Social Networking is Terribly Flawed.

Not too long ago I uninstalled Twitter and Facebook from my phone. That’s not a big deal, I’m not expecting any kind of shock or awe from anyone reading. It’s more of a foundation for this post as a whole. Basically I’ve come to the conclusion that Social Networking, as it is currently designed, will err on the side of negativity.

That’s not inherently a problem. Negativity is just kind of something that a lot of folks find enriching mentally. It gives them dragons to overcome. Problems to champion against. It’s especially rewarding if you can invent an enemy and then tear it apart with words. Who knows, to some readers that might seem like what I’m doing now. I’ll do my best to at least defend the position slightly.

I suppose the first step is something I’ve already groaned about previously. The algorithm. Social Networking was not built for your convenience. Any SN that you have ever used was created in order to generate ad revenue. This is not an evil, per se, but it does come with some serious caveats. The first is understanding who the customer is with a SN. The customer is not you. You are the product in this relationship. The customer is the businesses that are advertising to you. This means that the SN will prioritize anything that engages people.

The next thing I hope you can accept is that moderate viewpoints do not motivate people to act excessively. Posting that you enjoyed your time eating a hamburger might net you some number of views, likes, and perhaps a modicum of retweets. Moreso if you are a celebrity. But even then, relatively speaking, the number of “interactions” you will get for saying something genuinely awful will dwarf moderate commentary. This is also true of bombastic attacks on strawman in the opposite direction. I have many times seen an innocuous comment on Twitter become the harbinger of a lynch mob. As mentioned before, creating a dragon to defeat is incredibly intoxicating. I used to do it a lot myself.

If you can accept that Social Networks are designed to maximize interactions, then I hope you can also accept that SNs additionally do not care about the quality of those interactions. A hundred million people enraged at Donald Trump, interspersed with Taco Bell ads, is just as lucrative as a hundred million people talking about the weather, with the same ads. If these presumptions are acceptable to you then I would hope that the idea that SNs would, and not necessarily with malicious intent, be harbingers of spreading misinformation and negative discourse is not unpalatable.

There is no incentive for Twitter or Facebook to curate misinformation or trolling. Unless there is an enormous amount of negative feedback from users. For some people this might be enough to support my point. But allow me an additional point. Imagine, if you will, that the algorithms don’t give more weight to negative interactions. Even in this environment the SN would still be predominantly a tool for passing along lies. Because if all messages have the same weight then you still have the issue of desire paths. Quite nearly all things, living or otherwise, follow the path of least resistance. If you are a plumber, there is only one job I can say that is honest to your work status. But I can lie a thousand different ways. I could say you are a carpenter, an engineer, a clerk, etc. Knowing that you are a plumber requires I do any level of research. Simply lying does not.

Politically this is incredibly problematic. It takes no effort for me to say that one candidate is a killer or the other is a rapist. And these kind of bombastic claims will get replied to, retweeted, liked, etc. They’ll end up on the trending for Facebook or Twitter (or elsewhere). They now have power, momentum, and all of this required absolutely zero effort from me. All I did was log in and lie. Combating these things requires effort. You must do research, post links with sources.

This means that, as things stand now, all obvious futures lead to these services being more powerful for liars or manipulative people. The only possible path I can see away from this is if basically everyone decides that information is more important than confirmation. Which, to me, is incredibly unlikely. Anecdotally thinking to the number of times people I agree with still coming after me. It would seem the warrior mentality is going to kill any chances of this river flowing towards progress.

By | 2017-01-31T19:16:05+00:00 January 31st, 2017|Opinion|Comments Off on Social Networking is Terribly Flawed.

Fantastic Beasts and How Obliviate is Tantamount to Murder

Alright, here we go. Let’s try and write something. I’m pretty sure I remember how to do this. Knowledge is a fickle thing, it’s something you memorize and compartmentalize in a useable form. I’ve gotten really good at doing the reverse of those two things lately. Sort of expunging the information from my brain, if you will. It’s really a convenient problem to have given the existential crises I was having watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For those that are uninitiated or really just don’t care, Obliviate is a spell that erases (or perhaps alters) the memory of the victim. It looks like it is generally used to erase specific memories but when overused or just incorrectly used it can basically wipe your brain. Gilderoy Lockhart comes to mind from the Harry Potter novels.

This to me is mortifying, and the frequency with which it is used in the books and Fantastic Beasts is absolutely horrifying. Every kind of negative fying you can think of, this spell is it. I’m going to spoil a single big event from Fantastic Beasts involving a single character and a tiny bit of dialogue, if that bothers you I suppose come back after you’ve seen it. Overall the film is pretty good and I think you’ll enjoy it well enough. I won’t be spoiling it yet, but prepare yourself.

