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Every leave-taking is a reminder that nothing lasts. A romance like ours, in which absence and presence alternate like night and day, allows little opportunity to forget this fact, and that is the most notable difference between an affair of such starkly defined seasons and conventional arrangements, in which the temperature fluctuates less widely and the cadence is harder to detect. Essentially all love is made on the verge of departure. It always has been. Today, however, many more people than ever find themselves in decidedly unconventional arrangements, living under separate roofs, on opposite coasts, with different lovers at various times, and for us the domestic symbol of modern romance is not the marital bed or the kitchen table or the family room but the doorway. Whatever permanence we may find comes by embracing the transient, a paradox that we somehow must make our own. If there is a tragedy in this it is not that we die unto each other, or that we actually die, but that we act as if this were not the way of the world. Nothing is more contrary to romance than the presumption of constancy. …We draw near. Our lips touch, a first kiss, first among many firsts and deepened immeasurably by all of the farewell kisses that have preceded it and resonate within it. Beat after beat after beat. However our partings may have come about, they have given this affair an unusually robust pulse. They have taught me that passionate love endures only if it continually transforms itself, that transformation is achieved through the rapture of arrival, and that there is no arrival without a departure of one sort or another. More than anything, romance is rhythm. We exhale so as to inhale again. We withdraw so as to approach anew.

–Edwin Dobb, “A kiss is still a kiss (even if the sex is postmodern and the romance problematic)

It’s hard for me to believe this was written in 1996. Given the reality, inevitability and opportunity of long distance, nonconventional romances for so many of my friends–in the NGO sector and not–these words feel fresh, albeit fatalistic. Is it possible for us to ever truly ’embrace the transient’? In a globalized world, where things continue to move faster and faster, is romantic intimacy only destined to be felt with departures?

Dobb’s essay title in itself is amazing. A strange, contemporary koan.

Look at Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest. We collect our favorite things in one spot for anyone who’s interested: the era of the curator. Rather than write about ourselves directly, our personalities manifest in collections of our commercial desires, aesthetic attractions. We are what we “like,” not what we do.

–Jacob Axelrad, “Longform 

A very interesting offhand observation embedded in a great essay on Longform Reads. ‘Curator’ might feel like too self-aggrandizing a term though. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we are in the era of ‘glorified virtual scrapbookers’. Or maybe we should just call ourselves digital magpies. Depends on how cynical I’m feeling, I guess. Still, a phrase worth pondering.

Claire Evans has written an amazing essay that I just discovered. She brilliantly captures how old relationships grip our present thanks to social networking, which forces us to think about how we manage the digital appearance of friendships and romances.

It is a fascinating contradiction how we grapple with severed real life relationships on virtual platforms where accumulating and maintaining connections is the primary goal. Strangely, when we update our digital footprints to reflect realities of ended loves, we wind up simply carving artificial spaces which mask that relationships ever happened. The artificiality of these spaces seems more palpable considering that these histories are preserved beyond us; deleting an old email sent from a Gmail account doesn’t change the fact that Google still has a record of the words you once sent even if you can’t see it anymore.

I’m not convinced that a Luddite approach is really possible for love though, especially for  younger generations who were born embedded in social networks. Social media magnifies and distorts relationships, to which attractions, romances and breakups are not arbitrary but inherent. The ways we manage the visibility of our relationships will evolve, whether we try to be a Luddite or not.

That said. I do often find that the most significant real-life relationships are either omnipresent or mysteriously absent on my and others’ social networks. The connections that truly matter, be they good friends, nascent loves or former exes, seem to teeter either between being broadcast all over Facebook walls and photos and Tweets, or conspicuously invisible to the public eye. The interactions that seem most meaningful, be they from the past or present, rarely hover in the middle.

