Where Are We When We’re Online?

As technology enters evermore spheres of our lives, we spend more and more time in virtual space.

By Frida Oskarsdottir

While we humans have always looked to whatever forms of entertainment were available as escapism, smart devices have taken our ability to escape full circle, allowing us to participate in an alternate virtual space. I’m not talking about VR, I’m talking about group chats, work emails, status updates, and online dating. In science fiction, cyberspace is depicted as an infinite stream of 1s and 0s, zooming past each other against the inky black universe. We now reside in this mysterious void: “talking” to loved ones, “laughing” through emojis, “experiencing,” “being” “online”.

Even before the release of the first iPhone, it was clear that our actions in the virtual realm didn’t always mirror those outside of it. Psychologist John Suler describes this as “online disinhibition effect,” or more plainly put, why people act insane online. According to Suler, six factors comprise the phenomenon: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority. Both violent trolling (toxic disinhibition) and surprising acts of kindness (benign disinhibition) can result from this volatile cocktail of factors, much like the varying results of any type of cocktail consumption. To extend the metaphor, some people will (usually drunkenly) tell you that it is our “true selves” that come out after a few drinks. Can the same be said for who we are online?

As people become comfortable living part of their lives online, we begin to normalize behavior that deviates further from what we might accept in real life, even from ourselves. We can do this because there is always someone a little bit nuttier than you posting too much about their marital issues or 25 consecutive identical selfies; the bar gets pushed further away from reality. Sure, you interrupted a meal to take a picture of your food and share it to an audience that includes your third grade teacher and your coworker from 11 years ago, but it’s not like you’re arguing with a bot on Twitter, right? Right??

Over the past two years, the actress Busy Philipps has emerged as an Instagram story darling by sharing mundane aspects of her life with her ravenous viewers (author included). Much has been written about her success with this endeavor versus as an actress, but what is missing from the discourse is how bizarre it is for her to have an endless, real-time, one-sided conversation with hundreds of thousands of strangers about her medical history, small children, and job. In fact, we don’t think it’s weird at all; she is simply an early adopter of a new social media platform. And lo and behold, the rest of us followed: Instagram reported last summer that over 250 million of its 500 million users posted stories every day.

Philipps’ brand is authenticity; we are to believe only the narrowest sliver exists between the woman we see on our screens and the one we could run into on the streets of L.A. But the thing about virtual space is that we can be whoever we want. We don’t have to enter until we’re perfectly groomed; so we can plan out exactly what we say in just the right amount of characters. The more time we spend as this version of ourselves–snarkier, funnier, prettier, smarter– the more comfortable we become, but the differences between the screen and the person behind it remain.

Millions of people looking for love– one out of four straight couples and two out of three gay couples now meet online–have to contend with these discrepancies, which are more complicated than just lying about your height on your dating profile. Articles are devoted to exactly how much time should be spent flirting online before meeting up; too much time means the other person is probably married, too little time means it’s just sex. What is implicit but unstated in these guides is that who we are online is fundamentally different, otherwise we’d never have to meet. When you do agree to get together the opportunity for virtual space is far from diminished. Maybe you answer some emails while you wait at the bar, rather than anxiously wondering if your date will recognize your unfiltered face. If it goes well, you might text your friends about it on the way home, and then dive into everything your date has posted publicly on social media.

While online dating presumes that at a certain point you get together and see where it goes in the real world, virtual space still finds its way into more established relationships. I might say goodbye to my husband in the morning before work but as soon as I step outside of our door, I can instantly connect with him at any point throughout the day. There’s no need to wait until we occupy the same physical space to share my thoughts with him. Imperceptibly but undeniably there is a difference between seeing one another at the end of the day and having been in constant communication. So too is there a difference between a disagreement online or in person; one of us might wait to bring up some annoyance at a careless remark made until we’re chatting online, putting space between our feelings and reactions. On more than one occasion I’ve found it easier to resolve a squabble online than in person, only to realize when we are back in the same room I’m not quite over it. On the other side of the coin, you only have to Google “online flirting cheating?” to see that for a lot of people, virtual space can get a little crowded.

In the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You,” the focus is a society wherein a growing population of people implant devices into their brains that record everything they see, allowing for total recall and playback of memories and the ability to jump into the virtual past at any moment. There are obvious benefits to the technology; we’re shown examples of improved homeland security and child safety. But slowly, the ways the “grain” impacts the protagonist become more sinister, from preoccupation with a lackluster job interview or obsessing over his wife’s interactions with another man at a party, to watching an old memory of himself having great sex while having boring sex. The most unsettling part comes after the TV is off, when you think about how close we are to realizing a similar future of full integration between ourselves and technology. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe before we travel to the end of the virtual universe we’ll come up for some fresh air, blinking in the sun. Our kids might eschew the iPhone 22S for a rotary or a telegraph, rolling their eyes at the infinite photos their parents used to take of themselves, floating in the cloud.

