Sunday, August 16, 2015

We're not the consumers, we're the product.

As an argument and debate enthusiast, I've been complaining for years about the increasingly impenetrable political polarization that has been sweeping across our country and the world. People have become so encapsulated in their ideologies that anything less than hearing their own beliefs echoed back to them is like nails on a chalkboard.

It's not a new phenomenon, this hostility toward having one's beliefs challenged. It's a crime Socrates paid for with his life. Indeed, to enjoy argument requires a certain comfort level with the hostility of others; a comfort level that borders on the antisocial.

Although having an antisocial streak seems like a personality trait that is destructive to social bonds (and it certainly can be), it can also be a powerful tool for encouraging societies to advance, much like the way forest growth depends on forest fires to clear out the dead and dried underbrush and transform it into fresh, fertile soil.

But there has been a recent and drastic shift whereby Liberals and Conservatives have moved so far into their respective camps, so isolated within their own ideologies, that a call to the table is heard as a call to arms.

2014 Pew Research study showed that in the last 10 years, politically active citizens have moved further away from the isle,
and exhibit more animosity for their counterparts on the other side, than ever before. Here is a fun interactive illustration of political polarity in America over the course of the last decade. The article itself is long, and definitely worth reading.

But I have a theory about why this is happening, and you're probably holding it in your hand right now.

*   *   *   *   *   *

The internet connects us to one another in ways that have never before been possible. Finding like-minded folks in spite of vast demographical differences is one of the many blessings of modern technology, and it's tempting to think that connecting with people who are similar to ourselves is the reason that we have become isolated in our own echo chambers, but that's only one small piece of the puzzle.

I would argue that these internet enabled social groups are additive rather than subtractive because there have been so many significant cultural shifts in the last couple of decades, from gay rights to legalizing marijuana. Changes like these, not just in our laws but in our cultural conscience, cannot happen when large groups of people are isolated from other groups. Such fundamental cultural shifts in such a small period of time require exposure to the people we consider "other;" so much exposure that we eventually come to understand that "those people" are not very different from ourselves after all.

In one of the best Ted Talks ever given, Andrew Solomon talks about "vertical identities," which he says are passed from one generation to the next (like religion or nationality), and "horizontal identities," which we find in our peer groups (deaf culture, gay culture). He talks about how the Internet has fostered the ability of disparate individuals to find others like themselves and form communities and cultures, and has allowed the opportunity for those within their vertical identity groups to be more exposed to, and gain a better understanding of, the horizontal identities that used to remain foreign and misunderstood. That understanding leads to acceptance, first within families, then within social groups, and attitudes ultimately begin to shift within the culture itself.

Still, these forward leaning cultural shifts, accelerated by the Internet, have happened in parallel with the deepening ideological divisions that have polarized our politics. So it does stand to reason that the Internet must somehow be playing a role in our divisions as well as our connections.

I had a eureka moment on this issue while reading a passage in Future Crimes by Mark Goodman. The passage was about all the free apps and services we all use every day. Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calender, Google Maps, this blog! All for free? Free. Seriously?

And we think we have it all figured out, of course. We wade through tons of distracting ads popping up in our faces in exchange for using all these free services, right?

"No," in the immortal words of Ford Prefect, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward."

As Goodman explains, if you're not paying for something, then you're not the consumer; you are the product. Your data is the product, more specifically. Where you live, where you'd like to live, where you work, what stores you shop at, do you have kids? Breast or bottle? And, most importantly, your GPS coordinates.

All of this personalized information shapes every facet of your online experience. So if you and I were to both do a Google search for, let's say, "doors," you might get a list of home furnishing DIY stores, and I might get a list of articles on Rock and Roll and Jim Morrison.

Apps like Angry Birds are quietly collecting data from your phone and selling it to people who want to sell you stuff. Furthermore, internet advertising is so cheap that even a small business, or single individual can buy ad space that only appears on a site when specific keywords are used. It's much more effective than filling the mailboxes of random individuals with coupons to your store, and it's much more targeted than a billboard on the side of a highway.

One example of this sort of advertising that most of us can relate to is when I was recently looking for glider brackets (essential hardware for turning a chair into a glider). I went to few local hardware stores with no luck, and I was also looking for them online. Immediately, and for about the next week, every site I visited from Facebook to CNN had ads for glider brackets. It's the kind of thing that normally wouldn't have grabbed my attention, except that glider brackets are a very specialized and uncommon bit of hardware; not something that would be randomly advertised to the general consumer reading news articles on CNN.

