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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? Look at job openings for reporters at most major news sources. Requirements for new reporters have more to do with how to manipulate search hits than actual reporting.

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?

Ill will

Ill will

People say that money is the root of all evil; but it’s not really true. In fact, I think it makes people look to the wrong place for a solution.

Money only becomes the tool to bad things when given motion by a human agent with a purpose and will. Money just exposes that corruption and weakness in the person, or reveals their goodness and charity.

Just like athletes that get regular drug screens, it is very prudent to put checks and balances on the flow of money. Parishes and businesses require regular audits. People entrusted with money should have procedures to protect what is entrusted to them via audits, multiple people present during counting, and similar systems help keep honest people honest and limit/expose damage when things go wrong. Rules, however, only go so far.

Formality, laws, and rules can make maleficence very difficult, but as every good bank heist movie shows, a person bent on taking something will eventually find a way. The real root of evil is the temptations in the human heart. By changing hearts, we can prevent far more problems than creating laws.

Money isn’t the root of all evil – the human heart corrupted is the root of all evil. When money becomes a tool of evil, then we can certainly take logistical and legal steps to protect us – but we more rightly can look to the human heart to make the true fix.

When is money actually the root of evil?

When is money actually the root of evil?

Great little article write-up here. Definitely worth a read.

Money is not evil. Good and evil actions come from the hearts of those that are making decisions about money. That is why sifting and knowing your motivations and reasons are critical to a well-trained soul.

Here’s a quick summary of when money becomes a tool of evil in your life:

  1. When it’s coupled with vainglory – When you are in love with yourself and you are elated with applause and flattery yet get angry with the slightest hint that someone is better than you, then you are in danger of the sweet but intoxicating venom of vainglory. When you use the money you make to inflate yourself with fine clothes/cars/houses in order to feel superior to others, then it is clear money is no longer just a gift for you to assist others around you.
  2. When fueled by envy – when envy is the catalyst for you to earn money, and motivates the way you spend money, then you are in for a trap – a trap of misery. Surely, it is not new to you if I say that there are rich men and women who died alone and miserable.
  3. When it’s the tool of vengeance – Many people believe they have overcome their anger – when in reality all they have done is repress it where it waits quietly for its moment to come back out. The desire to hurt a person because you feel it can satisfy you and can quench your anger – that is vengeance. Mind you, there are people who are pursuing the riches of this world just because they are angry at someone. They think that, by becoming rich themselves, they can use their money to hurt the object of their anger.
  4. If you lack compassion for people – We live in a world that applauds single-minded pursuit of your goals. But if what matters to you is for you is to reach your goals and dreams to be rich, and you have no qualms of who or how you step on people on your way, then you are in the danger zone. How will it be when you get what you want? Will you suddenly and miraculously start caring and helping others?
The Cross Bearer

The Cross Bearer

Joe Eszterhas was the screenwriter for the movies Basic Instinct, Flashdance, Showgirls. He also authored Hollywood Animal and American Rhapsody. Before that, he worked as a police reporter, racing the cops to robberies and shootings. He interviewed and wrote about mass murders and serial killers. Eszterhas knew a lot about darkness.  Then, on a hellishly hot day in 2001, desperately battling to survive throat cancer because of his addictions to alcohol and cigarettes, Joe Eszterhas found God. Or God found him.

His first prayer in over 40 years led him back to faith and the Catholic Church. Ironically, the priest he met was actually inspired to follow his path to the priesthood by the line from Flashdance: “to follow your dream”. Eszterhas wrote his autobiography in the book ‘The Cross Bearer’ which tells his story of how this author of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood into the arms of a loving God.

He even gave a talk at Mt Angel Seminary about his journey. You can read it here in his book titled The Cross Bearer

Preverting Education to just be rationalization

Preverting Education to just be rationalization

Barrett nodded. “Education?”
“New York. London. Berlin. Paris. Vienna. No specific course of study. Logic, ethics, religion, philosophy.”
“Just enough with which to rationalize his actions, I imagine,”

– From the description of the depraved Emeric Belasco. Hell House by Richard Matheson

If your philosophy, religion, ethics, or logic come from popular authors or coffee table/internet level articles – do yourself a favor and stop. You’re far more likely to end up justifying your own beliefs instead of being challenged to find real truth. The kind you can base your life on.

Pro-tip: it doesn’t exist in any soundbite. Instead, it teaches you to think critically, to see the nuances of arguments, to realize NONE of them are completely correct, AND to see both sides. If your education isn’t doing this, then you’re just being spoon-fed what you want to hear. Your education should challenge you, make you angry, confirm and refute what you believe. Education is what allows you to experience that without having to lash out against others – and just deal with the ideas.

Hearing for the first time…

Hearing for the first time…

We are far greater than the limitations of our bodies. It’s moments like this that show our transcendent natures…

Christy Keane’s daughter Charly was born deaf. She’s still an infant, but recently got hearing aids. We’ve seen older children and adults get emotional when they hear sound for the first time, but Charly is so young, she doesn’t understand what’s happening or how to react. Her facial expressions are precious.

