Selfie: How We Became So Self Obsessed

We live in strange times. A generation of selfies and self harm. We create edited online personas of people seemingly living perfect lives. Yet behind the screens insecurity, vanity and depression are the defining characteristics of our culture.

People absorb culture like sponges. Every time we open our phones we internalize the competitive game of likes, retweets and follows as we strive to reach the false cultural concept of the — “perfect self” —  (why did I only get 12 likes on my last post?! I’m better that that!) and when we don’t receive positive, dopamine fueled feedback we hate ourselves for failing. Hence the recent spikes in self-harm, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and suicide can be attributed to this damaging culture of ‘social perfectionism.’

This is the argument of a brilliant new book by author Will Storr who traces our story of self obsession back to Ancient Greece and Aristotle. Storr describes how the Greek concept of “selfhood” was heavily based on individual self improvement and through the persistence of personal will one could obtain the optimal level of spiritual, mental, physical, and material being.

Fetishizing the self permeated the Western conscience ever since. Storr decides to live with monks in a secluded monastic settlement, enrolls in the infamous California retreat centre named the Esalen Institute where the “self-esteem” movement is said to have been born and finally stays with the tech evangelist entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley to try and piece together how the modern self was formed and how we can survive it.

This is a phenomenal exploration of Western culture and through Storr’s blend of interviews, personal reflection and analysis the book reads like a Louis Theroux documentary. There are times when chapters can feel verbose and Storr spends a third of the book discussing the Esalen Institute and the libertarian movement’s impact on the social and political direction of the 20th century. Yet it’s a book that has stuck with me a month after reading and opened my mind to the extent our motivations and opinions of ourselves are products of a deeply individualistic culture of perfectionism.  I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Selfie ohoto

Advertisements

Why Satire Isn’t Funny

It’s often promulgated that satire is the great weapon of the powerless against the powerful. Nothing can send the unhinged megalomaniac or deranged despot faster into a toddler tantrum than simply being laughed at.

Yet there is growing criticism that today’s mainstream political satire serves to promote rather than undermine the establishment and extremist politicians. By providing the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg a platform to sit on comedy panel shows and project a “down to earth” persona, willing to “have a laugh” often at their own expense, the viewer (voter) is more likely to associate that politician with the entertaining likable character from TV as opposed to the extremist politician who wants to take away their healthcare or reproductive rights.

Author and scriptwriter James O’Farrell argues that politicians are actually desperate to be satirized as they know it elevates their profile and popularity. He is scathing of the smug, condescending, supposed “satire” of Donald Trump on shows such as SNL, arguing that there is rarely any meaningful or constructive purpose to sketches but that they merely exemplify the arrogant, dismissive attitude of America’s elite toward a serious threat to the future of democracy and global power dynamics.

“At times where there ought to be outrage, comedy substitutes it with ironic acceptance”

The countless number of comedians who masquerade as political commentators see Trump as a goldmine, an endless supply of gags. But is this laughter helpful? Or is it emblematic of the same ignorance The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged when saying  “we missed it” in relation to the paper’s failure to chronicle the rise and genuine appeal of Donald Trump in a grossly divided, unequal society before it was too late.

Satire can be a brilliant means of entertainment but is it the politicians who are getting the last laugh?

Empowered Woman? Who is She?

Author: Khadija Begum

I was at a local film fest earlier this week that was screening movies by amateur film makers on gender based violence. During one of the audience discussions, a girl who must not have been older than 13 and an actor in the movie, in a very well-meaning manner asked a question: How do we teach boys/men to deal with the new generation of empowered/progressive women?

A lot of answers flew around the room but the question bothered me for some reason and I couldn’t put my finger on it for a long time. Then I realised it was the very phrasing of the question “How do we teach boys/men to deal with the new generation of empowered/progressive women?

It gives us an insight to the problem of power imbalance. That female empowerment is a problem that men must “deal with.” Instead of teaching men to “deal with the new generation of empowered women” we should be teaching them to “understand the new generation of empowered women.”

Perhaps the best way one can begin to understand an empowered woman is by defining her. Is she someone who wears a red lipstick? Is she ambitious and career minded? Can she be called empowered if she wears a hijab? Does she have to be well-versed with theories of feminism? Can she really be defined by her choice of lifestyle and clothing? It isn’t that hard to say.

We must begin to change the question from “deal with the new generation of empowered women” to “understand the new generation of empowered women.”

