Friday, September 13, 2013

My Problem with Technology

As anyone who knows me fairly well will tell you, over the past three to five years I have developed an increasing distaste for technological advances.  So I thought I would take a few minutes to put my thoughts into more carefully constructed words.  First of all: I don't believe technology as a general concept is uniformly bad.  In fact there are whole categories of technologies that are uniformly good.  Specifically easily replicated and distributed technologies are almost always uniformly good.  For example the idea of the wooden plow, paper, writing, open-source software, etc.  These technologies are good because *most everyone* who wishes can through their own labor take advantage of these.  So what are the characteristics of a good technology?  1) Mass-distribution/Availability 2) Replication and 3) Harnessable with One's Own Ability (Can anyone no matter what their economic/social state learn and reasonably take advantage of it?)

However, most technology falls into the bad category which while it has positive potential uses most often ends up creating a negative social outcome.  These are technologies whereby economic and social power become more concentrated by the limited owner or user of the technology.  This includes things like copyrighted inventions, satellites, machine-intensive industrial production, etc.  So why are these not necessarily good for society?  I will not argue against the fact that these inventions have had a positive impact on a very large number of people's lives.  A lot of technology does in fact improve at least some people's lives.  However, they also tend to concentrate power into the hands of the few people who control that technology.  Now is this a bad thing?  Some would say these people who came up with the ideas or controlled the capital allowing them to be created deserve a reward of some kind.  (apparently the reward of adding to the collective knowledge of human achievement is not reward enough)  However, has this created a net positive for society?  Is creating technologies only a few can access/use a good thing for the world?  If it ends up concentrating power in a minority is that still okay?  Over time my answer has increasingly become no.

At the end of the day what begins to frighten me more and more is the fact that the further we seem to technologically progress the further we also seem to go towards negating the idea of meritocracy.  The more that we require access to increasingly complex technology or capital markets the more power gets concentrated into the hands of those who control it.  Therefore the lowest in society who may only have access to intelligence and labor can only go as far as the limiting factors may take him or her.  Is this a society based on merit or based on unequal access to life-defining resources?  Will even more technology help with this issue or simply exacerbate it?  I suppose my idea of 'progress' is not simply more technology and more useless consumer gadgets, but a mass movement towards a society where those who wish to fully use their capacities for reason, intellect, and labor have a reasonable pathway to do so.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Friendship Compact

Today I am going to write about what I have decided to call the 'Friendship Compact.'  After talking philosophy with Jon yesterday it made me want to put this idea into words.  We were discussing the notion of self-interested action being held on a pedestal in US culture.  So this goes into why I think it's quite rare to actually have a true friend.

The Friendship Compact as I will describe here is an understanding among friends to do be committed to making a meaningful impact on each others' lives.  Too often I think friendship is a superficial agreement amongst people out of either necessity or coincidence.  It is rare that many friendships I think endure the test of time because most are not committed to being a meaningful relationship.  I think many friendships develop into what I label as 'Coincidence of Interests' friends.  By this I mean they are only friends because they happen to share a common interest in blogging about stamp collections, but neither friend really wants to move beyond the sphere of mutually shared interests.

So what is a true friend that fits the description of 'The Friendship Compact?'  Well these are friends that are willing to move beyond the sphere of simple common interests and are willing to set aside their own personal wants to help out or advance the interests of a friend.  An example of this would be two friends who share an interest in horse riding.  However, one friend also has an intense passion for country music and the other finds it displeasing.  True friends, following the Compact, means that at times if there was a country music concert the friend wanted to see and did not want to experience it alone the other friend would set aside his or her own self-interest and help make a meaningful impact on the other friend.

Whoa!  Friends who don't only do things when it solely suits their own personal whimsy?  It should come as no surprise that each side of the friendship is a human being with their own personal wants and desires.  While at the core of friendship this means that both friends will generally want to do the same thing there will be at times where those interests diverge.  True friends are ones that see this and are willing to make personal sacrifices for the other person.

We all need those friends who are there for coincidence of interests, but I think those few friends who put aside their self-interest from time to time are the ones that really make life meaningful.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The moral dilemma of parenthood

When I think of my personal aspirations of whether or not I want to be a father one day, I am always hit with a moral dilemma.  I have to ask myself, is it fair for me to purposefully bring another life into the world under current conditions.  I think those that know me well are not surprised that I am utterly appalled by many of the social conditions within the United States, the high military spending, lack of concern for the environment, insistence on profit as the main force to propel our daily lives, and unrelenting conditions of poverty for millions.  As someone who strives to continually learn and know more I have to recognize the implicit contract in a society which has inequality, if you choose to live in a system with inequality you must also accept the fact that at any time you could be on the other end of that system's inequalities.

Therefore, I reach the inevitable 'dilemma of parenthood.'  I define this dilemma as wondering if it is an immoral act to bring life into the world which you know could potentially starve, have less than adequate health coverage, and generally lack the basic economic necessities for 'decent' human existence.  So by living in a system that perpetuates inequality as the 'natural and proper order' it means that at any time even if I start off in a good position it could change at any time.  This is not fair to my kids whom have done nothing at all to the world except be born.

