Saturday, November 27, 2010

Five Year Anniversary Post

I've seen or read more than one narrative that centers around an adult learning something about his or her childhood and background that calls into question what they thought they knew about their heritage. Perhaps they find out something shocking about their actual paternity or maternity, or they learn that a grandparent was a spy, or the family dog was actually a robot. And frequently in these stories such revelations occur in a holiday setting, when a family reunites and conversation turns to the past.

To a very small degree, I may have had such an experience over Thanksgiving dinner this year. Growing up, I had always thought that my ethnic background was German, Polish, and Swiss. I was under the impression that my paternal grandmother was full-blooded Swiss--she was a first-generation American, after all. But as of this week I found out that her dad (my great-grandfather, whom I never knew) was born in Austria. There was some debate among my family (still left unresolved) as to whether his heritage was Austrian or Swiss. Speculation turned to his religious affiliation and the cemetery that he was buried in--knowledge that was not previously transmitted to my generation.

Although the discussion did not resolve anything, it did leave me with an impression. It feels odd to know so little about an ancestor who is really not that far removed from me. I'm sure he had interesting stories and perspectives based on his cultural experiences, and of course, his decisions directly impacted my very existence. But he left behind no real record of who he was or what he thought. And these reflections motivate me to want to provide something for future generations, so perhaps my kid's grandson will know me as more than an abstract name that the older folks bandy about.

I've written before about how this blog could be a legacy. As I wrote in that post, when I started this five years ago (and we are now at the five-year anniversary of the first post), I never thought about this possibility. But of course, a blog that is created for the express purpose of communicating to the future is doomed to fail. Paradoxically, one needs to be very much in the present in order to formulate anything worth saying to the future.

But of course, five years on from that first post, I find myself in that author's future. Never mind the potential to communicate with my great-grandchildren, this blog also allows me to communicate with my past self. By forcing myself to write something every week, I have embedded in amber small artifacts of not only my thoughts, but my very consciousness. I have left evidence for myself and others that not only have I lived from 2005 to 2010 in the physical sense, but I have lived in the intellectual sense. My mind has been active, alert, and aware, responding to both the world around me and the world inside of me.

Let me stress that this does not make me special--I'm sure the above description of my consciousness could equally apply to everybody else. But not everybody has a record of that consciousness. And I can speak from experience when I say that having such a record is fulfilling. I try to sell my classes on the "generative power of writing"--the idea that one gets in touch with thoughts that would otherwise have never been unlocked if not for the act of composing words on a screen or page. I can also testify that this happens to me on a near weekly basis because of my self-imposed requirement to post a blog entry. I wish that others would experience such fulfillment, both in the act of composing and in the lasting knowledge that such a composition exists.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Innovating Utopia?

"You can't legislate morality." This line is guaranteed to be uttered whenever there is a public debate about laws that govern behavior. The problem I have with its application is that it is an absolute statement, and therefore a bit of a strawman argument. Of course you can't effectively guarantee prohibition of anything, but the law and its consequences can certainly serve as a deterrant which can curb behavior. And I think this is what supporters of any kind of prohibition are expecting--that society will not condone behaviors that they feel are harmful to the general welfare of a population, and that to a certain degree, those who might otherwise engage in a certain behavior will think twice and refrain from the action. Nobody expects that any law will be adhered to perfectly by everyone.

Of course, an even greater deterrant than punishment is the physical inability to perform a task. If someone barely knows how to turn on a computer, you can be assured that this person will not be engaging in illegal file sharing. We can only speculate how much more money the RIAA or the MPAA would lose if baby boomers who had no moral compunction against downloading also possessed the knowledge to do it.

Still, for every law that has been introduced or every regulation that has been put in place, there has arisen a cohort of individuals who figure out how to cheat, how to beat the system. As they say, when there is a will there is a way. But that saying can actually be applied both ways. I think we are now entering an era where if the collective will is strong enough, certain prohibitions can be upheld with near 100% effectiveness.

