Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Danger of Platform Dependency

We are all becoming increasingly comfortable sharing our lives and our information on different technology platforms, specifically social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and their more targeted imitators. But what happens if those platforms turn on you?

This article suggests that Facebook might be disadvantaging conservative and libertarian organizations as it provides upgrades to its "Groups" pages. Reading the story, it seems more likely that the upgrading process is just taking a while, and they'll probably get around to most everyone eventually. But imagine for a second that there's something to it: Groups that were organized through Facebook, the product of months and years of effort to win a following, could just be wiped out.

It is in the best interests of these 'universal' sites to be scrupulously neutral when it comes to politics and other areas of our social lives that tend to be controversial or inspire deep passions. (Imagine, to look at it a different way, that some diehard Red Sox fan at Facebook didn't let Yankees fans upgrade their groups.) A Facebook that drove away conservatives (or Yankees fans) might seem appealing to liberals (or Red Sox fans) in the abstract, but the network would lose countless valuable connections, and be weaker for everyone. And while you might not mind losing that one obnoxious guy you friended who posts about Obama's fake birth certificate 10 times a day, you'll probably miss those friends who happen to be conservative, but are also about a lot of other things.

So, as I said, I doubt Facebook is actually discriminating against conservative groups. But they could, and that brings up an important point. Facebook is not a utility, and it isn't part of the government. There are no laws that force it to accept everyone, or to be welcoming of all opinions and commentary. It does this because it is good for business, and if it decided it wanted to boot anyone who posts a conservative thought, it could. And so could LinkedIn, or any other network.

So if you're organizing through the Internet, it's probably a good idea to collect email addresses of your members. It isn't good to be too reliant on any one channel.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Overly Intuitive?

Here's a random thought...what if we are making technology too easy to use? I hear in my line of work that if some tool we design isn't intuitive, it won't get used. I just wonder if perhaps this leads us to follow well trodden paths that don't help us make anything truly great.

In other words, when some tool is complicated and takes effort to master, we might learn more about it and thus figure out new, unexpected ways to use it. But if it is simple and easy to understand, we may never appreciate the possibilities because our use of the tool is purely transactional.

Old computer programs were like may not use all the keys for all songs, but you need to know them all to play whatever song you want. Modern 'apps' are more like player pianos, doing the hard work for you. So, are the benefits of convenience worth the loss of discipline and mastery?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Death of Stupid?

Are you in favor of eugenics? Of course not, right? The idea that the human population should be cultivated to encourage certain traits and skills to flourish, by weeding out the undesirable strains of mankind, has been thoroughly discredited by its past history of association with forced sterilizations and Nazi horrors. But there is something about the notion that we'd all be better off if we could just get rid of the 'wrong sort' that the idea keeps popping up in different guises.

So I suppose I should give Julien Savulescu credit for honesty, then: he doesn't deny that what he's talking about is eugenics. Instead, he tries to rip the term away from its evil, 20th century practitioners. See, for example, this quote from an interview he did recently with the Guardian:
"It depends what you mean by eugenics," he says. "In point of fact, we practise eugenics when we screen for Down's syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities. The reason we don't define that sort of thing as 'eugenics', as the Nazis did, is because it's based on choice. It's about enhancing people's freedom rather than reducing it."
Let me back up. Julien Savulescu is a prominent bioethicist at Oxford, and he is arguing that eugenics is alright as long as it is a personal choice (of the parents, of course, not of the fetus) and not forced by the state. He is pro-cloning, pro-gene enhancement, and definitely in favor of selecting embryos to be implanted for intelligence. He's been quoted as saying that embryos that do not have the right genes for high intelligence should be destroyed to ensure, "the economic and social benefits of higher cognition."

Despite my disgust at the notion of throwing away human life--even embryonic life--as if it was an insignificant bit of garbage, I'd like to focus more on the end result of Savulescu's proposal: should we be in favor of a world where people are designed to be smarter?

In an earlier post, I wrote that our society might be evolving into one where a few people have exceptionally meaningful, creative work, but the majority have little to do at all. But perhaps that problem would be solved if everyone was what we would today call a genius, if they had the mental gifts to do meaningful work in the increasingly complex scientific and intellectual areas that define modern life.

So lets say we could eliminate unintelligent people not by killing them before they're born, but by altering their genes to increase their intellectual capacity. Should we have any objection to this? I can see several: that we're messing with the essence of who we are as people, that it will favor those who can afford it over those who can't, that we will make one generation "obsolete" with the enhancements given to the next. But I can't say I find any of those arguments convincing: humanity is either endowed by God with intelligence (as I believe) and therefore we should use that intelligence to improve our lot in life, or else we are here as a product of blind evolution, in which case we should do all we can to advance the species and our own quality of life. Either way, the issue is not whether we should enhance our intelligence or not, but whether we take unethical shortcuts in our effort to do so.

There is, I have to admit, a nagging voice in the back of my head that says this is the path to creating a class of amoral Ubermenschen. And when I first conceived of this post, my intention was to bash the idea of artificially enhancing intelligence. But isn't this hypothetical concern about the perils of evil, rogue geniuses a bit of a red herring? It seems a much more practical worry that we are going to leave behind millions of good, hardworking people who simply don't have the gifts to contribute all they would want to an ever-more knowledge-based society. The person with a below-average IQ doing manual labor is not less valuable than a smarter person, and it is dangerous that we might see them as such if most people had enhanced intelligence. But wouldn't most, if not all, of those people appreciate the chance to add to their intellectual capacity?