Since most people in the US get a significant portion of their information online, what are the implications of getting our news and current events presented in a format that is based on algorithms designed to give us the information we already want to see? What are the political implications of ideological commentary and current events that is custom filtered for each individual?

Let's take that same customized advertising phenomenon and apply it to a topical hot-button issue like the Confederate flag. If you post favorable opinions about the Confederate flag online and search for images of the flag, your personal corner of the Internet is going to fill up with ads, news articles, and links to sites that promote "Southern" pride and related material. Now, when a Neo Nazi site uses Google Ad Words, they are going to concentrate their advertisements on sites that are frequented by their target audience: young, underemployed, frustrated people who may already have an attitude of racial resentment and entitlement (an attitude the group can cultivate into full-blown hate and terrorist activities). From the target's perspective, the more these images and ideas populate that individual's search results and Facebook page, the more these ideas will appear to be valid and acceptable.

In their less severe form, these custom filters inhibit the kind of personal growth that comes from argument and debate; growth that comes from having to defend your ideas and learning how to express them in different ways to different individuals; and most importantly, the kind of growth that comes from listening to the ideas of people who disagree with you.

So, whether you've strayed from your comfort zone to read this or not, I would love to hear your opinion, especially if you disagree with me. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

On your mark, get set...

As election season commences, I'm looking forward to getting my blog in gear and having some great conversations and debates with friends and strangers alike.

I thought about kicking it off with a post about the hows and whys of the dangerous political polarity that is becoming more and more entrenched in our modern society, but I will save that topic for another discussion.

I decided that I would rather spend some time talking about my personal belief system, in order to provide some context for the political discussions to follow.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: Joy shared, is doubled while sorrow shared, is halved. I believe that this is the mathematics of life, by which I mean that life transcends arithmetic; that we are more than the sum of our parts.

My moral code is pretty simple:

It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak.

It is the duty of the learned to teach the ignorant.

It is the duty of the able to care for the feeble.

It is the duty of the haves to provide for the have-nots.

My belief system is not based on "rights" or what any individual "deserves" or "is entitled to," but on the principle that our society thrives when we each work to one another's mutual benefit.

Does that mean it's wrong for people who work harder to have more than everyone else? Absolutely not. I wouldn't even say that it's wrong for people who were born with a lot to have more than others.

My position is simply that our fate is intertwined, and we rise or fall together, whether we like it or not.

In every ghetto, slum and refugie camp, great minds are going to waste for lack of basic nutrition, healthcare, and education. There are Mozarts and Louis Armstrongs who will never pick up an instrument, Toni Morrisons who will never learn to read, Madame Curies who will never touch a microscope, and Malala Yousafzais who will be sold and impregnated before their 12th birthdays.

We are all poorer for those losses, no matter how rich we believe ourselves to be.

And lastly, I believe that any words or actions rooted in love are devine and blessed, and any words or actions rooted in fear are evil and cursed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Whatever works. Until it doesn't. (rinse; repeat)

We have a religious sort of faith in the systems that populate our existence: political systems, economic systems, social, societal, philosophical.

The more powerful and coherent the systems, the more likely we are to believe that they have been deliberately planned and constructed by people who knew exactly what they were doing, be they learned humanitarians or evil geniuses (depending on how much we agree or disagree with the system in question).

To illustrate this point with some examples from actual faith, consider that the religious are prone to saying things like, "See how the banana fits so perfectly in our hands; clearly it was designed by our creator so that we may hold it," or, "humanity exists on the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life; clearly the earth was created to be our home." Whereas the more scientifically minded among us will say that the banana was shaped slowly over time because the handiness of the fruit allowed for the seeds to be propagated better and farther, and the handiest fruit propagated the best, and that is why the banana is here in our hand. Such folks would also maintain that the Earth is our home because it is the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life (and not the other way around).

And just for fun; which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The egg, of course.

We can trace the origin of the egg all the way back to fish.

B O O M !

Ok, now just let that epiphany wash over your brain and clear your mind because we're moving on.

We'll start with conspiracy theories and work backwards.

Conspiracy theories take the incomprehensible and make it bat shit crazy, right?

The JFK assassination, 9/11, the Newtown shooting, the lunar landing, the Ancient Egyptian pyramids, and so on.

