I was talking to a Bikram friend today, who said that the first 20 minutes of the Bikram yoga sequence is us getting back in touch with ourselves and she has wondered for a while how to take that off the mat and into her life.
I love it when someone articulates clearly something that I have been pondering but didn’t know where to start. I know that connection to others is necessary, not least of all, because we learn about ourselves. But, in order to connect to others in a meaningful way, we first of all need to be able to connect to ourselves.
Each December, I like to reflect on what I have been blogging about all year. I did so in 2015 and 2016 and in this way I connect with myself, and my words, which makes it easier to connect to others and their words, especially with WordPress Reader.
And then, the stats themselves can tell a story. As I said in Top Blog No 3 (below), we are living in an age when we have lots of data and very little narrative, or insight, which is why everyone is nuts about big data as they think it will give them insight. But, to get the insight, you need to see patterns, and then make them into a story.
So, let’s take a look. My top 10 blogs of 2017 are:
In all honesty, given the nature of 3.6 billion people online and how Google gets people to come to this site, the only real common thread in these blogs is that I wrote all of them. That said, I could make all manner of patterns out of these 10 posts because if there is one thing statisticians know: if you torture the data long enough it will tell you anything. But, what I really see in these top posts is that I have been blogging away about social media and storytelling for a few years now, and I have come full circle.
The constant theme running through all the blogs is connection and also understanding how to connect (which is why 4 and 9 have made it on, we like to make sense of our connections, 1, 5 and 6 are about making sense of bad behaviour or when connection goes sour). Now I only have two blogs left to write (one on social computing, and one on connection) and then I will have said everything and much more than I intended to, when I set out to talk about social media.
I am a year behind schedule as 2017 has been painful with some difficult life events, some heartbreak, and a lot of soul-searching, so to have felt a connection to others, more often than not online, throughout 2017, has been truly lovely. We do connect and have proper conversations on social media, contrary to what some sociologists might think.
I love blogging here. I make sense of the world and of myself, and as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it, I satisfy that innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness.
So for that, and for the conversations, the connections, and for the laughter, especially the laughter, I am so very, very grateful, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!
We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future – Matt Licata
The day I rang my dad to tell him what the plan was for treating the cancer I had been diagnosed with, he said: You haven’t really got cancer, have you? Not really. I read about it on the Internet.
I was so angry, I could barely speak: Err, yes I have, that is why I am now starting what will be probably a year in total of treatment (it turned out to be two). But, even though I was raging, he just couldn’t stop himself insisting that I hadn’t really got cancer.
I now see that it was just him unable to witness me potentially fall apart, or worse. We had just been through three years of life or death treatment with my daughter and two years of mental and physical illness with my mum and so my news tapped into a hopelessness and grief he hadn’t had space to process and which he could no longer manage which is why he felt the need to talk me out of my experience. He died one year later, his big, kind heart couldn’t take anymore.
Don’t wear your heart on a sleeve
My dad is an extreme example of not being able to recognise or bear witness to another’s fear and pain. But, it is not uncommon. Last week, I went to my uncle’s funeral and one completely lovely relative said to me: Don’t cry, Ruth, – words we say to one another all the time which are comforting, but are really, deep down, a plea asking someone to keep it together, behave better, and stop reminding everyone about the pain and agony in their own hearts.
Anyone who has cancer can tell you how, when you tell someone your news, the person opposite you will chime in – often part way through your story – to tell you about their friend/relative/loved one who has/had cancer too. They launch into a massive tale that you really haven’t got the emotional strength to hear, let alone bear witness to. People can’t stand you. They cannot stand to hear your pain, as it taps into theirs until they just have to share their pain, in the hope of feeling better, which in this scenario doesn’t really work.
After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending?
I know now this is why one wise doctor advised me to be very careful when thinking about telling people I had cancer. After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending? Otherwise, left to their own pain and sadness, people would quite amazingly finish whatever very long, horrific tale with: AND THEN THEY DIED….!!! #ffs. I know more stories about cancer and kidney transplants than anyone in their right mind can bear.
It is very hard to watch someone fall apart under the weight of a life experience, to fall into that dreadful emotional agony, without wanting to stop it, to shush it, to shove it all back down to where it is manageable. It takes even greater strength to stand there and share that agony by acknowledging it and being a witness so that you allow someone to express what they must, but I am starting to think that it is the only way to live this life. We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it in a lovely facebook post, so that you can be of service to yourself and others.