First we’ll start with a thought experiment. Imagine if you could completely wipe all the memories of a person all the way back to their birth. Knowledge, as I mentioned previously, are memories. Is memories? Hmmm, anyways, I’ll think about the grammar for that later. The things you learn in life are memories and when you apply them we call that learning/knowledge. Perhaps Wisdom, I was never really good with the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom, I just knew that the latter let me have more skill points in Lensmoor. If you can agree that head trauma could cause you to forget how to speak, or do math, or other things you’ve learned before I suppose we both agree to my point well enough to move on.

If I could wipe everything from a person would that person be dead? What do we consider a person? Is it merely our body? A brain dead body living on (or perhaps somehow off of) life support is not a person, is it? I don’t know what your answer is, so I’ll simply answer with my own feelings. I believe that we are fundamentally our memories. All the things we learn and apply are who we are. Our bodies are the vessels for containing those thoughts. Our physical selves are basically the jars that contain all the matter that makes us. Almost ethereal combinations of many different small bits of data. Any alteration to that data changes who we are.

Emptying that jar usually comes via physical death. But imagine if you could do it merely by wiping out the brain. There are many different ways you could do this in the real world, but in the world of Harry Potter they do it via a spell. You might think that a small loss of memory isn’t really killing someone and that is where we move next. If you can accept that wiping out all memories of someone is the same as killing that person, I’m going to argue that when you wipe out any memories of someone you kill somebody. It’s less obvious, deviously subtle even, but a murder has taken place.

This relies on the concept of the butterfly effect. Some changes are almost imperceptibly small but the outcome of their happening can be profoundly large. The most obvious is the fission reaction in a nuclear bomb, the initial change is relatively small but it causes an incredible chain reaction that makes entire cities vanish in an instant. We tend to value the large, incidents like losing a limb or getting a degree. We see these massive events as the things that shape who we are. But I argue that every little thing we do changes who we are in ways that we might not even realize. Every bump, every sniffle, these things all subtly shift our personality in one new direction or another. What is being murdered in many of these instances is not the you that exists in the present, but instead the you that would have existed in the future. Imagine if you had a single event of watching a basketball game. You’d never watched it before. You don’t realize it in that moment but for the next few months you’ll be thinking about that event over, and over, and eventually you’ll take up the sport. You might not become a professional, or maybe you will, but regardless you’ve become that new person. Basketball is a part of you.

Now imagine the moment you finish watching that game someone slips in and erases it from your memory entirely. That branch in the multiverse has been eternally shifted. That event had lead to so many more and all of them are now gone. That person that once would have existed has now been murdered without anyone realizing it. Or perhaps they did and they just didn’t care. Just about every major event in my life was sparked by an incredibly small event that was obvious, and perhaps many more that were not. If I could go back and pull out a single brick from that building I can’t imagine the entire structure that is now me would remain standing.

Each time a wizard uses this spell in the stories they are killing someone. Which brings me to the most obvious and horrifying example of this that I’ve seen, and prepare yourself we are moving into spoiler territory. Here it comes, are you still here? Ok, just know that if you haven’t seen the movie this is going to make it a lot harder to watch. Because you’ll know what is coming and I won’t be able to obliviate it for you. The protagonist of this film becomes friends with a man by the name of Kowalski. Already we know that he’s gonna be a great guy, with a name like that. He’s a muggle, which in Harry Potter is what the British call non-magical people. In the US, we are inherently more creative, so we call them non-mages. If you are shaking your head and rubbing your temples, I’m right there with you.

He spends the entirety of this movie meeting other wizards. He wanders into magical places and sees fantastic beasts beyond belief. It reshapes his understanding of what can and cannot be. It is a magical adventure in both the literal and metaphorical sense. He experiences the kind of moments that millions of people have killed themselves hoping to experience. His was an adventure that fuels the guiding principles of most of the modern world. He felt that there was more to the world than what we think is real. And unlike you or I, he saw the reality of this feeling with his own two eyes. There is a moment where he says “I’m not dreaming.” and Newt (the protagonist) asks him. “How do you know this?” Kowalski replies. “I’m don’t have the brain to think this stuff up.”

We watch him evolve throughout the film. He becomes happier, arguably healthier, and his will to live explodes into something magical. If he isn’t my favorite character in that film, he’s damn close. A close second to Newt and Newt alone, I believe. And so we reach the end of the film and the US Ministry of Magic explains to the main characters that Americans are assholes and we must obliviate any non-mages that see magic. I don’t think they use the word “asshole” but you get the impression that’s their guiding principle as you watch the film. And in this moment you realize that you’ve been there for a life.

