With the holidays upon us and two extraordinarily difficult years behind us, I’ve been reflecting on the impact of long periods of isolation many of us have experienced. Curiously it’s not all bad, because I think we have learned to appreciate the time we have alone as well as with others.
Balance offers us a framework for interpreting our thoughts and actions in a dynamic set of circumstances we can neither predict nor control. Resilience is all about never ceding optimism to defeat, but all of us have a breaking point where too much uncertainty creates doubt in our sense of self and others. I think we need both individual and shared strength to be at our best, and holding onto hope that we can overcome doubt is very much an exercise we pursue separately and together.
As we ready ourselves for another year of daunting and exhausting challenges, here are a few perspectives I’m attempting to balance to better navigate the always unpredictable social landscape:
Separately we study in quiet;
Together we validate the suppositions of that study.
Separately we examine the data collected from our experiments;
Together we wrestle that data into a platform of possible directions.
“Someone has to tell me why we keep allowing social media and our very lives as social creatures to be dictated by the most socially awkward person in history.” — Bill Maher
I have the same nagging question. The self-celebrating visionary Mark Zuckerberg continues to express that he knows something about building human ties that the rest of us can learn from his business mission. I see scant evidence that Zuck can guide us anywhere better than where we are at the moment or have been. There is near zero chance that he is going to stop talking because his determined point of view is driven by a conflicted agenda where he benefits most. I am done listening.
I recently learned a new acronym: IRL. You’re probably ahead of me, but it means In Real Life. That would be the opposite of what we bucket today under the category of virtual. Virtual would be something other than sharing the same physical space. Zoom is virtual. Social media is virtual. Running around in a 3D online game space is virtual. Meta is virtual.
If you already know this, forgive me for catching up late. Here’s something that might irritate you even more: I don’t like Meta. Agreed, I don’t like the company now known as Meta, but I really don’t like the idea of meta.
Said better, if I have a choice to interact with you in person—In Real Life—unless we’ve already established an unrepairable dislike for each other, I would prefer to interact with you in shared physical space over shared electronic space. I believe we get more done in person more quickly. I believe there are fewer errors in interpretation when we are together in person. I believe our relationship has a better chance to improve in person. I believe our manners are better in person.
That doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for virtual, I just prefer IRL. Virtual has proven more accessible, often more practical, certainly more economic. The compromise is that virtual leans toward purely transactional exchange, algorithmic efficiency often at the expense of building emotional intelligence. There’s the rub—a lot can get lost when we eliminate nuance from contact.
Zuck probably doesn’t agree. I don’t think the renaming of Facebook to Meta is simply a PR stunt to get us to see past the failings of the platform called Facebook. I think he saw the early experiment called Second Life as an end, not a means. He lives better in the virtual. He belongs in the virtual. He wants us to join him in the virtual. He can be King of All Data in the virtual.
Count me out.
My sense is much of the unbearable divisiveness we are experiencing results from too many of us coming to the conclusion that virtual, or meta, is a substitute for IRL. I’ll accept virtual as an adjunct to IRL—an extension, enhancement, or convenience to supplement IRL. I also think we need to relearn IRL, and quickly, because human contact is a big part of what makes us human. Creating a machine interface between us does not always extract our best selves.
Regretfully, I am a hypocrite on this. I worked with an innovative team at Disney over a decade ago that created ToonTown Online, the first massively multiplayer universe for kids and families, complete with third-party vetted built-in safety. We never intended this virtual playground to be a substitute for recess or a replacement for after-school outdoor activity. It was meant as an alternative for when that playground wasn’t available, particularly for children dependent on parents for logistics.
I don’t think alternative or supplement is what Zuck has in mind. I think primary platform is what he has in mind, as addictive as Facebook, but even more isolating. We will have less agency in Meta. We will have less freedom. We will behave less well.
Zuck will have more authority. Zuck will have more control over directing our actions. Zuck will revel in even less oversight. Zuck will make more money.
Dystopian fiction usually takes us on a gradual journey into descent. In well-told stories, it doesn’t happen in an instant. We are drawn in slowly. Then we realize we have been had and are trapped. Kind of like Facebook.
I see a revolt on the horizon. It won’t look like January 6. It will be the alternative to getting “Zucked” in. Slowly we will grow tired of Facebook. Meta will fail, because IRL is better.
