job interview. I’m anxious because people are fighting over politics; I’m hopeful because people are fighting over politics. Kavi asked, “How can we be anxious and hopeful about the same thing?”
As many parents know, having to explain something to a child forces us to get to the heart of the matter. When Kavi asked me that question, I thought, “I got this.” I told him, “Anxiety is a warning message to us – that our present reality and future dreams are out of sync.” He gave me a blank look. So then I told him, “Anxiety lives off our hope for a better future when the future is uncertain.” He raised one eyebrow. Finally, I told him, “We’re only anxious when we care, and there is so much to care about.” His eyes lit up because that he understood.
He, like the Monument’s creators, had a deep intuition that the anxiety we experience today – perhaps more at this moment of time than any other point in history – is born at least in part out of the sheer amount we know and care about. Candy and James described their inspiration for the piece:
“We live in a uniquely unsettled moment of technological, political, and social flux. Awash in endless currents of information delivered by glowing screens, each new headline, discovery, and development brings a fresh opportunity for hope or anxiety, depending upon our individual attitudes and philosophies. By definition, anxiety and hope are determined by a moment that has yet to arrive—but how often do we pause to fully consider our relationship with the future? Are we optimists or pessimists? And how do our private sensibilities square with the current collective mood?”
Anxiety and hope are defined by a moment that has yet to arrive.
The Monument shows in moving and concrete ways that anxiety and hope are intrinsically intertwined in our imagined future and that both are a way of thinking about the world yet to come. Not only hope, but anxiety also may yet allow us to tell the stories we need to heal our futures – and perhaps the present, too.
Note to readers: This is a long-ish read (closer to 15 rather than 5 minutes)
As someone who studies mental health, I rarely stop to ask myself about its definition. Yet, definition is increasingly at the front of my mind when I think about the field of digital mental health.
I know all the modern textbook definitions, but find myself drawn to a definition that was put forward over 60 years ago by Erich Fromm in his book The Sane Society. One of the founders of what would come to be known as Humanistic Psychology, Fromm wrote “Mental health is characterized by the ability to love and to create, ….by a sense of identity based on one’s experience of self as the subject and agent of one’s powers, [and] by the grasp of reality inside and outside of ourselves, that is, by the development of objectivity and reason.”
I love this definition because of its focus on what seems to me to really make us human: loving, creating, and having a desire for knowledge. The field of digital mental health is moving forward at a breakneck speed without considering the basic question of how it might promote – or disrupt – these building blocks of a sane and humane society and of our individual mental health within it. Moreover, it is developing in a world of obsessive social media use, mobile phone addiction, fake news, digital data insecurity, internet trolls, and the Uber-fication of human service industries, all of which serve a single, primary objective of absolute efficiency – getting what we want as quickly and easily as possible at all times.
Here I highlight key challenges we face in creating humane and effective health technology in a toxic digital ecosystem, lay out a four-point road map, and, as a case study, describe the development of a micro-intervention app for stress- and anxiety-reduction I developed called Personal Zen.
The Promise of Digital Mental Health
The potential payoffs of digital mental health are of crucial importance now. We are facing an ever-growing mental health epidemic in the US and around the world. Over half of us will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder in our lifetime. And our kids are struggling. Approximately one in every 4–5 youth in the U.S. meets criteria for a mental disorder with severe impairment, and the vast majority of mental health disorders in adults first emerge in childhood and adolescence.
The particular promise of computerized and mobile interventions are that they can, if done properly, radically increase the availability and accessibility of empirically-validated treatments, while reducing cost and stigma.
The Toxic Digital Ecosystem and Techlash
We’re used to believing, with true tech-enthusiasm, that if only we can “disrupt” current healthcare delivery systems, we can solve all our problems. But we now realize with growing certainty that what the digital ecosystem truly excels at is making money for technology companies and pushing us towards ever-greater efficiency. It does this so well because it is precisely and purposefully designed to grab our attention, addict us, and keep us glued to our screens: This is the basis of the attention and surveillance economies. The result of this design focus is that digital technology exhausts us, distracts us, and detracts from our ability to do other things.
