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Attention is not a resource but a way of being alive to the world

Attention is not a resource but a way of being alive to the world

‘We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.’ Those were the words of the American biologist E O Wilson at the turn of the century. Fastforward to the smartphone era, and it’s easy to believe that our mental lives are now more fragmentary and scattered than ever. The ‘attention economy’ is a phrase that’s often used to make sense of what’s going on: it puts our attention as a limited resource at the centre of the informational ecosystem, with our various alerts and notifications locked in a constant battle to capture it.


That’s a helpful narrative in a world of information overload, and one in which our devices and apps are intentionally designed to get us hooked. Moreover, besides our own mental wellbeing, the attention economy offers a way of looking at some important social problems: from the worrying declines in measures of empathy through to the ‘weaponisation’ of social media.

The problem, though, is that this narrative assumes a certain kind of attention. An economy, after all, deals with how to allocate resources efficiently in the service of specific objectives (such as maximising profit). Talk of the attention economy relies on the notion of attention-as-resource: our attention is to be applied in the service of some goal, which social media and other ills are bent on diverting us from. Our attention, when we fail to put it to use for our own objectives, becomes a tool to be used and exploited by others.

However, conceiving of attention as a resource misses the fact that attention is not just useful. It’s more fundamental than that: attention is what joins us with the outside world. ‘Instrumentally’ attending is important, sure. But we also have the capacity to attend in a more ‘exploratory’ way: to be truly open to whatever we find before us, without any particular agenda.

During a recent trip to Japan, for example, I found myself with a few unplanned hours to spend in Tokyo. Stepping out into the busy district of Shibuya, I wandered aimlessly amid the neon signs and crowds of people. My senses met the wall of smoke and the cacophony of sound as I passed through a busy pachinko parlour. For the entire morning, my attention was in ‘exploratory’ mode. That stood in contrast to, say, when I had to focus on navigating the metro system later that day.

Treating attention as a resource, as implied by the attention-economy narrative, tells us only half of the overall story – specifically, the left half. According to the British psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, the brain’s left and right hemispheres ‘deliver’ the world to us in two fundamentally different ways. An instrumental mode of attention, McGilchrist contends, is the mainstay of the brain’s left hemisphere, which tends to divide up whatever it’s presented with into component parts: to analyse and categorise things so that it can utilise them towards some ends.

By contrast, the brain’s right hemisphere naturally adopts an exploratory mode of attending: a more embodied awareness, one that is open to whatever makes itself present before us, in all its fullness. This mode of attending comes into play, for instance, when we pay attention to other people, to the natural world and to works of art. None of those fare too well if we attend to them as a means to an end. And it is this mode of paying attention, McGilchrist argues, that offers us the broadest possible experience of the world.

So, as well as attention-as-resource, it’s important that we retain a clear sense of attention-as-experience. I believe that’s what the American philosopher William James had in mind in 1890 when he wrote that ‘what we attend to is reality’: the simple but profound idea that what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention, shapes our reality, moment to moment, day to day, and so on.

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It is also the exploratory mode of attention that can connect us to our deepest sense of purpose. Just note how many noninstrumental forms of attention practice lie at the heart of many spiritual traditions. In Awareness Bound and Unbound (2009), the American Zen teacher David Loy characterises an unenlightened existence (samsara) as simply the state in which one’s attention becomes ‘trapped’ as it grasps from one thing to another, always looking for the next thing to latch on to. Nirvana, for Loy, is simply a free and open attention that is completely liberated from such fixations. Meanwhile, Simone Weil, the French Christian mystic, saw prayer as attention ‘in its pure form’; she wrote that the ‘authentic and pure’ values in the activity of a human being, such as truth, beauty and goodness, all result from a particular application of full attention.

The problem, then, is twofold. First, the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing. Second, on top of this, an attention-economy narrative, for all its usefulness, reinforces a conception of attention-as-a-resource, rather than attention-as-experience.

At one extreme, we can imagine a scenario in which we gradually lose touch with attention-as-experience altogether. Attention becomes solely a thing to utilise, a means of getting things done, something from which value can be extracted. This scenario entails, perhaps, the sort of disembodied, inhuman dystopia that the American cultural critic Jonathan Beller talks about in his essay ‘Paying Attention’ (2006) when he describes a world in which ‘humanity has become its own ghost’.

While such an outcome is extreme, there are hints that modern psyches are moving in this direction. One study found, for instance, that most men chose to receive an electric shock rather than be left to their own devices: when, in other words, they had no entertainment on which to fix their attention. Or take the emergence of the ‘quantified self‘ movement, in which ‘life loggers’ use smart devices to track thousands of daily movements and behaviours in order to (supposedly) amass self-knowledge. If one adopts such a mindset, data is the only valid input. One’s direct, felt experience of the world simply does not compute.

