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.

Blast from The Past – Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

With the election less than two weeks away, we’re revisiting a previous post on “Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?”:

It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.

During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.”  I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”

I found this conversation terrifying – not only because the thought of Trump as Presidentimages is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.

1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us – fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions – something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.

Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.

Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation – applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.

2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.

If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making?: Almost certainly for the better.

3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”

In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.

What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change – perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.

The Isle is Full of Noises: Digital Exile in the Play “Privacy”

Last month, I saw Privacy, a play by James Graham about the consequences of living our lives mediated by the internet and mobile technology.  Called a “magic show” by the New York Times review, it used Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a window into the pathos of this brave new digital world of ours.

At its core, the play is about how technology places us in exile, in which we struggle with feeling alone and cut off even though we are always connected with others, struggle with understanding our emotions even though we constantly express ourselves. One of the most interesting things to me about the play was that it included one of our era’s great exiles, Edward Snowden, who makes an appearance via a previously recorded Skype video. He and the protagonist of the play, The Writer (played wonderfully by Daniel Radcliffe) together recite a monologue from The Tempest:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

the isle is full of noises
from oxfordplayhouse.com

 

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.

In The Tempest this monologue was spoken by Caliban, the drunken, semi-human, despised but magical offspring of a witch who is explaining the mysterious and enchanting music of the island upon which all the characters in the play are trapped. The main protagonists of The Tempest are the magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, who were sent into exile and stranded on an island by Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio. Prospero, being a magician, has conjured a storm (the tempest) and set in motion a shipwreck and a series of events designed to gain back the throne for his daughter, the rightful heir.

Is Mr. Snowden Caliban, both despised and magical? Edward Snowden is certainly vilified by some – in exile in Russia after leaking NSA documents revealing the scope of secret surveillance carried out by the US government on its own citizens and on other governments. Others, of course, consider him to be a martyr and a hero. Mr. Snowden has said, “People say I live in Russia, but that’s actually a little bit of a misunderstanding. I live on the Internet.” To hear him recite “The isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears ….“ made me think about what it must mean for him to “live” on the internet, never escaping its ceaseless music, the chatter and flood of words, images, facts, attacks, ideas, pings, clicks, alerts, notification, requests, and likes.

It also made me think about what Mr. Snowden gave up in order to shine a light on the underbelly of all this noise. “When I waked I cried to dream again.” This is the sting of being a citizen of the internet, unable to forfeit the joys and miracles of our shared, cyberspace dream, but knowing that we are being used by others for their own purposes, our privacy no longer sacred, but instead a pawn in the game, an asset to leverage and sell. Most of us accept this. Mr. Snowden does not.

Privacy leaves us with the feeling that our digital lives are a form of exile in an enchanted, cacophonous realm, a place where the technology we are dependent upon seems both magical and menacing.

 

 

 

Keep Your Friends Close…: Technology and the Politics of Fear

Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) 2016 was one of those paradigm-shifting conference experiences for me. Before PDF, I tended to hear technophilic, almost Pollyannaish narratives about how technology can make our lives- and our civic lives – better. I was clearly behind the times because I now see the narrative shifting and morphing into a much more challenging, questioning viewpoint that might be best described by the saying “keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

In almost every talk I heard, technology and the digital economy was described as a double-edged sword, as a way to ignite change, but with high potential costs, and full of booby traps. Those who create technology? A mixed bag at best. Anil Dash didn’t mince words when he called the technocrats and Silicon Valley billionaires liars and the new robber barons. Kentaro Toyama compared the digital economy to The Matrix, in which our personal data is the lifeblood of same Silicon Valley billionaire evil robot overlords.

I have to admit that I take grim pleasure in the aptness of these metaphors, and have uttered identical words myself. However, it is also clear that these ideas are polarizing and, like extremism in politics, privilege emotions above logic to drive more fractious and divisive discourse. Luna Malbroux’s hilarious talk about “EquiTable,” a faux app she developed to create dialogue about social justice and equity, is a nice example of how to break away from bitter recriminations and instead to use humor as a powerful weapon for change.

But if technology is a very sharp double-edged sword, how do we wield it without cutting ourselves?  How do we, as Yvette Alberdingk Thijm described in her talk about using technology as civic witnesses, harness technology for good without allowing others to use it against us.

Keep your friends close…

PDF yielded many ideas and solutions. I mention only a few below (including mine). I was particularly interested in those ideas and solutions demanding that technology serve humanistic goals and that the well-being of people be part and parcel of how we design and build technology. To do this, we have to open our eyes and take a cold, hard look at how our romance with technology has caused us to take our hands off the wheel (no pun with driverless cars intended).

My talk (text can be found here) centered on technology and mental health. I argued that the psychological and emotional nature of the tech we build is not peripheral or ancillary – it is fundamental to shaping how we use tech for healing. Right not, technology and digital culture is precisely and relentlessly designed to high jack our attention and our emotional brains for the economic benefit of its creators – this is the basis of the attention economy. To gather, mine, and sell our personal data, technology needs to be addictive, keeping us looking, clicking, buying, eyeballs on the screen, swiping, checking, clutching our devices, hoping to hear the next best thing, to feel connected, soothed, and understood. This is counter to health promotion, and creates imbalance instead of balance, weakness instead of strength. The notion that technology is designed to high jack our brains was beautifully and compelling described in a blog post just a few days after PDF by Tristan Harris.

I ended my talk with a call to action, that we must reclaim the technology culture to serve and amplify humanity and well-being, rather than serve the attention economy. We must further anchor this new culture in key values, including the value that our attention is sacred and valuable,  not just the coin of the realm. We must own and be responsible for how we spend our precious attention.

Sherry Turkle observed how our excitement over the rapid pace of technological advances makes us forget some fundamental, common-sense things we know about life. For example, after research suggesting that self-reported declines in empathy among millennials could be caused by growing use of social media and digital communication, one researcher’s solution was to build an “empathy app.” Why would we ever think that technology could make us more empathic, that the thing that might have caused declines in empathy could also be the solution? Dr. Turkle described how many aspects of digital technology actually allow us to effectively hide from the challenges of feeling and expressing emotions in our relationships, to “sidestep physical presence” and seek “frictionless relationships.” Solution – we need to reclaim common sense and realize that we are the empathy app, as Dr. Turkle quipped.

danah boyd called our attention to the immense ethical disconnect in how the digital infrastructure of our civic lives – code – is constructed.  This is an industry in “perpetual beta” and thus there are few if any standards, audits, or inspections of code. There also is little consideration of the resources taken up to maintain the immense glut of data generated every day, and little awareness of how bias and inaccuracy are built into data analytics.  These questions are of the utmost importance because an increasing number of decisions in our personal and civic lives are being made based on algorithms and digital profiling.  She exhorts us to be careful of how and what we code.

…but keep your enemies closer

As in everything, knowledge is power. I felt that we at PDF, speakers, participants, and audience alike, implicitly but universally agreed to keep our eyes open, to look our crush, technology, in the face and see that she may not be on our side anymore but to hope that it’s not too late. Technology is empowering, BUT…. We all agreed to spend more time on the “buts,” as well as on the when, how, and under what conditions we can reclaim technology for humanity. In his PDF talk, Kentaro Toyama evoked the great Isaac Asimov and the First Law of Robotics from Asimov’s “I, Robot” (A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm). In Asimov’s universe, the powers of technology are at their fundamental core designed and harnessed for the benefit of people. I believe that we must and can insist that our technology conform to this higher standard, and that with this as a guiding light, we can wield the double-edged sword of technology for more good than ill.