I tried to quote bits of this essay and then I realized I wanted it all. So here it is:

You’ve just broken up. You’ve had the last argument, or weathered the first and last betrayal. You’ve changed the locks. Now the complicated process of dislodging your heart begins: the long falling-out of love. With the topography of companionship levelled, you find yourself flowing outward to fill the empty spaces. Certain objects are suddenly impossible to abide. Your own possessions, abruptly gathered up, speak to an identity you’d forgotten existed. ‘This,’ you think as you survey the towels and serving-bowls stacked in their boxes, ‘this is my taste?’ The measures of your world — the size of the bed, the portioning of food — must be scaled back. But still the second wave of disentanglement has barely begun.

It’s time to end it online. I’m not just talking about the pedantic tick-box of Facebook ‘relationship status’: there are images to untag, emails to delete, an ‘unfriending’ to coordinate. There is the careful unravelling of the social web.

In a sense, every relationship now exists on two levels. The moments we spend in one another’s company, the neurochemical buzz of proximity, and the communion of shared silence: these are real. But just as physical places now have their geolocated overlays, every relationship, too, throws a digital shadow – and depending on the individuals involved, it can loom larger than the people who cast it. As we increasingly live our social lives in public, in a medium that retains the traces of our social noodling, the record and the relationship itself can approach a point of indistinguishability.

I prefer email to the phone because it provides me with a record of my conversations, one that I can re-experience at any moment. Typing a name, I can summon a chronology of every word exchanged: a précis of the relationship, its years condensed into one timeless block of data. For those intimacies experienced mostly, or even partially, through the web, this chronological record becomes the relationship, for all intents and purposes. My parents’ generation did this differently: that box of love notes under the bed, its own time-capsule of emotion. But while their love letters might have once served the same purpose as the cumulative ones and zeros of my online correspondences, they existed only in one place. Burn them in a fit of pique and the words remain only in the memories of those they touched: subjective, foggy, destined to vanish.

Today’s relationships are distributed, not just in the minds of people but across the network. A sufficiently talented hacker could gather fragments of data from all over the internet and reconstitute a relationship from its shrapnel. Every click leaves a trace: our online shopping records, our air travel itineraries, the books and articles we read on recommendation, the frequency with which we visit other people’s web spaces, the endless ‘likes’, the comments, emails, retweets, the ideas we absorb from those we love and disseminate outwards. Real love is transformative: it changes our social patterns. We might find ourselves delving into subjects we weren’t previously interested in, acknowledging the view from elsewhere, connecting with a new network of people. These are all quantifiable indices, easy to monitor through the public third space of the web.

Let’s return to that online breakup. In your attempts to clear the debris, you discover that, like an ecosystem, your social network reacts holistically to change. For one, it doesn’t want you to sever ties with anyone: at every turn, it seems to ask you to reconsider. The architecture of the social web, like that of a Las Vegas casino, always leads the user back inside. The engine depends on connections: groups, rather than individuals, are the commodity being sold. The social web quantifies the people who touch us.

We take this for granted, but any individual’s online network is a map of heretofore-invisible threads. Once we’ve integrated, once we’ve painted these cobwebs Facebook blue, it’s difficult to go back. The relationship and its public record share so much real estate they might be mistaken for one another. This has the curious effect of flattening the complexity of emotion: a lost friend, a shattered romance, are not just individuals ‘hidden’ from the timeline. These are cataclysms of the heart.

The information that you were friends, or lovers, lives on. It’s there, an infinitesimal blip in the global mass of data. Severance in the machine of connection must be deliberate. Where opinion and desire flow along paths of least resistance and affirmation or disavowal alike are quantified by views, where protest is as simple as a reblog and complex emotional experiences are summed up using appropriated images, purposeful unlinking is a dissonant gesture. Others look up, temporarily stunned: the click that un-friends is the loudest of all.

