What is the new normal anyway?

Have you noticed how everyone seems to be talking about the new normal? It’s like it’s a new catchphrase that people slip into their conversations when talking about life after corona, or rather during corona since it obviously isn’t over yet. Not even for those of us living in countries where it almost feels like life is going back to ‘normal’.

I put ‘normal’ in quotation marks because what is really normal about the life we lived before corona anyway? Is it normal that mental health is higher than ever before mostly due to workplace stress and insecurity? Is it normal to spend so much time sitting still at your desk that you have chronic neck pain and you have to schedule time to just move? Is it normal to deplete the Earth of its resources in the name of prosperity? Okay, you catch my drift.

Well, what is the new normal then? We are in a situation where we still don’t know what is going to happen and how the next few months/years are going to look. During corona, the situation has constantly changed from one day to the next. There is so much we still don’t know about the virus and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, or splotches of outbreaks, which seems to be what the experts are talking about at the moment.

Yes, a lot has happened since the outbreak, and we have had to reinvent the way we do countless things. Things that have previously been considered impossible are suddenly a necessity. Working remotely is an example. Other examples include consumer habits; we have cooked our own food more, as opposed to eating out. The staycation has become the new vacation.

And the environment has thanked us. We have seen reports of clear waters and starlit skies in cities where there have been none. However, although many of us, me included, hope for a lasting effect regarding this, a few weeks ago I read that the air in some Chinese cities is actually worse now after the lockdown has been lifted than it was before corona.

In a study conducted by YLE in Finland, about half of those who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so, at least sometimes, as they feel it increased their quality of life. According to a study conducted by KPMG, 64% of office workers and managers in the US have said that their quality of life improved thanks to the disruptive impact of COVID-19 (although it has been harder on managers).

But what does this really mean? Does it mean that we will take all our new insights and improve both the world and our lives?

Unfortunately this won’t happen by itself. It is simply too easy to just slip back into old habits and routines. Besides, I think a lot of people don’t want to change, but are rather just waiting to be able to go back to doing things in the ‘old normal’ way.

But seeing what the alternative could be, which many of us have done these past few months, is what makes change possible. So, I do hope we take what we have learned with us and implement the good stuff, I really do! But we have to do it consciously.

In the meantime, I think it’s a bit early to be talking about a new normal. Unless of course the new normal is that there is no normal. Yes, maybe that’s it. I mean what is normal anyway?

Racism

When I was working on my PhD, quite a few years ago by now, I read a book that made a deep impression on me: The Impossibility of Sex by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. This was an important book for me in many ways, maybe mainly because I got ideas for how to interweave real people’s narratives with theory and debates in a way that really engages. Another thing that made an impression was Orbach’s open and unpretentious way of sharing her personal thoughts and feelings.

The book has really been quite groundbreaking, mainly because Orbach writes so openly about her work and experiences as a psychoanalyst. This is a rare treat. Doctor-client confidentiality makes it tricky, but Orbach solves that by creating fictive characters based on real-life experiences she has had during all her years as a therapist. None of the clients in her book are, in other words, real, but they are based on real situations.

However, gaining insights into the ongoings in a psychoanalyst’s office isn’t the only thing that makes the book so special. It’s also Orbach’s openness and candidness when it comes to her thoughts, feelings, and reactions in therapy situations. It’s quite unique, really. She’s so honest, open, and thoughtful about it. It’s powerful, but also helpful and valuable, not least to other therapists or those training to become therapists.

But that’s not actually what made such a great impression on me when I read the book. It was rather what she wrote about racism. When Orbach analyzed her reactions to different clients and situations, she at one point kicked herself for being racist. She had a client of a different ethnic background and skin color than herself, and she noticed that she was extra careful not to do or say anything that that would seem racist and to treat this person just as she would treat anyone else. I was baffled by this because I just couldn’t see how that was racist. Wasn’t that what she wasn’t?

Well, years later, I now think I know what she meant. The reason it was racist was that she was so conscious of the other person being of a different race, that she invariably ended up acting and treating the person differently anyway, Maybe she concerned that her client wasn’t perhaps getting the best possible care after all; at least not the care a white person would have gotten.

I have grown up abroad and gone to school with kids from all over the world. I have had friends with all possible different shades of skin color and I have never considered myself racist. I mean, how can I be racist since I don’t care where people come from or what they look like?

