Five Things Romantic People Could Learn from Aromantics

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A year ago, I came out as Aromantic, and this year for pride month, I decided to write for romantic people (what we call “alloromantic”) since they represent 99% of the population.

Not having an ability to fall in love can be a weakness in some ways (don’t ask us for relationship advice, we don’t know anything), and a superpower in certain other ways: We can see sides of humanity that romantic people are blind to.

That is what this essay is about. Sharing the wisdom of us aromantics.

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Lesson 1: Friendships are way more important than romances.

The truth about romance is this: it never lasts. Friendship can last a lifetime. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and it is obvious to me which half: Couples that started as friends or couples that successfully turn their romance into friendship before the romance fades will last for decades. Couples whose relationship is purely romantic and sexual, and not friendly, will fail in short order.

Aromantics like myself do not have any need for romantic relationships. Some aromantics do anyways for societal reasons or convenience. But we still need friendships.

One of my favorite moral philosophers Aristotle taught that friendships are the most important relationships we have. Too bad most people don’t feel that way, they prefer romantic relationships.

Aristotle wrote a lot about friendship in Nichomachean Ethics:

  • Friendship is virtue directed at others. There are three types of friendship: Utility, Pleasure, and Virtuous. Only the last is true friendship, since utility and pleasure cannot sustain a friendship forever.
  • “For without friends, one would choose not to live, though he had all other goods.”
  • “Perfect friendship is friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for they wish well alike to each other and goodness, and they are good in themselves.” Similarly, love and marriage also must be based on character rather than utility or pleasure.
  • The basis for friendship is self-love. The two most essential characteristics of friendship are fairness and sympathetic interest, the very same features that good men have with themselves.

The most common tragedy of the aromantic is for us to get friends, and then those friends abandon us to “couple up”. Friendships are the most important relationship to us and we hang on as much as possible.

It is tragic that friendships are not the most important relationship to everybody.  A big negative of romantic relationships is that most people insist that it be exclusive.  Only one romantic partner to a person at a time.

You can have as many friendships as you want at any time.  Friends don’t mind if their friends have other friends, because it often leads to more friendships for yourself as you become friends with friends of friends.  This is a way better arrangement and should be the default norm to strive for.

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Lesson 2: The Split Attraction Model – The people you want to romance are not the same as the people you want to boink.

The Split Attraction Model, often abbreviated as SAM, is the theory that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are two different things.

It has generated a fair amount of controversy because of what it implies and some people are challenging SAM saying it is made up or not real.

The evidence at the zero level is overwhelming. Asexuals are people with little to no sexual attraction. Aromantics are people with little to no romantic attraction. If these were the same thing, then aromantics and asexuals would be the same thing. And yet according to a survey of asexuals, Only about 44% of asexuals are also aromantic or gray-romantic. In similar surveys of those that identify as aromantic, 66% also identify as asexual. and I suspect it is lower as the survey likely underrepresented sexual aromantics.

That means the correlation between aromanticism and asexuality is at best 50%, meaning they have to be different (though possibly related) phenomena.

People that identify as aromantic and/or asexual are called “Aspec” as a group. Aspecs has adapted the split attraction model as a way to accurately distinguish different varieties of asexuality and aromanticism which helps us to understand the diverse nature of being Aspec.

With all of this evidence, where is the problem?

The problem is outside of the Aspec community. Allos (non Aspecs are called “Allos”) are uncomfortable separating romantic attraction and sexual attraction. Mostly it is the talk of “sexual attraction” that seems inappropriate.

Generally speaking society wants to believe that sexual appetite is a result of our desire to be loved and in a romantic relationship. The Split Attraction Model says that belief is mostly false.

Two people in love with each other is easy to imagine as a beautiful thing, two people having sex is pornographic and dirty. Even in open minded LGBTQ communities the idea is often frowned upon because of this. They want to project an “all about romance” image in people’s head for acceptance, because the “all about sex” image can lead to intolerance.

And yet simple introspection says it is true. Everyone has different tastes in people they want to date and people they want to sleep with. The goal is finding that intersection of people that meet both categories, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But denying that both types of attraction exist within us (unless you are Aspec) leads to self deception. Understanding ourselves requires that we look at both.

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Lesson 3: Amatonormativity – Society is way too obsessed with couples and coupling.

Popular media portrayal of aromantics and asexuals tends to be geared towards portraying us as either sociopaths or psychopaths. Consider the following examples:

  • Dexter from Showtime’s Dexter – Orientation Aromantic Asexual – psychological evaluation: murderous psychopath
  • Sherlock from BBC’s Sherlock – Orientation Aromantic Asexual – psychological evaluation: “high functioning sociopath”
  • Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother – Orientation Aromantic Heterosexual – psychological evaluation: Narcissistic sociopath with a sex addiction
  • Mick Rory from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – Orientation Demiromantic Heterosexual – psychological evaluation: criminal sociopath

This is just the most famous examples. There seems to be a tendency in popular fiction to portray “bad guys” as “unloved and unloving” as if that is the reason for their badness.

Positive portrayal of aspecs is rare, and the best portrayals of aromantics (like the last two examples above) are of clowns. Their lack of interest in romance is seen as humorous, comically avoiding people that fall for them.

But it is just not aromantics and asexuals. Popular media looks down at any character that is “single”. We want happy couples in movies and TV. If a character is single, they need to find a partner. Fandoms are driven by “shipping” people to become couples, and we hate it when they pick the wrong partner.

This desire for “couples” is rampant in the real world too. Married couples have social advantages that are not available to single people. They also have legal advantages in housing, finances and taxes.

Going to a restaurant alone is an exercise in weird stares and people talking about you behind your back.  Many of us avoid restaurants unless we have a friend to go with.

There is a word for this negative reaction to being single. It’s called amatonormativity. It is the social pressure for single people to couple up and for couples to marry. It is rampant in society and very noticeable by single people. Especially those like myself that like being single.

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Lesson 4: Romantic stories only work as comedies. Serious love stories usually fail.

There is an odd irony with an aromantic like myself spending a lot of time writing “romantic” visual novels. The truth is, I’m not the only one. So common is it that aromantics writing romantic stories is kind of a trope. The above mentioned demiromantic Mick Rory from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow spent most of season 4 of the show as a secret romance novelist. It actually felt true to life.

The real irony is that we are good at it. Aromantics can’t understand what romantic people go through, but we can sense instinctively when romantic storytelling is getting too sappy or unrealistic. So when we write it, we instinctively know how to avoid those mistakes.

The reverse is not always true. Many well regarded romantic books, plays, movies and TV shows come off as boring and off-putting to the aromantic mind. I watched the Emmy award winning Fleabag series about a woman struggling with love, and found it unwatchable. I also wrote a review of “her” a few years ago that I had problems with, but I now realize it was my aromanticism affecting my judgement.

This happens a lot to me with famously popular romantic stories. I enjoyed the Twilight series because I found it unintentionally funny, a parody of bad romance and bad lovers. I see Romeo and Juliet as a farce involving two really stupid teenagers. Serious romantic dramas are boring to me. Romantic comedies on the other hand, are fun and enjoyable.

One of the few famous romantic authors I do enjoy is Jane Austen. There is some speculation that Jane Austen might have been aromantic herself, as she indicated no interest in ever marrying and shunned her few courters. Her romantic novels are filled with biting social commentary as much as they are with romance.

The same patterns appear in the ubiquitous “romantic sub plot” that appears in every form of storytelling these days thanks to the above mentioned amatonormativity in society. I like comical romantic sub plots. Serious stories often have comical romantic sub plots to lighten up the story, and these I am fine with.

Other serious stories will add a serious romantic sub plot to ramp up the drama an extra level. This has the opposite effect for me. I can no longer watch old X-Files episodes, because in 80 to 90% of the episodes, Scully’s life is in danger, and it’s Mulder to the rescue (To be fair it is occasionally the other way around). Also don’t get me started on the completely unearned and unnecessary kiss at the end of Rise of the Skywalker, that movie pissed me off in so many ways… (sigh).

