Friday, June 02, 2023

Curbs on social-media sharing will only intensify the divide

What will happen once social media cuts us off from sharing news stories with our connections? That strange development has the potential of sending us even deeper into our respective echo chambers, where no complex problems can ever be addressed. 

We have been heavily manipulated into our interest groups by social media for a number of years now, and it's becoming very obvious that it hasn't been a good thing. So on the one hand, so long, social media, and thanks for nothing for getting us all weird and angry at each other about every damn thing. But on the other, what now?

If you are reading good journalism from totally trusted sources and generally living life with your eyes open, you will be well aware that the world is in a kind of Black Mirror moment. It's like one of those movies where a bunch of chimpanzees or a flock of birds suddenly start doing something super-odd, and every viewer knows to interpret that as code for some very big which-what-everywhere weirdness to come. 

Those are the times we're in. And now, having been shoved into our corners by social media's marketing algorithms for many years, we face being blocked from sharing news items with our networks because of a game of chicken between social media corporations and government, which is  taking up arms on behalf of media companies unhappy that advertisers like social media best.

This is all taking place just as we are facing some of the biggest issues the human race has ever confronted. 

Climate change, artificial intelligence, book burning, the threat of nuclear warfare, one wild precedent-setting storm or fire or flood after another, people being killed on subways because their mental illness is annoying other passengers, communities running out of water. There's some intense stuff going on.

We're either going to start talking to each other reasonably about how to find solutions that are as fair as possible to all concerned, or we're setting the stage for human annihilation. (Not to be overly dramatic, but don't you think so?) 

We are wasting precious time, people. Whatever side you're on, whatever the issue, you know in your heart it's not possible to yell the other side into submission. We're going to need to talk. 

I'm not going all unicorns-and-rainbows here and imagining the lions lying with the lambs, peace and love among humankind. I know that's not going to happen. But we can find ways to identify common cause, and start there. Right, left or straight down the centre, none of us wants the water to run out on our kids and grandkids or to lose what a healthy environment gives us. 

Social media certainly has the potential to help. I still remember how excited I was at the thought of people from all around the world and a million perspectives suddenly able to talk to each other freely about all the big things on their minds. (Ha. Silly me.)

But we were never able to share information freely, as we all know now. Our feeds are curated, using criteria that is pulled from all the bits of information that we offer up about ourselves when we use social media. Advertisers like it that way.

I've noticed in my own page that my posts are no longer being seen by people who don't think like me, as judging by the very long time it has been since anyone contrary posted anything on my feed. I guess I'm supposed to be happy about an algorithmic defence against trolls provided to me by Facebook whether I wanted it or not, but I can't see how we ever solve problems if we all stay in our boxes surrounded by people just like us.

Meanwhile, a tiny fraction of the people in each of our social media networks even see what we share. If you're sharing a link these days, that seems to send your post into purgatory as well. I can tell that Facebook's algorithms like it best when I offer up a cheery here's-my-day kind of thing, or a photo of my dog. If only the world's problems could be solved with photos of my dog.

So yes, this whole social media business was fraught from the outset. There's a lot that's wrong with it. But eliminating the sharing of legitimate news articles is just about the last thing we need as we try to fight through all the hot air out here.

Modern media has much on its mind, including having to figure out new revenue streams and get more readers. But give me a well-researched Guardian or New York Times article any time over a bunch of random people's opinions about stuff they know nothing about.

The difficult conversations are stacking up. We're down to a talk-or-die situation on a number of fronts. We were never going to settle it all on Facebook, true enough. But it sure isn't going to be settled by making it even harder for people to get to information from a source they can hold accountable.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

The civility of silence

"Don't talk about Trump/guns/abortion/covid/climate change," friends and family variously cautioned me as I prepared for a three-week road trip in the US last month.

No worries. I rarely talk about those things even with people I know well. I love a great conversation about big issues when the time and the scene is right, but I'm also just fine with talking about what kind of bird that is over there, or what the price of gas was in the last town each of us passed through. 

The 22-day trip through five states was such a welcome reminder for me that Americans are still good people, their country is freaking gorgeous, and the US is exceptional for road-tripping. I was glad for the chance to have mundane little conversations with random fellow campers and service people along my route about our lives at that moment, with no straying into anyone's beliefs on this or that polarizing issue. 

The world has had to talk so much about big, heavy issues for the last three years. I had no idea what any of my friends' views on vaccination were prior to the pandemic, but I sure do now. Once that issue started dividing everyone, all the other simmering divisive points between us boiled over.

I guess it's been a kind of war, all of us taking sides and forming camps of like-minded people where opinions have hardened. And now it's like a habit, and we struggle to fathom how we could ever have anything in common with these people who are so Not Like Us. 

