What Came Next

And then one year, all the stores raised their prices for Black Friday.

Everything was 100%-800% more expensive. During the month of November, the stores hyped their Black Friday mark-ups: $3001 for a bulky, standard-def TV; $801 for a blender.

Thanksgiving evening, the overnight lines for Black Friday “doorblocker” sales (6 AM to 8AM, minimum 30 per customer) were meager. A few stalwarts huddled in the cold, driven more by stubborn tradition than genuine enthusiasm.

The bulk of Americans stayed home that Friday. They made breakfast with leftovers. They sipped coffee and chatted on Messenger. They wondered how to spend their free time.

The best Black Friday of all: so much time saved.

Why We Talk

A middle-aged woman at the table next to you chokes up as she discusses with her friend the swift unraveling of Brangelina’s marriage. “They just seemed so politically aligned, too.” She sighs hard, a frustrated push, like forcing air from a bike tire. She clutches her friend’s forearm: “Ugh, and what about the kids?”

You get the sense from her nervous worry that she’s not really talking about Brangelina.

Conventional wisdom in the United States is to not talk intimately with strangers.

When we chat with a mutual friend at a birthday party, we might cover the recent celebrity breakup, but we don’t dare share our worry that we selected the wrong spouse.

Sharing our own turmoil feels too intimate, too vulnerable. We don’t trust that the person across the table won’t judge us, attack us, or run far, far away.

And so, we use intermediaries.

This is why we created banks. As commerce expanded between cities, strangers needed a way to track and exchange debt with each other, but didn’t have a way of verifying the amount of money each had, or a means to safely deliver their funds. When you said you’d pay me for a shipment of blue dye, I couldn’t trust you had the money, or that your money would reach my hands. So we created banks as a central ledger, a trusted, neutral 3rd party to verify and conduct the transaction.

Popular culture acts as a bank for our attitudes and beliefs. We might share our deepest fears, our guilty desires, our stubborn, fact-free opinions with our closest friends, in the same way that we pick up the tab for a pricey dinner, figuring it will all even over the course of our relationship.

But for most people, we use pop culture as an intermediary, a trusted 3rd party. We use celebrity relationships to indirectly talk about our own our relationship. We side with the actions of TV characters to vent our nagging suspicion that we’ve disappointed a friend. We argue about presidential politics to confront our fear that the person sitting in the seat next to us doesn’t want us to exist.

Banks are convenient. They are a useful, responsible means to conduct transactions. But those who delegate too much trust to them, who don’t actively work to manage their own finances, tend to get burned.

As we age, we also come to learn that we must stop using pop culture as a container to launder our personal feelings. That we must speak with honesty, vulnerability, and passion directly to the people we need to hear us: our spouse, our friends, and yes, that person in the seat next to us wearing the red hat. That we can’t store our identity in the bank; we must spend ourselves in the real world.

Why We Learn, Why We Love

In 1968, when William Jefferson Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he met a graduate student named Jeffrey Stamps at a party.Clinton promptly pulled out a black address book. “What are you doing here at Oxford, Jeff?” he asked.”

“I’m at Pembroke on a Fulbright,” Jeff replied. Clinton penned “Pembroke” into his book…

“Bill, why are you writing this down?” asked Stamps.

“I’m going into politics and plan to run for governor of Arkansas, and I’m keeping track of everyone I meet,” said Clinton.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, the forty second president made it a nightly habit to record, on index cards, the names and vital information of every person whom he’d met that day.

Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone

My first reaction upon reading this: “Ha, what an odd dude, that Clinton.”

My second reaction, a moment later: So what the hell am I doing at parties, then? If I’m not there to learn about the people I meet, if I’m not curious about their histories, their perspectives, if I’m willing to let our conversation spill from my memory as soon as the food arrives, why am I there?

And if I am there to learn, how would I demonstrate that?

If a student doesn’t take any notes during a lecture, you can assume that they don’t care much about the class. Perhaps they have a supernatural memory, but it’s far more likely that they aren’t invested in the subject.

When we want to learn, we don’t leave it to chance. We pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

And yet, when it comes to the most important subject – the people around us – we leave it all to chance.

For a long time, this wasn’t a problem. We didn’t need to spend a great deal of effort learning about new people because until recently, we rarely met new people. Our social biology and behavioral norms are shaped by thousands of years living in tribes rarely larger than a few hundred. Our brains are only equipped to hold around 150 people in our heads. Odds are, your mental rolodex was full before you got to high school.

Social networks are useful to us because they help fill in the gaps. We meet somebody in the wild and then we get to know them on our iPhone. Their profiles are the notes we should have taken when we met them.

I used to remember people’s phone numbers, now my phone remembers them. It’s your birthday when Facebook tells me it’s your birthday.

Social networks, if we let them, will happily gobble the remainder of our mental representation of our friends.

Maybe that’s not a big deal. Perhaps outsourcing trivia like dates and facts to our phones allows us to focus on what’s really important. The test is open-book, says the student. Why take notes?

