Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soccer, Media & the Culture of Restraint

Soccer, or more accurately football, is my first game. I played in high school, college, and with club teams. I began my training on the streets of North London with a tennis ball. This proved excellent for hand/eye co-ordination.

I realized long ago, even with the gutsy attempt by Pele in 1975, that soccer was not America's cup-of-tea, though I marvel at progress in youth soccer, especially for young women.  My guess is that professional soccer does not appeal to the American sports psyche that demands much more muscle, bombast, and smash mouth. I am not talking about civility and aesthetics here. British soccer attracts its share of louts and miscreants who would be right at home at many tail gate parties in America. When my father took me to Arsenal games, he occasionally asked me to cover my ears because the chants of the crowd were so brutal. And not so long ago the derogatory racial chants in English football stadiums should have shamed the nation.

So soccer has its brutish, loutish, shadow side.  History is filled with accounts from Britain and around the world of crowds rioting in soccer stadiums. I shared too many trips with soccer fans on the ferry from London to France and back to understate how badly behaved these fans can be. No wonder they have been banned from attending matches in Europe on more than one occasion. 

Soccer might have its divinities but its not exactly like going to church. I find myself returning to that shrine called Premier League Football, primarily to watch Tottenham (where I went to school) and Arsenal (where I lived) and resolve the psychic tension I have been wearing all these years. I assume young New Yorkers are faced with the same panic when deciding betwen the Yankees and the Mets. Maybe not.

The other day I watched on Fox Soccer a Football Association Cup quarterfinal game between Tottenham and Bolton. Through halftime the game was fast, tight, and tied 1-1.  A few minutes before halftime Bolton player Fabrice Muamba fell face down on the pitch. Soccer players fall all the time but not in this manner. The camera showed a player trying to turn him over on his back but failed. Then it became clear that this was not a usual soccer "dive" that players often exaggerate, hoping to draw a penalty.

This was different. Medics rushed onto the pitch and started chest compressions. The crowd became silent; some in tears as the reality set in. The announcers by and large held their tongues. Cameras did not focus on the events in mid-field, except for showing a long, shadowy view. After about ten minutes Muamba was carried off the field while the medics continued to perform chest compressions.

The crowd chanted his name. The players from both sides seemed stunned. The game was "abandoned" as was at least the next scheduled match. Football officials and sites such as ESPN provided sparse information. There were some complaints on social media about this lack of information. One post suggested that, if this had happened in the US, Muamba would have gotten a round of applause and the game continued. His team might have worn black arm bands for the following match. Life goes on.

NPR Radio suggested this was unusual behavior for the often rabid British football fan and the outpouring of religious goodwill a little surprising given England's very secular status. Whether the crowd had its own intimations of mortality one can only guess. But the fans behaved well, Fox Soccer behaved well, and the local press behaved well. After all, it was only a game.

Most impressive to me was the respectly media silence after someone has suffered cardiac-arrest on national television and in plain view. Fox made no attempt to drag in a medical specialist to explain what had just happened. No mikes pushed in faces.

Fabrice Muamba, a very fit 23-year-old, had a heart attack and was near death.

And millions knew it and showed it.

(At this writing the Associated Press reports that Mr. Muamba is breathing independently and showing "encouraging signs").

(As of this writing Muamba

Friday, March 16, 2012

Health, Pink Slime, and the Making of Soul

So I learned today that male fruit flies shunned by their female counterparts are attracted to food that is spiked with alcohol. This is courtesy of the Journal Science. The finding makes a great deal of sense. When a man's March Madness bracket collapses or he gets dumped or realizes that he had been caught in a Mother Complex all his woeful adult years, he probably turns to booze. Probably should turn to booze.

Earlier in my career I wrote health articles and books for a number of publishers, including Prevention magazine. I wrote about what I knew and didn't know. As a runner I was comfortable writing about the activity. How can I forget the first sentence of an unremarkable article: "Like a deer I told myself so quick and nimble was my gait." I must have been reading Wordsworth and chasing his cloud on my daily trot. My chief editor forgave this mix of hyperbole and vanity and let me keep my job another day. Thanks Mark.

For another piece I nosed around pharmacies in Bethlehem and Allentown, Pa., asking people about their drug purchases. Some actually provided the information, apparently unaware that there must have been a HIPPA law for journalists.  Legal restraint didn't prevent me from writing a self-indulgent piece, "Under a Rainbow of Drugs." At that time I hadn't introduced myself to the pharmaceutical industry who would later become my new best friend.

