Browsed by
Category: Reflections

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

Near the end of his life, while exiled on the rock of St. Helena, Napoleon called Count Montholon to his side and asked him, “Can you tell me who Jesus Christ was?” Upon the Count declining to respond Napoleon countered,

I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ was not a man.

Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist.

There is between Christianity and other religions the distance of infinity.

Alexander, Cæsar, Charlemagne and myself founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon sheer force. Jesus Christ alone founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men will die for Him. In every other existence but that of Christ how many imperfections!

From the first day to the last He is the same; majestic and simple; infinitely firm and infinitely gentle. He proposes to our faith a series of mysteries and commands with authority that we should believe them, giving no other reason than those tremendous words, ‘I am God.’

The Bible contains a complete series of acts and of historical men to explain time and eternity, such as no other religion has to offer.

If it is not the true religion, one is very excusable in being deceived; for everything in it is grand and worthy of God.

The more I consider the Gospel, the more I am assured that there is nothing there which is not beyond the march of events and above the human mind. Even the impious themselves have never dared to deny the sublimity of the Gospel, which inspires them with a sort of compulsory veneration.

What happiness that Book procures for those who believe it!

First Pope to speak at the UN and how to create true peace

First Pope to speak at the UN and how to create true peace

Excerpts from Pope Paul VI to the fledgling UN in 1965 that is just as relevant today as then.

As you know very well, peace is not built merely by means of politics and a balance of power and interests. It is built with the mind, with ideas, with the works of peace.

The edifice you are building does not rest on purely material and terrestrial foundations, for in that case it would be a house built on sand. It rests most of all upon consciences. Yes, the time has come for “conversion,” for personal transformation, for interior renewal.

The appeal to the moral conscience of man has never before been as necessary as it is today, in an age marked by such great human progress. For the danger comes neither from progress nor from science; if these are used well they can, on the contrary, help to solve a great number of the serious problems besetting mankind. The real danger comes from man, who has at his disposal ever more powerful instruments that are as well fitted to bring about ruin as they are to achieve lofty conquests.

To put it in a word, the edifice of modern civilization has to be built on spiritual principles, for they are the only ones capable not only of supporting it, but of shedding light on it and inspiring it. And we are convinced, as you know, that these indispensable principles of higher wisdom cannot rest on anything but faith in God.

It’s a reminder that efforts that reduce problems to just power, politics, money, etc are missing the root of issue and just playing whack-a-mole. Temporal tools like laws, money, and power dynamics are useful in guiding our courses – but unless hearts are changed – these efforts are at best a never ending practice of building sandcastles that are washed down with the next tide.

If you feel that politics can’t find the answer, if laws aren’t the answer, if controlling money or power doesn’t seem to bring peace – then you are right. It is the human heart where peace is made and to be found. Let each human heart seek to be reformed, and the rest will fall into place.

What am I doing this advent to reform my heart – especially with the work of peace?

The wise person

The wise person

The greater our knowledge increases,
the greater our ignorance unfolds.
-John F Kennedy

So, by this measure, the greatest and most dangerous fool is the one that posits they are intelligent. Even worse, when they do not have the wisdom to admit they are probably ignorant on the subject or could be wrong. In other words, just about 99% of all conversations on social media.

So lets all do each other a favor. Let us agree that spending 30-60 minutes a day reading articles on a topic from your favorite biased news sources does not make you ‘an expert’ or even ‘well informed’. Let us also take a step back from so self-assuredly believing and asserting everything we think.

Better yet, how about we love and respect each other – discussing our differences while respecting the person. Maybe, while we’re at it, we’ll all learn how not to be controlled by our outrage driven social agenda pushers.



Lenten ashes to Easter fire

Lenten ashes to Easter fire

“The ashes we wear on Ash Wednesday are like the coals in a campfire at dawn. Perhaps the fire in our hearts has burned down or even appears to have gone out. Yet, as any seasoned camper will tell you, the blackest coals are often more than hot enough to restart a blaze.

Lent is a special time to take stock of the campfire of our heart and we start with the ashes. Maybe its grown cold and we need to tend it: removing things that are smothering it or adding more fuel to feed it. Maybe it’s burning but needs tending, or maybe it’s ready for larger blocks of fuel. When we start doing the physical tending of our heart via fasting and works of charity, the Holy Spirit will be gently blowing on our work, coaxing a fire to kindle from our work.