While an empowered woman is definitely not a single construct, at the heart of it all lies one idea – an empowered woman is the one who is able to devote herself to that which she finds meaning in; who can exercise her rights and her choices.

If this idea can be grasped by everyone, the Indian society which has been opening up slowly for a while now, through the efforts and initiatives of many, will reform at a quicker pace. Our business is and always will be to ensure that this awakening is uniform in all cultures and classes of society.

How to ensure? By addressing the issue on all levels that it exists, i.e., societal, professional, household and the individual. There must be gender sensitization sessions in schools, colleges, offices etc. That media and literature is needed which challenges the mainstream notions and stereotypes. The gender roles in office spaces and homes have to be redefined or rather undefined so that they loosen any paradigm of unwarranted limitations. As an individual, one can understand an empowered women by being conscious and critical.

However to truly check the problem of power imbalance, we need to take the next step of awakening, which is, evolving. We evolve when we leave behind our distrust in change; when women empowerment is not a topic of discussions, dialogues or debates but a way of life; when the idea of empowered woman becomes a norm. All of which could take a little more time. Until then, one can strive to be more empowered each day because the best way to make someone understand an empowered woman is to project one.

Khadija Begum writes at ‘Unduly Unruly’ and is a contributing writer at the Conversation Room. You can follow her blog here:

Catalonia: Is Independence Worth It?

Author: Anna Pomortseva

Puidgemont in Brussels, members of Catalan Parliament under threat of imprisonment and more than 1000 firms transferred from Catalonia to Madrid, has Catalonia declared Independence ?

 

” 8 segundos de independencia ” – a new proverb for Catalonia, which speaks of a temporary phenomenon.

The temporary phenomenon is the time period of independence, when on October 10th Carles Puidgemont signed a declaration of separation from the Kingdom of Spain. However, after just 8 seconds he stopped the process. What was it? The failure of the referendum and the triumph of Madrid?

The decision of the Parliament of the Generalitet of Catalonia resulted in negative reactions among supporters of independence. Yet it is necessary to mention that the process of separation needed to be paused to guarantee security and stability for residents.

In dealing with such a volatile situation, Catalonia isn’t ready for an immediate and violent break in relations with Spain. Who will control borders, how will wealth and power be shared, and will a new republic remain within the European market ? The best case scenario would be if Madrid & Barcelona could discuss and solve these questions and salvage the Catalan economy from the turmoil it is in now. But it sounds like utopia, doesn’t it?

In Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which has never been invoked in Spain’s four decades of democracy, the central government is allowed to take control of any of its 17 autonomous communities during crisis situations and may restrict power in the region for a certain period of time. However, the Article does not give a right to completely abolish autonomy in the region.

Right now, the current process would have no influence on the economy. According to the available data, on October 22nd almost 1200 firms transferred their headquarters to other regions in Spain. The lists include CaixaBank, Sabadell, Gas Natural & Agbar. Companies explained their actions by citing how the uncertain political situation could lead to losses.

This is not hard to understand considering the complete chaos in Catalonia. Carlos Puidgemont has left Spain and fled to Belgium in order to avoid arrest. The decision came after the Spanish Prosecutor filed charges of sedition, rebellion and other violations against Puidgemont and members of the Catalan Parliament. One day later the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for fresh elections in December:

On October 31, Carlos Puidgemont announced in Brussels that the Parliament of Catalonia, which was dissolved by the Spanish government, recognized this decision and stopped its work before holding a long-term elections. Deposed leader Puidgemont said he was not trying to escape justice by travelling to Brussels; ” I’m not here to demand political asylum but in order to put Catalan crisis at the heart of the European Union ” he told reporters in Brussels. He added that his return to Catalonia depends on ” guarantees” of   “fair and independent treatment from Madrid “. It is important to also note that the former members of the regional government of Catalonia are accused of misuse public funds. The crime is punishable by 30 years in prison. On November 2nd, already 8 Catalan ministers have been jailed by a Spanish judge over their role in independence on October 1st that was declared illegal under Spain’s Constitution .

Puidgemont reacted to this decision in a televised address on Thursday evening, in which he claimed that “It is a very serious attack on democracy” and the elections on December 21st would be a “coup against the elections”.

There is still a huge divide between demonstrators. They are diverse, coming from all age groups and socioeconomic levels. More and more articles are highlighting that not all of Catalonia supports independence and many believe the Catalan government played their political game in order to meet their own ends.

