Saturday, November 21, 2009

The iWidow and the Herion Addict

Have you ever looked around a restaurant and seen an iWidow? Look for the woman staring wistfully off into space while her husband stares unashamedly as his hand in his lap? She is an iWidow and he is Type A+Man. While this story has a modern spin, the fact of the matter is, its an old story. And I'll warn you now, there's no resolve at the end.

I have read that iPhone use creates actual addictive patterns in the brain. You send a text or a message and you await a response. That sort of “ping” back from another person releases a charge of dopamine – a little happy moment in your brain – and your behavior has been reinforced. Let’s call that iPavlov. But what the hell, right? Who cares if the guy is constantly checking the scores or updating his fantasy baseball stats. Big deal, right?

Yes, big deal. For many reasons.

The iPhone is the new Other Woman. The average working man takes his iPhone everywhere. He does not take his wife with him when he travels for work, he can’t. But even when he is home, he goes on runs, he goes out with friends, he goes shopping or to the movies and he may have to leave the wife at home, but he takes the phone. And it’s always on, he is always receiving information from it. Ask any iWidow if she’s ever been “waved off” in favor of a message on his hand-held device. That app is called the iDntHvTym4U. When she looks at her husband across the room, the average iWidow is thinking, “Gee, that used to be my hand in his hand.”

Where we used to wander, now we Mapquest. “How many times have we used it on family vacations to find a place when we were lost?” How many of those times would you have found it anyway? How many adventures have you missed by being precise and correct? He checks the weather and the train schedule, as if knowing them changes them in some way. He will or won’t be at the station before the 7:35.

Where we used to wonder, now we Wikki. We don’t say, “I wonder” anymore because we can Google. If we wonder, then we are asking and if we are asking, well, let me just look that up on the amazing internet which I happen to have surgically implanted on my palm right here… ahah! There is no more imagining an answer, there is no more debating various suggestions at an answer, there is only The Answer.

Where we used to have conversations, now we chat. I laughed one day to see this man listening to his buddy on the train. The buddy was talking about some frustration at work when the friend glanced down at his iPhone - his “I-Phone” in this case - and exclaimed, “I’ve got bars!” and never looked up at his buddy again. Bars indeed, bars erected between himself and his now seething buddy.

"We” has been reduced to” i.” Type A+ Man and his family are for a walk. The wife and the kids are talking, the kids are complaining about having to read Milton, about having to run in PE, and about the weather. They are all walking along, they are seeing and feeling and looking and while Type A+ Man is doing those things as well, he is also having another experience: he is getting sensory data that they are not. His experience of right now has more data points in it, his mind is fractured, the memory he takes from these moments will be different than any of his family, he will get home and have had a different afternoon. He is thinking, "I'll just do this one thing, answer this one email. I can do both things without anyone noticing." Well, he's wrong.

It is, I guess, an essential characteristic of high powered type A+ Man that he would like to have access to information all the time. If a question occurs to him, he wants to know the answer, he wants it now, he opens his palm and his palm tells him. There is no walking without knowing how far or how fast. “I’m higher than I was” or “I’m warmer than I was” becomes, “We’ve gone up forty feet from the trail head and its ten degrees warmer.” His senses don’t have bars here, I guess.

Type A+ Man has to know for sure right now and he has to compare to last time. He keeps track of how far and how fast. He has an app for accumulated miles that calculates the times, the distances, tells you how many calories you burned, and the weather. It knows how much vitamin D you absorbed, it keeps a record of pounds per square inch on your right knee since the injury and it has a nifty little chart to show you that, based just on the miles you’ve walked since you loaded the app, you are this much closer to walking all the way to the moon. And you know what? It does that automatically just by being on.

Well, now he knows how far he’s come, how fast, how long, how many books he’s read and how many classes he’s taken that might add up to a PhD in literature in which institutions in the United States. But for your average type A+ iPhone carrying executive, that is just not gonna be enough. No, he has to share it now. He has to Twitter and to Facebook, he has to email it to his buddy who is also virtually walking to the moon. And then, after he’s checked the facts, established his prowess, posted and emailed his conclusions and received the comments and return email, he chuckles and shares it with his family.