Wherever the fire is in your heart, Christ stands ready with forgiveness and healing in Lent. Calling us each back – no matter where we have fallen or become lost. Let us avail ourselves of the graces so our inner fires may be a blaze at Easter – joining the Easter fire lit on Easter vigil and spread by the faithful to light the darkness of our world.”


Why you can tell what comes next in any hollywood movie by checking your watch

Why you can tell what comes next in any hollywood movie by checking your watch

Have you had a sense that Hollywood movies have felt a little too ‘cookie-cutter’ lately? Or that they feel somewhat unoriginal or a little too sugary?

John Williamson is a long time lecturer and publisher of games. He gave a great talk at PAX Prime 2016 on why you can tell exactly what is going to happen next in a Hollywood movie by looking at your watch. It’s narrative structure that has been picked up by writers and is now used in almost all our media from graphic novels to Hollywood productions. Just about every modern movie in the last 10 years uses it – it’s called The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. The structure was outlined in his book called “Save the Cat!

Recently, this structure has been catching some flack for making our movies too cookie cutter or even deceptive. One very valid argument (in my opinion) is that lazy writers can rely on the well-understood emotional reaction the structure creates to communicate themes and messages as true without having to argue them or give any evidence they actually are true. In other words, instead of relying on substance of the story, it relies on the simple fact that the ‘Save the Cat!’ emotional ride guarantees a positive emotional reception for what you want.

Some say it lets writers be so lazy they need not even be concerned about the actual content of the story, but to just rely on the structure of the emotional ride to guarantee a positive response from the audience. Just change the actors, theme, or conflict and you have a brand new movie without changing much else.

You can find a link to John Williamson’s great presentation here, or download a copy here. He covers a HUGE range of story telling techniques from ancient to new, eastern and western, but the relevant section on Hollywood plots, however, starts at slide 111.

Here’s the breakdown of the structure, by minute. (This assumes a movie of 110 minutes. Adjust the times based on your movie’s total time based on the ratio laid out here.)

  1. Opening Image – (minute: 1) – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.
  2. Set-up – (minutes: 1-10) Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.
  3. Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – (minute: 5) What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.
  4. Catalyst – (minute: 12)The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.
  5. Debate – (minutes: 12-25) – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
  6. Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – (minute: 25) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.
  7. B Story – (minute: 30) – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.
  8. Fun and Games/The Promise of the Premise – (minutes: 30-55) – This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
  9. Midpoint – (minute: 55) – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
  10. Bad Guys Close In – (minutes: 55-75) – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.
  11. All is Lost – (minute: 75) – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul – (minutes: 75-85) – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
  13. Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – (minute: 85) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
  14. Finale – (minutes: 85-110) – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
  15. Final Image – (minutes: 110) – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

His presentation then shows how this structure works from modern movies like ‘The Fault with our Stars’, to “Indiana Jones” to video games like Super Mario Bros and Ico.

Try it out on the next movie you watch and see how accurate it is.

Tearing down vs holding up

Tearing down vs holding up

I think this is one of the most powerful moments in David Suchet’s portrayals of Poirot. In the 2010 version of Murder on the Orient Express, the ending was not like the book nor the 2017 version. Give the ending a listen (spoiler alert of course). Given the currently poor state of cultural and political dialog, I think it’s worth a listen. Especially now that we have people calling for active dissolution of government systems that have (in some opinions) failed us:

Hercule Poirot: [furious] You people! With your kangaroo jury, your kangaroo justice! You had no right to take the law into your own hands!

Hildegarde Schmidt: M-m-monsieur Poirot, she was *five years old*!

Caroline Hubbard: We were good civilized people, and then evil got over the wall, and we looked to the law for justice, and the law let us down.

Hercule Poirot: No! No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high! If it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!

Greta Ohlsson: There is a higher justice than the rule of law, monsieur!

Hercule Poirot: Then you let *God* administer it… not *you*!

Greta Ohlsson: And when he doesn’t? When he creates a Hell on Earth for those wronged? When priests who are supposed to act in his name forgive what must never be forgiven? Jesus said, “Let those without sin throw the first stone.”

Hercule Poirot: Oui!

Greta Ohlsson: Well, we were without sin, monsieur! *I* was without sin!

Wow, so much going on in this encounter!