Managing others experiences
When my baby had tubes coming out of her and I had no hair at all, I used to watch all the mums going off on their lovely coffee/play dates, as I made my lonely way home. We were not invited. It seemed that we were not wanted because we looked different. We had scars which demonstrated that life can serve up terrible experiences inexplicably, without rhyme or reason, so it was easier not to have us around. No one wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life.This made me feel ashamed as if there was something wrong with me: why couldn’t I just be normal? Talk normally? And, most of all not cry. The rejection scarred me deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel.
One mum kindly admitted last year that people dreaded seeing us as you never knew what terrible thing might have happened to us since the last terrible thing. In a strange way her admission made me feel better. It wasn’t me, it was them. Just the other day I bumped into one of those mums who breezily asked me how our health was, I ignored her (a new skill I have when I don’t want to answer a question which can undo me, sometimes I just shake my head) but she asked me several times. I think she asked because it looked like she would get a safe answer in the middle of H&M, because even now she wants my experience to be one that she can manage, and she can feel she expressed the appropriate amount of concern without me touching her fear.
But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love.
It seems to me that when you get breezy, avoid, or interrupt someone, you are forgetting that they are human, and that they are innocent and whole underneath the wounds which frighten you so much. But it is very hard to not interrupt other peoples’ energy – to let them have the space to let off steam and to let the conversation flow. But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. None of us get enough love says meditation teacher davidji to which he adds, and none of us breathes deeply enough.
However, if you cannot hold the space, ask yourself what it is that makes you so afraid? I know I am still afraid, still anxious, still hurting after all this time, and I don’t always manage conversations well. Meditation makes it better but it is agony, which is funny as that is the topic of the last conversation I had with my dad, which would surprise anyone who knew him. He was a rock, who could sit in the company of the wounded, the dying and make it right, make it better. He had a magnificent compassion that was pure unconditional love. However, that night, on the phone, he got me to read out the side effects of my latest round of painkillers, in case they would be good for him, he was in pain, and then he said he was having trouble sleeping/managing/being and I said that he had to meditate, ‘cos I had just read a book by Deepak Chopra on it. He said: Effing Deepak Chopra… and there was a load of chuntering on and more swearing until he admitted: Meditation is so hard. And so it is.
Be not afraid: Energy exchange for the broken hearted
Lately, I have been practising Tonglen a Buddhist meditation technique for overcoming the fear and suffering my dad was swearing about. Danielle La Porte sums it up in the Firestarter sessions as:
Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Breathe in suffering— yours, others, the world’s. Breathe out compassion— for yourself, for others, for the world.
Basically when you feel brokenhearted, which I currently do, you breathe in the very pain that is undoing you, and you lean into the unbearable agony of it all, and then you breathe out love. You may feel that you are going to shatter into a million little pieces, but then a little magic happens and you exchange one emotion for another. You do it for yourself, and for all the ones who broke your heart, and for those who broke their own hearts, and by doing so broke your heart so badly that you feel nothing good will ever happen again. And, you keep doing it, in and out, in and out, in and out, until the pain is bearable and not so heart breaking and not so frightening and it has become a noble pain of service. Who knew that the simple act of breathing could be so powerful?
The most often repeated words in the Bible are: Be not afraid and yet it is the hardest thing to be, not afraid. And yet, it is the only thing to be, in order to live life with love and to truly connect with others, we have to learn to be not afraid. As my old dad used to always say:
The only thing to fear is fear itself.
Until you can know that, deep down in your broken, tender heart, the only thing to do is breathe.
Kermit drinking his tea and throwing shade makes me laugh. However, I think we all understand his frustration. It seems that in business and personal relationships, people play games. We may not know why, and we may not know the rules. But as we saw in part 2, before we react, we might want to find out more: if a game is being played, which one, and if we want to play or not.
Games, payoffs, and winning
A game is normally defined as having two or more players, who have a choice of possible strategies to play which determine the outcome of a game. Each outcome has a payoff which is calculated numerically to represent its value. Usually, a player will want to get the biggest payoff possible in order to be certain of winning.
Dominance, saddles, and mixed strategies
Playing the strategy with the biggest payoff is known as the Dominance Strategy, and a rational player would never do otherwise, but it’s not always easy to identify which strategy is best.
So, players sometimes take a cautious approach which will guarantee a favourable result (also known as the Saddle Point Principle). Other times, there is no saddle point so players have to choose at random what strategy to play and hope for the best. They can calculate the probability of mixing up strategies and their chances of winning. If their probability skills are not great they can play experimentally and record their results 30 times (for statistical significance) to see which strategies work.