“I want to be Spanish and I want to live in Barcelona. Who is the Catalonian government to take those rights from me ?” asked Maria Garcia , a resident of Barcelona.

Now on the streets across Catalonia we often here not “Si , Independencia Catalunya” but “Todos Somos Cataluna”, Spanish for “We are all Catalonia”

British historian Sir Antony Beevor believes in unity and that the separatist’s euphoria will be under threat of existence . He states, “Where the Catalans go from here , it’s difficult to tell -but one thing is certain: that the December 21 elections will show that there is not a majority in favor of independence and the world will breath a slight of relief , particularly the EU.”

It should be noted that the concept of holding referenda is becoming popular among regions nowadays. What does it mean for Scotland , Kurdistan , Basque Country and Catalunya to be separate ? Is it a right to self-determination or something more ? There are numbers of self-proclaimed states which are not internationally accepted and this is the major obstacle for such “communities ” in the international arena

Today,  many political scientists place more emphasis on the growth of nationalism as a precondition for separation . Simply said “back to the roots.” In the case of Catalunya , it is return to 1469 when the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castilie laid the foundation for a unified Kingdom of Spain .  There are no other reasons except the high level of nationalism in those communities to be separate from their country and call to the world that they have established new states. However, here is another question : Is it a possible for us to see a new referendum in the near future? Unilateral way to declare independence is an uneasy road for success.

An unrecognized state cannot join the UN or the EU , nor can they avail of the benefits of international financial institutions. Its citizens are less privileged than citizens of other recognized countries. There is always a possibility of territorial dislocations of newly formed states which may lead to contradictions between neighbours . Economic difficulties also can take place : a different currency , difficulties in attracting investment and often economic sanctions.

According to such scenario with so many disadvantages , new countries will face many difficulties on their road to independence . There is nothing to say it is impossible for such states to declare independence but they may not be internationally recognized and not hold status of statehood from the standpoint of international law.

It is a necessary question to ask: Is it worth it ? Instead of making a division of us on black and white , Catalan and Spanish , Turkish and Greek Cypriots , we should put our attention and maximum efforts to the burning problems in the world: poverty , pollution, climate change . As without the world , there will be no sense to the referendum.

This article was published in association with the IRAS Global Observer an eclectic blog of news, politics, history and philosophy from students at Jagiellonian University, Krakow: 

https://irasglobalobserver.wordpress.com/

Fast Food News And Information Obesity

Article was originally published on the Iras Global Observer as part of a new collaboration project between their site and The Conversation Room

Be it the colossal shift in our diets towards snacking processed food to the life changing opportunities of international travel arising from commercial aviation, history shows that for better or worse human behaviour and consumption patterns are shaped by new technologies.

In 2017, nowhere is technology changing our behaviour more rapidly than through mobile consumption of news and information. The research group Pew found that the number of United States citizens who receive news through a mobile device rose from 54% in 2013 to 72% in 2016.

In their more detailed report analysing the demographics of news consumption, Pew found that:

“While solid majorities of both those ages 50-64 (72%) and those 65+ (85%) often get news on TV, far smaller shares of younger adults do so (45% of those 30-49 and 27% of those 18-29). Alternatively, the two younger groups of adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to online platforms for news – 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 49% of those ages 30-49 often do so.”

The data shows the explosive effect of smartphone technology and a global youth migration to social media platforms for news and information. In the past people might skim the morning paper on the train to work or catch the six o’clock news while making dinner but today we have an endless minute by minute drip of news and information at the end of our fingertips.

For news outlets this presents stark new challenges. Rather than only competing with other newspapers and magazines in a shop window, news outlets must now fight on a global scale through the thick grass of cat memes and clickbait to fight for our attention and clicks.

This seismic shift in publishing and consumption was aptly summarized by Katherine Viner, editor of the Guardian and Observer who noted in a recent address:

“The transition from print to digital did not initially change the basic business model for many news organisations – that is, selling advertisements to fund the journalism delivered to readers. For a time, it seemed that the potentially vast scale of an online audience might compensate for the decline in print readers and advertisers. But this business model is currently collapsing, as Facebook and Google swallow digital advertising; as a result, the digital journalism produced by many news organisations has become less and less meaningful.”

Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds contain everything from superficial selfies to news of nuclear Armageddon, delivering content in one messy mashup without significant demarcation between news and fun. Information is not ranked in degree of importance or category but algorithmically ranked in its importance to advertisers and what the hosting platform believe will hook your attention the most.

