Big Think Interview With Floyd Abrams
Floyd Abrams is one of the leading legal authorities on the First Amendment and U.S. Constitutional Law, having appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court. Abrams is the William J. Brennan Jr. Visiting Professor at the at Columbia University's journalism school. He is a partner with the firm Cahill, Gordon & Reindel.
In perhaps his most famous case, Abrams defended the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 in which the paper published secret reports on U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
Question: What should everyone know about the First Amendment?
Floyd Abrams: Well, I guess the first thing one has to know about the First Amendment is that it wouldn’t be there at all if Thomas Jefferson had not insisted. The Constitution had been pretty well drafted and Jefferson, who was not at the Constitution Convention and who was in Paris at that time, basically took the position that without a Bill of Rights and in particular without a Bill of Rights that protected freedom of speech and freedom of the press, that he would not support the new Constitution.
So a Bill of Rights—this Bill of Rights and this 1st Amendment—was a essential ingredient of the Constitution from the start. And from the start it protected a number of different sorts of speech beliefs, conscience, and the like. It protects freedom of religion, it protects freedom of speech, protects freedom of press, protects freedom of assembly, all of them.
And through the many years since the drafting of the Constitution and the adoption of the Bill of Rights which of course starts with the First Amendment. Through that time period we’ve had many, many cases in the courts which have adopted through interpretation the First Amendment to new problems being sustained by the people and by the states as well. At the beginning, the First Amendment applied only to the Federal Government—after all it does say, “Congress shall make no law.” After the Civil War and the adoption of amendments post-Civil War, they were held to apply to the states but really not until late 1920s, early 1930s. So through most of American history the First Amendment really had nothing to do with what states did and what state law turned out to be.
There was state constitutions but the federal Constitution, the First Amendment, applied only to the Federal Government. Where have we gone? Well we have gone through the years in a direction generally of more protection. The First Amendment, remember, applies only as a protection against the government, not against private employers, not against friends, or enemies, or this, or that. It is a protection against the government. The government depriving people of their freedom of religion. The government is telling them in effect who to pray to or whether to pray at all, and in what way. And the government depriving people of freedom of speech or freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly. I mean, at its core it is a protection of human freedom by protecting against government overreaching.
That was debated a lot when the First Amendment was adopted. Alexander Hamilton said, “Why do we need a Bill of Rights at all? Whoever said Congress could pass a law stripping the people of freedom of speech? They don’t have the power to do it, so why do we need to have a Bill of Rights or why do we need a First Amendment in the first place?” And, as I said, Jefferson insisted. Jefferson said, “Any constitution for this country ought to say and say in so many words that there was a list of untouchable areas into which Congress could not transgress, into which the new Federal, National Government couldn’t go."
And with that background—while even from the start there were problems, First Amendment problems, the Alien and Sedition Act was adopted in 1798, that close to the adoption of the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights. And it quite literally made it a crime to speak to badly of the President, then John Adams. Not the Vice President, because it was Jefferson—even then we had politics. But it made a crime to say critical things about the President at least if they were "false," which of course lead to lots of issues about what’s an opinion and what’s a fact, what’s true and what’s false. But that law was our first law which on the face of it violated the First Amendment. Jefferson called it, “living under a rain of witches.” And ultimately the verdict of history as the Supreme Court came to say, the verdict of history was that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and through the years some acts of Congress have been held to be unconstitutional. Many acts, more recently of states have been held to be unconstitutional, and in all these ways the adoption of the First Amendment has been an incalculable protection of the public against overstepping by the government.
Question: Are there boundaries to freedom of speech and freedom of the press?
Floyd Abrams: There have always been boundaries on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At different times they’ve been interpreted more or less strictly. I mean, we’ve always had libel law for example. People have always been able to sue when false things were said about them, which harmed them. However in 1964 the Supreme Court in one of its greatest opinions, New York Times against Sullivan, basically decided that there was, in the interest of protecting freedom of speech, a need to expand beyond old law like when I was in law school for example, we were taught libelous material isn’t protected by the First Amendment.
