Yes and no: there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the question
We still haven’t grappled with the deep questions Nicholas Carr brought to public attention in his seminal book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010). Is the internet making us dumb? Is the technology causing us cognitive loss or debilitation? Carr focused on the internet, which is, by design, a dumb technology—a general-purpose digital communication infrastructure that pushed “intelligence” to the ends of the network.
Since my own book Re-Engineering Humanity, co-authored by Evan Sellinger, was published, I’m often asked: Is smart technology making us dumb? My first reaction is to bounce a few questions back. Can technology really be smart? Is your question whether our use of certain technologies is making us dumb? Or is your question about technology companies?
Eventually, I return to the original question and respond like a lawyer: It depends. It’s yes, in some ways and no in others. Before addressing it, we must acknowledge the conceptual mistake of boiling intelligence down to a binary—smart versus dumb—as if it exists on a single dimension. There are many different types of intelligence that matter, and how technology affects different types also varies considerably.
Once I’m done meandering, however I answer yes. I believe we may be making ourselves dumber when we outsource thinking and rely on supposedly smart tech to micromanage our daily lives for the sake of cheap convenience.
The internet provides us with seemingly limitless data, prose, images, video and other raw materials that could in theory enhance our intelligence and enable us to become more knowledgeable, to be more skillful or to otherwise use actionable intelligence. Maybe we could improve our decision-making, reflect on our beliefs, interrogate our own biases, and so on.
But do we? Who does? Who exactly is made smarter? And how? And with respect to what? Are you and I, and our siblings and children, engaging with the seemingly limitless raw materials in a manner that makes us more capable, more intelligent? Or do we find ourselves outsourcing more and more? Do we find ourselves mindlessly following scripts written or designed by others?
We’re easily led to believe that we’re extending our minds and becoming more intelligent with a little help from the digital tech tools, when in reality, those are often just illusions, sales pitches optimized to pave the path of least resistance. Every time someone suggests they’ve extended their mind with their smartphone, that they are thinking through and with their phones, I respond by asking them about who’s doing what thinking.
Are they extending their mind or extending the reach of others into their mind? When you rely on GPS, who’s doing the route planning? Who is gaining what intelligence? Are you smarter because of GPS? What impact does outsourcing navigation and awareness of your surroundings have on your capabilities? Certainly, Waze or Google gain intelligence about you, your surroundings and even others around you. That could be good or bad, but it’s not really extending your mind or expanding your intelligence.
As everyone knows by now, many digital tech companies know a lot about each of us. Advertisers, Cambridge Analytica–like firms, large platforms and so on. They’ve gained considerable intelligence and, as a result, power. But note that for the most part, they feed on different raw materials. They don’t get smart by consuming the same materials that we’re fed.
They gain actionable intelligence by collecting treasure troves of data, gleaned from digital networked technologies. Everything that occurs on the internet—every interaction, transaction, communication, etc.—everything is data, strings of 0s and 1s. And all of our activities generate data. Digital tech companies gain actionable intelligence by collecting and processing data, mostly about how we behave in response to different stimuli—what we’re fed. This empowers those companies. They may, for example, personalize their services to induce desirable behaviors, such as sustained engagement. Or they may develop new salable insights about consumers. I could go on. But the bottom line is that digital tech companies get smarter, more capable, more powerful.
But what about you and me? Do we also get smarter? Do we extend our minds and thereby gain intelligence and increased capabilities? What actual capabilities are extended or enhanced? Are they in fact practiced? If so, to what end? What actionable intelligence improves the quality of your life?
Upon reflection, I remain uncertain. Again, the lawyer in me emerges, and I can reach no definitive evaluation. Does that say something about me and my reflective capacity, the ambiguity of empirical evidence, or something else?
The internet promised the library of Alexandria at our fingertips, delivered instantaneously wherever and whenever we like. It delivered that and much, much more. One might describe the exchange in Faustian terms, as trading one’s soul for knowledge. Putting aside concerns about what’s been lost (our soul, humanity, etc.), it’s not even clear that the promised knowledge was delivered. To make matters worse, evaluating the Faustian bargain is even more difficult when the intellectual capabilities required to do so seem to be waning, at least for many of us.
But what about happiness? Prior studies have been mixed about this, with some studies showing no relationship between individual IQ and happiness, and other studies showing that those in the lowest IQ range report the lowest levels of happiness compared to those in the highest IQ group. In one study, however, the unhappiness of the lowest IQ range was reduced by 50% once income and mental health issues were taken into account. The authors concluded that “interventions that target modifiable variables such as income (e.g., through enhancing education and employment opportunities) and neurotic symptoms (e.g., through better detection of mental health problems) may improve levels of happiness in the lower IQ groups.”
One major limitations of these prior studies, however, is that they all rely on a single measure of happiness, notably life satisfaction. Modern day researchers now have measures to assess a much wider array of indicators of well-being, including autonomy, personal growth, positive relationships, self-acceptance, mastery, and purpose and meaning in life.
Enter a new study conducted by Ana Dimitrijevic and colleagues, in which they attempted to assess the relationship between multiple indicators of intelligence and multiple indicators of well-being. They relied on the following definition of intelligence: “the ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, and to overcome obstacles by taking thought.” This definition covers several more specific notions of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence.
The researchers administered a battery of intelligence and well-being measures to 288 adults employed within various departments of a large dairy production company in Belgrade. What did they found?
Intelligence and Well-Being
The researchers found that both IQ and emotional intelligence were independently correlated with well-being.* IQ was positively correlated with personal relationships, self-acceptance, personal growth, mastery, and purpose in life.** Emotional intelligence was correlated with the same well-being measures, but was additionally related to a sense of autonomy in life.
Zooming in on the IQ test, the most predictive subscale for well-being was a measure of non-verbal fluid reasoning, which requires pattern detection and abstract reasoning (constructing generalizable principles from minimal information). Some people argue that this form of reasoning is strongly related to general intelligence.
Once socioeconomic status (SES) was taken into account (reflecting higher education and income), however, there was no relationship between IQ and well-being. According to the researchers, this suggests that IQ leads “to greater contentment with oneself and life primarily by enabling one to acquire the social status and financial means which ensure better opportunities and quality of life.” Of course, this does not mean that IQ is simply a measure of SES; IQ was positively correlated with well-being. However, it does suggest that the extent to which IQ is related to happiness depends to a large extent on the opportunities (e.g., financial, educational) you have to utilize your IQ.
What about emotional intelligence? The emotional intelligence tests that were most predictive of well-being were the two higher, more “strategic” branches– Understanding and Managing Emotions. The person who scores higher in these facets of emotional intelligence are better able to comprehend the emotional signals coming from others, and to regulate and manage their own and others’ emotions so as to further their own and others’ personal and social goals.
Emotional intelligence had a direct effect on well-being, and this association remained strong even after controlling for SES. What’s more, of the two measures of intelligence– IQ and emotional intelligence– emotional intelligence was the strongest predictor of well-being, outweighing not only IQ, but also a person’s SES and age. This finding suggests that emotional intelligence– particularly the capacity to manage one’s emotions toward optimal personal goal attainment– is a form of intelligence that can help people live a more fulfilled life regardless of their economic circumstances.
Why Is Intelligence Associated with Well-Being?
I think intelligence matters for a fulfilling life for a number of reasons. For one, a higher IQ is a gateway to better education. Those with higher IQ scores are much more likely to score well on standardized tests of achievement, and academic performance is often the first hurdle necessary to continue up the ladder of occupational opportunities.
Also relevant here is the association between IQ and openness to experience. Those with a higher IQ tend to score higher in a number of facets of openness to experience, including intellectual engagement, intellectual creativity, introspection, ingenuity, intellectual depth, and imagination. This tendency for deeper cognitive processing is critical for dealing with a lot of life’s up and downs. While trauma is inevitable in life, research shows that we can grow from our traumas if we have a healthy form of rumination in which we reflect on the deeper meaning of the event and can use that cognitive processing to perceive greater opportunities for ourselves and others.
Regarding emotional intelligence, since having a fulfilling life often requires accomplishing the goals you have set out for yourself, it makes sense that being able to manage your emotions in the service of a larger goal will be associated with well-being and self-actualization.
Perhaps the most important analysis will turn out to be how IQ and emotional intelligence interact. There is some evidence that in certain contexts, emotional intelligence can amplify the effectiveness of a high IQ, and high emotional intelligence can even compensate for a lower IQ. Future research should definitely look more closely at the interaction between these two important aspects of human intelligence.
Of course, it’s possible that the findings operate in reverse causation, and being happier increases intellectual skills. Most likely, both directions are at play in the correlations found in the study. Clearly more research will need to look at the association between intelligence and well-being over time.
At any rate, I’m pleased to see that this line of research is being conducted. I believe a great responsibility we have as a society is to ensure that all people– regardless of their IQ score– are able to self-actualize and lead a life of self-acceptance, autonomy, meaning, and positive social relationships.
* It should be noted that IQ and emotional intelligence were moderately correlated with each other. This suggests that both tests are tapping into a common set of processes (e.g., executive functioning, working memory, etc.), even though IQ and emotional intelligence also involve a partially different set of skills.
ISSUE: FDA review found that fluoroquinolone antibiotics can increase the occurrence of rare but serious events of ruptures or tears in the main artery of the body, called the aorta. These tears, called aortic dissections, or ruptures of an aortic aneurysm can lead to dangerous bleeding or even death. They can occur with fluoroquinolones for systemic use given by mouth or through an injection.
BACKGROUND: Fluoroquinolone antibiotics are approved to treat certain bacterial infections and have been used for more than 30 years. They work by killing or stopping the growth of bacteria that can cause illness. Without treatment, some infections can spread and lead to serious health problems (see List of Currently Available FDA-Approved Systemic Fluoroquinolones).
Healthcare professionals should:
Avoid prescribing fluoroquinolone antibiotics to patients who have an aortic aneurysm or are at risk for an aortic aneurysm, such as patients with peripheral atherosclerotic vascular diseases, hypertension, certain genetic conditions such as Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and elderly patients.
Prescribe fluoroquinolones to these patients only when no other treatment options are available.
Advise all patients to seek immediate medical treatment for any symptoms associated with aortic aneurysm.
Stop fluoroquinolone treatment immediately if a patient reports side effects suggestive of aortic aneurysm or dissection.
Seek medical attention immediately by going to an emergency room or calling 911 if you experience sudden, severe, and constant pain in the stomach, chest or back.
Be aware that symptoms of an aortic aneurysm often do not show up until the aneurysm becomes large or bursts, so report any unusual side effects from taking fluoroquinolones to your health care professional immediately.
Inform your health professional before starting an antibiotic prescription, if you have a history of aneurysms, blockages or hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, or genetic conditions such as Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
Not stop the antibiotic without first talking to your health care professional.
Fast-forward to several decades or a half-century from now, and it’s not inconceivable that humans could be living on Mars—building habitats, trundling around in rovers, mining the subsurface for resources, and producing the first generation of bipedal Martians.
Except, no one really knows if humans can successfully reproduce in space, whether that’s during spaceflight or on another planet. To be clear, having sex in (much) lower gravity is a simple physics problem. But a host of unknowns swirl around how space environments affect the actual biological sequences of events that must unfold with precision for a new human to grow, from fertilization to weaning.
It’s not as though we haven’t tried to sort it out. Mice, rats, salamanders, frogs, fish, and plants have been the subjects of experiments looking at how spaceflight affects reproduction. To put it simply, though, the results so far are mixed and inconclusive.
“All of our big tech gurus out there who want us to be a multiplanet civilization—this is a key question that no one has answered yet,” says Baylor College of Medicine physician Kris Lehnhardt, who specializes in space medicine.
“Everyone is focused on the hardware, and the hardware is great, but in the end it’s the squishy meat-sack that messes everything up. Ignoring the human system, if you will, in future plans and designs is only going to lead to failure.”
Gravity of the situation
On Earth, evolutionary processes are fine-tuned to work in an environment characterized by one of our planet’s most basic forces: gravity. In space, gravity is essentially nonexistent, and on Mars it’s about 38 percent the strength of Earth’s downward pull. So far, no one has even come close to figuring out how a partial gravity environment could affect mammalian reproduction.
As well, radiation in space is stronger and potentially more damaging than down here on the ground, because Earth’s magnetic field helps shield the planet from energetic cosmic particles. High radiation doses are already a serious concern for adult space travelers, and space agencies carefully track their astronauts’ exposures in orbit. What that radiation could do to a much more developmentally sensitive fetus is a real worry.
The effects of those two things—gravity and radiation—on reproduction are, so far, the major issues scientists are trying to address. And because of ethical qualms associated with studying medical risks in humans, scientists have spent decades launching various other animals and associated tissues into space.
Early experiments done by the Soviets in the late 1970s included sending several rats into orbit aboard the Cosmos 1129 satellite. When they returned, there was evidence that they’d mated in space, but none of the females ever delivered, which might not be surprising to anyone who studies rodents, given their sensitivity to environmental perturbations.
