Some People Have Real Problems

I talk a lot about how I’m being “prejudiced” against as a geek. It’s strong language, culturally, especially in urban and suburban America, to bandy about words like that. It’s even harder when the social stigma is attached to a label that can be applied to anyone, even people who do face far harsher oppression. Given that I’m in a position of social and cultural privilege, it may seem disingenuous to say that I’ve been the victim of discrimination.

When I was much younger, I’d lie awake at night and think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been born when I was. I’m not physically strong, and I’m certainly not blessed with an overabundance of endurance. I kept thinking back to what would have become of me in the middle ages, in medieval Europe. Obviously I wouldn’t have been royalty, and certainly my intellect would not have been developed– I wouldn’t have even known how to read, much less learned how at the age of three. My temper problem would prevent me from being in the clergy. Most likely, I would have either been tortured into becoming a berserker, or just simply executed for being too smart for my own good.

It occurs to me that the exact same thing is happening to very intelligent people the world over, regardless of race, creed, culture, or gender. It’s happening in Uganda, as a child who’d be able to solve his village’s water crisis is being gunned down by another child soldier for a warlord who will never even acknowledge his very existence. It’s happening in North Korea, as a teenager who’d be able to rally for democratic reforms is having the creative leadership thinking indoctrinated out of him in a conscription camp. It’s happening in Iran, as a young adult who’d be able to develop a new communications paradigm refuses to do so out of fear of being disappeared by the government.

And don’t kid yourself. It’s happening in Pennsylvania, as incredibly intelligent students are being ignored by the system because they’re too smart for their grade level and the region they live in is too impoverished to support the educators that could challenge them. It’s happening in Colorado, as a teacher who honestly wants to make a difference in the lives of his students and be the mentor they desperately need is forced to flip burgers as the school he works at is closed down. It’s happening in Illinois, as students with special needs are being ignored by the public school systems that their parents pay for.

I mean this with every fiber of my being, and I will say it even as they put the blindfold on me and stand me up against the wall: Fix education, and you fix every social ill, ever, forever.

Bridgework

Last week, Lifehacker ran a neat feature on how to determine when someone was being emotionally manipulative in your life and how to combat it. A lot of the techniques that were listed are the standard arsenal of bullies and fiends the world over, and unfortunately the net outcome of the article is really just going to be more people who know how to effectively prey upon people who haven’t read it. I’d love to have enough faith in humanity to believe that isn’t the case, but it’s not what we’re conditioned to do anymore.

Communications and interpersonal relationships these days aren’t about getting a message through or coming to an improved understanding of the truth. Nowadays the general tactic for getting your point across is to stab someone with it. Misinformation spreads faster than truth, and deliberate disinformation spreads faster still. Honesty and integrity aren’t virtues anymore. They’re vulnerabilities. I’m reminded of nothing so much as the old CIA euphemism for execution, used to prevent popping up on intelligence radars; they called it “wetwork”. The campaigns of falsehoods perpetrated as truth can be no better described as anything but “bridgework”: employing trolls and monsters to distort the perception of the truth in the public eye until it actually does become the truth.

The saddest part about this is that, despite the claims I’ve made of having hope that the trend could be reversed, I know it won’t be. Lies pay better than honesty. There’s nothing in it for anyone by telling the truth. The going rate for someone’s integrity has been getting cheaper and cheaper with every passing moment. I have hope that there’ll be a sea change in how communications, ethics, and journalism are done in this nation, but it’s the same hope that I have for immortality to be made cheaply available in my lifetime: such a long shot as to be completely infeasible.

The definition of a cynic is someone who knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. I wonder how we’ll define cynicism once there’s no value left in anything.

The Dark Side Of Life

I’m sure that by now the Mass Effect 3 ending “controversy” is either dwindling down or completely irrelevant, but at the time I’m writing this, a group is petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to intervene over what is being characterized as a case of false advertising. Again, by the time this goes live I’ll probably have made it through to the ending myself, but as of right now the only thing I know is that the culmination of a huge number of choices and player actions across three games are distilled into one final choice which determines which ending you get.

Yeah, this is definitely something to be (have been?) up in arms about.

While this load of bullshit was going on, I had a discussion with a couple of friends who were, to various degrees, involved in the issue (though certainly not on the side of the “protesters”– I don’t know anyone that stupid). One of them argued that it’s remarkable how a video game is causing this much of an emotional attachment in certain people, and that the outcry is a rallying point for the “games as art” movement. To which I promptly replied that no, as much as we would want it to be seen as a positive, the media is going to portray the outcry as “a bunch of immature pseudoadults whining over the ending to a children’s video game that they’re too old to be playing”. It probably already has.