Thankfully, no society has reached this dystopia – yet. But faced with a stream of claims on our attention, and narratives that invite us to treat it as a resource to mine, we need to work to keep our instrumental and exploratory modes of attention in balance. How might we do this?

To begin with, when we talk about attention, we need to defend framing it as an experience, not a mere means or implement to some other end.

Next, we can reflect on how we spend our time. Besides expert advice on ‘digital hygiene’ (turning off notifications, keeping our phones out of the bedroom, and so on), we can be proactive in making a good amount of time each week for activities that nourish us in an open, receptive, undirected way: taking a stroll, visiting a gallery, listening to a record.

Perhaps most effective of all, though, is simply to return to an embodied, exploratory mode of attention, just for a moment or two, as often as we can throughout the day. Watching our breath, say, with no agenda. In an age of fast-paced technologies and instant hits, that might sound a little … underwhelming. But there can be beauty and wonder in the unadorned act of ‘experiencing’. This might be what Weil had in mind when she said that the correct application of attention can lead us to ‘the gateway to eternity … The infinite in an instant.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Dan Nixon

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Attention is not a resource but a way of being alive to the world

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Searchable Recomendo/Stoop/ifyouhigh

Searchable Recomendo
We made a searchable, inexpensive version of our Recomendo book. This PDF (in glorious full-color!) is only $1.99, and available internationally. Download, browse, and search through 550 great recommendations. — KK

Newsletter App
I’ve been using the Stoop app to discover and read new newsletters. It’s great to have them all in one place where I can let them pile up and read when I have the time. I’m really enjoying the Clearer Thinking newsletter, which offers tools for better decision-making. You can also find Recomendo on there! — CD

If You High (and even if you aren’t)
The ifyouhigh Instagram account has 3.4 million followers, but I recently stumbled on it and am hooked. It’s an endless scroll of strange and beautiful short videos of natural phenomena, machinery in motion, slo-mo, time-lapse, art, and other “Whoa dude!” moments that you don’t need to be high to appreciate. (Photo of Moonlit fog waves at Mount Tam above) — MF

Typeset in the Future
I’m spending hours studying this coffee-table book celebrating the typography and design used in science fiction movies. What do we see on screens “in the future”? More broadly, this dense picture book, Typeset in the Future, is a roundabout way to examine where the interface design of technology is headed. — KK

The Alien Exercise
In Jen Sincero’s book, You Are a Badass, she describes the Alien Exercise for rebooting yourself and getting some clarity. Imagine you are an alien and you’ve just landed on Earth — into your body and life. Take notice of all the connections, opportunities, skills, possessions and people who love you and can help you. What would you do and how would you feel? I think this is great for brainstorming projects, ideas and new ways to enjoy your day-to-day life. — CD

Cheapest Lightning Cables
Lightning charging cables are expensive and seem to fray quickly. Micro USB cables, on the other hand, are dirt cheap and seem to last forever. I bought a 10-pack of adapters that convert a Micro USB plug into a Lighting plug. The price for all 10 was $7, about half the price of a single Lightning Cable. I tested them, and there were no duds in the pack. — MF

— Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson

via https://kk.org/cooltools/searchable-recomendostoopifyouhigh/

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Searchable Recomendo/Stoop/ifyouhigh

Searchable Recomendo
We made a searchable, inexpensive version of our Recomendo book. This PDF (in glorious full-color!) is only $1.99, and available internationally. Download, browse, and search through 550 great recommendations. — KK

Newsletter App
I’ve been using the Stoop app to discover and read new newsletters. It’s great to have them all in one place where I can let them pile up and read when I have the time. I’m really enjoying the Clearer Thinking newsletter, which offers tools for better decision-making. You can also find Recomendo on there! — CD

If You High (and even if you aren’t)
The ifyouhigh Instagram account has 3.4 million followers, but I recently stumbled on it and am hooked. It’s an endless scroll of strange and beautiful short videos of natural phenomena, machinery in motion, slo-mo, time-lapse, art, and other “Whoa dude!” moments that you don’t need to be high to appreciate. (Photo of Moonlit fog waves at Mount Tam above) — MF

Typeset in the Future
I’m spending hours studying this coffee-table book celebrating the typography and design used in science fiction movies. What do we see on screens “in the future”? More broadly, this dense picture book, Typeset in the Future, is a roundabout way to examine where the interface design of technology is headed. — KK