Spaceflight also appears to decrease total rat sperm counts, while increasing abnormalities; still, Ronca has written that “the available data suggest that numerous aspects of pregnancy, birth and early mammalian development can proceed under altered gravity conditions.”
Taken together, these experiments and others aren’t exactly constructing a cohesive image of how spaceflight affects reproduction.
“If you were to take reproduction and break it down into all of its various parts … there’s never really been a dedicated scientific program that looks at how each of those steps is affected by the space environment,” Lehnhardt says. “It’s one thing to know that it’s even possible, it’s another thing to know that it can be done safely and have a good outcome.”
In general, though, it’s not looking good for mammals, in which successful embryonic development starts with a complicated interchange between mom and fetus and just gets more complex from there.
“Across the board, almost every study has shown that in space, either things don’t work at all or they’re not as good—and so as we move forward, we need better and bigger studies, and human studies,” says James Nodler of the Houston Fertility Clinic, who reviewed the links between gravity and embryonic development.
Of mice and humans
In an attempt to address some of the concerns associated with long-term human habitation on the surface of Mars, a team based primarily at NASA’s Langley Research Center designed an experiment that would allow scientists to study the long-term effects of partial gravity on mammalian reproduction.
“Before significant investment is made in capabilities leading to such pioneering efforts, the challenges of multigenerational mammalian reproduction in a partial gravity environment need be investigated,” the scientists write. “Humans may encounter reproductive challenges in gravity environments different than Earth’s, as gravitational forces may disrupt mammalian life cycle processes and actively shape genomes in ways that are inheritable.”
As envisioned, the experiment would involve placing a mouse colony into lunar orbit, enclosed in a rotating habitat that could be observed and operated almost completely autonomously, courtesy of 600 cameras and telerobotic animal care.
Called MICEHAB, for Multigenerational Independent Colony for Extraterrestrial Habitation, Autonomy and Behavior health, the experiment would study the effects of spaceflight and partial gravity on at least three generations of mice a year, with scientists keeping track of birth rates and overall animal health.
About once a year or so, the autonomous mouse colony would rendezvous with a planned human habitat in cis-lunar space, allowing astronauts to retrieve samples from the experiment and perform any necessary maintenance, with the goal being to run the experiment for 10 years.
“Partial gravity mammalian reproduction research should be conducted prior to the late 2020s in order to inform design decisions on future human Mars missions,” the scientists write. “Permanent surface settlements may be infeasible if partial gravity reproduction challenges are too great to overcome.”
But as of now, there’s no indication that MICEHAB will be launching any time soon – and even if it were, some scientists worry it wouldn’t actually answer the questions we’re keen to know about ourselves. Human reproduction differs dramatically even from that of other primates, and none of the organisms studied so far are effective surrogates, says Nodler, a reproductive endocrinologist who specializes in assisted reproductive technologies.
“If you look at early IVF studies, they skipped over a lot of mouse and primate studies—it’s just not the same,” Nodler says. “It can’t be overstated that at some point, we have to do human studies to see what’s really going on here.”
Ethics and embryos
But deciding which experiment to perform depends on the goal posts, Nodler says, and whether we’re thinking a bit outside the frame of “normal” reproduction and potentially leaning on assisted technologies to produce a generation of Martians.
“Is our end point to see if we send up a man and a woman, and they have sex, can they have a baby?” he asks. “Or do we want to say, can we take a whole bunch of embryos, freeze them on Earth, send them to Mars and thaw them?”
Performing that first experiment is technically simple enough, although mired in potential ethical snags. And while studying the precise effects of a space environment on human embryos is more difficult, it could feasibly be done today, except for an even bigger pile of moral and ethical snags.
For example, scientists could send human sperm and eggs to the International Space Station and attempt in vitro fertilization to see if it would even work, and then compare how many embryos were produced compared to controls on Earth.
“The problem is, those are potentially viable embryos, and people would have a heyday with that,” Nodler says.
Scientists could also send already fertilized embryos to the ISS and look at how the space environment affects development, DNA damage, and repair. This could be done, Nodler says, with embryos that already have no chance of developing normally—which might remove some of the ethical challenges—but the real test would be to look at the effects of spaceflight on viable embryos.
“Let them stay frozen on ISS for six months or a year, then bring them back to Earth, and use them to try to have a live birth. That would be really, really difficult to get approval for, but at one point you gotta do it,” he says, noting that “we have thousands of discarded embryos that patients have said we can use for scientific research. The problem is getting someone to let me use them for scientific research.”
Lehnhardt agrees that it’ll be tricky to study human reproduction in space without actually studying humans, and that means being willing to tackle not only the scientific challenges, but the ethical quandaries as soon as possible.
“The moral and ethical challenges are not going away,” he says. “So, we’re going to have to face those head-on as we work on stuff like this in the future.”
The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears.
When Babe.net published a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with Aziz Ansari that made her cry, the internet exploded with “takes” arguing that the #MeToo movement had finally gone too far. “Grace,” the 23-year-old woman, was not an employee of Ansari’s, meaning there were no workplace dynamics. Her repeated objections and pleas that they “slow down” were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex. Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.
Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.
It’s a rich question, and there are plenty of possible answers. But if you’re asking in good faith, if you really want to think through why someone might have acted as she did, the most important one is this: Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort.
This is so baked into our society I feel like we forget it’s there. To steal from David Foster Wallace, this is the water we swim in.
The Aziz Ansari case hit a nerve because, as I’ve long feared, we’re only comfortable with movements like #MeToo so long as the men in question are absolute monsters we can easily separate from the pack. Once we move past the “few bad apples” argument and start to suspect that this is more a trend than a blip, our instinct is to normalize. To insist that this is is just how men are, and how sex is.
This is what Andrew Sullivan basically proposed in his latest, startlingly unscientific column. #MeToo has gone too far, he argues, by refusing to confront the biological realities of maleness. Feminism, he says, has refused to give men their due and denied the role “nature” must play in these discussions. Ladies, he writes, if you keep denying biology, you’ll watch men get defensive, react, and “fight back.”
This is beyond vapid. Not only is Sullivan bafflingly confused about nature and its realities, as Colin Dickey notes in this instructive Twitter thread, he’s being appallingly conventional. Sullivan claims he came to “understand the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman” thanks to a testosterone injection he received. That is to say, he imagines maleness can be isolated to an injectable hormone and doesn’t bother to imagine femaleness at all. If you want an encapsulation of the habits of mind that made #MeToo necessary, there it is. Sullivan, that would-be contrarian, is utterly representative.
The real problem isn’t that we — as a culture — don’t sufficiently consider men’s biological reality. The problem is rather that theirs is literally the only biological reality we ever bother to consider.
So let’s actually talk bodies. Let’s take bodies and the facts of sex seriously for a change. And let’s allow some women back into the equation, shall we? Because if you’re going to wax poetic about male pleasure, you had better be ready to talk about its secret, unpleasant, ubiquitous cousin: female pain.
Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.
That matters, because nowhere is our lack of practice at thinking about non-male biological realities more evident than when we talk about “bad sex.” For all the calls for nuance in this discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute harassment or assault, I’ve been dumbstruck by the flattening work of that phrase — specifically, the assumption that “bad sex” means the same thing to men who have sex with women as it does to women who have sex with men.
The studies on this are few. A casual survey of forums where people discuss “bad sex” suggests that men tend to use the term to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. (Here’s a very unscientific Twitter poll I did that found just that.) But when most women talk about “bad sex,” they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain. Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, and one of the forces behind the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, confirmed this. “When it comes to ‘good sex,'” she told me, “women often mean without pain, men often mean they had orgasms.”
As for bad sex, University of Michigan Professor Sara McClelland, another one of the few scholars who has done rigorous work on this issue, discovered in the course of her research on how young men and women rate sexual satisfaction that “men and women imagined a very different low end of the sexual satisfaction scale.”
While women imagined the low end to include the potential for extremely negative feelings and the potential for pain, men imagined the low end to represent the potential for less satisfying sexual outcomes, but they never imagined harmful or damaging outcomes for themselves. [“Intimate Justice: Sexual satisfaction in young adults“]
Once you’ve absorbed how horrifying this is, you might reasonably conclude that our “reckoning” over sexual assault and harassment has suffered because men and women have entirely different rating scales. An 8 on a man’s Bad Sex scale is like a 1 on a woman’s. This tendency for men and women to use the same term — bad sex — to describe experiences an objective observer would characterize as vastly different is the flip side of a known psychological phenomenon called “relative deprivation,” by which disenfranchised groups, having been trained to expect little, tend paradoxically to report the same levels of satisfaction as their better-treated, more privileged peers.
This is one reason why Sullivan’s attempt to naturalize the status quo is so damaging.
When a woman says “I’m uncomfortable” and leaves a sexual encounter in tears, then, maybe she’s not being a fragile flower with no tolerance for discomfort. And maybe we could stand to think a little harder about the biological realities a lot of women deal with, because unfortunately, painful sex isn’t the exceptional outlier we like to pretend it is. It’s pretty damn common.
In considering Sullivan’s proposal, we might also, provisionally, and just as a thought experiment, accept that biology — or “nature” — coexists with history and sometimes replicates the lopsided biases of its time.
This is certainly true of medicine. Back in the 17th century, the conventional wisdom was that women were the ones with the rampant, undisciplined sexual appetites. That things have changed doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better. These days, a man can walk out of his doctor’s office with a prescription for Viagra based on little but a self-report, but it still takes a woman, on average, 9.28 years of suffering to be diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition caused by endometrial tissue growing outside the uterus. By that time, many find that not just sex but everyday existence has become a life-deforming challenge. That’s a blunt biological reality if ever there was one.
Or, since sex is the subject here, what about how our society’s scientific community has treated female dyspareunia — the severe physical pain some women experience during sex — vs. erectile dysfunction (which, while lamentable, is not painful)? PubMed has 393 clinical trials studying dyspareunia. Vaginismus? 10. Vulvodynia? 43.
Erectile dysfunction? 1,954.
That’s right: PubMed has almost five times as many clinical trials on male sexual pleasure as it has on female sexual pain. And why? Because we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.
This bizarre sexual astigmatism structures so much in our culture that it’s hard to gauge the extent to which our vision of things is skewed.
Take how our health system compensates doctors for male vs. female-only surgeries: As of 2015, male-specific surgeries were still reimbursed at rates 27.67 percent higher for male-specific procedures than female-specific ones. (Result: Guess who gets the fanciest doctors?) Or consider how routinely many women are condescended to and dismissed by their own physicians.
Yet here’s a direct quote from a scientific article about how (contra their reputation for complaining and avoiding discomfort) women are worryingly tough: “Everyone who regularly encounters the complaint of dyspareunia knows that women are inclined to continue with coitus, if necessary, with their teeth tightly clenched.”
If you asked yourself why “Grace” didn’t leave Ansari’s apartment as soon as she felt “uncomfortable,” you should be asking the same question here. If sex hurt, why didn’t she stop? Why is this happening? Why are women enduring excruciating pain to make sure men have orgasms?
The answer isn’t separable from our current discussion about how women have been routinely harassed, abused, and dismissed because men wanted to have erections in the workplace. It boggles the mind that Sullivan thinks we don’t sufficiently consider men’s biological reality when our entire society has agreed to organize itself around the pursuit of the straight male orgasm. This quest has been granted total cultural centrality — with unfortunate consequences for our understanding of bodies, and pleasure, and pain.
Per Sullivan’s request, I’m talking about biology. I’m speaking, specifically, about the physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually “viable.” Have you looked at how women are “supposed” to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don’t shorten their Achilles tendons. They don’t need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as “conventionally” attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it’s ludicrous to pretend they aren’t.
The old implied social bargain between women and men (which Andrew Sullivancalls “natural”) is that one side will endure a great deal of discomfort and pain for the other’s pleasure and delight. And we’ve all agreed to act like that’s normal, and just how the world works. This is why it was radical that Frances McDormand wore no makeup at the Golden Globes. This is why it was transformative when Jane Fonda posted a picture of herself looking exhausted next to one of her looking glammed up. This isn’t just an exhausting way to live; it’s also a mindset that’s pretty hard to shake.
To be clear, I’m not even objecting to our absurd beauty standards right now. My only objective here is to explore how the training women receive can help us understand what “Grace” did and did not do.
Women are supposed to perform comfort and pleasure they do not feel under conditions that make genuine comfort almost impossible. Next time you see a woman breezily laughing in a complicated and revealing gown that requires her not to eat or drink for hours, know a) that you are witnessing the work of a consummate illusionist acting her heart out and b) that you have been trained to see that extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance as merely routine.
Now think about how that training might filter down to sexual contexts.
Why, men wonder, do women fake orgasms? It seems so counterproductive? This is true! It does. That means it’s worth thinking very carefully about why so many people might do something that seems so completely contrary to their self-interest. Women get dressed up and go on dates in part because they have libidos and are hoping to get sexual pleasure. Why, when the moment finally arrives, would they give up and fake it?
The retrograde answer (the one that ignores that women have libidos) is that women trade sex positions they don’t like for social positions they do. They don’t care about pleasure.