Here is a fellow Aromantic You Tube commentator on this very topic.

I am an aromantic that writes romance. While there are scenes I have written that feel serious, the vast majority is comical, even campy and unrealistic. That’s because I see romance in a campy unrealistic way. It is fun, because it is supposed to be fun.

But what about romantic tragedies? Are these all bad? No, good moving tragedies make for compelling stories. I find that the romance really isn’t that relevant. Something tragic happens to one person, and another person who loves that person is struggling with the consequences. The tragedy is the most important and compelling part of the story. These stories usually begin with a fun and happy romantic section that explains why they love each other before the tragic turn in act two.

In real life it seems, romance is anything but happy and fun. For most people it seems romance is hard and challenging, and ultimately temporary.

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Lesson 5: Romantic “Love” is NOT all you need.

The biggest lesson for romantics is that Aromantics exist. This means that romantic love is not the universal be-all and end-all of human experience.

Also, unlike our common portrayal in the media, we are not sociopaths. We have feelings and morals, and are perfectly capable of love — just not “romantic” love. There is nothing wrong with us, we have no need to be “fixed” and the “right person” doesn’t exist for us, so stop insisting they do.

We are aware that romance is a part of most people’s lives, but the truth is, humanity has had a tenuous relationship with “romantic” love for millennia. It is an instinct that has not always served humanity well.

Here is an edited, well sourced essay found on Reddit about the history of human romance. The full thing can be found here.

Prehistory

Romantic love evolved in humans as an adaptation because we have pretty big heads to accommodate our larger brains. This meant babies had to be born early or else they wouldn’t be able to pass through the birth canal. When most animals are born, they can walk pretty soon after, but human babies take much longer. Romantic love formed a bond between two people having lots of sex with each other to increase the chances that a newborn would have more resources devoted to it while the baby is helpless.

Romantic love usually lasts two to three years, long enough for a baby to start walking along with the tribe. The biological experience of romantic love can be defined as having unrealistically positive feelings about a specific person coupled with a strong desire to be close to them in a possessive way, dominating their time and attention including their sexual availability – but not necessarily demanding sexual exclusivity in those early prehistory days (that was added later). […]

This is what romantic love was for most of prehistory – people would “fall in love” (or not) then fall out of love two years later and go their separate ways, never giving it a second thought.

Agricultural age

Fast forward to the agricultural revolution. Now complex societies are forming and because societies now have a great need for farming labor and warriors to defend their harvests from neighboring tribes trying to steal it, male muscle increases in value. […]

This meant men gained an increased incentive and power to control which women have sex with which men to ensure paternity. It was now important for men to know who their offspring were so they could pass down the land and property they acquired in their lifetime to their own children. Arranged marriages become the norm, women become property, and romantic love was viewed as mostly irrelevant to who you have sex with or have children with.

People stayed married and had sex and children because the church and state ordered it – romantic attraction and desire did not matter. People still fall in love during this period but doing so can be a dangerous threat to the social order, so romantic love is considered either a nuisance or tragic or a painful obsession more than anything else. […]

Industrial age

Fast forward to the industrial revolution. Machine production and military technology decreases the value of male muscle and increases the value of intelligent human labor, so women make substantial advances and become liberated from having their sexual and marriage choices dictated by men.

With people now free to decide who to have sex with and marry, romance makes a big comeback. Feelings of romantic attraction become a basis for choosing marriage relationships. The problem is those romantic feelings only last a few short years at most, and often even shorter, but children resulting from sex last a lifetime and society now has greater needs for children’s investment and development beyond the time they learn how to walk.

As a result, we invented the idea of lifetime romantic love, something that feels good for a few years and after that a couple is expected to continue the relationship as a committed friendship that often includes sex and co-parenting. We still call the whole thing “romantic love” even though that’s now really a misnomer. […]

After that two year romantic phase couples are often expected to force themselves to perform romantic behaviors for their partner which they once did voluntarily but no longer wish to do, and they usually only manage to force themselves with mixed success. People in this latter phase often mourn the loss of that partner who was so in love with them before and are upset at no longer feeling elated the way they did in the throes of real romantic love, and they start to blame their dissatisfaction on their partner for failing to share as much emotional or physical intimacy or do the other romantic things they used to do.

At the same time the continued presence of the partner who they no longer see through rose-colored glasses is a daily reminder of the lost joy they once had during early love, furthering the disappointment and turning the partner into someone they dislike. … These feelings are compounded by the daily irritations of having to tend to someone else’s emotional needs and fight over housework, finances, or parenting duties, all of which frequently leave people angry, unsatisfied, and resentful of their long-term romantic partners and relationships.

Today

Fast forward to today, people are able to raise children in a variety of ways outside of two parent households so we’ve further divorced romance from its biological and societal necessities, just like birth control further divorced sex from its reproductive purpose. Having your own apartment is more affordable today, eliminating more of the economic practicalities of romantic relationships.

The notion of lifelong committed romantic love is still held up as the ideal, but in reality, it doesn’t work for most of us and fewer and fewer of us believe in it. Cohabiting without marriage has increased but not enough to make up for the marriage decline, resulting in a growing single population. […]

Outside of marriage and long-term romantic coupling people will change romantic partners frequently, enjoy temporary romantic flings, or increasing forgo romantic relationships altogether, replacing them with different combinations of platonic co-parents, solo parenting, queer platonic partners, various kinds of friendships, and casual sex partners.

Most couples and most of society continue to believe that people in long-term romantic relationships are happier and healthier than single people even though the scientific studies consistently say otherwise.

Romance is on the decline. Romantic love is always temporary, always has been. If you can successfully turn those temporary romantic feelings into a lifelong friendship, then you have succeeded in doing something a lot have failed at.

Most of my friends and family have learned the hard way, almost all of them divorcing their first spouse before finding life long friendship on the second go around.

As I write this, there is a deadly Covid-19 pandemic going on. A lot of people are losing loved ones, and that is very tragic. Losing someone you love is probably the hardest thing to get through, but you can get through it.

Romantic love has given people a lot of joy, but the loss of romantic love is not the end of the world. In these tough times we discover other things that can bring us a lot of joy. Art, hobbies, reaching a goal you worked hard on, and spending time with the family.

There are enough joyful things in the world that some of us don’t need romantic love at all to be happy. People that are stuck in loveless relationships that are staying together on the “hope” that things will go back to the way they were, should learn that lesson too.

The Facts Are These…

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I apologize in advance if some of these links are behind a paywall. I have a subscription to the Washington Post, so that is where the majority of this info comes from.

– Trump had 70 days of warning that this disaster was coming and did nothing until he absolutely had to. Story

– Because of his delayed reaction, the US now leads the world in both cases and deaths. Almost one out of every 4 deaths from Covid-19 is an American death. Chart

– Not only did Trump not do anything to prepare in February, he approved the sale of supplies to China that led to shortages here in America in March that are still affecting us. Story

– Trump has largely ignored cries from governors for federal aid in the worst stricken states, leaving it in the hands of the Governors to do his job. Story and Video More Recent Story Even more recent story

– Trump knows his Presidency hinges on the Coronavirus response, and he has no clue what to do, often grasping at straws for solutions that are not real solutions. Story

– No one knows where the “100,000 to 250,000 deaths by August” figure originally came from, and seems to be a ploy to make Trump look good when it doesn’t reach that high. Story

– It could still reach that high if there is a second surge resulting from reopening the economy too early.

