Life

Can we Ever Kick our Smartphone Addiction?

I spent a couple weeks in Germany a few years ago, and found myself – by accident –  near-totally disconnected from the digital world, thanks to my cell phone not working in Berlin. No notifications. No pings. No little-red-dots hovering over every app icon on my home screen.

It was a transformative time. I realized the extent of my smartphone addition, And when I returned, I began scaling back my dependency on iPhone notifications. Initially, I turned off all of my notifications (except for CBC News, and Maple Leafs scores), and switched my email over to “pull” instead of “push.” Then I deleted the Facebook app. Twitter and Instagram soon followed. Recently, I’ve blocked facebook.com entirely from my iPhone browser, and have limited myself to 15 minutes per day on my desktop browser, using the great Safari Extension, WasteNoTime.

There’s more than enough evidence of the deleterious effects of smartphone addiction. Once you kick the habit, it’s hard not to see it everywhere around you. But it’s the long-term implications that scare me. We’re just beginning to understand the damage we might be doing to our plastic brains, and the new evidence on how smartphones are damaging the bonding between parents and newborns absolutely terrifies me.

That’s why it has been heartening to see some tech industry leaders taking notice of this. The Globe and Mail has a fantastic dialogue with Jim Balsillie, former chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry Ltd.) and co-founder of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The piece – Can we ever kick our smartphone addiction? as a whole is an illuminating read. Here’s a sobering chunk from it (emphasis mine):

Privacy and mental health are inextricably linked, especially for young people. You need periods of privacy to form a self and an identity, a task not completed until at least the late teens. Having an autonomous, spontaneous self is the result of a long psychological process where you have time to “step back” from the crowd, and from your parents, to reflect. It requires time to let that self – your true feelings, your own quirky, uncurated reactions – emerge, spontaneously. The new phones foster enmeshment with parents, and the world, and hamper individuation, the process of becoming a unique individual, because kids are overconnected

The “wisdom of crowds” is overrated; many crowds are far more regressive mentally and emotionally – and stupider – than the individuals who make them up. Kids know this, but lacking a solid sense of self, still long for the mob’s approbation and are terrified of its censure. And so they keep checking for and fishing for “likes” and now are compulsively virtue signalling to avoid being disliked, instead of developing actual virtue

Social media is a 24/7 hall of mirrors, with everyone watching themselves – and everyone else – and making comparisons, all the time. This hugely exacerbates the ordinary painful self-consciousness, insecurity, narcissistic vulnerability and drama of young people’s lives… Depression has increased since 2005, most rapidly among people 12 to 17…

It also teaches kids precisely the wrong way out of the mess: grow your vanity. Post selfies of your best underwear pic on Snapchat; airbrush your opinions to get likes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, pondered the soul of the modern bourgeois as affected by social life. He observed – as beautifully summarized by Allan Bloom – that the bourgeois “is the man who when dealing with others thinks only of himself and in his understanding of himself thinks only of others.” That is many kids today.

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Life, Travel

LGA-YYZ-LGA-EWR-IAH-LAX-YYZ-TLV

Before running off to graduate school/seminary, my job involved a ridiculous amount of traveling. For much of the year, I hopped from airport to airport to airport around North America and often to Israel and Europe. I learned the code-words for countless airports. My body was tormented with the frequent time-zone changes. For a few months each summer, I spent more nights sleeping in summer camp beds, less than stellar hotel rooms, and pull-out couches than I did in my own bed in New York. I loved it. I even helped create a travel hashtag on Twitter.

I have found that while catapulting through the air at 37,000 feet, I was often at my most productive – ploughing through a few dozen emails, writing blog posts, designing advertising materials, and catching up on some good reading. I often wondered why… with limited access to reliable internet, terrible coffee, and the peeping eyes of my seat-neighbor, how could it be that I was getting so much done? And why did I feel great about doing all this work? You know that physical feeling of satisfaction you get inside when you’re being über productive? That’s the one.

Turns out there may be some good reasons behind this phenomenon. Check out this quote from an article at Fast Company on the benefits of early rising:

And when I asked our Philosophy PhD-turned-VC why I felt most productive on a plane, he opened his Moleskine to the opening cover where he had this quote from Pascal pasted: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” In other words, not being able to go anywhere cuts away the need to think about new stimuli–and finally allows us to focus.

Makes sense! Earlier in the article, the author learns about Flow Theory – something I actually spent much of this past year learning about in my studies on Experiential Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. Check this out:

When I asked him about what makes him happy now, he cited a book called FlowMihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to the “optimal experience” and what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of skill-expanding consciousness appropriately enough called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.

Some people view airplanes as cold, sterile, claustrophobic disasters. Not me. I’ve got something of a retro-romanticism when it comes to air-travel. Maybe it’s because I see flying as an opportunity for deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life.

Got shit that needs doing? Hop on a plane, lock yourself in, and get going!

Bonus points: the airport codes listed in the title of this post are from a three-day hopscotch across North America I took to visit my family before heading to Israel for the year. It also includes a detour through Houston so I could get a chance to fly on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Canada, Ideas, Life

Canadians worth Name-dropping

“With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer Canadians paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.”

