Photo by Franck Michel | https://tricy.cl/2ldEsU9
Certainly, the Trump administration has brought with it new opportunities to worry, obsess, fear, get angry, get motivated, detach, indulge—and with any luck, to notice these various mind states as they come and go. The Internet, too, is quite new, at least in terms of human evolution.
But some of our online conundrum is, in fact, quite old. Given the research on Internet addiction, I want to suggest that it’s time to expand the fifth precept, which proscribes the consumption of intoxicants, to include the online world. The Internet is an intoxicant and should be treated as such.
First, social media is designed to maximize addictive behavior. Push notifications, “likes,” and other positive feedback loops have been shown to trigger the brain’s dopamine system. With each “like” you get, your brain gets the same little jolt that it gets from drugs, sex, gambling, and other potentially addictive stimuli.
Thanks to evolution, we are wired to watch vigilantly for threats and reward, and to enjoy that reward when it comes. Thanks to social media, that happens every time your phone beeps.
What is that? Anticipation. Did I get a new like? Hope for validation. I did!Dopamine reward. This cycle activates the same parts of the brain as heroin and cocaine. Indeed, a 2011 study showed that heavy Internet users suffered physical and mental withdrawal symptoms after unplugging for a day.
And then there’s the converse: the feelings of envy or loneliness that can arise from viewing other people’s life updates. Researchers have dubbed this “Facebook depression.” Another study showed that the reward centers in young people’s brains were activated more by the “likes” a photo gets than by the content of the photo itself. We are, after all, social animals.
Again, none of this is an accident. As technology folks readily admit, they’ve designed products to exploit your brain chemistry as effectively and efficiently as possible. There’s no hidden agenda here: it’s right out in the open. Each time you scroll down, you see another ad. Each ad you see, the advertiser pays a few cents. Now multiply that by a billion.
Of course, this isn’t really new either. After all, both I and Tricycle have successfully enticed you to read this piece. We did it the way journalists have for centuries, with a (hopefully) interesting topic and a (hopefully) attention-grabbing headline. And if we didn’t have donors, you probably wouldn’t be reading these words.
But some of this really is new. Never before has an industry as large as social media had as many tools to maximize its impact on the human mind. And those tools are only going to get better (or worse): live video, augmented reality, virtual reality, sharper targeting for content and ads, wearable devices, new platforms, and, of course, innovations we can’t yet imagine. In a decade, we’re going to look back at 2017 as quaint.
That combination of improved means for unimproved ends is why it’s worth looking at older, yet often timeless, attempts to grapple with the addictive potentialities of mind. The fifth precept, present in multiple Buddhist traditions, is one of those.
The precept, in its classical forms, is refraining from liquors and other intoxicants. In Pali, sura-meraya-majja-pamadatthana literally means “abstaining from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.” There are many opinions as to the scope of the precept. On the strict side, almost everyone agrees that not just fermented drink but other intoxicants are also to be avoided…
In 1883, the brilliant German mathematician Georg Cantor produced the first rigorous, systematic, mathematical theory of the infinite. It was a work of genius, quite unlike anything that had gone before. And it had some remarkable consequences. Cantor showed that some infinities are bigger than others; that we can devise precise mathematical tools for measuring these different infinite sizes; and that we can perform calculations with them. This was seen an assault not only on intuition, but also on received mathematical wisdom. In due course, I shall sketch some of the main features of Cantor’s work, including his most important result, commonly known as ‘Cantor’s theorem’. But first I want to give a brief historical glimpse of why this work was perceived as being so iconoclastic. Ultimately, my aim is to show that this perception was in fact wrong. My contention will be that Cantor’s work, far from being an assault on received mathematical wisdom, actually served to corroborate it.
The standard conception of the infinite is that which is endless, unlimited, unsurveyable, immeasurable. Ever since people have been able to reflect, they have treated the infinite with a curious combination of perplexity, suspicion, fascination and respect. On the one hand, they have wondered whether we can even make sense of the infinite: mustn’t it, by its very nature, elude our finite grasp? On the other hand, they have been reluctant, indeed unable, to ignore it altogether.
In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle responded to this dilemma by drawing a distinction. He believed that there is one kind of infinity that really can’t be made sense of, and another that is a familiar and fundamental feature of reality. To the former he gave the label ‘actual’. To the latter he gave the label ‘potential’. An ‘actual’ infinity is one that is located at some point in time. A ‘potential’ infinity is one that is spread over time. Thus an infinitely big physical object, if there were such a thing, would be an example of an actual infinity. Its infinite bulk would be there all at once. An endlessly ticking clock, on the other hand, would be an example of a potential infinity. Its infinite ticking would be forever incomplete: however long the clock had been ticking, there would always be more ticks to come. Aristotle thought that there was something deeply problematic, if not incoherent, about an actual infinity. But he thought that potential infinities were there to be acknowledged in any process that will never end, such as the process of counting, or the process of dividing an object into smaller and smaller parts, or the passage of time itself.