– There is no way to know when it is time to reopen the economy without massive amounts of testing, and Trump seems to be clueless to this fact. He would rather take a guess, and since he wants to open ASAP, it will be too soon for sure, and there will be more deaths again. Story Video

– Trump pretty much wasted the entire month of April doing as little as possible waiting for the day the economy can open up so he can declare “victory”.  He is trying to shift all the blame to China, despite having the highest case count and death count in the world, which is entirely on him.  Despite closing the country down in April, he did the bare minimum to prepare for a reopening and experts agree we are not ready. Story

Bottom line: Trump should not get any credit at all for “helping” America through this crisis. He didn’t bring the virus here, but he has done very little to make things better, and has consistently made it worse. Story

but, but, but… we are over reacting, this is just as bad as a flu, the Democrats opposed the China travel ban! This is way worse than the seasonal flu, quarantine and social distancing is working which is why the numbers are going down, and Democrats thought the ban on travel to China was a good idea. Story

Sexual Minorities in Games

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I’m old enough to remember when sexual minorities in media were never talked about.  Anybody wise to sexuality in the 60’s knew that Uncle Arthur on Bewitched was gay but it never got mentioned in the show itself.  It wasn’t until a show called Soap came on in the early 80’s that broke the sexuality taboo and featured an openly gay character played by not gay actor Billy Crystal.

Still it took a while for more openly gay characters to appear in TV and movies, unfortunately many times as the antagonist — often because of their sexuality.  Pretty much all positive portrayals throughout the 80’s and 90’s were also stereotypes.  Gay men were always effeminate, lesbians were always “Tom Boys”, and transgenders were portrayed as deceitful (The Crying Game) and/or just scary (Silence of the Lambs).

Gay and lesbian characters are pretty much mainstream these days, and portrayed as “normal” people, because they are.  It took a good 40 years or so to get that way.  There are still bad transgender stereotypes floating around, but shows like Sense 8, Supergirl and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are starting to catch on and do it right.

I bring this up because there are other sexual minorities that don’t get as much attention.  One of them is asexuality.  It’s going through the same phase that gays and lesbians went through in the 80’s and 90’s.  Literary asexual characters like Sherlock Holmes and Jughead Jones get hetero-normalized in TV and Movie portrayals, and the tiny representation of asexuals is either stereotypically naive like Todd on Bojack Horseman, or stereotypically cold and unemotional like Raphael on Shadowhunters.  Still it’s something.

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Rachel Spahr the Asexual 

If you played my third game Rachel Meets Ariane, you know that Rachel is canonically asexual.

This can be confusing to many as Rachel has a sexual fetish, and you can have sex with her in Something’s In The Air if you are willing to indulge that fetish.  The confusion mostly comes over the definition of asexuality: Asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction for any gender.

That’s it, that’s the whole definition.  Sexual drive (aka sexual libido) has nothing to do with it.  Some asexuals are romantic, some are aromantic.  Some masturbate, some don’t.  Some have fetishes, some don’t.  Some are willing to have sex to please their romantic partner, some are uncomfortable with it no matter what.  Asexuality is not the same as celibacy, and it is not a medical condition or a mental disorder to be “cured”.  It is simply a sexual orientation.

Here’s a video with more info:

The trouble with making games or any media with asexual characters is because of all the common myths associated with the orientation.  The general population doesn’t understand it.

If you make a character asexual, or if you mention asexuality in fiction, you have to be very careful to get it right, and not perpetuate the myths.

An example of a negative spin

Part of the reasons for this essay, is that asexuality has appeared in two very recent popular video games.  One does it wrong, one does it right.

The poor example from Death Stranding from Kojima Productions, where we get this text as part of the backstory:

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This is an example of a game maker completely misinterpreting the definition of asexuality, resulting in them making asexuality as one of the causes of the fall of civilization.

Kojima productions is based in Japan, which currently has a problem with decreasing birth rates to the point now where a third of the population of Japan is now over the age of 60.  This is largely due to economic causes as people of child bearing age don’t have the economic means to have families.  We are starting to see this in America as the Millennial generation who are now in their prime child bearing age are not having very many children — mostly because they can’t afford it.

Death Stranding is a sci-fi post apocalyptic game, and it’s reality does not need to match our reality, but to say the decline in births is due to the increase in asexuality is not only unrealistic, but rather offensive to the asexual community.

As a fan of the sci-fi genre, a sharply declining population is an interesting premise.  I consider Children of Men to be one of the best sci-fi movies, and it uses that as a premise.  Specifically it uses a sudden drop in human fertility as a cause for declining population.

I could see a lack of interest in sex as a probable cause as well , but it would logically be due to environmental causes that drop sexual libido.  Libido can be controlled by drugs, or can change in environments or with diet, so a sudden decline in sex due to changing sexual libido is a theoretical possibility.

But as I pointed out above, sexual libido has nothing to do with asexuality.  In fact it is one of most prevalent false myths about asexuality that leads to its misunderstanding.

An example of a positive spin

Coincidentally in the last few weeks, we had the first triple A title to come out with an asexual major character.  I’m talking about The Outer Worlds by Obsidian Entertainment.

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Like many of the better RPG games, there are a number of companions you can recruit to your cause and fight along side you.  The first one you are likely to meet, is Parvati, voiced by Ashly Burch (Life is Strange, Horizon Zero Dawn) a female Engineer who is very useful, and also very charming and funny to the point where she is pretty much most player’s favorite.   She is also a biromantic asexual character.

Her sexuality really isn’t relevant, because unlike Dragon Age or Mass Effect, this RPG doesn’t have any romance plots, but occasional positive mainstream representation to help get rid of persistent myths is all the asexual community is asking for.

Other minor sexualities

My interest in this is somewhat personal.  As I mentioned before, I’m an Aromantic.  It is an orientation often associated with asexuality because it involves missing attractions, I’m missing romantic attraction instead of sexual attraction, but the communities are closely linked, because we often deal with the same prejudices and relationship problems.

But where asexuality is finally starting to get some positive representation, aromantics, demisexuals, non-binaries, agenders and many other minor queer orientations are still waiting.

We have our “Uncle Arthur”s, like Mick Rory from DC’s Legends of Tomorrow who shows all the tell tale signs of aromanticism, but no mention of his orientation on the show.  They even gave Mick a hobby of writing erotic romantic fiction last season, a surprisingly common trait among us aromantics, yours truly being a real life example.

Representation is important to us all, especially accurate, positive, and non-stereotypical representation.  I’m not just talking sexual orientation, but race, nationality, religion, and any other category that often divides us.

It is important to break barriers to understanding each other without prejudice.  Popular media, whether it be books, movies, TV, comics, or video games, has proven to be the best way to do it.  We are human and enjoy human stories. Seeing different kinds of humans in these stories helps us understand our commonalities.

 

I’m Aromantic

aromanticJune is “pride month” in the US, and it is usually filled with corporations trying to show how forward thinking they are in appealing to the LGBT community.  For a while now, I have been thinking that I am part of that community myself.  The thing is I am not L, G, B. or T.

The current extended acronym is LGBTQIA+ or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Queer, Intersex, Aro/Ace Spectrum, and + for others.  I’m in the A group.  Took me a while to figure out where, but I finally solved the mystery:

I’m Aromantic.

What is Aromanticism?

Aromanticism is probably the least popular (less than 1% identify), and least understood sexual orientation, even by the people that are aromantic.

So what is it?  Here’s the definition from the AVEN Wiki:

An aromantic is a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to others. Where romantic people have an emotional need to be with another person in a romantic relationship, aromantics are often satisfied with friendships and other non-romantic relationships.

It is important to note that aromantics do not lack emotional/personal connection, but simply have no instinctual need to develop connections of a romantic nature. Aromantics can have needs for just as much empathetic support as romantics, but these needs can be fulfilled in a platonic way.

It is possible for an aromantic individual to be involved in, and enjoy, a devoted relationship with another person, but these relations are often closer friendships, naturally reflecting the closeness of the two individuals and not a purposely initiated monogamous separation as is often found in romantic couples.

Aromantics may experience squishes which are the aromantic or platonic equivalent of a romantic crush. When an aromantic gets into a relationship that’s more than friends – but less than romantic – that is known as a queerplatonic relationship.

Like all romantic identities aromantics can be of any sexual orientation.

