Online social media: Who we would like to think we are

Open Facebook these days, and what you see is a lot of urging to quit Facebook, due to recent revelations about its relationship with the Cambridge Analytical kerfuffle.  Apart from the irony (surely intended) of posting the call to arms on Facebook itself, I think it’s a dubious response to a very real dilemma: how to avoid being manipulated by social media.

A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael J. Socolow gives some sound practical advice on the subject, but his view of the real problem is a near miss:

… Cambridge Analytica is the symptom, not the disease. The larger problem is that unpleasant and frustrating information — no matter how accurate — is actively hidden from you to maximize your social media engagement.

We — humans, that is — have always had difficulty facing unpleasant and frustrating information, especially when it conflicts with our world view; that’s highly unlikely to change.  There are several recent studies that suggest that, in fact, being confronted with rational arguments against your world view can even strengthen your resolve.  It becomes a test of loyalty, not a rational decision.  So, what to do?

Get a room, as they say.  For better or worse, we are often much more flexible in our positions, even ones we hold dear, when no one is watching.  It’s the public gaze that stiffens our backs.  That’s why sensitive negotiations are better conducted in secret until at least a tentative agreement is reached.  It’s also why our outrage at secret government hearings is misplaced, especially in these bellicose times.  Transparency is good, by all means, but after the fact, not during.  I suspect this effect is a genetic response to the social nature of humans as a species; what we sacrifice in accuracy we gain in solidarity.  It’s a trade-off, of course.

The problem facing us now is that in social media, the boundaries between public and private are hazy, if not absent.  It feels private to post something on Facebook.  You are usually alone when you do it, sitting at your computer, in control.  No surprise that it comes as a shock when someone (out of nowhere, you think) strongly disagrees.  In front of that huge list of friends you’ve accumulated.

When you read something on Facebook, on the other hand, it feels public.  As such, it invites comment, even disagreeable comment.

Of course, anything you put online is public, no matter how it feels at the time.  Keeping that in mind is a big step toward curbing emotional responses, and therefore mitigating the natural tendency to accept what supports our existing beliefs, and reject everything else.  Post in public, react in private.

Having said all that, Socolow’s point about the internet’s tendency to ghettoize information is real.  You don’t even have to be on social media as such.

You can do a little experiment.  Find a friend, preferably someone you tend to disagree with a lot, and sit side by side, and google the same words, each on your own computer.  Then compare the results.

Quitting Facebook will make you feel virtuous, but not much else.  Better to stay and apply pressure to change the algorithm.

Technology: who needs it?

First of all, let me say straight out that I am against all these new fangled ‘improvements’ on things that were working just fine.  Remember the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  It seems we have long since forgotten it, in our haste to make things easier and more productive.  We may gain a second or two, or reduce energy expenditure by a point or two, or allow more people access to some particular process or commodity, but at what price?  Do we really gain anything if we have to sacrifice ancient wisdom and tradition to get it?  Or give up our long-held values, our ways of testing the worth of ourselves and our families to ‘spread the wealth?’  Whatever happened to the concept of  earning wealth?

Take, for example, the bow and arrow.  Easy as pie.  You just pick it up, insert an arrow, pull the string, and point it, and presto!  you’ve killed something.  What could be easier? Anybody can do it.

And that’s the problem.  With a spear, you had to have some skill.  You had to calculate the distance to the animal you were hunting, figure the arc to make the spear end up at the level you wanted to strike the animal at, or at which you wanted to strike .. oh, never mind.  And not only that, you had to have some strength.  It was bad enough when they came up with the atlatl (is that a dumb name or what?)  Now, with the bow and arrow, all the strength you need is to pick the damned thing up, put in the arrow, and point it at something.  Is that the kind of man we want to encourage?  Is that who’s going to get us out of a jam when we’re attacked by enormous beasts?  Or when someone makes a really stupid comment around the fire?

I will just ask you this and leave it at that: when you’ve stolen something or insulted someone, who do you want at your side, a spearman or a ‘bowman?’

My service

This past weekend’s Veterans Day festivities got me to thinking: like 80-90% of veterans, I never saw any combat, and never did anything remotely heroic, dangerous, or even very interesting. People sign up for the military for a variety of reasons, only a few for the starry-eyed patriotism of popular myth. That’s often a part of the mix, but most often not the main reason. I signed up because I was lost, and because I needed to escape my father. I could have resisted, which to me would have meant Canada; no other options were realistic. But I lacked the kind of conviction I would have needed to thumb my nose at my family and my society. I saw some people getting out of the draft in a lot of ingenious ways, and I saw others sucked in with no recourse. In I went.