But the truth is, it isn’t that simple. The reason is that we aren’t just individuals, we are also all a part of our cultures and the social and societal structures that surround us. We are given values to live by as we grow up – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Much of what we have learned and gotten, we aren’t even aware of. And even if we are aware of it, it isn’t something that is easily changed or unlearned.

I know this now. I also know that I can’t just say that I’m not racist. The reason is that racism is such an integrated part of what I have been given in my culture, even though it hasn’t been conscious or consciously racist.

We know that racism is ubiquitous, but still no one – or few anyway – consider themselves racist. We are not aware of it, or if we are, it’s very hard to admit because most of us don’t want to be racist.

But as long as we don’t see it or admit it, we are a part of the problem. Because as long as we don’t, we are part of maintaining the existing structures instead of building new ones. This is actually not only true for racism, but all questions pertaining to different aspects of equality. It feels uncomfortable to think that you can both believe in equality and be a part of the problem.

I recently read an excellent book that explains all this very well: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo is a sociologist. She has been a professor but now works as a diversity educator. She writes openly and disarmingly, without pointing fingers. She explains how our society is built on a racist foundation and how racism is integrated in the very structures that surround us. With us, she means us white people.

Racism of course exists elsewhere too, not just among white people, but this book is explicitly about white people’s racism and white supremacy. DiAngelo is able to explain, in a way that is easy to understand, that our actions and what we say can be unconsciously racist even though we don’t mean them to be. Most of us don’t want to be racist and consider ourselves good people, but also good people do and say unconsciously racist things just because we have grown up with racist principles and assumptions without even being aware of it.

If we realize that this isn’t about whether or not we are good people, but about societal structures that we need to learn to recognize and question, we can work with ourselves and learn to gain a greater understanding of these underlying processes without feeling wrongly accused. If we can assume that we are good people and that this isn’t about our character as individuals but about the society that surrounds us, we don’t have to feel uncomfortable or insulted when the word racism comes up. Only then can we have a constructive dialogue around racism and work for a more open and equal world.

Let’s do that! Oh, and please read DiAngelo’s book!

Ode to my Maple

There are so many things I could write about today that are related to my work and research. I mean, we are certainly living in extraordinary times. People and organizations have been forced to reinvent working routines and solutions in ways they never even considered before. For me this is, of course, fascinating because organizations that have, for example, said that working offsite is impossible or impractical have had to try it and now realize that maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. For someone like me who has seen how one size fits all really isn’t the best solution – not everything works for everyone nor for all types of work – this is of course satisfying to see. Hopefully we’ll take some of the things we’ve learned during this pandemic with us and see more individualized solutions in the future.

And then there’s my book on men opting out, I could write about that. I could let you know that I have now basically completely the first draft of the manuscript, which is absolutely mind-blowing for me. It is something I have been working on for so long and now it is finally coming together. But I don’t feel like writing about that either. I want to write about the maple tree that stands in my garden.

These weeks of social distancing have, for me, meant slowing down. In a way it feels crazy that it’s only been a few weeks, it feels more like months. A lot has happened. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. I live in a house with a garden, close to a forest where it is safe to be. I have work that I can do from home and I have teenagers who have managed their distance schooling very well. So apart from the anxiety of following all the horrendous news from around the world and worrying about the safety and health of loved ones, this social distancing thing really hasn’t been that bad for me.

One of the wonderful things I have experienced, thanks to the lockdown, is the spring. I am at home more than I’ve ever been before and I go out into the garden to just get out of the house and get some fresh air. I don’t have anywhere else to be so I take time taking everything in and I just love it. I have witnessed all the birds and flowers and trees come alive after the winter: cranes circling in big flocks over our house; more tiny spring flower than I have ever known existed, and the buds of our maple bursting open before my eyes.

I have always loved my maple. I can see some of its branches from my bedroom window and I often just lie there in my bed looking it at it as I contemplate whatever it is I’m thinking about at that particular time. I love it all year around; all the colors in the fall, the bare branches against the sky that are sometimes covered in snow or frost in the winder, the buds and the delicate, yellow flowers that bloom in spring, and the big leafy leaves that provide shade in the summer. This spring I noticed how beautiful the big, velvety, brown buds were for the first time; it felt weird that I hadn’t really noticed them before. On one particularly warm and sunny day last week, as I was standing under the tree admiring the millions of buds, they started bursting open before my eyes.