The Spaces Between Us

We examine space in some of its many forms, from our commutes to our offices, our dating habits to our personal comfort zones.

Space: a five letter word that simultaneously represents nothing and everything. Whether you are being asked to give someone room to breathe or considering our glorious galaxy above, space can be a real mind fuck. From “Are we alone?” to “Should I leave him alone?”, space will always be one of those heavily laden terms that forces us to examine ourselves, dig into our heads, and search for answers.

For our third podcast, Frida, Monica, and Laura examine space in some of its many forms, from our commutes to our offices, our dating habits to our personal comfort zones. So take your protein pills and put your helmet on, and join us as we head into the great beyond.

A Cryin’ Shame

Why are tears a symbol of weakness?

by Gabrielle Sierra

You are frustrated during an argument and suddenly find yourself crying. Now you feel an added layer of emotion: shame. You are angry at your body for betraying your inner angst and furious with yourself for looking fragile. All the while a male counterpart is awkwardly attempting to console you and just making the whole thing worse.

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We have all been there time and time again. Because guess what? Women cry more than men. In fact, according to science we cry a lot more than men. In the book Why Only Humans Weep, scientist Ad Vingerhoets writes that women cry an average of 30 to 64 times a year, while men cry about 6 to 17 times a year. That is a big difference, and one that would seemingly imply that it isn’t super out of the ordinary to see a woman shed a tear or two.

So if we all do it, why do we still feel like there is a shame in crying? The answer is undeniably built into our social interactions from a very young age.

As children we are taught to associate crying with weakness and the need for help. Babies cry when they are uncomfortable or hungry: basic needs that cannot be satisfied without help from adults. As we get older we learn to satiate our own needs; we get water when we are thirsty, we wear a coat if we are cold. Crying becomes something that is seen as an option, rather than an impulse, and the people we see crying in films and on television are women. Women in distress, women who have been scorned, women who are afraid.

As a result we associate not crying with strength and masculinity. People who cry a lot are told to “man-up” and those who show fear or distress are told to have some “balls.” This generalization stretches so far that it goes in the opposite direction as well; women or girls who don’t cry at sad films or during emotional life moments are often deemed to be cold or robotic..

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Ultimately it is a very confusing message to receive from a very young age. We are expected to cry, but when we do cry we are deemed to be weak. We are expected to be the emotional ones in relationships, yet expected to control these same emotions at work, the place where we spend a large portion of our days.

Most of all it is confusing and frustrating to have to defy the biological factors that cause women to cry more often than men.

One of these biological elements is a pretty simple one; the size and depth of female tear ducts. Multiple studies have shown that women’s tear ducts are actually shorter and shallower than men’s tear ducts, and are therefore more likely to overflow. This would mean that although men may well up, the chances of them actually showing any tears are smaller.

And as with many of our body-related woes, we can also thank our hormones. Dr. Jodi J. De Luca, a licensed clinical psychologist whose research focuses on emotion, behavior, and relationships, says that since our female bodies are “genetically programmed to give life,” we are chock full of extra hormones. Hormones men do not have.  

“These hormones also affect our thought, emotion, and behavior,” says De Luca. “So, whether we like it or accept it or not, many women would report that they are more emotionally vulnerable – and cry more – for a certain period of time before their period.”

(Not to mention during your period, or while pregnant or going through menopause.)

Testosterone, on the other hand, may actually inhibit crying, giving men the chance to feel sadness or frustration but not have it manifest itself in large drops rolling down their cheeks. In this way men can sidestep being called “emotional”.  

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In the end the only way our feelings of shame associated with crying will change is when we see tears as a normal biological function. Much like someone sweating when they get nervous or shaking when they are afraid, crying is something normal and (for the most part) healthy.

So next time you run to cry in a bathroom stall at work, or fight back tears during an emotional argument with a coworker, consider the upside of female tears: women feel more comfortable crying in front of friends and loved ones, an intimacy and experience most men do not share. Additionally, a “good cry” can not only be therapeutic and cathartic, but it can be healthy. Lastly, more tears for frustration or sadness also means more tears for joy, and crying because you are happy is one of the best feelings.

Most importantly of all, consider the power of your tears and attempt to harness this embarrassment for good. As our human compass Tina Fey wrote in her book Bossypants, “Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”

May We Admire You: SugarTool

A chat with Kirthika Parmeswaran, the CEO of SugarTool, a neonatal health app.

