In the chaos of mis/information nowadays, finding moral reference points can be quite difficult. Everyone wants to get along with their friends, so if one says something that might sound a bit morally awkward, we might shrug it off. I believe some moral premises should be regarded as red flags that warrant further discussion. For instance: the zero-sum-game.
A zero-sum-game is a model of interaction in which any participants gains are balanced out by another’s losses. In other words: there is no scenario in which all players benefit. In order for one to gain, another must lose. As a moral premise, it is necessarily malicious.
As such, I think we should listen for it, especially in social or political discourse.
Listen for it in ideas like:
“I wish we didn’t have to keep bombing the Middle-East to stay safe.”
A much more insidious place this premise hides is in variants of “If we don’t hurt them, they will hurt us” from those who aren’t clear and present danger. As a softer variant, “if I’m not comfortable, they don’t deserve to be comfortable”, or “If I don’t feel safe, they don’t deserve to feel safe”. In application, the context can range from warzones to courtrooms to interpersonal relationships.
Not that people who say these things are evil, but these ideas should be elaborated on and scrutinized. Often this sort of rhetoric is used to support causes that, on the whole, have been good for the world. Despite this, I believe that actions carried out based on these ideas tend to do more harm than good. Do not let friends and loved ones act on the zero-sum-game unchallenged.
I think political discourse among those who disagree are much more fruitful when addressing moral premises, rather than debating the details of recent events.
No amount of research or raw information will affect the actions of the politically polarized, be they Congresspeople or new voters. We have to engage morally, because that’s where the divides must be bridged.
The time for abstract armchair philosophy and detached hypothetical scenarios is over, at least for me and mine. Now is the time to engage and act on however you think you can contribute to your idea of a better world. Find where we agree.
Violent conflicts may be an inevitable feature of human nature, but indifference is a moral blight.
Humanity’s relationship with the basic concept of information has experienced very rapid, jarring changes over the course of history. The first great leap was is attributed to the printing press in the mid-15th century. Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, does an excellent job of describing it’s impact on civilization that I think should be closer to the forefront of everyone’s conscious mind as we live through these chaotic times.
The original revolution in information technology came not with the microchip, but with the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention in 1440 made information available to the masses, and the explosion of ideas it produced had unintended consequences and unpredictable effects. It was a spark for the Industrial Revolution in 1775,1 a tipping point in which civilization suddenly went from having made almost no scientific or economic progress for most of its existence to the exponential rates of growth and change that are familiar to us today. It set in motion the events that would produce the European Enlightenment and the founding of the American Republic.
But the printing press would first produce something else: hundreds of years of holy war. As mankind came to believe it could predict its fate and choose its destiny, the bloodiest epoch in human history followed.
With the printing press, one didn’t necessarily need to be in good standing with the church to create and distribute books with ideas that may have conflicted with religious doctrine. While this also spawned the European Renaissance, the chaos that ensued should not be forgotten.
If it’s not obvious why I brought this up: the internet is causing another information revolution. Before the printing press, the basic mechanisms of civilizations were designed around people having no more knowledge than what could be remembered offhand. If few people are literate, how can one distinguish a written lie from a truth?
Today, we’re having another stage of this problem. In the modern world, information has been ubiquitous for centuries. Every public school has a library filled with books that children are taught to reference whenever they seek more information to absorb and convert into knowledge that can be shared or applied infinitely. In fact, for centuries, simply having certain stores of knowledge in one’s head well enough to regurgitate on command was a viable skill; now, even that has changed.
Now, we have the same problem with information as the 15th-18th centuries had: more of it than we know what to do with. Academic institutions still require students to memorize things despite ubiquitous tools that store and regurgitate information for us. Bureaucratic institutions process physical forms at a rate several times longer than what’s needed to Google everything about the process and maybe even design a better one.
In homes, parents don’t know what to tell their children about surfing the internet safely because the internet is so fundamentally different from what it was just ten years ago. There’s no institutional knowledge for how tablets affect toddlers or at what age children are liable to wander into the darker alleys of the internet… or if that’s even correlated with age. What content is good or bad for them? Is that even possible to measure? I remember a time before the internet where ideas backed by information were stronger than ideas that weren’t. Now, every idea can so easily find information to support it, but not all information is equal. Therein lies the problem.
Our ability to distinguish valuable, relevant information from noise has not grown proportionally with our access to it. With books, humanity eventually developed filtration methods, primarily in the form of literacy and critical thinking. Rigorously refined ideas were the only ones that warranted the effort to be studied, reproduced, and incorporated into reference texts and archives. Schoolchildren and especially college students are rigorously taught to distinguish good from bad sources, and to cite their assertions.