That last sentence is really important.  There is a false impression that all aromantics are also asexual, but the truth is most aromantics, are very sexual, and come in all the flavors: Hetero, homo, bi, pan, and poly.  And yes, also asexuals.

Here are some of the symptoms of aromanticism.  This list is incomplete and just because you have felt some of these does not mean you are aromantic:

  1. You don’t have any desire to be in a relationship.
  2. You experience outside pressure to be in a relationship, but ignore it, or even fear it. The phrase “You just haven’t met the right person yet” gets repeated to you a lot.
  3. If you are in a relationship, you get accused of not loving or caring for that person, because you have no idea how to express it.  Most of your relationships end because of it.
  4. Romantic gestures, both giving and receiving, feel awkward and unimportant.
  5. Kissing, cuddling, and other non-sexual touching feel awkward and unimportant.
  6. When you “have a crush” on someone, your instinct is to desire to hang out with them and be their friend (We aromantics call this a “squish” or a platonic crush), rather than a desire to make out, have sex, or be their significant other.
  7. In fact “crushes” involving thoughts of physical contact or long term plans never occur. (aromantic) or very rarely occur (gray romantic).
  8. You have to get to know a person really well before you even start to think about a romance with them (the term is “demiromantic”)
  9. Shyness about asking someone out on a date are not about fears of “What if they say NO?”, but rather “What if they say YES?”
  10. Thoughts of being alone the rest of your life do not really bother you that much.

For more information, I found this great article. Here’s a quote:

Aromanticism means you cannot feel romantic attraction. Like any romantic or sexual orientation, it is a part of a person’s nature, and while attraction patterns can be fluid, no one can force their romantic/sexual orientation(s) to change, not even by behaving contrary to those orientations. Dating someone won’t make an aromantic person feel romantic attraction or love. Great sex won’t do it. Even loving someone strongly as a friend won’t suddenly flip the switch in an aro’s brain and lead them to feel romantic attraction. Either you feel attracted to someone in a particular way or you don’t.

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There’s a built in contradiction with this orientation. How do you know that you’ve never experienced romantic attraction if you don’t know what romantic attraction feels like?  It is a thought that many of us aromantic types try to deal with.

I consider myself aromantic. I have never been head over heels in love or any of that other mushy feelings described by authors and poets.  I do feel friendly “squishes” occasionally and I have a normal sexual libido. Is romantic attraction just some combination of the two? Because I have felt that, does that mean I am not aromantic?  This is part of the self doubt.

Based on what people say “falling in love” feels like, I can say confidently that no I have never felt this.

Now the romantics will say, “That’s so sad, that is so tragic, to never feel what romantic love is like.”

To me, never feeling romantic love, feels natural and normal, it’s the 99% who are romantics that are the tragic freaks.

Virtual Reality vs. Virtual Currency

The tech battle no one is discussing, because in the end, neither will win.

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In 2015, Oculus Rift was supposed to be the beginning of the VR revolution, it wasn’t. In 2016, Samsung Gear VR was supposed to be the beginning of the VR revolution, it wasn’t. In 2017, Playstation VR was supposed to be the beginning of the VR revolution, it wasn’t.

With hundreds of VR games available, VR ready social and building platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity ready for open beta use, and billions of dollars invested in what everyone calls the next big thing, it is rather disappointing that it is not happening. Thanks to a likely big blockbuster in Ready Player One coming to theaters in March, maybe 2018 will finally be the year.

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Or not! There are plenty of reasons why VR has not become mainstream. The biggest is the bulky helmets you have to wear, and that most people experience dizzyness or nausea after only about 20 minutes of use. There is a great fix for this last issue that hasn’t been implemented enough: Virtual noses.

But, the biggest challenge to VR mainstream continues to be cost. You can spend $900 for a Samsung Galaxy 8 and Samsung VR headset, or you can spend about the same amount for a Playstation 4 and a Playstation VR bundle. If you want to do VR on your PC, you need around $1400.  That’s $400 for recently reduced price the Oculus Rift, and a $1000 required video card.

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When did it cost $1000 for a video card?

Why are video cards so expensive? One word: “Bitcoin”.  Virtual currencies like Bitcoin have skyrocketed in price over the last year, so much that it is worth building your own computer to “mine” number combinations that fit the fairly simple formula required to create a new Bitcoin (and if you find a combo, you get to keep it). Regular PC processors are not powerful enough to efficiently “mine”, but graphics cards are.

According to sources, one graphics card can “mine” around $5 to $10 worth of virtual currency a day, though the best strategy is concentrate on the small lesser known currencies, as too many other resources are being used to mine the expensive ones. This means your $1000 graphics card will pay for itself in about 4 months, assuming prices stay high enough. But before you invest, consider that you will need a 500W power supply that has to run 24 hours a day, so expect to lose on your electricity bills, too.

The recent trend is that virtual currencies are declining in value, losing half their value in the last two months. If it continues to decline, you won’t make enough to pay for the electricity. Maybe then video cards will come down in price.

My prediction: Both will fail

Despite being friends with both VR pioneers and crypto currency advocates, I have to take the rational position that they are both doomed to fail.  VR is the next Kinect, WiiU, 3D TV, or many other trendy “cool” techs that ultimately failed.  Crypto-currencies are riding a bubble like “Tulip Mania”.

Advocates of both will insist that they have heard these criticisms before, and my answer is “because they are valid”.

I might invest in VR gear if the price comes down to a decent level. In the mean time, I’m using my graphics card for gaming and 3D rendering.

 

Culture in Decline

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I try to write something once a month and haven’t gotten around to it this month, so here are some random thoughts.

I have been really tempted to write about the steep decline happening in politics, not just in America, but everywhere these days, but there is way too much material to go through, and most of it is from Russian hackers. So no politics.

Instead, since we are nearing the end of 2017, I thought about writing a year in review piece, and since I’m leaving politics out, I have to limit myself to arts and media so far in 2017.

Bottom line: It Sucks!

Part 1: Music Sucks! Especially American Music.

How much does American Music suck these days? The #1 song for most of the year was in Spanish, by a Puerto Rican, and got 4 and a half billion views. Yes, this one. OK, yes it is a pretty good song. It’s just that songs in Spanish rarely hit the top of the charts, let alone stay on top of the charts for 16 weeks.

OK, there is more music than this one song, and most of it came from all the pop divas who topped the charts the rest of the weeks: Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Ariane Grande, Katy Perry, Lorde, Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, P!nk, and of course Taylor Swift all had new singles or new albums out in the past year.  The overwhelming trend of songs coming from this group of females is an “angry” edge.  It’s not a very good trend, in fact in my opinion nobody is doing their best work.

Let’s start with Taylor Swift who released a huge selling album “Reputation” as a follow up to 2014’s “1989”.  I listened to both albums, and if I were to pick the best songs over all, I’d mostly pick songs from “1989”.  The overall feel of Reputation is dark: angry songs, depressing songs, sad songs. The most lighthearted track is probably “New Years Day” which is more melancholy.

Certainly it is OK for music to be dark, some of the best music ever is dark, but pop is supposed to be fun and exciting. Maybe that is why “Despacito” was so popular. Ironically, the most “fun” song in English this year was a new track by Paramore (welcome back guys), with the not so fun title “Hard Times”.

Anyways, it is not just my opinion that music is getting worse and worse. There are actually legitimate provable reason why pop music is getting worse, and here they are:

These trends are primarily focused on American music. If you want more upbeat pop like we used to have, look elsewhere.  Like Japan, who have produced two of my favorite music videos of the year, namely this one and this one.

Part 2: The Golden Age of TV is Over!

For the last 20 years or so, we have been living in a golden age of TV.  For those who don’t remember TV before Buffy The Vampire Slayer, well it wasn’t very good.  There was the occasional classic like Twin Peaks, X-Files, Babylon 5, and the first 8 seasons of The Simpsons, but most of the TV before 1997 is crap by today’s standards.

