On our digital lives

With power comes responsibility, said Spiderman.

And you know what? He was damn right. This pithy quote is at the heart of our modern lives. Technology has given us tremendous power, but it comes with a responsibility to use it properly.

In this age where the world’s greatest encyclopedia is a website, where nothing is hidden from the eyes of a google bot, where every tiny details of people’s lives are being recorded by the US library of congress in the form of ‘tweets’, and where ‘Charlie bit my finger again!’ is among the most viewed scenes in the history of time, we ought to give our digital lives a serious thought.

Technological progress has touched the every human alive today. And since the explosion of the internet, every day we are offered some new digital product that is always of some apparent value to us. I have, of course, been a part of this bandwagon for quite some time now.

I am a technophile, which means that I trial any new technology that I can get my hands on. Most times, if it is any good, then I am very keen on adopting it to my life. Internet, of course, has been one of those many technologies.

Now for a small digression – let’s go back a little in time to my early experiences with technology. I got my hands on Windows 95 the same year that it was released, I got my first email in 1996 (jammu11@yahoo.com, I had access to it till 2006 when it got hacked!), every new mobile phone that came to the Indian market up until 2004 had been through my hands and I was well aware of all the fine features of each. In 2005, my Dad bought me an IBM desktop, and I was one of the first students to have a personal computer in my hostel and it came with a cherry-on-top – a flat screen monitor!

Owning a PC enabled me to access the World Wide Web whenever I wanted. I started blogging in 2006, had a Facebook account in 2007, my first tweets were sent in 2008,  and I’ve been amongst the first users for pretty much every Google product that I could get my hands on including Wave, Buzz, and Google+. But there is nothing unique about this because, just like me, millions have gotten hooked on to the new things that the ever growing technologies have to offer us. For good or otherwise.

The ubiquitous access to internet these days via 3G on our smart phones or tablets, the constant pleasurable jolts of adrenaline because of the arrival of new emails, and the raised dopamine levels because of Facebook likes or Twitter mentions are all adding up to creating this sense of ‘busyness where you don’t remember doing very much’.

A now-famous essay by Nicholas Carr titled, ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘, questioned this very notion. The essay was such a sensation that Carr went on to write a book, called The Shallows, about how the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember .

Since the very beginning, internet and social media have been fundamentally changing not just our society but also the way we think. Just like the invention of the wheel or that of the steam engine changed our society. As Kevin Kelly says, what technology wants is to keep moving forward. If there is something we can do, then we can adapt to these changes in a way that affect us positively.

I have dwindled on this subject before when I started an information diet. One that lasted for quite a while but also one that I cheated on, most of the time, inadvertently (blame the Blackberry). Ironically, these thoughts about modern-day distractions started in a conversation with a friend on twitter.

But I remain of the opinion that any technology that remains in use is benefiting humanity in some form. Maybe only until it is replaced by newer technology, but even then, any technology that persists is essentially making a positive contribution. Thus, each one of our distractions has some positives for us to gain.

Beyond the obvious benefits, social media can be used as a motivational tool. For example, I expose my writing to my close friends, some of whom I will face in real life after having written it. I share my photography to get feedback from those I care about. I make public commitments like that of learning piano or running 3 miles, and then do those things out of the fear of public shame.

Twitter gives me access to a lot of food for thought not just through the amazing variety of links that get shared, but also because of easy access to some of the smartest people in the world. Facebook, of course, serves as a fantastic tool for keeping in touch with old friends. When I need to reconnect with one, which is usually by email, I have a look at their Facebook feed and will usually have lots of things to talk about even after months or years of no direct communication.

To me none of these changes seem subtle, as my friend seemed to suggest. These changes can have a profound effect. Sometimes we don’t realise the profundity because we cannot compare our own experience with one where these technologies don’t exist.

There is an answer to this question which will console you. Consider the life of a science journalist 20 years ago. He would’ve had to wait for the physical copy of a research article to arrive. Then in order to get in touch with an author half-way across the globe, he would’ve had to send a letter which took weeks to reach and then wait for many more weeks till he got a reply which he could use as a quote.

Or consider that, only 40 years ago, one of the greatest chemists of our generation spent three years of his PhD trying to find out exactly what is the structure of a single molecule. Today, in my thesis there are hundreds of molecules which I have been able to characterise to near certainty. So life, as we have it today, is much easier than it was before the information revolution. Too often we forget this.

But this doesn’t solve our low esteem crisis because it originates from feeling less control over our lives. It seems that these constant distractions don’t let us do much. I haven’t met anyone, including some of the most successful people I know, who hasn’t lamented this fact at least once in their life. So yes, there is no denying that there is a problem. But…

The lack of motivation is the single biggest factor that leads to low self-esteem. And this lack stems from not knowing ourselves well enough. If we know what makes us tick, then we will be able to unlock the vast reservoir of motivation that each one of us has inside. Of course, knowing oneself that well isn’t easy, especially in the face of a deluge of choices.

In the past, people did not have as many choices when it came to deciding on a career. Of course, there were specialised jobs. But if you wanted to do something highly specialised, it usually happened after years of on-the-job training. So, essentially, you got recruited as a fresh graduate from either arts, commerce, or science.

Now there are undergraduate courses have sprung up that teach students about a field that was christened a few decades ago but has taken off only in the past few years (see Bachelors in Nanotechnology). The choice of college is among the most important decisions that one takes in their lives. If it’s hard for a student, then I can’t imagine how hard it must be for a parent.

