Part of my holiday tradition is sending out letters to family and friends reflecting on the past year. This has been a tradition since 2006. I am sharing my letter for 2022 below, as I hope it may inspire you and encourage you to step out of your comfort zone.
“We cannot discover new horizons until we have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Recently we cruised our boat from Annapolis, Maryland, to Stuart, Florida. One leg of the journey was a 32-hour, 300-mile offshore adventure from Hilton Head, South Carolina, to Stuart. The forecast was 15-25 knot winds and 2-4 foot waves, which in reality became 25-35 knot winds and 4-6 foot waves. Although the trip was relatively uneventful, it was my first overnight experience, losing sight of the shore and nearly everything else in the darkness of the night.
As I took my first of two three-hour watches, I alternated from searching for lights on the horizon to observing possible targets on the radar and AIS instruments. My most memorable sightings were the incredibly bright stars on the port side of the boat, not nearly so on the starboard side where even 30 miles out, the lights of Florida lightened the darkness of the night sky.
Having completed our overnight cruising adventure, I could not help but recall the above quote – attributed to several people, William Faulkner, Andre Gide, and even Christopher Columbus. This quote has been framed on my wall for many years. I always associated it with an unfulfilled desire to experience an overnight offshore crossing. While the saying is often quoted to inspire one to let go of the known and explore the unknown, I recently have related it to a much more subtle dynamic occurring in our contemporary culture.
Our ability to discover new horizons in our daily lives is greatly diminished when our comfort zones are unconsciously reinforced. Yet is this not what we are experiencing continuously in this internet world? Are we not all victims tethered to the algorithms of our e-commerce and social media platforms? These algorithms deliver us not only the products they think we need but also those opinions and experiences that reinforce our comfort zones. And while the world continues to change rapidly around us, our social media sites keep us anchored to the comfortable shores of our little cove.
In so many ways, we fail to recognize the scope of the world around us, waiting to be discovered. While that world may not be geographically distant, it is undoubtedly intellectually distant – obscured by the blinders of our respective cyberspace algorithms.
Our vulnerability and addictiveness to the internet culture was recently highlighted to me by the director of a summer wilderness camp in northern Minnesota. We have supported this camp for young boys and girls for several decades because it offers these youth the opportunity to experience a beautiful natural world that offers much more personal development and enjoyment than smartphones and game consoles. However, in recent years, the camp has had to provide mental health support for young campers who exhibit mental and physical withdrawal symptoms for several days, when upon arrival at camp, they are asked to relinquish their smartphones – a manifestation of their very fear of “losing sight of the shore.”
Many of us read George Orwell’s “1984“, published in 1949. Orwell’s prophetic warnings are not dissimilar from the characteristics of today’s internet world. While today’s democratic governments do not appear to be “Big Brother,” our every action is easily tracked and categorized by the data gathering and data sharing nature embedded in our internet platforms. And while the apparent motivation for all this data tracking and sharing is commercially motivated, we are no longer the “customer” but have become the “product.”
One of the political propaganda weapons created in Orwell’s “1984” is “Newspeak,” defined as
“a controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary
designed to limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate concepts
such as personal identity, self-expression, and free will” (Wikipedia).
Many believe that subscribing to apps such as Twitter (with its character limitations) or social media platforms with newsfeeds that support our viewpoints is our expression of freedom and free speech. But in reality, are we not simply providing the framework for “Newspeak” to capture our personal identity and our very thinking process? And do we not then become more vulnerable to a potential “Big Brother” disguised as an advocate for our personal freedom?
Is it not time to cast off the algorithm tethers and sail away from the comfort of our shores to discover new horizons? As Mark Twain said:
Throw off the bowlines
Sail away from the safe harbor
Catch the trade winds in your sails
Explore, Dream, Discover