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

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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.

Don’t send me the same shoes over and over again

One thing that really bothers me about the infamous algorithms on social media is that by showing me what they think I want to see they provide me with a skewed picture of what is trending. At the moment I’m seeing a lot of articles and posts about the advantages of working from home and on how entrepreneurs tend to be happier. You’d think I’d be excited about this since I’m continuously getting support for my research and confirmation that I’m on to something. But something tells me that the real reason I’m seeing this is that this is exactly what I’ve been posting and writing about on my blog. I’m of course finding these articles very interesting, but when I look out into the world to see what is out there, I don’t want to look into a mirror and only see myself.

Besides, reality is never that simple. Working from home is something I really like to do, but it has its plusses and minuses. It’s not for everyone or for every job, nor does it have to be an either or solution. Working from home doesn’t have to mean always working from home.

Incidentally, I’ve also done some research on entrepreneurs and their sense of well-being as many of the people I have interviewed have opted out of work in large corporations to set up businesses of their own. They do this for a myriad of reasons, the main ones being an attempt to gain more control over their lives and their time; as well as to be able to do what they love, and to do so to their full potential without being held back by rigid structures, corporate culture or discrimination to name a few. So yes, in many ways they are happier, because being an entrepreneur, in their case, means more control and a feeling of being able to be themselves.

But it’s not that simple. It turns out that this is not necessarily true for all entrepreneurs. All entrepreneurs don’t always experience more autonomy and control. It is generally entrepreneurs who set up small businesses without any employees who experience this the most. So again, although trending (or not trending) articles will have us believe that this is the answer for all, it isn’t necessarily the case. Entrepreneurship has both advantages and disadvantages and it’s good to be aware of both.

I’ve actually published a chapter recently with a colleague where we discuss opting in to entrepreneurship, among other things: Creating Alternative Solutions for Work.

In the meantime I would like to ask the algorithms if they could be so kind and stop sending me more of the same. It’s like when I bought a pair of woolen slippers a while back. After my purchase, I kept seeing ads for more of the same slippers, but I had already bought a pair. Honestly, I think it would have been a smarter move to send me ads for footwear that I hadn’t just purchased.

A world where there is room for everybody

I am lucky to be married to a man with whom I have a lot in common, and who shares many of my interests and values. We get along well and sometimes we mistakenly think we know everything there is to know about each other after being married for as long as we have. I say mistakenly because every once in a while one of us will surprise the other with an unexpected opinion that is just hard relate to. When that happens, we argue and debate, neither really willing to budge, until one of us finally laughs and says “How is it possible that you aren’t of the same opinion as me?” It diffuses the situation and we finally end up agreeing to disagree.

One thing that strikes me though when we have these disagreements is how difficult it can be to accept that someone you know so well can think so differently about something. This is actually not that unusual. In fact, there is something known as ‘assumed similarity bias’, which is an unconscious assumption that other people invariably think the same way we do and share the same values and beliefs. We don’t stop to consider that their worldview might be drastically different and when we see evidence of this it is just hard to grasp.

The truth is that we are all different, even those of us who have a lot in common. And we cannot even begin to understand what goes through another person’s mind unless we stop and really listen.

One thing I wonder, however, is whether we are getting worse at dialogue and debate in society. This is an important question because the ability to discuss and debate and reach an agreement, if not a common understanding, is one of the pillars of democracy.

We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, all the more so on social media. Algorithms make sure that we see what we want to see, although, to be honest, even without these algorithms we wouldn’t see all there is to see anyway as we tend to portray only our best selves, or the selves we wish to be.

On the other hand, the discussion and debates that do happen are often rude or just filled with misunderstandings. Rude because when on social media people tend to say things they would never say to someone’s face (you can read more about that here) or misunderstandings because a hastily written comment might not be entirely thought through. Or even if it is, in can be misinterpreted in a myriad of ways by the reader. Have you ever heard about not discussing important issues over email or text message because it is a recipe for misunderstanding? Well, I’m wondering if the same goes for social media debates. Something has just got to be said about face-to-face conversations.

My worry is that if debate is often either nonexistent because of the glossy façades we create in our posts, or unreasonably harsh because of bad social media manners, how does this affect our common understanding as a democratic society? We need to try to understand what other people really think and feel in order to be able to create a world where there is room for everybody (and which won’t self-destruct, which seems to be a real risk at the moment). But if it’s hard to relate to one’s friends’ and family members’ different opinions and views, how hard is it not to relate to people who have completely different values than our own?

