Thoughts on tolerance of others’ beliefs…

Here’s something I see a lot, at least in Internet discussions: When someone criticizes a belief held by a group of people, such as a political or religious group, they are shouted down for being “intolerant” of that group as a whole and not willing to accept others’ beliefs. But this is a fallacy.

There are certainly groups on both sides of the political spectrum who are hostile to beliefs that are not their own. The Tea Party immediately comes to mind. The fallacy is assuming a monolith attitude–for example, believing that the extremist views of the Tea Party apply to all conservatives, which is a perception the Republican Party is struggling with now. 

But giving a belief a fair hearing shouldn’t result in automatic acceptance of that idea, even if it is grounded in religious faith. Ideas and even beliefs should be criticized. And there is no “rule” that just because someone has authentic beliefs, everyone else must honor them.

Take, for example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was dis-invited from speaking at Brandeis University on the grounds of being “Islamaphobic.” You can read what she had to say here. She is criticizing some authentic beliefs of some Muslims. She is not criticizing all Muslims or even claiming that all Muslims hold these beliefs. The fallacy is believing that whenever anyone speaks out against a belief grounded in religion, they are being intolerant of that religion as a whole. No, they are being intolerant of the belief, in this case, the curtailing of women’s rights. 

There is a balance between automatically rejecting beliefs that are not your own and automatically accepting every belief in the name of liberalism or tolerance or what-have-you. Crying “Intolerance!” every time someone criticizes a belief, and assuming that criticism of a belief means hatred of a group, shuts down free and open discussion, which shuts down free exchange of ideas. It does not lead to less intolerance; it leads to less understanding.

For further reading, I found this essay at Psychology Today to be a thoughtful analysis of this subject.

Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

Some thoughts on the crowded field of social networks…

Brief aside: I see Google+ is rolling out a new look today. It might be a good time to check out the network, if you haven’t already. I’m on Google+ here and I follow a lot of interesting people.

I think it’s a false proposition to look for one clear winner among the big-player social networks, the one network that will destroy all the others. Yet this is what many tech and social media bloggers persist in trying to do, as if the social web were a horse race that at some point will clearly be over, instead of a place that is constantly evolving and growing.

There is room for many kinds of networks on the social web because the primary job of these networks is to connect people, and there are many types of people. No one network can be all things to all people, nor should it try to be. For instance, Google+ seems to appeal more to introverted types (like me; full disclosure), while Facebook attracts more extroverts. Pinterest is geared toward people who think visually; Twitter is for those who prefer a rapid-fire flow of information.

Not only do different types of networks work better for different types of people, but no one of us fits into a neatly labeled box all of the time. That’s why many of us like to move between networks as our needs dictate, even though we may have one primary place where we hang out most of the time. I definitely prefer Google+ for most sharing, but Twitter is a good place to exchange links or read breaking news, and on Facebook, I can keep up with an extended circle of friends and family.

So I don’t see much point in the endless articles dissecting why Google+ has so many followers as compared to Facebook, or what people think of Twitter or Pinterest. In this space, there is room for multiple winners. Still, blogs don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, and blogs must be filled with content, so I’m sure we’ll continue to be inundated with these meaningless pieces pitting the social networks against one another or lauding the latest newcomer as the giant killer.

As long as a network has a strong idea of its own identity and remembers who its primary user base is — and doesn’t stray too far afield of that by trying to be all possible things to all possible users — it can probably survive and even thrive in this crowded space. Until the social web is supplanted by something utterly new and unpredictable, that is.

Thoughts on Google+…

I was lucky enough to get into Google+ today. Here are my initial thoughts.

My first reaction: Whoa, I like this! Google+ looks a lot like Facebook’s more mature older brother, the one with a real job. It is a clean interface, not cluttered with all the garbage that comes with Facebook, and everything is very easy and intuitive to use. It’s a pleasure to browse.

What I specifically like:

  • Circles are great! Circles are Google’s metaphor for different groups of people you want to network with. It is so easy to drag and drop any contact into a circle. Then, you can choose which circle to share with when you post a link, photo, video or note. For instance, I can share photos of my kid being adorable just with my Friends and Family circles, arrange playgroups with my Neighbors circle, and trade interesting links with my Net Friends circle. Circles are not only intuitive, they mimic the way we interact socially in real life better than any other social network I’ve seen.
  • Hangouts are just cool! Hangouts provide a way to video chat with any circle of contacts. It is so easy to use. I was able to set this up and start chatting in less than a minute. You just open up a hangout and wait for others from your circle to join you. This is a great tool for virtual teams or for far-flung friends and family.

