A couple weeks ago I was thinking about the financial meltdown of 2008. I was wondering whether – had I somehow been unaware of this meltdown (via living under a rock or something) – would I have lived my life any differently? (Aside from living under a rock.) I decided it was likely that, no, I wouldn’t have. Basically, this constant news chatter about the financial situation was really of no practical value to me other than fodder for conversation.
Now, I freely grant that there are some people who would have benefited from following this particular news story – especially people who work in the world of finance. But I am not one of them.
A similar train of thought occurred to me at one point during the recent Boston Marathon bombing story. The cops had shot the first bomber and the manhunt was on for the second. I got the impression that people I knew were avidly following the news story, frequently checking the web and TV news for updates. I was thinking, “It’s one guy versus the entire Boston Police Department – of course they’re going to find him!” The constant news blather about the topic was largely meaningless.
But to have this view – that news is mostly crap – flies in the face of common wisdom. We are constantly reminded how uninformed we the public are. We’re supposed to follow the news because that symbolizes that we care about the world. Don’t you care about this earthquake in China, or these starving polar bears in Tibet, or the fact that children’s public education scores have dropped to new levels, or Congress’s malfeasance, or the rise of prescription drug deaths or…
To be honest, not really. Or at least I recognize I only have so much attention to give to these topics and if I want to achieve various goals I have set out for myself, I need to restrict my attention to the news (and other similar distractions: facebook, email, blogs etc.)
I was pleased to see the following article appear over at the Guardian (which, lest you thing I was checking for news, I actually saw linked off a blog. (Not that that’s much better.)) News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier. The author makes a number of arguments against the consumption of news; this one stood out in particular.
News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.
I was also interested in this point about online news; it makes a lot of intuitive sense.
Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.
That’s really the crux of my complaint – news interrupts. I’m not saying it should be avoided completely but we should manage our time when interacting with it.
When I first started reading neurology and psychology texts several years ago I would often come across interesting facts like “12% of the human population could be diagnosed with X mental disorder.” This was eyebrow raising but felt a little odd. If these weirdos were walking among us, where were they? Most people I know seem pretty normal. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it. “So-and-so always has been obsessed with arcane details which could be a symptom of Asperger’s,” I would muse. Or, “other-so-and-so has always been self involved, even narcissistic.”
I was thinking about psychopaths the other day. Contrary to popular fiction, not all psychopaths are blood thirsty mass murderers. Rather, psychopathy tends to describe people who possess traits such as “resistance to self-blame, an enhanced capacity for dishonesty, a disregard for the feelings of others, and a complete lack of remorse.” (I’m quoting from the article linked below.) It struck me, could this describe Bill Clinton?
Now, I was generally a fan of the Clinton presidency, but I was, like many, amazed at his sexual risk taking and brass balls lying about it. Were I president, and a willing intern had presented herself, there would have been a million voices in my head saying, “This is going to come back to bite you!” (Especially if I already had several similar indiscretions in my past.) And I would been sweating like a pig while staring into a television camera and saying, “I did not have sex with that woman…” But not Clinton.
So let’s look at those traits again: resistance to self-blame, an enhanced capacity for dishonesty, a disregard for the feelings of others, and a complete lack of remorse. Hmmmm
Some will say that Clinton’s empathy would protect him from being described as a psychopath. However, I’m reminded of Darryl Hammond’s SNL impression of Clinton. The insinuation there was that Clinton could turn on the “I feel your pain” empathy a little too easily, and it’s an insinuation that felt true to a lot of us. Clinton was charming about it, but there was a phoniness there.
Researcher Kevin Dutton has a book out called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” which makes several interesting points. One being that, like all mental conditions, psychopathy is not an on or off switch – it’s a gradient. Also, psychopathic traits which could charitably be described as “coolness under pressure” are somewhat desirable in high pressure worlds of business, medicine and, yes, the Presidency.
In fact, Dutton mentions a study by psychologist Scott Lilienfield, who looked at the results of a survey that queried presidential biographers about the personality traits of former White House occupants. As Dutton explains, “the results made interesting reading. A number of U.S. presidents exhibited distinct psychopathic traits, with John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton leading the charge.”
This is not to say Clinton was some kind of Ted Bundy – a serial killer waiting to happen. Murderous psychopaths are rare (though less rare than murderous non psychopaths.) But the high pressure position of the Presidency does seem suited to the abilities of a psychopath.
Scientists at Stanford University reported on Wednesday that they have made a whole mouse brain, and part of a human brain, transparent, so that networks of neurons that receive and send information can be highlighted in stunning color and viewed in all their three-dimensional complexity without slicing up the organ.
