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David Sable Headshot

Einstein Was a Mensch

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Digital Death

Thumbs up and thumbs down have become the ubiquitous symbol of like and dislike; good and bad; continuation and end; virtual life and death in our digital world.

Sort of a fitting confluence of online and offline -- digits to digital, if you will.

And of course, as the story goes, the origins of this powerfully simple metaphor were in the Roman gladiatorial arena, where physical life and death hung in the balance as the crowd, pre-text and pre-Twitter, weighed in to determine the fate of the loser. Thumbs down and the winner walked away as the loser was rudely dragged off the sand dead; thumbs up and both lived to fight another day.

Remember this scene from the movie Gladiator?

Turns out that the story is just another example of pure and unadulterated digibabble... based on a mistranslation of an original Latin text and a popular painting of the 1800s:

The belief that the 'thumbs-up' and 'thumbs-down' gestures indicated approval and disapproval respectively entered the public consciousness with Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1872 painting 'Pollice Verso'. The 'thumbs down' gestures of the crowd in Gérôme's popular picture were interpreted by the 19th century public as signs of disapproval. Actually, the artist probably never intended that, as 'pollice verso' just means turned thumb.

Follow your own Bing or Google hunting to find more references... there are many.

Bottom line: the joke is that thumbs up wasn't what any gladiator wanted to see, no matter how you translate or understand the ancient texts.

In modern times, it seems, our current understanding of the gesture and its popularity might have begun with American aviators during WWII in China who appropriated a misunderstood gesture -- that is, the Chinese telling them they were number one, as in the best -- to mean OK, both positive symbols for sure -- and soon the gesture spread and became synonymous with approval. OK; ready to go....

That is except in Iran and Iraq, where it means up yours... and there you have it.

The aviators had it right -- they projected no downside; it was all positive and upbeat; a sign of optimism and readiness, almost a blessing for success... and anyone who has ever flown can still see the gesture being used like that today as the ground crew sends the pilots on their way.

Fast forward to today where digits and digital have merged and we mindlessly use the symbol in a like/dislike, love/hate, desire/abhor, and increasingly, in a life/death context.

No doubt you will think me melodramatic for including life and death in what is to most of us just a mindless rating system... handy for quick counting and tallying.

Yet many use it as an emotional substitute, rather than a simple yes or no as it was intended; it has increasingly become a vitriolic dislike, a nonverbal disapproval, a distanced way of throwing stones, an empowerment of Emperor-like status... misunderstanding and all.

But here is the thing -- and forgive my soapboxing, as I have written on this before -- but I find an urgency in the message today. Kids are dying because of our callous behavior and the detached way we signal approval or not.

It is my belief that cyberbullying begins here, starts with our own behavior, has its origins in our taking a simple graphic utility tool and imbuing it with a meaning that was never intended.

It has become easy to dis our associates, embarrass our colleagues, rip strangers, and otherwise show our immense power by thumbing things down, and as we have done so, it has become easier for us to verbalize inappropriate and irrelevant comments on subjects and topics that we are not expert in, using language that is unprofessional and worse is often unintelligible.

And as we have done so, as our children have witnessed, it has become so much easier for them to take the next step themselves, and sadly, all over the world we have seen way too many examples of the results as young people hounded to the point of madness take their own lives in order to stop the cyber-hounding.

We have to stop this behavior -- projecting to the future, the growing lack of civility online, already translating itself offline, begins to look like one of those apocryphal movies... hoards of thumbs-down zombies pursuing us...

I have long believed that businesspeople need to take the lead. On LinkedIn, in our own posts or messages -- wherever we communicate -- we need to up the ante and begin to communicate in a way that serves as an example to the younger generations. Be role models of what measured and smart debate and disagreement are all about, and, above all, put an end to the vitriolic snipes that add no value but do create stress.

And please let's not hide behind the freedom of speech; big corporation coming down on the little person rhetoric... it's meaningless drivel added to meaningless drivel.

It is strictly about civility. In fact, I discovered that Johns Hopkins has a Civility Initiative... founded by Pier Massimo Forni, a professor and author (Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct), who wrote the following:

Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness, and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, good manners, as well as a matter of good health.

Benjamin Franklin had it right -- although not sure Facebook would agree when he said: "Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none."

But the true lesson for our time comes from Albert Einstein... listen:

"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."

So remember, thumbs up and down as we know it did not begin with the Romans -- nor did it originate with our digital world...

Think about those pilots.... think about "number one" and the positive message it sends. Let's be civil.

What do you think?