And then you go on a road trip, and meet many nice people. You talk about the things you have in common - the stress of a snowy mountain pass; whether the showers in the public washroom are fixed; how to blow air through a chunk of metal tubing to liven up a lagging campfire. 

All conversations are conducted knowing that you may or may not be across the divide on so many issues. Maybe they vote Republican. Maybe you're a socialist. Maybe they have a gun in their trailer. Maybe you're "woke."  Maybe they support book bans and criminalizing abortion. Maybe you can be ranty on climate change, and downright depressing on the likely fate of the Great Salt Lake.

But in this moment, we're all choosing not to talk about any of that, here at Tumalo State Park or wherever that night's road has ended. 

We do need to find ways to have difficult conversations on big issues, because that's a real thing in these polarized times. But I am grateful for the road-trip reminder that we have a lot more in common as human beings than we do dividing us. 

Get a job, raise the kids, stay well, enjoy your spare time - whatever our differences, most of us want a version of that. There's a lot to talk about right there. And once we all remember how we all ultimately want the same thing, it might be a little easier to talk about the hard stuff. 

I had a moment at the aquarium in Boise where a bunch of us were all gathered around trying to lure swimming manta rays up to give them a little pet. (It is an exquisite experience if you have yet to try it.) 

Looking around at the all-ages faces and cultural influences on display around the ray pool, it struck me that we would probably get into an ugly, protracted argument on any number of the big issues. But at that moment, we were just a bunch of dazzled strangers smiling goofily at each other at the feeling of a manta ray choosing to swim to our hands.

We are different, but we are so much the same. Thank you, Roadtrip 2023. I needed that.


Curious about the trip itself? Find me on Facebook - I documented my trip there and my postings are all public.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

When the end-of-days feelings get you down, choose up

Indri Robyy, Pixabay

Doom-scrolling is real, and I know to try to avoid it for fear of entering that hyper-vigilant, chronically worried state that can set in when your adrenal system gets worked up. But these days it's hard to find a news feed of any kind that doesn't feel like doom-scrolling. 

Historians hasten to put such gloomy thoughts about "these times" in perspective. They rightly note that in fact, many grand woes of the world are actually lessening. We have less poverty. Fewer nuclear warheads. Less global terrorism. We live longer, having invented cures, treatments and vaccines for many things that used to kill us.

All of that is good news at the big-picture level. But it isn't actually of much comfort to those who are alive in this moment and living in this destabilized state, when flu-stricken birds are falling out of the sky and the Earth is splitting open and every season heralds a new round of record-smashing extreme weather somewhere in the world.  

It's hard to appreciate your moment in time in the Big Picture when your Small Picture is scaring the hell out of you. 

Some of us are living in hellish situations of war and natural disaster while others are just stressed from reading about it, and I don't mean to compare the experiences. But I'd venture that all eight billion of us are feeling the heaviness of these times in one way or another. 

We all need to find our own ways of coping. Some people "check out" and simply don't take in the news, a tempting thought if only our collective alarm wasn't urgently needed to drive change. Nothing gets fixed when people check out. 

Others focus on the here and now. There's no earthquake in Victoria right now, is there? There's no balloon waiting to be shot down in our skies. No sabre-rattling super power getting jacked up about Canada. There's just you and the calm seas and the pretty paper whites, on a mild winter day on a coveted West Coast island.

I like "being present" myself, though I did discover on a road trip last year through California's drought-slammed former nut orchards that it also means bearing witness to whatever is playing out in front of you. 

Driving south through lands I once dreamed of living in only to be confronted with the realities of modern-day California - so, so different from my shiny young-person memories of thriving agriculture as far as the eye could seen and a full-to-the-brim Lake Shasta packed with happy house boaters - was an eye-opener that I haven't been able to shake.

Nor will being present lower stress levels when it involves passing through the pockets of poverty and human suffering that have developed in all of our communities. But it couldn't be more important to be present in those moments, because this hand-wringing state we've been in about social decline for pretty much 30 years now will end only when we shake ourselves awake and act. 

Another reaction to these unsettling times is to go all in, spiralling into an increasing state of rage and paranoia over whatever subject a person has ended up fixated on. 

With so much to fixate on, there are many ways to rage these days. I'm sure we all know someone who has fallen into obsession (and whose company we want less and less of as a result). I know a COVID rager, an anti-vax rager, several Trudeau ragers, and even a few pro-Trump ragers who ignited a few years back and can't seem to cool down.

Unfortunately, there's no problem-fixing going on when people are in a state of rage. That's just a time when we want to break things and yell at people. If you're stuck in a rage state, best to get some help with that. It's costing you friends and your personal health, and not changing a damn thing about whatever has you riled.

