On Social Media

Social media: online platforms that supposedly enhance our social lives, making us feel more connected to other people and places. I know that the virtual world certainly has its benefits; it lets us keep in touch with people, and to come across new people (I was lucky enough to first meet one of my closest friends through Tumblr) and new perspectives. Through online networks, we can also come by inspiration for various things (a word of advice here: Pinterest is indisputably the one for room decor inspo).

That being said, however, personally, I have found that whenever I am feeling particularly dissatisfied or mentally uneasy, I notice that there has been a spike in my social media activity (or, rather, inactivity, when I am scrolling aimlessly through my Instagram newsfeed). Granted, the direction of causation is unclear here: do I attempt to purge my sorrows by looking at aesthetically pleasing pictures of books, buildings, and beautiful things … or does the virtual realm actively contribute to my sense of sadness? Perhaps the answer to this is a more circular one, and an increasing number of us find ourselves trapped in the vicious cycle of the lofty expectations and subsequent dissatisfaction that social apps can impose on us.

You may have already heard about the shocking finding that receiving ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ on social media typically has psychological and physiological effects that parallel those of heroin consumption. Social media, our digital drug, has utterly consumed us. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr… the logos of these social media giants are plastered all over shop windows and tourist attractions. Many of us use them for hours on end, every single day.

Recently, numerous celebrities and other avid social media users have posted about their love-hate struggles with their digital lives. Many have taken the decision to dispose of their accounts altogether; many others have resorted to undertaking lengthy social media hiatuses.

As well as the plethora of mental health issues that can arise from or be worsened by the overconsumption of digital content, it could be argued that the epidemic of social media warps our reality, and replaces it with a falsified ‘Insta-reality’: our experiences are commodified, made as ‘picture-perfect’ as possible, in order to be shared online. It could also be argued that the online element only adds to our perceptions of reality: we naturally enjoy relaying our thoughts and experiences to others (often in a rather filtered way). Does it really matter if what is being said is conveyed through our screens in lieu of our facial expressions, voices, and physical proximity?

When analysing the effects of social media, it is easy to fall into the trap – that great human bias of ours – of looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, and at the present through a lens of mistrust. Life must have been sweeter back then – and interpersonal relationships more soulful or romantic – when our means of communication were limited to face-to-face interactions, and beautifully handwritten letters. In truth, this probably wasn’t the case: humans have always been great narcissists, nosy parkers, perfectionists, procrastinators, and so on. Social media simply provides a digital stage onto which the best (and worst) elements of the human condition can be projected.

Another crucial question to be asked: is there really a solid line that delineates between our ‘in-real-life’ and online selves? The postmodernist view is that the distinction between media and reality has become (irreversibly) blurred. ‘Real life’, surely, is a product of our experiences – whatever we see, touch, feel, smell, taste, and, most crucially, think. Our realities depend on the manner in which we process the things around us – including the things we see online. But what detracts from whatever claims to authenticity social media might have is its often very ‘filtered’ nature. People are very particular with what they post online: streams of glamorous and ‘aesthetic’ posts can lead to – and has led to – the development of the view that anything that is ‘ordinary’, mundane, commonplace, and messy, is substandard.

However, it is true that the issue of the selective presentation of ourselves exists offline too: people are also rather selective with which thoughts they allow themselves to translate into physical behaviour and speech. We are inherently prone to filtering ourselves – so perhaps, instead of being a threat to our fundamental collective human nature, social media is a direct product of it.

Ultimately, it would be rather ignorant and small-minded of me to claim that the effect of social media is only detrimental to us: there are certainly benefits to increased connectivity. But these online platforms have exacerbated certain negative conditions – FOMO (fear of missing out), jealousy, feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy, issues with body image, and more. Social media exposes us more to the world – both its good sides, and its darker sides.

