Life

Old Beer Labels

I was sorting through old boxes yesterday — part of recent decluttering kick — and I came across a folder of beer labels: Tucher, Paulaner, Chimay, Affligem, Kirin, Pete’s Wicked Ale. They’re from a time in my teens when I was discovering the world of beer, a world that seemed so new and exciting to me that I would soak each empty bottle overnight, peel the label off, dry it on a paper towel, and then transfer it to a scrapbook so that I would have a record of my journey. After a year of doing this, I stopped. The collection never became the comprehensive journal that I imagined it might be, but still I felt attached to it, so I saved it. It stayed with me through many apartments, many jobs, many phases of life, in storage, entering my awareness once every five or ten years during a move, accompanying me all the way into my forties.

Yesterday I managed to throw it out. Finally. Here’s why it took so long:

Over the years, whenever I thought about throwing the labels away, I would remember my former self, the person who decided to start the collection. I’d remember his optimism about the future, his faith that these mementos he was saving would be wanted and appreciated indefinitely, that they would stay useful as triggers for recollection. I’d think of that kid who diligently preserved each label as if to assemble a gift for the person he was going to become. I’d imagine how disappointed he would be to learn that his older self would have no use for the gift. I’d imagine how crushed he would be to know that the romantic image of his older self fondly flipping through the collection and experiencing a surge of delightful memories would never, in fact, materialize.

I’d feel so mortified at the thought of letting my younger self down that I’d play a game of sorts, pretending that I still wanted the labels as he would have wanted me to. I’d reason that it wouldn’t hurt me to humor him, to put the labels back in a storage box, put the box in my attic, keep it a while longer.

Something changed yesterday. I tried an experiment. The experiment was to imagine my future self, the person I’ll be in ten or twenty years. What is my attitude toward that older person? Would I want him to faithfully preserve all of things he inherits from me? Would I want him to live in my mess? Would I want him to slavishly attend to all of my unfinished projects? Would I expect him to value everything I value now? Or would I want him to be free to seek fulfillment in his own present, unencumbered by the stuff I’m passing on to him?

I realized that my message to my future self, if there were some way I could convey it to him, would be this: “Go for it, guy. Do what you gotta do. Enjoy the time you have. I hope you’ll remember me. I hope you’ll feel connected to me. But don’t overdo it. I give you full permission to throw away every single thing I acquired, and to stop any project I started if it’s not helping you be whole.”

I’m not sure my teenage self would have formulated the same thought, but I’m sure if I could talk with him for a little while and explain some of the things I’ve learned over the years, he’d be on board with the message too. And he’d be happy that I finally got rid of those beer labels.

