Book: That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life, by Garrison Keillor

Me reading Garrison Keillor book

My earliest memory of Garrison Keillor is a Minnesota Public Radio morning radio show that he created and hosted. It was a mash-up of music, stories, poems, and news, unlike anything else.  It kept me company as I showered, brushed my teeth, and then drove the long ride to work in the morning. I always felt Keillor was making things up as he went along, talking to me as if we were friends, albeit a one-sided friendship. This feeling has never gone away.  When his morning show ended, it reappeared sometime later as a live Saturday night radio show called “A Prairie Home Companion,” which became more formulaic, professional and better-sounding over the years. A favorite feature of mine was Keillor’s longish monologue referred to as the “News from Lake Wobegon.”

My very good friend, Kevin Brown, retiring after 40 years as a minister with the United Church of Christ,  once told me that when asked by seminarians how to deliver a good sermon, he told them to “listen to Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon, and do that.”  I remained a faithful listener and after I got married, managed to get Maggie to listen, too. We even attended a couple of live shows.  When we moved to Los Angeles and later to New York, I found the show on national public radio affiliates.  It was like staying in touch with my Minnesota roots. Keillor’s new book is a memoir, “That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life,” and tells the story of his life in remarkable detail and insight and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Keillor is an eloquent craftsman of the English language, with a highly distinctive voice. In the way music fans instantly identify after only a few bars of music a guitar being played by Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, or Eddie Van Halen, Keillor’s prose can only be his. I’ve no idea how or why this works, only that it does. The first few lines from the poem beginning his book are so clearly him.  I tested this on my wife, reading the poem out loud to her and then asking, “Any idea who wrote that,” and with hardly any hesitation, she replied, “Garrison Keillor?”

Young Steve with a kitten hiding a mini-new testament in his shirt pocket

This won’t be an objective review. Listening to his shows, having bought and read several of his books, I almost feel I know Mr. Keillor, that we are friends. I suspect tens of thousands of his listeners feel the same way.  We grew up sharing many of the same experiences. I knew he was brought up in a strict, fundamentalist sect of conservative Lutherans called the Plymouth Brethren.  I was raised in a similar Minnesota church group called the “Lutheran Brethren” who preached the concept of remaining separate from “the world,” and where the road to heaven forbade drinking, dancing, smoking, going to movies or hanging out with those who did.  Sundays began with Sunday school, followed by a church service that seemed to go for hours and sometimes an evening service and potluck supper.  Tuesday nights were Bible study, Wednesday choir practice, Fridays were youth night and Saturdays often had events dedicated to missions. No time for bowling, movies, dancing or, God forbid, hanging around the pool hall.  Keillor and I both tried playing sandlot baseball. For me, it was never more than 6-8 kids making up both teams and never organized by parents into little leagues with uniforms and coaches. He wasn’t very good and neither was I.  Keillor suffered at the hands of the Darwin brother bullies; for me it was the feared Johnson kids, who tortured my brother and me as we walked to and from school, unable to avoid passing their house.

In the book, I learned we shared other experiences.  Like me, Keillor had a congenital heart ailment that kept him out of organized sports and resulted in major open-heart surgery (OHS) later in life.  Doctors found both of our anomalies during routine football physicals.  Like me, Keillor listened to radio shows as a kid.  You should read his book to find his favorites, but for me it was the Long Ranger, Gunsmoke, and The Shadow as well as quiz shows with WCCO announcers like Jergen Nash, Charlie Boone, Randy Merriman, and Joyce Lamont, in a family whose first television set came many years after everyone else owned one. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, Fairmont, which seemed to have a lot in common with Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon.  I was surprised to learn Keillor’s town wasn’t all that small, Anoka, Minnesota, on the outskirts of Minneapolis. He’d experienced the “big city,” on his own when young.  No surprise was we share political views, a suspicion of the hypocrisy and selfishness of republicans, and more comfortable with the foibles and naive hope of democrats.  His show introduced me to musicians such as Leo Kottke, Butch Thompson, and Greg Brown of whom I became a lifetime fan. Albums and CDs from them line my shelves and fill the air with music in my home to this day.  When musical heroes like Mark Knopfler or the Notting Hillbillies appeared on his show, it was like he was discovering people I already knew.

