The Internet and Social (Network) Conflict

The Egyptians worshiped the open eye because they knew attention was redemptive – if you pay attention to things you can understand them and make things better. This resonates with us – we generally believe that paying conscious attention to things is the best way of achieving an objective grasp, a full understanding of what a thing is from itself, rather than simply from our perspective. We improve on this by establishing perspectives which are, in principle at least, repeatable – and we call these “experiments”. This way of bringing ourselves to the world has fared us well, at least so far. We have cell phones, cars, the internet, trains, and all manner of wonderful technological innovations which would not be possible without the value of directed attention, objectivity, and work.

Sociological research which I’ve been informed of, but can’t cite at the moment, shows an interesting corollary to this: when we converse with people on the internet, we tend towards divergence. We characterize their view as an object which we pay attention to and discover its defects, and then oppose it. This makes sense – it conforms with the value of paying attention to things to make them better. The problem is, the views of others are not objects but perspectives (like our own), which are constantly shifting, and which exist in a complex network of values which, in a sense, characterize them as the people that they are.

Unsurprisingly we are much less likely to treat the views of people we speak to in person as objects. In fact, that same research I’m referring to (but not citing – if someone knows it feel free to comment below) (Also feel free to comment if you think I’m full of it and making this up – it’s the internet after all!), demonstrates that the same people who diverge on the internet are much more likely to converge when in dialogue in person. This difference is confirmed by my personal experience – discussions in person tend towards emphasizing what you hold in common with others, and also towards compromise on those issues where you differ, whereas the more objective and reasoned internet discussion tends towards endless conflict about fundamental values.

If this difference is true, and I’m not just making it up by referring to imaginary research, it reveals something essential about humans and something essentially terrifying about facebook and the blog-sphere. It is perhaps not accidental and random, and not a result of “people being jerks” (at least not in the normal way), when internet discussion tends either towards insular communities where everyone agrees, or towards trolling and nasty debates with no middle ground. We may have simply evolved (culturally and/or genetically) to treat the “absent”, i.e. a rock or a sentence in a book or on the internet, with much more distance and tendency towards rejection than the word spoken by other people.

This idea – that we treat speech from people in person fundamentally differently than writing in books or on the net, converges with a recent thesis which has become popular in Cognitive Science by people like Alva Noe and Evan Thompson, although it is also Chomsky’s recent position – that language is mostly not communication at all. Rather, most talking is something like stroking each others hair, something quite common for many mammalian species (wouldn’t it be quite strange if we hadn’t developed a replacement for this social practice?).

This idea encourages us to think about internet communication with a great degree of restraint – we perhaps have no grounds for assuming that it is anything much like debate in person. It may appear highly reasoned and objective to debate analytically and deductively on the internet, and it may in fact be highly intellectual – but – it may be that when we do this in person we are doing something much less like analytic debate than we are capable of on the internet. And, the corollary to this – we as humans may be much less capable of pure, hard-reasoning as we believe we are. In fact, when we read statements that diverge with our values and there is no human behind it to recognize as a person-like-me, I may simply be much less capable than I believe of carrying on any sort of meaningful communication at all.


Photo Set “A”

It has come to my attention that some people out there in the cyberworld, and also in my life of in-person human contact, find my photos decent. Personally, I like photography. I like taking pictures, I like editing them and I like the emotional responses they invoke in me when I look at them. But, I’ve generally considered these responses to be of a personal nature – they are after all of my friends, travels, my memories. This is probably a reason I have so few of my pictures printed to give as gifts, and I’ve shied away from trying to have my work shown in any gallery (or coffee shop) setting. First off because everyone is a photographer these days, and, in tune with that – I don’t consider my work to be notable within a context of millions of proficient everyday photographers, many of whom take it much more seriously than I do.

If I were going to develop in the direction of taking “better” pictures, in the sense of having greater artistic merit (whatever that is), I feel that I need to train not so much my skills at taking pictures (seeing), but at evaluating my work (although always with an eye back towards taking pictures itself) – the criticizing. The few conversations I’ve had with others about my photos are extremely revealing – it’s illuminating and wonderful to get a sense of how someone else sees a photo.