Well, that’s still true but what the court said in 1964 was in defining what’s libelous we have to take into account the First Amendment, and in particular when you speak about a public person, public figure, a public official, there can’t be a winning libel suit against you unless you basically lied—said something you knew was false or you suspected wasn’t true. That’s just one example. The area of national security, we have some statutes which make it a crime to publish details about building atomic weapons. In the area of national security the government has sought to and I would say has established the proposition that if they can get to court with respect to material which would really, really cripple the country in the sense of making it impossible for the country and its people to be safe from eminent harm caused as a result of the speech itself, why then the Supreme Court has said that there can be a prior restraint, an injunction against the speech.
But not much. I mean, America has always been the country in the world with more protection for speech, more protection for religion, those two areas in particular, more protection for freedom of the press which together with freedom of speech have a sort of a common body of law than any country in the history of the world. It’s not to say we haven’t had real... and real big First Amendment problems sometimes and First Amendment deprivations sometimes. But taken as a whole its been really a astonishing, a breathtaking degree of personal freedom for people, for organizations, for institutions to have their say.
Question: How do you feel about the political polarization of today's press?
Floyd Abrams: The press now is, in an sense ,more like it was around the time of the revolution, our revolution, than what it was 30, 50 years ago. It is becoming more partisan. That’s of course, especially true of cable television, but the print press more so than it used to be. It’s primarily on cable and on the Internet that you see again and again definitions of what’s news and definitions of what’s true which seem to be based almost exclusively on the political and ideological views of the speakers.
And so what had been the... and to some extent of course still is, the journalistic ethic not always fulfilled but the recognized ethic of impartiality of reporting the news and being absolutely free to comment about it but basically not turning newspapers over for purely partisan use, is something that we’ve been moving away from and I think it does not profit us. I mean, the idea that people sit at home now and now have this wonderful choice—which is good—to see, you know, anything they want – any views they want but that the effect of that is that so many people only see things they agree with. And are only reinforced in their preexisting views rather than being open to learning about what’s going on.
There are some facts out there. I mean, not everything is sheer opinion. On some matters there is the truth. There are notions of accuracy, there are facts and I do have some concern that we are moving away from that.
Question: Is the Wikileaks document release protected by the First Amendment?
Floyd Abrams: Well, I don’t know of anything in what Wikileaks has published which violates any law. There’s been some suggestion in some of the press that this is treason. It’s not treason for one thing because the people that run it aren’t even American. It’s not spying. It’s not the publication, so it seems, of the sort of material which we’ve ever made illegal. That doesn’t mean that one has to agree that Wikileaks should have done this, served the public by doing it, or that we even know what’s in the material.
One of my concerns for example, it’s non-legal concern, but one of my concerns is that when you have 92,000 documents that it’s more likely than not that—when all of them are classified by the way, although at a relatively modest level—that there may well be some material which could be genuinely harmful to national security. I don’t get any confidence from the people at Wikileaks that, that is much on their mind at all. But at this point at least, I don’t see any legal impediment to them publishing what they did and the only legal problems I can see them running into right now in this country relate either to a.), how did they get the information and b.), are they going to be asked by some Grand Jury to reveal who their source was for the information? Of course, to do either they'd have to be here. They'd have to be in the U.S. They'd have to be transported here in some way, and that could be very difficult.
I find it really disturbing that they really, on the one hand, have this great passion for revelation of secrets which is their raison d'etre, that’s why they exist, that’s what they believe in but I find it disturbing that they don’t really seem to accept the proposition that there are some materials which, if published, can do harm. I mean, remember when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971 which was a time of grave turmoil, the war in Vietnam was on. These papers disclosed a historical record of duplicity by the U.S. government and becoming involved in Vietnamese conflict. That the person who gave it to them, Daniel Ellsberg did not give every volume to the times. He withheld three that he thought were especially sensitive since they dealt with negotiations to end the war.
And when the Times published, they didn’t publish everything he gave them because they thought publication of some might do harm to national security. I would feel a lot better of Wikileaks if I thought that they took such matters seriously into consideration.
Question: Is it treason?