Schaak Electronics transferred me to the Ridgedale Shopping Center in Minnetonka, where I competed every month with the highest producing Schaak store of all in the Southdale Shopping Center of Edina, Minnesota.  Of course, Schaak had a store in the Rosedale shopping center, too. When one of Keillor’s “sponsors,” Bertha’s Kitty Boutiques, had fictional locations in shopping centers named “Clydesdale, Chippendale, Mondale, Airedale and Teasdale,” I felt it was a nod to me as well as to my favorite Aunt Bertha, my mother’s older sister, who founded and ran her own department store in Billings, Montana.

Keillor and I also shared not being particularly good students. He was indifferent to school when my early response was outright rebellion, although I eventually migrated to indifference, the same as him. We both found a love of books early on and spent our school years reading.  My dismal school experience and discovery of books are chronicled here.  Keillor came across an early call to be a writer, covering local sports teams.  Although a couple of teachers took an interest in me and encouraged me when no one else did, I had no clue or idea of any skills I might possess that would allow me to make a living.  I loved and admired writers, but what they did seemed far beyond anything I could aspire to.  I could no more imagine writing as a career than being a professional baseball or football player.  When I began writing articles for trade publications to further my business career it was only possible because I’d married a professional writer, who took my early attempts and fashioned them into something editors would publish.  Years later I wrote for a variety of motorcycle magazines. By then I’d learned the rudimentary steps of figuring out the audience for a piece and getting words into print that would satisfy an editor.  Keillor and I share admiration for The New Yorker magazine.  As the number of my published stories increased, I began reading the New Yorker every week and thinking, “Wow, this is where real writers work.” Soon after becoming a subscriber, I noticed Keillor’s stories in the magazine and was thrilled.  It was as if someone in my family had cracked the big time. I was proud of him.

Like me, Keillor graduated college with no marketable skills and thus had to create his own job.  The book describes how the Prairie Home Companion came to be, a remarkable feat of a man creating a media conglomerate made up entirely of his own ideas.  It is an amazing story. Like Keillor, I left college with no skills and not a clue how to get enough money to pay for an apartment.  My college studies had gravitated to classes on religion and philosophy because those classes gave points for participation and oral debate. I was terrible at tests but never shy or afraid to speak up. Theater, too, was fun and I thrived on being in plays.  I loved radio and worked at our college station and later the local FM station as an engineer, but my voice was never good enough to get a show.  I drove a school bus to pay for my college studies and kept that up afterward.   Eventually, I found my niche in sales, getting trained in the art of helping someone spend money on the items my company wished them to buy. Unlike Keillor, no one had told me I had green teeth and I smiled willingly and often.  Finally I’d found a game that allowed me to compete and even win, exciting my competitive juices for the first time.  I won every sales contest Schaak Electronics conducted, made Rookie of the Year, assistant manager and finally got my own store, learning the basics of how to run a business while motivating others in a common objective. When a big company came along wishing to get into the computer retail business and hired me, they put me on a management track that required formal training. I’d missed in college but now was paid to attend.  It was in this new setting that I met my wife and had our first child and found something I could do well, although it wasn’t fun. While rewarding financially, it left me stressed, frustrated, and empty, feelings I suspect Keillor never felt in his career.

In writing his memoir Keillor discovered a clear structure to his life.  Where it had felt random at the time, merely reacting to seemingly insignificant and random situations, there was indeed a strong set of pivotal events, adjunct failures in certain areas which closed those paths off, and other accidental events that became crucial.  Avoiding sudden death through stupidity, Keillor looks back on key moments as being essential in making us who we are.

Keillor is 78 years old and in this book looks back on the seeming random events making him who he has become.  If he didn’t have the optical disorder that causes him to lose focus when looking up in the air, he might have caught the baseball launched high into the air toward his position at first base, gained popularity, and spent his life as a clothing salesman. Instead, he dropped the ball, leading further to his social ostracism which helped make all the difference.   If his heart valve issues had not occurred, perhaps he’d now be sore with a body damaged by early sports injuries.

Similar to Keillor, my uncles were carpenters and craftsmen, no doubt looking down on my inability to use tools without the risk of damage to myself or others. My cousins, perhaps observing the heavy toll a life of physical labor had taken on their fathers, also eschewed those careers, choosing banking, medicine, and desk jobs, and to this day I get along better with them than I ever did my uncles.

