The Simplification Bonus

                         The business end of an electric car                                                                           EVTV Motor Verks

We may be at the edge of a period when consumer technology blends more easily into our lives. Silicon-based devices like iPhones may finally yield back to the quirks of our carbon-based and biological selves.

We tend to think in terms of the greater complexities of living in our age.  Phones, passwords, online accounts and the like all add to the burden of keeping our lives on track. But there is an interesting reverse trend happening in the auto industry.  And it may offer a lesson for the rest of us.

Basically, cars are going to become mechanically much simpler.  Newer electric cars are likely to be loaded with sensors and smart computers, but the mechanical side of an electric car is a study in simplicity. Their key advantage is that an electric motor has high torque even at slow speeds. So Teslas and the scores of new models planned by other manufacturers do not need the kinds of transmissions used now to capture a gas engine’s variable power output. This is so significant because a complex part of any conventional car is its elaborate transmission and drivetrain. By contrast, an electric motor just goes, not particularly bothered by demands for low or high-speeds. In some ways, this means a Tesla has more in common with a clothes dryer than a car driven by an internal combustion engine. If you are in the transmission business in Detroit or Osaka, that’s a problem. But it’s all good for buyers of the more inexpensive electric cars on the horizon.

In a related trend, recent reports from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas signal a flattening of the innovation curve for digital media and devices. This year techies weren’t much impressed by what they saw in the way of new products.  Apparently, a “virtual reality” headset can be about as much fun as wearing a football helmet backwards.

It would be a fool’s errand to bet against change in this field. But we may be at the edge of a period when newer devices blend more seamlessly into our lives. Innovations tend to be followed by periods of consolidation, where new inventions must meld into existing patterns of human behavior. Never completely, of course.  But significantly. For example, many people who own “personal assistants,” such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home, use them essentially as radios.  As it turns out, these devices use streaming, to the benefit of the older medium that was once given up for dead.

If the pattern of consolidation continues, silicon-based devices like iPhones may finally yield back to the quirks of our carbon-based and biological selves. Call me an optimist, but this could mean that while we appreciate the easy of connecting to family and friends over long distances, we will also cherish the HD experience of being in the same space with them. Similarly, perhaps phone connectivity may go the way of e-mail: OK, but nothing worth spending hours on. Texts may become another form of contemporary signage: pointing us to where we want to go and who we want to meet. And tweets may finally be given the status they merit: interruptions in conversations that barely merit a second glance. At least for adults on the far side of adolescence, the durable world of unadulterated and unmediated contact may again look enticing.

A Theory of the Depression Monsoon

                                   Pixabay

It’s an old truism in rhetoric that we see what we can name.  If so, our national monsoon of concerns about the spreading darkness of depression is partly a function of its lexicon. We notice it because we can name it.

Mental health researchers tell us that rates of clinical depression in the United States have been steadily increasing.  One estimate from the Centers for Disease Control is that about 9 in 100 Americans carry that diagnosis, with 3 percent suffering from chronic depression.

What’s going on?

Anyone asking the question must be humble when proposing causes. Among other factors, our reporting is probably better than it has ever been. But it is obvious that the effects are especially stark among the young: a cause for some national soul-searching. To be sure, suicide is a rare consequence of depression. But it is the third most common cause of death in people aged 15 to 25. At some point in our lives most of us have been touched by concerns about the distress and safety of a young relative or family friend.

Every case is different. But it is probably fair to assume that teens lack the ballast of experience to ride out rough patches, which may include broken relationships, family tensions, and low self-esteem brought on by—among other things—the sometimes corrosive comparisons of self with others encouraged by social media.

It also seems as if there has been a sea change in the amount of mental health talk that is now part of the lives of younger Americans still in the pursuit of an education. For most Americans, the use of  institutional mental health services has come out from under a cloud of secrecy that was common in mid-twentieth century America. Over the last two decades counseling services have proliferated in schools and universities. And there can be no doubt they are helpful.  But with increased emphasis on coping with stress, there is also more discussion of anxiety and clinical depression. First year students in college are now asked to be aware of these issues in the midst of a whirlwind “Welcome Week.” And staff are asked to be more proactive if a student speaks about stress or anxiety. Meanwhile, our media culture is more bold in dwelling on depression episodes, abetted by direct-to-consumer ads for psychoactive drugs that go not just to patients, but sometimes to their friends. Consider as well that just a few years ago no mainstream provider of television content would have touched a series like 13 Reasons Why (2017), Netflix’s fictional account a of a teen’s descent into suicide. The effect is a culture that has normalized teen angst into something more ubiquitous.

It also seems evident that students living on a campus are rarely ‘on their own’ and out of contact in the ways their parents once were. For some, frequent text or phone contact with home keeps family problems in play at a time when, for prior generations, being away at school offered a kind of refuge.

Add in some linguistic determinism, and you have a perfect storm. It’s an old truism in linguistic and rhetorical theory that we see what we can name. This idea means that the name comes prior to perception. Building on this view, the monsoon described here may be abetted by the widespread use of a lexicon of depression terms. With its emergence out from under its former stigma, perhaps we have inadvertently over-represented its existence.* This kind of ‘clinicalization’ of our mental lives has now gone on for years, with frequent talk about others in terms of what were once understood as formal diagnostic categories.  We now talk casually about someone’s “anxiety,” “attention deficits” or “paranoia,” mixing subjective judgments with classification categories found in the bible of mental illness diagnoses, the DSM.

Merging of these labels into our everyday rhetoric has done its part to put what were once considered passing states of mind front and center.  Sometimes that can be good. But it also follows that such language gets formalized through diagnosis and treatment. Once a person self-identifies as a “victim” of a labeled condition, that awareness can lay the groundwork for recovery, or become a self-protective justification that delays it.

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*I take a less extreme view than psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who has written extensively about what he sees as the “Myth of Mental Illness.” (Harper Perennial, 2010). But I give Szasz credit for understanding the power of clinical labels to shape expectations.