Floyd Abrams: I don’t think their could be a treason prosecution but anyone in the government who made this material available could be charged with one or another crime. They certainly violated some law with respect to the distribution of property not belonging to them... in fact there was one stolen property for example—stolen property claim, criminal claim—brought against someone in rather similar circumstances. There are other charges as well which could be brought, and it wouldn’t shock me actually for the government to follow this up very seriously. Because even though outsiders don’t really know yet how greviously any element of national security has been breached it seems to me that, that may well be the case. But that in any event, you know, a person who works for the U.S. Government that releases 92,000 classified documents is necessarily at risk of criminal prosecution.
Question: Which five cases have most shaped our understanding of the First Amendment?
Floyd Abrams: Well, let me offer my five, people can disagree on which to pick.
In no particular order, one of their great cases was called Cantwell vs. Connecticut. And that’s a case in which a member of the Jehovah Witnesses was walking on the streets in New Haven, Connecticut, with a phonograph apparently battery-operated, even back in 1940. And he’d ask people, “Do you want to hear something?” And then he would play some really rather vile accusations against the Catholic Church. He was arrested and convicted of breach of the peace. The case went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court, acknowledging how offensive the material was, basically said, “In the realm of religion, this is an area where people disagree in errantly disagree with very, very deep feelings. Very often angry feelings.”
"And in this country," the court said, "which is a country of immigrants and a country of freedom for all sorts of different religions, we have to be especially careful not to crack down on, not to let the Government crack down on people even when they say things that many would think to be outrageous." Another this way has been summed up is that we have no blasphemy in America. We have no heresy. These are not legal concepts at all and so people are absolutely free to say what they want about religions as well as lots of other subjects.
A second case is sort of the flipside of that in a case called West Virginia School Board against Barnett, decided in 1940. The question also a Jehovah Witness case, was whether the school system could require kids in public school to salute the flag. This was at a time at the eve of war, in fact it was 1943, excuse me. It was during World War II and the West Virginia School system—I’m sure like most school system in the country—required all the kids to salute the flag. A Jehovah Witness child took the position or her parents did that it was contrary to their religion to require the flag salute, and the Supreme Court in the middle or World War II wrote an opinion, eight to one vote, saying that freedom of religion does go that far. That the government even during war can’t compel a flag salute, and in more recent days of course we’ve had cases saying that government can’t make it a crime to burn the American flag as part of our general protection, our freedom of conscience.
Then there are the free speech cases. The ones that come to mind for me most are these" One case in 1919 called Abrams vs. United States, no relation to me, but a case in which socialist speakers who were against World War I, and during the war said so publicly—and said anti-capitalist things publicly, and said in effect that the public shouldn’t support the war—were indicted on espionage charges, were convicted and the Supreme Court upheld the conviction. The Abrams case is a great case not for that reason, it’s a great case because the dissenting opinion of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes joined by Justice Brandeis was one of the great statements in American history of why we protect free speech. And in that case why it should be protected there. "We rely," Justice Holmes wrote, "on the marketplace of ideas to deal with what we may think of as bad speech."
Holmes said "It’s perfectly logical for people when they think other people have bad views, inaccurate views, dangerous views, to try to suppress them." But he wrote, “That’s not our way. The law can’t allow that. The First Amendment can’t allow that except in times of greatest national crisis where the speech itself threatens to do enormous harm to the public.”
That opinion, Holmes’s opinion and Abrams' would later become the law, and that was true also of other descending opinions of Justice Holmes and Brandeis, Brandeis and Holmes. And they’re well worth recognition that’s why they’re on my list of five.
I’d add New York Times vs. Sullivan. New York Times vs. Sullivan was a libel case brought during the Civil Rights revolution in the late 1950s, early 1960s. It was a libel case toward the New York Times for publishing an advertisement put in by Civil Rights organizations and people involved in the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King was in prison in Birmingham then and the Times published an ad called, “Heed Their Rising Voices.” And the ad denounced the system of justice in Alabama at the time. And a lawsuit was brought by the sheriff saying, “Not only did you get certain things wrong but wrong about me. I didn’t do this and I didn’t do that. I didn’t do that.”