There might be other reasons. Maybe, for example, women fake orgasms because they’d hoped for some pleasure themselves. If it looks like that’s not happening, they default to their training. And they’ve been taught a) to tolerate discomfort and b) to somehow find pleasure in the other party’s pleasure if the social conditions require it.
This is especially true where sex is concerned. Faking an orgasm achieves all kinds of things: It can encourage the man to finish, which means the pain (if you’re having it) can finally stop. It makes him feel good and spares his feelings. If being a good lover means making the other person feel good, then you’ve excelled on that front too. Total win.
We’re so blind to pain being the giant missing term in our sexual discussions that ABC News’ epic 2004 “American Sex Survey,” which includes an amazing 67 questions, never once mentions it. It doesn’t even show up as a possible reason for orgasm-faking:
This is how bad our science and social science about sex has been. By refusing to see pain and discomfort as things women routinely endure in sexual contexts, even our studies end up narrating them as strange and arbitrary creatures who (for some reason) are “not in the mood” or stop sex because they “just wanted to.”
But it’s not just about sex. One of the compliments girls get most as kids is that they’re pretty; they learn, accordingly, that a lot of their social value resides in how much others enjoy looking at them. They’re taught to take pleasure in other people’s pleasure in their looks. Indeed, this is the main way they’re socially rewarded.
This is also how women are taught to be good hosts. To subordinate their desires to those of others. To avoid confrontation. At every turn, women are taught that how someone reacts to them does more to establish their goodness and worth than anythingthey themselves might feel.
One side effect of teaching one gender to outsource its pleasure to a third party (and endure a lot of discomfort in the process) is that they’re going to be poor analysts of their own discomfort, which they have been persistently taught to ignore.
In a world where women are co-equal partners in sexual pleasure, of course it makes sense to expect that a woman would leave the moment something was done to her that she didn’t like.
That is not the world we live in.
In the real world, the very first lesson the typical woman learns about what to expect from sex is that losing her virginity is going to hurt. She’s supposed to grit her teeth and get through it. Think about how that initiation into sex might thwart your ability to recognize “discomfort” as something that’s not supposed to happen. When sex keeps hurting long after virginity is lost, as it did for many of my friends, many a woman assumes she‘s the one with the problem. And, well, if you were supposed to grit your teeth and get through it the first time, why not the second? At what point does sex magically transform from enduring someone doing something to you that you don’t like — but remember: everyone agrees you’re supposed to tolerate it — to the mutually pleasurable experience everyone else seems to think it is?
We don’t really have a language for that amazingly complicated transition because we don’t think about the biological realities of sex from the woman’s side.
Women have spent decades politely ignoring their own discomfort and pain to give men maximal pleasure. They’ve gamely pursued love and sexual fulfillment despite tearing and bleeding and other symptoms of “bad sex.” They’ve worked in industries where their objectification and harassment was normalized, and chased love and sexual fulfillment despite painful conditions no one, especially not their doctors, took seriously. Meanwhile, the gender for whom bad sex sometimes means being a little bored during orgasm, the gender whose sexual needs the medical community rushes to fulfill, the gender that walks around in sartorial comfort, with an entire society ordered so as to maximize his aesthetic and sexual pleasure — that gender, reeling from the revelation that women don’t always feel quite as good as they’ve been pressured to pretend they do, and would appreciate some checking in — is telling women they’re hypersensitive and overreacting to discomfort? Men’s biological realities are insufficiently appreciated?
I wish we lived in a world that encouraged women to attend to their bodies’ pain signals instead of powering through like endurance champs. It would be grand if women (and men) were taught to consider a woman’s pain abnormal; better still if we understood a woman’s discomfort to be reason enough to cut a man’s pleasure short.
But those aren’t actually the lessons society teaches — no, not even to “entitled” millennials. Remember: Sex is always a step behind social progress in other areas because of its intimacy. Talking details is hard, and it’s good we’re finally starting to. But next time we’re inclined to wonder why a woman didn’t immediately register and fix her own discomfort, we might wonder why we spent the preceding decades instructing her to override the signals we now blame her for not recognizing.
For decades, the medical community has ignored mountains of evidence to wage a cruel and futile war on fat people, poisoning public perception and ruining millions of lives.
It’s time for a new paradigm.
From the 16th century to the 19th, scurvy killed around 2 million sailors, more than warfare, shipwrecks and syphilis combined. It was an ugly, smelly death, too, beginning with rattling teeth and ending with a body so rotted out from the inside that its victims could literally be startled to death by a loud noise. Just as horrifying as the disease itself, though, is that for most of those 300 years, medical experts knew how to prevent it and simply failed to.
In the 1600s, some sea captains distributed lemons, limes and oranges to sailors, driven by the belief that a daily dose of citrus fruit would stave off scurvy’s progress. The British Navy, wary of the cost of expanding the treatment, turned to malt wort, a mashed and cooked byproduct of barley which had the advantage of being cheaper but the disadvantage of doing nothing whatsoever to cure scurvy. In 1747, a British doctor named James Lind conducted an experiment where he gave one group of sailors citrus slices and the others vinegar or seawater or cider. The results couldn’t have been clearer. The crewmen who ate fruit improved so quickly that they were able to help care for the others as they languished. Lind published his findings, but died before anyone got around to implementing them nearly 50 years later.
This kind of myopia repeats throughout history. Seat belts were invented long before the automobile but weren’t mandatory in cars until the 1960s. The first confirmed death from asbestos exposure was recorded in 1906, but the U.S. didn’t start banning the substance until 1973. Every discovery in public health, no matter how significant, must compete with the traditions, assumptions and financial incentives of the society implementing it.
Which brings us to one of the largest gaps between science and practice in our own time. Years from now, we will look back in horror at the counterproductive ways we addressed the obesity epidemic and the barbaric ways we treated fat people—long after we knew there was a better path.
I have never written a story where so many of my sources cried during interviews, where they shook with anger describing their interactions with doctors and strangers and their own families.
About 40 years ago, Americans started getting much larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together.
And the medical community’s primary response to this shift has been to blame fat people for being fat. Obesity, we are told, is a personal failing that strains our health care system, shrinks our GDP and saps our military strength. It is also an excuse to bully fat people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good. That’s why the fear of becoming fat, or staying that way, drives Americans to spend more on dieting every year than we spend on video games or movies. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time—an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.
The emotional costs are incalculable. I have never written a story where so many of my sources cried during interviews, where they double- and triple-checked that I would not reveal their names, where they shook with anger describing their interactions with doctors and strangers and their own families. One remembered kids singing “Baby Beluga” as she boarded the school bus, another said she has tried diets so extreme she has passed out and yet another described the elaborate measures he takes to keep his spouse from seeing him naked in the light. A medical technician I’ll call Sam (he asked me to change his name so his wife wouldn’t find out he spoke to me) said that one glimpse of himself in a mirror can destroy his mood for days. “I have this sense I’m fat and I shouldn’t be,” he says. “It feels like the worst kind of weakness.”
My interest in this issue is slightly more than journalistic. Growing up, my mother’s weight was the uncredited co-star of every family drama, the obvious, unspoken reason why she never got out of the car when she picked me up from school, why she disappeared from the family photo album for years at a time, why she spent hours making meatloaf then sat beside us eating a bowl of carrots. Last year, for the first time, we talked about her weight in detail. When I asked if she was ever bullied, she recalled some guy calling her a “fat slob” as she biked past him years ago. “But that was rare,” she says. “The bigger way my weight affected my life was that I waited to do things because I thought fat people couldn’t do them.” She got her master’s degree at 38, her Ph.D. at 55. “I avoided so many activities where I thought my weight would discredit me.”
Chances of a woman classified as obese achieving a “normal” weight:0.8%Source: American Journal of Public Health, 2015But my mother’s story, like Sam’s, like everyone’s, didn’t have to turn out like this. For 60 years, doctors and researchers have known two things that could have improved, or even saved, millions of lives. The first is that diets do not work. Not just paleo or Atkins or Weight Watchers or Goop, but all diets. Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost. The reasons are biological and irreversible. As early as 1969, research showed that losing just 3 percent of your body weight resulted in a 17 percent slowdown in your metabolism—a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight. Keeping weight off means fighting your body’s energy-regulation system and battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life.
The second big lesson the medical establishment has learned and rejected over and over again is that weight and health are not perfect synonyms. Yes, nearly every population-level study finds that fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people. But individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room.
The terrible irony is that for 60 years, we’ve approached the obesity epidemic like a fad dieter: If we just try the exact same thing one more time, we’ll get a different result. And so it’s time for a paradigm shift. We’re not going to become a skinnier country. But we still have a chance to become a healthier one.
A NOTE ABOUT OUR PHOTOGRAPHSSo many images you see in articles about obesity strip fat people of their strength and personality. According to a recent study, only 11 percent of large people depicted in news reports were wearing professional clothing. Nearly 60 percent were headless torsos. So, we asked our interview subjects to take full creative control of the photos in this piece. This is how they want to present themselves to the world.
“As a kid, I thought that fat people were just lonely and sad—almost like these pathetic lost causes. So I want to show that we get to experience love, too. I’m not some ‘fat friend’ or some dude’s chubby chasing dream. I’m genuinely happy. I just wish I’d known how possible that was when I was a kiddo.”— CORISSA ENNEKING
This is Corissa Enneking at her lightest: She wakes up, showers and smokes a cigarette to keep her appetite down. She drives to her job at a furniture store, she stands in four-inch heels all day, she eats a cup of yogurt alone in her car on her lunch break. After work, lightheaded, her feet throbbing, she counts out three Ritz crackers, eats them at her kitchen counter and writes down the calories in her food journal.
Or not. Some days she comes home and goes straight to bed, exhausted and dizzy from hunger, shivering in the Kansas heat. She rouses herself around dinnertime and drinks some orange juice or eats half a granola bar. Occasionally she’ll just sleep through the night, waking up the next day to start all over again.
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The last time she lived like this, a few years ago, her mother marched her to the hospital. “My daughter is sick,” she told the doctor. “She’s not eating.” He looked Enneking up and down. Despite six months of starvation, she was still wearing plus sizes, still couldn’t shop at J. Crew, still got unsolicited diet advice from colleagues and customers.
Enneking told the doctor that she used to be larger, that she’d lost some weight the same way she had lost it three or four times before—seeing how far she could get through the day without eating, trading solids for liquids, food for sleep. She was hungry all the time, but she was learning to like it. When she did eat, she got panic attacks. Her boss was starting to notice her erratic behavior.
“Well, whatever you’re doing now,” the doctor said, “it’s working.” He urged her to keep it up and assured her that once she got small enough, her body would start to process food differently. She could add a few hundred calories to her diet. Her period would come back. She would stay small, but without as much effort.
“If you looked at anything other than my weight,” Enneking says now, “I had an eating disorder. And my doctor was congratulating me.”
Ask almost any fat person about her interactions with the health care system and you will hear a story, sometimes three, the same as Enneking’s: rolled eyes, skeptical questions, treatments denied or delayed or revoked. Doctors are supposed to be trusted authorities, a patient’s primary gateway to healing. But for fat people, they are a source of unique and persistent trauma. No matter what you go in for or how much you’re hurting, the first thing you will be told is that it would all get better if you could just put down the Cheetos.
Emily went to a gynecological surgeon to have an ovarian cyst removed. The physician pointed out her body fat on the MRI, then said, “Look at that skinny woman in there trying to get out.”This phenomenon is not merely anecdotal. Doctors have shorter appointments with fat patients and show less emotional rapport in the minutes they do have. Negative words—“noncompliant,” “overindulgent,” “weak willed”—pop up in their medical histories with higher frequency. In one study, researchers presented doctors with case histories of patients suffering from migraines. With everything else being equal, the doctors reported that the patients who were also classified as fat had a worse attitude and were less likely to follow their advice. And that’s when they see fat patients at all: In 2011, the Sun-Sentinel polled OB-GYNs in South Florida and discovered that 14 percent had barred all new patients weighing more than 200 pounds.
Some of these doctors are simply applying the same presumptions as the society around them. An anesthesiologist on the West Coast tells me that as soon as a larger patient goes under, the surgeons start trading “high school insults” about her body over the operating table. Janice O’Keefe, a former nurse in Boston, tells me a doctor once looked at her, paused, then asked, “How could you do this to yourself?” Emily, a counselor in Eastern Washington, went to a gynecological surgeon to have an ovarian cyst removed. The physician pointed out her body fat on the MRI, then said, “Look at that skinny woman in there trying to get out.”
“I was worried I had cancer,” Emily says, “and she was turning it into a teachable moment about my weight.”
Other physicians sincerely believe that shaming fat people is the best way to motivate them to lose weight. “It’s the last area of medicine where we prescribe tough love,” says Mayo Clinic researcher Sean Phelan.
In a 2013 journal article, bioethicist Daniel Callahan argued for more stigma against fat people. “People don’t realize that they are obese or if they do realize it, it’s not enough to stir them to do anything about it,” he tells me. Shame helped him kick his cigarette habit, he argues, so it should work for obesity too.