And even as its echoes still resonate, aspects of the un-friend will always fall through the virtual cracks. He or she will seep into your curated feed through mutual friends, images, or advertisements tailored to extinguished needs. The vast and broadly disseminated collection of bits that has served for so long as a public (and private) record of your entanglement remains. It might not be immediately accessible to you, but the information that you were friends, or lovers, lives on. It’s there, somewhere, an infinitesimal blip in the global mass of data.

Who stops to consider such things in the throes of new love, or in the honeymoon period of friendship? We’re not wired to worry about stuff like that. Before the social web, surviving a breakup meant tossing out mementos and looking over your shoulder at parties. Now it means perusing invite lists, haunting status updates, watching tiny circles of green turn orange, then red, before fading to offline grey. It is easier than ever to self-punish through voyeurism, of course, but now tactics for avoidance are so similar to strategies for stalking, so equal in the all-seeing indifference of the web, that even average heartbreak can take on sinister dimensions.

There might still be a way that we can invest in the future of our hearts. We don’t need to leave the binary husks of our relationships behind us. But we must be more considered with everything we do online, not just our flirtations. The temptation to tag, cite, post and discover others through their front-facing digital avatars is great, but the rewards of love under the radar are more profound. Love undocumented is love unadvertised and unexploited; it is love that will fade gently, like a photograph, instead of creeping up, algorithmically, like a Google image search result.

In his 2010 jeremiad, You Are Not a Gadget, the American computer scientist Jaron Lanier proposes some basic commandments for digital self-editing. His rules include thinking before tweeting and only writing blog posts that take weeks of reflection. We tend to think of the social web as an amorphous zeitgeist, he argues, a monster of inanity from whose sheer bulk meaningful patterns emerge. An idea has worth only when it manages to propagate as a meme, and digital society places value on these instances of emergence rather than on the force of any individual thought: the fantasy is of a hive-mind.

In its border-obliterating hugeness, its nearly preposterous magnitude, it seems likely that the web will always engender some kind of shared meaning through large-scale trends. But wouldn’t the patterns be sharper, the noise less oppressive, if each individual utterance was a little more thoughtful? If we took it slow? As John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email (2009), wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2009:

We will die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes — heartbreakingly — before us. Busyness — or the simulated busyness of email addiction — numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we want to allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.

The world has always moved too quickly for some people. Throughout history this paradoxical, essentially philosophical proposal to decelerate in order to appreciate brevity has arisen at cusps of technological change. In its current form, we see the outlines of a ‘Slow Internet’ movement. Thus the American journalist Jennifer Rauch hosts a blog about ‘Slow Media’. Paul Miller, a technology journalist at theverge.com, has vowed to spend an entire year offline. Six months into his project, he has weathered the US election, his career, the public library crisis, and hurricane Sandy without once dipping into the blogosphere.

The obstacles Miller encounters are specific and hard to anticipate: he is perpetually lost, struggles to pay his bills through automated phone systems, and must receive news from faraway friends via post or not at all. His missives from the slow world are edifying, distantly familiar, and inspiring: his battle to function in a wired society articulates just how seamlessly the web flows through us. Its absence from his life accentuates its muscled presence in ours. I wonder what his love life is like. All of these pundits seem to share a fear of being labelled Neo-Luddites. After all, we’ve seen the web level tyranny, watched it thrust political truths into the light. Among its nodes, young people find identities, artists find audiences, writers find solace. To speak ill of the internet, to wax nostalgic about the smell of old paper or deliberately stake out an offline life, seems reactionary and contrived. Millions of teenagers, faces lit by the glow of smartphones under their bedclothes, roll their eyes — or rather, select an exasperated emoticon. In the introduction to You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier writes: ‘This book is not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman.’ Freeman, too: ‘This is not the manifesto of a Luddite. This is a human manifesto.’

The Luddites were skilled laborers, displaced by industrialisation. They sought to destroy the machinery they knew might eventually replace them. Lanier, Freeman, and the Slow Media thinkers of today are hardly advocating this kind of industrial sabotage: like most of us, they accept the encroaching tides of the social web, its inevitability. There is no wrench big enough to throw into these works.