I don’t really know what the solution is. All I know is that this needs to be said again and again. Dialogue and debate need to be constructive and we need to be better at listening. We need to stand behind what we say, in every situation, whether online or in person. If we can’t, we simply shouldn’t say it. And we need to be kind.

If we’re open to constructive and friendly debate and discussion, a common understanding can be reached, even if, like with my husband and me, it’s an agreement to disagree. At least it creates an understanding of where the other person stands and why.

Sarcasm will kill any hope of constructive dialogue, and it certainly won’t make the world a better place

I got a comment on my blog a while back that was just impossible to respond to. The reason is, it was dripping with sarcasm. The person commenting was obviously not impressed with my post and let me know this fact by congratulating me on doing, as I understand it, such a terrible, or rather offensive, job. Now the reason I say offensive is that it seemed like this person might have been offended by my post, which, in turn, triggered the sarcastic remarks.

Don’t get me wrong; I am the first to encourage different opinions and perspectives. I understand that not everyone will like or agree with what I write. My blog represents my own perspectives and opinions, based on research, however, and not just plucked out of thin air mind you, but still my personal perspectives and opinions. I know there are a zillion other perspectives and opinions out there, and that is the beauty of it. “Vive la difference!” as my sister likes to say. Anything else would be boring.

After all, it is only through dialogue and debate with people of different perspectives and opinions that we, together, can create more knowledge and make the world a better place.

But when someone is sarcastic, the debate dies right there. Because how can you respond to that? When you are sarcastic, you are not inviting the other party to a discussion. You are signaling ill will, which will only make the other person defensive and want to retaliate. And trust me on this: that is not a good recipe for dialogue, collaboration, and creating a common understanding.

That is the whole problem. That is why social media to date has not been a huge success when it comes to connecting people who represent different perspectives and points of view. That is why social media has in many ways, opposite to what perhaps was originally envisioned, made the potential for constructive debate and dialogue smaller in so many ways.

According to Stanford Professor Robert Sutton, technology has, in fact, created what he calls an “asshole problem”, because when people don’t make eye contact (which we don’t on social media), they are much more likely to be mean. And not only that, after someone has been a so-called “asshole” (which you have to admit is not unusual in online discussions), nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior. I guess this knee-jerk instinct to retaliate is just very hard to resist. If you’re interested in this contemporary problem of ‘assholism’, you can read more in Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, or in his more recent book The Asshole Survival Guide.

So if the person who posted that sarcastic comment on my blog is reading this, I just want to say, yes I saw your comment but unfortunately I just couldn’t think of a single constructive thing to say in response that I think you would have been open to. While I appreciate that you didn’t like my post and I would love to have an open discussion about it so that I can understand your point of view, the way your comment was phrased unfortunately just killed any hope of a constructive conversation. And alas, no common understanding was reached.

Open your mind, there are worlds out there just waiting to be discovered

One of the misconceptions of opting out is that it is forever. Like any career transition, the work solutions we opt in to are anchored in time and space. What feels like the right solution depends on where you are and the challenges you’re dealing with at that particular time.

Opting out and in comes with a lot of soul searching. When you go through a life change you invariably spend time thinking about what’s important to you and where you want to go in life, which is a good thing. More people should. However, this is also a continuous process, because just like your career or lifestyle solutions, it is also tied to time and space. So you have to go back and keep reminding yourself what your terms are and check that they are still valid. I think once you’ve started a habit of of self-reflection, you don’t stop. And if you’ve been through something that pushed you to make a lifestyle change, you want to make sure that you don’t end up in that same situation again.

This is true for me. I think a lot about what I want to do, where I want to go from here. What was the perfect solution for me a few years ago as I opted out and in might not be anymore, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that situations change and needs change and that is fine. As a matter of fact, change is probably the only constant we have, and in a way I find that comforting. I find comfort in the knowledge that things will inevitably evolve, not matter what the situation.

But as I reflect over my choices, and the lifestyle changes I made as I opted in to academia, there is one thing in particular that I am especially grateful for. Working on a PhD really opened my mind. And I’m not talking about the actual research now, although obviously that opened my mind too. I’m talking about the insight I got into the fact that there really are different ways of living and working, there is no one right way to make a living.

Let me explain. Before I opted out, all I knew was what I had experienced. I had always worked in an organizational setting, and I didn’t really know of any other way of making a living. I sometimes longed to but I couldn’t imagine it. That’s why opting out can be so scary, because it means taking a step into the unknown. But after I did, I started to realize just how many people there are out there who work completely differently with different routines and different ideals, and that it can be done, that I can do it too.