Firstly, it’s interesting that modern movies so often ascribe the wrongs in the world to God. Many movies love to take cheap shots at theism and often use evil in the world as proof of God’s nonexistence. Yet they somehow forget that if this proves God doesn’t exit, we’re left with the exact same conclusion as if you are a theist. Just looking at the situation, you must conclude that all the wrongs in this story were committed by very human people (Cassetti’s murder of a 5 year old and then each of the 12 that committed his murder) or the failure of our human institutions (Cassetti’s escape from police/justice) – not God. For those that allow for the existence of God, we were created and granted the freedom we are both blessed and cursed with – to choose good or evil. Should we blame God that some will invariably choose evil? Why do we blame God when our own justice systems fail? Evil didn’t ‘get in over the wall’ or get magically done by God killing a 5 year old – it came from a very real person who chose it. It’s a tired trope, and one I wish we could get beyond.

Next, Poirot is taking a very bold stance against this group that isn’t what we usually see these days: that we must not take the law into our own hands. Instead he asserts as strongly as one might that we must commit ourselves even more to fixing our justice systems when they fail us, not destroying or ignoring them when we feel justified in doing so. We love our Dirty Harry’s and vigilantes that bring justice. The A-Team and Batman fit this description, but Poirot emphatically stands against this. He makes the very valid argument that if people start taking the law into their own hands, then all of us will suffer. He rightly claims that society as we know it depends on each of us committing ourselves to a common justice and application of law. His argument would be that we have fought long and hard to come from mob and street justice Medieval times. It is this common bond of assenting to our societies system of justice that is what protects all of us from each other.

Caroline retorts that the law let them down, and Greta screams that justice isn’t just some block of laws, but that it’s something higher – something innate to us, something we all immediately recognize and demand. This is true! We do not derive our morality from a book of laws, our book of laws come from our sense of morality! So is it a surprise that even after 100’s of years, our laws do not capture all the truths and fairness we feel? Studies have shown consistently that children have a consistent sense of fairness and right from a very early age – across all races, genders, and parts of the world. A person who has read Genesis would agree: if we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony in the Garden of Eden, of course we have a sense of what is right in our very fiber. It’s innate to us, created in us. But since the fall, we lost our ability to live it perfectly.

The reality, whether you are a theist or not, is that some will choose to commit wrongs on others – even horrific crimes. Unfortunately, Greta again blames God for the evil Cassetti commits. She then makes the mistake that many make: she seems so assured of her sense of rightness, her moral superiority (aka ‘lack of sin’) makes her worthy to carry out lethal justice they did not get from the courts. I’m no expert, but I bet every other person on that train that knew Greta could probably have named a few of her failings – so none of us should ever assert we’re sin-free. As for following our conscious in the face of moral outrage, we absolutely should do so in the face of injustice. Even to heroic levels that might even cost our lives – but Poirot asserts that those efforts should not be directed at taking the law into our own hands, but to pour all that effort into fixing what failed – so that ALL of society can enjoy the benefits. When we take matters into our own hands, we allow a broken system to remain broken for others. So to work for justice means to work to fix the systems we have in place so that ALL of society can enjoy the fruits. That’s how we have such a better system than we had when death was delivered by the sword on a whim. Each of us can contribute, each of us can bring the injustice committed to us and make it benefit all of mankind – but it may take time, patience, and may not come out perfectly. Yet the alternative is that the system remains broken, more people can exploit the growing holes, and on top of that, we end up putting ourselves at risk (as these 12 did) by committing crimes themselves. This is what Poirot is saying, not that Cassetti didn’t deserve justice, but that vigilante justice is a selfish act – one that ultimately damages the delivery of the very justice they crave.

So what about that appeal Poirot makes to God? Is he telling us when our laws or human justice fail us, we are supposed to idly stand by like sheep and let evil run amok? Many modern minds would probably think this is what he’s saying – but it is exactly the opposite! He and Greta are actually referring to different things. Greta is equating human justice to divine justice, as the same thing – and hence she sees both God and God’s justice as having failed them. But Poirot, as a Catholic, does not equate them. There is human justice and divine justice. To Poirot, he acknowledges there is divine justice – but that justice deals with ultimate battles of good and evil – such as the forgiveness man cannot give himself with the fall, but seeing that as seperate from human justice.