The Alien Exercise
In Jen Sincero’s book, You Are a Badass, she describes the Alien Exercise for rebooting yourself and getting some clarity. Imagine you are an alien and you’ve just landed on Earth — into your body and life. Take notice of all the connections, opportunities, skills, possessions and people who love you and can help you. What would you do and how would you feel? I think this is great for brainstorming projects, ideas and new ways to enjoy your day-to-day life. — CD

Cheapest Lightning Cables
Lightning charging cables are expensive and seem to fray quickly. Micro USB cables, on the other hand, are dirt cheap and seem to last forever. I bought a 10-pack of adapters that convert a Micro USB plug into a Lighting plug. The price for all 10 was $7, about half the price of a single Lightning Cable. I tested them, and there were no duds in the pack. — MF

— Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, Claudia Dawson

via https://kk.org/cooltools/searchable-recomendostoopifyouhigh/

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Thinking Big

This is fantastic — in 2017, 56 enthusiasts built an O-gauge model railway 71 miles long, connecting Fort William and the City of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. At a scale of 46:1, that’s half the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Only one journey was made on the completed railway. The locomotive Silver Lady departed Corpach Double Lock on June 23, 2017, and arrived, on time, at Inverness Castle on July 1.

Volunteer team leader Lawrence Robbins told the Daily Record, “Just because it’s bonkers doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.”

from Futility Closet https://www.futilitycloset.com/2019/01/19/thinking-big/

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What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.


And how many times have we learned of someone – a celebrity, a friend or a loved one – who committed some self-destructive act that seemed to defy explanation? Think of the criminal who leaves a trail of evidence, perhaps with the hope of getting caught, or the politician who wins an election, only to start sexting someone likely to expose him.

Why do they do it?

Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest – and most self-destructive – writers, had some thoughts on the subject. He even had a name for the phenomenon: “perverseness.” Psychologists would later take the baton from Poe and attempt to decipher this enigma of the human psyche.

Irresistible depravity

In one of his lesser-known works, “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe argues that knowing something is wrong can be “the one unconquerable force” that makes us do it.

It seems that the source of this psychological insight was Poe’s own life experience. Orphaned before he was three years old, he had few advantages. But despite his considerable literary talents, he consistently managed to make his lot even worse.

He frequently alienated editors and other writers, even accusing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism in what has come to be known as the “Longfellow war.” During important moments, he seemed to implode: On a trip to Washington, D.C. to secure support for a proposed magazine and perhaps a government job, he apparently drank too much and made a fool of himself.

According to Edgar Allen Poe, knowing something is wrong can make it irresistible. Wikimedia Commons

After nearly two decades of scraping out a living as an editor and earning little income from his poetry and fiction, Poe finally achieved a breakthrough with “The Raven,” which became an international sensation after its publication in 1845.

But when given the opportunity to give a reading in Boston and capitalize on this newfound fame, Poe didn’t read a new poem, as requested.

Instead, he reprised a poem from his youth: the long-winded, esoteric and dreadfully boring “Al Aaraaf,” renamed “The Messenger Star.”

As one newspaper reported, “it was not appreciated by the audience,” evidenced by “their uneasiness and continual exits in numbers at a time.”

Poe’s literary career stalled for the remaining four years of his short life.

Freud’s ‘death drive’

While “perverseness” wrecked Poe’s life and career, it nonetheless inspired his literature.

It figures prominently in “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator executes his beloved cat, explaining, “I…hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart…hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardise my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing were possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

Why would a character knowingly commit “a deadly sin”? Why would someone destroy something that he loved?

Was Poe onto something? Did he possess a penetrating insight into the counterintuitive nature of human psychology?

A half-century after Poe’s death, Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal and innate “death drive” in humans, which he called “Thanatos” and first introduced in his landmark 1919 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal death drive, which he dubbed ‘Thanatos.’ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Many believe Thanatos refers to unconscious psychological urges toward self-destruction, manifested in the kinds of inexplicable behavior shown by Poe and – in extreme cases – in suicidal thinking.

In the early 1930s, physicist Albert Einstein wrote to Freud to ask his thoughts on how further war might be prevented. In his response, Freud wrote that Thanatos “is at work in every living creature and is striving to bring it to ruin and to reduce life to its original condition of inanimate matter” and referred to it as a “death instinct.”

To Freud, Thanatos was an innate biological process with significant mental and emotional consequences – a response to, and a way to relieve, unconscious psychological pressure.

None

Toward a modern understanding

In the 1950s, the psychology field underwent the “cognitive revolution,” in which researchers started exploring, in experimental settings, how the mind operates, from decision-making to conceptualization to deductive reasoning.