From annoying, automatic advertisements to eye catching, irresistible clickbait, cynical tactics are employed to suck us into a never-ending cycle of meaningless clicks and consumption.

Viner notes:

“Publishers that are funded by algorithmic ads are locked in a race to the bottom in pursuit of any audience they can find – desperately binge-publishing without checking facts, pushing out the most shrill and most extreme stories to boost clicks. But even this huge scale can no longer secure enough revenue.”

This highlights how the capacity for mainstream media to operate its dualistic goal of being a trusted information outlet and a commercially viable business in the digital age have come into radical reconsideration. Subscription based services have failed to garner significant support and reliance on ad revenue means journalists are evermore replaced by BuzzFeed style “content creators” often pumping out 10 commodified stories a day without making a phone call.

“Where once we had propaganda, press releases, journalism, and advertising,” the academic Emily Bell has written, “we now have ‘content’.” Readers are overwhelmed: bewildered by the quantity of “news” they see every day, nagged by intrusive pop-up ads, confused by what is real and what is fake, and confronted with an experience that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

The information overload is having drastic consequences on our mental health and collective social wellbeing. On an individual level the constant competition for our attention can leave many miserable, anxious and eventually feeling they have lost valuable time and years to aimlessly scrolling through newsfeeds and consuming junk news.

There’s also the superficial egoism which has crept into news consumption. If you share an article from the Guardian about climate change, you are signalling to the world that you are a caring liberal who is concerned about the imminent ecological collapse of our world. Sharing news, just like sharing photos of your food has become all about ego and brand. #Vegan #NewYorkTimes.

From a wider societal perspective, we cannot underestimate the massive loss of a common sphere of news. One of the primary public goods of media is the power to engender public debate and provide a platform for different societal groups to communicate with one another. Yet Facebook is wilfully blind to the interests of community and the public good. All its algorithm sees is individual consumers whose attention can be captured and monetized by concentrating content they know you will click upon.

When claims that Russia had hired trolls to bombard certain demographics of the U.S population with “fake news” during the 2016 U.S Presidential election the damage caused may have been more subliminal than obvious. It is not that people believe fake stories (well some believed Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring in a Washington DC Pizza parlour) but that they are bombarded with so much information that it becomes disorienting and difficult to determine what to believe and who to trust. This misanthropic media landscape of misinformation and mistrust is a serious threat to the future of liberal democracy.

Individuals are following news that never challenges but only reinforces their ideas about the world and tailors a narrative of world events to suit the audience. Thus, once established an online community can be far more important to individuals than their geographical one. Democracy today is waking up to a world where people are physically living beside each other but digitally couldn’t be further apart.

 

Why Young People Are Ditching Social Media For Good

The featured image is a work by the incredibly talented Steve Cutts.

Kids growing up in 2017’s digital dystopia are sold one of the biggest lies ever told. That social media is an innocuous online tool to “connect” with friends.

In reality social media has destroyed meaningful connection and replaced it with artificial online packs of “like-minded individuals” who all hold the same beliefs and subscribe to the same dogmas. This meticulously designed,  hyper-addictive technology’s only mantra is to keep the audience hooked for as many hours of the day as possible, monetize their attention by collecting data and sell it to advertisers.

Facebook says it has an eye-popping 2 billion users. It is staggering to see how globally, so much of our lives have migrated to platforms controlled and designed by a few Silicon Valley engineers. The exciting explosion of smartphone technology has overshadowed the questions as to whether tech companies should have such an invasive, intimate role in our lives. Leader in tech design ethics Tristan Harris explains why we should be concerned about tech changing our behaviour:

“Companies say, we’re just getting better at giving people what they want. But the average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Is each one a conscious choice? No. Companies are getting better at getting people to make the choices they want them to make.”

Young people are particularly vulnerable. Being introduced at such a young age to this addictive, disconnected lifestyle has created drug like dependencies among teens and desensitized many to sex and violence as they are daily exposed to porn and brutality online. This constant stimulation and competition for our attention also leaves many miserable, anxious and eventually feeling they have lost valuable time and years to aimlessly scrolling through newsfeeds and trying to convince others that they live a perfect life.

Is there hope?