Because there are no airplanes in the sky at the moment and hardly any cars on the road, our garden is quiet. And as I was standing there, I could hear the tiny snapping sounds of the bud bursts, click click click click all around me in the air.

It was amazing. I feel honored to have been included in this beautiful event. Thank you, Maple!

Create, create, create!

I follow Elizabeth Gilbert on Instagram. You know who I mean, the author of best-sellers like Eat, Pray, Love. Although I have to admit I have never read Eat, Pray, Love, nor did I see the movie. But I have read a book by her titled The Last American Man. I have a beat-up copy that I bought at some flea market once when I was starting out on my research project on men opting out. At the time, I devoured any books about men I could get my hands on of any genre in order to gain insights into the strange and mysterious world of masculinities (I’m kidding about the strange and mysterious… sort of 😉 ).

Anyway, The Last American Man is a biography, or maybe rather an ethnographic account of the somewhat legendary Eustace Conway’s life and existence (no I hadn’t heard of him either until I read the book). And this might not sound like the most exciting read, but it was really an excellent book. The way Gilbert approached the whole situation and her style of writing was funny, entertaining, insightful, thoughtful and just so good. It was certainly a good read, and I became curious about this best-selling author that I of course knew of but who hadn’t really piqued my interest before. When things become hugely popular and everyone is talking about them and you’re constantly told that you have to read, see, try, do something, I get a little bit put off and then I just don’t. I know, I can’t really explain it, but there you go…

So after that, I stumbled across Gilbert’s Instagram account @elizabeth_gilbert_writer and I have to say, I really enjoy her posts. Again, what a funny, generous, positive, insightful and sensitive person. The other day she was interviewed live on Instagram, which I watched part of, and something she said just resonated with me. I can’t remember it exactly word for word, so I might get this wrong, but what it in essence was, was that we all have a natural drive – a need – to just create, create, create. Not just people, but also nature, nature of course creates too. It includes everything from creating life, creating order where there is none, creating art, creating beauty, creating meaning, creating connections, creating music… It’s what we do; we create, create, create.

I don’t know if I’m able to convey this in a way that makes any sense, but it just made such perfect sense to me as I was sitting there in my kitchen on a Sunday evening, preparing myself for another week of social distancing and distance schooling (my kids) and (what feels like) a million meals and absolutely maddening amounts of dirty dishes. Ironically, or perhaps not, this feels like one of the most creative periods of my life, which kind of sounds funny since I’m not painting nearly as much as I usually do.

About three weeks ago, like for so many others, my calendar was wiped clean. Everything I had planned, events, talks, silk painting courses, my exhibition… everything was either canceled or postponed. That is generally bad news for entrepreneurs (and I know there are so many entrepreneurs out there really struggling right now), but in a way it was a blessing in disguise, because I finally had the time and space I so badly needed to actually finish writing my book. And I am making great progress – I’m planning on having my first draft of my manuscript done by the end of April (I know can you believe it?! I barely can).

That is of course very creative to say the least. And I want to point out to those of you who were thinking you were going to work on that book you always dreamed of writing during the Corona lockdown but haven’t been able to get started: this isn’t that. There is so much to deal with both practically and emotionally during this time that just managing to get what has to be done from one day to another is more than enough. It really is, so don’t beat yourself up about it. This is my day job, what I am supposed to be doing but have been struggling with due to a lack of time. It’s not a dream I’m finally making happen (although in a way it’s that too, but that’s a long story).

But that’s just my book. I think for all of us, this is a time when we really have to be creative and do things differently, and I think people are rising to the occasion in a way they probably never thought they had in them.

I’m not doing the heroic work that health care workers are doing, or my kid’s teachers who are absolutely amazing. For me it has entailed being creative in the kitchen and cooking a variety of meals like never before. It has meant walks in my nearby forest, which have become so important to me. It has meant activities with my teens. And for the past couple of days it has meant sewing a whole bunch of face masks for family members who need them.* It has meant doing things I have never done before, and it has meant doing them in a way I have never done before. All of a sudden, I’m at home and I have time on my hands because I have nowhere to be. It means that I allow things to take the time they take. I do them slowly and perhaps not surprisingly, doing things slowly makes the process both more enjoyable and more meaningful.