This belief is cartoonishly out of step with a generation of research into obesity and human behavior. As one of the (many) stigma researchers who responded to Callahan’s article pointed out, shaming smokers and drug users with D.A.R.E.-style “just say no” messages may have actually increased substance abuse by making addicts less likely to bring up their habit with their doctors and family members.
Plus, rather obviously, smoking is a behavior; being fat is not. Jody Dushay, an endocrinologist and obesity specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, says most of her patients have tried dozens of diets and have lost and regained hundreds of pounds before they come to her. Telling them to try again, but in harsher terms, only sets them up to fail and then blame themselves.
89%of obese adults have been bullied by their romantic partnersSource: University of Connecticut, 2017Not all physicians set out to denigrate their fat patients, of course; some of them do damage because of subtler, more unconscious biases. Most doctors, for example, are fit—“If you go to an obesity conference, good luck trying to get a treadmill at 5 a.m.,” Dushay says—and have spent more than a decade of their lives in the high-stakes, high-stress bubble of medical schools. According to several studies, thin doctors are more confident in their recommendations, expect their patients to lose more weight and are more likely to think dieting is easy. Sarah (not her real name), a tech CEO in New England, once told her doctor that she was having trouble eating less throughout the day. “Look at me,” her doctor said. “I had one egg for breakfast and I feel fine.”
Then there are the glaring cultural differences. Kenneth Resnicow, a consultant who trains physicians to build rapport with their patients, says white, wealthy, skinny doctors will often try to bond with their low-income patients by telling them, “I know what it’s like not to have time to cook.” Their patients, who might be single mothers with three kids and two jobs, immediately think “No, you don’t,” and the relationship is irretrievably soured.
When Joy Cox, an academic in New Jersey, was 16, she went to the hospital with stomach pains. The doctor didn’t diagnose her dangerously inflamed bile duct, but he did, out of nowhere, suggest that she’d get better if she stopped eating so much fried chicken. “He managed to denigrate my fatness and my blackness in the same sentence,” she says.
“There is so much agency taken from marginalized groups to mute their voices and mask their existence. Being depicted as a female CEO—one who is also black and fat—means so much to me. It is a representation of the reclamation of power in the boardroom, classroom and living room of my body. I own all of this.”— JOY COX
Many of the financial and administrative structures doctors work within help reinforce this bad behavior. The problem starts in medical school, where, according to a 2015 survey, students receive an average of just 19 hours of nutrition education over four years of instruction—five hours fewer than they got in 2006. Then the trouble compounds once doctors get into daily practice. Primary care physicians only get 15 minutes for each appointment, barely enough time to ask patients what they ate today, much less during all the years leading up to it. And a more empathic approach to treatment simply doesn’t pay: While procedures like blood tests and CT scans command reimbursement rates from hundreds to thousands of dollars, doctors receive as little as $24 to provide a session of diet and nutrition counseling.
Lesley Williams, a family medicine doctor in Phoenix, tells me she gets an alert from her electronic health records software every time she’s about to see a patient who is above the “overweight” threshold. The reason for this is that physicians are often required, in writing, to prove to hospital administrators and insurance providers that they have brought up their patient’s weight and formulated a plan to bring it down—regardless of whether that patient came in with arthritis or a broken arm or a bad sunburn. Failing to do that could result in poor performance reviews, low ratings from insurance companies or being denied reimbursement if they refer patients to specialized care.
Another issue, says Kimberly Gudzune, an obesity specialist at Johns Hopkins, is that many doctors, no matter their specialty, think weight falls under their authority. Gudzune often spends months working with patients to set realistic goals—playing with their grandkids longer, going off a cholesterol medication—only to have other doctors threaten it all. One of her patients was making significant progress until she went to a cardiologist who told her to lose 100 pounds. “All of a sudden she goes back to feeling like a failure and we have to start over,” Gudzune says. “Or maybe she just never comes back at all.”
60%of the calories Americans consume come from “ultra-processed foods”Source: British Medical Journal, 2016And so, working within a system that neither trains nor encourages them to meaningfully engage with their higher-weight patients, doctors fall back on recommending fad diets and delivering bland motivational platitudes. Ron Kirk, an electrician in Boston, says that for years, his doctor’s first resort was to put him on some diet he couldn’t maintain for more than a few weeks. “They told me lettuce was a ‘free’ food,” he says—and he’d find himself carving up a head of romaine for dinner.
In a study that recorded 461 interactions with doctors, only 13 percent of patients got any specific plan for diet or exercise and only 5 percent got help arranging a follow-up visit. “It can be stressful when [patients] start asking a lot of specific questions” about diet and weight loss, one doctor told researchers in 2012. “I don’t feel like I have the time to sit there and give them private counseling on basics. I say, ‘Here’s some websites, look at this.’” A 2016 survey found that nearly twice as many higher-weight Americans have tried meal-replacement diets—the kind most likely to fail—than have ever received counseling from a dietician.
“It borders on medical malpractice,” says Andrew (not his real name), a consultant and musician who has been large his whole life. A few years ago, on a routine visit, Andrew’s doctor weighed him, announced that he was “dangerously overweight” and told him to diet and exercise, offering no further specifics. Should he go on a low-fat diet? Low-carb? Become a vegetarian? Should he do Crossfit? Yoga? Should he buy a fucking ThighMaster?
“She didn’t even ask me what I was already doing for exercise,” he says. “At the time, I was training for serious winter mountaineering trips, hiking every weekend and going to the gym four times a week. Instead of a conversation, I got a sound bite. It felt like shaming me was the entire purpose.”
All of this makes higher-weight patients more likely to avoid doctors. Three separate studies have found that fat women are more likely to die from breast and cervical cancers than non-fat women, a result partially attributed to their reluctance to see doctors and get screenings. Erin Harrop, a researcher at the University of Washington, studies higher-weight women with anorexia, who, contrary to the size-zero stereotype of most media depictions, are twice as likely to report vomiting, using laxatives and abusing diet pills. Thin women, Harrop discovered, take around three years to get into treatment, while her participants spent an average of 13 and a half years waiting for their disorders to be addressed.
“A lot of my job is helping people heal from the trauma of interacting with the medical system,” says Ginette Lenham, a counselor who specializes in obesity. The rest of it, she says, is helping them heal from the trauma of interacting with everyone else.
“My weight makes me anxious. I’m constantly sucking my stomach in when I stand, and if I’m sitting, I always grab a pillow or couch cushion to hold in front of it. I’m most comfortable in my bathrobe, alone. At the same time, my brain starves for attention. I want to be onstage. I want to be the one holding a microphone. So, I decided to split the difference with this photograph: to perform and to obscure. The worst part is that intellectually I know that I have worth beyond pounds and waist inches and stereotypes. But I still feel like I have to hide.”— SAM (NOT HIS REAL NAME)
If Sonya ever forgets that she is fat, the world will remind her. She has stopped taking the bus, she tells me, because she can sense the aggravation of the passengers squeezing past her. Sarah, the tech CEO, tenses up when anyone brings bagels to a work meeting. If she reaches for one, are her employees thinking, “There goes the fat boss”? If she doesn’t, are they silently congratulating her for showing some restraint?
Emily says it’s the do-gooders who get to her, the women who stop her on the street and tell her how brave she is for wearing a sleeveless dress on a 95-degree day. Sam, the medical technician, avoids the subject of weight altogether. “Men aren’t supposed to think about this stuff—and I think about it constantly,” he admits. “So I never let myself talk about it. Which is weird because it’s the most visible thing about me.”
Again and again I hear stories of how the pressure to be a “good fatty” in public builds up and explodes. Jessica has four kids. Every week is a birthday party or family reunion or swimming pool social, another opportunity to stand around platters of spare ribs and dinner rolls with her fellow moms.
“Your conscious mind is busy the whole day with how many calories is in everything, what you can eat and who’s watching,” she says. After a few intrusive comments over the years—should you be eating that?—she has learned to be careful, to perform the role of the impeccable fat person. She nibbles on cherry tomatoes, drinks tap water, stays on her feet, ignores the dessert end of the buffet.
Then, as the gathering winds down, Jessica and the other parents divvy up the leftovers. She wraps up burgers or pasta salad or birthday cake, drives her children home and waits for the moment when they are finally in bed. Then, when she’s alone, she eats all the leftovers by herself, in the dark.
“It’s always hidden,” she says. “I buy a package of ice cream, then eat it all. Then I have to go to the store to buy it again. For a week my family thinks there’s a thing of ice cream in the fridge—but it’s actually five different ones.”
Ratio of soda and candy ads seen by black children compared to white children:2:1Source: UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, 2015This is how fat-shaming works: It is visible and invisible, public and private, hidden and everywhere at the same time. Research consistently finds that larger Americans (especially larger women) earn lower salaries and are less likely to be hired and promoted. In a 2017 survey, 500 hiring managers were given a photo of an overweight female applicant. Twenty-one percent of them described her as unprofessional despite having no other information about her. What’s worse, only a few cities and one state (nice work, Michigan) officially prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of weight.
Paradoxically, as the number of larger Americans has risen, the biases against them have become more severe. More than 40 percent of Americans classified as obese now say they experience stigma on a daily basis, a rate far higher than any other minority group. And this does terrible things to their bodies. According to a 2015 study, fat people who feel discriminated against have shorter life expectancies than fat people who don’t. “These findings suggest the possibility that the stigma associated with being overweight,” the study concluded, “is more harmful than actually being overweight.”
And, in a cruel twist, one effect of weight bias is that it actually makes you eat more. The stress hormone cortisol—the one evolution designed to kick in when you’re being chased by a tiger or, it turns out, rejected for your looks—increases appetite, reduces the will to exercise and even improves the taste of food. Sam, echoing so many of the other people I spoke with, says that he drove straight to Jack in the Box last year after someone yelled, “Eat less!” at him across a parking lot.
“I don’t want to be portrayed; this is not about me. It’s about that guy you always see on the far treadmill at the gym. Or the lady who brings the most beautiful salads to work every day for lunch. It’s about the little girl who got bullied because of her size, and the little boy who was told he wasn’t man enough. It’s not about me, but had it been about me when I was that chubby little girl, maybe I wouldn’t be standing here, head against the door, wondering if I’m enough.”— ERIKA
There’s a grim caveman logic to our nastiness toward fat people. “We’re attuned to bodies that look different,” says Janet Tomiyama, a stigma researcher at UCLA. “In our evolutionary past, that might have meant disease risk and been seen as a threat to your tribe.” These biological breadcrumbs help explain why stigma begins so early. Kids as young as 3 describe their larger classmates with words like “mean,” “stupid” and “lazy.”
And yet, despite weight being the number one reason children are bullied at school, America’s institutions of public health continue to pursue policies perfectly designed to inflame the cruelty. TV and billboard campaigns still use slogans like “Too much screen time, too much kid” and “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.” Cat Pausé, a researcher at Massey University in New Zealand, spent months looking for a single public health campaign, worldwide, that attempted to reduce stigma against fat people and came up empty. In an incendiary case of good intentions gone bad, about a dozen states now send children home with “BMI report cards,” an intervention unlikely to have any effect on their weight but almost certain to increase bullying from the people closest to them.
This is not an abstract concern: Surveys of higher-weight adults find that their worst experiences of discrimination come from their own families. Erika, a health educator in Washington, can still recite the word her father used to describe her: “husky.” Her grandfather preferred “stocky.” Her mother never said anything about Erika’s body, but she didn’t have to. She obsessed over her own, calling herself “enormous” despite being two sizes smaller than her daughter. By the time Erika was 11, she was sneaking into the woods behind her house and vomiting into the creek whenever social occasions made starving herself impossible.
And the abuse from loved ones continues well into adulthood. A 2017 survey found that 89 percent of obese adults had been bullied by their romantic partners. Emily, the counselor, says she spent her teens and 20s “sleeping with guys I wasn’t interested in because they wanted to sleep with me.” In her head, a guy being into her was a rare and depletable resource she couldn’t afford to waste: “I was desperate for men to give me attention. Sex was a good way to do that.”
Eventually, she ended up with someone abusive. He told her during sex that her body was beautiful and then, in the daylight, that it was revolting. “Whenever I tried to leave him, he would say, ‘Where are you gonna find someone who will put up with your disgusting body?’” she remembers.
Emily finally managed to get away from him, but she is aware that her love life will always be fraught. The guy she’s dating now is thin—“think Tony Hawk,” she says—and she notices the looks they get when they hold hands in public. “That never used to happen when I dated fat dudes,” she says. “Thin men are not allowed to be attracted to fat women.”
The effects of weight bias get worse when they’re layered on top of other types of discrimination. A 2012 study found that African-American women are more likely to become depressed after internalizing weight stigma than white women. Hispanic and black teenagers also have significantly higher rates of bulimia. And, in a remarkable finding, rich people of color have higher rates of cardiovascular disease than poor people of color—the opposite of what happens with white people. One explanation is that navigating increasingly white spaces, and increasingly higher stakes, exerts stress on racial minorities that, over time, makes them more susceptible to heart problems.