Awareness of this has caused the pendulum to swing the other way, and we’ve entered an era of “tech-lash” with growing outcry about mobile phone addiction, negative effects of social media on youth mental health, data security, the spread of fake news, unethical business practices, and the list goes on. We are angry at Silicon Valley because these powerful companies created ubiquitous products and put profit so far above our well-being, that it’s unclear what to do about it.
Such is the degree of techlash now that even scientists are seeing causation in correlation before solid facts are established. In 2017, researchers, usually a circumspect bunch, went so far as to suggest in the popular media that smartphones have psychologically destroyed a generation of youth, citing among other findings that during the period following the birth of the iPhone about 10 years ago, we have seen a doubling of suicide rates and increases in depression and anxiety across vast segments of society.
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at experiences related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. These are alarming statistics, but is this enough evidence that smartphones are causing these problems?
I believe not. I have come to doubt conventional wisdom that smartphones or social media are a unique cause of anxiety, depression, or suicide; instead, I see them as a factor among many. By primarily “blaming the machines” we obscure the impact of other factors of equal or perhaps greater importance, and lose opportunities to deeply examine a range of factors and how they might work together with digital technology to contribute to the suffering of youth and adults.
As the evidence comes in, how do we work in an arguably toxic digital ecosystem to ensure that – for adults and children – health technology heals rather than harms?
A Four-Point Road Map for Humane Digital Mental Health Technology
For health technology to be truly humane, it must meet these four criteria:
- Prioritize development of micro-interventions. An irony of digital mental health is that the well-honed attention economy techniques that keep people glued to screens will work against mental health promotion. Therefore, focus should be on creating micro-interventions that require as little screen time as possible. Micro-interventions are brief and frequent, easily fitting into a person’s routine at home or on-the-go. They are part of the broader spectrum of care, with low-intensity preventative or “gateway” treatments at one end and intensive stand-alone treatments on the other end. Development efforts in health technology should be focused now on the low-intensity end of the spectrum. Later, once a strong evidence base is built, resources should then be devoted across the spectrum to develop more intensive, resource-heavy and stand-alone treatments. This strategy is largely reversed in digital healthcare right now. Many companies are trying to digitize gold-standard treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which remains time-consuming and expensive. Moreover, it remains unclear whether CBT is effective in digital or telemedicine format. Making poorly-validated treatments widely available does not solve the mental healthcare crisis.
- Maximize high accessibility. Along with the development of brief, micro-interventions, digital mental health must be qualitatively more accessible than current treatment delivery systems – affordable, easy to access, used on-the-go, and engaging. Current psychological treatments are often time-consuming and expensive. Of the over 160 million Americans who will have mental health problems in their lifetime, 50% of us don’t seek any treatment with 44% of these untreated patients citing price as a barrier. Basic access is also highly limited – over 83 million Americans live in federally-designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.
- Reduce stigma. The stigma of mental illness represents a significant barrier to mental healthcare access. Of the tens of millions of untreated Americans struggling with mental health, 10% cite the stigma of mental illness – and fearing others will find out – as a primary barrier. A benefit of digital and mobile mental health interventions is that when we access mental wellness tools on our devices, they become part of our enjoyable and daily digital lives, increasing the possibility of normalization. Developers can also aim to create interventions that are fun and engaging, rather than having the clinical and medical feel that might turn people away from seeking help in the first place.
- Make adaptive and personalized. The promise of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data for solving health problems are immense. The most sophisticated techniques for data generation and gathering have been used in the worlds of advertising and politics, but these emerging techniques have already made waves in terms of medical diagnosis and risk assessment. In mental health, the ability to dynamically evaluate a treatment target and personalize interventions accordingly are the future of mental healthcare. At this stage, few research-based mental health tools have built-in adaptive methods. This is among the most important areas in which academia and industry must come together, one that holds perhaps the greatest promise for true personalization of treatment.
Summary: Development of humane and effective digital mental health technology must optimize the accessibility and mobility of digital technology, shift focus towards brief, flexible, and personalized interventions, and reduce screen time in order to step off the attention economy treadmill. This approach minimizes the harmful aspects of the digital ecosystem while capitalizing on its nimble, accessible, and stigma-reducing aspects.