This is where a Catholic understanding (and Poirot was Catholic – a fact re-iterated by his scenes of praying the rosary) of salvation history comes into play. God created human beings to be co-creators with God. We are given dominion, stewardship, and creative abilities over all of creation. Even non-believers can recognize humans have a unique place in all of the earth. Our minds can come up with great artistic expressions of paintings, music, and art. Our minds can plumb great depths of science from subatomic particles to the furthest reaches of the universe. We have the ability to live anywhere in the world, and even in space by our efforts. We can even generate new life by having children together. We are soul and material beings – together. The whole story of the bible is a story of God trying to build and rebuild relationship with our very material selves. God creates women and men from the very material stuff of the universe. He makes all of creation to enjoy and thrive from. God makes covenants with specific nations as a light for all peoples. God grants the childless children, or lands to live on as inheritance. God helps them in struggles and battles. God gives them food in the desert and when Jesus feeds the 5000. God lifts up human prophets to speak through. God punishes unfaithfulness by revoking material gifts. Jesus came in bodily form. Jesus cured bodily ills as well as spiritual ones. Every piece of salvation history shows that the concrete world is meant to be a part of our salvation story. And so too all the systems we have in it. Poirot, and the Catholic stance, would be that it is our job as human agents to bring the love, justice, and truth of God to every corner of our fallen world, even the darkest places and crimes, not to create more darkness and crimes by vigilante justice.

Poirot was able to figure out this case. Namely, that 12 people that conspired to commit and hide a murder, despite its complexities. He even figured out Cassetti’s role and crimes. Therefore, Poirot sees human law is able to bring justice to even this, so why should this case allow for vigilantism when it could just as easily be brought to justice the ‘right’ way? When we find flaws with our justice and law, we must not discard all the sacrifices and hard-fought battles that have brought us the infinitely better systems of justice we enjoy today because of one failure. If we do not believe this, then people become self-righteous and begin to take the law into their own hands – as these 12 people did. Even when they are right in wanting to punish a guilty person – they become the destroyers of the very social fabric and justice they want. They circumvent all social agreements and demonstrate that anyone can now operate above the law based on their own judgement and sense of ‘right’. This situation, if carried out by many, will collapse all of society and we’ll return to the barbarism of the sword we had before where people deliver swift and deadly retribution without answering to anyone.

But even more than this, perhaps greater than these points, Poirot has recognized the tragedy that has happened to those on this train. As for the ‘hell’ that Gretta speaks of – she was right. There was is a hell on earth. It was in each of their hearts. The horrific death of one child has destroyed 12 people’s worlds. Cast them into a living hell on earth of pain and grief. The unhealed grief, horror, shock, anger, hatred, and pain each one is in now has also led each of them choosing revenge. Just after this scene, we see one man threaten to add another murder – the murder of Poirot – so they can all escape. “Why not?” he says, “We’ve all committed one murder. What’s one more?” The descent into barbarism starts accelerating.

He recognizes each of the lies they’re telling themselves to justify what they’ve done and what a tragic thing has happened to them. This is why his retort about letting God administer justice – but those realms are that of the divine. Divine justice is that what happens in each heart that rights the wrongs there. Repentance and forgiveness is a grace – a healing grace – that allows us not to become trapped by the wrongs of the past. To start anew. A short time later, Poirot reveals this insight in a conversation he has in private after the group confrontation:

Mary Debenham: You said of the woman in Istanbul that she knew the rules of her culture and knew what breaking them would mean. So did Cassetti.

Hercule Poirot: [harshly] And so do you!

Mary Debenham: When you’ve been denied justice… you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God… I think we all did… what we should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.

Hercule Poirot: [coldly] And are you?

Mary Debenham: [long pause, then] But I did what was right.

I think we can all sympathize with the brokenness of Mary. I think all of us have felt betrayed or let down by something we trusted in at some point. Perhaps we’ve lost something that seems unbearable to lose, or experienced an evil that has utterly changed our lives forever. This does happen in our world. I also honestly believe she could have prayed about what to do and even been told to ‘do what is right’. The problem comes in this: what is right? (or as Pilot says at the trial of Jesus, “What is truth?”)

We know by Mary’s response, as does Poirot, that the murder done ‘for justice’ really hasn’t helped. The loss, pain, and tragedy are all still there. She’s still living the hell on earth they talk about, but now she has murder on her conscience too. What she thought was ‘right’ has turned out to have made things even worse – for her. Sure, maybe Cassetti has been brought to a type of justice, but Mary’s situation has remained the same. Her pain is all still there. What is right would be to find a way to bring Cassetti to justice and to find healing and forgiveness in her heart. Instead, evil has begot more evil, and she is worse off than she started.