When it comes to love, however, we might all be Luddites. Wouldn’t we smash the machine that told us precisely where and when our former paramours found someone new? Unfortunately, the global index that contains every gossamer byte of our love letters — not the ones under the bed, tied with velvet ribbon, but the ones we are always unwittingly writing as we try to make contact across the ever-swelling planes of liquid crystal — is quite unsmashable. Who can smash a concept, a fibre-optic lattice across the ocean?

Luddism in the name of love is different, almost pointedly opposite to its ideological predecessor. Instead of taking hammer to motherboard, we must tread carefully in the long corridors between rows of servers, dancing in their humming shadows. Instead of rousing the ire of our fellows, we must whisper so as not to disturb the binary chatter shooting all around our heads, while we fall quietly in love in the age of machines.

–Claire L Evans, “Luddite Love

…Rene Almeling, a sociologist at Yale, spent four years interviewing sperm and egg donors and the staff who work with them while researching her book Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. She found that egg donors are often encouraged to think about their involvement as giving a gift to another women, while sperm donation is most often framed as an easy job. Most egg donors she spoke to said they didn’t think of themselves as mothers — but sperm donors did tend to think of themselves as fathers. This may be because we have some experience thinking of fatherhood as a distant, genetically defined role, but are less used to dissociating motherhood and pregnancy. Regardless, it’s an interesting window into the ways we reconcile the fertility industry with our notions of family.

–Brooke Jarvis, “Come and get it: how sperm became one of America’s hottest exports

Very interesting food for thought here. Still chewing on it.

In the world where most prominent nongovernmental organizations see their role in the international legal process as public advocacy, often through naming and shaming, one very prominent NGO stands apart — the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 152-year old Swiss institution founded by Henri Dunant to aid the victims of armed conflict worldwide. With its staff of over 12,000 in 80 countries, the ICRC has a reach greater than that of the best funded NGOs. It self-proclaimed mission is to serve as the ‘promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law.’  Much of its work consists of hundreds of confidential visits and authorship of numerous secret reports to monitor compliance by armies, security forces, and non-state armed groups with IHL. In doing so, it is deliberately opaque: it rarely identifies violators publicly; it leaves its legal position on many key issues ambiguous, sometimes even from the target of its discussions; and at times it avoids legal discourse entirely when persuading parties to follow legal rules.

This aversion to transparency is not only at odds with the assumptions of the naming and shaming strategy regarding the most effective means to induce compliance. It also makes it almost impossible for outsiders to know the ICRC’s legal characterization of specific cases. As a result, its approach to protection of victims, even if successful in individual cases, seems to undermine its self-professed role as the guardian of – the authoritative interpreter of and voice for — international humanitarian law.

…But perhaps the better question is not how much secrecy the ICRC needs for its work in promoting IHL compliance, but how much secrecy the ICRC needs for itself. For in this regard, the institutional culture seems engrained from the highest levels to the newest delegates. The mantra can be heard from the Avenue de la Paix to the farthest flung of the delegations: We are the ICRC. Our only purpose is to help the victims. We do not name and shame. We maintain confidentiality. Secrecy is part of the personality and identity of the ICRC, as much as its neutrality, impartiality, and professionalism. To surrender that attribute would simply make it too much like any other NGO. This sort of catechism led to disaster for the ICRC – and, more important, for the people whose deathly fate it chose never to reveal – once in its history, and while it has occasionally revealed or denounced grave violations, those remain the exception. This question cannot be answered through doctrine, but through an acculturation that requires delegates and senior officials to ask themselves more often whether confidentiality is achieving the humanitarian purpose or undermining it.

–Steven R. Ratner,  Behind the Flag of Dunant: Secrecy and the Compliance Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross

Language really is different that other intellectual pursuits in its physicality. Learning to properly pronounce “Vevey” isn’t a matter of abstract theory–it’s a matter of training your mouth and tongue, in the same way a ballerina or singer trains, in the same way one would master a jump shot. There’s just no way to make that go quicker. Hours must be put in. Reps must be performed. There’s no other way.