But the most alarming aspect of the whole debate, in my view, is the fact that social media has become a drug to which many of us find ourselves helpelessly addicted. And, just like any other drug, people need increasingly large doses of social media to sustain their addictions. In fact, withdrawal symptoms are often experienced in its absence. And often, instead of ‘living in the moment’, we find ourselves responding to cognitive itches by obsessively and anxiously picking up our phones, unfathomably desperate to know what others are doing, or how we are being perceived by them, or which shade of lipstick Kylie Jenner has chosen to wear today.

My ambivalent ramblings towards social media conclude themselves here: everything that is good, is good in moderation. And sometimes, in order to recharge yourself, you must first unplug yourself from the often deceptive and all-consuming world of social media.


Sadia Ahmed, 2018

Man as Machines

It has long been thought that man is in prolonged conflict with machines- they are stealing our jobs, our talents, and our livelihoods. It seems that, whilst machines are becoming increasingly anthropomorphized, humans are starting to resemble robots, too. Sullen-faced, square-eyed, and excessively concerned with productivity and efficiency, it is almost as if we are sculpting ourselves to become economic goods on conveyer belts; everything is about maximising output and minimising procrastination, and schools with liberal and creative outward appearances are on the brink of becoming de facto exam factories. Students are becoming the unsuspecting victims of an academic dystopia, and our souls are paying the price for it.

Constantly being occupied with something of prudence to do has become the new norm for students; we tend to be inundated by tasks to complete, goals to strive for, and guilt to be absorbed by when our bodies insist that we need a break. With incessant advancements in technology, as well as the growing accessibility of education, the world is progressively becoming more fast-paced and frenetic, resulting in restlessness and overall dissatisfaction amongst pupils. Excuse this cliché statement, but it seems as though we are gradually declining into human doings instead of human beings.

In this game of academic and professional ‘survival of the fittest’, we are told that lacking in ambition will get us nowhere in life, which is, no doubt, true, however the present moment is not just a seed of the future, nor is it exclusively a culmination of the past. Life, believe it or not, is short. Time passes. Although, in modern society, it is highly advisable (necessary, even) to invest in the future, it is also important to focus on your own wellbeing and enjoyment, in the present. Not everything should be done with a future objective in mind; unlike with machines, the value of people is not derived from the value of what we can produce, in a given period of time.

Formal education is very demanding; every student is aware of this. We are forever drowning in oceans of to-do lists, assignments, deadlines, and worries about the future. It is essential that we are willing to let ourselves relax and have fun, from time to time. Self-improvement is dependent on the maintenance of every component of the self: the mind, and also the body.

In my view, although it has come to be a dirty word in academics, procrastination can often be beneficial. It comes from the Latin word procrastinat, which means ‘deferred till the morning’. Sometimes it is necessary to defer things until the morning, to just step away from the monsters of scholastic stress. Chronic anxiety can lead to burnout and depression- hence, as an example of situational irony, immoderate ‘productivity’ can lead to academic fruitlessness. The majority of us are living, sentient beings, not metal, unfeeling ones: we require adequate time to sleep, socialize, and rejoice in our capacity to feel things.

The obsession with efficiency and getting things done in the least amount of time possible is accompanied by an unhealthy obsession with the future, in terms of academia, careers, and other goals. An apt analogy can be drawn from this: students and career-minded individuals are climbing a gargantuan mountain, chasing one marker point after another, never quite stopping to appreciate the gifts- the remarkable view- of the present, for fear of being labelled ‘procrastinators’. They forget that there is beauty around them, not just in front of them, and they also forget that the summit itself is an illusion. The harsh reality of the matter is that we climb this mountain, and then we drop dead somewhere along the way.

As with many things, the solution is simply to strike a balance- the flowers of productivity can be nurtured alongside the flowers of enjoying a soulful and content life (yes, I enjoy using metaphors to convey my ideas). As the saying goes, work hard, but also play hard: time is a finite resource, and it is constantly slipping from beneath our fingertips, like loose grains of sand. Men will never be machines, and it is futile to place such pressure on ourselves, pretending to be something we are not.

