Tag Archives: Philosophy

Post-Privacy America

Imagine, if you will, that the police in Ferguson had been wearing cameras. Instead of conflicting stories about what happened, we would have video evidence making the facts clear. Now imagine that instead of sitting on a Ferguson hard drive, the video was automatically uploaded to the Internet. Everything that Ferguson cops do is on display for the whole world at all times. That would make it more difficult for a cop to do something he’s not supposed to do now, don’t you think? Ok, now let’s say all the cops in the country are constantly monitored at all times when on duty. Now what say we monitor them off duty? What if we monitor all state employees, including politicians. You know what? Let’s make everything everyone does known to everyone else.

At first, it’s chaos. Your neighbor now knows about your unusual taste pornography and is too horrified and ashamed to speak with you again. His wife, though, now knows about his taste in other women, and you take out your popcorn and watch on your computer screen the clip of that holier-than-thou jerk getting kicked out of his house, which it turns out is in the name of his soon to be ex-wife. Your children learn a whole lot very quickly about how the world really is. Not only do they discover a wealth of bad words and your unusual taste in pornography, which is very difficult to explain to them, they use the new surveillance program to find santa-claus and discover that it’s just you. You’re not even wearing a santa suit – just your ratty old “Jingle Bell Rock” sweater. Amid all the crying, no one gets much sleep that night. Spending much of the night trying to explain your unusual taste in pornography to your wife, you’re beginning to get a pretty solid opinion that you don’t like this program of radical honesty.

But by the next day the news reports start coming in. You thought the news would be dead, but it turns out they’re more active than ever – somebody’s got to sort through all this information. Three quarters of the scandals attributed to the president turn out to be unequivocally true, but scandals are streaming in from all over the country so quickly that before you’ve finished your breakfast the president is old news – more than half the state and local politicians in the country are getting attacked on both sides for rampant corruption. It seems like almost everyone in power is using that power against rather than for the American people. Talk begins wondering how we can get rid of all this corruption without the country collapsing. Others wonder how this country hadn’t collapsed already. Already overcrowded jails fill even more as the crimes of those not in power show up on the universal recordings. Suffering upon suffering is shown in vivid color to horrified Americans around the country. Poverty, starvation, homelessness,violence, and myriad other social problems are abruptly impossible to ignore. It is a crisis, but we are a nation of crises, and we respond.

As a nation we decide just to use our existing voting system – with our newly educated voting body – to weed out corruption. Our new politicians know that they will be judged based on their actions rather than their rhetoric and politics becomes much more mature as a result. With advanced video analysis, complete information allows for unambiguous statistics that settle what used to be areas of political contention. Does increased government spending help the economy? How many people who are very poor really need help and how many are just lazy? What actions that people and government have taken really help to reduce the demand for abortions? These questions are now answered by facts instead of stump speeches.

Over time, your children learn to live in the world that is rather than the world that they imagined in their ignorance. Your wife stays with you and, while she never really understands your tastes, decides that they aren’t any worse than any other quirk in your personality and the two of you end up closer than ever in the presence of unprecedented mutual understanding. Your friends that remain with you are true friends. Many of them have lost friends when their own secrets became public or when they discovered the horrible things their friends did and still do. Some mourn the passing of these shallow relationships, some are pleased to know who they can and can’t trust.

As your children grow up in the new society, you notice they have no interest in idle chatter. With no secrets, they grew up on harsh realities and important distinctions and they take interest in improving the world rather than hiding behind the fictions that defined previous generations. Their children grow up thinking of privacy and secrets as an antiquated notion – a bizarre artifact of the past that as hard as they try they can’t quite wrap their minds around why it was valued so highly. As your grandchildren come of age, they ask you why people, even people who were not doing bad things, were so obsessed with keeping secrets. “I don’t know,” you admit, “I guess… I guess we were just afraid.”

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Original Sin of the Fortunate

Fortune-Smiles-on-the-Fortunate

I am an atheist and I do not regularly practice any particular religion. Nevertheless, I feel that I have my own small form of spirituality that I have organically pieced together over the years.  Central to my personal spirituality are determinism, utilitarianism, and an alternative imagining of the notion of original sin.