Leaving Facebook, Life

Leaving Facebook

I’ve been on Facebook for ten years now and this year will be my last. Instead of closing my account all at once, I’ve chosen to go through a deliberate process of reviewing old posts, commenting on a few of them, copying some of them to my blog, and gradually reducing my Facebook content to zero. When I see an old post that had received a lot of likes and comments from friends, I feel some reluctance to vaporize the material without saying a final “thank you” to those who had engaged with it, even though I know that with a torrent of new posts constantly arriving in their feeds, most of my friends will not be particularly concerned by the disappearance of something they had seen five years ago. The posts that never received any likes are the easiest for me to delete because I figure that no one cared about them in the first place. But seeing these rejects, these items that went unacknowledged, or that Facebook’s algorithm simply never chose to show to anyone, seeing them reminds me of the basic quandary of being on social media. Whatever selfless motivation I might have had to share an interesting tidbit with my friends, thinking they would enjoy or otherwise benefit from it, the act of sharing it on Facebook inevitably caused my ego to entwine itself with the outcome. While I never expressed any particular concern for likes, and while I might have told myself they weren’t important, I always secretly wanted them and I always expected to get at least a few of them, and when one of my posts received no response at all I was always disappointed. It is unsurprising that I, along with so many other users, would develop a fixation on likes given that “liking” is one of the main things you can do on Facebook, people there are constantly asking for likes and thanking each other for likes, and Facebook is constantly tallying likes and beeping about likes and flashing notifications about likes so as to train you to crave them and believe in their urgency. (I knew I had a problem when I was out hiking with a friend and he took a snapshot of a scenic vista. I said “That vista is worth fifty to seventy-five likes.” It was sort of a joke, sort of not.) But whenever one of my posts did receive a lot of likes I can’t say I felt any deep satisfaction. What I felt was a combination of relief in not being ignored and a greed in watching, waiting, checking, and checking again to see how many more likes would come in. Would this post break my record of 80 likes and 60 comments and 10 shares? I don’t mean to discount the joy of seeing a thoughtful comment from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in a while, or the value of learning something new from an acquaintance who was willing to challenge something I said, or the satisfaction of knowing that people I cared about all over the world were appreciating what I had shared, and I certainly don’t mean to discount what they shared, and how many pieces of art, music, and writing, how many cooking ideas, how many local events, how many jokes and cartoons and quips I got to enjoy because they offered them up. I just mean that these feelings of connection and community, while present and real, were often eclipsed by darker feelings: by a sense of frustration at the arbitrariness of how attention is distributed on Facebook and by a grim recognition that even when a post “succeeded” in the social media sense of achieving high engagement, something in the experience was missing. Failure was disappointing but success was also disappointing. Did I simply want too much from Facebook? It occurs to me that social reality has always been a crapshoot. Way before Facebook was even conceivable, it was true that frivolous things sometimes received undue attention from society, and valuable things were sometimes inexplicably ignored. You could go to a cocktail party, fail to strike up a conversation, and feel disappointed on returning home, or you could strike up a dozen conversations and still come away with the sense that people talked at you without listening to you, and feel disappointed on returning home; but every once in a while you might go to a cocktail party and strike up one really deep and satisfying conversation, and feel energized on returning home, or strike up a dozen light, quick conversations that were nevertheless rewarding, and feel energized on returning home. So how is Facebook any different? Much of the time, Facebook sucks, but being there creates the possibility of interactions that can often be fun and might occasionally be wonderful. If there are pros and cons to Facebook, the same is true of any other social context, so why not embrace Facebook as an available tool, one of many? There are three reasons why I have to leave. The first reason is that the level of intellectual contortion necessary to maintain my self-respect while gifting my time and data to an unethical corporation has grown, with every new breach, too extreme to sustain, but that’s a digression because I haven’t really been talking about Facebook’s business practices in this essay. The second reason is that no matter how much I might want to consider Facebook as just one social context among many, it is hyperstimulating in a way that crowds the others out. It’s the place where I’m connected to the most people, where I’m most likely to receive quick feedback on what I say, and where the news comes to me the fastest. There’s no party or club or other real-world social arena that can match it in scope. While I might try to restrict my time on Facebook and downplay its value in my life, Facebook always coaxes me back into accepting it as the locus of social reality. And while it might seem that a craving for attention is my own problem to resolve, not one that Facebook created, I think Facebook greatly exacerbates the problem in its role as an inscrutable and manipulative attention broker. The third reason is that Facebook has made me into an unresponsive friend. It’s only fair that I reciprocate the attention my friends give me on Facebook, right? If I’m hoping for likes and comments when I post something, I should do the same for my friends, and indeed there’s much in what they post that I greatly admire and enjoy. But whenever I’m tempted to react to something I see on Facebook, I can’t get it out of my mind that reacting is what Facebook wants me to do, since my reaction is a piece of data that can be sold or fed into algorithms to increase advertising revenue, and can be broadcast to other users to increase engagement. I’m torn between wanting to recognize my friends’ material and wanting to defy the wishes of surveillance capitalism. Call me old fashioned, but I’d like to be able to socialize without my every interaction being tracked and monetized. Of course, people have been raising this objection for years. Most of the friends I have on Facebook would agree that yes, the company is deeply problematic, and no, it should not get to own our social lives, but they keep using Facebook, just as I’ve done for ten years. Things are not going to get better there though. If you really agree that Facebook should not get to own your social life then you have to quit Facebook. I wish the answer were more comfortingly nuanced and soothingly relative, but it’s simple and clear.

rudiseitzflight

Leaving Facebook, Life

2019 Resolution: Leave Facebook

My resolution for 2019 is to permanently leave Facebook. I’m giving myself an absolute deadline of December 31, 2019 to do this, but I’m hoping to achieve it sooner. I say “achieve” because it’s going to be hard. I don’t want to lose my connection to my friends but I can’t maintain my self-respect if I stay.

