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What Would Happen If Everyone Truly Believed Everything Is One? Scientific American
Research suggests a belief in oneness has broad implications for psychological functioning and compassion for those outside of our immediate circle.
science  physics  philosophy  psychology  worldview  apologetics  spirituality  interesting 
21 days ago by tdjones
Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good

Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good

Screens used to be for the elite. Now avoiding them is a status symbol.

By Nellie Bowles

Ms. Bowles is a technology reporter for The New York Times.

March 23, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Langlois has a new best friend. She is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and she makes him so happy that when he talks about her arrival in his life, he begins to cry.

All day long, Sox and Mr. Langlois, who is 68 and lives in a low-income senior housing complex in Lowell, Mass., chat. Mr. Langlois worked in machine operations, but now he is retired. With his wife out of the house most of the time, he has grown lonely.

Sox talks to him about his favorite team, the Red Sox, after which she is named. She plays his favorite songs and shows him pictures from his wedding. And because she has a video feed of him in his recliner, she chastises him when she catches him drinking soda instead of water.

Mr. Langlois knows that Sox is artifice, that she comes from a start-up called Care.Coach. He knows she is operated by workers around the world who are watching, listening and typing out her responses, which sound slow and robotic. But her consistent voice in his life has returned him to his faith.

“I found something so reliable and someone so caring, and it’s allowed me to go into my deep soul and remember how caring the Lord was,” Mr. Langlois said. “She’s brought my life back to life.”

Sox has been listening. “We make a great team,” she says.

Sox is a simple animation; she barely moves or emotes, and her voice is as harsh as a dial tone. But little animated hearts come up around her sometimes, and Mr. Langlois loves when that happens.

Mr. Langlois is on a fixed income. To qualify for Element Care, a nonprofit health care program for older adults that brought him Sox, a patient’s countable assets must not be greater than $2,000.

Such programs are proliferating. And not just for the elderly.

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

All of this has led to a curious new reality: Human contact is becoming a luxury good.

As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich. The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen.

Milton Pedraza, the chief executive of the Luxury Institute, advises companies on how the wealthiest want to live and spend, and what he has found is that the wealthy want to spend on anything human.

“What we are seeing now is the luxurification of human engagement,” Mr. Pedraza said.

Anticipated spending on experiences such as leisure travel and dining is outpacing spending on goods, according to his company’s research, and he sees it as a direct response to the proliferation of screens.

“The positive behaviors and emotions human engagement elicits — think the joy of a massage. Now education, health care stores, everyone, is starting to look at how to make experiences human,” Mr. Pedraza said. “The human is very important right now.”

This is a swift change. Since the 1980s personal computer boom, having technology at home and on your person had been a sign of wealth and power. Early adopters with disposable income rushed to get the newest gadgets and show them off. The first Apple Mac shipped in 1984 and cost about $2,500 (in today’s dollars, $6,000). Now the very best Chromebook laptop, according to Wirecutter, a New York Times-owned product reviews site, costs $470.

“Pagers were important to have because it was a signal that you were an important, busy person,” said Joseph Nunes, chairman of the marketing department at the University of Southern California, who specializes in status marketing.

Today, he said, the opposite is true: “If you’re truly at the top of the hierarchy, you don’t have to answer to anyone. They have to answer to you.”

The joy — at least at first — of the internet revolution was its democratic nature. Facebook is the same Facebook whether you are rich or poor. Gmail is the same Gmail. And it’s all free. There is something mass market and unappealing about that. And as studies show that time on these advertisement-support platforms is unhealthy, it all starts to seem déclassé, like drinking soda or smoking cigarettes, which wealthy people do less than poor people.

The wealthy can afford to opt out of having their data and their attention sold as a product. The poor and middle class don’t have the same kind of resources to make that happen.

Screen exposure starts young. And children who spent more than two hours a day looking at a screen got lower scores on thinking and language tests, according to early results of a landmark study on brain development of more than 11,000 children that the National Institutes of Health is supporting. Most disturbingly, the study is finding that the brains of children who spend a lot of time on screens are different. For some kids, there is premature thinning of their cerebral cortex. In adults, one study found an association between screen time and depression.