So my ultimate conclusion is that by living in this society, I have to also accept the fact my kids might have to live under terrible conditions, regardless of any and all personal actions.  Of course this flies in the face of the common notion that everyone can end up with whatever economic circumstances they want based only on their personal actions.  While in my youth that was a nice naive thought.  I did grow up in poverty, although I never realized at the time.  I was lucky to have parents that cared and tried very hard.  However, it takes more than working hard in the USA.  It takes luck, and am I willing to bet my kids' future on luck?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Nature of Violence

Today something somewhat troubling happened while interacting with my three year-old nephew.  He saw a bug...and wanted to kill it.  Now, why would this seemingly ordinary event seem troubling?  After all, doesn't this same kind of event happen in untold thousands of households on a daily basis?  Well here is why it's so troubling, the reason he gave for his actions was "I don't like it, Uncle Sid."  So here I am presented with the forceful will of a three-year old (if you have never interacted with a three-year old forceful is indeed the proper word) and I was at my wits end trying to explain in terms a three-year old might understand why perhaps it might be wrong to destroy another living creature just because you simply "do not like it."

The troubling implication of this fact is that a three-year old has already decided that violence is the solution to removing things he or she does not like.  Somehow my nephew has learned that violence is an acceptable way to deal with his problems.  Now perhaps he fails to recognize that the bug is another living creature and there are implications of its own existence, but I would imagine that in the mind of a three-year old where monsters become real that he understands it is a living creature.  Therefore, this inexorably leads me to one of two possible conclusions - either he has already picked up from our culture that violence is an acceptable means for carrying out ones own will or that until properly educated people naturally turn towards violence to get execute their own desires.

Now, being a proper student of Gandhi I naturally lean towards the former in lieu of the latter.  However, even making this assumption, it is a troubling thought to realize how ingrained in our culture violence must be for this to be the conclusion kids draw at such a young age.  Is this due to interactions between children and adults whereby adults use their physical advantage to control children (such as picking them up and moving them when they don't come willingly)?  Or is there some other cultural artifact going on, such as glimpses of violence in television (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a culprit in my youth) or seeing interactions with other children who come from families where violence is a more common punishment (spare the rod, spoil the child).

Finally I would ask if it begs the question should we be doing more as a society to move beyond our ancient roots whereby violence was an everyday part of our existence.  In some ways ancient struggle for survival was part of a cruel system whereby to survive required extraordinary action.  Forming a hunting party to kill animals with spears would naturally breed violence into any society.

Could I be looking too much into a simple action by a three-year old? Yes, most definitely.  But are there things that this three-year old can teach us about ourselves?  Yes, most definitely.  I will leave with this parting thought.  Gandhi once remarked that India should not obtain her independence through violence because then violence would be required to maintain that independence.  Although Gandhi was a construct of his own cultural time and circumstances, I can't help but wonder if the United States' obsession with violence somehow connected to our foundation in a violent struggle for independence.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Generation That Sleeps

I hear all the time many negative adjectives atributed to my generation.  They range from entitled to lazy to uncaring.  First of all, it seems a little insane to assign attributes to an entire generation of people who come from such varied backgrounds that such stereotypes could not possibly be true.  Furthermore, I think that these generalizations are grossly unfounded.

First of all, they tell us all the time we are entitled.  I am not sure what they really even means to be honest...Does that mean we want to be paid well for work we do?  Oh gosh darn it, workers want to be paid appropriately for their work?  Is this not what union activists fought for in the 19th century?  Do we not come form a long legacy of workers constantly fighting for a better portion of their labor's productivity?  Perhaps entitled means we expect that if we do what society tells us to do we should get what society tells us we should have gotten.  For instance, most of us are told from birth that if we go to college we will end up with a good job.  While life has taught me that this is invariably untrue, it is still told to us in a variety of ways.  Does it make us entitled to want reality to reflect what we have been instructed reality is?

People say that our generation is lazy and that we do not work hard.  How many truely lazy people do you know?  I know we are typified as wanting to do nothing at all and just engage in leisure activity.  However, could it possibly be that we want to both work hard AND have time to enjoy the fruits of our labor?  I think it is indeed possible for us to want to work and to work hard, but at the same time put forth a lot of effort at enjoying life in the way we want to.  As Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid would say (and I paraphrase), "life is about finding balance."  Maybe we do not want to work 65 hours a week doing a shitty job to start of with when we've been engaging in meaningful life experiences the first twenty years of our life.  I theorize that my generation is seeing the brutal inequality of the economic rewards of the system and refuse to engage in it full scale on moral grounds.