How does one go about feeling better in gloomy times? Personally, I seek out news stories about things that are making a difference on the issues facing us. A recent read reminding me that the world did successfully address acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer through collective action was heartening, and important to hold onto in times when all the doom threatens to paralyze us. 

Also good: Buy a copy of The Economist every now and again and get caught up on world news  presented with careful balance, research and thoughtfulness. So different than the hyped-up headlines that a Google News search pulls up.

Speaking of news, I highly recommend severely limiting your intake of that which calls itself "news" in these over-saturated times. 

Back in the day when newspapers were still a thing, I read two a day, mostly limited to goings-on in Victoria, BC and Canada. Now, every bit of bad news going on anywhere in the world is as close as a right-hand swipe on my phone. 

It's so easy to do that swipe in a distracted moment, just like I once used to mindlessly light up a cigarette to pass the time in between this and that. But just like those cigarettes, it's so bad for me. I can feel the worry and the outrage building in me almost immediately, even if I was having a perfectly OK time just minutes before. 

Of course, each of us as citizens of the world also need to be stepping up right now. Avoiding the bad news overload is one thing, but taking action where you can must never be avoided. If you've got anyone you care about who is still going to carry on living after you're dead, surely that's motivation enough to do your part right now to actually address problems where you can rather than just worry about them.

Find the news you can use, and use it. May the rest of it roll off you.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Don't let them mess up your face


This is me, age 66. The rock star Madonna is two years younger than me, and I am stunned to realize after her appearance at the Grammys on the weekend that I now prefer my face to hers, so altered has hers become from years of cosmetic surgery and treatments.

This face of mine has been creamed, scrubbed, exfoliated, masked and otherwise fussed over for a very long time. I am as disappointed as any person who comprehends the social capital of physical attractiveness to be experiencing the unwanted changes that aging brings. 

But having watched one beautiful celebrity after another succumb to the disaster of costly and invasive "anti-aging" procedures, I concluded many years ago that I will never do anything beyond the superficial to try to appear younger. 

It's not out of any noble belief in being my "natural self." As you can see from my photo, my hair is coloured, and I am pretty sure it will be until the day I die. I wear eye makeup and have since age 12, and don't even leave the house for the morning dog walk without it on. I got my eyebrows tattooed in 2009 and love them. You'll never catch me singing the praises of a natural look. 

Nor is it out of a determination to grow old gracefully. If I could take a magic pill guaranteed to firm up my neck, jawline and eyelids with no side-effects, I would be seriously tempted, and admit to moments in front of the mirror in which I pull my face skin tighter and lament out loud about how much younger I look.

But here's the thing about invasive cosmetic procedures, as Madonna's 2023 face so tragically reminds us: It's a pact with the Devil. You're going to trade off your future old face for an "improved" face now, and you're going to do that repeatedly as the relentless aging process drags your skin lower to the ground no matter how many procedures you throw at it.

And then one day, you cross some line of having had way too many procedures, and there's no way back. Alas, you still don't look young, you just look like an aging woman who has had way too many cosmetic procedures. 

I get that celebrities must feel the pressure to keep up their beauty, though I would have thought more of them would have noticed by now that the work really dries up once your face starts looking altered (Melanie Griffith, I'm talking to you.)

But why I am seeing so many non-celebrities - and so many young women - getting sucked in? Don't they have eyes to see all the wealthy celebrities with their ruined faces? If famous, rich people with access to top-of-the-line surgeons still end up looking like unrecognizably bizarre cat-people with painfully distorted lips, isn't that a pretty blatant warning to any of us to just stay away from this crap?

We fight very hard to look younger than our age, as evidenced by a global anti-aging market now valued at $62.6 billion US and a $67 billion cosmetic surgery market. There are many theories about why that is so, from evil marketing strategies and ruthless capitalists to the patriarchy.

I know from my own experience that an aging woman no longer draws the Male Gaze (a sad-happy loss for me), and that ageism in your work life is a real thing. The world does view you differently, and makes many strange assumptions once having registered you as "old." I clearly remember the grand insult I felt back in my 50s when some twerp salesman at the computer store leaned in close to ask if I knew what a flash drive was.

But to cut, inject and fill your face with weird chemicals and poisons in reaction to the social realities of aging? And all of it to end up with a face so obviously distorted that you're literally the poster child for aging really, really poorly? What theory explains that?

If you are a younger woman reading this, and I hope you are, I will tell you straight up that it's painful to experience your physical beauty fading. Not to brush off the years of catcalls, unwanted attention and outright sexual harassment as an easy time for women, but being attractive does have its privileges. As someone who for so many years counted on turning heads to get me feeling good about myself, I've found it hard to relinquish the dopamine rush of being checked out.