Keillor and I have both quit smoking and drinking and did it on our own.  I stopped smoking a year or so before meeting my wife in the late ’70s and quit drinking in 2016 before my second major open heart surgery. No counseling or therapy, just quit.

I loved reading A Minnesota Life.  It told me so much about the life of a man, a celebrity, out of reach but yet, someone with whom I felt close.   The point Keillor so eloquently makes in this wonderful memoir is that each of our lives has these seemingly insignificant occurrences, but without them, we’d have become very different people.  Those we touch and who touch us, make all the difference.  So perhaps, there is a memoir in all of us, and we should get to writing it.

Perhaps what I admire most about Keillor isn’t his writing of which he is justifiably proud.  Perfecting words on the page is one thing. Being eloquent and succinct while speaking is something else entirely.  Keillor is a master with the spoken word. Conveying stories in a way that makes you think he’s saying something spontaneous, just to you, as if sitting next to him on a train or plane or over a glass of lemonade in the shade of a porch on a hot day, the first time it’s ever been said.  This is exceptionally difficult to master and requires a great deal of practice and few understand the difficulty involved.  No one else who performs this task does so at the level of Keillor.

Steve on the board at KNXR in Rochester, MN

When I was working as an engineer at KNXR Radio in Rochester, Minnesota, one of our announcers devoted a portion of his show to interviewing people from the city on projects they were promoting. He would ask them into one of our studios, I’d motion from behind the glass we were rolling, and the interview would begin.  Ten to fifteen minutes later, the interview ended and my engineering work started. The first step was deleting the boring and superficial. Then came eliminating all the ums, ahs, hesitations, nervous coughs, and unintelligible sentences from the guest’s speech. Non-professionals sound horribly bad on tape when compared to professional announcers. This left 2-3 minutes of the original interview.  The host would then listen to the tape and eliminate another 30-50 percent, and we’d end up with a 60 – 90-second tight, informative interview. I recall being at an event where the president of the local Lion’s club had been interviewed on our station earlier in the week.  His friends were telling him how good he sounded.  He said something like, “Yeah, I didn’t do too badly.”  I recall wishing he could have heard the original tape before we’d fixed him. Keillor mentions in his book his aversion to rehearsal and practice of editing and fine-tuning to the last minute.  But the shows were all live, creating a magic that can occur in no other way. Some of Keillor’s most treasured memories are the shows that went on in the face of massive technical or weather-related catastrophes.

I don’t know anyone else with the ability to do this.  Joel Gray made a business of doing one-man shows sounding like spontaneous dialog. But in fact, the spontaneous appearing stories were lines in a play, performed almost identically each night. I’ve heard Keillor’s Lutheran-pastors-on-a-pontoon bit several times and each time, I’m halfway through it before I realize “Oh, I’ve “heard this story before.” Even master comedians like Jerry Seinfeld are criticized for doing the same show with the same jokes, year in and year out.  Keillor always sounds fresh and new, because it is.

As I read Keillor’s book I could hear him saying the words in my head.  No one else can write like that.  If you grew up in the Midwest, read this book.  If you’ve ever listened to the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” and liked it, you’ll love this book.  If you’ve ever thought, “I should write the story of my life,” you won’t find a better blue print or example on how to do so. Here is where to buy it.

END

Additional notes:  I’ve written about the energy and practice required to do something well and it relates to the thousands of hours Keillor no doubt put into being good at speaking live on the radio. You can find a bit of that here if you’re interested.

Damn science stuff

In today’s Arizona Republic newspaper one of our local columnists alluded to a certain political attack on science. Reports that “science got X or Y wrong” on topics from global warming to Covid-19 are frequent, leading me to conclude many people have a deep misunderstanding of what science is, actually.  Hopefully, I can shed some light.

Science isn’t a thing, it is a process.  It is a model consisting of specific steps designed to lead to the truth.  The scientific method dictates how experiments must be done. It specifies double-blind testing and other processes to eliminate the influence of bias or prejudice.  That is science, an objective, standardized approach to conducting experiments and, in doing so, improving the accuracy, consistency and reliability of the results.