The desire for networks to have shows that people would talk about drove them to dump a lot of money into creative peoples laps and create some great TV. The best of which came from Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Ronald Moore, and Bryan Fuller, but others were doing some great work, too. The network golden age died in 2007 with a devastating writers strike, which killed a lot of the better shows, but it continued on with cable and streaming thanks to the TV-MA rating which allowed swearing and nudity and a bit more violence and gore.

2017 seems to be killing that trend as well. Yes, there is still some great TV like Handmaids Tale and Stranger Things 2 being released but it is getting rarer, and the older shows like Game of Thrones, aren’t as good as they used to be.

Part 3: If you are not a “franchise” film, no one will watch you

Part of the problem with the golden age of TV is that we were mostly satisfied with binging series instead of going to movies.  In fact, the only films that are really doing well are “franchise” films. As I write this, 9 of the Top 10 films of the year are franchises or remakes, and I’m pretty sure Dunkirk will be taken off the list by either Justice League or Star Wars 8 by the end of the year.

I don’t see any end to this trend. There are at least 6 more “comic book” films scheduled for 2018.

Part 4: Star Wars Battlefront 2 has done serious damage to the gaming industry

There are two things that game players despise: random number generators, and the “pay to win” model of gaming.  We are kind of OK when this shit shows up in so called “freemium” mobile games, because we just play for free for a while until it becomes obvious that we need to break out the credit card to continue, and then we uninstall.

But when this junk shows up in premium video games that we already paid at least $60 for, it is definitely not OK. That is what EA attempted to pull off with Star Wars Battlefront 2, and the gaming community went ballistic. It resulted in: 1) way lower sales than expected, 2) a call from Disney execs to EA execs to get rid of microtransactions as it is giving the Star Wars name a bad reputation, 3) politicians announcing that the RNG “loot box” model amounts to gambling, and as these games are supposed to be for kids, there may need to be restrictions.

I have to believe that this kind of backlash has every single game developer suddenly rethinking strategy in all of their current and future games.  Just this same month, my favorite game Guild Wars 2 had its own backlash against RNG type products in their store, and this was just for pure cosmetic stuff, not “play to win”.

The gaming community is getting sick of this crap, and I suspect that they will be voting with their wallet on future purchases. While “gaming” continues to be a growing market, pretty much all the growth is in mobile games. PC and console gaming is actually stagnating, while costs for producing these big “triple A” games go up.

In Summary,

Is the decline in politics somehow causing the decline in the arts? Or is the decline in arts (which has been happening for a while now) causing the decline in politics? Maybe they are just reinforcing each other.

Either way, I wonder if we are witnessing the decline of civilization as a whole.

The Age of Facebook is Over

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As my last post documented there is a plague on the internet that is having a negative affect on civilization as a whole.  Facebook is the leading cause of this plague, and despite many opportunities, has completely failed to do anything about it.  Pretty much every open group has been taken over by trolls and spam and it is impossible to have any intellectual discussion.

Social Media is the New Television

Fahrenheit 451 is a book by Ray Bradbury which is often mistaken as a tale of censorship. In fact it is a tale about how television has destroyed intellectual discourse.  I thought about this recently upon reading a couple of different articles.

First is an article “Social Media Is Killing Discourse Because It’s Too Much Like TV” which correctly identifies social media as an entertainment platform rather than an actual discussion platform. It is this decades new TV:

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” (Emphasis added.) And, Postman argued, when news is constructed as a form of entertainment, it inevitably loses its function for a healthy democracy. “I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

Social media not only does this, it makes it worse.

Social media, in contrast, uses algorithms to encourage comfort and complaisance, since its entire business model is built upon maximizing the time users spend inside of it. Who would like to hang around in a place where everyone seems to be negative, mean, and disapproving? The outcome is a proliferation of emotions, a radicalization of those emotions, and a fragmented society. This is way more dangerous for the idea of democracy founded on the notion of informed participation.

I attempted to join a Facebook group that would challenge me intellectually, it didn’t work. In fact it will never work on Facebook. The problem is that there is no mechanism for moderation on Facebook, because it would go against its business model.

Our Changing “Internet” Minds

Second is an article “Are humans evolving beyond the need to tell stories?” which starts with the observation that “novels” are a dying art form, replaced by visual storytelling that is less satisfying to our mental development.

My view is that we’re deluded if we think new technologies come into existence because of clearly defined human objectives – let alone benevolent ones – and it’s this that should shape our response to them. No, the history of the 20th century – and now the 21st – is replete with examples of technologies that were developed purely in order to facilitate the killing of people at a distance, of which the internet is only the most egregious example. Our era is also replete with the mental illnesses occasioned by such technologies – sometimes I think our obsession with viewing violent and horrific imagery is some sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder.

The article is more broadly directed at tech and internet culture as a whole, and I am not convinced of the thesis, but as I have documented time and time again, the internet does change us and our ability to think rationally.

So stop reading blogs and pick up a book.

TV News is something you don’t need

Facebook is not the source of “fake news” and misinformation, it is the conduit for its dissemination.

TV news should take a lot of the blame for what is going on in society. We watch it because it is the quickest way to become “informed”, but it is not really informing us. Many people have decided that in the age of Trump, TV news is no longer worth watching.

The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.

Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you’ve quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports—not an incidental side-effect—to agitate and dismay the viewer.

What appears on the news is not “The conscientious person’s portfolio of concerns”. What appears is whatever sells, and what sells is fear, and contempt for other groups of people.

As I stated in my last post, I blame the media for creating and promoting Trump. I see the exact pattern happening with “Brexit” in Britain, and the rise of the radical right all over Europe. The fear-mongering of the media is creating false fear in the general population.

If you really want to be informed, dig deeper. There are sources out there, find them.

The Need For a Course Correction

I have decided I need a change from this culture of meme and misinformation and troll trash.

For now, I have found it in Reddit, where the upvote/downvote tends to self moderate. There are still problems, especially since a lot of people like a lot of stupid crap, but I have found it to be quite a few IQ points above facebook.

The internet is a big place, and for every problem there are solutions. Reddit is not the perfect solution, but it is a start.

Internet Memes are Destroying Civilization!

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? Part 6
(read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5)

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My last post was on happiness, this is the exact opposite.

As you all know by now the US has elected a ultra right wing dictator wannabe who the only hope he gives to continued freedom in this country is that he has no idea what the hell he is doing.

This comes just months after the UK did something extremely stupid and voted to leave the European Union.

Both were campaigns built on lies, both were billed as “protest votes” of the status quo.

Both got their start as internet memes.

Nobody thought the UK would vote to leave Europe, the very idea was ludicrous. At the same time nobody thought an illiterate celebrity would become President of the United States.

And yet here we are. Both results created overnight economic recessions that we may never recover from.  The desire to “stick it to the man” is a universal one, but sticking it to the man is not smart when “the man” signs your paychecks.

But don’t think this is isolated to just the US and UK. Awful people and policies are being voted on around the world for the same reasons.

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The Role of the Internet Press

Old fashioned media is dying. News today is all about the click bait, paid advertising, and getting eyeballs and email subscribers. The internet is becoming filled with “humor” websites that just rehash lists and funny news stories from two or more years ago (so you forget if you already read it) and turn them into slideshows that slow your internet down with advertisement gifs and videos.

(Personally, if one of these sites publishes something I am interested in, I will just google the title and find the original story sans ads, or barring that, right click and view source and see all the slideshow text right there buried in the code. But I digress.)

The thing is, the news is driven by clicks and memes. If a story can’t generate clicks, it goes unreported.

Brexit generated clicks in the UK, people were fascinated by the idea of Britain without Europe. Eventually they lost site of the fact that it was a really bad idea, but less educated working class thought it might be fun to try something different.

Similarly, Donald Trump generated clicks in the US. For some reason, people have this myth that if we ran government like a business, it would work better, and therefore a businessman should run government.  No one bothered to find out that it NEVER works! Every businessman elected to high government office has failed miserably. I give you Governor Evan Mecham as a typical historical example.