Only they don’t laugh.

Because none of this has actually happened. To them. They are still on the walk.

Remember the walk?

The iPhone saves, sorts and compares every little thing he has asks it to and gives him a nifty interface. And all that time the experience his family was having on the walk? He missed it. And what did his family learn? He brought along his personal ego boost, his handheld affirmation. His family was simply the jumping off point for a solipsistic tour of cyber credibility that ended with them feeling inadequate and, finally, disconnected. The message is subtle and possibly unintentional: what satisfies the family, what contents them, what they settle for, is just not enough for him. Their conversation doesn’t hold his attention. Their experience of the world is too one-dimensional, their world is too easy, he needs more of a challenge. Not only is he not sharing in their experience, he is not sharing in it because it is inadequate. How can they help but wonder if they are also inadequate in his sight? The app for that is called iSolation.

And iSolation leads into dangerous territory: we can easily go from "my only friends are virtual" to "I have no friends." Feelings of isolation are always among the list of characteristics in the case of a suicide... or of a Fort Hood type shooting. Isolation need not be imposed from the outside, we can choose it ourselves, we can opt into it.

There is much that is wonderful about this new handheld technology. It is indeed delightful to have a phone/radio/television/DVDplayer/Camera/Personal Computer/GPS at your fingertips. It enables us to use our time SO much more efficiently: we get work done faster, we respond sooner, we know now and we are through finished and done. But then what?

We have to be able to go from interface to face-to-face. We have to look up. This is different from "look it up:" we don't "Google it" we "make eye contact with it;" we don't "chat" with IM language, we chat, as in over coffee; we don't use a browser, we browse a bookshelf. Society requires socializing, if you doubt me, ask yourself why emoticons were invented: we can't communicate without facial expression.

This is the age old quandary of who to feel sorry for: for the family that experiences the absent/present member, or for the person who voluntarily isolates himself with an addiction he can't see and can't control. It's cool, its in, you're so lame if you don't, but its not heroin, its not crack. In an odd way, it is a more honest representation of the fact: it is your pilot. Ask yourself, when did you surrender the wheel?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Entering the Fold through the Lobby.

U.S. Catholic bishops are defending their direct involvement in congressional deliberations over health-care reform, saying that church leaders have a duty to raise moral concerns on any issue, including abortion rights and health care for the poor. Do you agree? What role should religious leaders have -- or not have -- in government policymaking?

It is horrifying to see the Catholic Church attempting to influence the outcome of legislation being formulated in Democratic government. Not because it violates the separation of Church and State, but because it reduces the church to a special interest group. The Catholic Church represents hope to its members, faith in the goodness and rightness of God's creation and the power to bring about that Kingdom through action. Lobbyists obviate the representative structure of our Democratic system to privilege a special interest for which the voters could not get sufficiently excited to vote. The Church says, "You can, indeed you must be proactive in making the change you seek to see in the world." The Lobbyists tell us, "Elect whoever you want, we can change their minds once they get here." By lobbying congress on behalf of their concerns, U.S. Catholic Bishops have said, "pay no attention to the actions of Catholic voters, we are the voice of the Church." They have demonstrated a lack of faith in the Democratic system, in the transformative power of faith, and in their congregations.

The Church has the power to work the system for change, it always has had, and on a scale that any lobbyist would kill for. Where a lobbyist can influence one legislator on one vote on one issue, the Church empowers its masses to make Christian choices with every step they take, every dime they spend and with every vote they cast on every issue and in every election.Where the Church is able to effect a groundswell of public action that transforms the face of politics and policy to reflect the constituents' beliefs...that is both a Christian and a Democratic dream. And a lobbyist's nightmare.

Catholic voters, in theory, know what to do. They know where the Church stands on issues of abortion and end-of-life counseling. In theory they have heard the Church's position from the lips of their Priests, they see evidence of it in their scripture, and they cleave to it as the foundation for their decision making. In theory they have voted into office representatives who will speak for them in this as well as all other issues. But even if they don't, in theory it won't matter because the template that guides these Catholics will keep them from needing abortion services and have a position on end-of-life care.