No matter the field, from biology to physics and engineering, the process of making observations, testing, and continuing to revise a theory based on the results remains the same.  My friend Frank was involved in software testing in his business career.  He knows firsthand how the process works and why it was so important, even when his superiors at the time pushed to bypass testing or minimize its importance. A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation.  Theories are tested in experiments under controlled conditions.  Established scientific theories have withstood hundreds and even thousands of rigorous tests and close scrutiny to become what now embodies “scientific knowledge.” Sometimes people attempt to denigrate certain aspects of scientific progress by saying “it’s just a theory.”  Technically, in scientific terms, that is correct.  But gravity is also a “theory,” although I’m not sure how many people would wish to throw themselves off a cliff with the idea that “falling is just a theory.”

As additional scientific evidence is gathered, theories are frequently modified. On occasion, it can be rejected entirely if it cannot fit the new findings.  That does not mean all theories can be fundamentally changed.  Foundational scientific theories such as gravity, evolution, heliocentric theory, cell theory, plate tectonics, germ theory of disease, and many others aren’t going to change.  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explained it like this “…facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

The scientific method consists of the basic steps below and what led to the breakthrough in medicine responsible for my being here today. I’ve included a diagram of the scientific process at the end of this article from Wikipedia.

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Do background research.
  3. Develop a hypothesis, a proposed explanation for the question.
  4. Test the hypothesis in a manner that allows for proof or disproof of the hypothesis.
  5. Analyze the results of the testing.
  6. Formulate a conclusion.
  7. Refine and Repeat (back to #1).

This past year I read two history books on how open heart surgery began and how we got to where we are today.  One is “The Sublime Engine” by Stephen and Thomas Amidon.  The other is “King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery” by G. Wayne Miller.  The topic interests me, of course, as I had my first open-heart surgery when I was 15 years old in 1966. While far enough along back in 1966 to confidently predict good results, the dangers in this surgery have been reduced a hundredfold since then by repeated experiments which these books chronicle. My family and I were relieved that although I had two additional heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018, much of the medical mysteries surrounding my particular heart issues have been uncovered.  You can read more about those surgeries here.

What I like most about the scientific process is that once you’ve crafted the hypothesis you wish to test, you set up your experiment to not only find data to help prove your theory but also identify what factors, outcomes and data may potentially arise which could disprove or raise doubts about your hypothesis. You must try your damnedest to prove your hypothesis is wrong because in so doing, you test that it’s right. You can’t focus only on the affirmative – you must construct the negative arguments as well.  When setting up an experiment, there is a human tendency to want it to be true and to prove it is so.  The scientific process anticipates this human bias and compensates with how tests must be set up, such as double-blind testing, but also in requiring strict and exhaustive peer reviews.  Many scientists make it their cause to repeat experiments with greater thoroughness than the original work to cast doubt on conclusions.  In science, this is not bad manners but a highly-respected and important part of the process leading to the truth.  During my debate competitions in high school, my partner and I often did not know on which side of a proposition we would be arguing until just minutes before the competition began.  Learning to be equally persuasive and able to support both sides of the debate resolution greatly sharpened and deepened our understanding of the issues we debated.

While my parents were very religious, I am eternally grateful when the life of their child was on the line, they chose science and the medical establishment to find a solution to a defect in my heart that would have ended my life at a relatively young age.  Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse, it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions on hard evidence — evidence that is continually updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.

It is unclear to me what process those who claim science is “wrong” would have us use in its place. Should we adopt a “might makes right,” approach, where whoever’s bigger, stronger or richer gets to dictate what is true? Perhaps we should allow truth to be determined by whatever political party accumulates the most votes in a particular voting season? Frankly, the idea of accepting the opinions of actors, musicians, politicians or religious leaders over the findings of a group of established scientists just seems wrong.  Is it rational to decide the truth for your life based on slogans, wishful-thinking and superstition?

I’m grateful to be in the final third of my life.  I doubt I’ll ever see the results of a society of parents who choose to ignore science and not vaccinate their children against polio, smallpox, measles and Covid-19 and whatever else we vaccinate against.  Vaccines save lives.  Science saves lives.  I believe in saving lives through knowledge.  Science is the right path to gain that knowledge.

The scientific method is an ongoing process

Disproportionate High Value – Episode 2

After retiring, I stopped renewing subscriptions to 5-6 monthly business magazines, daily delivery of the WSJ, NYT and half a dozen trade publications. Electronic versions have not caught on with me, so call me a journalistic dinosaur.  I don’t care. I missed BusinessWeek and the WSJ Weekend Edition the most. Then a friend gave me a copy of THE WEEK Magazine. It grabbed me.  It seemed expensive ($74 for six months, $129 for a year), but I subscribed anyway. This weekly magazine is now on my very short list of things delivering massively more value than what they cost.  Let me explain.