Aristotle’s distinction proved to be enormously influential. Its importance to subsequent discussion of the infinite is hard to exaggerate. For more than 2,000 years, it more or less had the status of orthodoxy. But later thinkers, unlike Aristotle himself, construed the references to time in the actual/potential distinction as a metaphor for something more abstract. Having a location ‘in time’, or being there ‘all at once’, came to assume broader meanings than they had done in Aristotle. Eventually, exception to an actual infinity became exception to the very idea that the infinite could be a legitimate object of mathematical study in its own right. Cue Cantor…
After the Women’s March on January 21, The Washington Post published an op-ed with the headline “At the Women’s March, it’s the men who mattered most.”
Any number of tweets and blog posts immediately called out The Post for a tone-deaf, insulting headline that placed men at the center of a movement that was started by and for women.
Russell Brown felt similarly enraged. As co-creator of the Los Angeles men’s activist group the Fallopian Dudes, Brown aims to get guys involved in standing up for women’s rights — without necessarily putting themselves at the heart of the story.
“Part of the DNA of this group is acknowledging that too often men think we are the center of the conversation, or that our opinions are the most important ones,” Brown says. “And I want so much to counteract that mentality, especially as it relates to female health.”
Brown is the co-founder of Poke Acupuncture, where women’s health issues are an important part of his practice. He formed Fallopian Dudes withwriter/creative director Mark Jacobs, initially as an effort to get guys to participate and show solidarity at the Los Angeles Women’s March. Brown and Jacobs reached out to their community — particularly gay men — in an effort to get them to recognize women as political allies and not simply family members, peers, co-workers, or “party friends.”
The two created a Facebook group inviting guys to join them at the Los Angeles Women’s March. “We had no idea what the turnout would be in terms of anyone, let alone men or certain kinds of men,” Jacobs says. “So it was really about just creating a group — an access point for people to show up.”
On the sunny Saturday morning of the march, more than 100 men joined the Fallopian Dudes meet-up spot near downtown Los Angeles.
Brown and Jacobs were prepared.
The Fallopian Dude co-founders handed out more than 70 black shirts that read, “We Are With You,” and made dozens of signs with stenciled letters and a stark white or yellow background, recalling 1960s-era protest signs. Their striking signage varied from heartfelt to angry with phrases like: “I Owe My Life to Women, “Equal Pay is Hot as Fuck” or “Mike Pence Kills Women.”
“We were really specific as gay guys. There would be marches where signs would say ‘Trump Sashay Away’—we didn’t want to play into that trope,” Jacobs says between sips of coffee at a café on Sunset Boulevard.
The two wanted to make shirts that read “Men for Menses,” but they encountered a problem. “Most gay men did not know what menses was; they thought that menses was plural for men.” (It’s actually menstrual flow.)
It’s conversations like this one that Brown and Jacobs feel are more needed in their community.
“In the gay communities a general misogyny is sometimes accepted toward women; there is a way that gay men talk about women’s bodies — and all these jokes, you know, a period, icky,” Jacobs says. “So one of the reasons we ended up with the name Fallopian Dudes is that it’s silly, it’s playful, but it was also making these people say [words related to] female anatomy.”
Brown recalls the post-election 60 Minutes interview in which Trump announced that he didn’t plan to dismantle same-sex marriage but he was working to overturn Roe v. Wade and repeal the Affordable Care Act (which provides free birth control for many women). Brown’s Facebook echo chamber of gay men erupted with celebratory posts. He refreshed his newsfeed to find update after update with posts such as, “Maybe the next four years won’t be so bad.” Brown was furious. He couldn’t believe his friends were popping bottles for gay marriage when the progress of women’s health and autonomy was about to be steamrolled by the Trump administration.
Shortly after that agonizing interview, Brown went to social media to share his frustration. He wrote a post on his Facebook wall entitled “Dear Gay Guys, You Are Not a Friend to Women Unless You Know What an IUD Is.”
For those who’ve been sleeping under a rock, an IUD, or an intrauterine device, is a small t-shaped device inserted in a woman’s cervix in an invasive and painful procedure. Brown added, “An IUD releases copper or artificial hormones to kill or block sperm and thin out the endometrial lining so periods are less intense.” Another upside? IUDs prevent pregnancy for approximately three to seven years — and can outlast President Trump’s term. (A repeal of the Affordable Care Act will likely mean access to many forms of birth control will be more costly, so IUDs have rapidly gained in popularity, as Brown pointed out.)…