We don’t quite have that yet for the internet. Digital activity is monetized by clicks, and measured by attention (time spent viewing content), so the economic incentive of any web-based company is to present you, the digital denizen, with information that you react to, which is probably what you like.
If you read something in a newspaper or heard it on a radio or even saw it on T.V., describing it to a friend would require some degree of processing and mental digestion, during which many baseless ideas might get filtered out. Now, with the touch of a screen or click of a mouse, any headline that even for a split second inspires you to share can within seconds be presented to hundreds or thousands of others, many of whom might have a similar reaction and continue the chain. I’ve fallen victim to this mentality many times, and am thankful for friends who hold me accountable and prevent me from harboring false ideas.
I implore you to ask: What is your standard for truth? Specifically in the realm of politics. Whom do you believe, and why? I don’t have a clear answer for this if you ask me, but these are questions I want to think about and discuss with as many people as possible. Given recent events, I think it’s evident that the average American’s understanding of the political climate is, at best, guesswork. Which might be fine if Democracy didn’t depend on us understanding one another. But it does. We’re all on this rock hurtling through space together; let’s at least try to get along, however bleak the task may seem.
And so, I’m going to start this series, primarily as my own outlet for meditation on the goings on of the world.
The next day was rough physically, but very odd mentally. We (me and five other conclave members) spent most of the day setting up a 30′ diameter PVC geodesic dome, which involved ladders that were quite precarious for me, but very easy for my roommate, who happens to have worked as a professional carpenter. He was able to help me steak down my tent to secure it against the wind.
We also set up a scaffold for climbing up to get a view; I took the liberty of photographing the view around our campsite:
On the left, the tents of some of our caravan. On the right, a large geodesic dome that we spent hours setting up in the desert sun.
Setting up that dome was quite a task, and in retrospect, really helped me feel at home. Putting work into building it helped me feel a sense of contribution and belonging that my mind is usually hesitant to accept. It was filled with couches, a massive bean bag, and carpets and rugs on the floor. It served as the central communal space for our 50-person camp.
And that trampoline was also a massive hit with numerous passersby.
The Playa was rather sparse at this point, two days before the festival starts; large holes gaps in the camping lots that were soon to be filled.
At this point, my mental subroutines (check social media, data feeds, daily tasks, etc.) had checked out, and my mind was clear, holding only what I knew was coming… which was, to be honest, nothing. I didn’t know what was going to happen the next day, or the day after.
What a strange feeling. I did nothing with respect to tomorrow; I didn’t know what I was going to do, whom I might meet, what I might see, or where I might go… nor did I even think about it. Tomorrow fell, from an amalgam of plans and intentions, back into an arbitrary word for when the sun rises next.
If you voted for Trump, you should absolutely be ashamed of yourself. Forget the politics for two seconds. Let’s talk about the person. You voted for a man who is personally responsible for a 90% increase in hate crimes against muslims, increased attacks on SIKHS (people who haven’t done ANYTHING except be brown, wear a turban, and allowed ignorant people to confuse us with Muslims), who makes fun of the disabled, who doesn’t believe in women’s health rights OR gender rights, who COMPLEMENTS the worst leader the world has seen since WWII (Putin), who let’s forget if he actually did or didn’t rape women, he sure as hell thinks it’s acceptable and PERPETUATES rape culture and sexual assault, and who has the temperament of a small child but somehow has nuclear codes now. What you’re saying is that your own white privilege is more important to you than the safety and health of ALL of these communities, because he’s actually threatened all these communities. You’re saying that my health and my family’s wellbeing doesn’t matter to you, because along with myself, I’ve never seen so many people absolutely terrified to live in a country they love. And most importantly, you’ve never had your family members physically attacked and bombed because they’re different, so beyond not even understanding the fear your friends face, you clearly don’t have the empathy either. And any rebuttal or excuse you make for him, clearly shows HOW little your understanding is, or worse, you do understand and don’t care. You are absolutely and undeniably shameless.
The battlefield? Your mind.
The prize? Your decision.
Disclaimer: this is a non-partisan political post about the 2016 U.S. election.
Have you ever strategically withheld information from specific people so that they behave in a certain way? It need not be malicious; teachers withhold solutions to problems that their students are learning how to solve. You may withhold information about a surprise party you’re throwing for a friend.
The other side of it, however, is in strategic spreading of information. If a friend shares an idea with you, you may choose to share it or not, based on the context in which you received it. The information need not be different; only the context. If a friend tells you “I had apple juice today” in an open, cordial way, and you have no cause to believe it’s a secret, then perhaps you’d mention it to another mutual friend who also had apple juice today. However, if this friend beckons you close and says the exact same thing, but in a hushed tone, you might be reflexively inclined to treat it like a secret. And just like that, your behavior changed, with a gesture and shift in tone.