First, the magazine is all about content – not advertising.  With revenue so dependent on subscribers, this publication really focuses on making things great for readers. The next peculiarity is not investing in reporters or original news gathering. They don’t spend a dime trying to be the first one to report anything. Instead, they deeply research what happens every week in the areas they cover, examine everything known about a topic and summarize the key points, giving full attribution to their sources. This has several benefits:

  • First, good writers and editors are paramount, and they have the very best. After twenty five years of having my articles published in a host of different magazines, I learned good editors were priceless.
  • Next, every article and topic covered is done with the fewest words possible. Again, it takes excellent editors to cut extraneous text. Since they reference sources for every article, if you want to go deeper, it’s easy to find the full story on which their summary is based.
  • They don’t tell you how to think and I love this. They report the facts of what happened.  As most stories generate opinions, they quote meaningful views from both sides.  My liberal-leaning friends have told me while they like The Week, they feel it leans a bit to the right. My conservative friends like it too, but say they detect a slight left-leaning view.  Threading the non-partisan needle is near impossible, but my sense is they get it right far more often than not.
  • Like Goldilocks, they’ve managed to find nearly the exact right number of pages to cover the week’s news. Not too many, not too few. Just the perfect number of topics and the mountain of information chiseled down to the elements for each. The magazine can easily be read, cover to cover, in one sitting.
  • And like Goldilocks with her perfect porridge, they include enough critical subjects to make me feel I’m (sort of) keeping up with the news. In just 40 pages, they cover the following: the week’s main stories, how they were covered, the controversy of the week (and who thought what about it), the USA at a glance, the world at a glance, people news, summary of the three best opinion columns in the US, three best from Europe and two international during the week and who agreed/disagreed and why. Then it’s on to the week’s best editorial cartoons, one page each on Technology, Health & Science, Arts & Music, best books, top film & home media, Food & Drink, Consumer section (best values), Real Estate (best properties on the market), Business Page, Personal Finance page, Best Business Columns and Obituaries, followed by the last word, a two-page summary on a topic the editors feel will appeal to readers. The subject areas never change and always stay in the same place. I love that.

If you’re interested, I found a page that shows all of their covers and appears to let you look inside any of them.

Lastly, I’ve heard you can try The Week Magazine for free, for six weeks, and cancel afterwards and not owe them anything.  I’ve no idea if that works or not, but if you want to try it for yourself, here is a link to their subscribe page.

P.S.  Maggie occasionally makes the recipe-of-the-week and we have always enjoyed them.

Analysis of movie: The Social Dilemma

Most readers know my newsletter is not a platform for political, religious or social commentary. This one may be a small exception. Although not political or religious, there is a bit of social commentary here. The documentary film, The Social Dilemma, is eye-opening, explaining how Facebook, Google, Instagram and other social media platforms work. I encourage you to watch it, become a bit more informed and make your own conclusions. My thoughts are below.

Official Trailer for The Social Dilemma

Without pointing fingers or demonizing anyone, The Social Dilemma, explains how the algorithms underlying social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook function, how they evolved and some of the impacts they have. The tech world has been figuring out and fine-tuning this software for quite a while.

Rob Kost, one of my best friends and Prodigy colleagues, reacted to my recommendation to watch this film, by saying: “All the more interesting coming from the guy who ran one of the first social networks.” Rob recalls correctly. In the early 1990’s I ran the communication products for Prodigy Services Company which covered Bulletin Boards, Chat and E-mail – one of the first large commercial social networks, along with competitors like AOL, CompuServe and Genie. We all learned a great many things creating and operating these forums, including the importance of not allowing anonymity — requiring people to own their words. Prodigy also took too long to discover the futility of attempting to censor what people are allowed to say. I was involved in lobbying Congress regarding the Telecommunications Act, which passed in 1996. It codified the distinction that online services were like telephone companies and could not be held responsible for what someone posted on one of their bulletin boards or chat systems, in the same way that the phone company could not be found legally responsible for bank robbers planning a crime using the telephone. The incident which prompted the historic court case, Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Company happened on my watch. A user on our Money Talk bulletin board created a post essentially calling a Long Island securities firm “a bunch of crooks.” This led to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Stratton Oakmont’s antics were the story behind the 2013 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio called The Wolf of Wall Street. But I digress. Through all of this we learned, and solved a lot of problems, but for the most part, we never anticipated what is happening today.