Now, here’s what I want:

  • Google Buzz no longer seems necessary. I want Google+ to replace Buzz and do what Buzz does. Specifically, I want to be able to easily share items from Google Reader to my circles.
  • Since I now use so many Google tools, I would love to make Google+ my hub on the Internet. But I know that not all of my contacts are going to migrate over. So I need an easy way to broadcast what I share on Google+ to Twitter, Facebook and my blogs. (There is an extension for Chrome that allows me to send posts to Twitter and Facebook, but I’d like to see it built in so it’s less awkward.)
  • I’m not yet sure what value Sparks adds. Sparks are items pulled from the web on subjects of interest, but right now, there doesn’t seem to be any good way to refine or customize this list. Maybe I need to play with it more.
  • I’d like more people from Facebook/Twitter to join! Once Google+ opens up to a wider group of users, I’d love it if they’d make it easy for me to invite my contacts from other social networking sites. Right now, you can only easily add your Google Contacts to circles.
  • By default, I think there are too many email notifications, but this is easily remedied. To turn off any of the notifications, click the little wheel in the top right corner and choose Google+ Settings.
  • Oh, one more thing: Real-time updating of my stream would be real, real nice. Come on, Google! (Done!)

All in all, I’m very excited about the possibilities of Google+. So, when can I drop my Facebook account for good?

Google doesn’t seem to be sending out invitations right now for Google+, due to insane demand. If you happen to get on and want to invite your friends, here is a sneaky way to do it (and this is how I got in).

Some thoughts on George Orwell’s 1984 inspired by the so-called Birther debate and other current events…

Big Brother Is Watching You

Image by thefoxling via Flickr

Like most people who have read 1984, it profoundly affected my way of thinking about power and political systems. Orwell introduced concepts and language into the general consciousness, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother.” The struggle against political oppression and the tyranny of the powerful few over the many seems to be a never-ending one, but I think Orwell’s masterpiece has become a great weapon in that struggle, by making us more aware of the forms oppression can take and helping us recognize when it may be happening in our own society.

Certainly, Orwell’s full bleak, dystopian vision hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps total control of the people through surveillance and torture isn’t very realistic. Yet, it frightens me to recognize how pervasive propaganda, misinformation and historical revision have become in our current political climate, just as Orwell depicted it. I can turn on my TV and see it happening every day. I see people blithely accepting fabrications even in the face of contradictory evidence and eagerly supporting measures that run contrary to their self-interests. I wonder if Orwell would laugh at the irony of the propagandists twisting his words into their own form of double speak.

Even more than 50 years later, Orwell’s 1984 is as relevant as when it was first published. We should never stop reading Orwell or learning lessons from it.

Responses to Climate Change: My Thoughts

In my previous summary on what we know about climate change, I wrote that there are three main responses: mitigation, adaptation and geoengineering. Of these, we hear the most about mitigation. Cap-and-trade policies, carbon-emission reduction treaties and development of alternative sources of energy are all efforts to mitigate how much carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere, the primary cause of global warming.

While mitigation is a worthwhile long-term goal, it cannot be our only pursuit. Even if we were to completely stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, the damage is already done. Greenhouse gases will take some time to clear out of the atmosphere, so global warming will still continue for some time. How feasible is halting all carbon emissions, anyway? We’d essentially have to ask countries like the United States to change their culture and infrastructure overnight, while making countries like India and China halt all development. That’s not at all realistic, or likely to happen.

It seems clear that some kind of climate change will occur — beyond the damage that has already been done — because total mitigation just isn’t possible. The questions are: How severe will it be, what will the specific effects be, and who will they most impact? That’s why we should devote an equal amount of our resources — or even more resources — to the other two approaches: adaptation and geoengineering.

There is a fourth response that some advocate, which is restoration of damaged areas. I’m not sure how that would work. How can we rebuild a glacier? We can reduce deforestation and plant new trees, however, and we should support all efforts to do so. But that cannot be our primary response.

Since we don’t know exactly what the effects of climate change will be in different areas of the world, it’s difficult to put adaptive solutions in place now. But we can certainly start preparing by researching likely outcomes and developing effective solutions. Research areas should include energy, obviously, but also agriculture/food production and water desalination, to name a couple of low-lying fruit. Private businesses could play a large part in this R&D effort, as long as they are incentivized to do so.

A number of geoengineering proposals, from the feasible to the outlandish, are already out there. These range from building huge artificial “trees” to act as carbon sinks to spraying sea water or even aerosols into the atmosphere to deflect energy into space. Again, more research is called for, as the risks and benefits of each proposal are still unclear, and other workable solutions may present themselves. Some would argue that the side effects of any geoengineering effort are unknown and potentially risky. True, but so are the side effects of doing nothing. If the situation grows desperate enough due to our inaction, then desperate solutions will be employed, by somebody.

In any event, it seems that the best use of our resources is on research and development in the areas of adaptation and geoengineering, as well as — or even surpassing — carbon-emission reduction. The governments and corporations that invest in these areas will be ahead of the curve when the full effects of climate change begin to manifest.

Ideas and facts for this article came from:

A few thoughts (and some links) about content mills…

Over the last couple of days, I have been reading a lot about content mills. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, content mills or content farms are websites or networks of sites that churn out thousands of pieces of content per day, which are optimized to score high on specific search engine results. These content mills pay freelance writers very poorly to pump out the content, and their quality reflects that. This is the crap that is cluttering up your Google search results, which I have written about before here.