Though we may not rust like machines, our cells are always ageing, and soon we will grow old; we will grow up, and we will yearn for our youth and its many joys to return to us, but it never will.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Career Crisis

At fifteen years old, I have recently withdrawn myself from an intense existential crisis about my personal identity, however I now find myself entering a new phase of crisis: a career crisis, even though I have never actually had a career. 

It genuinely surprises me how often the topic of future career options springs up in daily conversation. I am habitually asked about what I would like to become in the future, by my friends, my parents’ friends, teachers, and even fellow passengers on public transport. I am a very ambitious person, and I would undoubtedly like to make something of my life by impacting the world in a positive way, but in truth, at present, I do not know precisely what I wish to become in the future. There are tens of thousands of potential choices out there, and I cannot narrow my options down at this point- I have yet to take my GCSE exams, let alone decide unequivocally on what my life will look like in ten years’ time.

The incessant questioning regarding my desired career path has led me to think about the world of work, and where I would fit into it. I have realised that our society and every single industry within it shares one particular thing in common: they each rely on human problems. Businesses exploit problems to make a profit; doctors solve health-related problems; lawyers deal with conflicts, which are a human problem. Problems are absolutely essential to the progression of our society, but society will never be perfect. As humans, we have all found ourselves in this futile search for perfection, both on a personal and wider scale. When people ask me about what I would like to become in the future, I now rephrase the question in my mind, and instead, I ask myself: what qualities, skills and interests do I have, and how can I harness these to solve a particular set of problems in society?

Ideas about my potential future career choices have changed drastically over the years. First, I wanted to be a teacher, and/or a journalist. Then, my interests changed for a while, and I wanted to become a doctor…then I was absolutely certain that I would become an astronaut…but then I developed an interesting in the field of engineering…and then (more recently) I thought about becoming a lawyer, but not one who defends criminals. Instead, I wanted to be a lawyer who would defend the human rights of civilians in war-torn areas of the world, such as Palestine and Syria. When I told my prying teachers about this potential choice of career path, I was met with strong disapproval. My teachers assured me that there were ‘better’ options for me out there- options that would make me more wealthy and ‘successful’.

Ultimately, the average salaries of people in different industries will, no doubt, be a relatively important contributing factor to the career path I end up deciding on, but for me, money is certainly not a central element. I would like a job that will be decently financially rewarding, but most importantly, I desire a job that will be morally uplifting- a job in which I feel challenged (enough to feel fulfilled) and secure and satisfied – a job that will harness my abilities and constantly stimulate my mind. In the meantime, however, I will live most contentedly in the present. I will work hard and focus on expanding my mind and bettering myself as a person.

And I will stop and smell the roses. 

Why GCSEs are a problem

Every British student has his or her own story to tell when it comes to the topic of GCSEs. There are the ridiculously bright, organised and perpetually energetic who jump with glee at the thought of endless hours of revision. Then there are the other 99% of the British teen population: the insanely intelligent and unique individuals who are not particularly compatible with the GCSE system of broad memorisation.

This article is dedicated to all of you: the brilliant, creative beings who have been labeled “dumb” or “lazy” due to your reluctance to sit down for hours on end, memorising an abundance of pointless information; the ones currently suffering from anxiety or depression or ADHD, so revision becomes synonymous with torture; the teens whose lives are currently too unstable for them to bear the burden of the responsibility of such a task, and, of course, the model students who suffer endlessly for their grades. I understand you, and I believe in you. You are not stupid or incompetent, and the system has failed you.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

To any non-Brits reading this article who are wondering what on Earth GCSEs are, they are a series of examinations fifteen and sixteen-year-olds take here in the UK, across eight to fifteen subjects in total. Most of these tests rely not on creativity, practical skills or logic; they rely primarily on memory retention. Imagine having to memorise subject content (usually about three textbooks of information for each subject) across numerous subjects. Some students have to sit over thirty exams- exams that do not focus on a particular career path, but across a desultory range.