It is estimated that Trump got $4 Billion in free air time from the complicit American media.  In a campaign season that cost $5 Billion, that is a lot of free advertising.

The media wouldn’t report on Trump so much if it didn’t bring in clicks. TV news got higher ratings with Trump, and internet based news got millions in new ad revenue.

The media is not going to turn that kind of money down in the interest of equal time.

For that reason, I blame the media — all of it, both “liberal” and “conservative” — for Trump’s victory.

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Memes are Ruining Democracy

The term “meme” originated from the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. The  meme is a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, and like a gene the best ones replicate themselves into human culture.

Memes have always been a part of US politics. From “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” to “Yes We Can” the meme has been a major factor in elections. And they are not always positive. “Daisy” was a negative meme that won Lyndon Johnson the White House in 1964.

With the internet, memes find a huge petri dish to replicate rather rapidly into millions, sometimes billions of minds.

In an article in the Guardian by Daniel Haddow, he makes the case that this petri dish has a major negative effect on intelligent discourse:

What’s novel here is an inversion of control – political memes are no longer rare flashes of uncensored personality or intensely manicured visual messages. They are now born from the swamps of the internet in real time, distributed from the bottom up. They have grown into a form of anarchic folk propaganda, ranging from tolerable epigrams to glittering hate-soaked image macros akin to a million little rogue Pravdas.

Like me, you probably have more than a few Facebook friends who make it their life’s work to circulate political memes in hopes of influencing how you see the world. They are our deadbeat uncles, former co-workers and long-forgotten high school acquaintances. They are agents of nowhere, apparatchiks of nothing in particular. And through the raw power of mass replication, even their most insipid ideas are able to surface from below. By typing some text on an image and sharing it with friends, they too have a voice capable of reaching a critical mass.

The reason why it is now possible for Darryl from Accounting who hates “social justice warriors” to have the same communicative power as a television network is down to the DNA of the medium: speed and lack of gatekeepers. Memes thrive on a lack of information – the faster you can grasp the point, the higher the chance it will spread.

He then links to a Breitbart article written by  propagandist Milo Yiannopoulos (a very pro-Trump web site) which explains the use of meme warfare, or as he calls it “Meme Magic” in getting Trump all that free publicity:

Trump’s supporters have treated the campaign as one long trollfest. First Jeb, then Marco and finally Lyin’ Ted all stumbled and fell before the chaotic power of Trump’s troll army. Facing a hilarious combination of in-jokes, YouTube remixes, and Photoshop mashups, Trump’s opponents were subjected to non-stop ridicule from the cultural powerhouses of the web.

The internet made them look stupid. The internet made them look weak. And what begins on /pol/ and leaks out into Twitter has a way of colouring media coverage and, ultimately, public perception, even among people who don’t frequent message boards.

The power of Trump’s branding is partly down to the media’s hunger for drama — but it’s also in large part due to his internet supporters, who have an uncanny ability to create and popularize cultural tropes. Or, as we on the internet have come to know them, memes.

Haddow continues:

At their most basic, meme warfare presented an opportunity for individuals to seize control of the means of media production from corporate interests. It was a viral and open-source medium that would allow individuals to compete for attention against the all-consuming hydra of advertising, marketing and public relations.

This line of thinking was, in retrospect, breathtakingly naive. It assumed that the act of meme generation by a non-corporate entity would be innately good. Like many instances of the tech-centric idealism, it would unravel in spectacular fashion. It’s not that anti-corporate activists were wrong about how the internet could be leveraged to change politics – it’s that they were terribly right.

To Meme or Not To Meme

The success of internet trolling in shaping the debate in this election will go down in history as a watershed moment.

Do we condemn it? Or do we create an actual meme war — debate social issues with nothing but memes devoid of intellectual honesty as long at it infects the viewers brains.

Science and rational, logical thought should be the tools of debate.  Meme warfare has undermined rational though in favor of easy tag lines, which are often false (“England is better off without Europe”) or too simplistic and unrealistic (“Let’s build a wall”).

George Orwell was absolutely right! “Newspeak”, the language of propaganda and control, is now alive and well in internet memes.

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Memes are a Symptom of Democracy Run Amok

Back in the 90’s I was big into philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. In Plato’s Republic parts 8 and 9, Plato describes the tendency for different forms of government to morph into others. History has proven Plato right time and time again. His most upsetting is the transformation from democracy to tyranny:

“Can liberty have any limit? Certainly not…By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses…The son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom…Citizens…chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority… they will have no one over them…Such…is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny…Liberty overmasters democracy…the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction…The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery…And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty… “

So what does this mean? I’ll explain shortly in more modern terms.

But first, Andrew Sullivan took this as a starting point in an excellent article written in May of this year, which turned out too prescient: Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic

Democracy to Tyranny in the Internet Age

The internet has democratized media, putting every poster, blogger, and vlogger in charge of the news to their followers. This ultimately created “bubbles” of followers who follow their favorite internet media stars to the exclusion of actual researched and vetted information.

These “bubbles”  have their own version of reality often very at odds with actual reality: “Obama is a secret Muslim!”,  “Immigration is killing our jobs!”,  “The government is hiding space alien corpses at Groom Lake!”, “The “rapture” will happen soon so we don’t need to worry about the environment!”

The mainstream media no longer has control of public conscience, and as a result there is no common understanding of “facts”. Civilization requires a common understanding among its citizens.

Once lies become widespread among many bubbles, it becomes a substitute for the actual facts, thus a new fantasy reality is born.

We have self sorted ourselves into different groups who live in different realities and moralities. It is no longer possible for people living in one reality to communicate with members of another reality and convince them of anything.

Eventually, as Plato predicted, one “reality” will become tired of the belittling of its fantasy reality and will seek a tyrant to impose the “new reality” on the unenlightened.

Democracy becomes a dictatorship. Trump has all the qualities of a tyrant, if we let him become one.

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The Internet is No Longer a Reliable Source of Anything

Since I wrote this a new chapter has arisen in this drama. “Fake News” is being blamed for Trump. Specifically, Facebook and Google’s complicity in spreading fake news reports without identifying them as fake.

At the start of this series, I mentioned that the internet as it currently stands is predominantly controlled by a handful of websites. Facebook, Google and Wikipedia are among them.

The problem with this consolidation is it reduces what it takes to control the truth. This TED talk explains “astroturfing” or fake grass roots movements to control “research” with marketing.

Google is trying to do its part by cutting off paid advertising on fake news sites, thus cutting off their main source of income. Considering how easy it is for fake news to bubble to the top of Google News, I am not sure it is enough.

Facebook is quietly figuring out what to do. Earlier this year it was revealed that Facebook adjusts their “trending” list based on the readers perceived biases. This caused a bit of a conservative backlash which halted moves to expand the program to keep “fake news” from trending. Due to their complicity in creating “President Elect Trump” they will no doubt do something eventually.

As the video above points out, Wikipedia has its own problems with what is truth and what is fake.  They are supposed to have their own safeguards, but increasingly it is not working out that way.

And so we are left with a conundrum: Where can we get the truth? An even worse conundrum: How do we survive in a world where the “majority” believes the lies?

Part 7: The Internet Dream is Dead

Happiness: A Reminder

My personal life is a bit in chaos right now, and it doesn’t help that here in America we have been going through over a year of added stress with election stuff.  I feel I need a reminder of what is REALLY important, and so I am rerunning (and updating) a trio of posts I made a few years ago on the subject of positive psychology and something we all crave: HAPPINESS!

Happiness 101 (Originally posted May 2010)

I learned the secret to life from my cat: Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy.

I think most everyone can agree with this, the problem is that there is often a misunderstanding of what a “comfortable spot” happens to be. Most people think it is a function of money, and stuff. They are wrong, and that is why most people are miserable.