In many ways I compare it to my journey of becoming a healthy person. The same get-rich-quick claims revolve around language-learning, as around weight loss. But I found that becoming a healthier person meant acting, thinking and making the kind of decisions that a healthier person would. It was not enough to say that I wanted to lose 20 pounds, any more than it would be enough to say I want to speak French. In both cases, I have had to learn to think like the man I wanted to be. Your old self can’t come with you. In both cases I found that I what I doing was more important than what I consider myself to be. Words like “intelligence” and “discipline” held no power for me. Words like “practice” and “planning” did.

I don’t say this to ward anyone away from a foreign language, or from French specifically. On the contrary, there’s a beautiful democracy to it all. I am not convinced that anyone can be a Baudelaire. But I am convinced that anyone can understand, and make themselves understood. It’s just that the work is unrelenting. It’s a law of nature. There’s no way around it.

–Ta Nehisi Coates, “Letters to a French Autodidact”

I’ve been catching up on This American Life podcasts this week. My mind is still fixated on the programme from a couple of weeks ago, “Trends With Benefits”.

Apparently, the number of Americans receiving federal disability payments has nearly doubled over the last 15 years. There are towns and counties around the nation where almost 1/4 of adults are on disability.

Planet Money‘s Chana Joffe-Walt spent 6 months exploring why this is the case and returns with a complicated picture of what this means about the US economy as well as the larger industry that supports this structure:

Chana Joffe:  Joseph and Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability.

This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy. Places that made cars and steel and batteries and textiles.

The disability programs are acting like a sponge, sopping up otherwise desperate people. This is happening so often in so many parts of the country, this shift from work to disability programs, that I have actually been reporting on it for years, and I didn’t even know it.

David Autor:  Well, that’s kind of an ugly secret of the American labor market, that part of the reason our unemployment rates have been low until recently is that a lot of people who would have trouble finding jobs are on a different program. They’re on the disability insurance program. And they don’t show up in the labor force statistics. And so it artificially reduces the unemployment rate that we observe.

Chana Joffe:  So you’re saying we all already knew it was bad. It’s actually worse than we think.

David Autor:  It is. It’s been worse than we thought for a long time. This has been going on pretty rapidly for now more than 20 years.

Chana Joffe:  David Autor says disability has become a sort of de facto welfare for people without a lot of education or job skills. Except it is the worst kind of welfare program, because it includes one feature you never, ever want from your social safety net.

David Autor:  Once people go in that direction, they’re unlikely to come back.

Chana Joffe:  The problem with using our disability programs as a sort of quiet de facto welfare system is they’re not designed to help people to deal with their disabilities, to get jobs, to make increasingly more money over a lifetime. They’re not there to catch you when you fall down and help you back on your feet.

Once a worker gets on disability, there are really only two ways out. You get old enough that at 65, 66-years-old, you move on to a different government program, Social Security for seniors, or you die. Those are the two ways people exit disability. Almost no one gets better. The benefits don’t get you rehabilitative services or supportive technology. They just give you a monthly income.

And it’s not a great income, about $13,000 a year. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you $15,000 a year– a job you may or may not be able to get, may or may not be able to keep, that probably won’t be full time, and very likely will not include health insurance– disability may be a better option.

Well let’s just think about what that option means. You will not work. You will not interact with coworkers, get promoted, make more money, get whatever meaning people get from work. And assuming you rely only on those disability benefits, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That is signing up for disability. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves.

–This American Life, “Trends With Benefits” (bolding added)

The entire programme is worth a listen and really illuminates an integral aspect of how US federal benefits work that has been missing from most of the policy debates I’ve heard.  A lot to mull over, but so insightful in understanding why these problems seem intractable.