May We Admire You is our column in which we shine a spotlight on someone we think is pretty kick-ass. Our goal is to honor the accomplishments of a person, company, or group we respect and to expose their awesomeness to the world.


Frida Oskarsdottir spoke to Kirthika Parmeswaran, CEO of SugarTool, an app in development focused on neonatal health that was recently a finalist in the Penn Center for Innovations AppItUp competition. Kirthika and her all-women team of physicians envision a future where new mothers are empowered with medical knowledge about their newborns, and as a result, their babies are healthier.

Frida: So tell me more about SugarTool.

Kirthika: SugarTool is an evidence-based, digital health app focused on the screening and treatment of low blood sugar conditions in newborn babies, called neonatal hypoglycemia. One in three babies in the United States is actually at risk for this condition, and it’s a growing risk. There are a few reasons; the baby could be pre-term or born to a mother who is diabetic or has gestational diabetes. A newborn brain is dependent largely on glucose, and at birth, the regulation of glucose is very sluggish. An adverse effect of this is that it can lead to seizures or even brain damage. Our goal is also to shine a light on all these issues.

Frida: Before founding this company, were you involved in the medical field?

Kirthika: Actually, my background is in telecommunications. I began my career in research and development and did a lot of work in emerging technologies, but I got intrigued by this notion of bringing new ideas to market. I got a degree in technology management, which got me more into the business side of tech.

Most recently I became involved with the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI), which is part of the University of Pennsylvania. PCI’s goal is to incubate the technology. The way it works is that there are “founders,” who are subject matter experts. In our case, the founders are physicians working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. PCI matches founders with folks with business and product development expertise, like me. So I came in as a CEO with the aim of taking it to market.

Frida: Where are you at now in the process of bringing SugarTool to the market?

Kirthika: This is a really early stage, actually! SugarTool was formed through PCI’s AppItUp competition earlier this year. Out of 300 entries, we were chosen along with five other applicants in the end. Right now, we’ve just begun doing pitches, looking at other sources of funding, and talking to people throughout the eco-system.

Frida: What do you think it takes to get chosen out of 300 competitors?

Kirthika: In this case it was the problem we’re tackling. It has to be something unique and something that brings true value. The reason I joined this company was firstly that I was a gestational diabetic mother during one of my pregnancies, and I had no clue what to do, because I wasn’t from the medical field. I want to be in the position that I can empower other moms and other people with this problem.

It’s unique in the technology field because we see a lot about driverless cars, artificial intelligence. If you see medicine, it’s focused on oncology. But often people aren’t focusing on something as fundamental as newborn care. It’s a niche problem with enough challenges that it’s made for an exciting and interesting topic to get into.

Frida: In terms of the logistics of using the app, is this something to be used by new mothers and clinicians, or just one or the other?

Kirthika: That’s a big part of our offering. First, we’ll have a risk assessment for babies for certain conditions, including neonatal hypoglycemia. Secondly, there will be a cognitive, or machine learning, aspect. To answer your question, the third aspect brings together the nurses and doctors at the hospital, the pediatrician, and the mother or caregiver. Malpractice suits have come from babies not being screened properly before discharge, then being rushed to the ER later. We want to bring an integrated view across these different people.

Frida: What would you say you spend your time doing in the role of CEO?

Kirthika: Definitely being a product evangelist. It has to come from passion, you have to be clear, and you have to be able to drive the product. I’m talking to so many different people all the time! Then there’s product management, looking at the market, positioning, how to build a profitable business. The founders and I don’t want to be limited to the United States, we want this to be global. There are countries where mothers cannot even reach hospitals, and as a mobile app, SugarTool could be a form of global outreach.

Frida: Is it quite unique to have a start-up team that’s all women?

Kirthika: That is one thing that we are very proud of! In this case, a lot of us are mothers and we have this inclination to do better for other mothers. I think there should be many more all-women teams and I’m sure there are a lot that we don’t even know about.

Solar and the City: A Day with Brooklyn SolarWorks

As the High-Strung ambassador for the Power chapter, Frida joined a group of New Yorkers for a rainy-day tour with Brooklyn SolarWorks, put on by New York Adventure Club.

By Frida Oskarsdottir 

 

As the High-Strung ambassador for the Power chapter, Frida joined a group of New Yorkers for a rainy-day tour with Brooklyn SolarWorks, put on by New York Adventure Club.

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Just last week, The New York Times reported that in 2016 the solar industry accounted for the largest job creation in the renewable energy sector with over 373,000 jobs. By comparison, the coal industry was responsible for only 160,000 new jobs over the same time period. While these figures are encouraging to renewable enthusiasts, a new White House administration means an uncertain policy future, giving some pause to even the most optimistic solar nerds.