The birth of Kowalski happened at the start of this film for all intents and purposes. We followed this life as it grew and learned and became more than what it had been before. Kowalski changes in profound ways and experiences things that would destroy some people by how extremely earth shattering they’d be. The movie has us watch him have his memory stripped from him. This entire film, all those moments that made him who he now was, who he would be forever forward. In an instant we watched this person be killed and replaced with a different person. Very similar, mind, and in some other multiverse they are who would have been. But this falls into the teleporter paradox of Star Trek in my opinion. He appears to be the same person to us because he looks the same and he acts roughly the same. But I would argue that he no longer is. That man we met, that man that some audience members (like myself) came to like, is officially dead.

Someone similar could rise up if he sees magic again. Someone similar could be in future films. But ultimately the character from Fantastic Beasts was executed like it was nothing.

What I found most haunting about this moment was that it was almost immediately followed by happy go lucky music and the conclusion of the film. Where they tried to reassure us that everything was peachy keen and that nothing horrifying hadn’t just unfolded. But I was mostly just left haunted. I enjoyed the film, I really like Newt, and I liked Kowalski. But I’ll be damned if Wizards aren’t kind of monsters in the Harry Potter universe. They take lives without a second thought, leaving behind doppelgangers that are close enough that the average viewer is accepting of it. (Also yeah, Hermione totes murdered her parents.)

By | 2016-12-28T21:13:37+00:00 December 28th, 2016|Opinion|Comments Off on Fantastic Beasts and How Obliviate is Tantamount to Murder

Ten Letters for the President | Obama and the Future

Before you read this, check out the podcast that inspired it. Another from the seemingly endless list of excellent podcasts from 99% Invisible. It’s only 16 minutes long, a few minutes fewer when you consider the ads. It’ll probably be longer and more interesting than this post regardless.

You are probably not aware of this, lord knows I wasn’t, but Obama makes sure to read ten letters each day that he is in Washington.

It’s an interesting thought. Often when I write to upper management I don’t expect to get a response. I’m not even considering the thought that someone will ever even see it. For me the expected outcome is that the letter will be lost to some automated bot. I basically presume that every company is Google. Where customers don’t really exist outside of the abstract.

Even recently when I contacted the corporate office of Verizon. I was absolutely stunned when they replied within a day of my message. And the email was such that I was basically certain that someone had actually read it and furthermore they’d read it thoroughly.

So imagine my surprise while taking my short exercise break today when I listened to this podcast. I wondered just how much this must weigh on President Obama. The President is, for better or worse, the face of the United States at any given time. They are the one that receives much of the praise and all of the blame for all three branches of Government. It’s not necessarily fair but I suspect that most people running are aware that they’ll be a figurehead.

Imagine sitting down everyday at your job and reading ten letters from your customers? Somewhat curated but ultimately chosen to get the biggest impact out of you. Imagine if there was an issue that you wanted to get better, like say Gun Violence, and it seemingly just gets worse? (I say seemingly because this is a nuanced issue).

How heavily that would weigh on me. I can’t imagine seeing all these concerns coming in. Joblessness, violence, fear. All these things that could theoretically be resolved if Congress would stop acting like a bunch of children. But you can’t stop them, not really. They’ll keep doing what they are doing and you know that you’ll be the one that ultimately gets blamed.

I know personally I took every bad experience incredibly personally at my last job. When I read support tickets I would routinely be troubled by them. The difference was that I was basically a dictator at that time. In many cases I was the final say on a lot of things. I went out of my way to make people’s lives better. In the worst case scenario though, my customers would just be having a bum video game experience.

Obama gets in letters from people telling him their lives are falling apart. And honestly there is nothing he can do about it. That’s a profound thing that I hadn’t even considered before. I figured letters sent in to the President just got filed away like the White House were a Fortune 500 company.

Now I look to the future. In about a month the Presidency will switch and a new person will be getting the letters. I can’t help but wonder. Does he even care? Trump has given off a persona at every turn of a man who basically cares about little outside of himself. Is that who he really is?

How will the new White House handle the letters? Will they see hands? Will he read them? Will he read ten a day?

It’s weird to think.

But this podcast puts a bit of something into perspective for me. I now get a bit of insight into the man that repeatedly stood dumbfounded and hurt before the US. Asking people to just give him an inch. To maybe, just maybe, stop adding to the pile.

By | 2016-12-04T22:51:24+00:00 December 4th, 2016|Opinion|Comments Off on Ten Letters for the President | Obama and the Future