“Le nostre menti possono essere sequestrate, dicono i tecnologi che temono una distopia da telefonini”, recita il titolo del Guardian.È un’affermazione piuttosto forte. Ed è un’affermazione a effetto. Decido di prenderla con le pinze per due motivi: il primo è che l’articolo parla di internet e di social network (il posto d’elezione per le frasi a effetto), e potrebbe, ehm, a sua volta risentire dello stile corrente in rete.Il secondo motivo è strettamente anagrafico: avendo cominciato a lavorare con la comunicazione nei primi anni settanta, mi sono trovata in piena bufera da Persuasori occulti.
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As a teacher who has long witnessed and worried about the impacts of technology in the classroom, I constantly struggle to devise effective classroom policies for smartphones. I used to make students sing or dance if their phones interrupted class, and although this led to some memorable moments, it also turned inappropriate tech use into a joke. Given the myriad deleterious effects of phones – addiction, decline of face-to-face socialisation, deskilling, and endless distraction, for starters – I want students to think carefully about their phone habits, rather than to mindlessly follow (or not follow) a rule.
When I was a teenager I went to West Berlin with my local youth orchestra to take part in an Anglo-German cultural exchange. It was 1983 and the wall was up. As we toured the city over 10 days, we would keep butting into this grotesque cold war installation blocking our way, and butting up against my 14-year-old’s defence of socialism.At that age I reflexively rejected most dominant narratives about race, class and nation. During a period of sus laws and anti-union legislation, I already understood there had to be another version of freedom out there that included me, and I was busy piecing together the fragments of my own worldview. And yet no amount of rationalisation could shake my conclusion that people whom I disagreed with about pretty much everything else were right about the wall.Clearly, built with the deliberate intention to trap people in a place they might not want to be, the wall was heinous – not just a bad idea, but morally wrong. As such, it was the most obscene symbol of the broader case against the eastern bloc. The fact their governments would not allow residents to travel to the west was prima facie evidence of their lack of freedom: they were understood to be like open prisons.Not long after the wall came down, this entire logic went into reverse. As country after country shed its Stalinist overlords and went into free-market freefall, the case for their peoples’ right to leave was eclipsed by the fear that they might actually come. In the west their “freedom” was welcomed; their presence was not. While they were demolishing the wall, we were building a fortress. Politics kept them in. For more than a decade, before they gained admission to the European Union, economics would keep them out.
If you spend any amount of time reading books on Buddhism, or hanging out with Buddhists, you’re likely to encounter the mysterious idea known as the “doctrine of emptiness”. I’ve never understood it, yet always liked it, probably because I’m perversely drawn to how bleakly depressing it sounds. (Buddhism is full of this downbeat stuff: for example, did you know that reincarnation, traditionally, was seen a bad thing? The goal of meditation was to stop yourself being reborn next time. It’s less a religion of smiles and flowers, more a death cult.) According to the doctrine of emptiness, all existence is, in some sense, empty. I still don’t totally understand what that means. But I’m a lot closer thanks to Robert Wright’s superb, level-headed new book Why Buddhism Is True. And the answer, it turns out, isn’t even very depressing: it could be a much-needed antidote to our increasingly angry times.
This past week was not a good week for women. In the United States, it was reported that a man who allegedly raped a 12-year-old girl was granted joint custody of the resultant eight-year-old boy being raised by his young mother.Earlier in the week, the severed head and legs of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who disappeared after entering inventor Peter Madsen’s submarine, were discovered near Copenhagen. A hard drive belonging to Madsen, Danish police said, was loaded with videos showing women being decapitated alive.A Swedish model received rape threats for posing in an Adidas advertisement with unshaven legs. The University of Southern California’s dean of medicine was dumped after reports resurfaced that he had sexually harrassed a young medical researcher in 2003. A number of men at liberal publications were revealed to have contacted Milo Yiannopoulos, urging him to attack women – “Please mock this fat feminist,” wrote a senior male staff writer at Vice’s women’s channel, since fired. And, of course, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was described by the New York Times as a serial sexual harasser; his alleged offences, according to a TV journalist, including trapping her in a hallway, where he masturbated until he ejaculated into a potted plant.
The Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he said earlier this year that the social media giant wants to bring together communities and help people “find a sense of purpose and support”. As a film-maker, I know that cinema is an ideal medium for opening minds and, in Zuckerberg’s words, “expanding our horizons”. Films are not designed to serve as schools or teach lessons. They are spectacles. Even so, those spectacles can have profoundly political dimensions. Through cinema, distant countries have got to know one another and powerful taboos have been overcome.Politicians rightly fear and respect these powers. This is why authoritarians have always sought to subjugate them. History shows us that fascists and Stalinists have little patience for dissenting views – especially when those views are immortalised in the form of a book, a painting, a play or a film.
About 20 per cent of the United States population (60 million out of 300 million people) are non-native speakers of English. Speaking multiple languages has advantages – for example, you get to talk to people from different cultures. But being a non-native or second-language (L2) speaker also has its challenges. In addition to often feeling self-conscious about their accents, L2 speakers can be viewed by native speakers as less intelligent, and less trustworthy.Thus it might come as a surprise that, in 1980, Henry Kissinger (the former US secretary of state and a non-native English speaker, originally from Germany) told Arianna Huffington (the Greek immigrant and entrepreneur/writer who would eventually start The Huffington Post) not to worry about [her] accent, ‘because you can never, in American public life, underestimate the advantages of complete and total incomprehensibility’.
Peering beyond scientific reticence.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.
The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.
What will future generations, looking back on our age, see as its monstrosities? We think of slavery, the subjugation of women, judicial torture, the murder of heretics, imperial conquest and genocide, the first world war and the rise of fascism, and ask ourselves how people could have failed to see the horror of what they did. What madness of our times will revolt our descendants?There are plenty to choose from. But one of them, I believe, will be the mass incarceration of animals, to enable us to eat their flesh or eggs or drink their milk. While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.
You’re at home trying to make fresh tomato sauce, but can’t seem to get the tomatoes out of their plastic container from the grocery store. The bottom latch is not opening, so you pull harder. Although you’ve never seen this type of tomato container before, you have opened many similar ones in the past. After a minute of trying, you stop to consider the situation – should you keep pushing and pulling? Should you ask a friend for help? Should you give up on fresh tomatoes and just open a can?
We make decisions like this all the time. How much effort should we expend on something? We have only so much time and energy in the day. Five minutes fumbling with the container is five minutes taken away from reading a book, talking to your family or sleeping. In any given situation, you must decide how hard to try.
Developmental cognitive scientists like me are interested in how we make decisions about effort. In particular, how do young children, who are constantly encountering new situations, decide how hard to try?