Being a man of a certain age, I find myself taking a more active interest in my health lately. Those of you who fall into that GenX demo will understand. Your ability to tolerate that fifth glass of “whiskey neat” gets a little harder. The morning after a late night out—I mean after 10pm—gets much more painful. Worse still are those Sundays spent watching 13 hours of football, inhaling Taco Bell and washing it down with Bud Light, extracting a terrible price on Monday morning.
Then there’s the over-analyzing:
“Is that a new mole?”
“Did I put sunscreen on today?”
“Which pill is for my heart and which is for my hair?”
“My workout was so bad today; do I have low T?”
“I wonder if that fat freeze stuff really works?”
And then there’s the extra time and diligence spent on my food. Is that fish organic? Is that beef grass-fed? Is that chicken free-range? Are those Doritos ethically sourced? Ok, maybe not the last part, but you get my point. Whether it’s maturity, wisdom, or plain old fear of death, we’ve all had the inner dialogue that goes something like “I’ve got to improve my [fill in the blank].” Literally no one, except maybe Jesus and Buddha, has never not said this (and before you ask, I’m making a blanket assumption that women go through the same exercise. Maybe not the same questions, but I’m willing to bet an appendage that the same theme exists).
So there I was looking for a diet where Vodka and Doritos were part of the “acceptable foods” list, when I came across this thing called the “5:2 Diet.” Apparently the latest fad in dieting, that is also being endorsed by reputable health experts, it is defined as:
The 5:2 diet, also known as The Fast Diet, is currently the most popular intermittent fasting diet. It was popularized by British journalist Michael Mosley.
It's called the 5:2 diet because five days of the week are normal eating days, while the other two restrict calories to 500–600 per day. Because there are no requirements about which foods to eat but rather when you should eat them, this diet is more of a lifestyle. Many people find this way of eating to be easier to stick to than a traditional calorie-restricted diet
I’ve tried it and it is a rather simple and straight-forward approach. As a fat man in a skinny man’s body, it works well with my Doritos and Vodka addiction. I find that despite the cravings, headaches, and generalized moodiness, eating whatever I want and fasting the other two days is surprisingly doable. What’s really interesting to me is that it’s also a useful strategy for lots of other habits too.
People are writing lots of books about the 5:2 technique, while others have created social groups to share stories about the power of 5:2 in their everyday lives. Whether it’s saving for a down payment for a house, improving your mood, or reinforcing your relationship bonds, the 5:2 mantra is a movement taking the world by storm.
While the act of “fasting” or organizing a set of behaviors or habits around a schedule isn’t new, in a world of instant gratification and “always on” fulfillment, we should give pause to this “what was once old, is now new” lifestyle trend. Humans aren’t good at “cold turkey” but they’re very good at change. Thousands of years of natural selection and, frankly, religion, have assisted us here. And therein lies, I think, a great solution for our current hand-wringing angst over the upcoming US mid-term elections.
(Sidebar: I’m going to ignore the 2016 election, the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, and Russian Collusion for now, in hopes of looking through the windshield to a solution rather than through the rearview mirror for a verdict.)
Influencing voters with cogent positions of logic and “what’s good for our democracy” have never been the go-to strategies for politicians, let alone foreign governments. Even our noblest, best, highest-minded politician knew this. As Daniel Okrent writes in his book “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” our first president was was quite skilled at getting the voters what they wanted:
When twenty-four-year-old George Washington first ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he attributed his defeat to his failure to provide enough alcohol for the voters. When he tried again two years later, Washington floated into office partly on the 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider and beer his election agent handed out—roughly half a gallon for every vote he received.
While there are numerous other examples of politicians plying their constituents since the birth of our democracy, it was for these very reasons, that during the 1800s and into the early 20th century, many states passed laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol during election days. And, up until 2008, eight states in the US still had these laws firmly in place! These folks knew that alcohol had an out-sized impact on judgment and decision-making and that many were at its mercy in the voting booth. The easiest way to level the playing field was to eliminate any one, well-financed individual or organization from having the ability to skew the electorate in their favor.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and who is the single biggest dopamine dealer on the planet? Facebook, of course. One, all-powerful company controls the creation, curation and distribution of the most powerful drug humankind has ever known. A drug so important to our existence that our brains have been evolved over thousands of years to search it out, at the expense of our own health and the welfare of our offspring. Dopamine provides an instant high while re-wiring our brains to optimize for more and more of it. It’s the physiology behind opioid addiction, it’s why we check our phones 100+ times a day, and it’s why our children are so well-behaved when it’s being dispensed via our tablets.
In a world where authenticity is becoming increasingly difficult to detect, if not impossible to validate, where the very definition of “is” has been debated and defended by the highest office in the land, and where the very meaning of gender and race are subject to “one’s truth,” why not focus on the distribution problem instead of the the drug problem? Rather than debate your truth or mine, your news outlet or mine, or what the meaning of “real” and “fake” are, why not simply level the playing field? Why not, like those wise men of old, take a page out of their playbook?
Let’s shut down social media for 3 days prior to all national elections. Let’s call it the “5:2 Facebook Fast.”
I can feel you cringing, but hear me out. As a former cybersecurity guy, we know the best and surest way to dissuade a hacker from attacking a system is to build in friction. In the analogue world, this is “two forms of ID” and in the digital world it’s called “two factor authentication.” The idea is to just introduce enough steps in a process to make hacking that process economically and psychologically less appealing. It doesn’t mean that these systems can’t be hacked; only that there’s not much fun and certainly no scale in it. After all, people, including the governments and intelligence agencies they work for, are basically lazy. Not in a bad way, but evolution has optimized our genes to conserve energy, including energy associated with compromising or targeting a system.
