Perceptions

There is an old adage that says, “God should give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us.”*

Some people might say, “Heaven forbid” to such a concept. “I do not want to know; it might stunt my style and take some fun out of my life.” Others would undoubtedly embrace the idea, thinking “Golly, I need to know how others see me if I’m to get along with folks better.”

The fact is, with rare exceptions God (or whoever is in charge of those things) did not provide for much of that kind of insight or reflection. And, that is where today’s world has a problem that has been magnified by social media.

It used to be that most people had a circle of people who knew them quite well through a normal life span – perhaps 100 to a few hundred folks. Today there are about one billion Facebook members (one out of seven people on the planet.) Many of them have several thousand “friends.” The chances of distortion of perceptions of individuals, for better or for worse, have been increased enormously. That leads to two questions:

  1. What really constitutes a “friend” in an era when friendship no longer requires physical proximity to spawn?

and

  1. Are most people really better off believing that they exist in such a large, supposedly intimate world of friends who really cannot know much about them?

The emergence of the “friendship” question also extends to the political arena. When we select our leaders in business, government and civil society, how can we rely on our perceptions of those people, who offer themselves as our leaders, if those perceptions have been filtered to us through the distorting lenses of advertising, social media and even old fashioned news sources? We cannot, objectively, “know” in any meaningful way, the people who would lead us, and frequently people end up settling on one leadership candidate over another for reasons remarkably similar to the way we have come to define friendship in the early part of the 21st century.

What constitutes a friend? Obviously there is no single answer where one size fits all. But perhaps most people would agree that a definition should include the qualification that a real friend is someone you could truly depend on to help you in an emergency, even if it was a major inconvenience to them. Another requisite in most cases would be someone whom you could trust with a personal confidence. Or, it might be someone whom you have known reciprocally through thick and thin and who knows your flaws as well as your charms. Lastly, friendship, though it may be a passing thing, mainly does not truly happen overnight.

So, what are all the other folks whom you may call “friends,” who do not pass these tests? They are, of course, simply acquaintances whom you may know and remember and even enjoy at work and play. The distinction will become increasingly important to a smoothly functioning social system.

Are most people better off believing they have a very large circle of “friends?” Probably not. At best, a very large group of “friends” creates an illusion of support and popularity, which in most cases probably distorts peoples’ view of themselves as well as the so-called friends.

An amplification process can lead to serious distortions in peoples’ lives. For example, politicians, who are by definition always seeking new friends, rarely hear anything other than “you are great,” “keep it up” and “I agree completely,” leading them to believe that everyone loves and agrees with them, which leads them into all kinds of trouble.

The very rare politician has the ability to remain objective about him/herself. Most lose touch with reality in the bubbles which inevitably surround their public lives, leading to leaders’ megalomania.

Not only politicians have become isolated by bubbles. Everyday people have created their own bubbles by watching only the TV that already mirrors what they believe and think. As a result they are rarely exposed to neutral or contrary thoughts and ideas. Fox owns the conservatives, MSNBC owns the liberals, and CNN struggles for the rest. It used to be that many people read two papers or watched two news sources to try to stay in touch with the whole world out there. Since some 40+ percent of people regard themselves as independents, hopefully CNN might sell itself more aggressively in that light. The narrowing of focus of large swaths of our population cannot be healthy for our democracy.

How can modern society adjust to the perceptive distortions which have been magnified by modern communications and social media?

A quick answer is not available, but a more serious answer first will involve increasing awareness of the issue. It appears that very few people have ever given the topic much thought.

There obviously is no turning the clock back. One idea on the personal individual level might be to introduce a new word into our language to distinguish between real friends and simple acquaintances; for example today there is a word creeping into everyday talk, frienemies, to categorize friends who have turned sour. Perhaps frientances might capture enough people to enable individuals to distinguish and to scale back their problems with too many friends.

As for choosing our leaders, we need more opportunities to see them in action outside of their bubbles. One way to do that would be for more debates to be organized in such a way that all candidates would sooner or later reveal their true selves. Another way would be to encourage more one-on-one encounters with interviewers who are beyond ‘fear or favor’ and who would then post those interviews on YouTube.

The starting point of dealing with perceptions and misperceptions is to be more aware of the serious issues that arise from the interaction of modern society and the individual. It’s well past time to get started figuring out who your friends really are and what kind of a world they want to live in.

*Robert Burns, Critical Analysis of To a Louse
Oh, that God would give us the very smallest of gifts. To be able to see ourselves as others see us. It would save us from many mistakes and foolish thoughts.

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Curiosity

Curiosity is at the root of most of man’s discoveries and innovations; without it, it is quite likely that we might still be hunter gatherers.

Other animal forms have quite a lot of curiosity too. Dogs, for instance, smell a stranger and bark out of normal fear. To our knowledge they have never asked probing questions like, “why do all dumb humans seem to look alike and make such funny noises?” or “why do they seem to object when I try to smell their privates to see if I recognize them?”

Curiosity is also a significant word, and it is most appropriate that it is the name of the most recent space probe machine for signs of earlier lifelike matter on Mars.

I am curious to know what earth would be like, if earth becomes, in due course, like what we find on Mars today? One of NASA’s scientific leaders, Astronaut John Grunsfeld, said recently that the most interesting questions that need to be answered are not those that we expect and hope to find, but rather those that we have no clue about at all today.