Of course, as a keen socialist, I am all for education- it is the key to success both on a personal and global basis. However, that being said, the GCSE system here in the UK is in desperate need of reform. Not only does it counterproductively dull down intelligence and creativity, it also does little to prepare young individuals for life in the real world, especially in the digital age.

The system has failed to modernise- the constructors of the GCSE system must be unaware of the existence of Google. We do not need to memorise useless dates such as when the NHS Act was introduced, nor do we need to memorise complex algebraic functions or how dust precipitators work. The education of our generation- Generation Alpha- is being placed into the hands of a group of old, incompetent, privileged politicians who are simply making it increasingly difficult for the underprivileged to succeed.

GCSE grades lull high achieving students into a false sense of security and subsequent academic arrogance (which is sometimes absolutely demolished come A-levels) and give underachieving students the false impression that they are stupid and good for nothing. The truth is, not every GCSE Physics student will grow up to become a Physicist, and the same can be said for every other GCSE subject. Everyone excels at something- whether it be painting, baking, engineering or politics- and everyone deserves to be commended for their talents, irrespective of whether or not they were able to bag 10 A*s at GCSE level.

I do not, in any way, believe that GCSEs should be scrapped altogether, however I believe they are in desperate need of reform; the British education system must keep with the times, make learning more accessible and enjoyable (without leaving students with a feeling of perpetual exhaustion and dread), and do a better job at preparing us for the future.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016

Screens Vs. Souls

Earlier this week, I won a public speaking competition; I chose to speak about the impacts of technology on humanity.  

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots”. That’s what Albert Einstein reportedly predicted approximately a hundred years ago. But was he, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, correct in making this prediction?

Since the invention of the mobile phone, there has been a great deal of speculation about the impact of technology on people’s social lives. Many believe that social networking sites have mostly detrimental effects on users’ relationships and result in disengagement from the real world. Well, I, on the other hand, would disagree with this view.

Technology has undoubtedly had a profound impact on humanity- the average person spends four years of her life looking down at her mobile phone, and approximately 3.2 billion people now have access to the internet- that’s roughly half of humanity. So has technology made all these people, as Mr. Einstein put it: a generation of idiots? And have touch screens made us lose touch with each other?

Snapchat, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, and let’s not forget my personal favourite- Tumblr. It’s very difficult to ignore the impacts of technology on our relationships. Nowadays, many people inarguably prefer uploading selfies and sharing witty jokes and cat videos to meeting up and conversing face-to-face with friends. However, that being said, the aforementioned applications, and many more, allow us to maintain conversations with people on the other side of the globe.

We can share experiences and information, feelings and ideas. We can even communicate face-to-face with applications like Skype and Facetime. Distance is no longer a barrier, and technology has enabled us to expand our social horizons online- to become more culturally and socially aware- to deepen our connections to the world around us, and to enhance the way we think about things. Technology does not come in between us; in fact, much of it exists primarily in order to allow us to fortify our already existent relationships and develop new ones.

In a world of so many people, ignorance is inevitable. Various forms of injustice inarguably exist on this planet, but these ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ can be combatted, or at least reduced significantly, through conversation. If we only see the world only through our own eyes, we will never come to appreciate alternative views or lifestyles.

Now, many people perceive my generation- the wired generation- as a bunch of lazy imbeciles who do nothing but stare at their phones all day. While this is, admittedly, partially true, I strongly believe that my generation is more accepting and open-minded than the current order. Because of social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter, I have connections from all over the world; from all different walks of life. Without technology, I’d simply be confined to my own small world. Conversation is integral to understanding one other, thus eradicating ignorance, and technology allows us to do just that. In actuality, the very basis of social media is wired into our nature as human beings. When we witness or experience something extraordinary, we like to tell others. Similarly, when we witness or experience something unpleasant, we like to vocalise our displeasure. Human beings are natural complainers and socialisers. So essentially, technology makes us more human.