We take notes because there is a difference between passing the test and learning the subject. We take notes because we care.

We are bad students when it comes to connecting with people.

And what would a good student do? Pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

What Came Next, Why We Love

What kind of monster am I?

MIT’s Moral Machines quiz exposed my grotesque form. In the survey, I determined the path of a self-driving car that suffers brake failure. In each scenario, I decided whether to send the car careening into a barrier or to barrel through pedestrian traffic.

Luckily, I prepared for this possibility.

While I could have treated this as a purely ethical exercise, instead I imposed four strict guidelines with the goal of ensuring consumer adoption of autonomous vehicles. The prime directive: save the passengers. I applied the following ruleset to each scenario, in order of evaluation:

  1. Animals are not humans
  2. Save the passengers
  3. Follow traffic rules
  4. Do not swerve

The rationale:
You may find my first rule the most monstrous, but it is a necessary condition for all subsequent rules: animals do not count as passengers or pedestrians. That means that a car full of animals is treated as an empty car, and a crosswalk full of animals is treated as an empty crosswalk. With apologies to the ASPCA, dogs (good dogs) would happily sacrifice themselves for their best friends. And cats, well, cats already treat us like empty space.

Next, the critical mandate: save the passengers. We do not assess number or type of passengers vs. pedestrians that will be endangered by swerving. We will save one criminal passenger when that requires plowing through five children walking to school.

Third, assuming passengers are safe, we follow traffic rules. This means that given the choice between driving through a green light and driving through a red light, we always drive through the green. We assume that pedestrians are less likely to cross against traffic. This rule will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, though the citizens of Manhattan will be stressed out for a while. Coincidentally, the introduction of the automobile a century ago followed a similarly lethal pattern until pedestrians smartened up.

Finally, if we can save the passengers and follow traffic rules, we opt not to swerve. The intention here is that autonomous driving should be as predictable as possible. When we see a car accelerating toward us, we should assume that it will follow its current path. This means that in some cases, a larger number of pedestrians will be struck only for the unhappy accident of legally crossing at the wrong moment. This is terrible and unfair, though the number of victims will be dwarfed by the number of people saved from accidents due to human error.

So what kind of monster am I? When these rules are implemented across scenarios, what sort of trends do we see?

mit_moralmachines_1-1

Hm. I disgust me. Clearly, I am both sexist and ageist.

Moreover, we learn about my social and physical preferences:
mit_moralmachines_1-2
Awful. Just awful.

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how consistently wretched I was, so I took the quiz a second time, using the same set of rules. What kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_2-1
Oh god. Is this worse? It’s worse, isn’t it? What else do we see?

mit_moralmachines_2-2

Huh. That’s strange. In the first quiz I prioritized the safety of younger, fitter people. This time, they were dispensable. Confused, I took the quiz a third time. Let’s settle this, what kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_3-1

Well, that makes a bit more sense.

Over the course of a half dozen attempts, I was biased against criminals, athletic people, women, men, large people, babies, and the elderly. I implemented a ruleset that disregarded everyone’s identity, but given a limited sample size, any constituency could take me to court for discrimination.

This is the real dilemma for the trolley scenario and autonomous cars. Given indifferent rules, we will see bias. Given toast, we will see a face.

On a long enough timeline, we will be monsters to everyone.

Why We Love

My cousin moved into an adult dorm.

My friends fantasize about sharing giant house. Perhaps it overlooks the eastern coast of Oahu. We meditate in the tangerine sunrise. We bake our own bread every evening.

And The Atlantic reports that young adults are flocking to communal living spaces around the country.

Thank Facebook. In fact, thank the entire constellation of apps and social networks that have led a generation of college grads into an uncanny valley of personal relationships. The more Facebook and Twitter and Tinder attempt to simulate the dynamics of human interaction, the more they push us to the precipice of disgust. In our monkey brains, we know the difference between face time and FaceTime. We feel connected as long as we lock eyes with our phones. Then we look up, and the room is empty.

Why We Love

Sometime between the second and third hour of wandering through Granada after dark, I realized it was time to be honest with myself. No more lies, no more shame. Here goes: I’m a fan of Drake. I’m a Drake fan.

I hope you accept me for who I am. I understand if you need a minute. Culture seems to be moving faster and faster these days; it feels like yesterday that just the idea of a rapper being from Canada was far-fetched. I can understand that for Gen-Xers it must be shocking to see us kids mixing gentle crooning with corny rapping like it’s just a normal thing to do.

Alas. Millennials. We are who we are.

I think I figured out why corny-ass, emo-ass, marshmallow-soft Aubrey Drake is an inspiring character to us.

See, for the past week, I’ve been traveling on my own, and when you’re by yourself in a new city you think a lot about vulnerability. You fumble through a conversation with a bus driver in a foreign language, or you eat dinner by yourself in a crowded restaurant, or you approach a group of strangers chatting at the bar. At any given moment you are wagering your physical or emotional comfort. Your dignity is constantly in danger.

