TALKING TO PEOPLE WHO AREN’T HERE: How Cell Phones Affect the Experience of Public Places

by G. Lee Young, PhD

Our public spaces are being transformed into a black hole of meaningless, incomplete conversations that are rarely of value to anyone but those having them. When a pastor or priest invites us all to follow him in prayer, and then he launches into a one-sided conversation with God, at least we care about what’s being said and how God might respond, otherwise we wouldn’t be in church. But when people on cell phones talk to entities who aren’t here, and who we also aren’t in any position to care about, I suggest that our collective public experience is being deeply undermined. It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone in the conversation were here, but when the present ambiance is being dominated by a largely absent significance, then our public places become signifiers of absence like never before.

I’ve opened with a decidedly metaphysical way of describing the assault of cell phones on our public spaces. To bring it down to earth a bit, a basic question can be asked: Why is it so much worse, or more rude and distracting, to hear half of a conversation someone is involved in over a cell phone than it is to hear the whole conversation when all parties are present? This question deserves controlled study, but allow me to present a great variety of hypotheses and then consider the ramifications.

#1: LOUDNESS HYPOTHESIS: People talk more loudly over cell phones than they typically do when everyone in the conversation is present, and in this way they attract more attention to themselves. This does often seem to be the case, but why?

#2: DEVICE COMPENSATION HYPOTHESIS: Because cell phone transmission may involve signal interferences, artificially lowered volume, or loud background noise on one or more sides of the conversation, people talk more loudly or more exactly or more extensively, and in this way cell phone conversations attract more attention to themselves than conversations between parties who are all present. And/or:

#3: ABSENT BODY LANGUAGE HYPOTHESIS: Lacking the ability to interpret body language over the phone, participants in a phone conversation talk more loudly or more exactly or more extensively, and in this way attract more attention to themselves. It would be interesting to see if public skyping, which allows conversation participants to witness the other’s body language, is as distracting as regular public cell phone conversation. And/or:

#4: SUBCONSCIOUS GAP-FILLING HYPOTHESIS: Given the gaps in the conversation – the parts contributed by the participants who are not here – it is harder for bystanders to filter out the conversation, since they are subconsciously trying to fill the gaps in the conversation that would not exist if all parties were present, and for this reason cell phone conversations attract more attention to themselves. And/or:

#5: INFORMATIONAL EMPHASIS HYPOTHESIS: Not only is there a lack of body language transmitted over cell phone conversation, but cell phone conversations are more purely informational in purpose, while gatherings among people who are all present can serve many purposes besides the conversational. Cell phone conversations attract more attention than all-present-gatherings in being more purely, unremittingly and enduringly engaged in for the purpose verbal information transmission. And/or:

#6: LOWERED PRIVACY LEVEL HYPOTHESIS: The content of overheard cell phone conversations is typically more distracting than overheard conversations where all participants are present, because cell phone conversation participants tend to feel less obligation to be private, so that the information overheard is anywhere from distractingly mundane to startlingly sensitive. The theory here is that, since the others in the conversation are not present, as long as the person on this side of the conversation is okay with disclosing the information to those overhearing it, the present party doesn’t typically need to worry about the privacy concerns of the party not present because that absent party is typically anonymous to those overhearing the conversation. Whereas, when all parties are present, they typically do not explicitly discuss preferred privacy levels and just assume a high privacy preference and so tend to talk in lower volume, or communicate more sensitive information using body language. A corollary to this is that cell phone conversations may tend to be more emotionally charged than conversations among those present, because the entirety of what is being handled over the phone is being handled in that phone conversation, while conversing groups are free to save discussion of more emotionally charged issues before the group arrives to the public place or after they leave. Note here that cell phone conversations are more akin in this way to publicly held business meetings, which likewise tend to be as distracting, which is why there are often separate rooms in public places like coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, offices, and hotels, etc., for such meetings. And/or:

#7: ABSENT SOUND WAVE DAMPENING EFFECT HYPOTHESIS: Even if not speaking at higher volume, the mouth of a person on a cell phone is often oriented in your direction, and the sound waves emitted by their mouths are not dampened by someone present who they would otherwise be talking to, and whose body would typically occupy a space between you and the speaker. And/or:

#8: ABSENT GROUP/INDIVIDUAL SEGREGATION HYPOTHESIS: In public places, (i) the people having conversations in groups and (ii) the people working individually tend to segregate themselves, but with the use of cell phones, there is no natural segregation of this kind, since people who are prepared to talk on the cell phone are often present alone as well. So the cell phone conversationalist will find an individual spot right next to someone who is not planning to converse. And also:

#9: UNFAIRNESS FEEDBACK LOOP HYPOTHESIS: When people on cell phones distract those who are not on cell phones for any of the above reasons, the sense of the unfairness of the situation felt by the person distracted makes the cell phone conversation even more distracting.

These hypotheses could likely use more consideration and reorganization in light of controlled study, but it’s a start. I believe that controlled studies that vary test conditions in the right ways will better quantify the damaging effect of public cell phone use on our mental and social health. What’s worse is that in most cases, not just one of the above hypothesized factors will be active in cell phone use, but most of them will. It may not be that all public places will benefit from regulation of cell phone use – regulations already enforced and accepted in libraries and theaters – but that those public places traditionally attracting people who seek a concentration-conducive environment and/or a relaxing place to gather for socializing – like restaurants and coffee shops – are among those that could greatly benefit.

If cell phone use in such places is found to be significantly damaging, the problem and its solution could follow the analogy of the problem and regulation of smoking in public. I expect that we need to restore the fair usage of our public places by reinstituting the Phone Booth in some form, or at least by insisting that cell phone users take it outside, as we ask smokers. An assessment of the problem will likely also have to acknowledge a continuum of uses of the public places in questions, a continuum having these opposite poles: (i) those who use the public place for individual reflection or concentration activities; versus (ii) those who use public places to seek human interaction. It’s expected that the first kind would have a more negative attitude to those using cell phones than the second kind. The question then is whether we can agree on how to use public places in a way that is fair to everyone.

For more on the impact of cell phone use on individuals and societies around the world, see this 2001 study by philosopher Sadie Plant: Cell Phone Impact (PDF)

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Jung on Synchronicity

Whether you’re not sure what synchronicity is, or you’re already an avid seeker of synchronicity, you might find this academic essay on Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity interesting. The word “synchronicity,” coined by Jung, is basically synonymous with “coincidence.” Is synchronicity meaningful, or is it just “mere” coincidence? If not mere coincidence, what accounts for synchronicity – can we learn anything new about life and the cosmos by paying attention to synchronicity? Are we justified in treating synchronicity as signs from a transcendent realm that can be used to guide us?

In this essay, I focus on the question of what synchronicity is, and I challenge Jung’s theory, even if Jung is to be applauded for being the first in the 20th century to give it serious academic attention. I believe further investigation of synchronicity requires challenging Jung’s authority on the phenomenon.

– G. Lee Young, PhD

Jung on Synchronicity (PDF)

Trusting the Spirits: Offering an Egg to a Tree

This short autobiographical essay emerged from my need to precisely explain – mainly to myself – what exactly I was trying to accomplish by performing a particular voodoo (or vodou) ceremony. Also, in a secular world that marginilizes spiritual thought, and with a religious mainstream that marginilizes polytheism, I made an attempt to present a justification of performing this particular voodoo ceremony, one that might make both an academic atheist and a mainstream monotheist more sympathetic to what I was doing. Warning: Offer eggs to trees at your own risk. – G. Lee Young, PhD

Trusting the Spirits: Offering an Egg to a Tree (PDF)

BOOK REVIEW: Metaphysical Movements in America

In The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (1967), J. Stillson Judah explores the connections between the various 19th and 20th century movements he refers to as “metaphysical,” such as New Thought, Theosophy, and Christian Science. Judah’s consideration of both the principles and the histories of these movements, while painting portraits of their often enigmatically charismatic founders, serves as an enlightening investigation of the roots of what is now often referred to as the New Age movement. One wonders whether the Self of Love Organization (SOLO) can be viewed as a great, great, great … grandchild of the metaphysical movements, and what would that mean?