Several years ago during another public flare-up, I posed this question: Is Facebook the Next AOL? Then as now, I wondered if the voracious beast would devolve into oblivion. Why does that destiny today seem even more possible? Because Meta is fundamentally flawed. It advances a business agenda over a human objective. It presumes addiction is a higher-order force than graciously serving customer needs.
Zuck early on said the purpose of Facebook was to make the world more open and connected. He lied. How do I know that? Because he walked away from that proclamation the same way that Google walked away from don’t be evil. It was too hard to be consistent and authentic. Eliminating the binding pretension made it way easier to generate exponentially more cash.
The purpose of Facebook is to collect vast amounts of personal data and leverage it for advertising value. I’m actually okay with that. It’s a true and understandable business objective. We can resist it. We will resist it.
The purpose of Meta is to head-fake us from the world we need to improve to an alternate reality we can never make better than the one we can experience IRL. Even John Carmack, the technical genius behind Oculus, knows the vast details behind building a metaverse are well beyond the hype of advocating for its imminent commercial deployment.
Here’s a thought, Mr. Meta: Fix some of the nasty problems you’ve already created moving fast and breaking things before you dump another pile of poorly considered conflict on us.
Lest you be readying to drop the Luddite card on me, please know that I remain wildly optimistic about the application of virtual reality and augmented reality to medical and other scientific research. I also bear no grudge toward the gaming community, which gave birth to my career, as long as it approaches immersive gaming in a healthy balance with healthy living.
My gripe is with Zuck and anyone else advocating isolating technologies. Escape is not a viable substitute for learning to develop coping mechanisms that lead to mastery of the highly demanding but uniquely rewarding anything-but-meta real world.
Let’s hear a cheer for evolving our delicate mastery of IRL.
Avoidance of human beings in person is not a strategy for learning how to navigate the human landscape, which is created in a natural state to be physical first, virtual as an adjunct and counterpoint. A little social media now and again probably won’t ruin our lives, everything in moderation. Digital sharing can have its place when it defies obsession. I suggested a better rebranding of Facebook might have been Happy Birthday Central. That would celebrate its finest function.
Focus on the basics as we revisit each other IRL: being polite, making eye contact, actually laughing when something is funny rather than typing LOL. Go outside for walks, and when it’s safe to be maskless, smile at passersby. Feel the sun and the rain on your biological skin and be thankful for the gift of our senses.
We truly are a unique blend of the physical, psychological, and dare I say, spiritual. Productive communities are established in tangible places before they become replicated models. There remains evidence to suggest we can be better together than separate. It takes work to keep producing this evidence, but my experience is that removing an LED screen between us offers a dimension of clarity that is otherwise less satisfying and cannot be replicated.
When we let Zuck know we are out on Meta and all-in on true human connections, the real agenda of living with advanced technology can continue. As I have written so many times, technology is advancing much more quickly than our ability to make sense of it. This is not a secret. It’s why we feel anxiety. It’s why we don’t like Mark Zuckerberg when his answers to the hardest questions are unsatisfactory. His vision will not be our vision.
Bill Maher summarized his point of view in his recent ‘New Rules’ segment on Real Time succinctly: “The more time you spend in the virtual world, the more you suck at engaging in the real world.”
Given too many of my own interactions in the pandemic recovering world, I find that awfully and unfortunately compelling.
Last month I wrote briefly about the fallacy of the upper hand. The responses I received from people navigating similar bouts of forced will remind me how not normal our lives remain. Over the past year and a half, many employees have learned to work remotely, and to some the routine of working from home is now its own form of normalcy. At the same time, we are increasingly returning to the workplace and trying to adjust to the structure of sharing a space with colleagues and strangers for a third of each day.
To assume everyone can walk back into the workplace and public spaces without some enhanced focus on conduct seems to me naïve. Human beings are certainly adaptable, but I worry that we might be presuming a level of adaptability that confuses the comfort zone of individuals with the smooth functioning of collective interests. You’ve no doubt heard about the outbreaks of passenger rage on commercial flights. They are not as isolated as we might want to believe.