But perhaps the most unique aspect of weight stigma is how it isolates its victims from one another. For most minority groups, discrimination contributes to a sense of belongingness, a community in opposition to a majority. Gay people like other gay people; Mormons root for other Mormons. Surveys of higher-weight people, however, reveal that they hold many of the same biases as the people discriminating against them. In a 2005 study, the words obese participants used to classify other obese people included gluttonous, unclean and sluggish.
Andrea, a retired nurse in Boston, has been on commercial diets since she was 10 years old. She knows how hard it is to slim down, knows what women larger than her are going through, but she still struggles not to pass judgment when she sees them in public. “I think, ‘How did they let it happen?’” she says. “It’s more like fear. Because if I let myself go, I’ll be that big too.”
Her position is all-too understandable. As young as 9 or 10, I knew that coming out of the closet is what gay people do, even if it took me another decade to actually do it. Fat people, though, never get a moment of declaring their identity, of marking themselves as part of a distinct group. They still live in a society that believes weight is temporary, that losing it is urgent and achievable, that being comfortable in their bodies is merely “glorifying obesity.” This limbo, this lie, is why it’s so hard for fat people to discover one another or even themselves. “No one believes our It Gets Better story,” says Tigress Osborn, the director of community outreach for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. “You can’t claim an identity if everyone around you is saying it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.”
Harrop, the eating disorders researcher, realized several years ago that her university had clubs for trans students, immigrant students, Republican students, but none for fat students. So she started one—and it has been a resounding, unmitigated failure. Only a handful of fat people have ever showed up; most of the time, thin folks sit around brainstorming about how to be better allies.
I ask Harrop why she thinks the group has been such a bust. It’s simple, she says: “Fat people grow up in the same fat-hating culture that non-fat people do.”
“I think some folks are genuinely surprised that a man who looks like him is with a woman like me. As a fat person, I’m very aware of when I’m being stared at—and I have never been looked at this much before. So I thought that taking the photo in public would be a good idea. It feels subversive to show my fat body doing regular stuff the world believes I don’t or can’t do.”— EMILY
Since 1980, the obesity rate has doubled in 73 countries and increased in 113 others. And in all that time, no nation has reduced its obesity rate. Not one.
The problem is that in America, like everywhere else, our institutions of public health have become so obsessed with body weight that they have overlooked what is really killing us: our food supply. Diet is the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for more than five times the fatalities of gun violence and car accidents combined. But it’s not how much we’re eating—Americans actually consume fewer calories now than we did in 2003. It’s what we’re eating.
For more than a decade now, researchers have found that the quality of our food affects disease risk independently of its effect on weight. Fructose, for example, appears to damage insulin sensitivity and liver function more than other sweeteners with the same number of calories. People who eat nuts four times a week have 12 percent lower diabetes incidence and a 13 percent lower mortality rate regardless of their weight. All of our biological systems for regulating energy, hunger and satiety get thrown off by eating foods that are high in sugar, low in fiber and injected with additives. And which now, shockingly, make up 60 percent of the calories we eat.
Draining this poison from our trillion-dollar food system is not going to happen quickly or easily. Every link in the chain, from factory farms to school lunches, is dominated by a Mars or a Monsanto or a McDonald’s, each working tirelessly to lower its costs and raise its profits. But that’s still no reason to despair. There’s a lot we can do right now to improve fat people’s lives—to shift our focus for the first time from weight to health and from shame to support.
The place to start is at the doctor’s office. The central failure of the medical system when it comes to obesity is that it treats every patient exactly the same: If you’re fat, lose some weight. If you’re skinny, keep up the good work. Stephanie Sogg, a psychologist at the Mass General Weight Center, tells me she has clients who start eating compulsively after a sexual assault, others who starve themselves all day before bingeing on the commute home and others who eat 1,000 calories a day, work out five times a week and still insist that they’re fat because they “have no willpower.”
Acknowledging the infinite complexity of each person’s relationship to food, exercise and body image is at the center of her treatment, not a footnote to it. “Eighty percent of my patients cry in the first appointment,” Sogg says. “For something as emotional as weight, you have to listen for a long time before you give any advice. Telling someone, ‘Lay off the cheeseburgers’ is never going to work if you don’t know what those cheeseburgers are doing for them.”
4%of all agricultural subsidies go to fruits and vegetablesSource: Environmental Working Group, 2014-16The medical benefits of this approach—being nicer to her patients than they are to themselves, is how Sogg describes it—are unimpeachable. In 2017, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the expert panel that decides which treatments should be offered for free under Obamacare, found that the decisive factor in obesity care was not the diet patients went on, but how much attention and support they received while they were on it. Participants who got more than 12 sessions with a dietician saw significant reductions in their rates of prediabetes and cardiovascular risk. Those who got less personalized care showed almost no improvement at all.
Still, despite the Task Force’s explicit recommendation of “intensive, multicomponent behavioral counseling” for higher-weight patients, the vast majority of insurance companies and state health care programs define this term to mean just a session or two—exactly the superficial approach that years of research says won’t work. “Health plans refuse to treat this as anything other than a personal problem,” says Chris Gallagher, a policy consultant at the Obesity Action Coalition.
The same scurvy-ish negligence shows up at every level of government. From marketing rules to antitrust regulations to international trade agreements, U.S. policy has created a food system that excels at producing flour, sugar and oil but struggles to deliver nutrients at anywhere near the same scale. The United States spends $1.5 billion on nutrition research every year compared to around $60 billion on drug research. Just 4 percent of agricultural subsidies go to fruits and vegetables. No wonder that the healthiest foods can cost up to eight times more, calorie for calorie, than the unhealthiest—or that the gap gets wider every year.
It’s the same with exercise. The cardiovascular risks of sedentary lifestyles, suburban sprawl and long commutes are well-documented. But rather than help mitigate these risks—and their disproportionate impact on the poor—our institutions have exacerbated them. Only 13 percent of American children walk or bike to school; once they arrive, less than a third of them will take part in a daily gym class. Among adults, the number of workers commuting more than 90 minutes each way grew by more than 15 percent from 2005 to 2016, a predictable outgrowth of America’s underinvestment in public transportation and over-investment in freeways, parking and strip malls. For 40 years, as politicians have told us to eat more vegetables and take the stairs instead of the elevator, they have presided over a country where daily exercise has become a luxury and eating well has become extortionate.
“My son and I both like to play the hero. There wasn’t necessarily any intentional symbolism in the costumes we chose, but I am definitely a member of the rebellion, and I see my role as an eating disorders researcher as trying to fight for justice and a better world. Also, I like that I’m sweaty, dirty and messy, not done up with makeup or with my hair down in this picture. I like that I’m not hiding my stomach, thighs or arms. Not because I’m comfortable being photographed like that, but because I want to be—and I want others to feel free to be like that, too.”— ERIN HARROP
The good news is that the best ideas for reversing these trends have already been tested. Many “failed” obesity interventions are, in fact, successful eat-healthier-and-exercise-more interventions. A review of 44 international studies found that school-based activity programs didn’t affect kids’ weight, but improved their athletic ability, tripled the amount of time they spent exercising and reduced their daily TV consumption by up to an hour. Another survey showed that two years of getting kids to exercise and eat better didn’t noticeably affect their size but did improve their math scores—an effect that was greater for black kids than white kids.
You see this in so much of the research: The most effective health interventions aren’t actually health interventions—they are policies that ease the hardship of poverty and free up time for movement and play and parenting. Developing countries with higher wages for women have lower obesity rates, and lives are transformed when healthy food is made cheaper. A pilot program in Massachusetts that gave food stamp recipients an extra 30 cents for every $1 they spent on healthy food increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 26 percent. Policies like this are unlikely to affect our weight. They are almost certain, however, to significantly improve our health.
Which brings us to the most hard-wired problem of all: Our shitty attitudes toward fat people. According to Patrick Corrigan, the editor of the journal Stigma and Health, even the most well-intentioned efforts to reduce stigma break down in the face of reality. In one study, researchers told 10- to 12-year-olds all the genetic and medical factors that contribute to obesity. Afterward, the kids could recite back the message they received—fat kids didn’t get that way by choice—but they still had the same negative attitudes about the bigger kids sitting next to them. A similar approach with fifth- and sixth-graders actually increased their intention of bullying their fat classmates. Celebrity representation, meanwhile, can result in what Corrigan calls the “Thurgood Marshall effect”: Instead of updating our stereotypes (maybe fat people aren’t so bad), we just see prominent minorities as isolated exceptions to them (well, he’s not like those other fat people).
What does work, Corrigan says, is for fat people to make it clear to everyone they interact with that their size is nothing to apologize for. “When you pity someone, you think they’re less effective, less competent, more hurt,” he says. “You don’t see them as capable. The only way to get rid of stigma is from power.”
This has always been the great hope of the fat-acceptance movement. (“We’re here, we’re spheres, get used to it” was one of the slogans in the 1990s.) But this radical message has long since been co-opted by clothing brands, diet companies and soap corporations. Weight Watchers has rebranded as a “lifestyle program,” but still promises that its members can shrink their way to happiness. Mainstream apparel companies market themselves as “body positive” but refuse to make clothes that fit the plus-size models on their own billboards. Social media, too, has provided a platform for positive representations of fat people and formed communities that make it easier to find each other. But it has also contributed to an anodyne, narrow, Dr. Phil-approved form of progress that celebrates the female entrepreneur who sells “fatkinis” on Instagram, while ignoring the woman who (true story) gets fired from her management position after reportedly gaining 100 pounds over three years.
“Fat activism isn’t about making people feel better about themselves,” Pausé says. “It’s about not being denied your civil rights and not dying because a doctor misdiagnoses you.”
And so, in a world that refuses to change, it is still up to every fat person, alone, to decide how to endure. Emily, the counselor in Eastern Washington, says she made a choice about three years ago to assert herself. The first time she asked for a table instead of a booth at a restaurant, she says, she was sweating, flushed, her chest heaving. It felt like saying the words—“I can’t fit”—would dry up in her mouth as she said them.
But now, she says, “It’s just something I do.” Last month, she was at a conference and asked one of the other participants if he would trade chairs because his didn’t have arms. Like most of these requests, it was no big deal. “A tall person wouldn’t feel weird asking that, so why should I?” she says. Her skinny friends have started to inquire about the seating at restaurants before Emily even gets the chance.
Hearing about Emily’s progress reminds me of a conversation I had with Ginette Lenham, the diet counselor. Her patients, she says, often live in the past or the future with their weight. They tell her they are waiting until they are smaller to go back to school or apply for a new job. They beg her to return them to their high school or wedding or first triathlon weight, the one that will bring back their former life.
And then Lenham must explain that these dreams are a trap. Because there is no magical cure. There is no time machine. There is only the revolutionary act of being fat and happy in a world that tells you that’s impossible.
“We all have to do our best with the body that we have,” she says. “And leave everyone else’s alone.”
Mindfulness and meditation have become big business for tech-savvy entrepreneurs. But can you really unplug and reset while tied to an app on your phone? Companies like Headspace and Insight Timer say yes. But longtime practitioners, philosophers, and scientists aren’t so sure.
When I was 8 or 9, I became preoccupied with death. It wasn’t that I was afraid; I just like to be prepared. Would I know death was coming, like a knock at the door I got up to answer? Or would it be more like change—something I couldn’t perceive until it had already happened? And if it were like change, how would I be able to perceive it if I were already dead?
In other words, who was the “I” in the sentence “I died”?
The idea of death became like one of those Chinese finger traps: the harder I thought about it, the tighter it got on my mind. I went to our rabbi, then a priest, then some energy-healer types. I went to a Unitarian minister named Mitch, who looked for all the world like God, or at least the way God looks in paintings.
Eventually I went to a new-age bookstore in a shopping center a couple of towns over and bought some meditation tapes. (My mother was very supportive.) I’d load them into my boom box at night and close my eyes. I was a chubby kid, new in school, borderline friendless. For some reason, my lips were always chapped. Death was the least of my concerns.
It was during meditation—cross-legged on the carpet, watching my breath, listening to the voice of my guide—that I became aware of a second life humming under the one I was living. It was like electricity, or an aquifer: everywhere, but invisible, or at least easy to lose track of. It didn’t require effort, only attention. Then I had a realization that this—my breath, my body—was my first life, and everything else was just shadowboxing.
As for death, it wasn’t that I found my answer so much as that I became less concerned by the question. It was like sleight of hand: In turning toward the present, I lost sight of the future, which was good, because there wasn’t much I could do about the future until it came anyway.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Santa Monica, California, office of a popular meditation app called Headspace. Launched in 2010 by a former monk and a disaffected advertising executive, the app currently has about 35 million users in 190 countries, more than 1 million of whom pay to subscribe. It is highly visible and rigorously publicized: The ex-monk, Andy Puddicombe, has appeared alongside Ellen and Dr. Oz, and recently led a group meditation on The Tonight Show. (Jimmy Fallon, smiling gently and opening his eyes: “That was fantastic.”) In the course of researching this piece, I reached out to about 50 friends, family members, and friends of friends, many of whom were revealed to be closet meditators, nearly all of them using Headspace. It is hard to think of any monk current or former with better television coverage than Andy Puddicombe, outside maybe the Dalai Lama.