– G. Lee Young, PhD

In a very helpful introduction, Judah lists fifteen common characteristics of these metaphysical movements (reproduced verbatim):

1. As allies of the transcendentalists, these “metaphysicians” revolted against the creedal authority of organized Protestant churches to find their solace in a new freedom of individualism exemplified by Emersonian self-reliance, and as a result each person sought his own salvation without needing the Christian church.

2. Nearly all became united in the central belief that the inner, or real, self of man is divine.

3. Although speaking of God in a personal way, as such terms as Divine Mind or Universal Mind might indicate, they have not generally wanted to be considered as theists.

4. Most groups have conceived of God as being related to man and the world in a quasi-gnostic or dualistic manner. More commonly, however, this apparent dualism gives way to a monistic doctrine of God, who is all and in-all.

5. Some metaphysical groups consider themselves to be Christian, while others do not, but all make place for some of the moral teachings of Jesus. Jesus, the man, however, is usually separated in their thought from the Christ or Christ Principle, which is one with God and is every man’s inner nature.

6. These movements revolted against a traditional Christian view that man is a sinner, standing under God’s judgment and in need of repentance and forgiveness.

7. As God is regarded as being all, in-all, and all good, so evil, including sickness, is often considered to be unreal or the absence of good.

8. All metaphysical philosophies are pragmatic. One is asked less to believe than to test the principles to be demonstrated in his experience. Since the methods often seem to produce results, they strengthen the belief in the validity of their underlying philosophy.

9. By equating salvation with the discovery of a higher reality and utilization of its laws, the metaphysical leaders tend to place their emphasis upon self-realization, knowledge, or spiritual science instead of upon faith or works.

10. All these movements try to demonstrate the scientific validity of different kinds of religious experience as proof of their philosophy which gives meaning to life. In some cases it may be through spiritualistic phenomena or the development of hidden powers. In others it is the amelioration of health or material conditions.

11. Like Yoga and Zen Buddhism, most metaphysical sects offer a psychological approach to reality [which is to say that reality is viewed as psychologically structured].

12. The metaphysical movements are highly optimistic. They stress the love of God without making explicit his judgment, and man’s goodness instead of his propensity to sin. Besides their emphasis upon practical benefits awaiting man in this life, they have a strong belief in immediate personal immortality after death. Eventual salvation is the lot of all through continual progression in the heaven worlds or through reincarnation and its law of karma.

13. Particularly among groups associated with New Thought the acquisition of pleasant things under the guise of prosperity has become important. 

14. Most metaphysical groups have a belief in an inner meaning of words beyond their dictionary definition – a meaning that cannot be discovered empirically from the standpoint of usage or etymology, but that is revealed intuitively.

15. All these movements make healing through the mind or spirit a part of their mission.

LOUNGING – THE HIGHEST INTELLIGENCE: Awaiting Furry First Contact: Cats or Bears?: Answer: Bears

A Planarian Original Article

From the “False but True” Department

by G. Lee Young, PhD

When aliens make first contact with us, they’re likely to be the most adorable, endearing race yet known to Earthlings, because, if they find us before we find them, then they’re certain to be of greater intelligence … and the highest sign of intelligence is found in the art of relaxation, which finds its greatest expression in Lounging. Sure, other alien races out there – and here the insectoid, avian and cyborg races come to mind – are rigid busy bodies bent on subjecting our fledgling, ailing planet to their schoolmarm ways; but, luckily, since the Lounging Races are the wiser and more advanced civilizations, such preferred alien contacts will certainly restrain the Micromanaging Races before they dominate us – the insectoids, et al., will be sent to a Cosmic Time Out by our merciful saviors.