I can’t be positive about this. I literally cannot find the good out of all of this. If there is any, it’s too well hidden and too miniscule to offset the tremendous amount of public-perception damage that this is doing to gaming as a whole. We want gaming to be treated as an adult pastime, as something that anyone of any age can enjoy, but the minute something goes wrong, gamers revert to a twelve-year-old mentality and start whining to beat the band. We can’t have it both ways, and unfortunately it looks like the way we want it is to reinforce the stereotype that’s been imposed on us.

As much as I want to be “out” as a geek, I have to accept that doing so means I’m not going to be free of the associated prejudice in my lifetime.

The Message Is The Media

A year or so back, when a scandal hit NPR regarding funding integrity in the higher-ups, it was eventually discovered that the “damning evidence” in that case was in fact almost completely fabricated. Amazingly, the individual responsible faced no repercussions for presenting an outrageously false accusation. Then, just a few weeks ago, a report by This American Life on worker conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese plant where Apple makes many of its products, was retracted after TAL discovered that it was “partially fabricated”. The individual who provided TAL with the report claimed innocence, stating “What I do is not journalism”.

Douglas Adams’ books may not have been philosophy, for that matter, but he wrote “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, we have to at least consider the possibility” that it’s a duck.

The line between fact and fiction is blurring more and more every day. News shows have shifted within my lifetime– which, despite my griping, is not terribly long– from a cold, impersonal reading of the facts to a cavalcade of entertainment and showmanship that offers excruciatingly little in the way of actual information. Fact-checking is an afterthought; what matters now is being the first to break a scandal, and to hell with whether or not it’s actually true. The phrase “style over substance” has lost its meaning because the style is the substance. There’s nothing underneath it.

But the only thing that really makes me think there’s still hope yet is that, in both of the cases cited above, the agencies who were deceived owned up to it. I heard about the NPR thing first on NPR. While I haven’t been listening to This American Life for years now, the revelation of the deception occurred when they titled their entire show for the week “Retraction”. You don’t see that kind of self-policing anymore. You don’t see journalists second-guessing their informants and looking for confirmation.

When I was in high school, I read through “All The President’s Men” for a reading assignment, and that was around the time I got asked to be the editor of the school newspaper. Granted, that’s twenty years behind me now, but I like to think it taught me to appreciate journalistic integrity a lot more than some of the people who’re on the air now. And while I’m not making claims to be a media professional at all, I can promise you that if I’m going to make a claim here, I’m going to fact-check it first. It’s long been my policy to cite sources when I post about breaking events, and to only link to trusted sources. And if I’m the last man on the web doing it, well, then I’m probably going to have a really small number of trusted sources to link to, now won’t I?

Sit Down

I mentioned yesterday that I don’t like call-in shows. There are any number of seeds for this particular gripe, and certainly a lot of them can be laid at the feet of Rush Limbaugh. (I’m above making the joke “They should be laid at his feet, where he’ll never see them anyway”, but I hope someone else isn’t.) But the biggest one, and the one which reaches across all political spectrums and is in my opinion endemic to the format, is that it’s basically an ideological rally masquerading as a (marginally) civil discussion.

A call-in show in American radio is basically like this: the host goes on a monologue/rant for a certain amount of time, dictating the topic of the day and if you’re lucky giving evidence to support his viewpoint. Then, after a commercial break, the host opens the telephone lines to listen to people who will invariably contest his viewpoint, at which point the host will tell the caller that they are stupid and wrong and that they should feel bad for being so stupid and wrong. Amazingly enough, people continue to call in repeatedly to be belittled in this manner, and often feel the need to suck up to the host in order to enhance the experience of being insulted. This has happened on more than one day on literally every call-in talk show I have ever heard on American radio.

Which is why I find the BBC’s “World Have Your Say” to be an incredibly surreal experience. You get callers from literally everywhere, and the host’s job isn’t to command the groupthink, but to keep people on-topic and to challenge some of the stranger viewpoints with actually informed questions. The host doesn’t editorialize, doesn’t tell us what the caller meant, doesn’t try to do the thinking for us. It’s literally the callers who just say their piece, build on each other, and have a genuinely interesting talk. I’d be utterly despairing if the American callers on the show weren’t civil and respectful, which they are.

This is, to me, what radio and communications are for. It might be naivete to think that communications tools are meant to bring people together and to enhance the state of human interactions, but I still believe that with all my heart. When we can have a discussion with participants from all corners of the Earth, calmly talking and reasoning out their problems, it’s foolishness not to be a little awed at that. It’s foolish to abuse that kind of a gift by using it to ram an opinion through everybody else’s earholes.