As I sit here, and wait this situation out, I’m not dreaming of all the things I could be doing instead. I’m just here, and I create, create, create. I create so much that I have little creativity and energy left to paint. But that’s okay. My upcoming exhibition has been postponed, so I’ll have all the time in the world to do that once my book is written.

The point is, we all create, and whether you have been defined as a creative person or not has nothing to do with it. So, in that spirit, remember: create, create, create! And while you’re doing so, stay safe and well!

 

*If you want to make a face mask of your own, you will find a free pattern here: https://www.craftpassion.com/face-mask-sewing-pattern/

 

Quality of life

I recently had the honor and pleasure of being a prereader of an amazing book that is yet to be published. I can’t really tell you very much about it and I won’t give anything away, but there was one thing in particular that I read that struck a chord with me and that I have thought about ever since. It is about being present in the moment and the effect that has on our wellbeing.

The thing is that life can get hectic. We’re pretty much expected to be all over the place at the same time all the time. Time accelerates and for many this can cause a feeling of life spinning out of control. In fact, research has shown that doing many things at the same time – everyday life for most of us – intensifies time to the point that we actually feel like we have less time. So, by doing many things at the same time, we’re actually not saving time, but maybe rather wasting it, or at least feeling like we’re running out of it.

Well, in this book I mentioned, I read about the importance of slowing down, being in the moment and noticing our surroundings. I know this is important; research tells us it not only calms us, but also helps us remember who we are and what we’re doing. It’s about allowing ourselves time for reflection (whether or not it’s done purposefully or just by being in the moment), which, in turn, helps us create coherent narratives about ourselves and our lives. And the ability to create these coherent narratives is essential for our wellbeing.

So, this passage really spoke to me, but not only because of the parallels in my research. I have actually also experienced this and it has made a great difference in my life.

I’ve always been one to notice interesting colors, shapes and patterns in my surroundings. I think it’s the artist in me. But for the longest time, I didn’t really allow myself the time to actually slow down enough to really see what was around me. I didn’t do this knowingly, I was just constantly on my way somewhere, always in a hurry because I felt I was needed where I wasn’t. I was always feeling guilty about never being in any one place enough at one time. I was never at work enough, never at home enough, never anywhere enough.

Well, when I started painting again a few years ago, I also started allowing myself the space to notice my surroundings for inspiration. Gradually I started seeing things more and more. The way the wind tickles the leaves of the trees. Or how the sun shines through those leaves on a sunny October day, making them look like a million sources of light. Or how they fall and land creating polka dotted paths for us to tread.

And you know what else I have noticed? The more I do this, the more I see the beauty that surrounds me everywhere I go. And the more I do that, the better I feel. It makes me feel happy inside. And it calms me, at least for the short moment in my hectic day when I stop and think, wow, look at that!

So, take that moment. Stop and admire what you see around you, even things that at first might strike you as ugly. Notice how interesting and intricate they may be. Maybe just a tiny detail. And carry that with you as you continue with your day.

Sometimes it is just that simple.

On being authentic and getting things done

When I opened Instagram the other day and started scrolling through my feed, the first thing that popped up was an inspirational quote: “Surround yourself with people who feel like sunshine.”

I scrolled on without giving the quote too much thought and, believe it or not, the very next post was another motivational quote: “Surround yourself with people who are on the same mission as you.”

Being an extraverted introvert, I shuddered at the mere thought of being surrounded, and quickly closed Instagram before I was told to surround myself with yet a third type of people. Don’t get me wrong, I like people, but to be surrounded? No thanks!

Okay, okay, I know these quotes aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. And I also know that they have a point, at least the one about people being on the same mission as you. Kenieshiear Czetty, the wise, talented, and absolutely charming person behind The Opting Out Podcast, talks about the importance of finding people who can walk with you on your opting out journey (because not everybody can) and I know that is what that second motivational quote is about. But the first one is a bit problematic I think.