Clearly, I'm still struggling with this issue. (Thus all the question marks.) So I'll leave it here: Julien Savulescu's casual disregard of human life is appalling, but high intelligence is a great gift that would be worth spreading more widely through the human family if we could do so safely and ethically. Someday, we'll be able to do so, and the burden of proof will be on the naysayers to argue why we shouldn't.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Candy Versus Vegetables

People like to believe that society can be made perfect. Sure, they probably wouldn't admit that they think this way. Most people think they are realistic types, who can make tradeoffs and rationally evaluate a wise path forward. But then those people vote.

I'm coming to believe that, rather than being to uninformed to make smart political choices, most Americans believe in their hearts that their 'team' (as I described it in my last post) has the key to fixing the ills of society, and if it could just be swept into power, all would be well. Most people I know have a hard time even acknowledging that their political opponents are intellectually honest and might be trying to act in what they think is the common good.

Which, finally, brings me to my point: both Democrats and Republicans engage in magical thinking that lets them offer goodies to voters without dealing with our big problems. And no one has figured out a way to fight against this without losing elections. The Democrats want people to believe lavish social services are possible if we just 'tax the rich'. Republicans argue that tax cuts will generate enough growth to pay for themselves. And when members of either party challenge these lies, they are denounced as traitors.

An example: recently, Tom Coburn, no one's idea of a squishy moderate, has been negotiating with Democrats to try to find common cause and attack our deficit problem in a meaningful way. He has expressed willingness to consider some tax increases as part of a compromise deal, though he obviously would prefer not to have them. This has been enough to cause Grover Norquist, a man who has made a nice living for himself by simplifying our fiscal debates to "no new taxes, ever", has said, "[Democrats] are playing Coburn like a Stradivarius." Now, no deal even exists yet. But Norquist wants to hold Coburn to a pledge he (like almost every other Republican politician) has signed at some point: a pledge to never raise taxes. And so political action is made almost impossible.

People also talk about politicians offering 'candy' to constituents, because you can't get elected by telling the electorate to eat its vegetables. But the analogy goes deeper than just contrasting something tasty but ultimately bad for you with something unpleasant but healthful. Candy, unlike vegetables, comes packaged and branded. It's ready to consume. The simple slogans of political absolutism, like "no new taxes", are equally easy. But we've been sucking them down for so long we're going to get sick.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, Branding and Our Desire to Believe

Why are we so quick to believe liars and fabricators? We are plagued by journalists who invent facts and sources, by politicians scurrying to bury scandal, and by memoirists who find their lives are best seasoned by liberal doses of fiction. Into this last bucket place Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, founder of a charity intended to build schools in central Asia, and--as 60 Minutes revealed in a recent expose--a fabulist and a crook.

What is amazing, as this post by Bruce Bawer makes clear, is that the improbability of his story should have been apparent to even a casual observer:
[Mortenson] was the star of his own story. The whole point of his talk was how much one brave, selfless individual can accomplish in this world even against the most formidable of odds. And that individual was him. The premise of his spiel was that he’s a miracle worker, pacifying belligerent jihadist types by sitting down with them over three cups of tea and listening to their concerns. Yet the egomaniac I saw that day was somebody you couldn’t picture listening to anybody else for more than thirty seconds. Mortenson’s shameless self-celebration in Three Cups of Tea left me speechless. As Oscar Wilde observed of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop, how could any sensitive reader react to such nonsense with anything but derisive laughter?
Bawer continues by showing how callously Mortenson turned on those who had been kind to him to bolster his own reputation:
Then there’s Mortenson’s lie about having been kidnapped by the Taliban. He stuck a picture in his book of him and some Afghani acquaintances — who had treated him kindly — and identified them in the caption as his kidnappers
When we hear stories of people using others this way to bolster their own stories, we are rightfully disgusted. When we hear, as in Mortenson's case, that he was doing it in large part to enrich himself, and use his charity to support a lavish lifestyle, we howl for blood. But why do we buy in to begin with? It is easy to say, "We want to believe," but why? Wouldn't it make more sense for us to be exceptionally skeptical, and to disbelieve even true stories to protect ourselves from fraud and disappointment? Why, in other words, are humans so quick to trust?

Part of the answer, as David Brooks and Mark Earls and many others have pointed out, is that we are social creatures. We essentially outsource some of our decision-making to others. So if enough people tell you Greg Mortenson is a hero, you may not evaluate that claim very critically yourself before you, too, are singing his praises.

But I think it goes beyond that. People don't just have their small social groups, they love to organize themselves into big, abstract teams, teams that are defined by a series of positions its members are either for or against. Successfully aligning with these positions is the key to popularity for both brands and people.

Look, for example, at how Microsoft and Apple fostered opposing tribes of believers on the basis of different operating systems and technical specs. Mortenson did the same thing by aligning with deep-held beliefs in non-violence, in the power of the individual to make a difference, in multiculturalism. He pushes against the idea of cynicism (or what some would call realism or humility) and an us-versus-them mentality.

This places him squarely on the liberal-idealist team, which has many players in academia, in government, and in Western urban culture more generally. Many of these people struggle to solve the seemingly intractable problems in society, and are understandably inspired by someone who seems to be taking on big challenges with verve and success. Mortenson's story reflects their beliefs and aspirations so perfectly, they were desperate for it to be true. (Similarly, eight years ago who took what was commonly called the 'neocon' worldview really wanted to believe the Iraqi people were going to "greet us as liberators.")

We should remember that people (and brands) are not perfect. So if their stories are perfect, it should set off our BS warning sirens. The lesson is that we can't just investigate our enemies and be skeptical about those we don't agree with. To avoid our natural tendency to believe, to accept social decisions, and to take sides, we need to bring a critical eye even to those we want to love.