But the fact that there are Catholic Bishops lobbying the Congress over this bill tells us that theory is not proving out in practice. Possibly, Catholic voters didn't get out in big enough numbers to elect representatives who will reflect their beliefs. Possibly they didn't vote for people who reflect their beliefs. Possibly they aren't involved enough in church to know what position to vote for in the first place. In any case, the Catholic church has failed in its calling: its has not brought the faithful into the fold, it has not motivated them to live and vote to bring about the Kingdom, and it has not created in them a moral code that makes the health care reform debate irrelevant to them. That is the problem. The solution is not to by-pass the people. The solution is not to impose the moral code from the top down. Jesus did not throw in with Rome in order to change the ills of the society he preached to.

Where Jesus saw corruption, he preached righteousness. Where he saw iniquity, he preached justice. But he had faith in the Gospel and int he power of his flock to effect the change not by obviating the law but by fulfilling it. Therefore, I say to the well meaning but errant Bishops on Capital Hill: go back to your churches, back to your Scripture and back to your congregations because they are the Church. "Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit." (John 10:1)

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Detainee by Any Other Name

The New York Times reports that the governor of Illinois has offered up an empty prison outside of Illinois' Quad Cities as a possible alternative location for the prisoners at Guantanamo. Currently, the prisoners Guantanamo reside in inferior temporary housing. Meanwhile, in the heartland of America, a high security prison sits virtually empty. Oh, I beg your pardon, they are "terrorism suspects." And they are "housed" not imprisoned. The argument made by the Governor is that it would be an economic boost to the town in tough times. But there is a great deal more at stake here, and a great deal more to be gained from the move, for all of us.

While we hold these individuals in custody on an island thousands of miles from our homes, it is easy to vilify them, to dehumanize them and ultimately to forget about them completely. If they were here, even behind the seemingly impenetrable walls of a super max prison, we would be taking a small step back toward the humanity we so profoundly believe in, that we hope for on the part of our own soldiers at war and of which, I am afraid, we have completely lost sight in this case.

But we have a tendency to loose sight of things in a cloud of language and spin. When we went into Korea, it was a "police action" but the soldiers who were boots on the ground knew knew it was a War. When the pink slip arrives on your desk your company may be "right sizing" but you know you're out of a job. So we call these people "detainees." We don't want to call them prisoners because prisoners enjoy the privilege of at least a framework of rights and protections. Detainees do not. And in fact we can't call them prisoners because they haven't been tried, found guilty and sentenced. So we use the word "detainee" rather than "prisoner" because it sounds temporary, it sounds like an inconvenience. One is "detained" while the flight attendant retrieves the bag you left under your seat. One is "held prisoner" when one's spouse and children thousands of miles away, wait endlessly with no communication or promise of release .

Certainly, being "housed" in a "facility" that is designed for that purpose is a step in the right direction for the "guests of Uncle Sam" formerly "boarded" in ramshackle cells on Gitmo. But there would be a significant advantage to their captors, as well, that extends far beyond the boundaries of Thomson, Illinois. Prison guards, cooks and sanitation workers, construction workers, drivers and everyone else who comes in contact with the prisoners will be touched by them. These are no longer out of focus faces in the background of the news. They are men who look like men you know. Once you've made eye contact with a person, it is more difficult to imagine endorsing his simulated drowning. If your spouse comes home and tells you about one or to of the guys behind bars, its harder to stomach the fact that he has untreated TB. And if we see them as humans, and as humans under our care, then are we not more likely to treat them as humans? And if we treat them as humans, and they ultimately get out and report on the treatment, is it not better than tales of torture and deprivation? And if they take those better stories back to their families and their countries, then when a U.S. soldier is "detained" by a foreign government, have we not increased the likelihood that she will come home safe and sound and not the worse for her "detention"?

I confess that this is uncharacteristically inflamed rhetoric for me. I apologize, I am just frustrated by what seems to me to be the trampling of a very basic principle of what it means to be a nation based on inalienable rights, a signatory to the Geneva Convention, and a person made in the image of God. It comes down to an issue of "Us or Them." When we ask ourselves, how should we proceed, the answer is often so simple, and yet so very difficult to achieve. We should do unto Them as we would have Them do unto Us.

..and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:35-39)