Yet this business model of enslaving us to our phones is unsustainable. History shows that when advertisers and attention grabbers go too far, the people fight back. No more so than in 1860’s Paris when an aspiring young artist named Jules Chéret discovered the “billboard” as a technological innovation in commercial advertising. By creating seven foot tall, brightly coloured posters displaying eye-catching imagery such as half dressed women Chéret quickly became widely famous as a pioneer in art and commerce and others quicky began imitating his work.

Eventually though it became all too much. The constant attention grabbing of commercial advertising stripped Paris of it’s architectural beauty and engendered a social revolt. Parisians declared war on “the ugly poster” and began lobbying the City government to limit where advertisements could be placed, ban billboards from train tracks and heavily tax them in other public spaces.

The government took aggressive action and today many of the advertisement restrictions are still in place which is why Paris remains in many parts a beautiful city, unperturbed by the constant assault of advertising.

Will a similar revolt occur today in relation to social media? It’s difficult to say, we have become so individualized, I sometimes question whether young people still have the drive to organize and mobilize on mass or whether our conception of protest amounts to signing an online petition and joining a protest Facebook page.

But I do have hope. The first sparks of rebellion are already beginning to fly. Figures released in October show that 57% of schoolchildren in the UK would not mind if social media never existed and an even larger, 71% say they have taken “digital detoxes” to escape its constant stimulation, distraction and pressures.

The BBC also reported that pupils in Kent have  set up a three-day “phone-fast”. With sixth former Isobel Webster, describing:

“There’s a feeling that you have to go on Instagram, or whatever [site], to see what everyone’s doing – sometimes everyone’s talking about something and you feel like you have to look at it too”.

One Year 10 pupil, Pandora Mann, 14, said she was a bit annoyed at the phone-fast initially, but soon realised “we don’t enjoy our phones as much as we think we do”.

“In terms of the way we view ourselves and our lives negatively,” she explained, “I think people put what they see as their best image forward – it’s not always the real image.”

Isobel said that the ban stopped her from sitting in her room scrolling through social media and encouraged her to spend her work breaks chatting to friends.

She said it reminded her “what it was like before” – when as a Year 7 (aged 12) she would spend more time socialising in person.

Kids today are showing that they are not just the most tech savvy among us they’re also the most tech sensitive. Counterculture movements are cropping up and tapping into the undercurrent of anger and disillusionment experienced by many.

Folk Rebellion is one interesting example. A movement dedicated to reconnecting people with reality, creating a more balanced relationship with tech and ‘living in the present with actual things.’ Young people are gravitating to these movements as they begin to rediscover the pleasures of physical books, reconnect with the physical world and relearn what it means to live a fulfilling life.

The resistance is rising.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Storytellers are the Most Powerful People on Earth

Our entire lives are governed by stories. From the idea that certain pieces of paper are worth “$20” to the belief that to live a good life one must follow their passions, the stories we believe shape the course of our lives.

Humans have harnessed this power to co-operate in large numbers and create ordered communities governed by a common set of beliefs and inter-subjective reality. The most obvious example of this is global capitalism. We universally are told to believe in a system of ‘credit’ and that by imagining coins and paper as having real value they can be exchanged for tangible goods. We are also told to believe in brands called “Google” and “Starbucks”, countries called “France” and “India” – beliefs that have such an overarching influence on our lives we tend to forget they are the product of human storytelling rather than scientifically discovered objective facts.

As individuals we are bound hand and foot by these inter-subjective realities. If you wish to disagree and not believe in money or government you won’t get very far. The only way to break free from such entrenched beliefs is to convince people on a mass scale to think differently. The most common way of doing this is by telling new stories.

From Jesus to Karl Marx, compelling storytellers have been able to shape and influence the direction of human history. Hundreds of millions of lives have been affected both for the good and bad by the beliefs and ideas of certain individuals.

It can be disorientating to think just how powerful these stories are. Yet it’s crucially important and relevant that we begin to understand the story of planet earth we are all apart of.  In the face of global challenges such as climate change, artificial intelligence and nuclear weaponry in the hands of man-children, most people feel they are at best unimportant extras in this precarious story of the twenty first century’s fragile fight for its collective future.

Powerlessness is also a result of the ruthless individualism and isolation which is at the heart of our fundamentalist beliefs in the modern economic system. The most powerful way we can counter these feelings and pave the way for change is to begin to tell better and more optimistic stories about what the future for humans could look like.

It won’t be the politicians, the engineers nor the scientists who will solve the crises the world faces today but the storytellers who give them the reasons why.