If you spend any time looking into these conspiracies, they are elaborately constructed and have an answer for every possible objection. And therein lies the giveaway; because you know what doesn't have an answer for everything?

Reality.

So many variables, so many conflicting interpretations, so much entropy unaccounted for; reality is messy and confounding and exists whether we recognize it or not.

Or, as our rabbi once said to a congregant who confessed that he did not believe in God, "God does not care whether you believe in him or not."

What conspiracy theories offer is a world that is more comprehensible than reality for the people who subscribe to them. A world that is tightly and expertly orchestrated by shadowy figures behind the scenes who have some master plan.

But lest we judge the reality-impaired too harshly, perhaps we should consider that we are all prone to tying up loose ends with our own assumptions. And we should consider also that the assumptions we make are more out of collective convenience than reasoned thoughts based on evidence.

What assumptions, you ask?

Well, let's look at economics for a moment.

The proponents of Capitalism like to talk about Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the Marketplace as if it is a metaphor for an actual impartial self-regulating system that, if we just trust the process and allow the system to work its magic without our misguided interference, everything would eventually work itself out to everyone's mutual benefit.

Opponents of Capitalism will say that this whole "invisible hand" business is propaganda from our corporate overlords who want us to have faith in a system that is rigged to only benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

I maintain that both these views are true-ish, and if you put them in a jar with every other economic theory and shook it up, you might end up with a belief system that is closer to the truth.

Capitalism is the economic system that runs the world, not because it's the right system or the best system, but because right now, it works. And when it stops working, either because of worldwide nuclear annihilation, or simply because it got top-heavy and collapsed when the corporate overlords stole more wealth than they could carry, it will be replaced by whatever economic system works at that time.

Or, let's look at mating practices. Why do we in the Western world strive to be monogamous? Because having one partner is morally right? Well, we in the Western world get most of our morals from the Bible, and that book is full of polygamy. Is it because a two parent system is the most effective way to raise children? Or is even more practical than that? Perhaps we value monogamous partnerships simply because, at this moment and in this place, quality is more important than quantity. We live in a complex and evermore integrated global society; not only do most of our children survive into adulthood, but preparing them to be successful adults in our society takes an incredible amount of resources. Too many children will quickly exhaust the resources of our family units, and society as a whole.

But how did we go from "be fruitful and multiply,"  to "one man, one woman, no sex before marriage, and no marriage before adulthood?" Who decided that this was the best way to mate in our culture, and how did almost everyone come to this consensus?

Ah, see?

We conveniently replaced all those questions with, "this is what we do because it's the right thing to do."

Now, for this post, I'm not concerned with the hows or whys of these cultural developments; there are plenty of competent people trying to unravel those mysteries.

The only point I am trying to make at the moment is that we do what works because that's the only thing we can do. Bananas fit perfectly into our hands because that's what worked for the propagation of the banana tree. We live on the planet Earth because there is no other planet on which we could exist.

My ultimate goal with this train of thought is not to take the meaning and purpose out of the systems that populate our existence, but to try to relieve the fear that accompanies the transition periods when one system ceases to work and is replaced.

If we can loosen our grip on the idea that our current political, economic, or religious system is the universal right answer always and forever, then we can be more willing to let go of old systems that no longer work and embrace new systems that do; because that's what's going to happen anyway.

Why waste energy and resources resisting the inevitable changes that will ensure our continued existence?

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Luck of the Draw (a re-post)

[Note: This is an edited re-post of an earlier topic that I wanted to share again in light of it being election time. Also, my posts used to consist of a lot of carefully placed images, which I stopped doing because they disappear for no apparent reason.]


Politicians.

Are they all liars?

Maybe not, but the majority of the successful ones are.

But that's our fault. We only vote for liars.

Well, not our fault exactly, it's in our programming. I watched this documentary on TLC years ago where they proved that the best leaders are the best liars. They took a class of five-year-olds and gave them something terrible tasting to drink. Then they sent the kids one by one into a room with a couple of interviewers and instructed the kids to tell the interviewers that the drink tasted good.

The kids who could, after nearly choking on that terrible drink, look the interviewers in the eye and say it was great were the outgoing leaders of the classroom.

One girl broke down crying and couldn't lie at all. When they showed a video of free play in the Kindergarten classroom, she was the one hiding under a table.

But the fact that liars are outgoing people who tend to be leaders still doesn't completely explain why we vote for them.

George Bush the First was relentlessly ridiculed for the campaign promise of "Read my lips, no new taxes," because he then proceeded to raise taxes once he was elected.