And the case ultimately there was a judgment against the Times. Indeed there were so many lawsuits in the early '60s against the New York Times, CBS, Time Magazine—what were then the leaders of the national press in America—so many lawsuits brought in the South that it seemed impossible to continue to keep covering what was going on there. And that was exacerbated by the fact that while truth has always been a defense in libel cases in America that white southern juries in those days simply wouldn’t listen in situations in which what was being published was critical of the power structure of the segregation system, which had existed and the like.
And in New York Times against Sullivan, the Supreme Court said in effect, when people talk about or write about the people who run things—the people in power, people in government, and later prominent people—when people write about those people they should get more protection than simply the defense of truth which is ultimately a jury decision. They should get the protection of the First Amendment being understood to mean that unless you say something knowing that it’s false or with a high degree of awareness that it’s probably false. Unless that’s what the case is about, well then there can’t be libel liability. And that’s been an enormous protection for the press in particular but also—now that we’re in an internet world more and more—anyone who speaks on the Internet, because everyone is a publisher now in a sense, and they get the protection too.
Finally, there was a case I’ll mention which was the Pentagon Papers case. I was involved in that, and that was in 1971. And it was a case during the war in Vietnam where the New York Times was given access to a very secret study of how the U.S. became involved in the war. A study which showed that one American president after another, going all the way back to the end of the second World War and President Truman and then President Eisenhower and President Kennedy and President Johnson. All these people had permitted... or purposely let the war expand and American involvement expand with the public never really being told that that was going on.
Well the government learning that this very secret—in fact it was designated top secret, which is a very high designation in the classification system of documents—the government went to court and they said in effect, "Judge, keep the Times from publishing that. It doesn’t belong to them. It can harm national security." Indeed the government said it would do grave harm to national security occurring during the war in Vietnam and there was a hearing and there were appeals and the Supreme Court heard the case. And 15 days—which in legal terms is nothing—15 days after the lawsuit began the Supreme Court said: “Our general principle here is no prior restraints, no injunctions against what the press can print. Absent some absolutely extraordinary circumstance in what they’re printing, it really has a high likelihood of doing really grievance harm, imminently to the public or the government in its representative role, vis a vis the public.
And the Pentagon Papers case had real impact through the years. Impact primarily in deterring other Presidents from going to court seeking injections against the press. We would live in a very different country today, very different if the Pentagon Papers case had come out differently. So those five are the ones that I would pick out.
Question: How has our understanding of the First Amendment changed?
Floyd Abrams: I would say that when I was in law school I was sort of enamored with English law and English law wasn’t... basically even now... is much less protective of free speech and more protective of order, order and society than our law is. For example, I thought it made sense then that if somebody was on trial the press shouldn’t be allowed to publish information about the trial until it was pretty well over. Certainly information which could influence a juror, a confession which might not be admitted into evidence. Prior criminal record, for example. I was in some public speaking contests, that I won, in which I was taking the position, in college, that we should move more towards the English system.
My views have changed. They changed pretty rapidly after law school about that as well as the breadth, as I view it, of the First Amendment, for a number of reasons. One is that I got a much better sense of what journalists do. Certainly what they do at their best and the role that they can play. Lots that was published during the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s couldn’t have been published in England because there were all these trials going on to do with the scandal and a lot of what was published about the Nixon administration could not have been published and would not have been published in England under the English law that I had previously liked so much.
Something else which affected my views and that is that government is not always candid with the public. That we need government and we need it to work, but we need the ability to be critical and the information from which we can be critical of government too. And only under American law is that as possible as it is here. Possible because you really can’t get in trouble here by criticizing government by having documents to back you up, by gathering information. We have a Freedom of Information act here which is not required by the First Amendment but which supplements the First Amendment in a very important way, really based on the notion that the government is supposed to serve the public, it’s supposed to be representative of the public. So that unless there’s a really good reason to keep materials secret the presumption should be that it’s public.
As I’ve practiced law in the area and read books about American history and talked to people, I’ve more and more come to the view that while there are risks and genuine ones of living in a society in which people are so free to say so much with so little risk, that for us a least it’s a much safer system as well as a much freer system because of the openness of our society and our willingness to let people and institutions to have their say.
Question: What is most threatening to the First Amendment?