Self-defeating behavior came to be considered less a cathartic response to unconscious drives and more the unintended result of deliberate calculus.

In 1988, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Steven Scher identified three main types of self-defeating behavior: primary self-destruction, or behavior designed to harm the self; counterproductive behavior, which has good intentions but ends up being accidentally ineffective and self-destructive; and trade-off behavior, which is known to carry risk to the self but is judged to carry potential benefits that outweigh those risks.

Think of drunk driving. If you knowingly consume too much alcohol and get behind the wheel with the intent to get arrested, that’s primary self-destruction. If you drive drunk because you believe you’re less intoxicated than your friend, and – to your surprise – get arrested, that’s counterproductive. And if you know you’re too drunk to drive, but you drive anyway because the alternatives seem too burdensome, that’s a trade-off.

Baumeister and Scher’s review concluded that primary self-destruction has actually rarely been demonstrated in scientific studies.

Rather, the self-defeating behavior observed in such research is better categorized, in most cases, as trade-off behavior or counterproductive behavior. Freud’s “death drive” would actually correspond most closely to counterproductive behavior: The “urge” toward destruction isn’t consciously experienced.

Finally, as psychologist Todd Heatherton has shown, the modern neuroscientific literature on self-destructive behavior most frequently focuses on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning, problem solving, self-regulation and judgment.

When this part of the brain is underdeveloped or damaged, it can result in behavior that appears irrational and self-defeating. There are more subtle differences in the development of this part of the brain: Some people simply find it easier than others to engage consistently in positive goal-directed behavior.

Poe certainly didn’t understand self-destructive behavior the way we do today.

But he seems to have recognized something perverse in his own nature. Before his untimely death in 1849, he reportedly chose an enemy, the editor Rufus Griswold, as his literary executor.

True to form, Griswold wrote a damning obituary and “Memoir,” in which he alludes to madness, blackmail and more, helping to formulate an image of Poe that has tainted his reputation to this day.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Poe – driven by his own personal imp – wanted.The Conversation

Mark Canada, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Indiana University and Christina Downey, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Learn

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Each new year, people vow to put an end to self-destructive habits like smoking, overeating or overspending.


And how many times have we learned of someone – a celebrity, a friend or a loved one – who committed some self-destructive act that seemed to defy explanation? Think of the criminal who leaves a trail of evidence, perhaps with the hope of getting caught, or the politician who wins an election, only to start sexting someone likely to expose him.

Why do they do it?

Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s greatest – and most self-destructive – writers, had some thoughts on the subject. He even had a name for the phenomenon: “perverseness.” Psychologists would later take the baton from Poe and attempt to decipher this enigma of the human psyche.

Irresistible depravity

In one of his lesser-known works, “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe argues that knowing something is wrong can be “the one unconquerable force” that makes us do it.

It seems that the source of this psychological insight was Poe’s own life experience. Orphaned before he was three years old, he had few advantages. But despite his considerable literary talents, he consistently managed to make his lot even worse.

He frequently alienated editors and other writers, even accusing poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism in what has come to be known as the “Longfellow war.” During important moments, he seemed to implode: On a trip to Washington, D.C. to secure support for a proposed magazine and perhaps a government job, he apparently drank too much and made a fool of himself.

According to Edgar Allen Poe, knowing something is wrong can make it irresistible. Wikimedia Commons

After nearly two decades of scraping out a living as an editor and earning little income from his poetry and fiction, Poe finally achieved a breakthrough with “The Raven,” which became an international sensation after its publication in 1845.

But when given the opportunity to give a reading in Boston and capitalize on this newfound fame, Poe didn’t read a new poem, as requested.

Instead, he reprised a poem from his youth: the long-winded, esoteric and dreadfully boring “Al Aaraaf,” renamed “The Messenger Star.”

As one newspaper reported, “it was not appreciated by the audience,” evidenced by “their uneasiness and continual exits in numbers at a time.”

Poe’s literary career stalled for the remaining four years of his short life.

Freud’s ‘death drive’

While “perverseness” wrecked Poe’s life and career, it nonetheless inspired his literature.

It figures prominently in “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator executes his beloved cat, explaining, “I…hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart…hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin – a deadly sin that would so jeopardise my immortal soul as to place it – if such a thing were possible – even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

Why would a character knowingly commit “a deadly sin”? Why would someone destroy something that he loved?

Was Poe onto something? Did he possess a penetrating insight into the counterintuitive nature of human psychology?

