Red Devils

Cass street bridge

A few weeks ago, while meandering down our local river walk with my pre-teen son, we passed a well-known but dilapidated railroad bridge. It remains raised, looming over our heavily-invested, developing downtown area. As abandoned machinery often does, this bridge stands as a monument to the captains of industry that put our fair city on the map. We natives know it well, but it was the first time my young son had seen it.

“Mom, what is that,” he asked, pointing to the rusting metal that cut the afternoon sunlight into familiar geometry on the sidewalk before us.

“It’s a defunct railroad bridge,” I answered.

He paused, a reaction I know well as his processing behavior.

“What does ‘defunct’ mean?” I already knew he had a fairly good idea.

“Well, what does the prefix ‘de’ mean?”

“Not,” he answered.

“And the second syllable, ‘funct?’ What did it sound like?”

“Functional,” he answered without hesitation.

“Alright then, what do you think ‘defunct’ means?”

“Obviously, it means ‘not functional,’ mom.”

“Well, almost. It actually means ‘no longer functioning,’ which communicates that it DID, at one time, function. That is different from dysfunctional, which communicates that it never functioned properly. That’s an important distinction.”

Another pregnant pause.

“Do you understand?”

“Yes. I do.”

Three important things happened for my son that afternoon. The first, simplest change was that he added to his vocabulary. The second was that he practiced his ability to discern ideas by reverse engineering other ideas, in this case, learning a new word based on his knowledge of its parts. The third, and most important, is that he increased his ability  to comprehend complex ideas.

What prompted this nostalgia, you wonder? Well, I had another tiresome discussion on Facebook today with another person whose reading comprehension was, shall we say, less than stellar.

Unless I am engaged in sophomoric banter with friends (don’t judge, everyone does it), I write comments thoughtfully, focusing hard on clarity. I ensure that I have made my point without insult, without false equivalency, without malice. If I read something I do not understand, I research the information, or I ask for clarification of the comment. In other words, I make sure I understand before I take the offensive. Today, I was not even mildly surprised when I was personally attacked for my “ignorance” as I openly discussed the idea that finding and addressing root cause will always provide the lasting solution, especially in an otherwise volatile situation. The person who accused me of “ignorance” does not know me. Calling me “ignorant” and my favorite, “pathetic,” based on a single, out-of-context comment was the width and breadth of her attack. I found it sad, and simultaneously, a revelation.

It was obvious that the woman who attacked me had not read the commentary elsewhere in the thread. Or perhaps she had and just short of true alexia, her emotions inhibited her. She did not appear to comprehend the conversation into which she injected herself, having only insulted me, addressing no part of the original post. She obviously did not understand the core of the discussion. Cognitive dissonance, I wondered. No, that would assume she’d read, understood and then formed a separate but competing opinion about the subject at hand. Perhaps this is the BIGGEST problem with social media.

I have found, in nearly every “discussion” thread into which I’ve reluctantly entered, comprehension decomposes quickly. Each thread is a microcosm of what is happening in our country. It usually begins with a highly emotional, hyperbolic post. Several people with similar feelings chime in, raising the temperature. The comments become more and more vile. If, at this point, someone with an opposing, or even moderate view enters the discussion, the pack turns, salivating, and begins an all out personal war. Trolling notwithstanding, it quickly becomes obvious that the mob is either incapable of or disinterested in truly comprehending the commentary they are reading. They are the Red Devils in the ocean of social media. I don’t want to think it is a willful disregard for facts and reason, but I must concede that that may be part of it. I have often said that MOST people want the same thing but don’t agree on how to get there. Now I believe that humans are decreasingly capable of the meta-comprehension required to live democratically. The rapid breakdown on a single thread is proof that productive debate and comprehension are now defunct.

Comprehension requires not only a grasp of language, and at least an average vocabulary, but more than anything else, it requires the maturity and reason to accept that we cannot know everything, that we must be receptive to the ideas and experiences of others and that we must ask questions when we do not understand. Most importantly, we must be introspective and accept that we may not understand.

Persuasion is an art form. Tribalism, the opposite of debate and persuasion, is the natural human condition. As civilization has evolved, we have had to devise constraints that promote order and progress as we increase in number to many more humans, who are naturally self-centered. The last twenty or so years has seen a near complete abandonment of the intelligent application of systems that created the environment for innovation and improvement. “I am entitled to” has replaced “I will work for” and “I will contribute to.”

This is not an indictment of emotion. No great rock would move without the power of a good push. However, in order to move that rock, we have to push together in the same direction. We have lost sight of this fundamental idea. Many find more gratification in keyboard bullying than they do in solving the problems about which they spew their vitriol. I don’t want to believe that it is a devolution of human understanding, but after what I’ve seen just in the last few weeks, I can see that the Red Devils are increasing and all reasonable voices are being consumed in a melee of poorly written, myopic comments. The Red Devils are winning, Borg-like in their pursuit of group-think. If you’re not with them, you’re against them, and these days, that’s a very dangerous place to be.

(Original photo credit “Steve E.” No more information available, edited by me for composition and dynamic range)

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.


The City upon a Hill

Impact. A remarkably simple word.