Covid-19 has taken away a lot of daily practice from our interactions. It’s not just that it is easy to forget how different it is to interact in person than it is to communicate through electronic platforms. Talking into screens is not a fully rendered substitute for being together. We have developed habits in our physical solitude that have taught us to be effective in doing what is expected of us, but some of those habits may not make the most of opportunities to emerge with a broader purpose. We may find it easier to behave in certain ways when we are alone than when we are together, and bridging those geographies may not be as simple as flexible switching between environments in what many now label as hybrid work.
There is more to the next generation workplace than where we do what we do. There is a mindset I think we need to share—a set of shared values—that seems to me more traditional than circumstantial. If we want to adapt to new paradigms for interacting, perhaps the rules governing those interactions are agnostic to place. It seems critical with the perpetual noise around us that as we adjust to the new back-to-work standards we insist on a standard of decency in our endeavors.
In recommitting to an extraordinary standard of civility, here are four simple pillars I would expect of myself and others.
Tell the Truth
When I say tell the truth, I mean all the time. It’s easy to tell the truth when it is what others want to hear and it avoids controversy. It is much harder to tell the truth when we have made a mistake, when data is being manipulated by someone in authority, or when the cost of that truth is one’s own popularity. The problem with honesty is that it can’t be a tool of convenience. We must tell the truth not because there is penalty if we don’t, but because we cannot universally insist on it from others if we don’t stand by the promise that it is inarguable. Understand what is empirical and fully embrace integrity. Silence when the truth is known is not a noble dodge, it is another form of mistruth.
Your Name Belongs to You
Unless one’s life is at risk for civil rights abuses, most of what people author anonymously is cowardly. We can argue the difference between old media and new media is the presence of an editor creating an artificial funnel on access to audience, but one of those old school norms was the expectation in authorship of identity. We should write with a by-line, with our name associated with our thoughts, and with our style of verbal and written communication enhanced by our ownership of that expression. You have only one good name. Protect it through accuracy, clarity, absence of pointless invective, and even if eloquence is beyond reach, at least frame the deliberate use of language in a context that is purposeful.
We can stand on our authority, or we can strive to get people on our side. It has never been clearer to me that style is content, that the outcome we are trying to achieve is inextricably linked to the form of our argument. Approach those around you with respect and there is a much higher chance they might be interested in the thought behind the point you are making rather than just the interpretation of their role in the outcome. Avoid the opportunity to build consensus at your own peril, but even when you must deliver the top-down tiebreaker, do it with finesse, restricting the hammer to the impossible sell. The Golden Rule survives the centuries because some ideals do make sense even when we fail ceaselessly to take them seriously. Hear the words you are saying. Would they get you encouraged, inspired, and onboard?
Survivors know that careers can last or not. The yes you got today—the yes that was so important you worked tirelessly for months to hear—is as fleeting as any other decision in the moment. Short-term action without a long-term framework is a high-risk gamble. Telling a half-truth might get you to the end of the week. Cleverly masking your name from an unpopular report might get you through the review cycle. Effectively bullying a coworker might swing a lost debate to your advantage. All of those will cost you. Steve Jobs used to talk about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. You need both in balance to build a lasting brand—to establish and reinforce a credible promise. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals at random and go “up and to the right” repeatedly without a plan. The winning strategy when others are winging it is to think long.
Welcome to the new world. Sounds a lot like the old world, only with less commuting. Count me in.
I said a final goodbye to a longtime friend recently. He was intensely private and not at all a fan of social media so I won’t name him here. I do feel the need to write about him, so I hope I am in-bounds handling this in the abstract.
We actually lost him during Covid, but the logistics of his memorial had to wait for travel arrangements. He wasn’t a Covid victim, perhaps just the timing. He had other medical issues that lasted all his life. I have known this person since we were 11 years old, which I believe makes him the longest-standing friend I have maintained. I didn’t do a great job of maintaining that friendship, but luckily I did visit with him right before Covid. He gave me a reasonably rebellious book right in line with his lifelong wit and irritation with the unreasonable. I gave him a copy of my last book. We never got to discuss either.
The medical condition that haunted him dates back to our earliest conversations. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, but if you were in his circle, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. It was a neuromuscular disease and although his entire life would be linked by operations and treatments, he refused to let his life be defined by it. It was existential. He understood existential.