As we walk, my liaison asks if the office were what I expected. I said I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. The truth is that I’m trying to release myself from expectations, or at least remind myself that expectations are just another form of mental weather. The office were exactly what I expected: sleek but cheerful, with big, open spaces offset by brightly colored murals and furniture, like a factory decorated by a child. And in Santa Monica, no less.
Headspace positions itself as accessible and universal, meditation that meets you where you are. My first exposure to the company was about five years ago, when Puddicombe gave a TED Talk describing the benefits of “10 mindful minutes a day.” In avoiding the language of religion, many meditation apps—Headspace included—have instead embraced the language of marketing and self-improvement.
Though Buddhism is never mentioned, per se, the app’s teachings—designed and guided by Puddicombe—are essentially a mosaic of Buddhist ideas from a variety of schools of thought, given a cheerful spin: In a 2015 profile of the company, New Yorker writer Lizzie Widdicombe relayed an anecdote about Puddicombe translating a Buddhist tenet sometimes called “the truth of suffering” as “acceptance,” presumably because the truth of suffering would bum out most people.
Other concepts—the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind,” for example, popularized in the West by the monk Shunryu Suzuki, or the way mindfulness-based stress reduction describes the attendance to one’s physical state as “scanning” the body—are left untouched.
The app’s packs—available to subscribers for anywhere between 13 bucks a month to about $100 a year, or $400 for a “lifetime” subscription—are aimed at existential goals: One offers a guide for mindful eating, another for managing anger, another for college students coping with leaving home. On the app, Puddicombe’s delivery is clear and his language is elemental: One feels they can see the idea standing naked behind his words. And like a lot of good teachers, he has an unusual gift for framing his understandings as your epiphany: not so much a superior as a friend on the path.
Many of the sessions are introduced in the app by brief animations designed either to present a technique (body scanning, noting) or provide visual representations for emotional metaphors: anger as a storm, the calm mind like a blue sky. Simple, colorful, and inhabited by a series of anthropomorphic little creatures, the animations feel designed both to disperse the air of austerity surrounding meditation and, paradoxically, make it feel down to earth. In an email sent after my visit, Headspace’s editorial director for sleep, William Fowler, described the company’s broader visual identity—conceived of by designers Anna Charity and Chris Markland—as a reaction to images of “people sitting with their legs crossed, as though they were in perfect harmony with their minds.” The company made at least some attempts at an anthropocentric design: During my visit, I passed a framed drawing of what looked sort of like a person from a bathroom sign, sitting in a chair with things swirling inside their head—an early prototype. In essence, Headspace has provided meditation with a brand.
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.
Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.
The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.
In this rubric, science becomes a kind of cookie for the practice of meditation. “It’s too hard to ask someone who’s never taken the time to close their eyes and look inside themselves to do that,” Jones Bell says. Knowing meditation is good for them—in the way science circumscribes “good”—gets them to the table.
Headspace is particularly bullish on research. Since its inception, the company has conducted morethan60 studies in conjunction with partners in the medical and academic community, including the National Health Service. Jones Bell describes general findings—improved focus, decreased aggression, increased compassion—as “consistent with the general meditation research but specific to our product.” With Headspace, one always senses the bottom line looming somewhere.
More recently, the company has begun the daunting and implicative project of securing FDA approval of a Headspace prescription meditation app, such that it could be integrated into mainstream health care by, say, increasing quality of life for cancer patients—something that meditation generally has already been found to do. The notion isn’t just that meditation would be prescribed alongside conventional medicine, but that the meditation prescribed would be offered by Headspace.
Before leaving, I walk to the Lookout, an amphitheater near the coffee station where the company hosts group meditations. The meditations are twice daily, once around 10 a.m. and once mid-afternoon. Attendance is open but not mandatory. On the morning I visit, about 50 people are scattered across the risers, bathed in light from clerestory windows above. We take our seats and wait.
After a brief good-morning, the room falls quiet, and Puddicombe’s voice booms. (For group sessions, the company uses a rotating, stand-alone meditation called Everyday Headspace.) We focus and settle and breathe our deep, invocatory breaths. We turn toward our private country.
Listening to Puddicombe’s voice in that clean, bright room, it was hard not to feel that I was being addressed by my overlords. Benevolent overlords, but overlords nevertheless.
That meditation and mindfulness have entered the repertoire of global capitalism isn’t surprising: In the face of stagnant wages and an ever-deteriorating boundary between work and whatever we do outside it, why not shift the responsibility of finding peace to the individual? Put another way: Next time work makes you feel less than human, should you gently speak truth to power, or should you use mindfulness to self-regulate and maintain function in an oppressive system? And should you choose to self-regulate, are you tacitly thanking the oppressive system for giving you the tools of self-regulation to begin with? Furthermore, how much of this experience—this process of spelunking into my mind—should be comfortable and brightly colored? How much should feel good?
One of the sections of the Satipatthana Sutta, a foundational discourse of Theravada Buddhism, encourages the meditator to progress from an observation of the breath to considering the body as a butcher might consider a freshly slaughtered cow. We are dead. From here we see the bloat and the ooze, writhing worms and wild dogs. We are fleshless and smeared with blood, then a pile of bones, bleaching, rotting, crumbling—ashes to ashes. But even when Puddicombe talks about “difficult emotions” through the app, I am never far from the deathless animated cuties of Headspace’s HQ. I could use a cup of coffee, I think. I bet the coffee here is pretty good. I note the experience as thinking—“noting” being a meditative technique—and restore myself to the moment.
“And with the next breath,” Puddicombe says, “close your eyes.”
The supposition that people need science to explain the benefits of quiet contemplation has been following meditation around for about 50 years. In 1965, a molecular biology student at MIT named Jon Kabat-Zinn attended a lecture by the Zen priest Philip Kapleau. Kapleau, an American who worked as a court reporter before relinquishing his life to Zen (or maybe just reclaiming his life through it), had become an ambassador for Buddhism in the West; in 1966, he published The Three Pillars of Zen, a semi-fictional diary of an “American ex-businessman” named “P.K.” that more or less established our cultural archetype of the white-collar searcher. (Sample entry: “September 3, 1953: Quit business, sold apartment furniture and car. … Friends’ unanimous judgment: “You’re mad throwing up ten thousand a year for pie in the sky!” … Maybe. Or maybe they’re the mad ones, piling up possessions and ulcers and heart disease.”)
That P.K.—and Kapleau himself—had strong bourgeois credentials was essential: People reading TheNew York Times would sooner trust someone who had worked at the International Military Tribunal than Jack Kerouac or someone named Nancy who just thought India was really far-out. Or, you know, a monk from Southeast Asia.
Kabat-Zinn, the graduate student, went on to develop a program he called mindfulness-based stress reduction, which at first presented meditation as a pain-management strategy for hospital patients—another tool in a bin of many. Writing in his 2005 book Coming to Our Senses, he remembers lying on the floor of the faculty conference room conducting a group body scan, a technique in which participants shift their attention, part by part, through the body in order to jostle awareness both of our physical self and how that physical self connects to our emotional one—the literal pain in the neck that indicates the metaphorical one, for example. At some point, the chief of surgery opened the door, trailed by about 30 people in white lab coats. “Are these our patients?” the chief of surgery asked. “Yes,” Kabat-Zinn said. The surgeons went nextdoor.
Kabat-Zinn was careful to strip as much religion out of MBSR as possible so as to be able to navigate his ideas around cultural stereotypes and into the mainstream. “From the beginning of MBSR,” he wrote in 2011, “I bent over backward to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, ‘New Age,’ ‘Eastern Mysticism,’ or just plain ‘flakey.’”
Context may be helpful here. For most of history, the only people who practiced meditation were monks. Writing in the introduction to the anthology Meditation, Buddhism and Science, professors David L. McMahan and Erik Braun traced the inception of meditation as a popular practice to a single day in 1883, when Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw watched as his monastery—and all work contained therein—burned to the ground.
At the time, Sayadaw didn’t even really meditate; it was more of a theoretical crowbar used to pry into ideas—something he thought with, but didn’t actually practice. This was in Mandalay; the monks who did meditate were often in the country, already out of earshot of the city’s existential noise. Burma was in a period of massive unrest; within a couple of years, Thibaw, the final Burmese king, would abdicate the throne and take a steamer down the Irrawaddy River, ceding the country to British occupation.
Awakened to the possibility that the destruction of Buddhism itself might’ve been only a few fires away, Sayadaw went into the forest and started meditating in earnest. At the dawn of the 20th century, he refashioned himself as a public figure, an ambassador for Buddhism determined to spread the practice of meditation to the people, campaign as much about historical preservation as religious ethics. Sayadaw became revered; one British official observed that women would lay down and spread out their hair like carpets when he walked.
In other words, within the geologically brief span of about 80 years, meditation transitioned from an obscure pursuit of monks in the Burmese woods to something a guy named Jon might teach you on the floor of a Massachusetts hospital.
Given that Kabat-Zinn was on some level trying to Trojan-horse tenets of Buddhist introspection into a Christian culture passionately at war with silence, he did a solid job: As of 2015, the Journal of American Medicine noted that the proportion of medical schools offering some kind of mindfulness training was about 80 percent.
A research scientist and director of a lab at the Center of Mind and Brain at the University of California–Davis, neuroscientist Cliff Saron has been probing the intersection of meditation and clinical science for as long as such an intersection has existed. The image of people in lab coats fastening pasta strainers to monks’ heads to scan brain activity—that’s Saron in the early 1990s. And so on.
I want to volley with Saron a rhetorical question he first posed in a June roundtable for Mindful magazine: “Why do we need empirical validation for meditative experience, anyway? When it comes to the benefits of stopping and pausing, why can’t common sense prevail?”
Within two minutes of calling me, after I drop off my sons at school, Saron asks how close I’ve come to death. Not too close, I say. One of my best friends died when I was in high school, and I lost two grandparents in a fire, but everything else has been peripheral.
“Your parents are still alive,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“So you haven’t, in a sustained way, had to deal with incipient loss, or to ride the waves.”
“I guess not, no.”
“And you’ve been graced with the bend in the fabric of the universe that having a child is.”
“This is the level I care about with respect to meditation.”
Saron concedes that none of this makes for good bar conversation, which is where headlines like Bloomberg’s “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating” come in. Saron’s point isn’t that science is used to validate meditation as a secular pursuit, but that the science itself is often shaky and the media coverage of it even worse. (There seems to be a quiet correlation between the two: The more preliminary or insufficient the study, the more excitable the headlines.) Or, as Saron puts it, “We live in a culture that doesn’t treat the data as sacred, but often in convenient contexts bows down to the authority of the scientist.”
The conversation goes deeply into the weeds. We discuss the exhausting conditions of late capitalism and the movie Her (we are fans). We discuss apophatic theologies (those that define god through absences and negation) and cataphatic ones (religions that say what god is). We discuss the longevity and philosophy of the luxury pen company Montblanc. Saron apologizes for the digressions, then admits he is digressing on purpose. I tell him it’s fine because I’m usually wrong about what’s important anyway.
As for the meditation apps, Saron harbors a muted skepticism. “It’s a broadcast medium,” he says. “Things happen to people when they’re in relationships with other people, and those things can’t be simulated fully. Here the map and the territory may really diverge, because the information transfer is so much thicker in life.” (Fans may note that this is where we started talking about Her.)
One of Saron’s formative teachers, Joseph Goldstein, now teaches meditation through 10% Happier, an app launched in part by ABC anchor Dan Harris. “I kind of decried seeing Joseph on the app,” Saron says. Then Saron’s son asked him how he knew there wasn’t some 20-something sitting in front of their phone having as profound an experience with Goldstein’s teachings as Saron himself did four decades earlier.
Right, how would he? Still, I sense Saron acknowledges his son’s point primarily as an intellectual exercise. Practicing five, 10 minutes a day with your phone (what he calls “psychological Duolingo”), well—you get out what you put in. “They won’t stay at the table if they don’t find meaning,” he says.
He remembers Headspace approaching him at some point about making a video, but he declined. “What I have to say isn’t so much based on promoting meditation through scientific evidence,” he stresses. “I need to articulate in a nuanced way the limits of our work.”
The irony of seeking liberation through a device people are tethered to is too basic to dwell on, not to mention a little beside the point. (Just because you can kill someone with a brick doesn’t mean we should stop building brick houses.) The phones aren’t going away; the only thing we can control is our relationship to them.
Saron suggests I talk to a neuroscientist named Adam Gazzaley. A professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, Gazzaley is particularly interested in attention: how it works, how it developed, how it responds to the giant slot machine we’ve built around it.
In 2016, Gazzaley coauthored a book with psychologist Larry D. Rosen called The Distracted Mind. Part evolutionary history, part damage report, the book lays out in great detail what I suspect most people already fear: Attention is fragile; technology is making us anxious and bored; multitasking is a fiction we invented to insulate us from the truth that that isn’t how brains work. (Or, as the book puts it, “We convince ourselves that we can handle it.”)
