Year of a Hundred Things – Thing #85 – “Speaking in Images”

During his reign, Leopold II had enslaved much of the Congo in order to produce rubber to meet the demand of the newly developed Dunlop tire. Leopold’s overseers were particularly brutal, killing and mutilating even children.

In 1898, young missionary Alice Seely Harris arrived in the Congo Free State – as it was then known – to teach English to the native children. So appalled was she at the corruption and exploitation that she documented it in photographs. For three years, she amassed a collection of imagery that would change policy in the Congo forever. Her photographs were seen all over the world at speaking engagements and in publications. She was the first photographer to harness the power of mass media to promote change.[1]
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When it’s too much…

Paul Budnitz, a designer toy maker, has taken on the ‘social’ of social media and created something perhaps more closely resembles what ‘social’ should mean. Enter Ello. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

What is the motivation for such an ambitious endeavor? Simple. Declutter. And not just the interface, but the whole concept of information.

Every once in a while, I have to take a day off from the unmitigated volume of information coming across my computer every day. Recently, I took an entire week off of Facebook and while I missed interacting with some people, I found that avoiding the force-fed ads and industry related ‘Suggestions’ actually fueled my creativity. You see, when I wasn’t trying to assimilate others’ ideas, I had more brain waves to work on my own. Too much of anything is destructive. We become so inundated with external stimuli that we simply can’t freely associate and touch the new ideas that slip in and out of the spaces in our heads.

Smith, the interviewer and author of a BetaBeat piece on Budnitz, asks:

 “When you started Budnitz Bicycles, you were becoming anxious about clutter, stuff, and noise. Does that anxiety persist?”

Budnitz answers:

“Yes. I read a statistic somewhere that the amount of data now created worldwide in a week is greater than the total output of the entire human race before 1980. Soon it’ll be in a day.

The same can be said for the production and consumption of physical objects. Manufacturing is so inexpensive now, you can buy a lot of cheap crap for hardly any money. Clutter management is becoming the next great challenge of our age.”

I can remember when I began working in the IT business years ago, sitting around a table discussing how the ability to network computers and share email would decrease the amount of paper produced all over the world. We had a big laugh about it at the time, because our clients were asking us to write ever more comprehensive statistical reports. The stacks on their desks just kept getting bigger.

I have found that shielding myself from information overload has freed me to think, but in a world that is increasingly encroaching on our psyches, shielding requires unplugging entirely. Understanding the need to disconnect takes the mystery out of the drug or alcohol induced, altered states for which artists and musicians have historically been known. Sometimes the demons are simply too loud.

People who are compelled to create exist in the spaces in between. Too many spaces and next we might be found wrapped in a blanket in a room whose only light source is aimed at our favorite, tattered book, clutched tightly in our hands.

But sometimes, we just simplify things for ourselves and others, and in doing so, slow the world down long enough to expose the possibilities.

Thanks Mr. Budnitz. Can’t wait to see how it goes.


Plague in the 21st Century

di·vi·sive adjective \də-ˈvī-siv also -ˈvi- or -ziv\
: causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups

No, it’s not the Word of the Day from (that was galoot, a word that is, frankly, just fun to say).

Divisive is the name of the plague that is destroying our country. The symptoms are easy to see, everywhere: complacency, blame, intractability, narcissism. How long do we think we can steer a ship the size of our country with all hands pulling the sails in different directions?

In the last year, I was invited to join a politically-focused group on Facebook. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to be drawn into political discussions in a social medium because I knew how many divisive subjects there are within the framework of my friends list. Participating in discussions with people I didn’t know meant a whole new level of vulnerability. I agreed only because this group is dedicated to civility. It frequently misses the mark, but it’s closer than many. Nearly a year later, I’m profoundly glad I did. Not only have I learned an amazing volume of information, I’ve been exposed to some truly exceptional minds. And as an added bonus, the man who invited me is now one of my dearest friends, as are other members of the group, as well.

Let me repeat that, because it’s significant. The man who invited me is now one of my dearest friends, as are other members of the group, as well. 