Donald Sutherland name-dropped Tommy Douglas in an interview in (the American magazine) Esquire this month. There’s also a new biography out on him in Penguin Canada’s stellar series on Extraordinary Canadians. And he popped up in the news a few weeks ago when it was revealed that the RCMP had spied on him at one point.

All of this is to say that Tommy Douglas is still a noteworthy and newsworthy Canadian twenty-five years after his death.

But he’s more than that. Douglas is a significant Canadian not just because there are still news items on him or interesting things to say about him. There are plenty of Canadians in the news each day that may be interesting. Douglas is uniquely significant because he changed Canada and he changed Canadians. He influenced mainstream Canadian society. He changed the Canadian government, he changed Canadian domestic policy, he changed Canadian culture, and – most significantly – he changed Canadian identity. To be sure, he fomented what is likely the number two item on the list of inextricable Canadian identifiers (after hockey, of course).

Douglas looked at the Canada that surrounded him – an impoverished, desperate milieu – identified the problems, came up with a solution, and enacted broad-sweeping changes. He’s what Seth Godin would call an initiator. He kicked Canada in the ass and we now wear the bruise with pride.

All of this is not to say that Tommy Douglas was a saint. To be sure, the Canadian healthcare system has its flaws and is in dire need of updating. Moreover, this is not my meager attempt to say profound things about Douglas that have already been said by people more eloquent and learned than I. While I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I don’t think I have anything to add to the Canadian canon at this point.

So this is all to say – or rather, ask – something else:

Where are all the Extraordinary Canadians? Where are the initiators? Where are the identity makers?

The Canadian (yet once-illegal in Canada) zero-emission Zenn Car
There are certainly many Canadians out there doing newsworthy, cool, and interesting things (although if you Google “Interesting Canadians,” the results come up pretty slim). But newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not equaling extraordinary these days. Newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not cultivating identity.

“Whither Canadian Identity?” is that quintessential existential question that we Canadians ask to hold a mirror up to our national self when our national inferiority complex flares up. But I’m not lamenting a lack of Canadian identity. I’ll leave that to George Grant. Besides, there’s a Wikipedia article on Canadian Identity, so I think we’re safe in that department.

I’m lamenting the lack of Canadians of late who have risen up and done something that has galvanized our country in the identity department. I’m lamenting the dearth of Canadians who have on a national scale shifted the way we think. I’m lamenting the absence of Canadians who can be added to the Wikipedia article on our national identity.

To be sure, just take a look at the Canadians who have been deemed extraordinary and fit for publishing by Penguin, or the finalists from the CBC’s 2004 series, The Greatest Canadian. On both lists, with a few exceptions (or perhaps just one – Terry Fox), the identity-building Canadians did the body of their work most recently thirty to forty years ago. For most, it’s been over half a century.

Yes, Sidney Crosby did do that thing in Vancouver last year, and The Great One and Don Cherry were indeed finalists on The Greatest Canadian. But hockey already occupies the number one spot on our identity list. Unlike Mr. Douglas, the trail was already blazed for Sid the Kid (insert some clever remark about the zamboni clearing the ice for him). Unlike Fox, Gretsky and Cherry had and have institutions, managers, and paychecks supporting them.

It’s been quite some time since Trudeau, Montgomery, The Group of Seven, McLuhan, Pearson, and the lot.

It’s been quite some time since a Canadian has risen up and done or said or created something that has inspired Canadians in a unifying way; in a way that has become as much a part of Canadian Identity as Hockey, Universal Health Care, Tim Hortons, the GST, a National Inferiority Complex, and not being American.

To be sure, there’s a certain temporal perspective gained from looking back on ourself, which contributes to the lists’ foci on historical figures. But it’s 2011, and we’ve been hyper-connected and hyper-self-aware for awhile now. Isn’t it time we started catching up to ourself? If that Rebecca Black girl can reach millions of people with a ridiculous YouTube video (I won’t do it the justice of linking to it), and we identify en masse with new memes every week, certainly the market is primed and ripe for someone to do something worthy of capturing us.

I’m not denying that Canadian identity exists. Certainly it does. But it isn’t being flexed by anyone. With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.

In that painfully Canadian way, I’m aware that all this has the potential to come across as complaining and whining about a problem without presenting a solution. After all, Tommy Douglas didn’t sit around and blog, he got off his own ass and kicked Canada in our collective tuchus. But I don’t (yet) have the bully pulpit of our Parliament or the platform of a national newspaper, so maybe this is just to vent or call attention in a limited way to something that I – as a Canadian – am invested in.

I’m looking for Canadians who can make us shift the way we look at ourselves for the better. I’m looking for Canadians who have the drive and power to give our country a much needed kick in the ass.

I’m looking for Canadians worth name dropping.

Israel, Life, Peace, Politics

We both have truths, are yours the same as mine?

Yesterday, I responded to B’nai Brith Canada’s claim that they were in possession of “The truth” vis a vis the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East peace process, and that an anonymous “They” was trying to subvert access to this “truth.”