Several years ago I wrote a tribute to Jerry Lewis when he died. I had been involved as a supporter and volunteer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association since childhood and strangely always felt a connection to Jerry. I remember discussing this with my friend in childhood. He had a mixed reaction to MDA. He appreciated all the donations that Jerry inspired to invest in research, but he was troubled by all the photoshoots and poster children. This friend was sufficiently progressive but never woke. When I wrote my piece on Jerry he wrote to me after a very long stretch of absence, almost out of the blue, a brief email to me that began:
“So I don’t get a mention in the Jerry Lewis post? I cried when he died. Loved him as a funny man.”
He then went on to blast MDA, a very harsh critique. You see, this friend understood the nature of a mixed bag. He could see light and dark in the same moment. Dark was really dark but light was talent, accomplishment, connection, selfless commitment.
Yes, a mixed bag. Aren’t we all? Particularly a half-century past the day we meet a childhood friend.
There were phases to our friendship following our seven years together leading to high school graduation. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job. Just a college degree and hope. My friend was still in college here and welcomed me to sleep on his sofa until I could establish credit and find a place (it was actually his sister’s apartment, although he deftly negotiated my path in the door). I used to comb through the L.A. Times each day looking for apartment rentals and employment. Soon enough those came together and I moved on. I don’t forget that sofa. It was a symbol of friendship. I drive by that apartment every once in a while. Yes, the proverbial launchpad.
Years later when I was immersed in a writing assignment and seeking his feedback, he told me that someday he might want to write a movie or book. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to write about, but he told me with certainty he knew what the last line would be: “Let’s go home.”
There is a lot of resonance in those three words. Home for him was not specifically a place or even a metaphor. It is an idea, an aspiration, a Platonic Form.
He enjoyed a celebrated career in architecture and co-founded his own firm. He was a master of sculpture and ceramic design. He cherished historic structures and the learning to be found in the history of art. The notion of home was alive and well in all his aesthetic constructs. He clearly saw the natural extension of people into the curious things they chose to build, not always successfully, but hopefully with conviction.
Sometimes when I am getting to know someone, I ask them what three words they would most hope someone else would use to describe them. I never asked this friend that question because when your connection reaches back to childhood, you have a lot of time to think about it.
He was resilient. He was uncompromising. He was nuanced.
Resilient—because no matter the physical or character challenge he faced, he never backed away from it, never let it be an excuse or obstacle, never complained that he wasn’t dealt a fair hand, never asked for a different set of rules.
Uncompromising—because if you were wrong, he would tell you so, and even when you argued coherently that you weren’t wrong, he’d explain what you were missing in your evaluation and help you see why a counterintuitive approach might create a bridge to his logic.
Nuanced—because he knew wherever light entered a prism, its refraction could not be contained, mixing light and darkness in most forms of thought, the beautiful and the sublime in most expressions of art, good and not-so-good outcomes in too many of our intentions, however noble our purpose.
Our touchpoints form a pastiche of separately evolving but forever interconnected lives. A love of the water, whether on the natural coastline, an inelegant water skiing loop, or a boat shared with friends at sea. Political fairness and equal justice in limitless dialogue. The intersection of historical philosophy and pragmatic psychology. A belief that the courage to choose honest words matters more than our ability to perfectly craft them under pressure. An ardent shared defense of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. These are bonds time cannot undermine.
Lives together and apart twist and weave. Our relationships with each other are fluid. We don’t realize that when we come together and separate, but it is the course of things.
This particular friend’s family had a vast impact on me. Counsel from his father set my life on a course that has let me be who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same otherwise. It’s not just your friends who transform you. It is their circles and the circles you cannot imagine are forming in the background of your journey. When you look back, it is all so clear. At the time, it seems like just hanging out.
Sometimes I think there is no such thing as just hanging out. Everything can be consequential. You don’t know that at the time. That’s the scary part. We’d best pay closer attention all the time.
There are few realities more absolute than mortality. It is the universal link that humbles us all. It translates directly to the impermanence of our time together. That can be hours, days, years, decades, or most of a lifetime. We seldom understand it that way, because time does not reveal itself that way. The passing of time is certain, but not our shared intervals.
When we lose someone, we are reminded both of our own insignificance in the continuum of earthly events and our enormous significance in the impact lives can have on each other. I am thinking about that now in the span of a half-century, about what I did right and wrong in this friendship, what I could have done better, and how I am changed and shaped by this remarkable individual’s authenticity.