It is as if we, today, feel that happiness is a human right and that anything that hampers our happiness can and should be cut out of our lives, even people. But there is more to life than happiness and only keeping people in it who make us happy (or who feel like sunshine) makes us miss out on having a real life. Because life is not only about happiness, and happiness is not the only important emotion. But not only that, it seems to me it also makes us lose part of our humanity…*

Which leads me to another thing that Kenieshiear said.

Okay, let me backtrack a bit. Kenieshiear found me and my research a few months ago through the internet and in many ways, we are kindred spirits; opting out sisters. We have similar approaches to opting out and last week we spoke for the very first time. During our conversation, she said one thing that I found particularly profound, and that has stayed with me all week.

We were talking about the importance of feeling like you can be yourself, of being authentic, and how many people don’t necessarily feel that they can be themselves at work.

We talked about how we have both reached a point where we just want to be ourselves and if we are “too nice” or “too colorful” for someone or for some organizations, so be it (although to be honest, I don’t think either of us think we are too much of anything).

She talked about how when you are authentic, you are real, and you wear your feelings on the outside. You are honest, you say what you mean, and (here it comes) you get things done.

Now, I didn’t think to ask her what exactly she bases that on, and I definitely want to continue discussing this with her soon, but it really resonated with me.

After my discussion with Kenieshiear, I continued the conversation with my husband. He and I were speculating about why that is, why is it that authenticity leads to getting things done? Is it because when you’re authentic you only say you’ll do things if you really mean to? Or is it because if you’re authentic you don’t have a hidden agenda and you only promise what you know you can and will deliver? Or is it because it’s just easier to know what you will and will not do and can therefore be forthright about it without giving it a second thought?

I’m not sure, but this is something to think about. What do you think?

 

*For more about this see my post ‘The Search for Happiness’ and Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die.

Life is like a box of chocolates and other thoughts on blogging, on not being famous, on men and on being complicated or not

It’s true, you never really know what you’re gonna to get. For example, I never know how my blog posts are going to be received. I never know which ones are going to be the popular ones, which ones are going to get a lot of likes, which ones are going to be shared, and which ones are basically going to go unnoticed by most.

I used to try and see the patterns, and sometimes I would think I knew. I would write a blog post and I would feel certain that this one would hit home. And then it didn’t. And the one that I was certain no one was going to read, turned out to be the one that got shared and shared to the point of circling the globe several times over.

But I’ve stopped trying to understand. I know that it depends on so much more than what I write. It depends on much more than whether or not I come up with a catchy title. It depends on things like what day of the week I post, what time of the day I do so, and what time of year it is. And of course, on whether something major is going on in the world that is drawing everyone’s attention.

You know what, I don’t really care. I didn’t start this blog to become wildly successful or famous (To those of you who do want to become wildly famous on social media: a blog like mine with texts on issues that are sometimes hard to digest is probably not the answer…).

I started this blog because I wanted an outlet where I could share my research and my thoughts, and a place where I could write creatively and not be bound by the very rigid rules and standards of academic writing. I don’t want nor need to put energy into trying to market my blog as widely as possible. It’s here if you want to read it, and for as long as it fills some sort of a function for me. Although having said that, I of course love it when people read what I write and treasure every comment and reaction, so feel free to share and to comment! I will respond.

My point is, I’m not going to lose sleep over how many hits my blog is getting.

But back to the box of chocolates. My all-time most popular post, is one I posted a couple of years ago and was certain no one would care about. It gets hits every day from every corner of the world. Sometimes people react, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they hate it, and sometimes I get sarcastic comments that I seriously don’t know what to do with since you can’t have a constructive dialogue with sarcasm. This post is about men, but it’s not about putting men down, nor about ridiculing them. It’s about explaining that we are all complex creatures, whatever gender we are. We are complicated but at the same time we are really quite simple in that we are all human. Anyway, you can read it here.

In the meantime, I’m wrapping up my work to go on my summer holiday. My posts may be sparse while I’m off enjoying some well-deserved free time with family, however it will be business as usual again in August (when I will be moving into The Art Place*! See last week’s post!)

Happy summer everyone!

* You can now follow me and my process on Facebook as I set up The Art Place! See The Art Place Finland

Should finding your passion really be your life goal?

“If you don’t know what your passion is, realize that one reason for your existence on Earth is to find it.”

Oprah apparently said this. At least according to Thrive, an Instagram account I follow.

