Sounds (like Trouble?)

This morning two posts about sound came up on my Tumblr feed. This one from Writing Prompts:

And this one from the On Being Blog: Sounds of Silence. The first post is a writing prompt that a teacher uses to inspire his junior high school students. While I don’t always like the prompts that he tumblrz (anyone using this as a verb?), I did really like this one. My quick answer: wind in the trees/reminds me of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For as long as I can remember, the sound of wind blowing through trees, especially aspens, like the ones that were on my family’s farm near Amasa, Michigan, makes me feel joyful and calm and content. Does this mean this sound makes me feel untroubled? What does that say about my desire to (almost) always stay in trouble? Hmmm….

The second Tumblr post is from On Being, the NPR “project delving into the human side of news stories + issues.” This post is about silence and how it has become increasingly difficult, with noise pollution and “human noise intrusion,” to listen to some of the quieter sounds emanating from nature.

It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may. Long before the noises of mankind, there were only the sounds of the natural world. Our ears evolved perfectly tuned to hear these sounds-sounds that far exceed the range of human speech or even our most ambitious musical performances: a passing breeze that indicates a weather change, the first birdsongs of spring heralding a regreening of the land and a return to growth and prosperity, an approaching storm promising relief from a drought, and the shifting tide reminding us of the celestial ballet. All of these experiences connect us back to the land and to our evolutionary past.

While I don’t like the language that the author of this post, Gordon Hempton, uses to describe these quieter sounds of nature (It seems a bit too essentializing to me; it reinforces a rigid division/binary between humans and nature; and it envisions the “natural environment” as primarily a resource for us to use and from which to “take whatever meanings we may.”), I appreciate his emphasis on the value of being quiet(er) and our need to listen beyond ourselves.

I also like the idea of being quiet. As someone with two kids, one of which is (like me as a kid) exceptionally LOUD, I find that my tolerance for loud noise is rapidly depleting. A cacophony of sounds may excite and stimulate some, maybe even inspiring or provoking them into staying in trouble, but it usually only produces unhelpful anxiety in me.

In the second half of the post, Hempton discusses the one square inch project, a “sanctuary for silence at Olympic National Park.” To “protect and manage the natural soundscape in Olympic Park,” one square inch of land, about a two hour hike into the backcountry, is marked off and managed as the quietest place in the United States. Cool. I’d like to go there…someday.

I love really quiet places. One of the quietest places that I’ve found in Minneapolis is the parking garage at the downtown library. It’s awesomely quiet. What’s so “natural” about that space, you may ask? I’m not sure, but what is nature/natural anyway? Should we imagine such a strict division between natural and constructed. I don’t think so. In pondering these questions, I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a recent book that explores the biodiversity of urban environments (and the resiliency of non-human life forms?) but I can’t remember the title and my google searches are coming up empty.

I want to put all of this discussion of the value of being quiet(er) and my appreciation of calm, peaceful sounds like the wind in the trees, BESIDE some other sounds that I’ve been valuing lately: Room 34’s music. His music is great as a soundtrack to my various troubling digital videos. In my three recent videos, posted on Vimeo–Student Progress Report: Undisciplined Account; Stories from the UP; and TROUBLE, an introduction–I’ve used Room 34’s music, from several different albums, to help set a troubling mood. Here are screen shots of my credits from each video:

You couldn’t call any of the songs that I’ve used from Room 34 as nature-filled/natural (he uses synth sounds and smartphone music apps) or peaceful and calming (most of them are quite unsettling). Yet, his music is usually quiet/fairly subdued and often joyful. Well, to me, at least. Every time I hear “Wood, Metal and Transistors” at the end of TROUBLE, an introduction, it makes me laugh (maybe giggle is a better word?). 

His music helps me to convey a contemplative and uneasy mood for many of my stories. I think I’m using his music partly to unsettle my own impulses to create stories that are easy and that just (that is, uncritically) “feel good.” And I’m using his music to (hopefully) encourage others to not easily consume my stories, but to think about and react to them.

In reflecting on it more, I think I’m also using his music because it has a haunting quality; the electronic layers of sounds always seem to be hinting at something deeper and darker that necessarily exists beside the joy we may be experiencing. I like that idea; Room 34’s music enables me to realize aurally (is there a sound equivalent for “visualize”?) contradictory emotions beside each other, emotions like joy and grief/happiness and sorrow.

The trouble with pop accounts of scientific studies

A few nights ago, while reading through my Flipboard on the iPad, I came across this article: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are brain candy, study says. I was immediately suspicious. So I decided to find the actual study to which they were referring. This, of course, made my brain hurt; as a humanities person, I am still struggling to make sense of scientific methodology and approaches. But, I read through it anyway.