Circus Maximus

I started listening to XM Radio’s “POTUS ’08” station early in 2008 during the runup to the elections. I’ll spare you the rant over how the station was gutted pretty much immediately afterwards, but the bottom line is that I was fascinated at all of the sausage-making and inside-baseball that went on behind the scenes, and comparing it to how other radio stations were covering the primaries and the campaigns was an eye-opening astonishment.

POTUS went incredibly deep into the campaigns, detailing without bias what each side was doing when they took a course of action. I was hooked instantly– there was finally a station and service devoted to a centrist, honest, truly fair look at all sides of the election, and I loved it. It was the pinnacle of my idealized coverage: give the voters all the facts, don’t sugar-coat or condescend, and let the voters make actual informed decisions rather than gut-feeling rolls of the dice. While I have some issues with how the station is being run now– in particular I dislike the afternoon call-in show, because a) centrism doesn’t need a pulpit-beater like Pete Dominick, and b) I hate call-in shows anyway– I still think it’s a great way to get accurate information about the campaign. I’m like as not to continue to pay for satellite radio specifically for POTUS, because there’s f%$#-all in terms of a centrist viewpoint on terrestrial airwaves. But that’s not my point today.

A couple weeks ago, Senator John McCain– a man who, while I disagree with him on a great many things, I respect greatly for his behavior during the conclusion of his 2008 presidency campaign– noted that this was the ugliest primary race for the Republican nomination in his memory, and that it was doing little but to divide his party. Meanwhile, other Republicans were saying that the protracted bullfight between the front-runners is a good thing, because it keeps the campaign in the media.

I’m starting to think that certain political analysts are confusing the campaign for the Presidency of the United States of America with a season of Survivor.

Comfortably Numbed (Part Four)

It’s been a major bugaboo of mine for a long time, this wanting everyone to get along. I cannot fathom the state of mind that sets someone against another just based on hearsay or a bad reputation. Naturally, given the communication medium of the Internet, I find myself butting heads with that mentality all too often: either generalized so broadly that it insults far more people than intended, or generalized so broadly specifically to insult as many people as possible. (While that’s a behavior I can’t understand, either, it’s not a discussion I want to have right now.)

Again, then, what makes my obsession with liberating people from their fanatical devotions any different from someone who always has to have exactly fifty jelly beans over the course of the day? The answer, of course, is nothing. It’s exactly the same and exactly as harmful.

I can’t fix everyone. I can’t fix anyone but myself. It’s not a matter of capability, it’s a matter of even having the right to. I have no right to tell anyone else how they should live their lives, and especially not when I have so many of my own little problems to deal with. But one thing I can do, and one thing I hope to always do, is to lead by example. By living my life the way I think I should, the only thing that can advance my goal ethically that I can even hope to accomplish is to inspire someone else to work to fix their own problems. Maybe I never actually inspire anyone. Doesn’t matter. As long as I never cross the line into ordering people around, I’m doing what I can. My obsession becomes a passion instead.

So I’m going to be “out” as a geek. I’m going to be smart. I’m going to be at anime conventions until I’m old and gray. I’m going to watch turn-your-brain-off action movies and high-art films. I’m going to use what I want, to like what I want, and to dislike what I want. I’m going to treat people who agree with me with care, and the people who disagree with me with respect.

And if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.

Comfortably Numbed (Part Three)

So when people like a thing too much, that’s bad. When people like the “wrong” thing, that’s bad. Is it just a matter of not liking anything? Is it a matter of deriving actual enjoyment out of something being considered childish? What about hobbies that get a lot of respect– woodworking, hunting, sports? What makes the difficulty of a hobby correlate directly to how acceptably it’s seen?

We’re conditioned from a very early age that expertise is important. We see people who are “good at” things and are told that we all have something unique that we’re good at. What’s left unsaid until late in life is that the things some folks are good at aren’t always obviously useful or appreciated. Being adept in, say, literary analysis may require just as much intelligence and instinctive talent as photographing sports, but one of those people isn’t desperately trying to find some work in their field and it ain’t the reader.

So, when you have to work for your living in something other than what interests you or what you’re best at because that thing perhaps isn’t a moneymaker, you seek out a community where you can express that like. This can be good or bad. If you find a community, way to go– they’ll help you develop your passion, and who knows, maybe you can parlay it into being your moneymaker. But if you find an enclave, you might find that they drag you further and further into an unhealthy obsession.

We specialize ourselves, and we define our worth by the difficulty of the thing we specialize in because of a false perception of profitability. Communications advances shatter that delusion. If your talent and joy lies with playing the shamisen (that’s a Japanese harp, Mom), and you live in Detroit, the problem isn’t with your talent, it’s that you haven’t connected with the right people who’ll pay you for your talents.