But how would we react if someone said, "Look, I want to be the President of the United States, not the Wizard of Oz; if you folks want the government to do stuff, you're going to have to cough up some dough!"?

So our natural inclination to elect the people who are the best at telling us what we want to hear (while openly doing the exact opposite) has gotten us into quite a pickle. We're stuck with a president we don't want, in a war we don't want, and we've been stripped of basic rights that have been in place since the Magna Carta.

Well I have a solution, and you're not going to like it, but hear me out.

We need a president with no strings attached (you know, lobbyists, donors, etc.) right? Under our current system, that is absolutely impossible. So I propose that we draw the next president randomly out of a hat!

(Not an actual hat, of course, but you get my point.)

We take every American citizen who meets the requirements for age, health, IQ, and education, and we put their names in a giant swirling drum. Then we have a random, blind-folded six-year-old pull the names of our next President and VP!

Problem solved.

At the end of their four-year term, we could vote to keep them for another four years or draw from the hat again.

The next thing we'd have to do is put term limits on high-level bureaucratic positions. These people can have their jobs for decades and no one even gets to vote on them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fear not, citizens! The barbarians are at the gate.

Although the Zombie Apocalypse may very well be upon us, I would like to focus instead on the far less interesting topic of fractious racial, religious and political groups, and their influence on the globalizing force of modern Western civilization.

The current state of globalized communication and trade has been resisted at every stage by cultures that were afraid of losing their individual identities in the all-encompassing march of progress. In his 1992 article in The Atlantic, Jihad vs. McWorld, Benjamin R. Barber does a good job of putting this ancient struggle in modern terms, though I do think he makes the common fundamental error of characterizing the tribalistic struggles of Islam as a force opposed to globalization.

In my post, The Tragedy of Mohammed, I assert that the primary goal of Mohammed himself was an end to tribalism, though I concede that, as religions are wont to do, Islam has probably created more tribalism than it has vanquished.

But all evangelizing religions are seeking globalism, and Islam is no exception. It is the defining characteristic of evangelizing faiths to convert everyone else on the planet to their religion, be it by the pen, the sword, or a thousand daily wars of attrition.

The idea of Islam as an intended globalizing force is particularly terrifying in light of the grizzly public executions perpetrated by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) against innocent emissaries of peace such as journalists and humanitarian aid workers.

I mean, these people are barbarians!

I'm assuming that I don't have to argue that these terrorists are barbarians, so I'll jump right to discussing what barbarians are and what they actually do.

Although the cultural wounds inflicted by the barbarian hoards of antiquity have left painful scars on our collective memory, barbarians are not necessarily harbingers of the apocalypse. In his 2001 book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright very credibly establishes that the great "falls" of civilizations were really not falls at all, hence the consistent forward march of culture and technology that has lead us to the all-time pinnacle of civilization where we now find ourselves precariously perched. Wright maintains that 1) only top-heavy states that are stagnating are susceptible to being completely overrun by less advanced cultures, and 2) although the barbarians' battle cry is for the destruction of the civilization they are seeking to overthrow, once they take power, they find themselves rather fond of the finer things in life like clean water, textiles, taxes, and most of all... peace.

So, perhaps think of barbarians as the wrecking crew that tears down dilapidated structures to clear the way for new developments.

The alternative is the long-held widely accepted belief that every civilization that rises inevitably falls, and that humanity as a whole is stuck in an endless loop of creation and destruction, much like a caged mouse running in its wheel.

I find it personally more comforting to see creation and destruction in the Eastern sense; as two sides of the same coin; the beautiful eternal dance that is life itself.

And while I can see that the actions of the modern-day barbarians are terrifying and evil; we must take heart in knowing that the end of a life is not the not end of life itself, and the end of a civilization is not the end of civilization itself.

Or, in FDR's words, more relevant than ever in this modern age of terror, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Tragedy of Mohammed

Having grown up in the Midwest and the South, I was raised with almost no exposure to or knowledge of Islam. In 2000, my husband and I moved to an apartment complex and were neighbors with a Muslim family. They had a son who was about 12, and he was a nice kid. At any rate, it occurred to us that we knew almost nothing about the religion, and one of the things he and I have in common is an unwillingness to suffer ignorance. So we bought a Koran and read it.