But all the cosmetic procedures in the world won't change any of that. In fact, they only make things worse, because soon enough you just look like a freaky-faced woman with too much disposable income who is desperate to not look as old as you are. Who wants to be that person?

So embrace yourself as those visible changes creep in and get over it. We don't expect an old dog to look like a puppy. Stay fit, don't smoke, keep the alcohol to a minimum and drink lots of water. Spend some time contemplating the old women all around you and you'll see that it's possible to look good AND old at the same time. 

And let me assure you, there are a lot of perks to growing invisible. Count that one as a secret aging super-power.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

BC's decrim experiment: One giant step for governments, one really tiny step for fixing the problem

Credit: No Name 13, Pixabay

The BC government doubtlessly had to work very hard to get the OK from the federal government for a three-year test of illicit drug decriminalization. 

It's a good thing to have fought for, even if the pilot is so hamstrung with exceptions and rules that it can't help but be of minimal impact. We are so lamentably, tragically overdue to move on this problem of poisoned street drugs killing thousands of British Columbians every year that virtually any glimpse of a different future must be welcomed with enthusiasm. 

But just to be clear, the vast majority of people who use illegal drugs will not benefit from this pilot. Nor will it stop the endless tide of deaths.

That's not to say that any move toward decriminalization isn't to be treasurered. But we do need to go into this teeny, temporary change in our senseless and destructive drug policies with the understanding that it's a flea on a fly compared to the complex issues that are actually driving BC's illicit-drug miseries.

The pilot will have no impact, for instance, on the disturbing reality of some 2,300 British Columbians dying year after year due to a toxic drug supply, almost all of whom are men

What the pilot will do is instruct police not to charge people if they find them carrying small amounts of four specific drugs, none of which can have been cut with any other drug. (Alas, anywhere from 20 per cent to more than half of BC's confiscated illicit drugs in 2022 were found to be cut with benzodiazepines, so there's a rather major stumbling block right there.)

The toxic drug crisis, on the other hand, is about illegal drugs being cut by sellers with all kinds of other stuff because it's cheaper and more readily available, and people dying because virtually nobody knows what they're getting anymore. 

Fixing that big issue is about figuring out how to ensure people know what they are purchasing and how to use a particular drug combo safely if it's that or nothing. It involves a full understanding of how drugs come into our province, and how and why they are altered once here. 

That would require consultations with the importers and the sellers, as would have happened long ago were it any other product. But an opportunity has been missed again, with sellers dismissed in the usual way as "predators" in the government's latest messaging.  

One of the most significant insights we've had into the workings of BC's bustling illicit-drug industry comes from a lone seller featured in a research paper published in the January 2021 BC Medical Journal.

"When asked about selling a bad batch of drugs and people overdosing, he said, 'If it’s a bad batch, I’ll probably still sell it because I don’t want to waste it and lose profit. That’s just the truth and the reality,'" noted the researchers who interviewed the anonymous John Doe.

A small exemption on possession charges will have no effect on the illicit-drug industry. As John Doe points out in the paper, the industry is a masterful example of unfettered capitalism that can quickly turn any disadvantage into opportunity, including the supply-chain disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nor will the pilot do much to move people toward treatment who weren't already well along on the arduous journey of wanting treatment.

Being charged with drug possession is arguably pretty low on the long list of worries for British Columbians trying to access treatment, starting with how impossible it is to find it in the first place for anyone without major resources; the reality of having to wait months for a spot while magically staying "clean"; an absence of other problems like poor mental health; and the ability to put your life on hold with no support for weeks of residential care.

Even John Doe understands that people use drugs for complex reasons that are often rooted in trauma and pain. “It would be hard to treat someone with just their addiction and not treat their mental health," he told researchers. 

Now there's the kind of guy whose insights would be useful if the day ever comes when we get serious about all of this.

I wouldn't even expect that the pilot will stop many people from being charged with possession. The small amount of drugs a person can possess under the pilot - 2.5 grams - and the requirement for those drugs to be pure, are pretty much impossible scenarios in the current drug scene. 

But as Premier David Eby rightly notes, it's vital to do something. 

“When you talk to parents who have lost a kid who thought they were taking party drugs at an event, and end up taking fentanyl and dying, you understand how serious this issue is and how it crosses partisan lines and how we all need to work on solutions,” he told CityNews last week after federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilevre called the Downtown Eastside a hell on earth and said all the usual uninformed stuff about drug use.

And if this pilot turns out to be the way to crack the door open on decriminalization overall, hurrah. Until then, it's just the smallest of stepping stones at the edge of a raging river.