The 10 Year Challenge and the End of Denial

7 things we can learn from #2009vs2019

Posted Jan 24, 2019

These are the days of miracle and wonder

This is the long distance call

The way the camera follows us in slo-mo

The way we look to us all

—Paul Simon


Beyond the ice bucket challenge

In recent weeks, a fascinating new “challenge” has emerged on social media, a kind of “before and after” movement to post images of ourselves 10 years ago compared to the present. Doesn't 2009 seem so long ago? Much longer than 10 years? What. The. Heck. Happened? It's a bit of a shocker, and kind of fun, yet undeniably points out the obvious: we're actually mortal. It brings up multiple questions. First, why now? And secondly: Before and after what, exactly?

Here where we are perched on the cusp of the 21st century, we think we are advanced. What we fail to consider is the fact that technology is moving so quickly that 50 years from now, maybe sooner, people will look back on us the way we look back on sepia-toned photos from the late 1800s, with their steam engines, polished brass, big-bustled dresses, impossible handlebar moustaches, snake-oil salesmen, and the wonders of modern cities scraping up to the skies.

Looking back to move forward

The emergence of this #2009vs2019 trend has thrown into sharp relief not only who we were 10 years ago but also what our world looked like. The razor-sharp focus on a decade is of note. A decade is a unit of time of specific meaning and value for human beings because it is more change than one can easily deny, but not so much that it is impossible to consider. We can be foresighted and avert apocalypse, in principle. The 10 Year Challenge gives us a useful time frame for collective self-reflection, long enough to see meaningful change and share in a moment of presence, yet not long enough to overwhelm our capacity to contain our emotions and trigger flight from reality, and avoidance that there are serious issues which are not just going to go away. We need as much of this reflective pause as we can get.

Free association to 2020

It is also interesting to put on our psychoanalytic hats and associate freely about what this year signifies as the year leading up to 2020. One consideration is that it is an election year—a potential round 2 for Trump. Another thing about 2020 is that hindsight is 20/20. If we were a bit smarter, foresight would be 20/20, and we wouldn’t have to learn things the hard way. That’s the point of the neocortex, of dreams and fantasy, to make imaginary mistakes by running realistic simulations, to pay the imaginary price rather than pay with human suffering. So far, as a species, hindsight is the best we’ve been able to muster. Better than other animals, heading in the right direction, but not there yet.

Here’s a place where benign artificial intelligence could help, augmenting human intelligence and compensating for our mistrustful, threat-biased ways of seeing each other. There’s also something about the number itself that just feels radically different from 2019. The future is now. 2020 used to represent a science fiction future that would never actually arrive. The setting for dystopian worlds in “V for Vendetta” and “Robocop” — a date so seemingly far in the future that it felt like The Future. And here we are now on the cusp of it.

7 things the 10 Year Challenge means

This sets the stage to discuss seven reflective takeaways on this moment in our culture as seen through the distorted lens of the 10 Year Challenge—to psychoanalyze it, if you wish. This is a reflection on meaning to bring order to another runaway viral trend, and capture what is more immediate, real and enduring. Since 2009, time has sped up, data has exploded, and we need things in byte-sized pieces. With such a short attention span, we want the headlines, bullet points. Here they are:

1. Life is fleeting. It’s good to feel that life is unlimited and that there is all the time in the world. This is how the youthful exist. Many people start to notice changes in how we think about time and how we spend it — or “waste” it as we get older. The older folks tend to feel like you blink and it’s gone. The youthful sense of having all the time in the world is a good place to maintain, but there has to be a happy medium. Living in the moment does not preclude planning, does it?

2. We each do better when we all do better. We need each other for support. Sure, a rich person might be able to live in isolation, but what kind of life is that? Certainly, a better world is one in which we know how to share and distribute resources. The need to build walls around ourselves goes way down when you aren’t surrounded by threats. As much as it can bring us together, social media can create a false sense of community and connection, leaving many in isolated, insulated groups.

3. We want to be present for the next 10 years. Many people are acutely afraid of the future, fearing it will be apocalyptic.  Fear makes us check out, and we miss out on our own lives. Increased worst-case-scenario thinking shows up in the news about climate change, fearsome new military tech, billionaires and scientists warning about the doomsday clock getting closer to midnight, the perils of renegade AI and biologicals, and the fears of annihilation many people discuss with me on a daily basis. When people are convinced we are on a one-way path to extinction, it leads to severe distress, increased emotional and behavioral problems, and amplified uncertainty. If we give in to fear, we will self-destruct, and so we ought to confront our issues to secure the future.  Freud’s prescription, “Where Id was there Ego shall be,” is more relevant today than ever before.

4. We want it to matter. Who doesn’t want their life to matter? It’s a basic existential thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe you don’t have to think about that, but instead focus on hand-me-down goals from prior generations, often adopted without a second thought, and externally generated, often empty-feeling purpose. There’s no doubt, and often there’s no awareness of alternatives. Yet more and more people, in my experience, are beginning to question how we choose to spend our time, seeking to maximize our experience both in terms of meaning and pleasure. 