In my images, I choose colors, backgrounds and concepts that have impact on the viewer. In my writing, I choose words and rhythms that create impact on the reader. I employ methods that capitalize on impact. I want an idea to resonate so pervasively that it moves, it educates, it inspires my audience.

But impact is entirely subjective.

The airwaves are filled with stories that impact our lives, every day. In my town, one of our local news affiliates uses the word in its tag line. Nothing elicits a Pavlovian response from an audience like impact.

But impact is only the beginning of any major shift in collective consciousness. I can remember the moment the first of the World Trade Centers towers was hit. I was on the phone with my mother where I had no access to a television. She was describing the replay on the news and I clearly recall wondering how such a horrible navigational mistake could occur. A few moments later, she said that the second tower had been hit. The knowledge that there had been no mistake immediately impacted my life and the lives of everyone in our beloved country. That day changed the perception and behavior of the entire informed world.

Nearly five hundred years ago, the New World had been claimed by the expansionism of the European powers. America was a place so largely untouched by decay that people wide-eyed with hope crossed a wild ocean. Religious oppression had impacted their lives that significantly. They looked ahead to a place that was bright and shiny and free from oppression, where they could live unmolested: their City upon a Hill. A lofty ideal, indeed. And they came to America and created the freedom they sought. They worked hard and prayed harder. They lived happier, healthier lives. The New World was so abundant that the average life span was well into the 70s (excluding infant mortality rates, which decreased as well)[1] and 40 was considered young for a man. A stark contrast from the many decaying, diseased cities in Europe.

But prosperity eventually gave way to corruption and the eventual extinction of a diverse and successful population. Over time, subtle changes, the result of fears fueled by greedy, intractable men, began to take root in people who had been programmed to believe that they could not think for themselves. They were led by people who saw their way as the ‘right way’ and the ‘only way’ to live a good life. A population which had once been guided by hope, and the peace and beauty of a better life, began to act in hateful, exclusive ways. The joy and prosperity experienced by the Puritans decayed into the virus of corruption that decimated a race of people who’d occupied America long before the Europeans discovered its riches.

Sound familiar? It should.

Ideas, both good and bad, gain traction while people are sleeping. Something impactful happens, and those who want to distort, will distort. They are programmed, from very young, sometimes, to believe that no one can be as right as they. They will take a word, like Ferguson, a name which, until just a few weeks ago, meant nothing more than son of Fergus, and turn it into a meme, and then a hashtag and then a movement. The problem is that most who decry the event that started the movement won’t take the time to understand what the course of that movement should be.

If only love moved as fast as hate.

Throughout history, impactful events have always done the same thing, but in slower, far more subtle ways. It could take months before the news of an event reached another city. Now, it takes a fraction of a second. And the definition of what news is has been grossly distorted. It’s now news that a celebrity decides that she loves a particular brand of boots. It shouldn’t be, but it is. And then suddenly, with one tweet, the whole world loves them, too. Such superficial behavioral changes seem completely harmless, and boots generally are, too. But the boots represent a bigger problem.

Personally, I don’t like the damn boots. There, I said it.

The problem is that the normal filter afforded by time has been removed. Anyone can speak and many will listen. Those that have a platform should consider the impact they have, both positive and negative, and yet, many don’t. It has become more important to be heard than it is to be positive. And just like the two year old, who will act out while you’re on the phone, or throw himself on the floor of the grocery store to get your attention, being heard these days frequently begins with deplorable behavior.

What happened to our City upon a Hill?

The once bright and shiny city, like many cities of hope before, has become tarnished by anger and hatred. One solid tap on the Enter key is all it takes. One word. And that grows into whole movements, and then violence. Trolling has become so common that anything positive is effectively buried in a mountain of intellectual garbage, while people trying to do the right thing, to make a living, are buried, too. The pall of too many “fifteen minute” celebrities hangs over the world. Why are we still watching the train wreck that is our collective consciousness and not trying harder to change it? What can we do to change it?

People feed off of bad news like vultures on a carcass and the media keeps bringing fresh carcasses, in neat 30-second, shrink wrapped packages, on every channel. The only way to escape the barrage is to actually unplug. We are inundated daily with negative narratives. It is no wonder that we are willing to bury our heads in the sand, rather than face dangerous threats standing on our national doorstep. It’s coming at us from every side.

Since the dawn of time the young have wriggled out of their cocoons, stretched their newly ‘adult’ limbs, shaken their fists and shouted their generation’s issue du jour, “I will solve [insert current social ill]!” These days, the yawps and yowls are loud and raucous and get lost in a sea of digital noise. But collectively, they have impact and in a few short days a single hashtag can be a force for good or evil. Ian Somerhalder (actor, philanthropist) proves that daily in his phenomenally successful use of social media for his foundation ISFoundation (see and for positive change. One guy, with a good message. Imagine the possibilities if there were more positive campaigns like his.

I wouldn’t naïvely suggest that the world could be rainbows and sunshine all of the time. There will always be predators, committing old sins in new ways. But if we continue to ignore the truth and focus more on political correctness than on our humanity, then we are contributing to the problem. There will always be people who insist that their way is the right way. Some of those people are so convinced that they are willing to perpetrate violence on another person for it.

Do we really want that for our City upon a Hill?