Gazzaley isn’t a doomsayer, though he has been excitedly mistaken for one. He recently wrote an essay for Medium called “The Cognition Crisis”, for which he received a lot of feedback to the tune of “right on” by readers who appear to have missed his point that technology is a force for good.
For Gazzaley, a phone is just a tool and meditation a stay against the flood. “I see a lot of meditation practices, especially the traditional ancient Buddhist ones, as being exercises in attention,” he says. Neuroscientifically speaking, practicing focus in the way meditation does strengthens both selective attention (basically, your ability to keep your eye on the metaphorical ball) and metacognition (your ability to recognize when your eyes have left it).
One of the book’s foundational claims is that our drive to forage for food has evolved into a drive to forage for information. New information produces rewards, so we come to seek it habitually, even if it interferes with whatever goal we have at hand. What emerges is a kind of frictionless state, where you end up spending 12 minutes looking for keys that are already in your hand or typing “nytimes.com” into your URL bar only to discover you are already on the website for TheNew York Times. In other words, we are, on some level, evolutionarily geared against meditation.
I ask Gazzaley if sustained attention could ever produce its own reward. For example, maybe I’d enjoy making my sons’ lunches in the morning a little more if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to digest a podcast, answer emails, and figure out why the tree people haven’t come to take out the Rhus lancea stump in the yard, because that thing is already growing new chutes, and it’s making me nervous.
Gazzaley says that the data is minimal, but he harbors a similar hunch. He compares it to surfing and marathon running—the flow state. “The sustained activity of just running without any change in the information sphere around you—it’s pretty painful and unrewarding,” he says. “But this somehow shifts over time. There’s positive feedback in hormones.”
At the very least, attention brings us closer to the experience of the thing itself. Or, as Gazzaley and Rosen put it, “Those flowers you decide to pay attention to actually do look much redder to you and smell much sweeter than the ones you chose to ignore.”
If Headspace is uniform and top-down, the app Insight Timer is its opposite: a sort of clearinghouse for meditation of all stripes run by a network of about 1,500 teachers, most of them independent and unaffiliated with the app itself. (It can also function as a nice egg timer with skeuomorphic bells for those who like to ride alone.)
The design is simple and anonymous, with imagery—mountains, palm trees—borrowed from the paradises of desktop backgrounds and stock photography. The company doesn’t advertise or run clinical trials, and the balance of its meditations are free. Religion is featured but not mandatory, and not limited to Buddhism: Among the app’s 12,000 guided meditations are explorations of Sufism, Christianity, and Kabbalah. Using Headspace, one can easily feel that you and Andy Puddicombe are the only people in the universe. Using Insight Timer, which greets you with a large map charting everyone currently meditating on the app (as well as a tally of how many people have meditated today and a ticker of how many are meditating at that very moment), it can be impossible to feel alone. The first few times I use it, it reminds me of wandering into a good used bookstore: You’ll probably find what you want eventually, but you’re going to get lost in some weird stuff along the way.
The app was developed by a software developer named Brad Fullmer but is currently run by a man named Christopher Plowman. A software entrepreneur who made his nut developing a discount ticket-selling site called Tix, Plowman now lives in Bali, where, on a recent morning, he had just come in from seeing a cobra in his yard.
It is hard not to appreciate Plowman’s candor. On some widely trafficked social media platforms: “Let me choose my language carefully: I don’t like them.” (Later, he clarifies: “They peddle misery.”) On advertising, or lack thereof: “Stillness is the greatest magnet.” On his own company, which he seems to nurture with the loose hand of a parent consigned to the reality that one can give life but never control it: “It’s a very fragile idea, that you can give away meditation to everyone on earth while building a sustainable, profitable company.” Talking to him, I get the sense that he’s as curious about the future of Insight Timer as anyone.
Plowman sees his mission simply: “We’re trying to develop a platform to give meditation away for free to everyone on the planet.” Though Plowman says the company has always been lucky enough to depend on venture capital and recently raised enough to get them through the next couple of years, it has started offering optional courses for rental or purchase; you can also now “subscribe” to Insight Timer, making it easier to sync and use offline. The company has also made itself open to donations.
Plowman is proud of the company’s accomplishments, and unafraid to quantify them in a frankly competitive tone I find refreshing. “More time is spent meditating on Insight Timer than all other apps,” he says. When I speak to him at the end of August, he says that the app’s basic Learning to Meditate course had been rented or purchased by 200,000 people in the previous six weeks, and that the company still grows at a rate of 60,000 to 70,000 users a week. (As I write this, at 4:44 Pacific Time on Friday, September 14, 420,734 people are meditating.)
Plowman feels strongly about retaining the spiritual element of meditation, and, in an aside whose canniness I register only later, he notes that one good reason to excise spirituality is to better position your product for schools and institutions. In the course of charting user data and trying to discern exactly what Insight Timer actually is, Plowman has noticed that “People who come in with preferences set to secular and highly scientific teachings start to meander.”
Browsing the app’s most popular meditations, one gets a glimpse at the aggregate dreams and worries of people across the world. At the time of writing, six of the top 10 meditations on Insight Timer are designed to help people to go to sleep. Of those six, five are guided by women. The single most popular meditation, Jennifer Piercy’s Yoga Nidra for Sleep, has been played 4.4 million times. It is, in effect, the sound of someone quietly saying beautiful and encouraging things to you while you lay in bed. Many of the reviews for it note that the user didn’t make it to the end. In the period between drafting and editing this piece, I notice that both 10% Happier and Headspace have majorly stepped up their sleep-related offerings. This catches in my heart: How can we possibly handle the gift of being awake if we struggle so intensely just to get to bed?
Cliff Saron’s old teacher, Joseph Goldstein is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society and one of the pioneering ambassadors of vipassana meditation in the West. He’s also a prominent voice on 10% Happier.
Dan Harris adopted meditation around 2004 after having a panic attack while doing a segment on cholesterol medication for Good Morning America. (Looking back at the segment, you can sense something is wrong, but it’s no Boom Goes the Dynamite.)
The app is pitched as “meditation for fidgety skeptics,” with a zeal that can sometimes verge on self-loathing. Though 10% Happier is not the only app guilty of this, the constant refrain that meditation is totally normal and not weird only makes me wonder what these people are so ashamed of. But I also find it clear and easy, and I enjoy Goldstein’s lessons, many of which are delivered in conversation with Harris himself.
Goldstein wasn’t bothered by the app thing. “There were concerns that it wasn’t too Buddhist, or even Buddhist at all,” he says. “But from my perspective, the teachings are the same.”
This bears out: Reading Goldstein’s writing—2002’s One Dharma, for example—one encounters the same ideas you hear on the app, just with broader contexts and different names. And for those inspired to question whether such a rebrand constitutes unethical misuse, consider what Christians have done with Jesus. Would it help you to know, for example, that the Dalai Lama has his own app? Or that he wrote in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, that “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Buddhist of Buddhists, riding the wave.
Anyway, Goldstein meets a lot of people on meditation retreats who came because of the app, so it must be making some positive kind of wave. “I guess if I had a concern,” he says, “it would be that it would be unfortunate if people thought what was presented in a secular context expressed the full potential of mindfulness from the Buddhist perspective.” In other words, breadth wins.
Before leaving, I tell Goldstein I need him to help me resolve a question I’ve been chewing on. In his own teachings, he talks about “breathing and knowing one is breathing.” And I think I get that. But how do I square that with what Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn and others calls “the don’t-know mind”?
Part of it is just a linguistic glitch, he says—the word “knowing” already means dozens of things in English, let alone how many resonances similar words might have in Pali, or Korean, or Chinese. Plus, it’s just one of those things: Knowing something but also not-knowing it, not trapping it. I tell Goldstein I think I knew that. But talking about it has only made it weird. I think I can hear Goldstein laugh.
My own return to meditation started about six months ago. Over the past few years, I got married, bought a house, and became the father of two sons. But I quickly became barnacled. Life, or at least life as I had loved it—freedom, openness, and quiet connection—was suddenly subject to heavy planning, when available at all. Even my joys felt veiled by a heavy sheet of plastic: I saw the shapes, but they were abstract, hard to parse. Not only did I stay on top of my responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, tending, parenting), I became combustible for them. There were weeks when our marriage was basically a large chore wheel. I felt irritable and remote. Talking to a couple of friends on a much-needed break, I said the whole thing felt like being erased.
I think of a quote I like about the teaching style of the first woman sanctioned to teach Soto Zen in the West, Houn Jiyu-Kennett: “Not to lighten the load of a disciple, but to make the load so heavy that he or she would put it down.”
So, is it “working”? To invoke the refrain of Grecian skeptics, epokhe—I can’t say for sure what I should find convincing and what I shouldn’t. Music sounds better, and I think my timing has improved comedically, and I have come to see my wife and children as bulbs in a great chandelier: When one light dims, so dims the whole room.
But I’ve also shifted my exercise routine back to the Y, which I love (shout-out Lohse Family YMCA), and my younger son is finally sleeping through the night.
One thing I can say for sure is that when a stranger I met at a bar asked why I never played the viola anymore—an instrument I played passionately throughout my youth before quitting during my early 20s—I said “I don’t know,” then settled my tab, went home, and, for the first time in several years, played the viola.
There’s a good story recounted in the book One Bird, One Stone that goes like this: A Chinese monk moves to a small cabin in rural Tennessee. Next to the cabin, there’s a giant dead oak tree. One day, a neighbor comes by to warn the monk that the tree could fall on his roof if the monk doesn’t cut it down. The monk buys a hatchet and spends several hours each morning chopping away at the base of the tree. Neighbors come by offering chainsaws and power tools, but the monk declines. He becomes a kind of neighborhood spectacle: the old Chinese guy with the hatchet.
Eventually, the tree falls. So the cabin is spared, but the monk still has a giant dead tree in his yard. When the neighbors ask him what he’s going to do next, the monk turns to them as though the question doesn’t need answering and says, “make firewood.”
Later, the monk explains that this was how he’d taught meditation: You chop and chop and chop and “one day, an enormous tree falls.”
And while I appreciate the story’s climactic overtones and the zigzag way the monk lands the “firewood” punch line, I suspect the lesson—if one could frame it as such—would be to forget the tree and disappear quietly into the chopping.
You’ve heard the argument before: Genes are the permanent aristocracy of evolution, looking after themselves as fleshy hosts come and go. That’s the thesis of a book that, last year, was christened the most influential science book of all time: Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.
But we humans actually generate far more actionable information than is encoded in all of our combined genetic material, and we carry much of it into the future. The data outside of our biological selves—call it the dataome—could actually represent the grander scaffolding for complex life. The dataome may provide a universally recognizable signature of the slippery characteristic we call intelligence, and it might even teach us a thing or two about ourselves.
It is also something that has a considerable energetic burden. That burden challenges us to ask if we are manufacturing and protecting our dataome for our benefit alone, or, like the selfish gene, because the data makes us do this because that’s what ensures its propagation into the future.
Take, for instance, William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and his body was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon. His now-famous epitaph carries a curse to anyone who dares “move my bones.” And as far as we know, in the past 400 years, no one has risked incurring Will’s undead wrath.
But he has most certainly lived on beyond the grave. At the time of his death Shakespeare had written a total of 37 plays, among other works. Those 37 plays contain a total of 835,997 words. In the centuries that have come after his corporeal life an estimated 2 to 4 billion physical copies of his plays and writings have been produced. All of those copies have been composed of hundreds of billions of sheets of paper acting as vessels for more than a quadrillion ink-rich letters.
We have been pumping out persistent data since our first oral exchange of a good story.
Across time these billions of volumes have been physically lifted and transported, dropped and picked up, held by hand, or hoisted onto bookshelves. Each individual motion has involved a small expenditure of energy, maybe a few Joules. But that has added up across the centuries. It’s possible that altogether the simple act of human arms raising and lowering copies of Shakespeare’s writings has expended well over 4 trillion Joules of energy. That’s equivalent to combusting several hundred thousand kilograms of coal.
Additional energy has been utilized every time a human has read some of those 835,997 words and had their neurons fire. Or spoken them to a rapt audience, or spent tens of millions of dollars to make a film of them, or turned on a TV to watch one of the plays performed, or driven to a Shakespeare festival. Or for that matter bought a tacky bust of “the immortal bard” and hauled it onto a mantelpiece. Add in the energy expenditure of the manufacture of paper, books, and their transport and the numbers only grow and grow.
It may be impossible to fully gauge the energetic burden that William Shakespeare unwittingly dumped on the human species, but it is substantial. Of course, we can easily forgive him. He wrote some good stuff. But there is also a sense in which the data of Shakespeare has become its own living part of the dataome, propagating itself into the future and compelling all of us to support it, just as is happening right now in this sentence.
Shakespeare, to be fair, contributed barely a drop to a vast ocean of data that is both ethereal yet actually extremely tangible in its effects upon us. This is both the glory and millstone of Homo sapiens.