So let’s talk about “The Truth.”

In 2005, I was invited to speak at the URJ Biennial in Houston as a member of a panel on Israel Engagement. I was representing the university age group, and I was supposed to talk about Israel advocacy, Reform Zionism, and combating anti-Israel sentiments on campus.

Coming out of the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East climate at York University heavily affected my perspective. The topic was a particularly divisive one at York, and I had grown tired of the vitriol from both “sides” of the debate.

So the thesis of my panel presentation went something like this:

“If you’re going to talk about Israel on campus, you need to root yourself solidly and almost exclusively in factual truths. You need to avoid the emotionalization of the debate, and stay away from the impassioned yelling fits.”

Because that’s what the debate had become – a perpetual round of who-can-scream-louder-than-the-other-“side”.

Having just returned from Israel where I had some unique opportunities to engage with the Israeli Arab community, I find more than ever that the truth might actually be at the root of the problem – both in the Middle East and abroad.

Keeping your debate to truths is all fine and good, and may indeed circumvent some of the yelling and screaming and red faces and holier-than-thou shouting, but there’s just one problem…

Both “sides” have equally valid truths.

I’ll pause for a moment and explain the copious use of quotation marks around “sides”.

There really aren’t two sides to this issue, each with their own opposing history… it’s one large story, with intertwined narratives, facts, and truths. This is not Jew vs. Muslim, Arab vs. Non-Arab, Israeli vs. Palestinian, or any other false dichotomy. The longer we continue to view this as a polarized issue, the longer it will remain that way – polarized and unsolved. Certainly, at this point in world history, it’s clear that if you want to talk about Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East, you should understand that it’s one vastly complex narrative, not two separate storybooks.

Back to the Truth… in this one, complex story, there are a number of equally valid truths. For example:

– It’s true that years of terrorism have led to Israel needing to take strong security measures.
– It’s true that the State of Israel has a long and valid connection to the Land of Israel.
– It’s true that many Palestinians were displaced because of the forming of the State of Israel.
– It’s true that life for non-Jewish Israelis is often much harder than life for Jewish Israelis.
– It’s true that Israel needs to defend itself against internal and external threats.
– It’s true that Israel bears responsibility for the actions it takes in the West Bank.
And so on…

It’s very convenient and easy for much of the pro-Israel community to just focus on the truths from the Israeli “side” of the narrative, because it makes it look like Israel is justified in all of its actions. Unfortunately, that leaves out half of the story.

The pro-Israel community as a whole needs to work on being less myopic, and start looking at the bigger picture, not just Israel’s “side” of it. This is why I’m so fond of J Street. Not because they’re “liberal,” “progressive,” or “pro-peace,” but because they engage in a holistic viewing of the situation Israel faces.

Compare their perspective with B’nai Brith Canada’s. When B’nai Brith claims to be in possession of the “Truth,” what they’re essentially doing is delegitimizing anyone whom they deem as being opposed to their view of the “Truth.” So the reality of daily life for non-Jewish Israelis is irrelevant, the reality of daily life for Palestinians is irrelevant, the future demographic realities Israel will face are irrelevant, and the realities that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are willing to confront are irrelevant because they are not “the Truth.”

The “truth” is all fine and good, but only if you’re open to other people’s truths as well.

Life

Are we self-censoring?

If, during a supplementary school program (à la Hebrew/Religious school), one is teaching a class on the Holocaust, should parents be able to decide whether or not they want their child to participate in that class?

If yes, where is the line drawn on parents censoring what their children are learning? Should they be able to pull their child out of any class depending on its content?

Not sure where I fall on this yet. I think parents ultimately have the right to decide how they want their children to learn, but they also need to respect those that have invested thoughtful time and energy into developing curricula.

And what is it about Holocaust education specifically that generates so much anxiety?

Thoughts?

Billboard Judaism, Life, Philosophy

Then what?

Once you’ve become really good at doing something, then what? I mean really good.

For the purposes of this musing, I’ll define “really good” as ‘when the thing you are doing becomes so natural, so effortless that you stop thinking about the thing that you’re doing.’

When that happens, then what?

Do you keep doing it ad infinitum?
Do you keep doing it until it behooves you not to?
Do you stop, and look for something new to do that might accomplish the same goal?
Do you stop, and move on to something entirely new?
Do you not even ask yourself this question?

I’m wondering about this both in a general sense, but also with specific reference to Jewish life.

When we can identify Jewish things we do that become rote, effortless, mindless, and entirely on the keva side of things, what should we make of this?

Life, The Planet Earth

Two brilliantly quick and easy ideas

If you are in the US, you can donate $10 to the Red Cross Haiti Earthquake Appeal from your cell cell phone by texting ‘HAITI’ to ‘90999′.

You can also donate $5 to Wyclef Jean’s charity Yele Haiti by texting ‘Yele’ to 501501.

And why not take five seconds to post a reply below if you’ve done this, or if you’ve donated elsewhere. Nothing like guilting others into helping out.