Finding Personal Zen
I had the idea of humane health technology as a guiding principle when I created the app Personal Zen. Personal Zen is a stress- and anxiety-reduction exercise. The app embeds scientifically-based attention training techniques into an engaging and appealing format. Its scientific “active ingredient” is something called attention bias modification.
Attention biases are rigid and selective ways of paying attention to information in the world. Decades of research tell us that people who tend to be anxious or stressed detect negative information more quickly, and pay attention to it longer and intensely than people who are relatively less anxious and stressed.
This preference to pay attention to the negative is called the threat bias. And here’s the kicker: The threat bias piggybacks on one of the triumphs of evolution – the ability to quickly and automatically notice danger, which in turn triggers us to fight or take flight to deal with the danger. But the threat bias highjacks and skews this evolutionary advantage. It acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prefer and prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety. We see monsters in the closet even when they’re not there.
Personal Zen is designed to retrain our attention to disengage from the negative in flexible ways so that we can better benefit from positive information all around us. This creates a stronger attention filter favoring the positive. As a micro-intervention, it was designed to be used briefly and on-the-go, so it can fit into anyone’s daily routine.
Findings suggest that this technique loosens the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, immediately reducing distress as well as laying the groundwork for positive change. We’ve published three clinical trials of Personal Zen showing that even with short-term use, Personal Zen can reduce stress and anxiety. We’ve recently focused on the potential benefits of Personal Zen for a group of people in particular need of easy-to-access stress-reduction tools that can fit into their busy lives – pregnant women – and found that using Personal Zen for about 30 minutes a week for a month reduced the stress hormone cortisol. While much more work needs to be done, I believe that with this approach, we’re on the right track.
The Future is Now
The field of digital mental health is skyrocketing at a time when there are compelling arguments to reduce screen time. Humane digital mental healthcare must navigate this contradiction while taking the best that digital technology has to offer to actively promote the essence of mental health in us all: the ability to love and create, to have an empowered sense of self, and to embrace objectivity and reason. It’s up to us all, researchers, developers, and healthcare professionals, to get this right.
This post is from 5 years ago, July, 2013. I believe we’re all still thinking about and struggling with these same issues today!
Games that are not games. There is a serious barrier to the effective gamification of mental health. This barrier is that the games we psychologists and health professionals are coming up with are not fun. In fact, they are totally uncool, border on the condescending, and wouldn’t motivate anyone to play for more than 30 seconds. This is the case even though the bar is set quite low because these “games” address things that people really want, like boosting our intelligence and memory, reducing depression and stress, quitting smoking, … fill in the blank. I’ve been fascinated with this disconnect between Psychology’s view and real-world acceptability. This disconnect is plaguing other fields as well, such as in the development of “serious games” for education. In this larger context, I’ve been working on the development of an app that takes a scientifically proven approach to reducing stress and anxiety, and embeds the “active ingredient” of this intervention into a game that is fun – fun enough, we hope, for someone to want to play for much more than 30 seconds.
Fun versus health goals. In the midst of this ongoing development process, I had the pleasure of speaking with Nick Fortugno, co-founder of the game design company Playmatics. In addition to creating really fun games, like Diner Dash, he has created games to promote positive social change and is one of the visionary and forward-thinking advocates for the idea that serious games can and should be fun. So, he has a deep understanding of the barriers facing the gamification of mental health. As we were talking about these barriers, Nick said something that really got me thinking. He said, when we design games for education or health, we have to remember that “the game doesn’t care” about whether we’re making progress towards our goal. In other words, a game isn’t fun because it meets some criterion that we, the developers, have for success – like boosting our ability to remember, reducing symptoms of anxiety, or losing 5 pounds. A game is fun because it creates an aesthetic experience and facilitates game play that we want to come back to again and again. Therefore, I would argue that a “serious” goal embedded in a truly fun game is reached as a by-product of the fun.