I was on even less solid ground when writing about use of the trace element selenium to protect against prostate cancer, though that is what the medical literature suggested at the time. And therein is the rub. Sorry guys.

Prevention got an early and healthy leg up on the competition, such as it was, by subscribing to the dozens of available medicals journals available at the time. We mined this gold and used it to bring new, topical advice to milllions of readers in a timely manner fit for Middle America. But this kind of insight and editorial policy was a breakthrough and became a basis for Rodale's powerful health franchise.

But that was then. Now everyone gets the journals in digital form on the same day and we can all pontificate about trending fruit flies or why men's brains change organically when a woman enters the room. The more thing change, the more I stay the same.

I am reading a book, One Hundred Years of Therapy and the World Is Getting Worse," by Dr. James Hillman. The recently-deceased Hillman is a provocateur and occasional thorn in the side of Freudian and Jungian psychotherapists. But his provocation has a purpose. In his opinion Freud and Jung, both products of the 19th century and who knew something about neurosis, tied therapy too closely to the science-of-the day, to the detriment of soul (psyche = soul). So we have the Id, Ego, and Superego--whatever they mean--and little time for other aspects of psyche, including creativity, the imagination, and even a healthy appreciation of death. Think of B.F. Skimmer and company. But at least we have the pharmaceuticals to help us over to the other side.

I rarely watch the network evening news having long ago realized that all the stories are basically the same, no matter who is sitting in the anchor chair. And TMZ happens to broadcast in the same time slot.  But I broke my own rules the other night and wandered from ABC, to NBC, to CBS. I can't remember a single story but remember all the pharmaceutical advertising, confirming that my expensive sales training is finally paying off.  Though I wasn't employing a set-top box I think every major advertisement on the three networks was from pharmaceutical companies, whether to counter gas, indigestion or RA.  Advertising for Cymbalta and other anti-depression drugs hang over the evening news like a dark could and must tell us something about the American psyche. Throw in sleep medications, usually delivered on angel wings, and we are really in trouble. The key is in not listening to the Rosseau-like fable and watching graphics that celebrate the brand but to the sobering list of side effects that roll off the narrator's tongue like water over perfectly timed rocks. I know; it's just advertising. But I also know dealth when I hear, smell and see it.

I don't know the intended demographics but assume, given the profitable love affair with pharma, the networks must be talking primarily to the Baby Boomers who are quickly aging here. Dr. Hillman has suggested that psychotherapy, including the "inner child" movement, has created a population of self-centered. juvenile adults who are riding into the sunset on their comfortable solipsism. Seventy is the new fifty. This allows me much more time to be Peter Pan and go the way of the fruit fly.

The democratization of health and fitness coverage is an abolute blessing and is hardly restricted to America.  But you don't have to ride the #1 train in the Bronx to realize that we are going on fifty years of the health and fitness movement and parts of our world are getting worse.  New York is probably more aggressive and in-your-face about serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart problems and this effort is indeed salutary.  The #1 train is itself a gallery of warnings and what some would call the accoutrements of the Nanny state.

Hillman might suggest this is only half the problem. The real issue is the state of our food, the structure of our neighborhoods, and loss of a sense of place. The Bronx is a perfect example of an area that  has been violated by the network of highways that have sliced mainly low income areas, the inaccessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the sheer danger of walking in a city that prides itself in being a "walking city."

Pink slime, that odorous side product of industrial meat production, is getting a lot of attention lately, thanks to an attentive social media population who have turned up their noses at this offering, largely because the pink slime slop is fed to school students.

Perhaps it's better that this concoction does not go away so fast. If we keep it under our noses for a bit longer, we might realize this is not only about the texture of my sloppy, Sloppy Joe. It also tells us something about the world a lot of us live in.

Hillman suggests we get back our animal noses and move out of the perfumed gym.

He calls this soul-making.

This might be a good and healthy start.


Friday, March 9, 2012

The Psychology of Technology

At least three million people have watched the video of a father shooting his daughter's laptop with a 45 mm revolver because she had posted a disparaging message on her "hidden" Facebook wall. Not hidden enough because her IT father found it and took sweet, if un-fatherly, revenge by shooting the computer with nine exploding hollow point rounds, one apparently for each transgression. Whether he knew nine was a symbolic number and highly charged, one can't be sure. He certainly knows cats have nine lives and maybe that Dante's Divine Comedy had nine circles. If so he might have sentenced his daughter to that rung. We will forgive him if he doesn't know that nine is a very good number in Chinese because when pronounced it sounds like the Chinese word for long life. One hopes the daughter has a similar fortune.