So, what do you think about that? I saw the quote the other day as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. At the time I paused and reflected over my passions – writing and painting to name two – and felt lucky to have these passions and to also actually be able to make a living off them. Still, something about this quote just bothered me, as motivational one-liners often do. The thing is, we seem to really love these motivational quotes, but the fact is, life just isn’t that simple.

I was a bit surprised that Oprah had said this because she is usually quite insightful and nuanced, and to be honest, I think telling people to dedicate their lives to chasing their passions can be quite problematic.

Well, I scrolled down to the comments section because it’s always interesting to see how other people react, and I was happy to see that many of my fellow Thrive followers were much more pragmatic and nuanced than Oprah on this particular occasion.

One of the main messages from the comments section was that if you don’t have a passion, and maybe not everyone does, that has to be okay too. Because if you tell everyone that they should spend the lives looking for passion that might not be there, it’s “a mindset that can work towards frustration,” as one person put it. Not everyone has a passion, but if they are told that they must find theirs, it invariably sets them up for a feeling of failure, or not being good enough as a person, or not looking hard enough. Or maybe you’re passionate about something mundane that can’t be translated into a successful job? Does that mean your passion isn’t good enough? (No, it doesn’t).

Or maybe all jobs don’t have to be based on passion. Maybe not everyone wants or needs to be passionate about their jobs and that has to be okay too. Or maybe they can’t. Maybe they found a passion and tried pursuing that but then realized that they also needed to afford to live.

You get the gist.

The thing is, I’m all for passion, but I’m not for sweeping generalizations where we forget that the world consists of a multitude of people with different realities, hopes, wants, and needs. I’m all for dreaming and encouraging others to do the same. What I’m not for is one-dimensional motivational quotes that become mantras and that many just can’t live up to.  Life isn’t just about passion, it isn’t just about happiness, it isn’t just about living your dream. It’s so much more, and thank goodness for that!

How do we design technology that actually enhances our quality of life instead of making us lonelier?

I’m reading a book* about iGen at the moment. iGen is the generation of kids who have grown up with the Internet, computers, smart phones and the like. In other words, my kids’ generation. It’s fascinating reading and they are a remarkable generation in many ways. They are tolerant and sensible and instill hope for the future, at least for me personally. I like the book’s approach, the way it says their values and ways of life are not good nor bad, they just are. I like that because we spend so much time judging iGen kids and comparing their ways to the reality the rest of us had when we were the same age, even though the realities they deal with now are completely different from what ours were in many ways.

One thing that strikes me though, yet again, as I read about those who are young today, is the issue of loneliness. They are a lonely generation, and as research has shown in a number of different countries, loneliness among young people today is a huge and rising problem. And one of the problems is, of course, social media. I think no one is surprised by that.

While social media is supposed to connect people, it has especially young people meeting online rather than face-to-face. They have friends who they socialize with, but due to many reasons, they mostly socialize with them on social media platforms. And, as may also not come as a surprise, chatting on social media does not fill the same function as meeting in person. Humans need relationships, we need intimacy and closeness. We experience connections on a deeper level when we meet and have conversations with people in person, which we just don’t do in the brief chats and messages we exchange over social media. These deep connections provide meaning and a sense of community that we as humans all need.

Not only that, research has also shown that even when they are at home with family, iGeners will often rather be alone in their rooms on their phones with their doors closed, than be with the rest of the family. So even though loved ones may be there on the other side of their bedroom doors, they are still often alone.

But what strikes me is that even though social media may exacerbate loneliness among iGeners, possibly even cause it, it isn’t really social media as such that is at fault. Social media is just technology that we humans have developed. It is how we have designed and defined it, and how it has been programmed to be used that is the problem.

The same goes for AI (artificial intelligence). Many feel threatened by it, and worry what it may or may not do to our lives. But the fact is, that it is we humans who decide what it should be and what it should and should not be able to do. The threat is not social media, it is not AI, it is how we humans decide to define and develop it.

There is so much happening in society now. Life as we know it is being redefined as we speak, and we need to make sure it is done in the right way. Social media can be great. AI can change our lives for the better in uncountable ways. We just have to make sure that it is developed to do so, and not to harm us and our wellbeing.

