Inside of mood

dark-soul-cloudsI recently read a book by Jonathan Rottenberg, who describes depression as part of the mammalian mood system. The human mood system is designed to drive and shape behaviour – it pushes us in positive directions and away from bad ones. For example, if a bear is fishing for salmon in a spot that is usually really good and no fish appear, that bear will experience frustration and unhappiness. This mood state will cause him to stop trying to fish in that spot and look for anther one. If he finds fish elsewhere, his mood system will reward him with positive emotions.

With humans, if you set yourself difficult-to-achieve goals, or undergo extreme stress, your mood system will shift downward. It’s trying to tell you something, but you may not be as in-tune with your moods as the bear is, and you may not listen. If not, the mood system will downshift your mood again and again, until eventually you either adjust your goals, or become totally incapacitated by your mood. If you don’t pay attention to low moods and learn from them, they will stop you in your tracks.

The mood system knows much more than we do. It has inside information on the health of our bodies, information that we don’t have access to. If, for example, we are deficient in an essential nutrient, or we are severely sleep-deprived, or we are being bombarded by too many demands, our mood system will take all of these elements into account. If we set crazy, unrealistic goals, our mood system will do everything it can to stop us, and turn us onto a better path.

We are sometimes like a frog in a pot of  water that has been set to boil – the water starts out cool, but over time, it gradually heats up until we are boiling. Our mood system knows that pot of water is going to boil eventually and, if necessary, it will scoop you out and toss you to safety, where you might lie for months, wondering why you feel so bad. But at least you’re alive! The mood system gives you signals meant to influence your choices so that you survive and even thrive.

While our mood system sees clearly, and sends us clear signals, our society often places greater value on other signals that override these vitally important ones. Many of these other signals come in the form of prescriptions – you should be successful; you should be happy; you should be rich; you should be thin; and so on.

To go back to the bear analogy – what if the bear could be convinced that if he just kept on fishing in the unproductive spot on the river, he would one day catch the biggest salmon ever? What if the bear believed that if he didn’t catch that salmon it is really his fault – that he wasn’t a good enough fisher? What if he thought he was weird for feeling depressed about his situation and then started worrying about not being happy?

If the bear listened to that kind of talk, he would probably persist in fishing at that unproductive bend in the river until eventually he became so depressed he had a nervous breakdown and crawled into a hole for a long time. When he came out later, he would hopefully find a better place to fish.

But here is the hard part: we don’t always know we are doing things that are dangerous to our well-being. As Rottenberg points out, we live in a time and place that is a perfect storm for low mood.

We hardly get any sunlight and spend all our time indoors. We get far too little sleep, on average. Our diet and exercise patterns are poor. And I would add that modern living forces us to synchronize our biological rhythms to a very fast-paced work world – we have to show up on time, every day, week after week, year after year. All of these factors, and many others, affect our mood.

For these reasons, Rottenberg says that we are now experiencing a depression epidemic. Depression may protect us from futile, often dangerous behaviours, but it is a very costly adaptation. Depression can be even more difficult to deal with than the situation that triggered it. To recover you need help from doctors, therapists, friends, family and often medications.

It is a very difficult, but productive process, where you learn about yourself and grow as a human being. By listening to depression, you discover yourself and the world anew. Ultimately, Rottenberg’s understanding of depression is a very optimistic one, because although he makes clear that there are many ways to become depressed, there are also a great many ways to recover from it, and all of them offer the potential for growth and renewal.

Keep calm and wear a red suit

I just read an article about how Facebook can cause depression – at the very least, it tends to make people feel they are missing out. And it’s true – as I take in the sometimes carefully-curated FB profiles of my connections, I will inevitably feel I am less: less interesting, less connected, less successful.

ImageI quit Facebook a while ago, but set up camp there once more, this time with a completely open profile, with no security settings. I did this in part because I wanted to use the FB feed to follow news and features – I find the feed easier to use that Twitter – and because FB is the only way I stay in touch with certain friends and family who live overseas or across the country. The lack of security settings is to ensure that I don’t forget that there isn’t really any privacy to be had online, and there is no point in posting a bunch of photos of your kids in the bath and then fiddling with the security settings, thinking they provide any real protection. Better not to post those images at all.
Red Gi

However, recently I was feeling really excited about my progress in Karate, which I study at Douvris Martial Arts, in the west end of Ottawa with my senseis Fortunato and Domenic Aversa. I took a couple of photos of me in my gi and with Fortunato and posted them on FB. But doing so did not give me the chance to write the narrative that goes with those images: the story of how, after many years of “one step forward, two steps back,” I have finally started to get back into real physical shape – ten years of struggling to raise a child, and deal with asthma, weight gain, and stressful work schedules. This real story might reassure Facebookers seeing the images that I don’t have a perfect life, and I don’t sail through my days wearing a red suit and smiling.