The need for backward engineering. I think I am accurate in saying that very few people, myself included, who are trying to create serious games for wellness think like this – i.e., like a game designer – about the process of gamification. From what I can tell, game designers think very deeply about the experience they want the game to promote, and then they work through the pragmatics of the game play that will facilitate this experience. This backward engineering from the point of view of the aesthetic/experiential goal to the pragmatics of the game is the opposite of what psychologists do when they think about gamification. Instead, we have parallel streams of development in which (a) we know that our “game” (read scientific protocol) is truly boring, and (b) we have to somehow decrease the snore factor. We think: “Hm, here is my very rigid experimental protocol/computerized intervention. I must overlay this protocol with some cute little animated guys, perhaps with a fun back-story (wizards? aliens?) and then make sure users get points when they conform to the requirements of the protocol.” Sounds thrilling, huh? So fun? Exactly the recipe for the next Dots? Right…. So, we have a lot to learn from game designers, and I believe that crucial to the future of the endeavor of gamifying mental health is partnering with people who know how to create fun and understand the process of game design.
Pocket rituals. What would it be like if we created mental wellness tools, or even interventions for serious mental health problems, that were truly fun and that could become part of our array of habits and strategies for feeling better, reducing symptoms, performing more efficiently, or dealing with stress? These games, if “snackable” would become our pocket rituals, our chill pills. We could take out our device for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and be empowered to bring about a targeted, appreciable positive impact. The barriers to use should be minimal, the experience intrinsically rewarding – that is, it feels good to play – as well as reinforcing because it helps us meet our health goals. I think many psychologists feel that this approach is not easily conducive to a rigorous scientific approach. But if we fail to find a way to do this – good science and giving people tools they want to use – then the whole endeavor is dead in the water.
I think a lot about how our use of digital technology, social media, and mobile devices shapes how we feel, think, and behave; shapes our muscles and our memories. There is no doubt about the host of benefits afforded us by all of these technologies, but their costs are both obvious and hidden.
We know that sometimes we feel addicted to them. We know we devote an immense amount of time and attention to them. Although they should be working for us, we often feel that we are working for them. We may even feel more tired and stressed and discouraged after being on screens. Muscles tense, furrowed brows. No one feels free on screens.The cult of efficiency tells us that we can and must get more done.
We are learning more about the consciously addictive designs of these technologies, mobile devices in particular. They are meant to hook us in. We now have no doubt that our views and clicks, our “data”, are the basis of the attention and surveillance economy, a multi-multi-billion dollar behemoth of an industry. As a psychologist and neuroscience researcher, I think about states of mind and brain when we use these devices, mobile phones in particular.
So, in the great tradition of obsessive scientists throughout history, I have been conducting an experiment on myself. Instead of using my mobile device on my daily
subway commute, I now take a little notebook, about the size and shape of a small mobile device, and write poetry.
Some of the poetry is about my personal experience of technology, but most is not. The goal of the experiment is to track my subjective experience and assess how my state of mind changes when I think in poetry, express ideas in verse, write with a pen instead of click, swipe, click, swipe. No goals. Free-flowing thoughts. Efficiency the last thing on my mind.
Here are the poems I’ve written so far. I’m still collecting data. I’ll report back later in the summer and post more poems as I go.
If anyone wishes to join me in this experiment, please do so! Post your poems in the comments and I’ll post them on the blog (attributing them to you, the author, of course).
The Subway Poems
Show Instead of tell
I raise my hand
I talk to you and forget
What you said
Only half remember what I said
I wonder, in the flood, what is really worth saving
What happens when we suddenly start listening,
When we pay
Small conversations: “I’m here”; “I know what you want”
My husband holds the coffee cup
Shifting in its saucer
Zooming in on a screen
Except nothing like that
The opposite of a two-dimensional half-life
On the screen, our bodies shrink,
Contained in our headbox
Eyes and ears
Holding our breath
A laser pointer, robot madmen
Eyes created to gather information
Punch! Punch! Check off, check off!
We have made ourselves into the image of small people
Stuck in the trees, no forest views though they cry, “disrupt!” “innovate!”
Victims who have become victors
Powerful like sad, awkward puppeteers
Are you my kind?
