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The existential question for the New Year

This year, let's connect with our babies, look our friends in the eye, and think before we tweet.
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

There was a time when my favourite stop between Sudbury and Toronto was the 1867 restaurant in Parry Sound.

It was a gas station and restaurant with lots of window washer fluid and the best butter tarts in Northern Ontario. They were extraordinary. I still think fondly of those butter tarts as I zip by on our double lane where there is no easy access to butter tarts, or apple fritters for that matter.

All that extravagance was before I joined a new tribe: the gluten-free people. I hate this tribe. I explain myself to waiters and read ingredient labels at the grocery store and generally feel too precious for words. The problem is, if I don’t pay attention, I pay a price.

As a result, my new preferred road stop is the Hero Hamburger store in Port Severn which offers a four-ounce organic burger with a gluten-free bun. On a big day, I have cheddar cheese and some ketchup. This is my life.

The other day I was awaiting my gluten-free prize when my eye caught a couple changing their baby’s diaper at the next table. I stared for a moment, transfixed, thinking of the days when my daughter would battle me to within an inch of my life, when it hit me that something was odd. The odd part was that while one partner laboured away on the diaper, the other held an iPad up for this eight-month-old to watch a cartoon. No one said a word to the other – not the mother to the baby; not the father to the mother; not the baby to either. No whimpers, no wriggling, no laughing, no cuddling. It was incredibly efficient and no doubt a great cartoon. Enough to make a guy choke on a gluten-free bun.

How do we survive what we have invented?

We are extraordinarily adaptive (or is it ignorant and submissive?) to our new digital technologies. We have crammed so much A.I. into our phones and social media constructs they are eating us alive. Instead of generating dopamine with exercise or discipline, we earn it by monitoring our phones to see if we have been liked or noticed or approved in the last 10 seconds or 10 minutes. The anxiety is palpable in our kids and getting worse with the rest of us. By rewiring our brains at an early age, we are changing what it means to be human.

The former vice-president for user growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, says, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

He does not allow his kids to use Facebook.

James Williams, an ex-strategist for Google’s global search advertising business, speaks of the impact of the attention economy that “incentivizes the design of technologies that grab our attention. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions.”

The diet is emotion, outrage and anger.

The template for this dysfunction is Donald Trump tweeting absurdity in the morning and CNN constructing outrage in the afternoon. When Trump is gone, CNN will have to engineer anger and outrage some other way or go bankrupt.

I recommend a website called “Time Well Spent” to understand these dynamics more thoroughly.

The stakes are very high.

The question for us civilians is whether we are able to take back control of our lives from a deliberately addictive attention economy that is impacting how we think and solve problems.

This year, our country is negotiating a new trade agreement, introducing legalized marijuana; facing extraordinary environmental challenges, a growing opioid crisis, a weakening Fourth Estate, witnessing a transformation of gender politics at warp speed, managing continuing First Nations unrest and dissatisfaction, and watching our American neighbours have a nervous breakdown.

Our mood and coping skills will be directly impacted by how we receive and react to information. We will be either masters or servants.

This year, let’s connect with our babies, look our friends in the eye, and think before we tweet.