Most people in my country and in western countries in general live with hectic, sometimes crushing schedules and stress related to work, family and finances.

And after the years of freedom I spent as a university student, I really expected better, and I was disappointed! It has not been an easy lesson, learning that as an adult, you always have to choose – will it be a house with a mortgage in town, or an apartment, which is more affordable? Will it be a house in the suburbs and a long commute, but you don’t have to work as much? Regardless of the choice it’s not really easy. Who knew that when I was a student and travelling around the country becoming a writer and an activist, I was really just preparing myself to get a job sitting all day in a cubicle with no windows? I mean some of the work in those grey-walled cubes has been interesting, but still. But I could do an activist job, or freelance…and then we could sell our centrally-located house near my son’s school, five minutes from transit! Ah well, such is life. Not much likelihood of finding a job as a feature writer making good coin. Not these days. Not unless you’re a well-established yuppie like Margaret Wente. But I’m not bitter.

But Karate makes it so worthwhile – having the chance to learn something beautiful, difficult and challenging with the two most humble teachers in the world, with a bunch of fascinating people ranging in age from 10 to 70, with professions as diverse as rocket scientist, doctor, boxing coach, programmer, patent researcher, violist, writer.

 

quappelle_valley_saskatchewan_WV04599

The Qu’appelle Valley: one of the stunningly beautiful places I visited in my youth, the better to disappoint me during endless hours in cubicles.

Inside the snow globe

In Being Human, ghosts are like snow. Like embracing someone who’s just come inside on a cold day. They bring grey sky in the door, and the clean air; they etch you with frost and ice crystals, making your cheeks red and your breath into clouds.

A ghost opens your door and shows you light shining through. She turns your lamps on at night and burns out your light bulbs. Blows the fuse in the bathroom. Boils pot after pot of water on your stove, making herself at home on the chesterfield. Full cups of tea appear all over the house. You look out the window at the full moon; it’s come down from the sky to inhabit you.snow globe

Mitchell tells Annie her lips are cold, a bit tingly, like kissing someone who just came in from outside. Mitchell knows Annie’s in the house. He feels a cold draught under the door; sees her by the window, colour of the moon. He’s burning up with memories of blood; all the people he’s left for dead in abandoned buildings and empty fields. They’re boiling over. Dripping down his skin. Faces of his victims press against the inside of his skull. Voices in the drains at night. He’s a twisting, moving fire.

He reaches for Annie. She soothes him with her cooling touch. He covers himself in her colours—grey and white, winter in the city: starlight and streetlight shining on paths of snow between the cinderblock buildings. She’s nighttime and the moon’s unblinking gaze.

Annie wonders, will she drift through the house forever? She’s so light she doesn’t even dent the cushions; she has no place in this world or the next. She looks through open doors and sees light, but no welcome. How long will it be? How long by the window, looking out? 

Mitchell says
Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called?
Snowstorms.
Yeah, ’bout so big, glass?
No, they’re called snowstorms.
Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.

That’s what Annie’s like, her translucent body. The world shifts and stirs in her, a frenzy of colour and sound. Outside, she hears footsteps on the walkway. Tires screeching in the road. Voices rising over the walls. Then everything settles once more into a cool bank of snow, shining in the streetlight, enveloping the world, cooling its fevers.

The Hubris of Systems

One of the reasons Edward Snowden managed to collect thousands of sensitive documents from the NSA and then escape overseas, is because the NSA’s greatest weakness is its overconfidence in the strength and predictability of its systems—both its  information technology systems and its organizational systems.

Systems are self-contained, predictable, perform specific roles and fulfill pre-defined requirements. The creators, implementers and maintainers of systems tend to conflate human beings with systems themselves. Systems are not capable of originality; they do not act in the world.

The NSA and other surveillance organizations rely on monolithic and consistently patterned systems in order to ensure predictability and prevent outside actions from disturbing the flow of information collection and analysis.

The NSA’s weakness and blind spot is its inability to consider the possibility that an individual from within could act out and disrupt the system by allowing the outside world to enter in – a world that is anti-systematic and disruptive.

In an article about Russia’s decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Julia Ioffe says: “[The Russians] assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind.”

She says that this statement applies equally well to the US in relation to Russia. It is also a good description of hubristic nature of massive spy organizations like the NSA.

Edward Snowden’s actions are a beautiful example of the capacity of human beings to create new beginnings by acting in the world in a wholly new and unpredictable way:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The potential that each person has to introduce new possibilities into the world is a threat to massive information systems. These systems rely on limiting unpredictable actions and behaviour. Such disruptions are perceived by the system as malfunctions or new elements that must be subsumed and stripped of their uniqueness.