How does this work on social media? Well, no one knows how social media works so a trial and error approach whilst recording results can be useful. Luckily, Twitter and Facebook both provide services and stats to help.
Free will, utility, and Pareto’s principle
A major question is whether players have free will or not and whether their choices are predetermined based on who they are playing with and the circumstances in which the game takes place. This can depend on the amount of information players have available to them, and as new information becomes available, they play a specific strategy, thus seeming as if they didn’t have free will at all.
Players assign numbers to describe the value of the outcomes (known in economics as utility theory) which they can use to guide themselves to the most valued outcome.
This is useful if we have a game where the winner doesn’t necessarily take all. If the players have interests which are not opposed and by cooperating the players can end up potentially with a win-win situation or at least a situation where everyone gains some benefits and the solution is not the worst outcome for everyone involved. This is known as the Pareto Principle.
On social media? Retweeting and sharing other’s businesses news is a nice way of ensuring everyone gains some benefits because with a potential market of 307 millions and there is enough of a market to go around for everyone to win-win and of course, reciprocate.
The Nash equilibrium
Taking this further is the Nash equilibrium which was named after John Nash, who proved that every two player game has one equalizing strategy (either pure or mixed) in each game. By looking at the equilibrium strategies of the other players, everyone plays to equalize. This is because, no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy, so it is win-win.
Are you chicken?
Ducks have been known share out the bread thrown to them so they all get some rather than one duck eating everything. This is known as the Hawk-Dove approach in game theory. When there is competition for a shared resource, players can choose either conciliation or conflict.
Research has shown that when a player is naturally a hawk (winner takes all) and plays amongst doves, then the player will adapt and cooperate. Conversely a dove amongst hawks will adapt too and turn into a fighter.
If there are two hawks playing each other the game is likely to go chicken, which is when both players will risk everything (known as mutually assured destruction in warfare) not to yield first.
We adapt very easily to what is going on around us, and on social media this is totally the same. In a 2014 study Pew Research Center found that people are less likely to share their honest opinions on social media, and will often only post opinions on Facebook with which they know their followers will agree – we like to conform.
The volunteer’s dilemma
In contrast, the volunteer’s dilemma is an altruistic approach where one person does the right thing for the benefit of everyone. For example, one meerkat will look out for predators, at the risk of getting eaten, whilst the rest of the meerkats look for food. And, we admire this too. We love a hero, a maverick, someone who is ready to stand up and be different.
The prisoner’s dilemma
But we hated to feel duped which is why the prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most popular game theories of all. Created by Albert W. Tucker in 1950, it is as follows:
Two prisoners are arrested for a joint crime and put in separate interrogation rooms. The district attorney sets out these rules:
If one of them confesses and the other doesn’t, the confessor will be rewarded, the other receive a heavy sentence.
If both confess each will get a light sentence. Which leads to the belief that:
If neither confesses both will go free.
It is in each prisoner’s interest to confess (dominant strategy = 1) and if they both do that satisfies the Pareto principle (2). However, if they both confess, they are worse off than if neither do (3).
The prisoner’s dilemma embodies the struggle between individual rationality and group rationality which Nigel Howard described as a metagame of a prisoner cooperating if and only if, they believe that the other prisoner will cooperate, if and only if, they believe that the first prisoner will cooperate. A mind boggling tit-for-tat. But, this is common on Twitter with those: Follow me, I will follow you back and constant following and unfollowing.
And, in any transaction we hate feeling like we have been had, that we were a chump, that we trusted when we shouldn’t have, which is why some people are so angry and like to retaliate. Anger feels better than feeling vulnerable does. But, great daring starts with vulnerability, the fear of failure, and even the failure to start, the hero’s quest shows us that.
Promises, threats, and coalitions
As we add more players, all rationality may go out of the window as players decide whether to form coalitions or to perform strategic style voting. If we introduce the idea of the players communicating then we add the issues of trust in promises, or fear of threats and it all starts to sound rather Hunger Games.
On social media aggression and threats are common, because of prejudice, or group think, especially on Twitter where there is no moderation. And, online and off, we have all been promised things and relationships which have ultimately left us disappointed, and told us that we have been misinformed, like the fake news, we’ve been hearing about a lot lately. Fake news is not new, in other contexts it is known as propaganda. And, if it is not completely fake, just exaggerated, well that’s not new either, New Labour loved spin which led to a sexed up dossier, war and death.