It’s exactly this tendency that motivates “survival of the fittest.” I don’t have to be the fastest gazelle on the Serengeti plain, just the second slowest. A house with a “protected by security company” sign is 80% less likely to be robbed—whether they actually have a security system or not. How many times have you avoided reading the actual quote versus the headline about the quote? It’s all about friction and effort.
A “5:2 Facebook Fast” is basically the same thing. Instead of trying to get politicians to save us or relying on the thousands of twenty-somethings hired by Facebook to tell us what is real and what is fake news, let’s just turn it all off. Let’s just engage in “reduced social media calories” for a few days. Talk to our neighbors, trusted advisers, or God forbid, show up at a town hall and ask real questions of real people. What’s the harm?
I’m old enough to remember when the television turned off by itself. At midnight, the national anthem came on, a video of the flag, bald eagles, and fighter jets dotted the screen, and then nothing…a rainbow, no programming, or a message saying we’ll be back at 6am tomorrow. Yes, that really happened. It was time to go to bed. Or at least time to stop watching the tube.
Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg will read this (I hope) and cry foul. Politicians (especially the ones from California) will howl that this is a First Amendment infringement, and a big one at that. And many people, maybe even you, will worry about how you’ll get your news, upload photos of your favorite meals, or find that important meme. But I say, “too bad because this is for your own good.” It’s time to stop staring at your phones, engaging in meaningless and hateful virtual tirades. Time to re-engage the analogue world and all the people in it.
Any company that controls the thoughts, feelings, and connections of 2,000,000,000 people must be held to a higher standard. Instead of buying blimps to push its drugs out to more people in undeveloped continents; instead of building an app for 13-year-olds to get them addicted sooner, and instead of spending philanthropy on subversive ways to grow a user base, really try to embrace “making the world a better place.” As a token of our appreciation, we will vote in a tax break equivalent to the lost revenue during these 3 days.
As for the First Amendment argument, well, it’s just plain wrong. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Point A: Facebook is not a public commons for the welfare of the people to make the world a better place. It is a commercial, for profit, entity whose product is you and whose revenue is driven by the efficient harvesting of you, your interests, and activities. It’s a commercial enterprise.
Point B: The Supreme Court has made clear that not all speech is equal. The high court has identified five areas of expression that the government may legitimately restrict under certain circumstances. These areas are speech that incites illegal and subversive activity, fighting words, obscenity and pornography, commercial speech, and symbolic expression. Regardless of your personal views, the government has and does limit certain forms of speech. It’s why we have cable TV ratings, the Patriot Act, and why we no longer have Janet Jackson doing Super Bowl halftimes. Some things just aren’t acceptable.
Point C: If A and B are true, then it follows that collusion, interference, or any other foreign meddling in our democracy constitutes some form of “…illegal and subversive activity…” and maybe even “…fighting words…” And since we know that determining real from fake is hard (2000 years of philosophy has taught us this, as well as the “your truth” movement) and that the biggest issue with social media today is not that fake news is new, rather, that it’s been weaponized through the sheer volume and velocity of its effectiveness. The best, most “tried and true” tactic is to introduce friction into this weapon of mass disinformation.
Just like reducing my Doritos and Taco Bell for two days out of the week, I am simply proposing we do the same—during a time that we’re all extremely susceptible. In my case, the weekends are the worse. Lots of down time with the vodka bottle, challenging me to make bad decisions or send regrettable tweets. Saturday and Sunday football filled with commercials about beefy quesadillas and taco shells made from Doritos (and why hasn’t that inventor won a Nobel peace prize? After eating one, or was it five, I couldn’t fight my way off the sofa.)
In the present context, elections—especially hotly contested ones—seem to be a very susceptible time for the members of democracies, generally.
Think about all the benefits. How many of you have said you’re quitting social media anyway? How many of you failed? (Spoiler alert: all of you.) They always say the first step to better eating is cleaning out your pantry - this isn’t even that bad since it requires zero work on your part!
Pew Research published a report (https://pewrsr.ch/2NArUPN) that 7% of Americans felt “confident” they could spot a bot online. The other 93% are right. The point is, if we live in an age where telling the difference between a bot and a real person is increasingly impossible, where companies are making video-editing software so good that spotting fakes is almost impossible, and where we have to rely on young, recent snowflakes to tell us what is “real” news, why not try something totally different? Why not attack the volume and velocity problem head-on?
Imagine having to talk to your friends, colleagues, or neighbors about issues that matter to you, to your community, and to your country. Imagine getting to be a participant in your democracy rather than just a spectator. Instead of picking a tribe, oops, I mean a channel to watch, you actively engaged in human interactions that entertained all sides of an issue and didn’t harbor anonymous A-holes? Finally, imagine how nice it would be to not have to unfriend that militant from high school who will not leave you alone? Oh, and no anxiety-inducing red badges on your phone?
Fake news is not new and election influence has been around since the creation of liberal democracy. What’s different this time is the volume and velocity with which ideas—good, bad, and manufactured—can be “carpet bombed” on dopamine-addicted smartphone users. That’s the real danger here. So let’s look to our ancestors for answers. Let’s try turning off the dopamine channel…not forever, just for a few days. A simple fast, a 5:2 diet of the mind, to remind us what it’s like to walk down the street, making eye contact with other humans who share our experience. Let’s try turning down the volume of noise, pulling our heads up while improving our posture, and engaging in real, substantive conversations about the kind of future we all want.
Let’s try being human again.