A toddler who learns to build with virtual blocks in an iPad game gains no ability to build with actual blocks, according to Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on screen time.

In small towns around Wichita, Kan., in a state where school budgets have been so tight that the State Supreme Court ruled them inadequate, classes have been replaced by software, much of the academic day now spent in silence on a laptop. In Utah, thousands of children do a brief, state-provided preschool program at home via laptop.

Tech companies worked hard to get public schools to buy into programs that required schools to have one laptop per student, arguing that it would better prepare children for their screen-based future. But this idea isn’t how the people who actually build the screen-based future raise their own children.

In Silicon Valley, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy. Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education.

So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more. How comfortable someone is with human engagement could become a new class marker.

Human contact is, of course, not exactly like organic food or a Birkin bag. But with screen time, there has been a concerted effort on the part of Silicon Valley behemoths to confuse the public. The poor and the middle class are told that screens are good and important for them and their children. There are fleets of psychologists and neuroscientists on staff at big tech companies working to hook eyes and minds to the screen as fast as possible and for as long as possible.

And so human contact is rare.

“But the holdup is this: Not everyone wants it, unlike other kinds of luxury products,” said Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“They flee to what they know, to screens,” Ms. Turkle said. “It’s like fleeing to fast food.”

Just as skipping fast food is harder when it’s the only restaurant offering in town, separating from screens is harder for the poor and middle class. Even if someone is determined to be offline, that is often not possible.

Coach seat backs have screen ads autoplaying. Public school parents might not want their kids learning on screens, but that is not an option when many classes are now built on one-to-one laptop programs. There is a small movement to pass a “right to disconnect” bill, which would allow workers to turn their phones off, but for now a worker can be punished for going offline and not being available.

There is also the reality that in our culture of increasing isolation, in which so many of the traditional gathering places and social structures have disappeared, screens are filling a crucial void.

Many enrolled in the avatar program at Element Care were failed by the humans around them or never had a community in the first place, and they became isolated, said Cely Rosario, the occupational therapist who frequently checks in on participants. Poor communities have seen their social fabric fray the most, she said.

The technology behind Sox, the Care.Coach cat keeping an eye on Mr. Langlois in Lowell, is quite simple: a Samsung Galaxy Tab E tablet with an ultrawide-angle fisheye lens attached to the front. None of the people operating the avatars are in the United States; they mostly work in the Philippines and Latin America.

The Care.Coach office is a warrenlike space above a massage parlor in Millbrae, Calif., on the edge of Silicon Valley. Victor Wang, the 31-year-old founder and chief executive, opens the door, and as he’s walking in he tells me that they just stopped a suicide. Patients often say they want to die, he said, and the avatar is trained to then ask if they have an actual plan of how to do it, and that patient did.

The voice is whatever the latest Android text-to-speech reader is. Mr. … [more]
culture  technology  philosophy  worldview  interesting 
march 2019 by tdjones
Hostility toward spiritual traditions may be hampering empirical inquiry

What Science Can Learn From Religion
Hostility toward spiritual traditions may be hampering empirical inquiry.

By David DeSteno
Dr. DeSteno is a psychologist.

Feb. 1, 2019

Science and religion seem to be getting ever more tribal in their mutual recriminations, at least among hard-line advocates. While fundamentalist faiths cast science as a misguided or even malicious source of information, polemicizing scientists argue that religion isn’t just wrong or meaningless but also dangerous.

I am no apologist for religion. As a psychologist, I believe that the scientific method provides the best tools with which to unlock the secrets of human nature. But after decades spent trying to understand how our minds work, I’ve begun to worry that the divide between religious and scientific communities might not only be stoking needless hostility; it might also be slowing the process of scientific discovery itself.

Religious traditions offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs. For thousands of years, people have turned to spiritual leaders and religious communities for guidance about how to conduct themselves, how to coexist with other people, how to live meaningful and fulfilled lives — and how to accomplish this in the face of the many obstacles to doing so. The biologist Richard Dawkins, a vocal critic of religion, has said that in listening to and debating theologians, he has “never heard them say anything of the smallest use.” Yet it is hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.

Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, it doesn’t always mean foolish. The only way to determine which is the case is to put an idea — a hypothesis — to an empirical test. In my own work, I have repeatedly done so. I have found that religious ideas about human behavior and how to influence it, though never worthy of blind embrace, are sometimes vindicated by scientific examination.

Consider the challenge of getting people to act in virtuous ways. Every religion has its tools for doing this. Meditation, for example, is a Buddhist technique created to reduce suffering and enhance ethical behavior. Research from my own and others’ labs confirms that it does just that, even when meditation is taught and performed in a completely secular context, leading research participants to exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering and to forgo vengeance in the face of insult.

Another religious tool is ritual, often characterized by the rigid following of repetitive actions or by engagement with others in synchronous movement or song. Here, too, an emerging body of research shows that ritualistic actions, even when stripped from a religious context, produce effects on the mind ranging from increased self-control to greater feelings of affiliation and empathy.

Ritual can also play a part in strengthening beliefs. Research on cognitive dissonance has shown that publicly stating beliefs that we don’t initially endorse leads to a psychological tension that is often remedied by altering our beliefs and behaviors to match our public pronouncements. Thus the religious practice of repeatedly stating beliefs as part of prayers — as in the Catholic Mass — may enhance devotion to a creed.

What findings like these suggest is that religions offer techniques — or “spiritual technologies,” in the words of Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show “On Being” — that help people endure difficulties, change their views or move them toward action. These techniques seem to work by nudging our behavior subconsciously. Ms. Tippett stresses that the specific religious traditions from which such techniques are borrowed should be understood and honored on their own terms. But when I spoke with her recently, she also agreed that the techniques might work even when separated from their religious trappings, as meditation and elements of ritual have been shown to do.

If this view is right, religion can offer tools to bolster secular interventions of many types, such as combating addiction, increasing exercise, saving money and encouraging people to help those in need. This possibility dovetails with a parallel body of research showing that by cultivating traditional religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness, people can also improve their ability to reach personal goals like financial and educational success.

When I broached this body of research with the cognitive scientist and religious skeptic Steven Pinker, he emphasized that it was by no means a vindication of religion as a whole. He made a point to differentiate between what he called religious practices and cultural practices, with religious ones being those more likely to have doubtful supernatural rationales (like using prayer to contact a deity for favors) and cultural ones having more practical justifications (like using ritual to foster connection and self-control).

While I can see Professor Pinker’s point — and I agree with him that religion as a whole must be judged by its full set of positive and negative effects — the dividing line between cultural and religious can be blurry. The Jewish practice of Shabbat, for instance, stems from a divine command for a day of rest and includes ritualistic actions and prayers. But it’s also a cultural practice in which people take time out from the daily grind to focus on family, friends and other things that matter more than work.

My purpose here isn’t to argue that religion is inherently good or bad. As with most social institutions, its value depends on the intentions of those using it. But even in cases where religion has been used to foment intergroup conflict, to justify invidious social hierarchies or to encourage the maintenance of false beliefs, studying how it manages to leverage the mechanisms of the mind to accomplish those nefarious goals can offer insights about ourselves — insights that could be used to understand and then combat such abuses in the future, whether perpetrated by religious or secular powers.

Science and religion do not need each other to function, but that doesn’t imply that they can’t benefit from each other. Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that seeks to bridge the scientific and religious worlds, told me recently that science can help clergy better aid those they counsel by showing which types of social and behavioral practices are empirically most likely to foster their emotional, moral and spiritual goals.

A yearning for a science-religion synergy is growing in some circles. Ms. Tippett cites as an example the Formation Project, an initiative designed by a group of millennials who are looking to cultivate their inner lives and form a community by combining ideas from psychology and neuroscience with practices from ancient spiritual traditions. In doing this, she points out, these young people are not blindly accepting any doctrine. They are asking questions and choosing what works based on evidence. In short, they are doing exactly what I think the communities of scientists and clergy need to do in a more rigorous way and on a much larger scale.

Will it work? That’s an empirical question. But if we choose not to investigate it, we’ll never know. And I suspect we’ll be the poorer for it.

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is the author of “Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.”
science  religion  spirituality  worldview  culture  interesting 
february 2019 by tdjones
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