As a keen science enthusiast, while writing this speech, I thought about the impact of technology in evolutionary terms. As human beings, we have got to where we are now by constantly developing, and by taking advantage of the resources and tools made available to us, so as to enhance the quality of our lives. I firmly believe that technology is allowing us to fulfil our potential as a species.

The use of technology to communicate with others is particularly beneficial for introverts like me- people who are far better typers than they are speakers- people who often don’t know how to fill the awkward gaps in face-to-face conversations.

The phenomenon of being together while not being together is becoming more and more popular. We’re getting used to a new way of being ‘alone together’- alone, yet connected to hundreds of others worldwide.

Now, I, as an introverted techno optimist, see this as a very positive thing- the technological scene is forever changing, and pretty soon we’ll have things like holograms and realistic avatar experiences to further improve how we use technology to socialise. Technology certainly has its downsides, which I won’t overlook. Sometimes people become so engrossed in and obsessed with virtual worlds of ‘likes’, ‘retweets’, superficial connections and filters, that they completely tune out the real world. But all good things quickly become very nasty when overused.

To conclude, technology hasn’t made us less sociable; it has absolutely revolutionised the ways in which we interact with each other, but in all the innovation and excitement, we must never forget that human beings are the only things with souls, and not until we put down our phones and look into each other’s eyes will we ever be able to touch each other’s hearts.

Gender Socialisation

Recently, during a school trip to Kings’ College University, I had the privilege of meeting the head of the university’s Psychology Department- Professor Richard Brown. Having a keen interest in societal ideas of gender, I naturally became very fascinated by the nature of one of Professor Brown’s observations:

In a social experiment, Professor Brown laid out a complex scientific activity. He put the participants into groups according to gender, and timed how long it took for the groups to obtain the correct answer. He found that, whilst the girls were interested in organisation and the avoidance of conflict, the boys were far more assertive, if slightly aggressive, and this allowed them to delve into the finer details of the task at hand. They called each other “idiots” and were far more competitive in their approaches. They favoured competition over cooperation, as opposed to the girls.

Much has been written about how boys are typically more ‘independent, assertive and competitive’ than girls, even at early ages, but are these characteristics biological or learned? Many sociologists argue that the idea that they are intrinsic and ‘critical to the survival of our species’ is wholly mythical, and that such characteristics only arise as a direct result of gender socialisation.

From a young age, boys are encouraged to play with cars, action figures and science sets. Thus, they are channelled into their gender roles as ‘protectors’, and favour careers in science and technology. As a result of this, only 5.3% of women in the UK are involved in SET compared with 33% of men, according to the Women’s Engineering Society.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 15.13.19
‘Boys’ Toys’, according to Google

Meanwhile, young girls are encouraged to be sensitive, passive and supportive. They are often canalised into playing with dolls, tea sets and simulation toys, and therefore favour careers in teaching, nursing and other nurture fields.

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‘Girls’ Toys’

In my view, gender roles are fundamentally stupid: they are restrictive and irrational, and damage young children and young potential.

Do you have any views on this topic? If so, feel free to comment below. 

Alternatively, you can email me at sadiadventures@outlook.com, and I shall endeavour to respond within three days. 

A Space Adventure

The Royal Observatory in London is paradise for every astronomer aficionado in or around London. Located in Greenwich (near three other prominent museums) the Royal Observatory is home to an exceptional astrodome, numerous fascinating artefacts and exhibits, and the renowned Meridian Line.