In that vein, I’ve created a facebook album, viewable to anyone (I think – if it doesn’t work for you let me know, entitled “Photo Set A”. Photo Set A is approximately two hundred of what I think are the best pictures I’ve taken over the past two years (most older than that were lost in a harddrive back up debacle). The idea here is that people could, if they like, comment on individual photos they find compelling, and try to describe why. Or, if there are photos that you think shouldn’t be there – say so. I won’t take it personally, and if you say why it will help me understand what it is in photos that is more general, and what is more specific.

So, if you like my photography and you’d like to help me improve it. Or, if you hate my photography and want to see it improve – consider spending a bit of time going through Photo Set A.

The Danforth

After attempting to meet friends at Danforth Bowl, none of whom I could find, I find, I found myself at Danforth and Coxwall in East Toronto with nothing to do but take the Subway back to the Annex. Well, “rats to that”, I thought – and instead I decided to walk the 8km back to my house on Brunswick.

It was enjoyable – I got some exercise, got a good luck at Greektown, and had plenty of time to think about philosophy. Interesting, in Greektown all the Christmas lights, and plenty of Christmas decorations are still up. Which is nice; it gives the winter a festive feel.

The bridge over the Don Valley is quite something to walk across. Just before you step onto the bridge, you see is a large sign: “We listen to you anytime” and a phone number, next to a phone booth. It’s a suicide prevention measure, along with a massive suicide-prevention fence on either side of the bridge. Walking along, thinking about that phone, thinking about the person on the other end of it, and thinking about the amount of money that was spent on the suicide-prevention fence, it really forces one to reflect on how exclusionary our society is – how easy it is for people to become depressed and isolated. And how difficult it can be for people to reach out, and for those reached out to to be able to cope with people who need help. Moreover, the existence of those who can’t deal with the suffering in our society, in whatever way it affects, them, immediately points to why do we do so little to combat the conditions under which suffering thrives? How unequal will we let our culture get, before even the rich don’t want to live in it? And what would it take for care to become a value on the level of values like “profit”, “world class”, “culture” and “efficiency”? Of course, this is a wrong question, there is no “how bad must it get” other than in Bob Dylan songs. In reality, how bad it is, is entirely contextual and dependant on the values of the person looking.

The Revolution will involve television

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose. The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb, Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth. The revolution will not be televised. – Gil-Scott Heron

“The Revolution will not be televised” has achieved a certain amount of status among leftists. It appeals to the anti-consumerist, pro-democratic values of the left, the ones which would prefer people go out and meet with each other than remain at home, secluded and isolated. And those are good values, I agree with them.

However, television is not the same today as it was in 60s and 70s. Then it was the exclusive domain of corperate power – the costs of entry into any form of televised production kept anarchists and socialists from producing televised media at the quality enabled by network money, and any media produced could only be broadcast on VHS tapes or perhaps with low intensity broadcasters (which are easily raided and shut down by the authorities). Today, however, television can be produced by anyone with a computer and a digital camera, and high-quality media coverage can be achieved by devoted but poorly funded activists. Also, because of the internet, specifically youtube, it is now easy to disperse video  – easy to a point unimaginable even a little in the past. Anyone can simply start their own youtube channel, and through word of mouth and/or viral effects it can become unbelievably popular.

One might be tempted, therefore, to say “the revolution will be televised, but only on non-corporate media”. And this seems true enough – why would we expect CBS or Fox News to televise material which would put the capitalist order in danger? I think, however, the reality is more complex than this for the simple reason that the capitalists are not homogeneous, and are only marginally class conscious. Individual actors within the business class may be willing to sell out their class interests for personal interests in the way of putting the most controversial footage (which in some cases may be revolutionary footage) on air. This could result in something like a “race to the bottom”, a contest between mainstream networks to show the most radical material, if that boosts their ratings. Something like this was satirized in the 1976 film, “The Network”, where a corporate network actually funds revolutionary and terrorist groups to acquire footage for a hit TV show: the “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”.