Kermit’s next move
Philip D. Straffin says in his book Game theory and strategy, that game theory only works up to a point, after which a player must ask for some clarification about what is going on because mathematics applied to human behaviour will only explain so much.
And so we turn back to Kermit. What is he to do? He has passive-aggressively asked for clarification and had a cup of tea. What’s his next move? Well, he could wait and see if he gets a reply (tit for tat). Who will crack first (chicken)? But, with the texts he has sent her, it is likely that her response is somewhat predetermined, or perhaps not, perhaps she will repond with Nash’s equilibria, or at the very least the Pareto principle of everyone not getting the worst outcome.
Alternatively, he could take a breath and remember that he is talking to someone he likes and with whom he wants to spend some time, someone human with the same vulnerabilities as him. He could adopt the volunteer’s dilemma approach and send her an honest text to explain that his feelings are hurt, he thought they had something special, and that she liked communicating with him as much as other people. By seeking clarification in this way, Kermit may just end up having a very nice evening after all – or not. Whoever said: All’s fair in love and war, didn’t have instant access to social media and all the complications it can cause.
The design process exists because the world does not always accommodate us humans, so we employ designers to create things or artefacts, to get the world to adapt to us. In this way, we can see that design is the science of the artificial.
One way of thinking about design is to categorise information into three groups: function-structure-behaviour, as follows:
The first step is for designers decide on the sorts of functions they want the new artefacts to be able to do and then they write descriptions that could potentially do that. However, until the artefact exists in its physical form, i.e., it has a structure, it is impossible to predict if the artefact will function in the way the designer anticipates, especially when choosing materials – plastic behaves very differently to wood and so on. Or, in the case of designing a website, a blog behaves very differently to an online store.
So, instead of going straight to the second step of trying to describe the structure of an artefact directly from a set of required functions, the designer will first try to describe the expected behaviour of an artefact, and probably do some sort of simulation (by building a prototype, or performing computational analysis) in order to see how the thing behaves and if it is different to the expected behaviour, and this even works with software.
So, I am currently redesigning my website as it’s looking a bit old, so if I think of it in terms of function, behaviour, and structure, what might happen?
Function: What is the purpose of your website? (Currently, it is just my blog, but I would like it to showcase what I do.)
Behaviour: What will your website do? (Describe what I do, potentially offer what I do?)
Structure: What structure will your website take? (I should have an about-me page, a courses page, a books page, links to what I do, or a membership area so people can access what I do directly.)
In this way we can see that once I divide how I want my site to behave and how I want it to be structured, it becomes easier to open up to new ideas. Had I just thought that I have a blog, which looks like a blog, it would have been harder to arrive at the idea of creating a membership area. I might never have even thought about it.
The first picture ever uploaded onto the Internet was a photoshopped gif of a female comedy group at CERN called The Horrible Cernettes. Tim Berners-Lee uploaded the image to show that the Internet could be much more than physics laboratories sharing data worldwide.
The links above complain that it is a dreadful first image for making history, but I think that is in part because Berners-Lee wanted to make a point about what the Internet could be, so the content was the least of his worries. It wasn’t about the content. It was about the Internet being a place where we all meet. And, this is what is ultimately so liberating about our digital culture. We all get a say in what makes culture. And, perhaps physicists have different ideas about what is culturally important which, after all, is what makes The Big Bang Theory so brilliant and funny.
However, if we look at the ancient cave paintings found on the Island of Sulawesi, Indonesai, of hand prints and pig deer, we get a very different feeling. Archaeologists believe that they are at least 39,000 years ago and are among the oldest examples of figurative art, but cannot say for sure what they represent. They are beautiful and I look at them with awe, which is probably why some archaeologists speculate that they represent a belief system the artists held. Or perhaps, they are a world view, like the cave of swimmers, found in the Sahara. These paintings are only 8,000 years old, but have given rise to the theory that the Sahara was a place where people used to swim, before climate change turned it into a desert. We may never know.
I asked my girls what they thought the pictures of hands and beasts and swimmers meant. One said: This is me. Remember me. The other said: Spread my imagination. In other words, my girls think these images were drawn so that the artists could make their mark, record and share their worldview and be remembered, which I believe is why people create today whether it is images or words.