Ed Snowden broke ranks with his fellow system maintainers: “…one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” -Hannah Arendt

Laughing too soon: the joke of online privacy

For the last few years, my routine has been to wake early, make coffee and spend time on social media networks – reading articles, commenting on friend’s photos, discussing my favourite subjects on blogs.

By the time  Edward Snowden’s first interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras was released, I had embraced social media completely: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Linkedin, Gmail, tumblr and Skype. I probably clicked on the link to his interview from my FB or Twitter feed.

The stickers on Ed Snowden’s laptop: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TorProject

I knew from early on that these platforms were not really free, that we pay for them by giving online advertisers access to our personal information. And we know that governments spy on us. But learning the extent of this spying from someone who had seen it up close and personal really jarred me. Knowing the details of how the spying is done made me start thinking a lot more about corporate surveillance too.

All of a sudden I was keenly aware of how my actions were being monitored whenever I was online, and how much personal detail I had made public: the names and details of my husband, son, a great many relatives and most of my friends, where I am in time and space, the name of my bank, my favourite coffee, my birth date, blood type, eye colour, favourite writers, political views, religious preferences or lack thereof – almost everything.

Hearing Edward Snowden tell us in detail how our privacy is a joke was the stone that started the landslide. My denial about the impact of my online activities on my privacy and my relationships with others has come to an end. I started changing my online behaviour. I started to feel very angry. I should not have to  be censor what I say online to avoid “incriminating” myself.

I should be able to share my personal life online according to my own wishes, and not those of corporations and governments. Constant surveillance and data collection have consequences. These activities threaten our freedom and degrade our public spaces and dialogue. They undermine our humanity. They make a joke out of civil rights.

As a left-leaning writer with an activist past, I have always doubted that I would be given top-secret clearance, even if I applied. I do have a couple of friends with top-secret clearance, so I realize that working for the government in that capacity does not have to mean you defer entirely to authority. But I very much doubt you could openly protest the activities of the spy agency or department you work for and keep your clearance for very long.

I suppose a weakness of spy agencies like the Communications Security Establishment Canada or the National Security Agency in the digital age is that they need computer experts who are on the cutting edge to hack technologies for them, and most of those folks are young guys who may not have completely worked out their moral and political life yet. The danger is that some of them will have an awakening and turn on their masters, which brings us to Edward Snowden.

Ed Snowden joined the NSA when he was very young and over the course of eight years gained access to some of the Agency’s  more sensitive information. Snowden’s inner moral and political awakening to the NSA’s abuse of power was gradual:

When you’re in positions of privileged access…you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale then the average employee and because of that, you see things that may be disturbing, but over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances.

When you see everything, and you see it on a more frequent basis, you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses…

…[O]ver time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it… until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”

Unlike Snowden, my moral and political life has continued on its early trajectory. I have never trusted spy organizations, and would never accept a position working with CSEC or CSIS, even if it were offered.

Just the same, Snowden’s revelations have given me the chance to deepen my own moral and political perspective. I have woken up to the reality that I have, effectively, no privacy, and even though I have left Facebook, dumped gmail and encrypted my hard-drive, the genie is out of the bottle and my actions now are just damage control.

To illustrate what I mean by this loss of privacy, consider Facebook. We all know it’s free because the company makes its money selling advertising on the site. So we accept that in exchange for the ability to use this platform that lets us connect with friends, relatives and others around the world, we will have to put up with a certain amount of advertising.

And if that were the case, I would be okay with it. It would be a fair exchange, perhaps. But that is not what is going on.

Richard Stallman says Facebook is a surveillance machine, and most of the technology created by big corporations is designed to track and surveil its users. At first, I thought he was paranoid, or extreme. But the more I think about it, this conclusion seems inescapable. As Bruce Stirling puts it:

“Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google et al, they are all…intelligence assets posing as commercial operations. They are surveillance marketers. They give you free stuff in order to spy on you and pass that info along the value chain. Personal computers can have users, but social media has livestock.”

When you set up camp on Facebook and build your virtual apartment there, you become part of a community that is inside a transparent bubble. You create a profile to represent yourself to, and connect with, people you have chosen to have in your network - your audience, in a sense.  But in reality, your Facebook profile is actually transmitting information about your desires, interests, habits, work activities, location, family relationships, political and spiritual views to advertisers, third-party applications, data miners and governments.

On Facebook, my network is not my audience. My network and I are on stage together. The audience is made up of organizations, positioned outside the observation bubble, that analyze everything about us in order to better sell us products and services and predict all our preferences and behaviour. And lurking in that audience are spies, quietly collecting information about our friends and family, our political views, our connections and affiliations and all our movements from day to day and year to year, on behalf of powerful  governments.