It’s been said that leaving Facebook is an ineffective form of protest because Facebook doesn’t need any particular user. Leaving Facebook hurts the departing user more than it hurts Facebook.

I look at it differently. The power you wield when you leave Facebook is more than the power to deprive Facebook of your own future content stream. It is the power to help others make the same decision. The reason we’re all on Facebook is because all our friends are there. Your friends are the bonds that hold you in place. If fewer of your friends were there it would be easier for you to leave. So, when you make the decision to leave, you’re paving the way for your friends to do likewise in the future. This is not to say that enabling your friends to leave should be your primary reason for leaving, but just that it is a powerful consequence of your choice.

What if you’re not ready to leave? I would offer this New Year’s message: Be faithful to the people in your life, but please cheat on corporations; specifically, please cheat on Facebook. Let me explain by asking you a question.

Is Facebook the only place online where you offer your favorite recipes, your music recommendations, your travel photos? Is Facebook the one giant corporation to which you contribute your wit, wisdom, and humor? Is Facebook the only advertising behemoth with which you share your dinner plans and your deepest secrets? Is Facebook the only place online where I could go to find out what’s happening with you, what’s important to you, what’s funny to you?

If the answer is yes, my next question is why does Facebook deserve your fidelity? Why have you let yourself enter into a one-way exclusive relationship with Mark Zuckerberg’s profit engine where it receives everything you’ve got while only pretending to keep a reciprocal commitment to you, to your privacy, security, and well-being?

If you’re not ready to leave Facebook yet, at least consider playing around with other platforms. Next time it seems to you that the easiest way to share a thought is to post it on Facebook, try tweeting it. Maybe start a personal blog. Want to share a photo? Experiment with a photo-sharing site other than Facebook or Instagram.

You don’t have to leave Facebook to take action towards reducing its grip on all of us. You can do that by avoiding one-sided monogamy with Facebook. You can do that by turning to Facebook less, depending on it less, and sharing outside it more.

I’ll be delighted if you join me in leaving Facebook this year. I hope you’ll copy my New Year’s resolution. But for those who aren’t ready to leave, please resolve to start cheating on Facebook in 2019 if you aren’t doing that already. Meanwhile, stay good and true to the people in your life – they’re the ones who deserve your faith. Happy new year!

See also: The Myth of the Guarded Facebook User

Life

Halloween Costumes at Yale and Beyond

The controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale appears to position those who advocate for freedom of expression against those who advocate for cultural sensitivity. The conflict is artificial.

The right to free speech may be honored and protected without being exercised at every opportunity.

Racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression may be fought without ascribing the worst possible intention to every careless or insensitive act.

Above all, we should be good neighbors to each other. That means we should avoid offending each other without a good reason; conversely, we should explore all avenues before taking offense. I should risk offending you, and you should risk offending me, if one of us has something important but uncomfortable to say. But I should not risk offending you, and you should not risk offending me, if the only gain is a fleeting thrill for one of us, while the loss is our relationship itself.

You might perceive a Halloween costume as offensive, while I might consider it silly and benign. To be a good neighbor to you, I should avoid wearing it. I should avoid it simply because I know it offends you, and because I value our relationship as neighbors above whatever fun the costume would afford me: I should make this choice even if I can’t fully understand the costume’s significance in your eyes. In respecting you, I should not fear that I have jeopardized my own freedom of expression, because that freedom is still available. At the same time, if I were to wear the costume, and if you were to see me wearing it, you should not condemn me without knowing my intent, and if my intent is frivolous, not malicious, you should treat me as someone ignorant, not malicious. If, in the end, you choose to look away from the costume, you should not feel that you have given up the important battle against the prejudice you see represented in the costume; the battle goes on.

Life

Assertion Failed

Welcome, Assertion Failed!

Turnstile's Assertion Failed

A subway turnstile running Microsoft Visual C++ would not let me pass this evening. The screen says “Assertion Failed!”, a common software error which basically means “Something turned out not to be true.” Now I can relate to the anguish of discovering that, because much of what I believe at any point in time turns out not to be true. But please, my train was coming! Luckily, there was another turnstile next to this one, still convinced of its assertions, and in that blissful state of self-trust, quite ready to accept my $2.