Monday, August 13, 2012

Life On Earth Interim Report: Earth In Trouble. Please Send Mothers.

Yesterday on Naked Capitalism (the blog everyone should read), the great Yves Smith mentioned a funny comment she'd seen on a YouTube video about flying robots:  in the future, there will only be two workers, a human and a dog.  The human's job will be feeding the dog.  The dog's job will be making sure the human doesn't touch the computers. 

As was explained to me later, the mental picture this is supposed to conjure up is that the computers, having taken charge, use the dog to make sure the humans don't screw around with their hardware.  That's why it's funny, and that's why it makes a point, a warning, about the future. 

But what had come into my mind was different.  I pictured the human being kept away from the computers for his own good, like the way a dog might keep an alcoholic away from booze.  My interpretation makes no sense.  Who would be paying the workers? How would the human's job be a job at all?  I think what happened is I heard "dog's job will be making sure the human doesn't touch the computers" and I thought "huh, yeah, I could use a helpmate that makes sure I don't touch the computers -- or that makes sure I touch them less, anyway.  And I pictured having a dog to help me out, and that seemed kind of charming and nice so I went with it.

When things like this happen I often feel like an extraterrestrial, sent to visit earth, who didn't quite get transmorgrified correctly.  I mean, I got made into a human, but there were a few glitches.  I was left with a few qualities more suited to the home planet. 

There's definitely a "loud noises" glitch.  I don't think my handlers realized life on earth was going to be so noisy.  Maybe they had dated information?  But seriously, I can't even visit a modern restroom, with those new hand dryers, without prepping myself with special insertable earphones that block the sound.  If I don't have them in I'm like "FUCK that's so FUCKING LOUD, what the FUCK is that noise get me the FUCK out of here now" and I put my fingers in my ears and scurry out.  Then I look around at the other patrons and they're all "ho-hum just drying my hands ... [dawdle dawdle]" acting all nonchalant and looking at me like I'm a freak.  And I'm like "Who are you people?" 

Then, too, I frequently feel like I am too good at reading and experiencing the thoughts and moods of other people.  I wrote about this before, where I called it alloism.  Sometimes I'm hanging out in a group and I'm thinking OMG did you see how X dissed Y by saying something that was nice on the surface but undermining underneath and how Y got all mad, and I'll describe all this to Z who was there with me, all of us together, and Z will be all "Wait, what? What happened?  Did somebody get mad?"

Anyway, I think I was given quite a bit of information about life on earth before I came, because I've always been one of those people that does pretty well at predicting how other people are going to behave and feel, at taking the long view, and all that sort of thing.  I have almost the same beliefs about people I had when I was around five.

But a few things have really surprised me.  And I would say that the thing that has surprised me most is how susceptible most people are to other people.  They are so much more influenced by other people than they ever are by things like rules, punishments, and incentives.

When I was a kid I had a really naive view that people had things they really wanted to do, and they were going to do those things, unless it became too costly for them to do them.  Like, if they wanted to blow off school, steal lipstick, be mean to another kid, or whatever, they would, unless they didn't want the punishment or the loss of some privilege. 

It turns out that that is almost completely wrong.  People don't have the clarity of desire I attributed to them, like "Now, I want to steal lipstick."  Often they don't even know why they're doing what they're doing.  They do one thing aiming to achieve another, or they do stuff just to get some attention, or they're bored, or who even knows? 

Plus, they're often much more influenced by other people's words and expressions of anger and praise than they are by punishments and incentives.  I first came to see this vividly when I started teaching.  I teach university students.  I thought, "They're adults.  They don't need me mothering and nagging them.  I'll just set up an appropriate and fair system of punishments and rewards for doing things like homework and reading and so on, and they can decide what they want to do.  If the incentive isn't worth it to them, that's their business.  If they don't do the work, I'm not going to take it personally, for heavens sake."

Turns out that taking it personally -- well, at least, somehow getting kind of emotionally in people's faces -- is way more effective at getting them to do things than abstract rewards and punishments at the end of the term.  This doesn't always come naturally to me -- I mean, how could I take it personally whether somebody does the reading?  But I do care about my students becoming literate and smart instead of ignorant and stupid, and I try to show them this, and it has more of an effect than simple incentives.

In this great New Yorker article from 2011, Atul Gawande describes a health program that tries to cut costs by taking extra, better care of very ill and very costly patients.  These patients often have conditions like diabetes, that respond well to constant vigilance and good habits, but can kill you if you don't take care of yourself.  In some cases, sickness and the possibility of death failed to motivate people to develop healthier habits, but visits from a kind and interested person, who basically nagged and encouraged them, worked. 

The guy who set up the program, Jeffrey Brenner, is quoted in the article as saying "People are people, and they get into situations they don’t necessarily plan on. My philosophy about primary care is that the only person who has changed anyone's life is their mother. The reason is that she cares about them, and she says the same simple thing over and over and over."

I've said it before:  the mom virtues:  not just for women anymore.  The philosophical locus classicus for the need for mothering is good old Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (Ms. Interesting).  If you've read that book recently, you know that that even though the whole "science and technology" and "playing god" and "monster" themes were very important, it's made clear throughout the book that what really changes the creature from a kindly awkward person into a violent monster is that his creator hates him.  He has no mother.  This ruins the lives of everyone in the story.

So here in the 21st century, where we all have a lot of bad health habits and ecological habits and violence habits and intellectual laziness habits, we could all use a little more mothering.  Needless to say, mothering need not be done by your actual mother, who may be busy working and doing stuff.  If you're a grown-up, you don't need an actual mother, you just need a lot of people in your life who'll care and who'll tell you the same simple thing over and over.  Eat your vegetables.  Play nice.  Tell the truth.  Go to the gym. 

I don't know when my visit here on earth will end or how my information is getting transmitted back.  But hey -- home planet, if you're listening, I have an interim report:

"Earth in trouble.  Please send mothers."


Daniel said...


I looked at that Naked Capitalism blog. Your blog is a zillion times more interesting!

I mis-hear and understand things all the time. Perhaps we come from the same planet (was it a planet??).

Patricia Marino said...

Thanks, Daniel! I assume it was a planet but who knows? We humans have such limited spatio-temporal imaginations.

I like the sound of "home planet," though, which brings together the extraterrestrial with the very earthy idea of the "home office."

ddvd said...

I love this post.

Great thought that what we all need is mothers, and we should all be mothers for one another. Often not appreciated when aging men try it, sad to say. Not that it stops me from trying, since nagging is one of my few life skills.

Patricia Marino said...

Thanks ddvd, for the kind and thoughtful comment! Yeah -- nagging, definitely something one can do poorly or well, and definitely worth doing well.