And I think it is thanks to this insight that I have actually realized yet another dream.

I have always loved to paint and one of my passions has been silk painting. I’ve been doing it on and off for years, and took it up more actively after I finished my PhD (all of a sudden I wasn’t finalizing a thesis every waking moment and had free time to fill). I always had this, what I thought was a frivolous and completely unrealistic, dream of being an artist but I never really thought it was something that could happen, because I just didn’t know how to. I couldn’t imagine the lifestyle. Well something magical happened a few months ago. I was asked if I was willing to sell some of my silk paintings, and I was absolutely thrilled and definitely willing. The thought of my paintings adorning someone’s wall instead of gathering dust in my study felt great. And that someone wanted to buy something I had created without the help of publishers and copyeditors etc., was simply amazing.

This inspired me to start painting more and to start an Instagram account for my silk painting (with the help of and a small push from my wonderful daughter). I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I guess I can sort of say that I’m an artist now too. At least I’m a ‘silk painter of Instagram’. And I honestly think I never would have done this had I not been open to different ideas of what constitutes work.

So my wish for you this holiday season is open your minds. Realize that there are worlds out there that stretch beyond your imagination, and if you just dare to venture out there they are waiting to be discovered. Just because you can’t imagine them yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in the New Year with new blog posts.

Oh, and if you’re curious, you’ll find my Instagram account under @ingrids_silk_painting.

Me too: on sexual harassment and assault

I was going to write a blog post about capitalism, social systems, and truths, but that will have to wait. I realized there is another blog post that needs to be written first, one that needs to be written now.

Yesterday morning when I checked my Facebook newsfeed, a couple of my friends had posted this:

“Me too.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”

It’s a social media campaign that has come about after the Harvey Weinstein allegations hit the news to raise awareness about how common sexual harassment and assault really are.

I looked at the post in my newsfeed and thought, yes, this is important. I should post that too, because I have also, after all, been sexually harassed on numerous occasions in different situations since I hit my teens. Then I continued scrolling, and stopped, scrolled back up again to the post and then back down again and then back up and then I thought I really need to be involved in this campaign. This is such an important topic to raise awareness about, especially since we don’t usually talk about it.

Yet I found myself scrolling up and down, back and forth, wanting to and not wanting to at the same time and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. Finally I just did it; I copy-pasted the text and created a status update.

During the next couple of hours I started to notice my newsfeed filling up with the same text. Female friends, relatives, and colleagues were sharing it too – countless friends, relatives, and colleagues. And it is an incredibly important issue, but that’s not really why I felt compelled to write a blog post about it. No, the sense of urgency I suddenly felt actually came from the way sharing this post made me feel. I felt a bit uncomfortable about it all day. I had this uneasy feeling inside, and after exploring that for a bit I realized that part of what I was feeling was shame.

I am a researcher and a social scientist. I research gender issues, among other things. I write and talk about inequalities, gender discrimination, identity, and sexuality. I am acutely aware of these issues. I study fears and reactions, and analyze reasons behind actions. I know that being the victim of sexual harassment or assault is not shameful and I know that the victim has done nothing wrong. Still, sharing the fact that I too have experienced sexual harassment or assault feels a bit shameful. It feels too personal; like it is something I should keep to myself.

I am willing to bet that every single woman I know has experienced some sort of sexual harassment or abuse during their lifetimes. I know that I am not alone and still it is difficult to talk about.

But many people don’t understand just how hard it really is. I was reading the comments section under an article about Harvey Weinstein the other day, and there was one comment in particular that caught my eye. It was a person who was genuinely wondering why the women haven’t spoken up before. Why did they put up with it? The answer is that it is really hard to speak up. These women were worried about their careers. They were scared of what Weinstein would do to them. They didn’t want to get stigmatized… I could go on, but the point is that the climate in our society is such that sexual harassment and assault are incredibly difficult to talk about.

I grew up acutely aware that I was at risk and needed to be cautious simply because I was girl. I remember when I was pre-teen, my friends and I heard rumors of girls we knew who had been raped, and we knew it could happen to us too because we were girls and that’s the way it was. And I tell you, walking around with the knowledge that you might get abused is scary and it affects your very fabric of being. To this day, I don’t feel completely at ease walking around after dark, even in my own safe neighborhood. I think this is something that is hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t experienced that fear.

So this is my way of saying, yes, this is important, and yes, we need to talk about it. If you have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, speak out if you can because we need to know that we are not alone, and all of us need to understand what a huge issue this really is.

#MeToo