December 2012 Archives

Happy New Year

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stepping-away.gif I will be heading for Vermont again this year in just a few hours. It's hard to believe that another year has slipped by. I went back and read by 2011 year-end post. I could easily write the one for this year by just saying ditto. Too much more of the same, with the exception raised by the re-election of President Obama. But even there the frozen framework of our society is still in place. Well, it could have been worse. I'll try to capture some of what were the high- and low-lights when 2013 rolls in.

Happy New Year.

“Good Credit is Sexy” Duh?

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invisible man

“Good Credit Is Sexy,” says one site, Creditscoredating.com, which allows members to view the credit scores of potential dates who agree to provide the numbers.

This is a tidbit from a recent story in the NYTimes. I may be old, quite old, but even in my advanced stage, credit scores and sexy are about as far apart as I can imagine.

I have often written about the use of scores to represent, or better to claim to represent some quality of a product. Invariably, I argue that scores that attempt to capture the quality of anything or some aggregate measure of a constellation of characteristics cannot do what they claim to do. Scores are good in determining the outcome of some athletic competition, but how many time have you said that the best team or athlete was robbed of a victory.

Games are, by their nature, activities designed to produce a winners and losers, and scores are a very convenient way to signal the end of a game. But much of life is not so simple. Picking a mate can be a winning or losing proposition, but it is more than a game. Games are generally competitive; relationships between the adversaries are not usually a consideration. Sportsmanlike behavior was once a feature of many games, but seems to have largely disappeared. Placing bounties on creating injured opponents is about as far as one can go from any sense that there is any sort of extended relationship among the players.

Now I discover that the way to pick a date, not quite a mate, but perhaps for many a step along the way, has been reduced to looking at one’s credit score. If there is a better metaphor for the reduction of human being to some reified, nonviable entity, I doubt if I will stumble upon it. Maybe the invisible man will do it, but I will stick with some numerical score as the winner in this category. I, and many other, have described the modern human, as homo Economicus. Economists use wealth or income to describe the condition of such a human, but creditscoredating has done them one better. They are not the only player in this new game.

The credit score, once a little-known metric derived from a complex formula that incorporates outstanding debt and payment histories, has become an increasingly important number used to bestow credit, determine housing and even distinguish between job candidates.

It’s so widely used that it has also become a bigger factor in dating decisions, sometimes eclipsing more traditional priorities like a good job, shared interests and physical chemistry. That’s according to interviews with more than 50 daters across the country, all under the age of 40.

“Credit scores are like the dating equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease test,” said Manisha Thakor, the founder and chief executive of MoneyZen Wealth Management, a financial advisory firm. “It’s a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. test gives some information about a person’s sexual past.”

I guess it is all a part of the new information age. With the ability to measure each other is simple numerical terms, and the ever growing massive databases that are being mined, we will have little left of whatever humanity we were born with.

The article begins with a vignette of a failed date that Jessica LaShawn was trying to establish. It went awry when the prospective date asked Jessica for her credit score. Just the ask cooled the possibility, but her poor score would have done more serious damage. The column ends with:

“Days after her failed date, she said, she got an apologetic text message. Her date reiterated that the problem “wasn’t me, it was my credit score.”

Sorry, Jessica and others like you, it is YOU that showed up. It is a one-dimension version of you, but it is you all the same. It’s going to get worse as the numerical information about everything you do piles up at every node in the Internet your signals cross. Massive databases and data mining are the new thing. So long Jessica; hello W378N99YX. Just like the confirmation code on the last airline ticket you bought. It can’t tell you anything about the flight. Nor can the number that Jessica is becoming tell you who she really is.

Black Friday, 1959

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lehrer

Tom Lehrer, the bard of my young adult days, wrote this in 1959.
He was prescient about so many things.

Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly.
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On Christmas Day you can’t get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore.
There’s time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

Relations, sparing no expense, I’ll
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
(“Just the thing I need, how nice!”)

It doesn’t matter how sincere it is,
Nor how heart felt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What’s important is the price.

Hark, the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry merchants,
May ye make the Yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high,
Tell us to go out and buy!

So let the raucous sleighbells jingle,
Hail our dear old friend Kriss Kringle,
Driving his reindeer across the sky.
Don’t stand underneath when they fly by.