So what hope do we have in finding peace? What way are we to follow? In what can anyone put their trust in a world in which many feel lost or angry? This is where the Christian stands up and emphatically says, “To follow Christ!”. Early Christians were actually called ‘Followers of The Way’. When we put our trust in ‘The Way’ Jesus has taught us to live, and then truly put those teachings into action, we are promised peace. This is the harsh truth. That revenge does not bring peace. Instead, the acts of revenge are now heaped on top of all the rest of the pain, hurt, anger, fear, emptiness, etc. Instead, Jesus taught that we are to forgive those who wrong us, to offer love in turn for hate. Only by this method will Mary, or any of us, find peace after great evil has touched us. Instead of blaming God for the evil committed by our fellow man, we should find a way to bring our fellow man to justice and correction, while thanking God we have been given the means to do so: via the teachings and forgiveness of Christ!

Forgiving when we are wronged, comfort the sorrowing, compassion for those crushed by life, providing education to the uneducated, give medical assistance to those in need, to fight for justice here and trust in final justice beyond instead of trying to administer it ourselves, to give temporal care to those in need, to visit the imprisoned, assist the crippled, house the homeless, warm the cold, welcome the widow, refuge, and child, and yes, even returning forgiveness for murder are not just platitudes. They are real, concrete, and the way we find peace in the horror of evil. It is how evil is defeated, even if it wins temporary victories. Christ even gave forgiveness – as he hung nailed and dying – to the persons crucifying him.

This is what Christ taught, and the answer to “Do what is right”. In the western world, it’s also the foundation of all our laws and culture – for well over 1000 years. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the most equitable, fair, and amazing systems in which all people are recognized with inherent rights of their human being (their creation in the image of God).

Further, God never claimed this way would be easy or we can do it perfectly. It might cost us career paths, friends, fame, or force us to confront our worst enemies with compassion. It might even cost our lives as it did for Jesus – but to what else are each of us giving our lives? As for me, I would rather give my life in service to the teachings of Christ above like popular opinion and fad activism that comes and goes like leaves in the wind every year.

I think this is a good reflection when we’re in an increasingly UN-forgiving state of political discourse in our country. We have turned to wanting to get vengeance, like these 12 did, on those we don’t agree with. So assured we’re right, and justified to ourselves. Yet the promise is the same: it will not bring back the dead, it will not fill our emptiness and hurt, it will not calm our fears, it will not bring peace. Instead, we’ll just heap new hurts on top of the old. Perhaps we should all reflect on that the next time we post on Facebook.

Highest Form of Disagreement

Highest Form of Disagreement

Democracy is a contact sport. Everyone gets bruises. Even the winners. And the kind of bickering we see today is not only unproductive.
It’s cowardly.
If you don’t have the guts to focus on ideas and stop tearing down individuals, you belong in the stands, not on the field. I want more leaders who are brave enough to focus on ideas and not ad hominem attacks. I want more leaders who are willing to say, “I hate everything she stands for, but I do not hate her. And neither should you.”
And I want more Americans who demand these kinds of debates for the sake of our democracy. Just ideas against ideas, let them fight it out, and if you lose, come back with better ideas.
Are millions of Americans ready to start fighting fair for the sake of our democracy? For the sake of solving common problems we all face?


Owners vs Stewards

Owners vs Stewards

When we take the radical view that all of creation is granted to us for a short time, that it is GIFTED to us, was created for us to live in, was handed to us by those that came before, and we will hand to our children and their children – then we start seeing ourselves as stewards, not owners. The difference seems subtle, but it is hugely counter-cultural – and hugely freeing.

This idea carries to all things, not just possessions like houses, money, jobs, the environment. It also means even our families. Instead of talking about ‘our/my children’, we instead see we are granted stewardship over our children until they become adults. This view requires we realize our children are unique people that do not ‘belong’ to us, but each is entrusted to us for a short time and has a unique path to God with gifts to give to others and creation. Our job as parents is to help them find that way. There is much sadness in our world because people believe children are somehow ‘theirs’ or expect them to fulfill parental desires and expectations – but not seen as amazing gifts granted to us to care for a short time.