We have been pumping out persistent data since our first oral exchange of a good story and our first experimental handprint on a cave wall. Neither of those things were explicitly encoded in our DNA, yet they could readily outlive the individual who created them. Indeed, data like these have outlived generation after generation of humans.
But as time has gone by our production of data has accelerated. Today, by some accounts, our species generates about 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day. That’s more than a billion billion bytes for each planetary rotation. And that rate of output is still growing. While lots of that data is a mixture of fleeting records—from Google searches to air traffic control—more and more ends up persisting in the environment. Pet videos, GIFs, political diatribes, troll responses, as well as medical records, scientific data, business documents, emails, tweets, photo albums, all wind up as semi-permanent electrical blips in doped silicon or magnetic dots on hard drives.
production and storage takes a lot of energy to maintain, from the moment someone’s hands scrabble for rare-earth elements in the soil, to the electricity that sustains it all. There’s a reason that a large company like Apple builds its own data server farms, and looks for ways to optimize the power generation that these air-conditioned, electron-pushing factories demand, whether it’s building massive solar farms in Nevada or utilizing hydroelectricity in Oregon.
Even Shakespeare’s medium—traditional paper—is still an energy-hungry beast. In 2006 it was estimated that United States paper production gulped down about 2,400 trillion BTUs (about 4 million trillion trillion trillion Joules) to churn out 99.5 million tons of pulp and paper products. That amounts to some 28,000 Joules of energy used per gram of final material—before any data is even printed on it. Or to put it another way, this is equivalent to roughly 5 grams of high-quality coal being burnt per page of paper.
Why are we doing this? Why are we expending ever increasing amounts of effort to maintain the data we, and our machines, generate? This behavior may represent far more than we at first think.
Our dataome is both an advantage to us humans, and a burden.
On the face of things, it seems pretty obvious that our capacity to carry so much data with us through time is a critical part of our success at spreading across the planet. We can continually build on our knowledge and experience in a way that no other species seemingly does. Our dataome provides us with a massive evolutionary advantage.
But it’s clearly not free. We may be trapped in a bigger Darwinian reality where we are in effect now serving as a supporting organelle for our own dataome.
This is an unsettling framework for looking at ourselves. But it has parallels in other parts of the natural world. Our microbiome, of tens of trillions of single-celled organisms, is perpetuated not so much by us as individuals, but by generations of us carrying this biological information through time. Yet we could also flip this around and conceptualize the situation as the microbiome carrying us through time. The microbiome exists in us because we’re a good environment. But that’s a symbiotic relationship. The microbes have to do things a certain way, have to work at supporting their human carrying systems. A human represents an energetic burden as much as an evolutionary advantage to microbes. Similarly, our dataome is both an advantage to us humans, and a burden.
The question is, is our symbiosis still healthy? The present-day energetic burden of the dataome seems like it could be at a maximum level in the history of our species. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re experiencing a correspondingly large benefit. We might do well to examine whether there is an optimal state for the dataome, a balance between the evolutionary advantages it confers on its species and the burden it represents.
The proliferation of data of seemingly very low utility (that I might grumpily describe as cat pictures and selfies) could actually be a sign of worrying dysfunction in our dataome. In other words, undifferentiated and exponential growth of low-value data suggests that data can get cancer. In which case we’d do well to take this quite seriously as a human health issue—especially if treatment reduces our global energy burden, and therefore our impact on the planetary environment.
Improving the utility of our data, purging it of energy-wasting junk might not be popular, but could perhaps be incentivized. Either through data credit schemes akin to domestic solar power feeding back to the grid, or making the loss of data a positive feature. What you might call a Snapchat approach.
In that case, the human-dataome symbiosis might become the only example in nature of a symbiotic relationship that is consciously managed by one party. What the long-term evolutionary robustness of that would be is hard to say.
But more optimistically; if the dataome is indeed an integral and integrated part of our evolutionary path then perhaps by mining it we can learn more about not just ourselves and our health, but the nature of life and intelligence in general. Precisely how we interrogate the dataome is a wide-open question. There may be emergent structure within it that we simply haven’t recognized, and we will need to develop measures and metrics to examine it properly. Existing tools like network theory or computational genomics might help.
The potential gains of such an analysis could be enormous. If the dataome is a real thing then it represents a missing piece of our puzzle; of the function and evolution of a sentient species. We’d do well to at least take a look. As Shakespeare once said : “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.”
Caleb Scharf is an astrophysicist, the Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University in New York, and a founder of yhousenyc.org, an institute that studies human and machine consciousness. His latest book is The Zoomable Universe: An Epic Tour Through Cosmic Scale, from Almost Everything to Nearly Nothing.
On Monday morning Facebook revealed a new gadget — a voice-activated video chat tablet with an always-listening microphone and camera for your living room or kitchen that can detect when you are in your own house. This in-home panopticon is called Facebook Portal, and its debut comes at what might seem like an inopportune time for the company — days after a Gizmodo report revealed it was harvesting two-factor authentication numbers; less than 10 days after it revealed that an attack on its computer network had exposed the personal information of nearly 50 million users (and left 40 million more vulnerable); and barely six months after CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to explain how it let Cambridge Analytica acquire the private information of up to 87 million users without consent to be used for psychographic profiling.
To call Facebook’s newest home surveillance device ill-timed is generous. It’s like Trump announcing a new resort and casino in Moscow or BP announcing a fleet of Deepwater Horizon oil tankers. It’s a flagrant flex of Facebook’s market share muscle and a yet another reminder that the company’s data collection ambitions supersede all else.
It’s also further confirmation that Facebook isn’t particularly sorry for its privacy failures — despite a recent apology tour that included an expensive “don’t worry, we got this” mini-documentary, full-page apology ads in major papers, and COO Sheryl Sandberg saying things like, “We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.” Worse, it belies the idea that Facebook has any real desire to reckon with the structural issues that obviously undergird its continued privacy missteps.
But more troubling still is what a product like Portal says about us, Facebook’s users: We don’t care enough about our privacy to quit it.
Tone-deaf business decisions like Portal are nothing new for Facebook. Eleven years ago, before Facebook was even a full behemoth, it was rolling out invasive features only to issue awkward apologies. The company didn’t appear to have the foresight then, and it doesn’t appear to now.
Weeks after the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal broke, Facebook announced at its annual conference that it would soon use its trove of user data to roll out a dating app to help pair users together in “long-term” romantic relationships. Later in the year, while Zuckerberg told Congress “I promise to do better for you” and pledged increased transparency in its handling of users’ data, the company admitted to secretly using a private tool to delete the old messages of its founder. This summer, just days after Zuckerberg assured “we have a responsibility to protect people,” reports surfaced that Facebook asked US banks for granular customer financial data (including card transactions and checking account balances) to use for a banking feature. Even the company’s good faith attempts to secure its platform feel ham-handed and oblivious, like last November when Facebook asked users in Australia to upload their nude photos to Facebook for employee review to combat revenge porn.
To observers, these might seem like easily avoidable errors, but to Facebook, whose very identity and foundational mandate is the instinctual drive to amass personal data, they make perfect sense.
Facebook’s unquenchable thirst for personal information is often interpreted as sinister or malicious in nature — a frame that feels a bit too convenient. Facebook is quite obviously interested in profit and power, but its problems seem to stem less from some inherent evil than a broader, foundational failure to see itself outside of this data-gathering, world-connecting prism.
Facebook is a company founded on the principle of collecting data, and virtually every part of its two core missions (“to bring the world closer together” and to deliver profit to shareholders) require amassing more data and finding creative new ways to parse and connect it. Almost every part of Facebook — from Messenger to News Feed advertisements — improves with every new morsel of personal information collected. For this reason, many of Facebook’s biggest problems are technological problems of scale — of amassing and processing so much data — and yet Facebook argues that amassing more data is the way to improve every experience, which includes fixing its myriad problems. Advertisements intrusive and clumsy? Collect more and more precise information with which to make them more relevant! Too much algorithmically tailored, low-quality content in News Feed? Ask people to rate and rank it! Collect more data! Feed it to the algorithms! Then collect even more data and use the algorithms to police it.
Facebook has seen enormous success with this strategy. Despite all of the bad press and fallout (which includes everything from disrupting the media business to election interference to ethnic cleansing in places like Myanmar), the company is vast, powerful, and profitable. You know what happened after the Cambridge Analytica scandal? After its first president, Sean Parker, expressed regret over its ruthless monetization of attention? After legislators trotted out examples of election interference in front of executives? Facebook reported earnings and monthly average users that exceeded expectations. The stock spiked.
For Facebook employees, there’s often a cognitive dissonance between their work and how they see it described beyond company walls. “If you could see what I see, a lot of this would make more sense,” one current employee told me in October of 2017. Only recently does that answer really begin to make sense: It’s about the data.
A former senior employee described this as part of the “deeply rational engineer’s view” that guides Facebook’s decisions. “They believe that to the extent that something flourishes or goes viral on Facebook — it’s not a reflection of the company’s role, but a reflection of what people want,” they said. Data informs how decisions get made; it also conveniently absolves Facebook of blame.
It is the crystal ball that allows the company to see ahead and do what might feel to us mere mortals (privacy advocates, the media, regular users) as reckless. This is why Facebook might feel confident rolling out an always-listening home camera a few weeks after a report revealing the company harvested two-factor authentication phone numbers to target users for advertising purposes. And it might be one reason — perhaps among many — that the founders of both WhatsApp and Instagram have left the company in recent months.
Facebook is intimidatingly large and deeply woven into our cultural fabric, largely because we have allowed it to become so, and we can’t consider a world without Facebook in it. It’s not that we aren’t worried about politics becoming a Facebook data acquisition and targeting game, or outsourcing the public square to a private technology company. It’s that it’s so mind-numbingly hard to imagine how to actually loosen the company’s grip on our discourse, ad ecosystem, and our personal information that we often focus only on superficial or temporary ways to relieve it.
And that’s a great substrate for apathy. We’ve already given it so much, why stop now? No one else is going to delete Facebook, so why should I? Facebook understands this — the data tells them so. It also tells them that slickly produced videos and contrite congressional testimony are small ways to ameliorate lingering public concern.
But the real truth lies in the company’s innovations and ambitions, products like Portal. Facebook doesn’t really care. And maybe we don’t either.
When you’re addicted to something, you’re obviously biased in favour of arguments suggesting it’s unrealistic to quit
Should you delete your social media accounts right now? The title of Jaron Lanier’s excellent recent polemic, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, leaves no doubt which side he’s on. His view is that Facebook, Twitter and the rest have sucked us into an addictive spiral of outrage, isolation and extremism, while making it ever harder for those who create the culture off which they leech – musicians, artists, journalists – to make a living.
But as this stance grows more popular, so does an objection: for many, it’s impossible. “What #DeleteFacebook tech bros don’t get,” writes the activist Jillian York, is that “leaving is, for many, a luxury they can’t afford”. Like it or not, people now rely on the network to run a business, stay in touch with friends and family, or even maintain their mental health, thanks to online support groups. Telling them to fulfil those needs elsewhere is unrealistic – precisely because everyone else is fulfilling them on Facebook. Being able to walk away is a matter of “privilege”, a Slate essay argues. It’s also another case of lecturing people about the need for self-discipline, when the real problem is capitalism and insufficiently regulated corporations bent on profit.
The thorny issue here – when it comes to whether you, personally, should abandon social media – is that the latter viewpoint has plenty of truth to it, yet also serves as a convenient excuse. When you’re addicted to something, you’re obviously biased in favour of arguments suggesting it’s unrealistic to quit. So, while some people may genuinely face social isolation by deleting Facebook, or professional ruin by leaving LinkedIn, chances are you’re not among them – even if you feel pretty sure you are. It’s more likely you’re telling yourself that story to spare yourself being deprived of social media’s comfortably sedative effects, and being left alone with your thoughts instead.
Of course, that’s easy for me to say. (And a bit hypocritical, since I’m still on Twitter, and just about still on Facebook.) But that doesn’t make it wrong. Sometimes the glib advice it’s easy for columnists to dispense is the right advice for you, even if you’d rather it weren’t.
This is part of a broader hazard, whenever left-leaning people confront the world of self-help: we’re so primed to see things in structural terms – as matters of privilege and power – that we convince ourselves we’re more powerless than we are. Every individual-level “happiness hack”, from digital detoxes to meditation to therapy, is open to the retort that what we really need is a fairer, more humane society – and self-help just serves to make us more accepting of the status quo. I don’t disagree. But the danger is of what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith”: convincing yourself you lack choices, when actually you don’t, because it’s less scary than facing your freedom.
The truth is, you could choose, right now, to jettison social media, or indeed many other unfulfilling aspects of your life. You might choose not to, concluding that the downsides outweigh the upsides in your case. But you do have a choice. Even telling yourself you don’t have a choice is a choice.
One of Lanier’s previous books, 2010’s You Are Not A Gadget, makes the prescient case that the web is leading us to “digital Maoism”, a collectivism that undermines individuality and slides easily into mob rule.