Facebook’s so-called privacy is a setup whereby you create your own password key, which you use to enter into your compartment within the transparent bubble in order to visit your carefully selected network of people and organizations. This network mostly shares your views, or at a minimum, doesn’t disrupt your worldview too much.

Privacy in this sense means that you get to choose which inhabitants of the bubble can view the contents of your compartment. But you have no control over what the watchers on the outside of the bubble are able to see. In this sense, Facebook privacy (and most likely online privacy in general) is a joke.

But unfortunately, the joke doesn’t end there. We started laughing at the absurdity of our situation a bit too soon. According the Guardian:

“The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.”

Given the extent of NSA access to user information stored on servers by Google, Facebook, Apple, Skype, etc., we can assume that the NSA and its partners have the keys to some of our online spaces too. It was not enough to watch through the  observation bubble along with the corporations and the data miners. The spies have entered our rooms and secretly taken up residence under the bed. It is thanks to Edward Snowden that we now know the depth and breadth of our exposure online.

If you are an American, you have at least a chance of reining in the NSA. But if you are from outside the US, as I am, you can’t expel these spies. You have to close down the rooms where they lurk.  Stop using these “free” social media and email services – close down your Facebook and cloud accounts, switch to a paid email service that respects privacy, and use other social media platforms with caution, if at all.

If we decide to maintain a presence in the virtual spaces of social media, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are safe and won’t be targeted by our governments’ spy agencies as long as we do and say nothing wrong – the notion that you don’t need to worry if you have nothing to hide.

We have revealed so much online that all our essential details and connections are known. If  an agency decides I am a person of interest (as Greenwald and Poitras are), or that I am connected to one, that organization already has everything it needs to portray my innocent, innocuous activities and friendships as nefarious, dishonest and questionable.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could connect with each other online using platforms that allow us to privately and freely befriend each other and exchange ideas, dreams and interests. Our governments have an obligation to protect the freedom of these online spaces because these spaces are essential to freedom of expression and freedom of movement, liberties that underpin democracy.

Our defence against surveillance and the invasion of privacy lies offline, in the parliaments of our countries where policies about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are determined.

An open letter from within glass walls

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: marchwinds@hushmail.com
Date: Tue, Jul 16 at 09:53 AM (UTC)
Subject: A few words of support
To: edsnowden@lavabit.com

Hi Ed Snowden,

Since your email address appeared on the Web, you’ve probably been inundated with emails from people around the world. Or maybe people are afraid to write, knowing that you’re very closely monitored, and not wanting to lose their ability to cross borders. I am writing anyway!

Thank you for the risk you are taking. Listening to the interviews that Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras did with you inspired me greatly. Much of the focus in the US media has been on how the US government is spying on US citizens, and there has been little concern about their spying on citizens of other countries. A typically insular perspective.

As a net-connected Canadian, I am very active on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linkedin and WordPress. I have known since I joined these platforms that I pay for these services with some of my personal information.

But when I saw the documents you released, I realized just how compromised these online services really are. My passwords are keys to
rooms with glass walls, and on display is everything about me.

Having realized this, I have deactivated my icloud account, removed most of my photos from Facebook, encrypted my hard drive, moved all my backup data to a terabyte hard drive in the basement (gotta encrypt that) and opened a HushMail account (with the intention of eventually deleting my gmail account). I have also turned off location services on my phone and beefed up its password.

Really, it’s kind of too late for me and most social media users since we have already allowed so much information about ourselves to be made public. As an activist, I have a great many connections to aboriginal and climate activists so have probably been on lists for years anyway.

Everyone says that it’s no problem that governments have access to our personal and private information, because as long as we’re not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to worry about. Sounds crazy to me. If you weren’t Jewish, Slavic, Communist, gay, handicapped, etc., then you were safe in Nazi Germany. Right up until you were added to the long list of so-called wrongdoers.

It is clear to me that you love your country very much. Probably more than most of your American detractors (ironically). The current government of my country is very conservative, and very much in the pocket of the US government. Having travelled to Iceland, I have also considered moving there! But it’s almost impossible to immigrate if you are not a part of the EU, and my Icelandic friends tell me their current government is quite conservative also. And anyway, I still love my home, even if the government is terrible at the moment.

I wrote a blog post about your activities:

http://marchwinds.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/a-man-of-conscience-is-a-rare-thing/

If you need anything from a Canadian, and it won’t get me arrested, let me know! If it will get me arrested, let me know anyway and I’ll see what I can do.

I wish you safe travels and pray that you find a safe home.

Jennifer