Fox News, as some of you are no doubt aware, has already been funding a revolution – although unfortunately it is a racist, nationalist, even proto-fascist revolution within the Republican party, which has a real chance of shifting the American political spectrum even farther to the right. Leftists will tend to dismiss this as irrelevant because it is happening on the right, and therefore they are simply obeying laws of business – but the reality is more complex. Business does not unilaterally support the Tea Party; the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that Tea Party supporters largely oppose free trade, oppose the federal reserve, and support a form of heterodox economics which is not consistent with current business interests. Therefore, media support for the Tea Party represents not business interest in general, but a narrower interest.

This willingness of business actors to act against their class interest when it is in their personal interest is the reason why the revolution, which will involve television, may actually be televised.

Modern Science, Climate Change, and a four year old with a gun

Recently I was thinking about how future societies might look back at our period of history and conceptualize the structural causes which made climate change such a difficult problem to solve. Assuming we don’t rectify climate change, and all the predicted catastrophes go off as (un?)expected, scholars and pundits will be looking for interesting ways to blame our generation for failing to act. But, due to our tendency to interpret the past in a fatalistic way, they will also be looking for ways to explain why we didn’t act – some will probably even look for reasons we couldn’t act.

Now, certainly many explanations will look to the nature of our political systems, and their inability to respond to long term or collective threats. Still others will look to the geo-political structure of nation states as such as having as its goal the production of profitable instability which pit humans against each other for the benefit of the few. That’s all very interesting – but another explanation interests me more: the idea that the developments of modern science somehow unleashed a power we could not control, and enabled rates of growth and ecological devastation which our cultures had no means to account for or check until it was too late.

Continue reading “Modern Science, Climate Change, and a four year old with a gun”

Canada’s new Environment Minister

Canada’s new minister of the Environment minister of truth is already fully committed to repeating nonsense about the oilsands, hoping to prey on and bolster Canadians’ ignorance both of climate change and the local destruction reeked by the tar sands:

Canada’s new Environment Minister Peter Kent says the oilsands have been unfairly demonized as an ecologically destructive development, lauding the resource as “ethical oil” and an economic boon for the entire country.

On his second day in the federal environmental portfolio, the Toronto-area Conservative MP reiterated his predecessor’s pledge to enhance water monitoring in northern Alberta’s vast oilsands region. However, he said labels such as “dirty oil” and claims that bitumen extraction is the most destructive industrial activity on the planet are overblown.

“There has been a lot of disinformation and outright misinformation,” Kent told the Herald on Wednesday.

“There has been a demonizing of a legitimate resource,” he added. “It is ethical oil. It is regulated oil. And it’s secure oil in a world where many of the free world’s oil sources are somewhat less secure.”

This coverage from the Calgary Herald fails to evaluate any claims made by the minister, but succeeds I suppose in being “unbiased” by concluding the article with the views of “environmentalists” who “want Kent and the Harper government to move more aggressively on climate change.”

It appears likely that whereas departing minister Jim Prentice actually had some concern about the impacts of the tar sands, and was considering demanding the government clamp down on the under-regulated industry, Peter Kent has no interest in being anything but a lackey for Stephen Harper. In a Canadian political environment which rewards uncritical support for corporations working to damage the climate as quickly as possible, we should expect nothingness than this total disregard for science, morality, and civic responsibility.

Book Review: Joe Sacco’s “Palestine”

Joe Sacco is a journalist who is also a cartoonist who uses the graphic novel form to convey his personal experience living in zones of conflict. His nearly 300 page work “Palestine” is the result of two months he spent in Israel’s occupied territories in late ’91 and early ’92. “Palestine” is a vivid and difficult to read series of shorts which convey the racism, violence, torture, hatred, and hope of the many Palestinians Sacco met over his two months visiting many Palestinian towns both the West bank and Gaza.