While the membership in the particular group is diverse, and sometimes polarized, I noticed something interesting after a discussion with a man whose views are different than mine. In the comments, he’d written something that I’d found arrogant. Normally, I’d have responded by shredding his opinion, using my own as the weapon. But instinct prevailed and I sent him a private message instead, resolved to quell my own reactionary and insular conclusions; I wanted to know his motives better. A year later, I still consider it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, for he too is now a dear friend. Moreover, it taught me that really listening to others taught me more than I realized as a younger, inexperienced woman.

You see, people generally want the same things, despite the canyon that may separate their understanding of how to get it. If you poll any mother or father, unless they suffer a significant mental deficit, they will tell you that they want their children to be happy and healthy. If you ask any young, newly graduated college student (and the same caveat applies), they’ll regurgitate the same idealistic wish for world peace. These are rites of passage for both groups. However, there is an immeasurable number of paths to achieve those ideals and just as immeasurable is the number of definitions of what those things mean.

Beware the man who needs something bigger than himself as a compass. The disease lies in the extremes.

While researching this piece, I ran across an excerpt from “Extreme Fear” entitled “The Grandeur of Delusions”.[1]  In it, Wise writes:

“As we go about our lives, we form all sorts of beliefs and opinions about the world, which psychologists divide into two types. The first kind, “instrumental” beliefs, are ideas that can directly help us accomplish our goals. I believe that a chain saw can cut down a tree; I believe that the price of a first-class postage stamp is 44 cents. These kinds of beliefs tend to be directly testable: if I rely on them and they fail, I’ll have to revise my understanding.

The other kind of belief, the “philosophical” kind, are not so easily tested. These are ideas that we hold these beliefs not because they are demonstrably true, but because of the emotional benefits of holding them. When I say that I live in the greatest country on earth, or that true love lasts forever, I can’t really offer any evidence supporting these ideas, and that’s okay. They’re worth believing because they fulfill my emotional needs.”

In any discussion, with any other individual, both parties have to understand that the other’s experiences and belief systems are the core of their opinions. One cannot be separated from his or her core. However, considering that the brain behaves more like a muscle than most realize, it is possible to expand the core and with it, one’s world view.

However obvious this concept seems to be, one only need read innumerable, witless statements by a palette of congresspersons, pundits, clerics and world leaders to see how delusional world views can be. Not all, but many. Very many. Shake my head daily many.

Wise also writes:

“What kind of emotion tends to lead us astray? Well, one of the most powerful is the need to feel in control. Countless psychological experiments have shown that for both humans and animals, helplessness in the face of danger is intensely stressful.”

And therein lies the secret. If one’s experience is that he or she grew up among a diverse population, where everyone was allowed to flourish, where no one could oppress another person with beliefs, then all would have the opportunity to flourish. But that requires that no one wants to project his or her core beliefs/fears on another. Such application of control from one person to another begins at the moment of conception. A pregnant mother elects to eat a certain way, for example, in order to ‘control’ the health of her baby, for good reasons. However, this extends outside the womb from the first breath: vegetarianism, christianity, liberalism, and any number of philosophical positions in between. Even normal, healthy adults feel right because of what they believe, rather than evidence in support of or contrary to their personal argument. That will never change. But prejudice is just as easily projected on the others. It is learned. It is the first component of divisiveness.

Some people are so entrenched in their fears that they cannot possibly assimilate ideas that fall even slightly outside their belief systems. And this is where the disease of divisiveness harms us the most. The foundation of this country was once freedom from a system that limited the individual’s right to choose, yet the trend is toward creating a regime based on a mob mentality. We are imprisoned by a movement toward the homogenous and slowly, we’re being convinced that we cannot possibly function without our corpulent government. We are becoming the Borg.

Meanwhile, the great ship is coming apart pin by pin. If we cannot return, as citizens, to facing the same direction, to realizing that protecting our individual rights is paramount, then we will surely follow Rome, Hattusa, Alexandria and countless others throughout history. We cannot continue to be polarized in our views on how to achieve a balance between social needs and individual freedoms. It is the personal responsibility of every citizen to recognize the struggles we have undertaken as a nation to ensure that we can walk down any street, in the middle of any day, and do what we want (as long as we do no harm). Living in this country is not a right, it is a privilege. While nowhere in our constitution is there a guarantee, the US is among the few countries that allow people to pursue life, liberty and happiness without oppression. How ‘bout we keep it that way?

[1]  “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger” by Jeff Wise, published on