Floyd Abrams: I think the state of First Amendment law is good in the country. I think the state of free speech is generally good. There are exceptions. But I think that the difficulty, the existential threat to newspapers in the country, is itself threatening of free speech in a different way. I do think newspapers have played a very special role with respect to educating the public, exposing misconduct and the like in a way which no other institution really has matched. And I think that the economic difficulties that the press is having pose very real risks for the public itself. I mean, the public is doing it. It’s not a matter where the government has done something wrong here. The public is obviously free to choose what to buy and what to not to buy and that they’d rather see things for free on the Internet than to buy a newspaper.
But the effect of that I think is deeply threatening to the country as we know it and in the best way. Things change. That’s both inevitable and generally a good thing. But if one of the ways things ultimately change is that we don’t have a vibrant press with respect to the written word I think the public will truly be the loser.
Question: Why did you get involved in the Citizens United case?
Floyd Abrams: The reason I became involved in the Citizens United case—and I represented Senator McConnell in that case and was one of the four lawyers who argued in that case. The reason I became involved in that case was because I thought it was contrary to the First Amendment at its deepest and most important level to limit political speech. There’s nothing more important, nothing, in the speech world then speech about how to vote for and yet the case revolved around the documentary put out by a right-wing group denouncing Hillary Clinton as a candidate for president. Well the First Amendment I know—and I voted for Hillary Clinton—but the First Amendment I know would tell me that’s about as high on the list of protected material as anything could possible be.
And so to be told, well, because it’s a corporation they shouldn’t get protection and they can be basically have that speech criminalized simply isn’t the First Amendment that I think we have. And it is not a good thing also from a social policy point of view for the U.S. Government to become involved in deciding what different organizations created by people, associations of individuals, corporations, unions, whatever can say or not say.
So, for example, for me to compare the Citizens United Case to another case decided just three months later in which Congress had passed a law basically saying that movies could not distributed showing the torture and maiming and killing of animals. A market had been created for that and Congress passed a law saying: “Well that sort of movie shouldn’t be allowed.” The Supreme Court all agreed that the speech there was of absolutely no value at all. They used the word, Justice Alito dissenting, but the majority didn’t take issue with it. The speech had no value and if anything did harm but the court said, “Look we live in a free country and the First Amendment has decided for us that even speech which we think really is bad stuff even valueless speech is speech which is permitted.”
I agreed with that opinion but when I read various organizations, newspapers and the like saying, “Now that’s a good opinion in defending the First Amendment but that Citizens United is a bad opinion.” And I say to myself, “What’s going on here?” The movies of dogs being tortured to death serve no good purpose. At the least they trash society's lessons and indeed that they portray conduct that is illegal in every state in the country. But there we say, “We’ll protect that speech, when it comes to political speech engaged in by corporations unions we'll say they can’t do that.” Well I don’t understand that. I think that is wrong. Wrong as a constitutional matter, wrong as a First Amendment matter, and wrong as a public policy matter.
I mean, if you made me choose in the two cases, throw out the First Amendment now, social policy alone, I would say, well I mean, of course. Showing the murder an maiming of dogs and cats is awful as a social policy matter. Harmful in the sense that the animals might not even be killed for the filming and sale of it, harmful in what it teaches our children. Harmful to everything we believe about humanity so if you made me say, “Well you can only have one.” I would say, “Well at least protect political speech.” If you must throw bad speech over the side, political speech by definition isn’t bad speech it’s what we’re all about. And so by my lights Citizens United was a correct decision. And I find it disturbing that so many people whose views I often share but so many people who think that they are supporters of the First Amendment have denounced the Citizens United opinion.
Recorded on July 29, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
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Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.
In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.
But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?
In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?
Popularizing medical language
What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?
To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.
LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER
"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.
"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.
"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."
The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.
"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.
Too much reading causes... heat rashes?
But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.
Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."
In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.
"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."
Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."
Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.
"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."
Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?
People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.
JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW
There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.
For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.
"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.
"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."
In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.
"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.
"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."
Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.
"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.
"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."
This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.
"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.
The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'
"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."
So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?
"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.
Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.
"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.
But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."