My friend Andrew lent me this book last week, and I thought it would be no problem to read it in a few days and return it before I head back to Toronto. I have finished it, but it took considerably longer than I expected. Normally I would zip through a 300 page graphic novel in just a sitting or two, but Palestine is full of emotionally wrenching stories, and on many occasions I was forced to put it down. It is not simply the brutality of the oppression which makes the stories difficult – but the fact that despite being 20 years old and widely confirmed in character by other accounts, these stories are still largely absent from the western consciousness. How many Canadians know that for many decades the torture of suspected terrorists was legal under Israeli law? How many Canadians even know what “internment” is, let alone how it is used to terrify and enact revenge on Palestinians without trial? How many Canadians even know their direct complicity with the occupation through the Canadian militaries’ collaboration with the IDF?

Reading narratives of oppression is never easy. I remember distinctly reading both volumes of Maus for the first time at my ex-girlfriend Kate’s kitchen table. I read both volumes in one afternoon, and while they were not easy to read there was a certain completeness, a sense of quietude about them – there is no debate about whether the Holocaust was justified, or whether its perpetrators should be held to a standard of justice. Reading about the Holocaust is horrifying, but the trauma is distinctly in the past – one does not read it with a knot in one’s stomach knowing it is still going on – because it isn’t still going on. Not to say anti-semitism is dead – no forms of racism are dead – but anti-semitism is no longer defended or justified in polite society, whereas it remains quite common for racist attitudes about Arabs to be considered acceptable in public and in the mainstream media. Reading Maus is terrifying because it reveals to you what humans are capable of doing to each other – but reading Palestine is terrifying because it reveals what humans are doing to each other right now, and forces you to recognize the structures of concealment, justification and distraction that make narratives like this appear “partisan” and overly pro-Palestinian. “Biased” is of course just another word for “having goals”, so anyone who sides with the oppressed is de facto “biased” and can be dismissed without being taken seriously.

If you get a chance to read Palestine, I suggest you seize it, and take it seriously. Of course it’s only one man’s experience, and its 20 years out of date – but it tells real stories about real people that he met, people like you and I who just want a fair shake in life, and have their own hopes and dreams (and are of course, therefore “biased”). Joe Sacco is often accused of only telling the Palestinian point of view, so he writes his response into to the book:  “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life.”

Wikileaks on Gaza: “keep the Gazan Economy on the brink of collapse”

A cable leaked by wikileaks confirms what many of us already suspected about the intentions of Israeli officials towards Gaza.

As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to econoffs on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge (see reftel &D8).

Read the cable in its entirety here, or I’ve posted it after the cut.

Continue reading “Wikileaks on Gaza: “keep the Gazan Economy on the brink of collapse””

Harris Vignette #2: What are “Values”, anyway?

“Values” is the central object of investigation for Harris’ book, so, hopefully he has something interesting to say about them. And the book as a whole certainly does, by bringing to bear neuroscience on moral issues.  Harris case for evaluative values scientifically, however, relies on a specific comprehension of what values “actually are”:

Defining goodness [as the well being of humans] does not resolve all questions of value; it merely directs our attention to what values actually are – the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds.

Are values the set of attitudes and behaviors that might affect the well being of ourselves and others? Or, is Harris begging the question – first by defining the good in a traditional way (as the “deeper form” of the well being of humans), and then simply asserting that values correspond to this definition of the good? Wouldn’t it be more scientifically rigorous to begin with what values “actually are”, and then proceed to the meaning of the good? This is perhaps the most disapointing aspect of Harris’ book – not only does Harris fail to provide a contribution to thinking about the good or about the notion of value (although the rest of the book certainly does contribute to understanding about the way values function), but he fails to recognize that these are themselves deep and difficult questions, not to be passed over in a few pages where a convenient definition is asserted by fiat.

First, we must ask – can moral good be reduced to some deeper notion of well-being? Is it rigorous to use the terms “deeper notion”, undefined, in a definition of “the good”? Has Harris really gotten himself out of any problems which result from making pleasure the only human good, such as the pleasure wizard problem? And, can Harris afford to rely on such an unsubstantiated notion of the good if the object is a scientific evaluation of values? How can we have a rigorous comprehension of what values are “good” if we don’t have a finely tuned analysis of what the “good life” actually is? Certainly some meaningful value-evaluations can be made using easy cases (such as “the Bad life”, p15), but to deal with hard cases a more precise notion of good life will be required.