My father was a strict disciplinarian, tailor made for the kind of rebel I was. He had a very clear idea of how I was to prepare for my life: Purdue University, engineering (my choice of branch, the extent of his flexibility on the subject), followed by a steady job; in short, to become a version of him. It was not a bad plan, especially in his eyes. He had endured the occupation of his homeland, Latvia, by two warring forces, alternating their occupations. He had escaped with his life and with his immediate family intact. I was born and joined my parents and two brothers in a DP camp in Germany. He figured his experience and wisdom outweighed mine by a long shot.

He was right, of course, but in the Fall of 1964, when I went off to live his dream, my only thought was that I was free. Free to do as I wished, associate with whom I wished, and had to answer to no one. I had a talent for science, and I didn’t exactly mind the engineering part of it, but it did not inspire me. The plan was inflexible. A measure of the meager latitude he allowed me was that when I unilaterally changed my major from chemical engineering to pure chemistry, he blew up. Not good enough. He was an engineer, my brothers were engineers, and so was I, like it or not.

All right, I thought, no problem. I went back to Purdue for my second year, goofed off the fall semester, and didn’t even bother to go to classes in the spring. I had a blast. In June of 1966, I definitively flunked out, after spending three semesters in a row on academic probation, a record I believe still stands.

Well, it was 1966, the draft in full force, and before the lottery system. If you lost your student deferment, you were basically next. It was also the beginning of the surging anti-war movement; the two things were not unrelated.

I had gone to college firmly believing that the war in Vietnam was just, that the communists had to be stopped or countries would fall within their grasp like dominos. I was, after all, an immigrant, a refugee from a country brutally occupied by the Soviet Union. Communism was why I was here.

Off at college and away from my family, I heard a different narrative. Yes, North Vietnam was communist, but a nationalist variety, uninterested in expansion beyond its own borders, and besides, America’s man Diem was at best a mountebank and at worst a dictator.

I vacillated between the two versions, ultimately tending toward the latter, but I never lost the nagging feeling that my view had more to do with peer pressure than rigorous analysis. Complicating the situation was a strong sense of duty. To what wasn’t clear.

What I knew was that returning home was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed a clean break. I joined the Air Force. I didn’t know much, but I knew that the moment I walked through the gates into basic training, my ties to my family were irrevocably changed.

I volunteered for overseas duty, and ended up in Okinawa for eighteen months. The F-102 pilots at my base flew regular missions over Vietnam, but the rest of us went about our jobs without danger of harm. Truth to tell, had I been sent to Vietnam, it would probably have been to one of the big air bases like Da Nang or Ton Son Nhut, and my service would not have been significantly different. Camp Hansen, a USMC base, was nearby, and we’d often see C-130s come lumbering in and disgorging entire platoons, bleary eyed and fresh from the bush, ready for R and R. That gave the bar scene off base a certain, shall we say, rowdy ambience, but that was it as far as danger was concerned.

I finished up my enlistment at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, hardly a hardship. In fact, I have to say, with a salary based on what was then the almighty dollar, and meals and lodging free, it was a pretty good job.

Apart from some minor trouble I got into in Okinawa, which delayed a promotion for about six months, my enlistment was uneventful. The only medals I got were for just existing: National Service, Longevity, and Good Conduct. In Okinawa I wore a Presidential Citation ribbon my unit had gotten for something they did decades before in Korea, but lost the right the minute I stepped onto the aircraft out of there. I don’t know what you’d have to do to avoid any of them. My “good conduct,” for example, amounted to not robbing or killing anyone for four years, and not much more.

So, what is the point of this confessional? Don’t thank me for my service. I served four years in the Air Force, got a monthly paycheck, not enormous, but more than adequate. Afterwards, the GI Bill took me through a BA in Anthropology, and a Vocational Rehabilitation stipend for a minor service-related disability got me the rest of the way to an MS. I’m fine.

More importantly, my story is far more typical than you might think, even in today’s volunteer military. I’ve known my share of combat veterans; the one thing they have in common is the reluctance to talk about the experience. Remember that the next time you hear someone regale you with “war stories.”

Remember your loved ones who served, those who are gone and those who are still here; at least you know their story. And by all means, acknowledge those others who came home wounded, either physical or emotionally, or who never came back, but be aware that, for most of even these, they didn’t “sacrifice” themselves; they served in harm’s way, and through the luck of the draw didn’t come out unscathed, and if they were heroic they did it primarily for each other, whatever the original reason for enlistment may have been.

If you simply must voice a blanket thanks to veterans for their service, be aware you’re doing it primarily for yourself, and the relatively few veterans who enjoy basking in such gratitude. And reflect on this: what kid, hearing all this gushing, wouldn’t hope for a war of his own when he grows up?

Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?