Science research website, Greater Good asked seven artists: Why do you make art? And they got the same response as the ones my junior school girls gave me with a couple of additions/variations:
Making art for fun and adventure; building bridges between themselves and the rest of humanity; reuniting and recording fragments of thought, feeling, and memory; and saying things that they can’t express in any other way.
Put a writing utensil in any kid’s hand at age two or three. They will not write on a paper like they’ll later be socialized to do, they will write on the walls. They’re just playing. That’s human. Graffiti reminds you of your humanity, when you scrawl your self-expression on the wall.
Which is so true. The ancient images were drawn on the wall. They are self-expression and remind us of our humanity, which is why they are so moving. Interestingly, hurried scrawled graffiti has been found on ancient monuments, and on the walls in Pompeii. And, in Rome on a church wall, the first words of Italian graffiti, or Vulgar Latin, were written, written like a response, in the vernacular, representing the ordinary person’s thoughts. Today, graffiti is shorthand for unsolicited markings on a private or public property and is usually considered to be vandalism. Yet, some of it is breathtaking and elaborate. There are three categories of graffiti: Tourist graffiti (‘John wuz here’), inner-city graffiti (tagging and street art), and toilet graffiti (latrinalia) described in a fabulous Atlantic article. Graffiti is a way of people contributing to the conversation like when people leave their comments and links below.
As is painting, so is poetry
The Roman poet Horace ut pictura poesis (as is painting, so is poetry) made the link between word and image, which has kept the art world busy for centuries. Aristotle’s theory of drama considered the balance of lexis (speech) and opsis (spectacle) in tragedy. So we can see that ancient theories of memory use words and images, which no doubt inspired the more modern and controversial Dual Coding Theory, which says that when someone is learning a new word, if a meaningful picture is given alongside it, the learner will retain it more easily than if it didn’t have an accompanying picture. This is reminiscent of the ubiquitous meme: lovely quotation, lovely image, shared experience, which has a gestalt feel of something meaningful.
The first written language was a language of images – the Hieroglyphics. However, the appreciation of their meaning was lost until the decoding of The Rosetta Stone which took so long because the code breakers they thought they were decoding images. It was only when they realised that the Hieroglyphics were a language and needed to be treated as such, did they decode the stone.
Like all languages, Hieroglyphics are an organised form of communication because you can’t build something as grand as the Pyramids without communicating clearly and communication is a way of advancing humanity. However, Hieroglyphics began as decorative symbols for priests – a gift of sacred signs given from the God Thoth – and were used to record the meaning of life and religion and magic. These were too elaborate for merchants, who adopted a simpler version to preserve their transactions, until Hieroglyphics fell out of favour for the more practical cursive Coptic script, which gave way to Arabic and Latin, languages we recognise today, in which communication was preserved and recorded to enrich future generations.
Images reward us
Research, particularly in the field of neuroesthetics, which is how the visual brain appreciates visual art, shows us that art is a rewarding experience. It is not necessarily the message itself which the viewer finds rewarding, it is how it is delivered. That is to say, it is it is not what is painted, it is how it is painted that lights up the brain’s reward centre. And, we prefer images to photographs, because the brain is free to interpret meaning even though it ultimately prefers to see a representation of what is in nature. And why wouldn’t it?
The asethetics of nature
In nature we find so many pleasing patterns. We also are attracted to art and people who are asethetically pleasing. The golden ratio is a pattern which appears in nature and has been used in art, as has symmetry. The most beautiful people have symmetrical faces and the most average facial features. We are naturally attracted to beautiful people in paintings and real life.
And, we are also influenced by them, which marketers have long recognised. They use lovely images to wrap their products in knowing that us consumers will be more willing to consume something which looks beautiful. This is known as the art infusion effect.
It is the same for newspapers, pictures sell more copy. The Illustrated London News was created in 1842 and had 60,000 subscribers in that year alone, after someone realised that newspapers sold more copies when they had pictures in them, especially ones which showed a face or place. But it wasn’t until 1889 that photographs were used in newspapers.
And so it is online, Jakob Nielsen says that users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but will ignore pictures used to jazz up web pages. Stock pictures of people in business situations get ignored but pictures of people who write the blogs or work in the companies get studied 10% longer than their written biographies which often accompany any photograph. If you are selling a product you need high quality photographs which users can inspect and compare.
Users want to be educated by the images and find out things which is ultimately why they are on your website. Edward Tufte has written extensively about excellence in statistical graphics and visualising data. His says that users are sophisticated individuals so:
Give them the greatest number of ideas, in the shortest time, with the least ink, in the smallest space.