So, have no fear. Relax. As a sign of their non-aggressiveness, our first alien visitors will likely refer to our world leaders with their linguistic equivalent of “dude,” as in, “Dude, it took us SO FREAKING LONG to get here – has your civilization legalized marijuana yet?” In fact, our first contacts are probably waiting to introduce themselves until after our world powers get that wonder drug legalized and widely distributed. The hunch at NASA is that THC can enable us to break the light barrier and, in this way, to live a Heisenbergian double existence – as the self-described Responsible People in this dimension, while simultaneously projecting across the vast reaches of space to become the Lovable Pets and Wildlife of the alien dimension. But the aliens are going to find us first, and in just the same way.

That’s right, the alien visitors will arrive via projection through the proper pet- and wildlife-vehicles here on Earth. Read that sentence again if you have to. You may not have seen that coming. And it is only when we publicly endorse cannabis that aliens will start talking to you through your cat, dog, or BEAR, because only then are you ready. Don’t blow first contact! It’s important not to be surprised (because it’s not “cool” to freak out) if your cat walks over and says: “Dude, quit bogarting the ape-nip. I’m from another dimension and I like to get HIGH.” Despite popular depictions of first contact, the last thing the adorable aliens will request is to be taken to your leader – intelligence abhors a bureaucrat. Quite the opposite. The aliens are here to get high and spread the love – the true meaning of the “contact high.” The proper and only response to first contact, then, is to pass the peace pipe. In cosmic communion, remember to JUST RELAX – there’s plenty of time to ask burning questions like, “So, what’s been going on, man?”

These speculations lead us to some important questions about the specific nature of our future contact with an alien species – we must be prepared! We must ask: Which Earthling life form is this highly intelligent Lounging Race most likely to use for their spooky, mind-blowing possession/projection-style contact? For reasons to be explored in what follows, the known Earth species most skilled in Lounging – from most to least relaxed – are as follows: Cats, Bears, Apes, Dogs, Lizards, and Bureaucrats. So, will we be contacted through our cats? Nope, it’s gonna be BEARS. And here’s why.

CATS: The Buddha’s Buddhas

Whether sauntering through a jungle, sun-worshipping on the Serengeti, or just chilling out at your house right now, cats are the clear Lords of Lounging. There’s no lounging position they haven’t tried, individually or in groups, except for the new lounging positions, which they’re about to try as soon as they’re done napping. To be clear, lounging is not just resting, it is relaxing in style. All animals rest, but compare the stationary pose of a fly to the flopped out tummy love of a puppy litter in a fluffy pretzel puzzle. How is it that Lounging is the ultimate expression of intelligence? Here’s how, and cats embody it paradigmatically.

Lounging requires prior cognizance of NEGATION, in particular the negation of DOING SOMETHING. Ask any philosopher, east or west: perception can become knowledge only within the consciousness of nothingness. In a nutshell, it’s only when you know that you don’t know that you can know anything at all. And cats “get it.” Just as French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre declared: “Nothingness lies coiled at the heart of being – like a worm.” Similarly, cats lie coiled at the hearth of your house – like a genius. They’re not even paying rent. Even a Buddha has to spout doctrine to explain why it’s okay for him to do nothing but sit there all day. Meanwhile, the cat just DOES IT. Does what? NOTHING. And inaction is key. Any ol’ enlightened being can realize the futility of belief and knowledge. It takes balls – tiny, furry balls – to realize the futility of obligation and action. The supreme intelligence of cats shines through in the myriad, unbelievably cute expressions of futility that constitute the art of Lounging.

But will our feline fakirs be the astral avatars of the aliens? Actually, it’s not likely. Why not? Well, obviously, they’ve so perfected the ultimate craft of existence that they won’t accept the challenge. They’re way too smart to be the aliens’ errand-animals. That would be doing something. The aliens and their avatars will have to have some sense of obligation, while being otherwise relaxed, if they’re to understand Contact as being meaningful at all. That’s where the BEARS enter the picture, if slowly, ploddingly, and only after they’re done with winter hibernation.