Finally people say that our generation does not care, that we are not moved to great social action.  However, the Wall Street Protests, as brief as they were, should have shown that we are willing to engage in protests.  However, I think that much more subtlely than that my generation IS in fact engaging in large-scale social change.  We are indeed engaged in the dialogue but instead of through the normal channels of previous generations we are making our own mark in the world through the internet.  We are the generation trying to figure out how in fact to harness this strange and ambiguous technology to create greater social good.  For instance, downloading music on the internet.  People committing acts of crime or clamoring to be heard that economic inequality prevents them from paying the bloated prices the music industry's profits demand?  I would imagine that the same people who downloaded music illegally would have been more than willing to pay some portion of money straight to the artist as an alternative, but it was an alternative that did not yet exist.  Refusal to pay for copyrighted material is indeed a form of social activism and protest.  We are just being led to believe it is in fact not when in reality it is.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Earthbound...Why Was It So Good?

So the other day a friend asked me to describe to him why Earthbound was such a great game.  I talk about it with others like it really was the holy grail of SNES gaming.  However, when I sort of stumbled to answer this seemingly simple question.  I mean, it should be easy to answer if it really was that great of game...right?  It seems like one of those games that was indescribable in its greatness.

Was it the simplistic yet classic RPG design?  To some degree I think it was.  It did not overly complicated the genre by adding tons of special moves or complicated button combos or anything of that nature.  Simple turn-based design with your standard gameplay:  find baseball bat, equip baseball bat, and bash people with baseball bat.

Could it have been the general whackiness of the game?  Yes I think that also contributed.  Things like the maze-mouse, trout flavored yogurt, the runaway five, cities named for seasons and numbers, and of course that silly hint-guy all made for unforgettable memories.  I mean, who didn't love just ordering a pizza in the middle of a cave and laugh at the delivery guy when you decided you really did not want that pizza after all (or even worse realizing you could not pay for it!).  And carrying around that for sale sign so you could get rid of things at a moment's notice.  Stopping enemies from painting a town blue?  I have yet to see a game re-use that plot device!

To some degree it was also the time it was released.  It was the golden age of the simple platform RPG.  I think that the older systems with lower graphics may have allowed for a greater variety of game-makers to enter and compete in the market and as a result we had a very diverse and interesting mix of games.  It is beginning to seem like most games I hear anyone talk about come purely from an established source (Blizzard, EA, Sid Meyer, Square-Enix, etc.).  Had anyone ever heard of APE or HAL Laboratory or even cared?  I doubt you had.  Perhaps gaming had not yet entered the invariable "branding" phase market economies produce.  (Interestingly enough, the economist Schumpeter predicted that "innovation" would move from entrepreneurs to giant corporate research teams and he seems to have been right)  For whatever reason gaming seemed different back then, and people were willing to give a chance to a boy, his baseball bat, and a dream.

Oh who am I really kidding.  We all just loved Earthbound for the scratch and sniff stickers in the player's guide!  (Btw, the mystery scent was pizza.  I hope I didn't ruin anyone's childhood by revealing that!)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Life from a different perspective...

This past month I have been working for my dad in Tennessee.  He sort of inherited a pizza place about two months ago from my step-brother.  I have been helping do the accounting (which is work I have done before) and also have made/delivered pizzas, done the dishes, and participated in business owner type discussions.  After working this type of job and seeing the other workers around me work hard as well I have a new respect for the hard work of "labor" throughout history.  However, I am somewhat disturbed by the way I have been tipped working as a deliverer of the fine good known as pizza.

I have found that the only really good tippers are the middle class.  The upper class, while usually giving a tip, do not seem to give anything above what they deem their social requirement is (as most of us citizens of the US know it is 10%).  When I deliver to a poorer house I am generally ecstatic to get anything since I fully understand how big of a deal eating out must be for them.  It is understandable, but I even get a sense from them that they do the best they can.  So for the most part, I am disturbed that those that seem to have the most in abundance do their very best to keep as much as they can to themselves.  While it makes *sense* that this is the case (you do not really get rich by being generous to others in a market economy - seeing as your profit is extracted from surplus from the work of others...I believe nobody has ever gotten rich purely on their own talents except for sports/media stars and artists but even they have a whole industry surrounding them giving a portion others' work to them), it puts a damper on the human experience to know that for economic disparity to begin to dissipate this type of attitude must be somehow counteracted.

However, there is one gleaming ray of hope.  The hope I see comes from both those at the bottom and those in the middle class.  To me they get it.  They know that we're all in it together.  Even though technology has continued to separate human face to face interaction through the phone, internet, television, and even the simple letter, there are still some people that inherently understand the social connectedness that civilization requires.  This is the thought that continues to give me hope.  To see people continue to work hard and struggle even though life is hard.  This gives me hope.  Seeing this struggle makes me believe that along with further education that we really can make the world into a better and more fair experience.  I think that if people who believe that others do not try and simply live passively would spend some time with these workers they would see how hard they really are working to make life work.  Anyone coming from a home with a single mother would truly understand the struggle of survival.  While there are obviously no easy answers to life, the more time we spend with each other, see each other, and understand each other the better we can truly make progress as society.