One might ask, “why should I give a shit?” Personally, I suspect this new era of deep brain visualization and research is going to reveal that personality and activity of the mind is closely tied to brain structure. As a result, people choices are essentially limited to their brain components. As an example, un-empathic people may not be simply assholes, but people missing some degree of the empathy “toolset*” in their brain. This opens up a whole well of debate about free will, choice etc. – a debate that may end up affecting our legal system.
* I’m using this term to represent the neural area or network that might be integral to a certain function like empathy.
I do think various drugs an therapies can affect people’s mental “toolsets” (postively or negatively) but I doubt we can radically alter a person’s mental function. Unless we get into some sci-fi transplanting of brain tissue. Perhaps the rich empathy section of some namby-pamby liberal’s brain could be transplanted into that of a hardened psychopath making him a lover of puppies.
As people probably know, Rand Paul recently filibustered on the Senate floor, raising hash over the possibility that military drones could be used against citizens in the United States. (Some might say he “droned about drones.”) The possibility of such a thing occurring seems unlikely, though not impossible. (As Attorney General Eric Holder concedes, extenuating circumstances – like preventing another 9/11 attack – could allow drone use.)
But I’m glad Paul is bringing attention to drones; I’ve found myself disturbed by their use though I have a hard time ascertaining why. Certainly, when one hears of a drone strike in Pakistan or Afghanistan that takes out a terrorist but also several innocent victims it’s not good news. However, that’s not a problem specific to drones – the same thing has happened via plane-launched missiles or bombs or even in close combat. That’s the issue of collateral damage which – while disturbing – is hardly new.
Maybe what worries me about drones is that it seems they could be the first step towards a robotic military, a military where the fighting by “our” side is done only by machines, with no risk to our soldiers or civilians. You might say, “Wil, what’s the matter of that? We’ve been striving for years to protect our troops. A robo army would be the culmination of that dream and spare so many mothers and fathers from the shock hearing the worst news imaginable.”
But, I wonder, does having a robo-army make it easier to go to war? Does having a flesh and blood army ensure that we have “skin in the game” so to speak, preventing us from too easily making the decision to go to war. (You could reasonably argue that it was the U.S.’s infallible belief in the overwhelming superiority of its military that partly led to the disaster of Iraq.)
I’m reminded of course, by an old Star Trek episode, “A Taste of Armageddon.” In this episode the Enterprise crew discover a world populated by two warring nations. Instead of using actual weapons, these cultures play computerized war games that track virtual warfare. Upon the completion of the “attacks”, citizens on either side who have been determined to have been killed are sent to death chambers where they are disintegrated. These aliens argue that this kind of warfare protects them from the chaos and destruction of “real” war. Captain Kirk disagrees; he is convinced that the ease of this form of war has made the aliens too complacent to end their battles (which have been going on for eons.) Kirk angrily destroys the computer system that allow the process. His alien host is shocked. “Do you realize what you have done?” he asks Kirk.
Kirk’s reply is one of the most memorable bits of dialogue from the show’s run:
A while back I had a post featuring Ray Bradbury’s thoughts on education. In a nutshell, he was down on college and pro library. Since his opinions mirror mine, I deemed him quite wise.
It turns out there is a web site, a book, even a movement, that carries forth the same views. The website is called uncollege.org. (The book is linked off it.) Its argument is, fundamentally, that college is a rip off and if you want to get educated, just go out there and learn. Good stuff.
Of course, education has never been about getting educated, it’s been about getting a piece of paper that says you’re not retarded and also giving you the opportunity to form “connections” with like minded scum who can then go about destroying the world. As far as that goes, higher education has been quite successful.
I find this overview of a study observing that the brains of Democrats and Republicans function differently somewhat confusing. It states:
Comparing the Democrat and Republican participants turned up differences in two brain regions: the right amygdala and the left posterior insula. Republicans showed more activity than Democrats in the right amygdala when making a risky decision. This brain region is important for processing fear, risk and reward.
Meanwhile, Democrats showed more activity in the left posterior insula, a portion of the brain responsible for processing emotions, particularly visceral emotional cues from the body. The particular region of the insula that showed the heightened activity has also been linked with “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand what others might be thinking.
So Republicans process fear better while Democrats process emotions better. Except, isn’t fear an emotion? What is this really telling me?
Frankly, both Republicans and Democrats seemed pretty fear based to me; they just obsess over different fears. They should learn to chillax.