 

 Since ancient times, human beings have been observing the skies for religious, navigational and timekeeping purposes. Through substantial technological advancements, we have discovered thousands of unprecedented and extraordinary secrets, regarding our creation, existence and place in the universe.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are”

We now know that our Earth is awe-inspiringly unique, as it is the only known habitable planet that nurtures life, and so many different variations of life. Human beings, elephants, whales and even the tiniest ant- nothing of the sort appears to exist anywhere else in our observable universe. But our observable universe (the vast portion of sky that may be seen through powerful telescopes) is only an infinitesimal fragment of our universe, which by the way, is rapidly expanding. Some believe that our universe is infinite, but this is one speculation that cannot be proven for sure.

“The important thing is to never stop questioning”- Albert Einstein

My trip to the Royal Observatory was extremely informative and stimulating; even my cousin Shahara (who generally detests sci-fi, stars and all things technical) thought the planetarium was, and I quote: “sick”, which (contextually) is a colloquial term meaning “remarkable”. There were exhibits regarding dark matter, spectroscopy and the evolution of telescopes, which had been absolutely integral to knowing what we do today. Essentially, telescopes are time machines, as they look back in time: it takes millions of light years for the light of even proximal stars to reach us.

After viewing and handling a few artefacts (including a 4.5 billion-year-old clump from a meteorite, which we were informed would be the oldest physical thing we’d ever handle) we proceeded to the picnic area to enjoy the contents of my aunt’s hefty picnic bag.

We then made our way (through a complex maze of padlocked gates, no-go areas and a very stern security guard, who insisted that we must walk at a leisurely pace) to the astrodome, in order to view a showing of ‘Dark Universe’, narrated by American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. To express my thoughts about the atmosphere, the factual explanations and the show itself in a concise manner, it was absolutely epic, though the duration was far too compendious for my liking. Given the chance, I’d be more than willing to spend at least three hours in the astrodome.

“We are all made of stardust”. Quite literally, too.

Amongst the many spectacles the Royal Observatory has on offer, the Prime Meridian (the exact geographical line that divides the East and West hemispheres- longitude 0° of the world) could be the most popular. This line is so bewilderingly popular that masses of people are willing to pay a dear fee merely to stand upon it (and post corresponding pictures online), so that one foot is on the literal east side of the world, the other on the west. 

 

 I found it witty that they sell pairs of socks in the gift shop, consisting of an East one and a West one.

Directly adjacent to the Prime Meridian line is an elevated hill that overlooks an outstanding view: the O2 Arena in the far right corner, the cluster of bank headquarters and media organisations that make up Canary Wharf, hundreds of houses stretching beyond the horizon, all clashing with the tranquility of the surrounding green space.

 

  We enjoyed a spot of footy, took several snapshots of the scenery (as you do) and climbed a tree.

The tree was broad and sturdy, one of hundreds of neighbors. I’m no dendrochronologist, but this tree had to be at least 120 years of age. After climbing the tree with a surprising amount of confidence, I dithered as I looked down. Nervously outstretching my foot to find an orifice in which to rest my foot, I must have taken five minutes to find a route back down. 

 

 A nearby young girl, with her arms folded, a look of complacency and impatience across her face, remarked: “I could get up and down by the time you come down.” Her arrogance was met with a simple, “I don’t care” by me.

After this tree debacle, which left me flustered and abashed, we visited the gift shop. There was a wide variety of aesthetically intriguing (especially for an astronomy fanatic like myself) products for relatively pleasant prices. I purchased a postcard for 75p (for my collection, of course) a ruler for £2 (which depicts the planets in our solar system, and a few congruent facts about them) and a NASA pin badge for 75p. I was very satisfied with my purchases.

After the show, my three-year-old cousin Isa (who, much to my astonishment, did not fall asleep or fidget once) exclaimed enthusiastically, dynamically gesticulating with his hands: “I loved seeing the planets and shooting stars! When they exploded, they looked like fireworks! It was so cool!”

 

  In retrospect, the Royal Observatory is highly recommended for a great family day out, and for an insight into the mysterious universe around our home planet.

 Peering into darkness, we stand on the threshold of great discovery.