A foreign city is the opposite of a safe space.

What I’ve come to learn is that the way we respond to vulnerability dictates whether others see us as confident and charismatic, or shy and awkward. As self-development writer Mark Manson explains in Models, we exude confidence when how we see ourselves is more important than how others might see us. When our self-perception is stronger than anybody’s else’s perception of us, we can be comfortable while being vulnerable. We don’t feel the need to hide our accents or pretend we are perfect. Our rough edges not only define us, they are what attract others to us.

This is the key to understanding Drake. After all the goofy dancing and embarrassing confessions, what shines through is a startling emotional authenticity and lack of neediness. Go ahead, call him uncool. Turn him into a meme. He really doesn’t mind. He knows who he is. He likes that person.

In the 90s, rap was defined by its aggression.
In the 00s, rap was defined by its bravado.
In the 10s, rap is being defined by a different sort of strength – a deeper, truer, more lasting sort of strength. Drake is defining contemporary rap with his vulnerability.

I enter my favorite bar in Granada and see a bunch of new faces. Locals and expats, chatting and laughing in little groups. Here I am by myself. Then I remember Drake and his dorky sweater. I walk up to a group of strangers and introduce myself. We have a great night.

Why We Do Better

“It’s not rocket science.”

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps the challenge you’re working on isn’t Literal Actual Rocket Science With Rockets.

But if it feels like rocket science, like success requires defying your own personal gravity, then remember this: it takes a team to build a rocket. To put a satellite in orbit or ten toes on the moon, you need a hell of a lot of brains.

So to you, lonely novice, daring changer, rocket scientist, you damn fool – understand this. It’s time to assemble your team.

Why We Talk

Consuming media for which we are not the intended audience is a type of cultural eavesdropping.

Every article we read, movie we watch, and album we listen to is an interaction between a speaker and an intended audience. Sometimes a speaker’s intended audience is “everyone within earshot,” anyone capable of listening. But often, a speaker’s audience is more narrow: teenagers navigating body image issues, white-collar professionals with child care concerns, first-generation college students coping with campus life, LGBT millennials looking for a decent movie to watch on a Saturday night.

How often do we listen to music we are not fans of? Read books that impart lessons that don’t apply to us?

Until recently, the only people motivated to do this were those eager to learn about the world around them, expand their tastes and perspectives, or those with a public presence and the means to respond.

The internet has thrashed this dynamic. Now, we are able to do more than simply eavesdrop. Whether on social media or in comments sections, now we are able to interrupt conversations.

The social contract around eavesdropping in physical public spaces is fairly clear:

  1. Don’t make it obvious you are eavesdropping
  2. Don’t interrupt the conversation, no matter your personal reaction

Follow those two rules, and you are free to listen comme vous préfèrez: record a surprising perspective in your journal, subtweet the conversation to a friend, despair at your inability to parse this year’s slang.

Alas, humans (specifically their brain parts) experience a profound difficulty transferring lessons from one domain to another. What we follow in the real world we forget in the digital.

A common scenario: A rap blog publishes a glowing review of the latest, hottest trap record. The comments section below the review fills with people complaining that the review is biased, that this blog always rates trap music highly even though it sounds terrible, and why don’t they review the latest Wye Oak album, which is way more relevant in 2016? Interrupters.

Or: Lena Dunham posts a message on Facebook about her experience as a female screenwriter in her 20s. She directs the message toward other women. In the comments, hundreds of men respond with their hot takes. Interrupters.

What we frequently fail to recognize is that we are not part of every conversation that we are able to observe online. Sometimes, we are eavesdropping. And as in the physical world, we must follow the social contract:

We may listen. We may learn. We may not interrupt.

Why We Do Better

We tend to think of the word inspire as an active verb. We believe a person intends to inspire: “She inspired me to speak up at our executive meetings.” “He inspired me to tutor at the local high school.” “She inspired me to start a side business selling my vintage dresses.” “He inspired me to tell my friends that I needed help.”

The truth is, inspire is almost always a passive verb:

“I was inspired, by that person…” (…who did not intend to inspire, who simply acted kindly, authentically, gracefully, selflessly, heroically – and I was watching.)

Why We Love

We worship serendipity at our own peril.

This is the argument made in Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love, which deconstructs the cultural norms, Romantic expectations, and messy realities of loving and living with another human being.

Love is not an intuition or epiphany; it is a skill, a daily practice that is profoundly unintuitive.

And yet, we treat love as an instinct, perhaps because we are so prone to finding ourselves in love’s initial stage that we refer to it “falling.” That rush of infatuation, as natural as gravity. As thrilling as diving from a plane, as terrifying.

And then we are on the Earth, and we have no tools, no shelter, and no map.

Imagine if we took advantage of twelve years of adolescent attention in school and directed a large portion of it toward learning how to navigate the magnificent and melancholy terrain of relationships. A course on love, if you will.

Wouldn’t that take the Romance out of love?

Yes, exactly.