So instead of having social media designed to isolate us and make us lonely, as it seems to be today, how about we design technology to bring us together rather that to keep us apart? How about reinventing social media so that we actually interact with each other more in person and not less? How about using technology to actually enhance our quality of life, and not isolate us and make us lonelier?

This is for all you programmers and developers out there. Please design technology to be the resource it could really be.

*iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant and Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge, PhD

The good, the bad and the ugly – debate on social media

One of the interesting and sometimes disturbing dimensions of social media is the insight you get into family members’, friends’ and acquaintances’ opinions and beliefs. Views they haven’t previously shared are suddenly out there as they share posts and participate in debates that are open for anyone to see.  It’s interesting to say the least, but it can also be deeply troubling. Especially in this day and age when many things have become so polarized and opinions and ways of expressing these opinions have become so black and white, not to mention extreme and rude. As a sociologist I can find following debates and reading the comment sections of social media updates fascinating, but it can also be sad and depressing. It makes me sad when so-called friends are just mean to each other in the name of debate. How people have the gall to be so rude when they are not face to face with the person they are talking to is beyond me, but this has actually been researched and found to be true: people are capable of saying things to each on social media that they wouldn’t be caught dead saying in person.

So sociologically this is all very interesting, but personally, reading the comment sections also makes me feel somewhat hypocritical. It makes me feel hypocritical because while I’m a social scientist and I write, publish and give talks to share my knowledge, I avoid participating in these debates. I avoid engaging in debates with people of detrimentally opposing opinions to me, even though I know that change doesn’t come about from only preaching to the already converted.

The reason I don’t want to engage is that I simply don’t know how. I don’t want to be drawn into an ugly argument peppered with insults, name calling and rude insinuations. I don’t want to have my words twisted into something I didn’t say or mean, which unfortunately is what I usually see in social media debates. I would be happy to participate in a calm and mutually respectful discussion, but on social media they unfortunately seem to be few and far between. So I choose not to engage.

But the other day I just couldn’t resist. A Facebook friend shared a post about colloidal silver. There is a growing and highly controversial trend in my country where people use colloidal silver as a health remedy, even though it really isn’t good for you and there are no studies at all that support any health effects. On the contrary. However, I am really no expert on the subject and I have no personal experience so I have just stayed out of it. The reason I suddenly decided to engage was that this said post was about how colloidal silver was supposedly medically approved until 1947 and that this information is proof of its benefits. Now I don’t know anything about this – that it has been approved before may very well be true, but that’s not the point. What got me was the argument that something that was approved over 72 years ago must be good for you.

I am a scientist – a social scientist – and while I am not an expert on colloidal silver, I am certainly an expert on how scientific research is done. I know about ethical guidelines and the rigor of the research process. I know how knowledge is created and that scientists constantly build on existing knowledge. I know that our knowledge continues to grow and that we know much more today than we did before. This is the reason that recommendations change and this is also the reason that we can know that something that was approved almost a century ago, in reality is extremely bad for your health.

That all makes perfect sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is to argue that something is good to use just because it was ordinated by doctors more than 72 years ago.

So that was where I couldn’t resist. I commented, explaining what I explained above about research and knowledge creation and development. I was polite, I thought, short and to the point. I didn’t take a stand on colloidal silver, just on the argument of something being approved so long ago.

And I got some responses.

What gets me though is that the responses generally didn’t engage with what I said at all, they were rather loaded comments about colloidal silver. The comment that really took the cake was about how NASA uses colloidal silver (again, I don’t know this for a fact) and that do I think that they are superstitious lunatics too?

At this point I want to point out that I didn’t breathe a word about either superstition or lunatics; I didn’t even think it. This person introduced these words himself, so I can only assume it reflects previous comments he has gotten in debates he has participated in.

But still, my feeling when reading the comment was, “what??”

I had said something calm and was as a result basically accused of name-calling, or at least of thinking of the person accusing me as a superstitious lunatic. How do you respond to that? Is there anything that I could possible say in response that would create a nuanced and respectful discussion? To me the comment about superstitious lunatics was below the belt; it was completely un-called for, and I really don’t think engaging in that would get us anywhere.

However, the problem is, that not engaging does nothing to bring people of different opinions closer towards a common understanding. It does nothing to create dialogue and to help us all understand each other better.

So, there’s the dilemma: to engage or not to engage? Either way, I’m not sure I can stomach it.