How exactly do we become us?

“Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”

– Vince Lombardi

We don’t do it alone. Other people give us models, ideas, and direct feedback that validates and challenges our thinking and behavior.

Think back on a time when you were a kid, and someone said something that really got to you – it might have been a compliment, or it might have been a criticism, or it might just have been something shitty to say, but it stuck. You remembered it. It worked on you. Coming back to it over and over did something for you. You kept it so close that the next time you made a decision, you considered that idea in the moment before you acted and it influenced your decision.

Back in the day, THAT was an influencer.

The word processor I’m using to type this blog post red-lined the word influencer (again) because there is no such word in the software’s database. It accepted the word blog – that’s a thing – but not influencer (third red line).

Until recently, there was no such word. We made it up to describe something new.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theory of sociology that “sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals.”

The everyday interactions of individuals today are different than they were even just a couple years ago, before the pandemic. They are way different than they were before everyone was glued to their phones.

Now, even in public spaces with lots of people, we experience the sensory isolation of earbuds and screens that are visible only to us.

The interactions are taking place online, and our society is changing as a result.

Acknowledging change is neither a cautionary tale nor a celebration – it’s just an observation. But it is an observation we ignore at our own peril, because the impact of technology on our interaction has fundamentally changed how we understand ourselves and each other.

You Am the Other

I love the fundamental concept of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” A teacher without students is a person delivering a soliloquy at a bus stop. Parents are only parents because of their children. A teammate, a member, an employee, a neighbor… all of these senses of ourselves exist in social systems that inform our sense of ourselves.

“I am he as you are he, as you are me and we are all together.”

– John Lennon & Paul McCartney

In addition to Mental, Physical, and Technological Fitness, Open-Source Learning helps us develop our capacity to understand our desired roles in social systems and larger contexts through Civic and Spiritual Fitness.

We need each other. Beyond our physical needs, we need empathy and trust to build interdependence. I am an Other to someone. You are an Other to someone. Try and hold some empathy for those people who look at both of us today and wonder if they’re really OK.

As we grow through childhood into adolescence, and social acceptance becomes more important to our idea of who we are, the feeling of observed by The Other and wanting to fit in has a corrosive effect on our curiosity, wonder, risk, and creativity. We start to worry that people won’t accept or appreciate our individual talents and quirks. We start to wear matching socks and coordinated outfits that “say something” about us.

George Herbert Mead, one of the leading proponents of Symbolic Interactionism, was described by educator John Dewey as “a seminal mind of the very first order.” Mead understood that our physical fragility forces us to depend on each other in social systems to survive.

Mead also understood that our need for survival is not merely physical but social. We need positive regard from other people to maintain our places in social systems. Seeking that positive regard can lead us to change our stripes, compromise our integrity, and hide our light under a bushel.

Someone Might Not Like My Art

One of the places where The Other most savagely conquers our joy, sadly, is school.

In his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie describes one effect of children becoming more aware of being observed by others as they age, when he visited schools to demonstrate how artists can sculpt steel into animals:

“I always began with the same introduction: ‘Hi My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist… How many of you are artists?’

The pattern of responses never failed.

First grade: En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist.

Second grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. The raised hands were still.

Third grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously.

And so on up through the grades. The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands. By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes dancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a ‘closet artist.’”

Why Kids Today Are Hurting

Our fear of The Other’s judgement now follows us everywhere. We used to be able to fake not being curious or smart just by not raising our hands in front of the class. Not anymore. Hiding in plain sight is no longer sufficient camouflage.

Past the shouting over the pandemic, the politics, the economy, the environment, and the trauma du jour, in a small corner of a child’s bedroom, the screen glows.

The screen glows all the time. It is a constant companion. The child gets uncomfortable when the screen is turned off or taken away. The child holds onto it under the pillow. Behind a backpack or a notebook during class.

Recently I told a classroom full of high school students: “I know exactly how it sounds when I say something like, ‘When I was your age…’ I remember sitting in your seats like it was yesterday. But do you know how I know that I’m older? Because I truly don’t give a shit whether you like what I’m going to say next.”

They roared with laughter and in that moment we became friendly. I was because they were. And there was relief in the room when I made it clear that whether they judged me or not, I would be just fine, and we could still coexist.

So: When I was their age, my friends and I had to figure it all out too. That is the job of the child, the adolescent, the teenager… and it never ends. I’m still working on it.

The difference is that back then, we had quiet places in our lives where we could turn inward, listen to ourselves, and reflect.

The growing up game has changed. The screen is everywhere.

The screen glows. The screen knows.

Young people sift through The Other’s words and experiences to see what gets the most likes.

Instead of forming an identity, kids identify. The screen tells them stories, gives them archetypes. The screen’s algorithms intensify the effect and give the kids more, more of what it thinks they think they want.

The kids are no longer cooking up their identities at home, from scratch – they are gorging at the algorithmic personality buffet. It has become more difficult for them to distinguish the reality on the screen from reality itself. They no longer differentiate their half-baked true selves from what they see on the screens.

Ask kids what they really love, what they really care about, and they shrug. They don’t have a core – at least not one that they understand well enough to articulate, or believe in enough to represent.

Everyone else doesn’t offer feedback. Even The Other is imagined. Students navigate the school hallways – the only physical public spaces they regularly inhabit – bowing to screens with earbuds jammed in. They take their cues from the feed.

If we want the next generation to learn, instead of merely being taught… if we want the next generation to grow identities, and not just identify… We are going to have them step away from the feed trough, look inward, experiment boldly, and hunt. Otherwise they’ll never eat.

They’ll just feed.