Later on I leveraged my hard-won online and Internet experience to become a founder and entrepreneur of early stage Internet and tech companies. One of those companies, Net Perceptions, productized a set of collaborative filtering algorithms into something we called a “Personalization Engine” in the late 1990’s. The software worked so well at predicting what people would like and buy, Net Perceptions found itself going public (NETP) and reaching a rather extraordinary market value in just over five years. I say this to acknowledge I’m not entirely innocent in all of this, but I can assure you, our goals were not evil. We just wanted to help clients sell more stuff by making their advertising messages more relevant and directed to those most receptive. But the seeds planted with this and other sophisticated software products have resulted in something far scarier.

Our country and the world face real and significant problems. The solutions require wisdom, collaboration, fair mindedness, informed and humble people. But social media platforms, the way they operate today, are contributing to, perhaps even causing, less of these things. We are inadvertently being manipulated by a financial model that depends on us viewing, clicking, linking, tweeting and buying into becoming something none of us wants.

The process works by de-integrating, slicing, dicing, grouping and dividing people into smaller and smaller groups, referred to as cohorts, silos, and bubbles. We are continually fed precise and unique bits of information that harden our prejudices, leading us into an “us vs. them” frame of mind, causing us to doubt the motives, goodness and patriotism of our fellow citizens. These feeds reinforce our thinking that we are “right most of the time.” It results in us having a very poor understanding of the ideas and concerns of people with whom we may disagree. Losing the feeling that “we’re all in this together” is a very bad thing. Imagine, in contrast, if the COVID-19 threat had been handled with an attitude of “something is attacking us, we need to band together to fight, find the best and most effective strategies and implement them together to ensure the fewest number of people are affected until we find a vaccine or cure,” instead of turning it into a political, “us vs. them” fight?

Social networks work because every click, every page we look at and for how long is recorded, tabulated, analyzed and organized into a picture or profile of us that allows us to be exploited. By exploited I mean specific advertising messages that are served to us along with additional content options that cause us to stay longer at one page or in one area. Another impact is the way search results are tailored to take advantage of our limitations, biases, weaknesses and proclivities. For instance, the film points out that if you enter the term “Global Warming,” into Google, the results you see are determined by where you live, your profile, and projected political ideas. Results for your search could be along the lines of “Global Warming Hoax” for one person and “Scientists Warn of Global Warming’s looming catastrophe,” to another. It just “depends.” People end up with their very own unique and individual versions of “the truth” at the loss of commonly accepted and acknowledged truths.

Lastly, and perhaps most disturbing, is how unprepared and unmatched we individuals are to deal with this level of manipulation. These algorithms, based on our behavior, are highly addictive, and seamlessly tap into our fears, phobias, anxieties, traumas, uncertainty, emotions, intellect, perceptions, vanities and desires. When being publicly pushed on the loss of privacy due to the Net Perceptions technology, I often countered with, “Hey, all they want to do is sell you more stuff. Are you telling me you don’t have the will to stand up to advertising that does not interest you?” Watching this movie, I realized the reality and implications have gone far beyond just showing ads.

Perhaps the most powerful impact of this film is the way it demonstrates the ease with which humans can be manipulated by bad people and those with heinous motives. These methods are not secret, difficult to understand or hard to use. These incredibly powerful tools, when aimed at our democratic institutions, have the greatest ability to cause us the imaginable harm. If you, for instance, wished to destroy the United States, our freedoms and democracy, the film lays bare precisely how easily it can be done. Equally scary to me, as a man with two awesome granddaughters, is the potential harm it poses to teenage girls. After watching the movie, I think I would prefer they carried around live grenades and open packs of cigarettes before allowing them more than a few supervised minutes a day with a smartphone.

Turn your smartphone off, shut down your iPad, watch the movie. Let me know what you think.

P.S. In October of 1997 I gave a speech at the Camden Conference in Maine. It outlines in more detail, my history and perspective on online communities. The speech was titled, “Electronically, We’re All Neighbors: A Perspective on Community.” It can be a bit cringe-worthy in places, but that is what happens when looking at things from twenty years or more ago. If you’re family, you’ll enjoy it.