Self-knowledge becomes more important than before. If we are aware of our preferences, the set choices becomes smaller. We are less stressed about the possibility of choosing wrongly. There is less ambiguity. But we are remarkably poor at understanding ourselves.

We should be taught in school how to explore ourselves and our beliefs. Maybe we should explain to kids how to use the scientific method in better understanding their own desires (and not just the world around them). There should be classes about how to deal with distractions or how to overcome temptation (see the marshmallow test). If technology is going to be such an integral part of our lives, then students should be taught how to use it effectively. A class on ‘how to use your mobile but still get your work done’ would be very popular, don’t you think?

We adults should also be more aware of how seemingly small things can make a big difference. Updating our Facebook statuses and getting ‘likes’ can seem like a good substitute for the social validation that doing good work brings. Putting in the effort to leave unhelpful comments on online forums can seem like ‘work’ and drain us of the motivation needed to do real work. Gathering followers on twitter can be a substitute for achieving something that makes a difference to people’s lives.

This brings me back a full circle to Spiderman. With power comes responsibility, of course. It is our individual choices that affect our digital lives. Accepting that there is something to fix is only the first step, albeit an important one.

The fear of mediocrity

There is something I fear more than anything. I see it all around me, but only sometimes it raises its ugly head to shred my mental stability into pieces. That fear is the fear of mediocrity, of having lived a life that most people live on this planet.

Fear can be a good motivational tool, if understood and handled well. For example, the fear of failing can be a really bad thing or a really good thing, it depends on how you approach it. But the fear of mediocrity is unique. It can be a very powerful motivator but one that comes at a heavy price.

The problem with this fear is that those who suffer from it need to toughen up more than anyone else. If not, then it can be so exhausting that one would rather accept mediocrity than face it head-on.

There is no golden bullet to be able to overcome it. The only way to deal with it is to travel this slow, arduous, often difficult uphill journey. I am not kidding when I say that those characteristics are the only ones that signify to me that I am fighting mediocrity. That I am doing what I can to overcome this fear. Otherwise, which is most of the time, I am clueless about whether I am heading in the right direction or not. All I know is that if it seems slow, arduous, and difficult, then I should keep going.

The constancy of this fear is what enables those who are ready to overcome it to do remarkable things. That constancy is absolutely necessary for this to happen. It’s because mediocrity is all around you. Being mediocre, by definition, means being average. When you are surrounded by what makes up the average, if you don’t have that constant itch, you will succumb to being average.

Of course, depending on who you are surrounded by, your definition of mediocre might change. It is something you should be careful about because that can act as a double-edged sword. If you are surrounded by low achievers, then the smallest achievement can be very satisfying. But on the other hand, if you are surrounded by high achievers then the fear of mediocrity can propel you to heights no one has ever achieved.

To end on a lighter note though, here is a conversation between a carton of milk and a muffin. Guess what they are talking about? The fear of mediocrity, of course.

How to become a writer

…or anything else, Ed Yong’s suggestion:

1) Pull your finger out and work really hard. Stay up late. Practice. Sacrifice your social time. Churn out a crazy amount of output. Practice. Enter competitions. Practice.

2) Give people a reason to read you. There are plenty of competent writers and not enough time to read them. Maybe you are the go-to person for a topic. Maybe you write like an angel. If you want to stand out, stand out.

3) Tell people about yourself. Promote your work. If you want to be recognised, then it’s not enough to be good and shout into the ether. And I don’t mean in a narcissistic, self-aggrandising way. You don’t even have to directly point to your work. Just let people know you exist.

4) If you are lucky enough to be given an opportunity, grasp it as quickly as possible because the momentum fades. If you haven’t been given opportunities, maybe you should try to create some. If you’re not part of a network (and want to be; loads don’t), are you sitting around waiting to be invited or did you cold-call and ask for feedback?

5) If it’s been several years and you’re not getting anywhere… that’s about right. Building a reputation takes time. It is demotivating and miserable in the meantime. Suck it up. Do what you do because it makes you personally fulfilled. Don’t expect a windfall; that will come after a lot of work.

6) Go to 1.

The Role of Habits

The key to better living is forming better habits. Leo Babauta’s now famous blog Zen Habits started with that motto. Forming new habits or getting rid of old habits is difficult and we know that. Past experiences have taught us that lesson. But it has been shown by many that a period of about 30 days is enough to form new habits or break old ones.

Numerical Context

We make sense of the world around us with help of numbers. They are everywhere. Not just in critical things like your body-mass index, the credit card debt or the speed limit on a highway but also in things that don’t affect you so much you like number of calories in that steak, the number of likes received by your latest status update or clinical trials data on a new drug. But numbers on their own mean little. They need to be put in context.

We do well in being able to put some of them in context (for eg. comparing your current speed with the speed limit) but most of the numbers that don’t directly affect us we don’t put in context. For example, what does a £15 billion cut in the UK defence budget over a decade mean? Looks like a big number but in actuality with a defence budget of about £45 billion per annum, over 10 years it’s less than 4% overall cut. Is that good or bad? With a £175 billion budget deficit and £1 trillion public debt, I’ll let you decide.

Consciously Analysing Risk

We human beings are terrible at risk analysis if we let our sub-conscious mind do it. Take the example of public speaking. Most of us are terrified that we’ll make a fool of ourselves except what really makes a bad impression on stage is being nervous. If we are able to ignore our sub-conscious mind’s flawed risk analysis and instead consciously analyse the risk of the critical situations we find ourselves in then we should be able to come up with better approximations to the real world.