This notion of stewardship is granted to us from the very moment of Adam and Eve – who were given ‘dominion’ over the rest of creation not to abuse it or use it however we wanted – but to be co-creators, co-stewards, with God. It is essential to any Christian view of our lives, the lives of others, our environment, the world, and the things we possess. Christ’ parables again and again talk of servants and stewards given temporary roles over another’s property, goods, and servants. If we can adopt this radical notion that everything that passes through our lives is something we are given stewardship over, not ownership, we can live not attached to the things we own, but with a gentle, freeing detachment.

Time Well Spent

Time Well Spent

What is the most dangerous problem in our world today? I argue it is not drugs, war, mass shootings, growing global divisions/unrest, global warming, or even a nuclear North Korea. What problem could possibly be bigger than those? How about the control of the minds of almost every person on earth.

Hyperbole? A growing group of top-tier developers, social media executives, technologists, military threat analysts, and researchers don’t think so. They are increasingly quitting or raising red flags of how dangerous the ground has become. Many have banded together, appearing on Ted, NPR, Wired, 60 Minutes, and many other forums – founding a movement called “Time Well Spent

So what are they saying:

I want you to imagine walking into a control room with a 100 people hunched over little dials that will control the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction – but it actually exists today. I know because I was a design engineer at Google in one of those control rooms deciding how to ethically steer people’s thoughts. What we don’t talk about is how a handful of people at a handful of technology companies, through their choices, will steer what a billion people will think today.  – Tristan Harris

Still not convinced?

Several recent foreign elections, as well as our last presidential election, demonstrated the very probable reality that elections can now be swung, influenced, or even won by last-minute internet scandals and social media barrages. Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before congress to answer for their complicity in Russian election hacking. How are we to run elections in the future if social media scandal or outrage can be created instantly and overnight by just a few people anywhere in the world while remaining anonymous?

How much faith do we put in systems in which as few as 2 developers, with any motivation or ethical goal, can run simple bots designed to exploit the algorithms of social media sites such as Reddit and ensure they have top visibility while silencing any dissension. Results which have been repeated and published over and over again.

Facebook publicly apologized for running experiments on users by filtering what they saw. Other Facebook employees admitted to regularly silencing political voices they did not agree with.

Others have written books about how they have engineered complete social media campaigns based on creating public outrage and then capitalizing on it. With teams as small as 5-10 people and budgets of only a few thousand dollars, they successfully generated campaigns that appeared in every national news outlet and made hundreds of thousands of dollars by posting and then counter-posting social media blitzes. All purely fabricated and designed to sell a product. They caution that the same techniques could be used for any purpose or end.

How about new agencies that are increasingly replacing staff with bots that scour social media and then generate the news stories you read? Or bots that can generate custom news stories based on what it knows about you? Requirements for new reporters have more to do with how to manipulate

There is growing and increasingly proven evidence that heavy use of social media sites and always connected phones is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues.

Video game loot boxes have been called gambling by some that are now seeking to regulate them.

Thinking deeper

All this isn’t a call to take down Facebook, disband Google, destroy smart phones, or riot in the streets. What is a call to do is to think deeper and awaken to our vulnerability to manipulation and the potentially destructive emotional and relational forces of our technology. Most of these systems were initially created without thought to how pervasive, and vulnerable to manipulation, they could become. Their dramatic success and pervasiveness has now revealed the danger of these vulnerabilities. Devices designed for convenience are now becoming dangerously absorbing.

TimeWellSpent points out that these vulnerabilities are being exploited because they’re combined with user interfaces that use techniques of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning to keep us constantly checking, re checking, and glued to them. If they are absorbing all our attention, then they are also absorbing our thinking.

While this wasn’t as big of an issue when connectivity was limited by physical access, but in an all-the-time, 100% connected world, we must pay attention to these forces.

Time Well Spent outlines some paths forward on their website:

  1. Design new products, devices, and core interfaces to protect our minds from constant distractions, minimize screen time, protect our time in relationships, and replace the App Store model of ‘apps’ with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society.
  2. Enact legislation that enforces humane business models. Models that address the purposeful use of unhealthy positive reinforcement or operant conditioning to monopolize attention. Examples: gambling like loot/reward systems in games, etc.
  3. Bring attention and start public discussions that make consumers aware and able to recognize the difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us and technology whose goals are aligned with our own.
  4. This is one in my wheel house: Educate and empower engineers and technologists to build products and business models that improve society while also become advocates against ones that ruin society. Talented employees are the greatest asset of technology companies – and the ones companies are most afraid to lose. They can become powerful advocates if they recognize their collective power.