Compare these reactions of Charly and a 29 year old:

With this:

Daryl Davis AMA

Daryl Davis AMA

Daryl Davis is a African American gentleman that’s been the impetus for the many KKK members to question, and leave, the Klan. He’s doing an AMA on reddit, and this was one of his best quotes:

Despite what you may have read in the numerous press articles about me converting KKK members, I NEVER set out to convert anyone. I simply set out to ask a question I had formed in my mind as a kid: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Growing up, we all are told, “A tiger doesn’t change its stripes, a leopard doesn’t change its spots,” etc. I believed that and I didn’t think anyone was going to change, so that wasn’t my initial goal. I just wanted the answer to my question. But over time, though repeated interactions with various KKK members around the country, some of them began questioning their own beliefs as a result of their interacations and conversations with me. Then they began quitting, and I was astounded. Exposure and one-on-one dialogue is the KEY to solving a lot of issues in this country, not just racial ones. We live in echo chambers in which we surround ourselves with people who will reflect back to us, the very same thing we say to them. Therefore we block out anything from the outside as being inferior to what we learn in our little bubbles. I like traveling outside the bubble. Even people with good intentions, tend to shut out those who may hold different opinions. I am willing to listen all all.

This came on the eve of spending some time reflecting on how I was spending my online time. I had basically come to the conclusion that social media’s ‘discussions’ are pretty much useless to my becoming a better person and simply causes me more angst. What really mattered to me was when I got involved in programs at my local parish and started teaching. That actually changed lives. I saw it happen. I vowed to spend less time reading posts, arguing, and spend more time DOING.

Wrath

Wrath

It should not surprise us that we feel the prick of injustice so deeply when it happens to us. When we were created, we were in a world without sin. We were created with an innate instinct for justice, rightness, fairness, and truth. All the qualities of love. We were meant to live in harmony and peace forever – with each other, with nature, and with God. Yet by original sin, evil, and thus, injustice and even death entered the world.

But we continue to seek justice, fairness, and love in all our relationships. We feel that violation when injustice is met upon us or others. We see the evil of it – but wrath, hatred, and violence are born when the desire for fairness is twisted beyond justice.

But, as Sirach says, “Remember your last days” and “remember death and decay”. In doing so, we realize that the wrongs of this world, in the end, are as nothing. All we do, all we have, all we say, will eventually turn to naught in time. Do not let the evil of anger and wrath take hold of your heart for earthly things that are passing away.

And thus, even death itself can be turned into a thing that brings life by reminding us that the things of the created realm are temporary, fleeting, and ultimately come to naught. Such is the power and wisdom of God to turn even decay and death into something that gives life.

Sirach 27:30—28:7

Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.

What is your ‘yes’?

What is your ‘yes’?

This painting hangs in my room. I bought it in Florence and had it framed after visiting the Convent of San Marco.


Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation – Florence 1440

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible. 38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26–38

 

Reflection for the day:

The ‘Yes’ of Mary changed our lives. The ‘yes’ of every single person that raised, taught, helped, loved, or befriended us have changed our lives too.

Where are we being asked to say ‘yes’? Where do we need to say ‘yes’?

Pornography and intimacy

Pornography and intimacy

The Gottman Institute has become a renowned organization when it comes to analyzing relationships and marriage using the latest science. His studies have been cited and mentioned on such shows as NPR and This American Life.

But Dr. John Gottman has made an about face on his stance on pornography – specifically internet pornography. In a heartfelt open letter to colleagues (some that have suggested pornography is ok or even to be encouraged as he did himself), he states his stance unequivocally:

In summary, we are led to unconditionally conclude that for many reasons, pornography poses a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony. This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our readers around the world to understand what is at stake.

Pornography destroys relationships, distorts healthy sexual expression, and damages the ability to form healthy intimacy. Even divorce lawyers are seeing the trend:

In an informal meeting survey in 2002, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers questioned 350 divorce attorneys and found that roughly 60 percent reported that internet porn played a significant role in the divorces, with excessive interest in online porn contributing to more than half of such cases.

It’s not just lawyers who are picking up on the trend. In 2005, Dr. Jill Manning, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in sexual addiction, pornography, or betrayal trauma, brought her research on porn and its connection to divorce before the Senate. According to Manning’s research, 56 percent of divorce cases involve one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.

John Mathews*, Family Law and Divorce Attorney, has also found porn to be a prevalent problem within his practice. Mathews explains that, in most cases, spouses deny porn use. But during discovery, a process wherein each spouse is given a list of questions to answer under oath, and during the back and forth between spouses as he tries to understand the complaints, he sees clearly the role porn plays in crumbling marriages.

Mathews explains that porn is most often cited amongst complaints of “Constructive Desertion,” meaning the spouse is at fault for emotionally abandoning their partner and withdrawing from sexual intimacy. Mathews says that he has had several cases in which a husband can’t stop engaging with porn, causing him to withdraw from quality time that could be spent with his wife. Most often, Mathews explains, porn use takes its toll by creating false expectations for physical intimacy. “I have had many cases where the husband won’t even touch his wife and several cases in which the spouses have not had sex in three or four years,” Mathews says.

Pornography is an addiction – on in which you have become addicted to the chemicals of sexual stimulation our own bodies generate. If this is destroying you, I’d urge you to take the following actions:

  1. Recognize that intimacy is not just sexual expression. Sexual acts only have meaning to us when they draw us into a relationship with another. Outside of that, they leave us feeling more empty and alone afterward. Something that captures this idea for me is this, “Stop spending all your time fretting about who you want to get into bed with. Spend your energy on who you want to wake up to instead.”
  2. Seek out a professional counselor or professional tools that recognize pornography as an addiction and treat it as such. Even Gottman has changed his tune on this topic. Professional help is important. Like gambling or substance abuse addictions, it’s very hard to impossible to solve it yourself. You need support and assistance.
  3. You will fall. Seek our the grace of confession and resources of a local parish. Be open and honest in your struggles and ask for grace in the sacrament to strengthen and heal you.
  4. Know it is possible. The expression and truth of real intimacy is far, far greater than just a mere physical expression of sexuality. When sex is wrapped in relationship – it is transcendent.