BEARS: The Cats of the Caves

Like cats, bears love nothing more than doing nothing. But while cats expertly spread their laziness throughout the day, every day, bears unwisely reserve one part of the year for their lengthy absolute indulgence of inactivity, called hibernation, which means they must spend the rest of the year lumbering around grumpily trying to get shit done. Psychologically, this generates within the bear a feeling of obligation that is foreign to felines. Unlike cats, bears are haunted by the thought, “I gotta get off my fat ass and do something.” This sense of obligation, combined with their near mastery of Lounging, makes bears prime candidates for one day channeling our ultra-chill alien visitors. For bears, channeling aliens will end up as just another item on the Spring to-do list. So, in reality, you won’t be comparing “nip” notes with a cannabized cat, you’ll be keeping quiet about the fish-lipped joint a bear just passed back to you; and through that bear’s bloodshot eyes, an alien from another dimension will be zoning out on you.

Proof that all things balance out in the grand scheme of things, what began as an unbearable annual stop-and-go sleeping/working cycle, will become the bear’s saving grace, that is, once the aliens get here and start demanding that their earthly mediums get immaculately stoned. As the species chosen to inhale the cosmic chemical, bears will transform from grumpy growlers to happy, hedonic honey guzzlers. This coming transfiguration of the bear is presaged by the collective unconscious in our popular modern bear myths, from the placidly Taoist Winnie the Pooh to George Lucas’ blissfully baked alien-bear hybrids known as Wookies and Ewoks – make no mistake, these sentiently possessed interplanetary bears are so BLAZED out of their minds that they can’t even speak. Han Solo kept Chewbacca well-supplied.

The Teddy Bear explosion of the 20th century is just an intuitive anticipatory preparation for the eventual inebriation and domestication of the Wild Bear so that the Alien Contact High can be experienced universally in all households. If you don’t have a teddy bear hanging out in your home yet, it’s time to get one. It’s predicted that the impact of alien civilization will be so intense and thorough-going that the Bear Spirit will animate all bear representations in addition to the organisms themselves, from plush teddy bears to Paleolithic cave paintings. Some believe that this Bearable Lightness of Being is already underway. Why else do they call him Smokey the Bear? There’s no other explanation than that he’s possessed by a transdimensional extraterrestrial and that he’s super-paranoid about where he flicked his last roach. Only you can prevent forest fires, by smoking that thing until it’s gone.

Also, reconsider the lazily slow movements of Teddy Ruxpin, obviously in a pot haze going on and on about nothing until your children pass out. Ruxpin’s first story ever was called (no joke): “All About Bears: When is a Bear Not a Bear?” Answer: When it’s an alien with a chronic habit. And all this puts the Grateful Dead’s happy acid bears in a new light, and it’s a special black light, too, that’ll kick off some pretty heavy rainbow trails. Maybe the aliens have arrived already! So let’s grin and bear it and go lose our shit in the woods.

NOTE: Given the great importance of bears for reasons just described, expect future information on what is destined to be the most important Earth animal ever to exist.

The Energy Metaphor – Can You Feel It?

A Planarian Original Article

by G. Lee Young, PhD

Science has established a literal meaning for the concept of energy. In physics, energy is literally “the capacity to do work, such as the capacity to move an object by force.” Forms of energy include electrical, mechanical, chemical, thermal, and nuclear; and energy can be transferred from one form to another. Without a doubt, physics understands energy to be a real, measurable phenomenon that fits in predictable ways with a variety of other physical phenomena.