On the flip side, the difference between passion and obsession is just as subtle, but its separation has stood the test of time. Neil Postman wrote, “The key to all fanatical beliefs is that they are self-confirming. […They are] fanatical not because they are ‘false’, but because they are expressed in such a way that they can never be shown to be false.” Someone passionate will be receptive to changing their mind, given the right reasons. Someone obsessed sees no reason that opposes their beliefs as “right”.

I freely admit to being obsessed with stamping out obsession. This is something I deeply wish I could cure myself of, because it makes me a giant flaming hypocrite.

Comfortably Numbed (Part Two)

Being a geek is okay. I hope I didn’t mislead anyone into thinking that not being a geek was “wrong”, though. I also get the feeling that some folks might have taken the wrong meaning from my tireless advocacy for nerds. I don’t want to turn people into nerds. I don’t want people to “catch teh dork”. That’s not my intent. I just want to hopefully turn folks on to the stuff I like.

But there is a valid point in the arguments of the abstract antagonist from yesterday’s post. If you like something too much, it can be a very, very bad thing. We tend to call this “addiction”, in the lighthearted meaning of the word, but it’s a smokescreen for people who do have real problems with the things they love. And while I personally love the idea that the advances in communications technology over the last thirty years have made it trivially easy to connect with like-minded people, I despair of the fact that what we’re building with this technology aren’t communities, but enclaves.

There’s a subtle, yet incredibly glaring distinction between the two. Both are groups of people united for a common purpose of advocacy of a particular idea, amusement, or course of action. Both are designed to provide support and comfort to their members. Both, ideally, offer that support unconditionally. But where they differ is in their priorities. A community puts its members first. An enclave puts its idea first.

A community has the freedom within its ideology to help its members grow and develop. The community may seek out new members now and again, and always welcomes anyone who’d join. If a member of a community is found to be acting in an unhealthy manner, the community has the responsibility to help that person overcome their problems by guiding them. More to the point, the community may even be proactive about it. Sure, they may frame it in the dressings of their particular sphere of interest, but a true community will band together when one of its own is in trouble.

An enclave, on the other hand, is insular and restrictive. The members are expected to behave in a certain way, to accomplish certain things, to follow these instructions without deviation. Anyone who doesn’t conform is summarily ejected, as “no true member of the group would ever act that way”. Anyone who isn’t a member is an enemy. The enclave doesn’t change. It doesn’t adapt. It is binding, and it is permanent. All of these mean that eventually, as more and more of its members “betray” the group, the enclave decays and stagnates.

I’m sure some of you can see a few uncomfortable parallels here.

Comfortably Numbed (Part One)

It’s been a while now, but the fact that being a nerd is somehow acceptable is starting to filter into the consciousness of the Anglosphere. Most English-speaking cultures, pop or otherwise, are warming up to those among them for whom a wedgie might once have been a daily occurrance. And with good reason; being smart is sexy again. Person of Interest, while it certainly has some action elements, is a very cerebral show that gets its biggest thrills when the protagonists are unable to just blast their way out of a situation. And while it’s mostly a personal observance, I’ve found that more people gave the show a chance because of Michael Emerson than Jim Caviezel. Emerson’s most famous prior role was the conniving and dangerously smart Ben Linus from Lost.

Simon Pegg summed it up pretty well: “It’s okay to be a geek.” But I’m sure there’s a lot of resistance to the thought, especially from folks who have said in as many words that being a geek is a serious liability. To those people, geeks express uncomfortable enthusiasm for their hobbies in situations and ways that are completely inappropriate. The “correct” thing to express that kind of enjoyment over is something that fosters absolutely no enjoyment in the minds of the individuals who stand accused. It frankly doesn’t matter what. It boils down to the fact that people like different stuff.

Can you tell me what is more acceptable about having a piece of sports memorabilia on your desk at work than having, say, a model of a starship? If someone wants to put up a wallpaper of a forest painting on their computer, why is the fact that the person in the painting dressed as an archer suddenly more offensive than if the same person were dressed in, say, American Revolution-era clothing? What materially is the difference between liking “mainstream” hobbies and liking something different?

There is none. The individual who told me that being a geek was “wrong” would probably have the same problem with anyone taking admiration of a sports team to an excessive degree. That person’s point, near as I can tell, was actually that the threshold for “acceptable public enthusiasm” for something seldom seen is far, far lower than a more common one.

It’s funny to me how, as we get more and more connected, the concept of “something seldom seen” is, itself, becoming seldom seen.