I wonder how long before people start alleging that candidates are stealing elections by broadcasting beams into people’s heads that inhibit or free up the appropriate brain region? 3… 2… 1…
Former Arizona State Attorney General Terry Goddard decries the false promise of border security in Arizona as an effective barrier against a drug-trafficking enterprise that runs 24/7. In two terms as Arizona’s top law-enforcement official, he targeted smugglers by following the money. He dismisses the entire “secure border” concept as “nonsense,” and urges Washington to face reality.
“The wall is about symbolism; it’s not about protecting the border,” he said. “If you really cared about shutting down the cartels, you would start with the money. You would keep them from having the resources to beat us every time. I expect the cartels to use drones next. They have unlimited funds.”
At first, the idea of drug cartels flying drones into United States targets seems insane. But, I could see it happening. I can see how just the symbolism of the act would be hard to resist for drug cartel hidden away in the folds of Mexico. (Ask yourself this: “what would Scarface do?”) And it’s likely a lot of people would cheer seeing the United States getting a taste of its own medicine.
But the bigger story here is the idea of technology, particularly weapons technology, becoming so available that an organization like a drug cartel can credibly start to employ it. We’re sitting around here worrying about semi automatic rifles, but in the next 10 years, the real problem could be bio weapons in subways, or bombs dropping out of the sky on American cities. And then what? Will the US then effectively go to war with chunks of Mexico?
One could argue that the timeline of my life has coincided almost precisely with the emergence of a meaningful Internet. (I use the term “meaningful Internet” to differentiate the Internet of the modern era from the Internet that existed as a tool used by the Department of Defense as far back as the 50s.) When I was a teenager, we had computer bulletin boards. (Interestingly, I remember a guy giving me several floppy disks worth of video games he downloaded illegally from said bulletin boards. Even back then file sharing was a problem.) Then, in my 20s, we saw the emergence of the web browser and web graphics. As I’ve matured and become wiser and only better looking, we’ve seen the advent of social networking, Internet enabled phones etc.
And I find, as time has gone on, I become more wary of Internet. I become weary of the overwhelming access to information it offers, the endless distractions it flaunts. I find myself genuinely yearning for an Internet free existence, but realize that would vastly limit my employment options and general swinging lifestyle.
Jaron Lanier is a guy I’ve read about and been interested in. He contributed quite a bit to the Internet technologies referred to as “Web 2.0″ and since then has largely condemned the Internet. His reasons are numerous (he has a book on the topic) but in particular he condemns the philosophy of “information wants to be free.” In relation to music file sharing, he says:
“I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.)
“Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’
“And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”
He also makes a point that I’ve made (and thus can be presumed to be quite wise): that anonymity on the Internet has led people to become ugly and wicked in their political disputes. Instead of causing us to come together, the Internet is forcing people to calcify in their own tribes.
At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.
I became intrigued when I noted — amidst the post Newtown discussion on gun control — that Japan has the highest suicide rate of any nation despite not having guns. So how are they killing themselves? Over to you, Wikipedia:
Methods of committing suicide
Common methods of suicide are jumping in front of trains, leaping off high places, hanging, or overdosing on medication. Rail companies will charge the families of those who commit suicide a fee depending on the severity of disrupted traffic.
A newer method, gaining in popularity partly due to publicity from Internet suicide websites, is to use household products to make the poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide. In 2007, only 29 suicides used this gas, but in a span from January to September 2008, 867 suicides resulted from gas poisoning. This method is particularly problematic, as there is high risk of hurting others in the process. After a man who attempted suicide in 2008 by swallowing pesticides was hospitalized, 50 people in the hospital were sickened by the toxic fumes.
It’s been understood throughout the course of this country’s history that we as individuals have the right to defend ourselves from violence. This is perhaps best captured in the line in the Constitution that we have the “right to keep and bear arms.” As I reflect on the horrors of recent mass shootings, it becomes clear that the only way we can progress as a society is to reject this concept. If we are to maintain any semblance of civility, we need to do away with arms.
To be clear, I’m not talking about guns and weapons, I’m talking about arms as in the things coming out of your torso and connected your hands. Basically, what I’m proposing is a mass amputation of the arms of all 300 million Americans. I feel this will prevent future mass shootings of all types. Let’s say you don’t have any arms and you want to go shoot up a school. You walk up to the door, but you can’t pull open the door because you don’t have any arms to operate the doorknob. Even if, by some miracle, you managed to get into the building, how are you gonna operate your weaponry? With your teeth? I don’t think so, sicko!
I feel this program will lead to a much safer, happier America.