But in everyday language, and in spiritual explanation, the concept of energy finds further, if metaphorical, application. People, animals, objects, spaces, situations, etc., are all said to have energies that don’t clearly correspond to the scientifically recognized forms. What we have in mind when we say, for example, that a cathedral has a special energy, is the effect the place has on those who experience it. Presumably, that effect is not the result of electrical, mechanical or other kind of work the cathedral is performing on an observer, so is it legitimate to speak of energy at all here?

Put another way, if metaphor is a generally acceptable use of language, then why not in this case? Metaphor is popularly viewed as an aesthetic augmentation of linguistic expression, making poetic what would otherwise be dry description, but use of figurative language like metaphor causes discomfort for the science-minded when it goes beyond the poetic and aesthetic to the practical and cognitive. It’s fine to call a brave man “lion-hearted” if it’s clear no one will mistake this for literal description of the man’s vital organ, but reference to “qi energy” that flows throughout the body is enough to make the hard-minded squirm.

Recent theory on metaphor suggests, however, that metaphor plays an indispensable cognitive function in human conceptual life, and that this function of metaphor is more common, and more essential, than its poetic use. With their earliest publication Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson launched a research program that has exploded into an all-out re-visioning of human language and the human mind. They claim that even logical and scientific thought are understood metaphorically by logicians and scientists, but the metaphorical conceptualizations are performed so unconsciously and automatically that it goes unnoticed.

According to Lakoff and his research colleagues, metaphors are especially useful for cognition of phenomena that are otherwise hard to “grasp.” Take this last metaphor for instance – that Understanding is Grasping. What is understanding? What is this mental act or state? For that matter, what is the mind? The mind and its abilities are certainly realities we need to be able to talk about in intuitive ways, but what literally is the mind? Lacking a “concrete” way to refer to the mind, we resort to all kinds of metaphors that bring the topic of the mind within more comfortable cognitive reach. Of course, these metaphors can be taken only so far in normal use – saying that the mind can “grasp” is one thing, but to then begin talking about the mind’s five fingers would be more of a stretch, perhaps the stuff of poetry.

The Lakoff team (or, at this point, army) has undertaken an immense excavation project of all the unconscious metaphors we use in both everyday and specialized language. Included in their cataloguing of metaphors is the use of concepts like energy to describe phenomena that it’s a bit tougher to talk about directly or literally. For instance, take the metaphor that Emotions are Electromagnetic Forces, which gives us expressions like “She felt charged up with anxiety,” “I can feel the good vibrations,” and “He’s got a lot of negative energy.” Is there something unacceptable in talking metaphorically about “good vibes” and “negative energy”?

One concern might be that, since “energy” is a well-established scientific term, and the experience of literal energy is very much like the experience of what’s metaphorically described as energy, a pseudo-science will develop around the metaphorical use, so that the experience of “good vibes” and “negative [emotional] energy” will be thought consistent physically with literal energy, as if they are just another measurable transference of the real thing. This confusion is not as likely with the Understanding is Grasping metaphor – the mind is not mistaken even by the most gullible as really being just another kind of hand.

In everyday speak, “negative energy” can be used rather innocently with no deep theoretical claims being asserted, but in certain forms of New Age, paranormal, or occult explanation (“spiritual” explanation), the concept of “energy” gets brought into more exotic metaphysical frameworks to explain – not just metaphorically describe – hauntings, ESP, mental and physical health, auras, and the spiritual properties of people, places and objects, and so on.

Has the innocent metaphorical use of a scientific concept gotten out of control, or do these spiritualists have just as much license as scientists and poets to use the term as they see fit? And are we so certain spiritualists aren’t literally describing energy phenomena? If not, what’s wrong with imagining energy to be involved anyway, especially if there are no better concepts available? Or should we follow the commonly assumed rednering of Wittgenstein’s dictum: “Whereof one cannot [literally] speak, thereof one must be silent”? A thorough, balanced consideration of these and related questions might just be worth the energy.

For a less sympathetic view on the use of the concept of energy outside of established physics, follow the links beginning at Skeptic’s Dictionary online: http://www.skepdic.com/energy.html