In New York state, solar electricity generation has grown nearly 800% from 2011 to 2016, ranking it 10th in the country for installed capacity. Still, less than 1% of homes in New York are powered by solar. With aggressive goals to provide half of the state’s electricity through renewable sources by 2030, much more needs to happen. For many consumers there is still a disconnect between solar technology and their personal energy consumption. On a rainy Earth Day two weeks ago, I took a tour with New York Adventure Club — complete with Gowanus rooftop DJing and snacks from (where else?) Whole Foods — to learn more about one company’s mission to bring solar power to New York City. New York Adventure Club organizes all kinds of day trips around the city; the small group in attendance this day ranged from renewable energy aficionados to people who had been on tours with the company before and just thought it sounded fun. The tour consisted of small lectures and explanations given by co-founder of Brooklyn SolarWorks, T.R. Ludwig, as the group took in the company’s headquarters and workshop.

Along with his co-founders, Ludwig established Brooklyn Solarworks about two years ago. After over a decade in the industry and working for other solar installers, he says he saw room for growth which larger businesses were missing out on. “A lot of solar installers are focused on what we call a suburban pitched roof. Here in New York City our buildings don’t look like that. They tend to have flat roofs, and as a result, a lot of this market has been ignored by large solar companies. Some will dip their toes in but most wind up leaving. What I saw when I started out is that there is a great opportunity here to serve homeowners.” It also helps that there is an ongoing boom in solar power across the country, which Ludwig attributes to lower costs and new financing mechanisms that significantly reduce the out-of-pocket cost to the consumer.  

In order to solve the flat roof dilemma and bring the success of solar power from the suburbs to New York City, Brooklyn SolarWorks collaborated with design firm Situ Studio in order to create what Ludwig calls “the lynchpin” of their innovation: the solar canopy.

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A solar canopy on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ Gowanus workshop. The company can use credits generated here to offset electricity costs at their headquarters down the street.

To accommodate the unique requirements for solar in the city, the canopy’s design serves a functional purpose. As we stood beneath the enormous canopy installed on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ workshop, Ludwig explains “there are a number of onerous fire codes that require very large swaths of the roof to be left open in case the fire department needs access. The canopy allows you to raise the system 9 feet above the roof, which is the height given by the FDNY determined by a 6-foot-tall fireman swinging an axe. With that threshold we developed our technology to get up 9 feet but also to be withstand high winds. There’s nothing else like it and there’s nobody out there doing what we’re doing.”

In addition to function, the company hopes the canopy’s distinct look will act as a sort of built-in marketing campaign. “We want people to get excited to have these on their roof. We think that it’ll have a good viral effect on people – talking to their neighbors, getting referrals. There’s really good data out there that suggests that that’s true; the more solar you see on a street, the faster it gets built.” While Brooklyn SolarWorks primary business is still traditional solar installation, Ludwig hopes the canopy, which the company has the proprietary rights to, will follow closely behind.

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A street view of the workshop, from which bystanders can see the canopy.

So how much does it cost? According to Ludwig, it’s cheaper than you might think. Typically in New York City, your Con Edison utility bill arrives in the mail and you pay it, no questions asked. Switching to solar asks the customer to make an upfront investment for long-term savings. Ludwig explains, “You’re basically prepaying for electricity for 25 years at a drastically reduced rate. If you think about your ConEd bill now, take 25 percent of that and put it out over 25 years.” If paying just a quarter of your bill sounds appealing, you can thank the many federal, state, and city incentives aimed at making solar as attractive as possible to the consumer. Ludwig states the biggest boon was the 2015 extension of the Investment Tax Credit, which alone pays the customer back 30 percent of the installation cost through a tax break. Despite President Trump’s coal-fueled promises, Ludwig doesn’t worry about the credit being cut short. “At this point as it will already sunset in a few years, so it doesn’t make sense for them to touch it and get bad press.”

Of course, in order to buy the canopy, you have to first buy the house. For renters in New York City, the options for solar power are more limited, but they do exist. Ludwig mentions “community solar,” which allows individual consumers who may not own their homes to buy solar credits from different providers (it’s a technical process including something called net-metering, Google it because if I try to explain it to you my hair might catch on fire). “It’s an evolving model,” Ludwig says, “you couldn’t do this even a year ago.”

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On the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ headquarters and office – a portable canopy also serves as cover from the rain.

The day ended with refreshments and music on another roof, this time atop the office headquarters a few blocks from the workshop. As some of us lamented the chilly weather, Ludwig mentioned that interestingly solar panels thrive on cooler sunny days and run much less efficiently in excessive heat. The rain pattered as a DJ spun music from solar-run turntables, and in spite of the clouds I felt keenly aware of the powerful sun behind them.