Would it be possible that all our lifelike substances would vanish completely as they appear to have on Mars, if they ever existed? That’s unlikely, but much would depend on how life on earth was extinguished. A sudden apocalypse by collision? A slow and anguishing extinction from global warming? Might there still be oceans?

One possibility might be that there would be just enough global warming — even hotter and more sustained than we have experienced this summer — which would gradually reduce human population, beginning with old people who cannot handle extended heat for too long.

What would people do? If there were enough time to adjust, huge domes could be constructed to house whole cities with powerful air conditioning. But that would be tough to pull off and tougher to sustain. And what about our love of great views?

Another possibility would be to live underwater. There would be plenty of room until the water began to evaporate. That route might buy some additional time, but if land was scorched dry, how would submerged people be able to grow and get food, even with spacesuits to be used when out of the water.

Perhaps humans would quickly become extinct and their role might be taken over by, say, lobsters. We know lobsters do not like boiling water. But we also know that they become quite fecund in warmer water and that they have love lives and complex social organizations.

So far there have been no reports that lobsters have experienced political gridlock over what to do about warmer water — quite the reverse. This year, for example, in Maine there have been so many more lobsters caught than in prior years that the old law of supply and demand has driven lobster prices down from $4 last year to almost $1 this year.

It also is not clear how long it would take lobsters to evolve enough skills to operate the Internet etc. In fact there probably would not be enough time left for any form of life on earth to enable lobsters, or, for that matter, any other fish, to get anywhere to the level of where humans are today.

So, what should all this curiosity add up to and tell us today?

Perhaps we should seek universal agreement that we only have a toe hold on earth and we had better not take it for granted and use it at random.

Perhaps we should, keeping an eye on what Curiosity learns on Mars, start some serious contingency planning, which could begin with listening to scientists about global warming.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, if we had been Martians, where and how we would have buried the vestiges of our existence, so that our manmade Curiosity might have a better chance of finding that information so potentially vital to our future existence.

As this is an election year, we should encourage our curiosity to run rampant and ask the toughest questions we can imagine of this year’s presidential candidates about their views of the future of humanity.

The choice now is not just about jobs and debt. It really is about the course of human survival!

And, that is what our curiosity should be directed towards. For a long time to come the connections among all the elements of modern society and their impact on life on this planet need even more resources than the cost of the expedition to Mars.

Obama’s Political Strategy?

From a Democrat’s perspective the presidential race has become more nerve-wracking than a lot of folks wanted or expected.

The past month has seen Obama pouring on the heat in advertising dollars (double Romney’s ad expenditures) in an effort to “define” Romney in a negative way.

The result appears, at the moment at least, to have had some perverse effects.

A number of Romney’s popularity numbers versus Obama’s have improved, nationwide, on issues such as likeability, the economy, jobs, Wall Street and even foreign policy.

That is hard to explain, other than to believe that many people really may not care about Romney’s wealth, his tax returns and his Bain record.

It even suggests that perhaps Obama’s ads strengthened some peoples’ perception that Romney is a smart money man and may be the right guy to fix the economy — which obviously is far and away the number one issue for the election.

If all this supposition is correct, it probably was not too clever of Obama’s campaign staff, who are otherwise using much the same playbook that got him elected four years ago, despite the major differences that exist today.

Perhaps Obama has been playing a waiting game and delaying bringing up his real and important campaign message. But, the longer he waits, the harder it may be to get back into a fully competitive position.

He has let himself become defined as a guy who wants so badly to be reelected that he is unwilling to take a principled stand for the good of the country. Consequently, the odds may be flipping from ‘the election is his to lose’ — to ‘the election is his to try to snatch back from defeat.’ That has to be dealt with ASAP.

Obama’s dilemma is this. Does he:

  1. play it close to the vest and try to eke out an electoral victory in the eight swing states?, or
    2. take a clear, firm stand and make the election a choice on his plan to fix the economy?

It appears he may be trying to finesse that choice with a characteristically risk-averse strategy. That could be a big mistake because that is what he is charging Romney is doing too.

Sometimes a leader really has to risk what he really wants in order best to show voters how, at the end of the day, the election is not just about holding his job, but is about doing the job that people and the country need and want done!

It is perfectly clear from extensive evidence in the record that Obama’s plan for the economy is essentially a balanced approach, very close to the bipartisan Simpson/Bowles plan that first was unveiled well over a year ago. It is a rational combination of targeted, though limited, tax increases, carefully selected decreases in defense and domestic spending, and some important additional stimulus, such as infrastructure, which we must do sooner or later in any event. Only that type of balanced plan can properly address the fiscal challenges that surely lie ahead and restore economic and financial stability to the country.

The time is right for Obama to speak to all the people in all 50 States — not just those in eight swing states — to say exactly what his plan is and to challenge Romney to be just as clear and forthright about what he would do with those same challenges.

Romney can be flushed out, and if he is, or is not, that surely will benefit all the voters of the country by making the choice clearer.

That could give Obama the lift he badly needs at the moment to build on that basic policy theme all the way to the election.

It is hard to imagine this country doing anything other than voting for a balanced plan. By now, virtually everyone must know about the cliff. Virtually everyone also knows that there has to be a plan to save us from an unnecessary manmade disaster.

Overall, and despite all, the vast preponderance of the middle 40 percent of the electorate are rational and reasonable people who are not inclined to extreme views or solutions. All they need in this crucial election is to be given a clear choice of substance — not just illusions fed by Madison Avenue advertising experts.

This election really needs to be much less about money spent, and more about the clarity and substance of each candidate’s message.