A half-century after Poe’s death, Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal and innate “death drive” in humans, which he called “Thanatos” and first introduced in his landmark 1919 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

Sigmund Freud wrote of a universal death drive, which he dubbed ‘Thanatos.’ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Many believe Thanatos refers to unconscious psychological urges toward self-destruction, manifested in the kinds of inexplicable behavior shown by Poe and – in extreme cases – in suicidal thinking.

In the early 1930s, physicist Albert Einstein wrote to Freud to ask his thoughts on how further war might be prevented. In his response, Freud wrote that Thanatos “is at work in every living creature and is striving to bring it to ruin and to reduce life to its original condition of inanimate matter” and referred to it as a “death instinct.”

To Freud, Thanatos was an innate biological process with significant mental and emotional consequences – a response to, and a way to relieve, unconscious psychological pressure.

None

Toward a modern understanding

In the 1950s, the psychology field underwent the “cognitive revolution,” in which researchers started exploring, in experimental settings, how the mind operates, from decision-making to conceptualization to deductive reasoning.

Self-defeating behavior came to be considered less a cathartic response to unconscious drives and more the unintended result of deliberate calculus.

In 1988, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Steven Scher identified three main types of self-defeating behavior: primary self-destruction, or behavior designed to harm the self; counterproductive behavior, which has good intentions but ends up being accidentally ineffective and self-destructive; and trade-off behavior, which is known to carry risk to the self but is judged to carry potential benefits that outweigh those risks.

Think of drunk driving. If you knowingly consume too much alcohol and get behind the wheel with the intent to get arrested, that’s primary self-destruction. If you drive drunk because you believe you’re less intoxicated than your friend, and – to your surprise – get arrested, that’s counterproductive. And if you know you’re too drunk to drive, but you drive anyway because the alternatives seem too burdensome, that’s a trade-off.

Baumeister and Scher’s review concluded that primary self-destruction has actually rarely been demonstrated in scientific studies.

Rather, the self-defeating behavior observed in such research is better categorized, in most cases, as trade-off behavior or counterproductive behavior. Freud’s “death drive” would actually correspond most closely to counterproductive behavior: The “urge” toward destruction isn’t consciously experienced.

Finally, as psychologist Todd Heatherton has shown, the modern neuroscientific literature on self-destructive behavior most frequently focuses on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning, problem solving, self-regulation and judgment.

When this part of the brain is underdeveloped or damaged, it can result in behavior that appears irrational and self-defeating. There are more subtle differences in the development of this part of the brain: Some people simply find it easier than others to engage consistently in positive goal-directed behavior.

Poe certainly didn’t understand self-destructive behavior the way we do today.

But he seems to have recognized something perverse in his own nature. Before his untimely death in 1849, he reportedly chose an enemy, the editor Rufus Griswold, as his literary executor.

True to form, Griswold wrote a damning obituary and “Memoir,” in which he alludes to madness, blackmail and more, helping to formulate an image of Poe that has tainted his reputation to this day.

Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Poe – driven by his own personal imp – wanted.The Conversation

Mark Canada, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Indiana University and Christina Downey, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What’s behind our appetite for self-destruction?

Learn

Pioneering brain study reveals ‘software’ differences between humans and monkeys

Pioneering brain study reveals ‘software’ differences between humans and monkeys

Pioneering brain study reveals ‘software’ differences between humans and monkeys, Published online: 19 January 2019; doi:10.1038/d41586-019-00198-7

Neuroscientists tracked the activity of single neurons deep in the brain and suggest the findings could explain humans’ intelligence — and susceptibility to psychiatric disorders. http://feeds.nature.com/nature/rss/current via https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00198-7

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Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault

  • It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment in the arc of civilization.
  • Everyone has a choice: Do you want to try to earn enough money to insulate yourself from the world you’re creating—
    or do you want to make the world a place you don’t have to insulate yourself from?

None

For me, the very best Onion article of 2018 was this one about Jeff Bezos revealing Amazon’s new headquarters to be the entire Earth, as an Amazon-branded glass sphere clicked into place, encasing forever the horrified inhabitants of our planet.

More than a grain of truth in that one, eh? At this point, with all that’s happened over the past few years, I think you either have to be delusionally optimistic by nature or have strong vested interests in the tech industry to think that all is well in our digital world.

Douglas Rushkoff has been looking at these problems with unflinching clarity and humor since long before the rest of us heard the click of the big glass sphere. on his podcast Team Human and in his new book of the same name, he invites the rest of us humans to team up and stand up for weird, messy humanity against this anti-human agenda.

Surprise conversation starter clips in this episode:

Johann Hari on depression and anxiety in the workplace

Douglas Rushkoff – It’s not the technology’s fault