In any democratic political system, with the vote at the core of the political mechanism, every election is a battle for those votes. How people make that decision is usually based on the information they have and/or acquire in the time leading up to the election. Consequently, the vast majority of resources during elections go to advertising. In case you’re doubtful, here’s Bloomberg on the current election.
You’re no idiot; you know how elections work. Pro and Anti ads created with the intention of changing votes get targeted to specific demographics across every medium they can reach. It all started with the postal service and newspapers, but they’ve kept up with the advents of communication. Radio and television both are spoke-and-wheel type systems with one-way communication, and phone calls, while being direct and long-distance, aren’t with thousands of people at once. Together, these communication media formed the mechanisms that deliver information payloads, targeted to affect ideas. The battle has never stopped or changed in essence, but the medium now has.
But who are the players? Well, anyone with the resources to share information. The postal service was revolutionary in its time because it dropped the threshold of resources needed for ANY politically recognized citizen to communicate directly (albeit, by today’s standards, slowly) with any other in the country. For the cost of postage, one can mail a letter to everyone in the country if they want to. While those more money could necessarily get their information out more easily than the poor, everyone used the same medium. The television and radio, however, have a much higher threshold of resources needed to actually express ideas, and not just in terms of sheer dollar cost. Sharing an idea on radio or television requires, at the very cheapest end, notoriety. These media have, relative to the postal service, a very, very small number of players. Those who DO play are generally wealthier than those who don’t.
But how is it that so few people can affect so many? Targeting. Find out, based on polls, which areas have the highest proportions of undecided voters and try to sway them by giving them whatever content resonates in whatever context might be most . Use crop fields as background for ads run in rural areas. Make sure anybody speaking has the right dialect and gestures to match the region. Have them say a phrase that’s endemic to an area and makes voters feel like our candidate understands them and their problems in particular.
Where strategy fails, volume of information is often employed. Sheer inundations of information can be enough to sway even the most reasonable people, if more context isn’t accessible to them. Before the internet, if your newspaper, television, and radio all corroborated each others’narratives, what reason would you have to believe otherwise? For ‘battleground ‘areas, campaigns fight to raise funds so they can try and drown out the opposing narrative by sheer volume. For the undecided voter, hearing three times as many Red Team ads on the radio than Blue Team ads might be enough to sway their vote.
The internet, however, is an entirely different medium. The battle for your vote still uses the same tactics, but the internet doesn’t work the same way. For anyone in the U.S. (or any country with an open internet), web content isn’t regional nor is it centralized; it’s global and distributed to everyone with access. Before, you could air a commercial in the city that farmers probably wouldn’t like, and likewise show the farmers something that -might draw the ire of urban voters, and because their information was as segregated as their geography, there was little dissonance. Consequently, the potential pool of ideas that could be ‘safely’ used to campaign was far larger. While that pool has shrank, the volume of information accessible to everyone has exploded beyond anyone’s comprehension. Which brings me to this election.
This is November 6th, 2016. Election day is the 8th, and every couple of weeks, a new information leak or similar breaking story hits about Hillary’s emails or Trumps business practices, her financial ties or his misogyny. The details of this back-and-forth isn’t nearly as relevant as how this is affecting the people.
Pre-internet, finding information that might contend with a unanimous narrative from media channels was far, far more difficult than it is now. If you had a strong dislike for the candidate that your region nearly unanimously supports, finding information to illustrate WHY you dislike that candidate took work, if it was even feasible. Maybe you could get a hold of something in favor of another candidate, but if the margin in the polls is too wide, the opponents won’t waste ad money.
I call this a war is because the people have joined in, expressing their support for one candidate or hatred for the other in droves, using these affiliations to draw social boundaries and boycotting businesses. Anyone on the internet can, in seconds, create content that is globally accessible. Sure, we still gravitate towards like minds and create some degree of ideological echo chambers, but while information that challenges* ANY idea used to take work to find, it’s now a click away.
*Note: I use the word “challenge” very loosely here; it’s not about the validity of the information, nor the political relevance, but the impact of the information on the people sharing it.
Challenging (in the same sense as above) any idea is easier than it’s ever been, and more people have pitched their ideas into this election than, from my experience in political discourse, is completely unprecedented. People whom I’ve known to be loudly politically apathetic have suddenly engaged this year, often with near religious fervor. For far too many, whom they support in this election is the premise for their trust. They defend this premise, armed with as much information as they can Google to validate themselves. Well-researched, sound, cohesive arguments that may exist in favor of any candidate are preemptively invalidated by the opposition, simply by being against them. The context of your information, for them, erases any meaning the content may have had.