Two of a kind, a kind of wonder
Kind of this and kind of that
Kinship is a slippery slope
An avalanche of decency
One step forward and three…
A tango, a pas de deux
Eliminate the excess
“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
Anywhere I go
I am in a land of others, of those who are not
Kinship being a slick and clever bird
Oil-slick and floundering
As little friction as possible
Same in skin, same in heart, same in bones
A tribe of potentiality
The tip of the spear
The Tip of the Spear
The world seems full of tips of spears
Doing the bidding of the savages
I imagine a spear with a stone arrowhead
Bound with twine or
(am I making it up that people did this?…)
Animal guts or entrails
The tip of the spear is bound tightly as a
Clenched fist and
As a dream from which
You can’t awake
As tightly as hope
When you have nothing left
Building blocks totter
Sculpture of Chinese letters
Hold the pen tightly
Woman on Subway
We are all subjects in the kingdom of randomness
Among our uncertain narratives
Hard pressed to find a story that we can live by,
That we can inhabit
How could the vast indifference,
The imperfect glazed bowl
Of our universe
Not make sense?
Can’t you see the spark in every
Rose and thistle
In every question and it’s too certain answer?
So long ago, I can’t remember
The inferno is hard to explain to a child
It assumes knowledge that is like a quagmire
Every step deeper in
But more lost
Sucking, slurping, sticky marsh goo
They should come to know that they will be judged
And, if not found wanting,
That they will dance away from the platform edges, and eventually embark
Towards a destination
If My Life Were Staged by a Puppeteer
(After watching Basil Twist’s SYMPhonie FANTAStique at HERE, NYC, Spring, 2018)
Puppeteers are underrated
We deride them as marionette-obsessed,
As hopeful that the world won’t see the strings
But I have seen puppeteers who perform
Wet suits slick
With dreaming fishes
And sparkle scarves
Twisting round so they are
In perfect time
With the daydreams
Of a lovelorn
How quaint it is to convince someone
That they are valued
We all know that our value
In bits and bytes
Our very eyeballs and fingers,
What they see and click and swipe…
The delight of pirates and dragons
How can we doubt this?
And doubting, how can we then
Reach beyond ourselves to figure out
Like playing an arcane card game with high stakes
The Babylonians discovered zero 400 years before Christ
But our distant, round companion
Doesn’t glow with a soft light
Is neither a satisfying ellipse
Nor a road to travel,
Neither a portal, nor a golden and flaming hoop,
Which we jump through and into and beyond
Zero is absolute
A closed door
A set point
An off switch
Zero is not infinitely possible
Zero is an unsheltering sky
The California Poems (New Poems Added 7/19/2018 After Having Visited California)
Boy in band
Then dust motes singeing tracks of light
You do not know that you are glowing
You think the light on your keyboard is merely ambient
But, my boy, light is not empty-transparent
I want you to know the wonder of frenetic photons
Lustrous and linking you to the seemingly tiny red giant
The white dwarf
The wheeling double black hole, bending space-time
Tiny pinprick across galaxies opening rifts
For cosmic rays to wriggle through
On stage now
No thought of the universal
Or of cosmic scales and endings
Just the moment
Darling boy, you do not know that you are glowing
You turn to the crowd and speak into the microphone
You showed me how to gallop down east 15th street
Making sure to stop two cracks back from the corner
Like we showed you when you were three years old
“Faster mama, like this”
Hair streaming behind you
A wily shadow
“Can I tell you something?” you asked, when I caught up
Then singing to yourself, skipped away
A jubilant stone on still water
Lately your body has become long and solid
It makes me think of sand packed firm along the shore
Yet still fragile
Softening with the tides
This summer you started to think about
The kind of person you are with other people
“I’m not shy“ you tell me
And I have to agree
But I see you, sweetheart, the many layers of you
A nautilus shell with inner swirls of glass and cloud
I think you know that you are seen and
Like to try on different suits, covered with concoctions of mirrors
I love to see them all
In Morro Bay
You carved your initials on a juicy, round cactus
Excited that you also wrote a T for me
Marking that we were together
Even though I sat, warm, in the car
Sheltered from the mist and wind swirling about the throat of the distracted volcano
where you played
In a storm, the world outside is temperate and ordered
A Bach etude
Soft moss under feet
Even the eye of the storm is never truly still
It both exceeds and falls short of our well-worn reference points
It is like a slumbering archetype,
A shadowy ideal
Our fear of storms requires no explanation
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror“
But awe is not selfless admiration
It is the last shred of dignity and the relief
That comes from knowing
You do not yet have to say yes to the truly still point above the fray
We should have known that Silicon Valley’s creepy, peeping-tom, data-stealing incursion into our lives was going to end badly. There were red flags from the very beginning. How did we miss them? Why did we ever think that “disruption” was a good word? Doesn’t the acronym, FAANG, for these dominating, digital behemoths give us a clue?