When we look at these photos of ourselves and others, the substance of our lives becomes clear in an immediate, relational way. Virtual presences, real emotion, real meaning. The increasingly sophisticated interconnection is causing an irreversible evolution in culture, a fast mixing process, which is easier for some cultures and nations to deal with than others, but diffusing identity regardless. We don’t know where it is leading us, but we are going along with it. Caught in this political, emotional and socio-cultural free-fall, 2009 is an anchor, providing context and perspective from a time before everything seemed to go helter-skelter.

5. We grieve and celebrate what is passing. We all know what it is like to feel loss in our circles. We see mass shootings regularly on the news. Suicide rates are on the rise. Nearly 20 years later, we are still grieving 9/11, still memorializing it, especially in America and sympathetic nations. The sorrow is overwhelming, though we find ways to mark it. But time is uncertain. We don’t have any particular feelings about 2009 until we catch a glimpse of that change while it is happening, thanks to a flood of 2009 vs. 2019 challenges streaming across our social media.

6. We are learning from prior generations. We don't want to make the same mistakes, and in particular we want to have fuller lives, earlier on. Research in health and medicine has accelerated, and people with access to resources are starting to really benefit from those advancements. We understand wellness in a whole new way. If you play your cards right, you could live a really long time. If you have risk genes, you monitor them closely and act soon. Risk stratification allows for more efficient prevention. Science is starting to make some headway on anti-aging interventions, from exercise and rest, to meditation, to nutrition, to gene therapies, to stem cell and related patches, to artificial organs, to online physical and emotional health tools that actually work. In medicine, there is a new shift to “values-based practice” (VBP), for example. VBP, the “philosophy of practice,” complements evidence-based medicine, putting core values such as ethics and clinical excellence alongside recommending treatments based on research.

7. We are afraid we are going to lose everything. Is this a rational fear? What are the actual odds of something terrible happening? And does that change on a global scale or with and local disasters? As a 19-year veteran disaster responder, I can tell you disasters keep happening, and they are different every time. Better to prevent and prepare than pick up afterward.

At the end of the day, maybe these challenges themselves are engineered to capture data about social behavior or facial recognition data, as current Facebook pundits proclaim. When we all join mindlessly in what may simply be a marketing scheme, we risk losing our uniqueness and value in the process. Yet at the same time, marketing may go along with our values, in an ideal world, so that what works commercially in social media also brings about tangible, positive change. 

Prehistoric times

Comparatively speaking, we are living in prehistoric times. We treasure our beloved internet and cell phones, and how the whole world is available to us at the touch of a button. We marvel at early machine learning and emerging tech, blockchain, cryptoeverything, quantum computing, nanotech, robotics, and the promise of virtual and augmented realities, medical advances and extended longevity.

We also now face the darker side that comes with such advancement — cyberwarfare, hypersonic missiles, invasion of privacy with big data, facial recognition on every security camera, and Big Data becoming Big Brother. The technology we have now is the merest hint of what is to come.

It's harder than ever to deny that the greatest threat to humanity is humanity itself. Psychoanalytically speaking, we project our fantasies on the world, and with advanced technology coupled with projective identification, turn them into realities, substantiating both destruction and creation.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps the best example of how we are creating the world in our own image. When AI starts to outsmart us (it will have to first learn how to outsmart itself), when AI adopts such a birds-eye view that no matter what we do to be unpredictable, we are running around like ants on the ground, it may not be clear whether we are living in a utopia or a dystopia. What will be clear is that we will have to re-think what it means to feel like we have choices about our preferences and decisions. We are right now living within the quickening, a time when our world is giving birth to a new culture.

The fate of the Earth is in our hands

What we do now will have a massive impact in the future, a la the “butterfly effect.” If we were more organized, more coherent together, we would hit pause and implement emergency plans. Alas, we are divided, and so there is as yet no global consensus on doing what it would take to ensure our shared future. For some, the plan is to band together, a human family, win-win. Compassion would hit a critical mass if enough people embrace a mutually caring, inclusive worldview. For others, the plan is to wipe out the competition, to scan for and seek to contain or eliminate threats, a zero-sum game. We are caught on the horns of an evolutionary prisoner's dilemma involving two incompatible survival strategies.

On one hand, the call for defensive action, war, activating self-protective impulses, is understandable and appropriate. On the other hand, from a more humanistic perspective, with greater curiosity and less retaliation, responding with defensive aggression just feeds the monster, the vicious cycle of human destructiveness.

These two perspectives don’t jibe well with one another. We haven’t made much progress recently in sorting out this kind of conflict. We see the cracks underneath us, beneath which lie the same dark forces which plagued the last century, bone-chilling horrors which happen to this day including extermination, famine, migrations, genocide, and other atrocities which reflect a deep aspect of sociopathy ingrained in human nature.

Social media makes more people aware of our capacity for atrocity in a way we never could be before. This makes denial impossible, eventually, when we reach a critical mass of awareness. We’re not there yet, but more and more people are online, and more and more people have enough of their basic needs met to turn their attention to loftier considerations than day-to-day survival.