For example, the technology now exists to block cell phone texting functioning in moving vehicles. And in most states there are now laws against texting while driving. Put two and two together, and it doesn't seem that far fetched to think that anyone's willingness to flaunt the law could be rendered moot. And the mind wanders to other possibilities. Apparently, we live in a society where we are willing to surrender convenience (and perhaps much more) in the name of safety and security. Considering that exponentionally more people are killed every year on highways than are murdered by terrorists, is it crazy to think that technology could be mandated in order to reduce human error? I'm guessing it wouldn't cost too much to make cars that won't start unless seat belts are fastened. Are ignition locks for everyone inconceivable? Forty or so years from now, when the Eisenhower Interstate System turns 100, while it be retired in favor of the (Insert Future President's Name) Automated Highway System?

As driving is a privelege and not a right, such unilateral actions would presumably hold up fairly well in courts. But then again, protection against "unreasonable search and seizure" is a right, and this right is being interpreted rather loosely in airports. Could we perhaps see a day where every firearm is manufactured with some kind of "smart" detection which only allows itself to be fired by a legal owner? Could every item of any value be implanted with a GPS chip that prevents theft?

Maybe we can't legislate morality, but can we automate it?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reply All

I won't bore you with the details, but in one of my work e-mail accounts this week, I received well over 100 messages related to the same topic. On the day the topic started being discussed, I estimate that I received a new e-mail every five minutes.

Predictably, it didn't take long for the conversation to become a meta-conversation. In other words, while the original conversation continued, a conversation about the conversation also sprung up. Some started to complain about their inboxes becoming cluttered (thereby adding to the clutter), while others defended the e-mail chain's right to exist. One person asked that a particular group of employees be excluded from future mailings, only to see two people from that group chime in and ask that they not be excluded, thereby leading the original person to e-mail a retraction of the request. One person created a virtual message board at a website and urged people to continue the discussion there, while more than one person told everyone to keep e-mailing and avoid the website. And finally, two people sent specific advice about how those uninterested in the conversation could block further e-mails from their inboxes.

In the spirit of Godwin's Law, I could propose a corollary: "As a group e-mail discussion goes longer, the probability that someone will complain about the existence of the discussion approaches one." I've never been a part of an e-mail distribution group in which judicious use of the "Reply All" function is not vigilantly enforced. Of course, this is somewhat understandable: some of us do care about productivity (though personally, I found that reading these e-mails was a nice way to procrastinate on grading papers for a few extra minutes and still feel like I was working).

But even without using the fancy Microsoft Outlook blocking features, I hardly think that anyone's productivity was involuntarily diminished as a result of the e-mails. Given the obvious visibility of the subject lines, I suspect that one uninterested in the conversation could have deleted all of the e-mails in under one minute, or about the time that one spends tying shoes in any given day. And certainly, the amount of time that is spent composing and sending a counter-message is greater than the time needed to delete them.

I realize there is a slippery slope element at work here. Some feel feel that they have to hold the line at a certain point, that by permitting some e-mail conversations to slip through without protest, they are tacitly encouraging a daily inundation. I'm skeptical of such paranoia, and I wonder if it is actually indicative of a deeper fear.

Historically speaking, until recently, the methods by which we allowed the outside world to penetrate our consciousness were finite. At first, for most of the existence of humankind, communications were limited to either those who were in our direct presence, or those who could reach us via written language. The first had a natural filtering mechanism (we literally can't have too many people in the same space), while the second still required the use of costly and limited resources.

But then perhaps Samuel Morse had some vague inkling of the modern e-mail chain when he sent one of the first telegraph messages in 1844: "What hath God wrought." For the next hundred plus years, we would continue to devise communication methods that would make it easier for "senders" to reach more "receivers" with less investment of resources. While we tend to focus on the societal advancements that have resulted, we have also given up control over our ability to filter messages. And each subsequent advancement has resulted in less control.

But not until the development of digital technology has the gap between potential audience penetration and the resources required become so extremely inverted. When we get a load of junk in our (physical) mailboxes, we may be annoyed, but we also know that there are only so many trees in the world, and so much postage that any given sender can afford to pay. But when we get a load of spam (and isn't it interesting that we had to coin a new word to convey our special contempt for junk e-mail?), we feel an extra level of powerlessness. For all we know, this could be the tip of the iceberg. The spammers could be gearing up for an all out digital blitz that would dwarf what we've seen thus far. And even legitimate communications are considered suspect if they exceed a predetermined boundary of restraint we've subjectively erected.