I don’t have much to say about content mills, except that once I identify one, I avoid it with extreme prejudice. I also noticed that when you google the term content mill, the first result, “What Is a Content Mill,” comes from a well-known content mill. Irony in action.

Anyway, it appears a backlash is a-brewin’. People want this crap out of their search results. Yeah, me too. Anyhoo, here are some good links on the subject for further reading:

The Search Engine Backlash Against ‘Content Mills’ (MIT Technology Review)
Google, Content Farms & Why This May Be Blekko’s Moment (Search Engine Land)
MediaShift’s Guide to Content Farms (PBS)
Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried and How Google Can Combat Content Farms (ReadWriteWeb)
Content farms v. curating farmers (BuzzMachine)
Content dust bowls (Magellan Media)
The Future of Media Isn’t Free Content, It’s Cheap Content (Metafilter)

Thoughts on free will & fatalism…

It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves for millennia: Do we make our own choices, or are we controlled by outside forces, such as the gods or — as science has ascended and we’ve learned more about these things — our genes, our subconscious and/or our animal instincts for survival and reproduction?

When I read an article like this or a blog like this, I tend to think it’s the latter. Despite inventing high-fructose corn syrup, we eat as if food were still scarce, and we all get fat. We hire people based on their beauty, which can be defined as traits we want passed on to the seceding generations. We find it difficult to comprehend long-term problems like global warming and can’t sacrifice our short-term rewards to solve them.

When we start believing that our instincts or our subconscious behaviors determine every choice we make, fatalism could set in. Someone who accepts such fatalism could logically conclude that he is not responsible for his actions and behave unethically or even break the law. And why not? If my subconscious or my genes determine my behavior, then what’s the point of doing anything?

I believe that the great story of being human is the struggle to operate as if we in fact do shape our own lives, even if that’s not strictly true. Identifying a purpose in life and believing we have the free will to pursue that purpose are what make consciousness bearable. It’s no accident that our most enduring stories are about people who struggled for freedom and sacrificed their own needs or desires to achieve a greater good.

Even if the concept of free will is just an invention to help us cope with our consciousness of our finite lives, it is a useful one. We should behave as if we have free will, even if that behavior is coded into our genes. That is the only way we can advance as a species, a goal that may provide that much-needed purpose to life.

Read more:
The Beauty Advantage (Newsweek)
Think You’re Operating on Free Will? Think Again (Time)
You Are Not So Smart
Naturalism.org

Thoughts on radical homemaking & challenging cultural norms…

Recently, I have been reading about the “radical homemaking” movement, which like the simplicity movement and similar shifts, values domestic work more and tries to reduce consumption and consumerism. What I see this movement as being about at its heart is challenging the pre-set cultural values of consumerism and traditional work in the corporate world. It is a search for another, possibly more satisfying way of life that hasn’t already been road-mapped as the American dream.

I’m not a big fan of the term “radical homemaking,” which I think is merely a way to rationalize these life choices and make them seem legitimate, especially for well-educated feminists (I have written about this before, when I first saw an article using the term in The New York Times). But my dislike of the term applied to it doesn’t negate the effort, in my opinion.

The backlash against this movement and similar ones that challenge cultural norms — local or slow food movements and voluntary simplicity are two other good examples — is that one has to be privileged to practice them. In other words, if you don’t already have money or property or an upper-middle-class background, then you couldn’t possibly pursue these movements comfortably. The net effect of this argument seems to be that if you are privileged, then just get on with living your privileged, consumerist, typical American middle-class life and stop trying to get back to simpler values or the land or whatever.

Maybe it is easier to question what we have all been taught since birth and experiment with different ways of living if you come from a background of privilege. Or maybe the privileged practitioner is more likely to write about the experience, and so those are the voices we hear. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done or that we should silence those who are doing it by accusing them of privilege. As someone who has never felt comfortable with the expected American life path, I can appreciate and learn from the experiences of others who are trying to live their lives differently.

We can all take many different paths to the same end, an attempt to find satisfaction and contentment outside the unsustainable cultural values of consumerism and corporate work. One person may give up a prestigious job to go back to the family farm. Another may start a community or rooftop garden in the city where she lives. Some may stop buying new things or only eat food grown locally. In their own small ways, these life choices do qualify for the term “radical” because they go against the norm, and I want to hear about them.

Only by constantly questioning our cultural norms can we evolve, something we desperately need to do. Our species faces enormous problems, which have recently been crystallized by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re not going to find the solutions by doing things the same old way.

For more:
Meet the Radical Homemakers (Yes! Magazine)
Radical Homemakers (MetaFilter)
To Live Content with Small Means… This Is My Symphony (Miss Minimalist)
RadicalHomemaking.com
Radical Homemakers: redefining feminism and the good life (techstartups.com)
The Femivore’s Dilemma (nytimes.com)