Experiments in Subway Poetry

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

poetry book
My poetry notebook

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

by Tracy-Dennis-Tiwary

Show Instead of tell

I wake

I raise my hand

I reach

I press

I swipe

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

Attention?

Liquid sound

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

Autistic ticket-taker

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

Kind

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

Authentic core

“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)”

Anywhere I go

I am in a land of others

Of those who are not

Kin

Kinship being a slick and clever bird

Oil-slick and floundering

hydrodynamic

As little friction as possible

Same in skin

Same in heart

Same in bones

Same

Immense sameness

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

Slow Image

Building blocks totter

Sculpture of Chinese letters

Hold the pen tightly

Woman on Subway

“Esperanza

Orange

Black woman

Puerto Rico”

Random Search

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

In flight

Wet suits slick

With dreaming fishes

And sparkle scarves

Twisting round so they are

In perfect time

With the daydreams

Of a lovelorn

Boy

Absolute Zero

How quaint it is to convince someone

That they are valued

We all know that our value

Is measured

In bits and bytes

Binary kingdom

Quantified selves

Our very eyeballs and fingers,

What they see and click and swipe…

Treasure

The delight of pirates and dragons

How can we doubt this?

And doubting, how can we then

Reach beyond ourselves to figure out

What matters?

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

We Should Have Known that Silicon Valley Was Just Another Bad Boyfriend

big tech red flag
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

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:

  1. Although the BB was charming at first, red flags are there from the beginning. He soon starts letting you down and making you unhappy.
  2. He takes advantage of your love for him to keep behaving badly.
  3. 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.

Blog Post for Psychology Today – Can’t Fight This Feeling: Technology and Teen Anxiety

Social media and digital technology must have an impact on our emotional lives because our social lives—whether analog or digital—always do. In my recent article for Psychology Today, I write about why we must move beyond “Is there an impact?” to “How, Why, and under What conditions is there an impact?”. Read the full article here.

Gods and Demons: The Politics of Disgust

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say get that son of a b**ch off the field right now? He’s fired. He’s fired!” ~ Donald Trump

 “This may be one of the most vile and disgusting things that president Trump has ever said in a very long and impressive list of vile and disgusting things,”
~ Marc Lamont Hill

I’ve been thinking a lot about disgust these past few months. Not physical disgust, making you crinkle up your nose and say, “ewwh!”; but moral disgust, that toxic feeling that comes when we experience words, actions, or beliefs and the people who espouse them as morally tainted, stupid, evil, insane, or…..deplorable.

In our politically-divided country, disgust is increasingly what we feel for “the other side.” We can’t understand how “those people” can believe and feel as they do; they are so incomprehensible to us that they become “other,” the out-group to our own identified in-group. They must be bad, probably irredeemable. We want nothing to do with them. We will stay in our own, lovely echo-chambers, thank you very much.

Disgust erodes communication because, in the throes of disgust, we no longer think of the other as quite completely human, and therefore, not truly worthy of being heard and understood; perhaps, unconsciously, not quite worthy of kindness. Psychologists and sociologists call this infrahumanization – perceiving the out-group to be less human.

To continue reading my full post Gods and Demons: The Politics of Disgust, click here.

The full blogpost is hosted on my new website, 21stcenturykindness.com, a website that focuses on Kindness as one of the most important 21st century skills.

Launch of 21st Century Kindness Blog

I’m excited to announce the launch of my new blog, 21st Century Kindness. This blog describes the Kindness Map, exploring ideas about why we can and should build our intrinsic kindness, how to navigate the world using kindness as a guiding principle, and how kindness transforms individuals and societies – whether your goal is a successful business, a culture of inclusiveness, a happier family life, or a greater understanding of technology’s impact on our lives. Go to my new blog here.