Of course, this phenomenon goes well beyond e-mail. It's entirely possible that the level of "noise" we are attuned to has now exceeded our capability to filter it. Unfortunately, we can't fill out feedback forms on superfluous websites, exhorting them to cease to exist. But sometimes we can take a few minutes to compose an e-mail complaint to unleash into the ether ourselves--ironically doing our part to add to the cacophony.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Rock the Vote?

Details get fuzzy after 20 years, but I clearly recall, as a seventh grade student, being told, shortly after election day, to get a sticker from my social studies teacher. Apparently, everyone who had a voting parent was to receive such a sticker. The prospect of receiving a sticker held about as much appeal for me then as it would now. I think I got over stickers when a vindictive custodian forcibly removed them from my desk (along with all of my classmates' desks) in second grade. But feeling obligated, I trudged to the front of my room and asked for said sticker. My teacher peered at me skeptically and with a tone of suspicion demanded to know if my parents had voted. I truthfully informed him that they had, and he begrudgingly doled out the reward, but I remember being completely prepared to return to my desk without a sticker if the situation required any further attempt at persuasion. I don't recall what I did with the sticker, though I doubt it lasted 24 hours. Interestingly, 14 years later, I would leave a polling place in Kentucky with a sticker of my own, as a reward for my participation in the democratic process. (I likewise have no memory of the fate that befell this particular item, though it wouldn't shock me if the sticker of my adulthood somehow ended up cosmically joined with the sticker of my youth).

Another voting memory: The first time I was eligible to cast a ballot, as a senior in high school, a gentleman by the name of Patrick Crooks was running for the state of Wisconsin's Supreme Court. Crooks ended up winning, though no thanks to one of my classmates who voted against him. When I discussed the election with this classmate, he informed me in all seriousness that he voted for Crooks's opponent because it didn't seem right to have a guy named Crooks on the Supreme Court. When I told him that this seemed like a rather dumb reason to cast a ballot, he said with righteous indignation: "It was either that or not vote!", as if the simple act of voting, not the intent or the outcome, is what mattered most. (I later talked to another classmate who said that he voted for Crooks precisely because he did want a Crooks on the Supreme Court; both of these people, it can be pointed out, were academically high achievers).

More recently, in last week's election, I saw individuals castigated, both in-person and on-line, for make the declaration that they would not be voting. I also saw the standard voter appeals, the "rock the vote," "commit to vote," and "get to the polls" appeals. I saw die-hard liberals and conservatives, against all reason, urge people of the opposite political persuasion to counteract their efforts.

But of course one doesn't need to be thrust into the middle of a political cycle to see that we are a nation that is obsessed with voting (and polling). I realize that one click of a mouse is not all that demanding, but to me, that still seems like too much to ask to vote in a meaningless on-line poll. But go to any media website and you'll see some asinine poll question (A couple random ones I just found through googling: The Detroit Free Press is wondering what you wear to bed, The Fort Worth Star Telegram is asking if Gov. Perry will run for president in four years, and Channel 5 in Cleveland is wondering if you found $3,600 in the street, if you'd return it). And I know that people actually do vote in these polls--when I worked for a radio station I used to come up with poll questions for our station's website. I suspect that many people took longer in considering how to cast their vote than I did in thinking of actual questions. And then there is Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, or any number of made-for-TV competitions in which "America votes." And finally, the last couple of years, my enjoyment of baseball games has been marginally decreased by having to sit through the "text to vote" segment, in which viewers are asked to text "A,B,C, or D" in response to what is usually a question that panders to popular sentiment (example: this year Milwaukee Brewer fans were asked to vote on the "greatest milestone achievement" in baseball in 2010, with Trevor Hoffman's 600th save sitting alongside accomplishments by players who didn't happen to be Milwaukee Brewers. Guess who won that vote?).

If America was a species, it would be easy to understand this phenomenon. We would say that the drive to vote is in our DNA--it is an instinct crucial to our survival. (And perhaps in a figurative sense, this may not be inaccurate). But just as some of our genetic predispositions can, left unchecked, end up harming us rather than ensuring our survival, the notion that voting is automatically good is dangerous. Informed voting, based on critically thinking through issues and positions, is good. Voting for the sake of voting, in order to conform to a cultural expectation, is not. The nonpartisan "get out and vote" appeals are well-intentioned, but I believe are ultimately more harmful than helpful. If people aren't intrinsically motivated to vote, I don't want them voting. But even more than that, I don't want any more stickers.