While Time Well Spent spends its time on a few ideas relating to our social well-being, I would add a few more based on the idea that change comes from within:

  1. It is increasingly researched and documented that people who are heavy users of social media are much more prone to psychological problems such as depression, sadness, and unhealthy evaluation of their lives. Some good questions:
    • How many times in a day do you check social media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc)? Be honest.
    • Can you go to the bathroom, wait in a coffee line, sit at a stop light, or any other waiting task without checking Facebook, Twitter, text messages, or playing a mobile phone game? How do you feel if you don’t – unsettled, irritable, anxious?
    • How much time are you spending each day checking social media? Be attentive to your usage and add it up. Is it more time than what you spend with a loved one, exercising, learning, or growing as a person?
  2. Can you have a whole meal with a loved one, spouse, family, or friend without checking your phone? How’s the quality of your relationship with that person compared with 5 years ago? Are you using digital distraction to avoid relationship growth/deepening?
  3. US News media sources are increasingly consolidating under a few giant media conglomerates. News stories and writers are increasingly only evaluated by the number of clicks they get – not to inform or educate.
    • Do you know the bias of your news outlet? EVERY news outlet has a bias and reputation – discover it by googling ‘news bias chart’ and start your research.
    • If you currently read a more ‘biased’ news source – can you go to a source at about the opposite side of the scale to read the arguments there or does it just cause you overwhelming emotions?
    • Do you double-check with news sources outside the US like BBC?
    • Do you have a healthy disbelief of the news you read until it has been fact checked by numerous sources and time – or are you a slave to immediate emotional ‘outrage’? Can you read a story that is designed to generate outrage and separate your emotional response from the facts? Can you avoid obvious click-bait articles with outrage inducing titles?
    • In the past, ‘Sex sells’ was the mantra. Today it is ‘Outrage sells’. How often do you read the news and become a mindless bot that re-tweets/re-posts/up votes/spreads your outrage – often without waiting to see if there is any truth, waiting for evidence to be vetted, or recognize that many of these articles are commentaries designed to get clicks – not invite informed, constructive solutions?
    • How often are you involved in constructive discussions that recognize the shared humanity in the other, is informed by peer-reviewed scientific data, and designed to create positive environments that encourage the generation of positive outcomes vs ones that are confrontational, destructive, or designed to humiliate/degrade/defeat those that don’t agree with you?
  4. Do you promote critical thinking skills?
    • Can you critique your own viewpoints and even the stances you agree with? Can you see both the good, and the wrong in them – or are you unable to see any failings in the things you believe – sure they are infallible?
    • Do you almost always/immediately believe what your political party, favorite star, favorite politician, musician, comedian, or news source tells you to be true? Can you question them or what they say?
    • Do you understand basic logical fallacies and argumentative techniques? Can you recognize when an article or person is using them on you? Can you call out people – even those aligned with your viewpoint – for using them and being intellectually lazy or even manipulative/deceptive?
    • Are you more interested in being right and shutting up dissenting voice or are you focused on your shared humanity with them, the fact we come from many different backgrounds that weren’t equally privileged, and that the argument/belief is a separate, changeable thing from the inherent value and beauty of the person?
    • Can you hear things designed to elicit outrage and not be swept up in the emotional appeal? Can you suspend belief long enough to get facts. When the facts support action, can you take actions that actively create a positive environment for change, or do you resort to violence, intimidation, posts designed to incite angry responses, or threats?
  5. How long can you go without checking the digital world?
    • Do you cultivate quiet times in your day? Are there times you let yourself be quiet, without video, music, or constantly checking texts/news/post streams?
    • When was the last time you let yourself get bored. Boredom is linked to creative and imaginative thinking.
    • If you are a person of faith, do you spend time in prayer or meditation every day? Even a fraction of the time you spend on social media?
    • Have you ever gone on a weekend/vacation in which you don’t turn on a single digital device or check email/threads/texts/etc?

My hope for the new year is that we all become better citizens by becoming better human beings. That starts within our hearts and with how we choose to spend our time. How do you want to spend your time this coming year?