I choose to consider original sin, rather than as any supernatural mark inherited from one’s ancient ancestors, as the obligation of the middle and upper class to somehow justify their easier path through life. Unlike the supernatural form of original sin, merely ascribing properly to a set of rituals is not sufficient to right this imbalance. The general idea is that one must contribute equal or greater good to the world than one removes or receives.

Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to bring about or even measure this balance, except that I suspect it’s beyond the capacity of most fortunate people to repay the world for what they’ve received. I’m still working on figuring out how best to pay my debt. To start with, I may start by beginning future meals with a humanist grace, something in which I thank the order of the universe that I happened to receive all that I have and express humble hope that the lives of those less fortunate than myself will improve. This is of course not any sort of practical action that will go towards balancing my debt, but it is one that will keep me focused and remind me what I have and what I owe.

Personal Religion

We don’t spend a lot of time staring at the cruel, absurd universe

My roommate Nate said something very interesting recently. My friend Greg and I were telling him about the horrible, regressive, anti-consumer, anti-environmental agreements in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he told us he’d rather not hear about it.  This surprised me because I consider Nate to be the most politically active person I know. Not only does he generally keep up with politics, Nate actively gets involved in political controversies. Most recently he put North Carolina State University’s climate science program on the map and appeared in the News and Observer for arranging the controversial “Shored Up” to be shown at the Hunt Library.

Nate succinctly explained that if he could not expect to have any effect on an event happening in the world, its only value to him is the effect it has on him. Therefore, learning of a depressing, awful deal like the TPP has only the effect of making it more difficult for him to believe in a generally good world, making him stressed and less hopeful, and may even hurt his ability to affect the parts of the world he can change.

This is tremendously interesting to me because it ties in neatly with a concept I’ve been considering that I call “personal religion.” Here I define a “religion” as any belief having intrinsic value outside its truth or falsehood. An organized religion such as Christianity has various beliefs that, irrelevant of whether they are fact or fiction  have enormous effects on both the world at large and their believers.

I define a personal religion as a religion, as defined above, that an individual keeps for his or her emotional benefit, whether knowingly or not. I suspect that everyone has personal religion. Athletes believe that their team will be the team to win the next game. Entrepreneurs believe that their struggling company is imminently close to a breakthrough. Parents believe in their hearts that their children will grow up to be successful and happy. A cancer patient believes that his chemotherapy will send his tumor into remission. Descartes might agree that we all choose to believe that what we experience every day is truly reality. Nate chooses to believe that the world is generally a good place, emotionally if not intellectually, which I think is why he prefers to avoid bad news when he can help it. One of my personal religions I share with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

In the vast majority of cases, our religions harm no-one. They are merely the tools we use to cope with the uncertainty in our lives. Just as our more mundane earthly religions reassure us and help us through this life,  belief in the supernatural, in life after death, helps us not to fear the next. I personally like to entertain a personal religion of reincarnation, or even an admittedly absurd faith in the imminent technological singularity which will grant me immortality, rather than torment myself with my inevitable demise.

Did you notice that I admit the absurdity of my own belief? F. Scott Fitzgerald said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  A motivated entrepreneur believes in his business, but a wise one hedges his bets. An aspiring actor believes she will make the big time, but gets a technical degree to fall back on. The cancer patient writes his will.

Religion is a wonderful and beautiful shield that protects us from the cruel absurdity of the universe. But when it comes to making decisions, we should rely on our own understanding. Our decisions that affect ourselves and other people should be based on the evidence that we see in front of us, be it an umpteenth audition failure, an economic downturn, or the results of a cancer screening. What we want to be true is often different from what is. Sometimes the cost of avoiding the truth is greater than the cost of staring the universe in the face in all its absurd cruelty.

Fortunately, though, it usually isn’t. Nate, for example, can easily ignore the TPP if it makes him uncomfortable because it’s not likely he’d be able to do much about it individually anyway. Also, I can keep denying that I’ll ever die for decades to come! I’ll see y’all at the technological singularity, when we’ll be able to scan our brains and replicate them in software. I look forward to the day when I’ll live forever as a free-roaming artificial intelligence on the Internet!