In the study, Disclosing Information about the self is intrinsically rewarding, researchers out of Harvard (Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell) completed a series of 5 experiments involving self-disclosure. While I could try to summarize their introductory description and hypothesis, I think it might be safer to just let them explain:

Studies of human conversation have documented that 30–40% of everyday speech is used to relay information to others about one’s private experiences or personal relationships (1–4), and recent surveys of Internet use indicate that upwards of 80% of posts to social media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences (5). Although other primates do not generally attempt to communicate to others what they know—for example, by pointing out interesting things or modeling behaviors for others to imitate— by 9 mo of age, human children begin trying to draw others’ attention to aspects of the environment that they find important (6), and adults in all societies make consistent attempts to impart their knowledge to others (7). Recently, a number of commentators have argued that such unusually high rates of disclosure derive from a species-specific motivation to share one’s beliefs and knowledge about the world (6, 7), suggesting that our species may have an intrinsic drive to disclose thoughts to others.

Here’s their hypothesis:

This account suggests the following hypothesis: To the extent that humans are motivated to propagate the products of their minds, opportunities to disclose one’s thoughts should be experienced as a powerful form of subjective reward. Here, across five studies, we used a combination of neuroimaging and cognitive methods to demonstrate empirical support for this possibility.

Well, maybe I should try to put this into my own words. After completing five different experiments, all of which involved analyzing the “neural regions in the brain associated with reward,” when subjects were disclosing information to self and to others, the scientists concluded that, just like wanting food or sex, people intrinsically want to share. And they share because it stimulates the reward center of the brain (as opposed to sharing for advantage or to be liked or for well-being). The scientists conclude their short paper by suggesting that this desire to share speaks to the “extreme sociality of our species” (5).

As I think more about this study, I am (at least a little) intrigued. It’s interesting to think through the neurological reasons why we might have a desire to share ideas, experiences, knowledge with others. I’m glad that I read the actual study instead of just the pop piece in the LA Times. While this study uses their conclusions to point to our desire to share and our fundamental sociality, the LA Times piece (mis)uses the study in order to explain why people might perpetually (and counfoundingly) overshare online. They write:

So perhaps all this explains the confounding behavior of people who over-share on the Internet, even to their detriment. (Think criminals who get arrested after bragging about their crimes on Facebook, the teenage girl whose online venting about her chores led to her dad shooting her laptop, the guy who almost went to jail for complaining about his wife.)

Really? What are they suggesting with this flippant statement? Don’t blame these idiots who share too much online; it’s their brains fault?! What a waste of an article and a study….

The more I think about, the more curious (or the curiouser?) I get about this study and its implications. In one of the experiments, they tested what difference it made in the reward center of the brain between subjects who revealed information about themselves privately, with the guarantee that no one else would ever see it, and subjects who revealed information about themselves publicly, sometimes with someone else in the room. Researchers determined that sharing publicly stimulated the reward center more. I wonder, does it make any difference whether or not they get a reaction (an affirmation? some feedback? a question?) from others? Is the reward center stimulated even more when there’s engagement? Is it the act of public self-disclosure alone that is intrinsic? Or could it be the social exchange, the process of sharing and engaging, that is intrinsic? I might be reaching too far with my questions. However, as I think through my own use of social media and the real and imagined audiences that I have when I share, I wonder what motivates my interest in expressing and engaging publicly?

Twitter, Care and Mother’s Day

Ever since my mom died–well, actually, ever since she got really sick–mother’s day has been hard. And, surprisingly, I never expect it to be. I’ve spent a lot of time developing ways to live beside my grief for my mom. And, as I’ve suggested on this blog and in my latest digital video about this blog, I’ve shifted a lot of my recent focus away from grieving over her loss and towards celebrating (her) life. Yet, even though I feel like I’ve come to some sort of peace with her death, I still woke up yesterday with that unsettled, irritable feeling that made me just want to be alone. When I feel this way, I don’t always immediately read it as grief. Grief is supposed to be waves of sadness and feelings of loss, right? Maybe not; my grief rarely comes in those forms.

According to J Butler (whom I’ve written about a lot on this blog), grief is about coming undone:

I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, aproject, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. …Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (Undoing Gender, 18)?

In my case, what took hold yesterday morning were waves of irritation, anger, intolerance and a strong sense of coming undone as a mother, especially a mother without a mother. Luckily the feeling didn’t last that long, and much of the rest of the day–a beautiful one at a baseball game–was good. But, it always helps me to remember that Mother’s Day, much like my mom’s birthday or the day that she died, will probably always be difficult. And in ways that I might never be able to anticipate.