I tend to stay away from real life topics in this blog, but I ran across a bunch of related links on the topic of happiness, and thought I’d share. So here are some thoughts on happiness, and why the things we think will make us happy often totally fail to do so. I will back up these thoughts with random entertaining links.

The American Dream Is Killing Us

I recently ran into a blog post that summarizes everything that is wrong with America. It is called The American Dream Is Killing Us and it points out that our American view of success and how to get it has been wrong for decades now, and yet many Americans (especially “boomers” who actually lived during an era when it was true) still stick to this fiction: With enough hard work anyone can be successful.

That hasn’t been true since the 1980s. According to Professor Richard Wolff in his short documentary Capitalism Hits the Fan, the United States ended its 200 year long employment shortage in the 1980s, and inflation adjusted earnings of the middle class has stayed stagnant. Working harder adds additional costs which lowers net earnings. Since the 1980s, the American worker has been supplementing income with debt and paying interest. The result is we are working harder for less.

The reality is that success requires luck, not hard work. The vast majority of rich people got that way by inheriting wealth, and the vast majority of poor people got that way by inheriting poverty.

Because of our belief that “With enough hard work anyone can be successful”, the rich are praised as good people and the poor are vilified as bad people. This belief is so common and so entrenched in our society, it has literally become the religion of most Americans!

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off…

An essay at Cracked.com called How Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World delivers a similar message. The theme of Karate Kid, and many, many other American movies and TV shows, is that anyone can achieve their goals just by wanting it more and working harder than the rest, a theme that fails to resonate in real life.

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know–or at least the ones who are depressed–continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder.

It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).”

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, “All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two shitty cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month.” So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down

All of it comes back to having those massively skewed expectations of the world. Even the people you think of as pessimists, they got their pessimism by continually seeing the world fail to live up to their expectations, which only happened because their expectations were grossly inaccurate in the first place.

Socrates says, the greatest knowledge is to “know yourself”. In defiance of Karate Kid, I think what Socrates meant was: Don’t pretend to be something that you are not. A corollary would be Don’t give a damn what others think of you. Had the Karate Kid taken that advice, it would have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd

The solution to these false beliefs regarding effort and success is to redefine effort and success.  The correct solution  can be found in an old Roger Miller song which has the opposite philosophy as Karate Kid:

You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

In other words, you can’t always do everything you want to do, but you can’t let obstacles stand in the way of your happiness.

One person that would agree with that would be Dan Gilbert. This TED video has a lot to say about what really makes us happy. Our brains are bad at predicting what will make us happy, and as a result we tend to make lousy choices. Things that we think will make us happy, turn out not to be so great. Similarly, things that we dread, turn out not to be so bad.

Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of our circumstances. So regardless of how bad things get, we can choose to be happy if we put our mind to it. Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.

Freedom is not a source of happiness

I took a psychology class where I learned about “cognitive dissonance”. It is a state of trying to hold two conflicting ideas in your head. One example is choosing between two good things, we will tend to regret our choice regardless of which way we choose. Inevitably our choice won’t work out completely as expected, and we will want to go back and choose the other good choice.

Knowing that it is natural to regret our choices makes it easier to accept our choice and avoid regret. Professor Barry Schwartz takes this idea further to conclude that choice itself can make us miserable.

So when life doesn’t go our way, and we find ourselves with limited opportunities, we are actually better off in the long run, even though it may not seem that way.

As the Rolling Stones say:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.

A final thought

I know what some of you are going to say, “What’s wrong with a little hard work to achieve a goal?” The answer is: Nothing, if the hard work involved is something you actually enjoy doing. Why the qualifying “if” statement? As we have learned above, getting what we want will not really make us happy. Doing something you hate, to gain something you will eventually regret getting, is the exact opposite of happiness. Doing “hard work” you actually enjoy lessens the chances of regret, and gives you a much better sense of accomplishment, even if the rewards are not all that great.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

Happiness 102 (Originally published March 2011)

Believe it or not, people actually expect to be happy in life, and they even expect this happiness to endure. Who would ever think that?

🙂 🙂 🙂

Actually, real lasting happiness is achievable. It is just a matter of learning where real happiness comes from, and pursuing it. Conventional wisdom says it comes from money, and owning lots of stuff, and being a big shot at work, and the whole “American Dream” package. Scientists and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, will tell you that the conventional wisdom definition of happiness is in fact, full of crap.

In the last essay on happiness, my focus was on what does not make us happy. Freedom of choice is not a source of happiness, nor is outside acceptance. Working hard towards achieving something you want will always fail if you don’t actually enjoy the hard work. Because even if you succeed, it will feel like it wasn’t worth it.

Let me give you another happiness misnomer that I failed to mention last time. There is no “Secret“, there is no “Law of Attraction“, and there is no “power in positive thinking“, except the power to depress you when you completely fail to “think and grow rich“.

My own attitude pretty much mirrors Barbara Ehrenreich’s attitude in this RSAnimate video. All it is is wishful thinking, and most of the people that engage in it, are wishing for the “American Dream” package that is more likely to make them miserable if it happens by some miracle to work. The secret about “The Secret” is that if it fails you will make yourself miserable, and if it succeeds you will make yourself miserable.

So lets step away from the myth, and take a look at the real science of happiness.

My goal with this essay is to focus on what does make us happy. I want to start off here where I left off last time: Happiness and hard work. There are three reasons why people enjoy their work: 1.) They do something fun, 2.) they work in a fun environment, or 3.) they have a miserable home life and work is a temporary escape. OK, I’m being factitious with that last one, … or am I?

“Meaningful” hard work

Doing something fun for a living does not mean strictly “enjoyable”, it could instead be “meaningful”. In fact it is better if it does, according to researchers:

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.

In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say. The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run. (Is Happiness Overrated?, By Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal March 15, 2011 Link).

Moments of pleasure are temporary, fleeting. Our constant focus on these moments can actually make us miserable.

Symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations. (ibid.)

Long term happiness, or as the article calls it eudaimonic well-being, requires a pursuit of purpose to focus our lives around something. Isn’t this what the philosophers and religious figures say? Losing yourself in the service of others, you will find yourselves.

But does it necessarily have to be service to others? In order for that service to be of any value, others must accept it. And yet, as we learned from Happiness 101, seeking the approval of others ultimately leads to misery. Therefore, the meaningful activity we pursue must ultimately be meaningful to ourselves, whether we get appreciation for it or not. So maybe the philosophers and religious figures had it backwards. We cannot lose ourselves, until we find ourselves, until we find our purpose.

Yet, the most meaningful purposes do involve other people. Humans are social creatures, doing meaningful work with others who are doing the same meaningful work is the fastest and easiest way to get close to others. It is not service to others that brings about happiness, it is service with others.

Finding a Purpose

We have been taught all our lives that happiness comes from external stimuli: money, praise, status, material goods, etc. The reality is that it does not. We get temporary joy from obtaining “stuff” but it is always fleeting. In the long run, we are harming our ability for long term happiness in the pursuit of all of these short term thrills.

What will make true long term happiness is the pursuit of “intrinsic rewards”, happiness that we create ourselves:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

The actual details will vary from person to person, but this is what we need to live a happy life, not external material rewards.

Motivating Hard Work

Going back to the reasons people enjoy their work. Lets move on to working in a fun environment. Once again by “fun” I do not necessarily mean just “enjoyable”, I mean work where you really feel motivated to work. There are many misgivings about motivation. The common conception is that money is the driving factor, but as stated above, money is a temporary thrill, but does not make us happy. In fact, if the work is meaningful in other ways, money does not even motivate us at all. Let me just point to a video on this topic based on the work by Dan Pink:

The key point in the video is that there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is not “more money”, and in fact, contrary to the political right ideology, as long as people are making enough so they do not have to worry about money, monetary rewards do not help motivate at all.