TMI, America

Every week or so brings another well thought out, evidence-based article somewhere about how Trump’s base is reacting to his latest stunt. This is immediately followed on social media by someone’s comment to the effect, “I know these guys; they’re not like that at all.” These observations come from the right or the left, makes no difference. My reaction is, “Really?”

Let’s see, most polls give Trump’s approval rating consistently around 35%, give or take a point or two (of which much is made, but that’s another story.) The adult population of the country is about 246 million, and this is presumably the target group of the polls. So the articles in question are making statements concerning the beliefs of approximately 86 million people, based on scientific polling. Now, you can have legitimate concerns about the validity of these polls, either on scientific grounds or past performance.

But the person who writes in a FB comment or a tweet that he or she “knows these people” is talking about an infinitessimal sample. A human being can have direct, personal knowledge of maybe 100 people, max. This has been demonstrated by several studies, but even if it’s off by an order of magnitude, it’s no serious competition for professional polling, especially since “all the people I know” is hardly a random sample.

This is just a symptom of a larger issue: we are giving each other far more information about our personal lives, our beliefs (and ipso facto our prejudices) than we can possibly process in a useful way. Add to that the fact that we have access, updated hourly, to information about hundreds or thousands of instances of tragedy and injustice anywhere in the world, and that makes it — I’ll say it — impossible to evaluate most of what gets fed into our heads each day.

I am interested in significant events in my friends’ lives, I really am, but do I need to know about every hangnail, every maddening computer glitch? As far as the news of the world is concerned, am I really ready to vet every allegation of misconduct? More than likely, the former will generate a snicker, and the latter will be incorporated into my world view to the extent it confirms what I already think. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it? If the piece doesn’t fit, out it goes. Except we can subtlely change the pieces of reality we don’t like to make them fit.

The virtue of physical newspapers was that they were limited to roughly the amount of information we could deal with. Biased? Of course, but I’ll bet we’re more neurotic now, torn by the possibility of mistaken outrage, or an injustice we can’t possibly set right.

Our knowledge of our friends’ foibles was limited by however much time we could allot to hanging out in cafes and bars, which usually entailed fewer than 5 or 6 people at a time. There were no headlines about minor domestic glitches published for all the world to see and comment upon.

Technology is racing ahead of cultural adaptation. We still give up our secrets as if we were just talking over the fence with a neighbor. And then we express outrage at our lack of privacy.

Humbled

What does it mean when someone says they are humbled by an experience?  Taken literally, it would mean they are made to feel more humble, which is to say less proud.  And yet, I would venture to say that most of us have never heard anyone use the expression in a context in which that makes sense, inasmuch it is almost universally used  on the occasion of receiving  an award. Usually, the humbling is accompanied by an expression of pride and gratitude.  The higher the honor, apparently, the more humbling the experience and the greater the pride.

There is only one sense in which winning an award can be a truly humbling experience, and that is if it is undeserved.  Do you feel that your accomplishments are trivial compared to the work of other recipients?  Was the award completely unexpected because you think of yourself as just getting the job done in a workmanlike way, nothing special?  Do you feel that if the award committee looked back over your record they’d have to reconsider choosing to honor you?  Is the contribution of others unfairly minimized by their exclusion?

These are all perfectly normal reactions, whether valid or not.  They are also utterly inconsistent with pride, and the kind of gratitude that would be appropriate in this context smacks of favoritism and ulterior motivation.

If you truly feel humbled, the most honorable thing to do is to turn down the award and explain your reasons.  If, after mulling things over, you decide you deserve the award after all, accept it with grace and pride, never mind the false humility.  If you still feel the award is undeserved, but it would create awkwardness for the committee to turn it down, well, you’re in a fine pickle, aren’t you?

It’s ironic, to say the least, that when someone actually does turn down an award, they are almost always criticized for being too full of themselves.

In truth, I suspect that most of the time it is simply formulaic, the right thing to say in the same way that people say “pleased to meet you,” or “sorry for your loss.”

But I can’t help it.  It’s my duty as a curmudgeon to harp on these things.

 

 

Guilty

How will you plead at the judgment of history?

If you support Trump’s attack on the constitution, you’re guilty.

If you voted for Trump because you agreed with what he said, you’re guilty.

If you voted for him because you wanted to shake up the status quo, you’re guilty.

If you gave in to your fear, and thought you could be saved by victimizing others, you’re guilty

If you thought he wouldn’t do what he said, you’re guilty.

If you cut down Clinton because you didn’t get Bernie, you’re guilty.

If you voted for an incompetent third party candidate as a protest, you’re guilty.

If you thought only your favorite ideology merited support, you’re guilty.

If you didn’t vote at all because you thought your cool cynicism excused you, you’re guilty.

If you think you’re excused from culpability because it’s all beneath you, you’re guilty.

Above all, if you approve of what’s happening right now, you are guilty, and that’s how you will be judged.