As I was reading through my twitter feed right before bed last night, I came across lots of RTs (retweets) by Xeni Jardin from people who were grieving because of cancer on mother’s day (kids who had lost their moms to cancer, or moms who had lost their kids to cancer, or moms who were living with cancer, etc). Jardin started the series with this tweet:

You can check out many of the tweets on this storify by Josh Sterns. What a powerful series of tweets! As I read through them, I was reminded of how I’m not alone and that plenty of people were having the same trouble I was with mother’s day.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about Xeni Jardin and her use of twitter to practice an ethics of care. Since that post, Jardin’s use of twitter in relation to (her) cancer has continued to involve multiple caring practices. Her tweets on mother’s day are just one more example.

the greatest hits: year three, may 2011-april 2012

My 300th post! It’s one day before the third anniversary and I’m counting down my greatest hits and some of my most memorable posts. I’ve already posted on year one and year two. Today, it’s year three: may 2011-april 2012.

greatest hits

1. oh bother: fitness ads for women/ october 2011/ 201 hits
2. oh bother! the today show takes on gender-neutral parenting/ May 27, 2011/ 178 hits
3. On privilege/ November 30, 2011/ 123 hits
4. What does it mean to engage? Part One/ August 22, 2011/ 108 hits
5.  I was 7 in 1981/ December 19, 2011/ 105 hits
6. oh bother! or, don’t bother? mansplaining and whitesplaining, the gene marks edition/ December 16, 2011/ 99 hits

some favorite posts

1. More Twitter Hatin’ and Conflatin’/ May 28. 2011
I had a lot of fun writing this post. It signals a turn on this blog to (even) more writing and thinking about twitter, troublemaking and ethics. This post served as a foundation for a paper proposal on twitter and ethics that was eventually published earlier this year.

2. Troublemaking? Is there an app for that?/ July 25, 2011
Last summer I came up with the idea of developing a troublemaking app, or at least hacking/troubling other apps–that is, using the apps in ways that they aren’t intended to be using for virtuous troublemaking goals. I love this project and hope to get back to it soon. Ha!

3. Who Cares? I Do/ August 1, 2011
This post describes yet another research/thinking/creating project that I’m interested in. It links troublemaking, feminist ethics of care, virtue ethics, Foucault,  self-help literature and blogs/social media. Linking these all together is a key way I’m thinking (and hope to writing soon) about social media, trouble and ethics. I like my description of how I’ve been shaped by self-help literature and ideas (via my dad):

Self-help books and products (smartphone apps, websites, etc) are promoted as ways to care for your Self. In some ways, I was raised on self-help speak. Not by my mom; she liked to tell family stories and talk about literature, American history and art. But by my dad. An ordained Lutheran pastor with an MBA (and a PhD in church history with a dissertation on Finnish radicals, unions and copper mining in the upper peninsula of Michigan–what an interesting mix, huh?), he didn’t just read self-help books (a couple favorites: The Power of Positive ThinkingChicken Soup for the SoulDon’t Sweat the Small Stuff) he used their slogans to shape our family traditions. Every Christmas he would ask us to go around the table and answer: What 3 things did you accomplish this year? What 3 things do you want to accomplish in the upcoming year? I must confess that I liked this tradition, which ended a few years before my mom died, even as I dislike self-help books and their simplistic, business-oriented frameworks. I am not interested in using self-help logic (framework/language) in my articulation of troublemaking as a form of (self)care. However, I do need to come to terms with how self-help literature has shaped my thinking by engaging with it directly. Plus, I like making trouble for self-help (by disrupting it, playing with it, uprooting it) because I see its production of easy, soundbite answers that encourage us to stop thinking and just start doing as having seriously harmful effects for critical and creative thinking, feeling and engaging.

4. Live-tweeting halloween (the movie) with @room34 (STA)/ November 2, 2011
So much fun! A yearly tradition, perhaps?

There are so many more I could add here. One thing that I noticed as I scrolled through my 300 posts over 3 years is that I was a lot more playful with this blog in year one. I wrote a lot more about pop culture and tracking various representations of trouble. Why is that? Do I want to go back to that particular version of playfulness? Much of year two was focused on dealing with my mom’s death and with my struggles to keep enjoying teaching. In year three, my playfulness turned into experiments on other forms of social media, like Smartphone Apps, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, Vimeo and Storify. What will I do in year 4? I wonder…