Now we have another conflict between this essay on happiness and the last essay. In the last essay the idea of “freedom of choice” can actually have a negative effect on happiness, and yet in this essay we have “autonomy” as being necessary for personal satisfaction. Aren’t “freedom” and “autonomy” one in the same thing? Not if you understand how they relate to happiness. Autonomy is the desire to be self directed, to pursue a goal creatively rather than by a mindless process. Freedom disrupts our happiness either by not giving us goals to pursue, or giving us too many.

Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, because it gives us a sense of accomplishment.

We have approached happiness from two different directions and and arrived at the same point. The first lesson taught us that happiness comes from being comfortable with our place in life, the second lesson teaches us that happiness comes from pursuit of intrinsic rewards, giving ourselves a purpose, and pursuing this purpose our own way.

Are these two ideas contradictory? From an abstract point of view, yes they are. How can we be comfortable where we are if we have a purposes to pursue? And yet from a practical point of view, it is very easy to imagine being comfortable with where we are while also pursuing meaningful goals: “comfort” is the foundation for happiness, “purpose” is the destination.

Any questions? Yeah, you in the front row…

“Um, yeah, I got one, …(ahem)… um, your blog is about gaming and virtual worlds? …so, why all this positive psychology stuff? What does it have to do with gaming?”

Actually, it has everything to do with gaming:

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review (Originally published March 2011)

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time. After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog. In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book? So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer. She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time. McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming. She believes the world is better off with more gamers. Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more. I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games. I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book. The first is the one that resonates the most for me: Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.

Consider what I wrote earlier about “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success. We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others. We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games. Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories. From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking. Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?

No, not according positive psychologists. Dan Gilbert himself says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.  See the video posted earlier.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality. McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds. She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality. The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes. She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading. I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work. More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues. McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil”.

In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil. The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities. Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world. But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them. Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21. That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming. The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of? She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess:

  1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.
  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.
  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.
  4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional. Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is. Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis. I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem. Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are. The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance. McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

So is the whole point of all of this that video games make us happy so we should just play video games all day?

Well, no it isn’t. The point of all of this is that what we think makes us happy and what really makes us happy are often very different things.

Things we think will make us happy are never as good as we like, especially if we spend a lot of time and effort we don’t enjoy to get it.

Things we think will make us miserable are never as bad as we imagine them to be.

So stop stressing. Stop worrying that you made the wrong decisions. Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy.

How the young Tech Savvy Generation is Changing the World

coffee

I’ve been writing about how Internet has been affecting society for a couple of years now. One angle I have not touched on is that it is affecting younger generations way more than older generations.

Kids raised on the internet are now in their 20’s and early 30’s and their understanding of the world is radically different than generations before.

Social scientists in the US like to artificially divide Americans into “generations”. There are three dominant ones today: The Boomers (those that grew up in the 50’s and 60’s), Generation X (those that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s), and the Millennials (those that grew up in the 90’s and 00’s).  I am part of Generation X, the smallest and least powerful of the three.

All three generations have their technical savvy and non technical members, so what I am about to say is a generalization and not true of everybody:

Boomers are generally conservative and Christian. They love the suburbs, and beer, big houses, and driving trucks or SUVs, and watching cable TV.

The “average” Boomer is online but rarely use the internet. They do email and Facebook and Wikipedia and a few select sites.  It is a small part of their lives, and a lot more of their time is listening to the radio and watching TV, because that is what they have done all their lives.

Millennials are generally liberal and never go to church. They prefer city life, living within walking or biking distance of everything. If they have to drive, its economy cars or hybrids. They drink fancy coffee and box wine, and get all their media via streaming services.

The “average” Millennial is online practically all the time, thanks to smart phones and tablets. They are very internet savvy, and practically live online.  It’s where they work, its where they go to school, it’s where they play, it’s where they meet people. The internet is their world view.

In between is Generation X, the “average” is hard to pin down because it is so widespread.  It is somewhere between.  Gen X grew up before the internet like the Boomers, but has a stronger adoption rate than they do. Most of the big names involved in creating the Internet are Gen X, but this recent video of celebrities that are clueless about the internet contain mostly Gen X celebrities.

Some Gen Xers like myself think and live like Millennials, and some think and live like Boomers, and as a result our generation really has not developed its own identity other than our affection for console gaming.

The internet savvy Millennials are 100% in control of pop culture today, while politics is controlled by the former hippies now ultra conservative Boomer generation.  The fact that the Millennials do not seem to care about race, religion, sexual orientation, and are socially liberal on issues regarding sex, drugs, and punishment is hopeful, but their near universal apathy towards politics is worrisome.

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Shifting Demographics: What Election 2016 is REALLY All About!

As I write this, the status of election 2016 is that Donald Trump is, barring a party coup, going to be the GOP nominee, while Hillary Clinton is probably going to be the Democratic nominee, but Bernie Sanders continues to be a thorn in her side.

The next President of the United States is going to be a “Boomer”, and it is safe to say they will be the last “Boomer” President (Bill Clinton and George W Bush were both Boomers, too, Barack Obama is Generation X)

Conventional wisdom says that generations are always liberal when they are young, and get more conservative as they age, and that is a true trend in history, but there has never been a generation quite like the Millennials:

 Only 21% of Millennials are married, while 42% of Boomers were married at their age;

Almost 1 in 4 (23% to be exact) have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, making them the most educated generation (more demographic breakdowns of college graduates can be found here);

Millennials are the most ethnically and racially diverse generation, with 19% being Hispanic, 14% African-American and 5% Asian;

source

Millennials are the most diverse, highest educated, and least likely to have a traditional family.  The odds are pretty good they are going to be the most socially liberal generation ever.  It also does not help that Boomers are driving Millennials to embrace democratic socialism.

Donald Trump’s main appeal is to those mostly white males who are afraid of systemic change as a result of demographic change.  White Christian males have been the dominant force in America for generations and they are losing ground demographically every year.

Hillary Clinton is an “old school” Democrat, who often leans Conservative (most troubling even Neo-conservative) on many issues.  Her lack of appeal to Millennials could prove her biggest weakness.  Fortunately for her, Millennials don’t vote.

Bernie Sanders is a proven Liberal, who has run his campaign towards appealing to Millennials, and has succeeded. Many of the media wonder why he stays in the race even though his chances of a nomination are quickly approaching 0%.  The answer is he is grabbing the youth and exciting them into politics.  Sanders knows that Millennials are the future of this country, and it is time they take an interest in their own future.

Regardless of the outcome, Sanders’ message is going to win in the long run. Sanders is too old to run again, so this is his one shot. Ideally, some young Sanders supporters will start running for office and start challenging the Boomer status quo.

cyberpunk

The Cyberpunk Age is already upon us

Back in the 80’s before the internet, many of us Gen Xers would read books. One of the big fiction trends was “cyberpunk”, books often set in  dystopian but connected worlds. Neuromancer by William Gibson in 1984 was considered the first.  Later prominent novels were Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

These books took the early networking tech that was already developing at the time and expanded on it, thrilling our imaginations with future worlds we could only dream about.

Today we no longer have to imagine, the “cyberpunk” world has become our reality. These authors got a surprisingly lot of ideas right.  They also got many parts wrong, so reading these books today feels anachronistic.

One thing these books got wrong is that their heroes had unusually good prowess with digital information, and that prowess usually saves the day in the end. Prowess with digital information is proving not to be unusual at all, in the Millennial generation and whatever we are calling the generation after it (why not call it the cyberpunk generation?) prowess with digital information is the norm.

I saw my 2 year old nephew sit at a computer with a mouse and point and click away on a game as easily as a fish takes to swimming.  I didn’t even see my first computer mouse until high school.

Kids today are creating a new digital society and have little interest in preserving traditional ways. This is a world wide and nearly universal trend among the younger generation vs the “cold war” world view of their parents and grandparents.

The “fears” of the older generations are driving politics right now, but personally I’m excited about the changes.

The digital age is not a perfect one, but that’s another story. No age has ever been perfect.