Good ideas are sifted from bad ones through argument and discourse… but that’s not happening anymore. Civil discourse requires at least some common context; you have to agree on what the problems are if you want any semblance of useful solutions. That common ground is, as far I can tell, nonexistent for this election. The result is people reflexively challenging whatever they see online that is against their candidate or in favor of their opponent.
Post something anti-Hillary. Find a quick reply sharing something awful about Trump.
Post something anti-Trump. Find a quick reply sharing something awful about Hillary.
For the most part, people seem to have given up even trying to find that common context necessary for meaningful, constructive discourse. And of course, with retweets, likes, etc., people on each side validate one another. Without discourse, any good ideas that the other side might have are indistinguishable from the noise. Even engaging with your own side about what you might think is a good idea from the other side is liable to cause dissonance.
This fog of information war… It worries me, more because of the likely spread to state and local elections than the presidential. I’m not looking forward to state legislators being elected simply for being on the ‘right side’, and potentially implementing policies that are never rigorously discussed or scrutinized.
Though this fog has some silver lining, from what I see; it’s now blatantly evident, hopefully to many more than just me, that the partisan gridlock that’s clogged the U.S. Congress for so long is in fact not just about political strategy, but about basic political philosophy.
It’s been weeks since my return, and I still haven’t really expressed much on cyberspace about Burning Man… a stark contrast to my posting about FireDrums and UFG almost immediately upon arrival. Though for Burning Man, I can’t really preemptively structure a response. I have so much to express and I know my words will fail me, but now I’ve finally brought myself to just put my fingers to the keyboard and start typing about Burning Man and see what comes out, so here goes.
Once a day, every week, for the past several months, I’ve been attending meetings of the Hellfire Society conclave group of ~50 people. Together, we performed a 15-minute choreographed fire performance based on The Phantom of the Opera, and sent an audition video to the Burning Man Fire Council. Here’s the video if you’d like to watch it. We were selected to perform at 5:26, straddling front-and-center with Radiant Heat from Vancouver, Canada, in front of the man on Burn Night, right before the man burns (Saturday).
Here is a video of our performance in front of The Man:
So that was the core premise of the trip, logistically speaking. But I’ve wanted to go since I first heard about the festival in 2011. Oh, and our camp was placed in the center of Fire Village at 6:15 and G; basically the center of Black Rock City.
My roommate, landlord, and conclave friend drove me up as part of a 4-car caravan, led by a cargo truck with a 30-foot cargo trailer; we’re the early set-up crew for the Hellfire Society Camp, planning to show up on Thursday night and spend the next 3 days building things and preparing for the festival. We drove into a local campground at around 3:00 AM and crashed for the night before departing at around 8 AM the following morning.
This entire time, the hype is building around me, and it’s contagious. Everyone is behaving more… gently. Loosely. Every social interaction feels smother, at least with those traveling with me, all of whom have come to Burning Man before.
We stop by Reno for supplies and find the stores to be filled with people who are clearly going to burning man, based on their attire or vehicle, some of which are large cargo trucks adorned with camp logos, while others are hauling around trailers with art cars of various sizes.
I recognized some flow artists, but was too busy stocking up on supplies to socialize.
We reach the dust and it immediately begins pervading. Maybe two minutes of driving on the playa and dust is visibly gathering behind the truck’s dials. I sense a slight shift in the atmosphere, but my car-companions seem noticeably different, having smelled something far more distinct to them than anything I had picked up. “We’re back!” they cheer together.
I have no idea what I’m in for.
Hundreds of vehicles of every street-legal size are waiting at the entrance to Black Rock City, stopped as the ticketing and vehicle searching process bottle-necked the traffic to the point of vehicles stopping completely for roughly five minutes at a time, so many people, myself included, exited their vehicles to stretch their legs and walk around a bit.
We checked back in with our caravan and found some familiar faces among the nearby early set-up crews, and even made some new friends while the cars slowly crawled forward. It took about 5 hours total to pick up our tickets from will call, get the vehicle searched, and drive to the proper front gate where we were greeted, handed maps and information, and allowed into the city.
We drove to our campsite and set up our personal tents as well as a 15-foot diameter trampoline.
We all shared a beer and slept, though the night was a bit nippy. I had to wear two pairs of socks.
My mind was in a very strange place. The anticipation gave way to a strange calming mood… this was the most adventurous thing I’ve done so far in my adult life, and I was well aware of it, though that was really all I knew for certain so far.