As expected this trigger happy gentleman made the morning television rounds and came across as  educated and reasonable. He simply took umbrage at an un-daughterly insult delivered by a technology he had spent $130 and half-a-day upgrading, thus rubbing more salt into the wound. The thumbs up/thumbs down polling, like Nero in the coliseum, stacked up favorably for the father who played to his base by hanging onto a cigarette too long.

In psychological terms this was his shadow side erupting, dressed up for morning television, over which he had little control, even though his language seemed measured. He simply showed his dark side where he was joined archetypally with the rest of us, mainly men, who have wanted to put a foot through a television when our horse didn't come in as ordered.

I worry about whether there are enough guns in America to control or silence the wash of devices that are coming to our shores, driven by upgrades every six months or so. The tech blogger are already anticipating when the iPad 19 will be released.

During the day I frequently spend time with OEMs, device manufacturers and carriers and they like the sound of the surf. By and large their business models are predicated on the proposition that consumers in the West (and increasing in BRIC nations and the developing world) will upgrade their electronics on a regular, predictable basis. The fear that the tablet would kill the PC and certainly the netbook and perhaps take a chunk out of high-end smartphone category has not proven to be true to date. A rising tide lifts most boats. IGR research shows that by 2014 families will own 5-8 devices and probably more. We contiinue to be surprised at how the tablet is much more than a lean-back, media consumption device. Nielsen reports that American families increasingly consider the tablet as playmate, teacher and babysitter. I haven't seen many babies leaning back.

You can't shoot what you don't see.  I recently attended a fascinating Big Data Sandbox event at Forbes. Data sets are certainly getting larger and we are becoming much more efficient in "scrubbing" raw data.

Whether following Twitter feeds or another big data source, we can visualize global traffic, tastes and passions by latitiude and longitude. And we can watch the movement of data in real time, including when apps are clicked on. We can watch how memories and ideas spread across New York City. The data tells us that people movement within a metropolitan area is 90% predictable.

Of course, this kind of analysis is the backbone of Foursquare's business that is led by 1.5 billion check-ins. The company can use data visualization to track the rhythm of nations, to see ideas spread and chart friendship connections. We have become or will become data points.

Stephen Wolfram's blog, "The Personal Analytics of My Life," shows how the author developed his own archaeology of data by charting along a distribution model his emails, key strokes, phone time, text revisions and even steps taken in the last two decades. He acknowledges such an extreme interest in personal analytics might seem a little nerdy but suggests there are stories and meaning to be found in personal data. And he hasn't even gotten to curated medical informaiton, GPS tracking and room-by-room sensor data.

I read that old Twitter tweets are being mined by companies, presumably for advertising purposes. So every key stroke is forever alive, meaningful, and probably worth something.

During the day I drown in data. At night I have been taking depth psychology classes, with a focus on C.G. Jung and  the post-Jungian, James Hillman. The Freudians can address whether we are spending too much time with devices and what that says about our mothers, sex lives and dark caves.

Jung and Hillman spoke of the collective unconscious, the metaphorical home for thousand of years of cultural images. This is a imagistic rather than metaphysical or physical zone.  For example, the Greek gods, including Zeus, Aphrodite and Venus, who appear in our day talk and customs, dreams and nightmares, are not real and provide no theology. They are fictions, fantasies and represent an imagistic way to reach the deeper part of ourselves. They are a way "in," a perspective.

I'm trying to better understand the impact of social media and Big Data on depth psychology. What happens to consciousness and cognition when digital in the most universal sense disrupts our psychologies in ways that we have not experienced before. This is a long way from what now seems the orderliness of the Industrial Revolution and the various incarnations in the 20th century.

Descartes gave us the mind/body dualism and this has hobbled our religion and politics for four hundred years. The cultural historians provided the same kind of reductionism, represented by the man/machine dualism. Poetically speaking, the machine would be represented by the pure high-flying Apollo and his crowd.  Man or the soul of man might be represented by Hermes, our guide through the muck and lower levels where the stuff of analysis is found.

But how will Zeus and his crowd stand up to Facebook and Twitter?

Just what is Trending and Pending, psychologically speaking?