I think an apt metaphor here for understanding how and why we all, systematically, ignored these red flags is the bad boyfriend/girlfriend phenomenon. Since I have had experiences with bad boyfriends (BBs), I will write from this perspective. But of course it applies equally to any romantic partner.
Most BB experiences follow three stages:
- Although the BB was charming at first, red flags are there from the beginning. He soon starts letting you down and making you unhappy.
- He takes advantage of your love for him to keep behaving badly.
- It takes a long time for you to realize that BBs never really change.
Here is how this maps on to the big Silicon Valley companies:
1. The red flags are there from the beginning. Let’s start with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, arguably among the worst of the worst BBs. As recently described by Julia Carrie Wong, who was one of earliest users of the proto-Facebook site thefacebook.com, she recalls a leaked IM exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and his friend. It’s worth reading the article in full, but here is the IM exchange, originally published in Silicon Valley Insider:
ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks
This BB is just the worst. Trustworthy and innocent in front of you, backstabbing and demeaning behind your back. When you catch him, he acts innocent, surprised – just like Mark Zuckerberg acted when he testified in front of Congress last month. But this was his plan from the very beginning. You need to start paying attention now! It would be best if you broke up with him sooner rather than later.
2. He takes advantage of your love for him to keep behaving badly. But you don’t pay careful attention and you don’t break up with him. Instead, you keep rationalizing his bad behavior away, so he knows he can keep getting away with murder. Your relationship with Facebook is again a perfect example again. Take the Cambridge Analytica scandal – it’s old news! That story already broke back in 2015 in a Guardian report about Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign wrongfully obtaining data from tens of millions of users. You complained a bit, but forgot about it after a few weeks.
But let’s not forget, you have other BBs in your life. What about Google’s active hostility towards privacy? Whether it’s the creepy Street View violations when Google Maps first launched or, way back in 2012, when Google was fined a measly $22.5 million (less than .1% of Google CEO Larry Page’s net worth at the time) for overriding privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser? Your response?: Privacy, schmivacy. Google’s old “don’t be evil” motto just means that anything less than evil is ok, right? Makes sense!
I may have deleted my Facebook account years ago, and use DuckDuckGo instead of Google to protect my privacy and personal data, but I should come clean and talk about my own darling, Amazon. Amazon, which doesn’t allow ample time for its employees to have bathroom breaks; which is running every mom-and-pop store on the planet out of business; which seems to value growth and efficiency above all, no matter what the consequences for individuals or society. I still love you Amazon because you make my life easier. I’m finding it very hard to leave you, even as you become like an evil robot overlord more and more every day, and my life becomes drearier and more draining after all the looking at clicking and swiping and buying on that no-longer-charming glowing screen?
3. BBs never really change. The current litany of Silicon Valley mea culpas are drowning us. It’s hard to hear anything over all that gnashing of teeth. But once that dies down, you know that your BB will try to go back to doing what he does best – whatever he wants without concern about the cost to you or anyone else. Don’t fool yourself. It’s way past time to wake up.
Techlash is now, and many of us, perhaps for the first time, perhaps in a more powerful way than ever before, are realizing that the digital ecosystem might have made our lives more efficient, but has also increased cruelty, indecency, ugliness, and inhumanity around us. In this ecosystem, negative information is amplified at the expense of positive information. The “connected” world isn’t happy. We feel free when we put those smartphones down. Scared, but free. Much like leaving a bad relationship. We have to double down on being human again.
We should have all paid attention. Don’t expect BBs to ever really change. If you’re stuck with one, like we probably are with our Silicon Valley BBs, just remember, it’s up to us to call the shots and make things better.