Personally, I believe that no one should be allowed to have an opinion about any religion without reading that religion's holy books. After September 11th, 2001, I heard so many descriptions of Islam and the Koran that were so out of line with anything I had remembered reading, that I went back and read the Koran a second time.

It's an easy read. Like the New Testament, it relies heavily on a basic understanding of the Torah.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing inherently wrong with Islam, but like any religion, the powers-that-be manipulated the faith for the purpose of manipulating the faithful. For my Midwestern and Southern friends and family, I likened it to what the KKK does with Christianity.

As for the longstanding strife between Islam and Christianity/Judaism, I firmly believe that this is the exact opposite of what Mohammed himself had intended.

For anyone who is not aware of the fundamental conflict between Israel and Islam, it mostly boils down to the fact that the Muslims have built a holy shrine, The Dome of the Rock, on top the Temple Mount (the site of the 2nd Jewish Temple which had been destroyed by Rome). Of course, there is a lot of strife over the surrounding real estate, the Temple Mount is the symbolic incarnation of everything that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have been fighting over in that region.

I had always believed that the historical claim of the Muslims to the Temple Mount was bogus, but that is an opinion that discounts the very real credibility of the metaphorical. Basically, in the Koran and the Hadith, Mohammed visits the "Far Away Holy Masque," in a dream. Based on this, Muslims today claim that this was a miraculous metaphysical journey, and that Mohammed actually visited the site; hence it is now a Muslim holy site.

It should also be noted that the Christians have a basilica in the same area based on the belief that Jesus's tomb is there.

Quick recap before we move on: the First Jewish Temple was built about a thousand years before Jesus ascended into heaven in the same vicinity, and it was about 600 years after Jesus's birth that, in a dream called The Night Journey, Mohammed visits a mosque on the same site and ascends into heaven himself.

But why does all of this happen in the same place over a span of thousands of years?

Jesus was at the Temple because he was a Jew, but why was Mohammed there in The Night Journey?

Through the lens of modern cultural conflicts, it would seem that the Muslims and the Jews have always been enemies, but the original coalition that Mohammed built in Medina included Jewish tribes and pagan Arab tribes. It was this tribalism that Mohammed sought to change. His monotheism was new to the Arab culture, but it was firmly rooted in Judaism and Christianity. So he sought to validate his beliefs by appealing to his monotheistic predecessors and preaching affirmations of Jewish prophets, naming Jesus among them.

The Night Journey tells the tale of Mohammed being transported to Jerusalem, to the Far Away Holy Mosque where he meets the prophets of the past, leads them in prayer, and ascends into Heaven and meets God. I believe it is clear that Mohammed's Night Journey was intended to validate his monotheistic religion, and his ultimate goal was to unite all of the Earth's people in the worship of the one true God.

So let's explore this point-by-point.

First, that it was a mosque which Mohammed visited in Jerusalem. Although it is difficult to accept when looking at examples in modern-day Islam, the mosque was originally intended to be a center for learning that was open to all people of all faiths, not a place a rigid theological indoctrination that excluded people of other faiths from entering. So, Mohammed's vision of a mosque at this site was not a metaphor for supplanting Judaism, but for communing with it.

Second, the fact that he leads the other prophets in prayer. While that image may seem repugnant, that Mohammed is seen as somehow above the other prophets, I think that the scene can also be interpreted in the context of Mohammed unifying his theology with the theologies that came before.

Lastly, that Mohammed meets God. Again, I don't think that this was meant to impart the idea that Mohammed is above the other prophets, but that he is their successor. After all, the other prophets had already spoken to God. This is simply validation that Islam is cut from the same cloth.

This is a difficult point to argue today because the animosity between Judaism and Islam is so entrenched, that it seems as old as the religions themselves.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Muslims and Jews coexisted pretty well, with their common enemy throughout the Middle Ages being the Christians. Furthermore, as Roman-dominated Christianity descended into the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Islamic Ottoman Empire allowed science, medicine, literacy and even Judaism to flourish while those very things withered and all but died in Western Europe. And it wasn't until later military conquests against the Ottomans that Europe "rediscovered" all of that long-lost luminescent knowledge that would lead their civilization to carry the torch of math and science into a very bright future.

The tragedy of Mohammed is that the very fractured tribalism he wanted to eradicate persists to this day, often in the name of the prophet himself.

Still, I think that the oneness of the global marketplace is something that the prophet himself would likely marvel to see, knowing that it was Islam that kept the light of knowledge alive as the rest of the world dimmed for a moment.