Second, are values simply attitudes and behaviors that affect human well being? Because if that is the definition, then every  single attitude or behavior that anyone has ever had, ever, qualifies as “a value”. Is that all values are – attitudes and behaviors? Aren’t values something that inhere both in individuals, and in institutions and other groups? Is the meaning of a social value or an institutional value exhausted by the particular values of the people in the group or society? Harris analysis of values appears particularly weak here – unable to grasp the social nature of values, and unable to grasp the difference between a “value” and a “behavior”.

Harris Vignette #1: Are Beliefs in the Head?

In Sam Harris’ attempt to dissolve the distinction between facts and values one essential move is to claim that “beliefs” about facts and values inhere in the head. He does not deny the importance of culture, but encourages us to think about culture as a cause of brain development, rather than the other way around:

The relevant neurosicence is in its infancy, but we know that our emotions, social interactions, and moral intuitions mutually influence one another. We grow attuned to our fellow human beings through these systems, creating culture in the processs. Culture becomes a mechanism for further social, emotional, and moral development. There is simply no doubt that the human brain is the nexus of these influences. Cultural norms influence our thinking and behavior by altering the structure and function of our brains. Do you feel that sons are more desirable than daughters? Is obedience to parental authority more important than honest inquiry? Would you cease to love your child if you learned that he or she were gay? The ways parents view such questions, and subsequent effects in the lives of their children, must translate into facts about their brains. (9-10)

First – there is nothing very objectionable about what Harris says here. The human brain can be described as the nexus of cultural influence, and beliefs can be translated into “facts about the brain”. However, the fact that a certain set of descriptions are possible and correct does not mean they are adequate, and does not mean they don’t conceal essential aspects of the thing described. I therefore want to suggest in two parts that (1) beliefs are not facts about the brain (or the mind for that matter), and (2) we should question the assumption that culture is a mechanism for the development of individuals rather than the other way around.

(1) What is a “fact about the brain”? Reductionists who claim we can reduce thought to physical reality speak of “brain states”, those who resist this speak of “mental states”. But beliefs can not be only a brain state or a mental state – beliefs are about things. Moreover, while some beliefs are reflexive attitudes about our own mental states, most beliefs are experienced as being about things outside the head. Therefore, most beliefs can be delusional – someone might have beliefs about “their children”, and not have any children. The fact they do not have any children is a relevant fact about the belief – we could not fully understand what it meant for them to have that belief without knowing how it fits, or does not fit, into their world of experience. For instance, if I have delusional beliefs, I am likely to subconsciously avoid situations where those beliefs would be challenged by anomalous experiences. Beliefs are therefore not in the head – they are between the head and the world, or rather, they are aspects of the perspectives we take. We can’t understand what it means to have a belief without understanding that beliefs are not simply facts about brain states or mental states – but manners that the body (which includes the brain or mind) encounters and copes with its world. Without a world in which for beliefs to function, beliefs would be useless and nonsensical.

(2) Harris encourages us to think about culture as a mechanism produced by social evolution which enables the further social, moral and emotional development of individuals. This is not surprising given his individualistic approach to neuroscience. However, it is just as descriptively correct to treat culture as that which is developing and influenced by the mechanism of individuals and their brains. We can as easily say “individuals serve culture” as we can “culture serves and influences individuals”. This becomes especially relevant in a discussion about values – do values exist in individuals for the sake of fulfilling them as individuals, or to perpetuate cultural frameworks which sustain social life? Are cultures “adaptive” if they sustain themselves, or if they permit the individuals they co-opt to flourish? The fact that we can conceptualize a culture co-opting individuals to perpetuate it at the expense of the flourishing of those individuals suggests that Harris’ general premise – that there are objectively good and bad values, and science can help somehow in determining them – might be true, and might have something to do with a culture’s adequacy to the needs of human beings. This is a project which I broadly agree with – however, I don’t think we can properly understand what a culture is without understanding the overwhelming sense in which we are not only products, but also servants of culture, and that our values are essentially (not by accident) part of a social fabric which gives them meaning and resonance.