The NRA and the Death Spiral

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death spiral

The Newtown massacre was a private tragedy and a public shock. Always a tragedy, but perhaps not such a shock. Armed violence and death from the end of a firearm are so much a part of our American persona. I should be shocked at the shameless “solution” to the danger for schools offered today by the Executive Director of the NRA, but I am merely sickened by the deaf, insensitive, unfeeling, shameful, and absurd suggestion.

The National Rifle Association on Friday called for schools to be protected by armed guards as the best way to protect children from gun violence… The proposal from the pro-gun lobbying group, long the most vocal and influential organization generally opposing stricter regulation of firearms, came during the N.R.A.’s first organized media event after the deadly shootings in Newtown, Conn. The group also called for steps other than gun control, including cracking down on criminals and fighting violence in the media and on video games.

“The only way — the only way — to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection,” Mr. LaPierre said. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” … Gun-free school zones identified by signs, he said, serve only to “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to effect maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”

“So why is the idea of a gun good when it’s used to protect the president of our country or our police but bad when it’s used to protect our children in our schools?” he continued. “They’re our kids. They’re our responsibility. And it’s not just our duty to protect them; it’s our right to protect them.”

Mr. LaPierre was quick to base their completely expected response on some right to protect. It is completely consistent with the “right” to protect each and every one of us by carrying a weapon to kill anyone that threatens us. I am a student of systems dynamics and know that this right (better a wrong) leads inevitably and inexorably to a nation with 100% of its adults (why restrict it to adults) armed, preferably openly armed. Given the paranoia embedded in the NRA answer, what will stop many mindless deaths from people thinking that the approaching armed stranger means harm. This is certainly not the picture seen by the framers of our constitution.

I do not have children in school, but do have many grandkids going off everyday. Schools are an important place of learning for our children. More history for a moment. The founding fathers knew that an educated body of citizens was necessary for the kind of democracy they sought to function. Our educational system has lost that sense and now aims to create the workers of tomorrow. In any case, our children learn much more in school than are embedded in the materials provided by the teachers. They learn how to live with others. They build pictures of the how the world works and how they can interact with it.

Guns have no, or at best a limited, place in this. We strive to keep our children out of jails after they leave school, but do a very bad job of that. If they go through school, locked inside of a jail, protected by armed guards, what kind of world are they learning to live in? Jail becomes the new normal.

My systems dynamics also tells me that this context will only reinforce the idea that the world is a bad place, where guns are needed everywhere to keep one safe and “free.” One doesn’t need systems dynamics to understand the pathology of the NRA’s and gun apologists/lovers “solution.” I can think of no quicker way to destroy what little remains of our human core of caring. Fear of the other is the antithesis of care, virtually completely preventing any kind of productive or coordinative relationship. As the world’s resources continue to shrink, we will need to get along with each other better, not the reverse. No sustainability here.

It's the Economy Violence, Stupid

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Obama_Newtown

I have waited a few days to process my feelings (yes) and thoughts about the slaughter in Newtown. I have had to work hard to separate what seemed to show up in my consciousness into what came mostly from taking in what I read and listened to and what came from somewhere in my body. My first reaction to the manipulative reporting I found in both news and electronic media was that this horrifying murder was neither unspeakable or unimaginable or unnecessary or un-many other things. It is perfectly speakable and imaginable, neither of which reduce its horror and sadness. I think that sadness is the feeling that has most captured me.

It is unspeakable only because those who could both speak up and effect changes choose not to. It is imaginable simply because there are so many guns out there and so many opportunities to (mis)use them. It is even more imaginable when you acknowledge and accept the violence that is so deeply embedded in our culture. It started with the birth of the nation by an armed rebellion, followed by a continental expansion in which millions of the original inhabitants, human and non-human were killed or violently ousted from their homes. A prominent mythic figure of the Western expansion is the gun-toting sheriff or the bandit that he is inevitably shooting at some point.

Today violence shapes popular media shows, movie trailers, video and computer games, even those for the very young. The trailers for coming attractions outshoot one another trying to be the most violent that can sneak by the rating system. Game Apps are rated according to the amount of violence they contain, but without any meaningful way to control who downloads and plays them. I wonder how much control parents in gun-owning households exert over the games their children watch?

This is nothing particularly novel; I played cops and robber with toy guns 70 years ago, but it is so much more pervasive now. Something else must be working on us. My research on and thinking about sustainability points to our culture as the systemic context out of which the tragedies of Newtown are born. We have a toxic and lethal mix of narcissism, materialism, libertarianism, and probably a bunch of other isms at play. Gun-owning is a symptom of something much deeper. It’s probably not fear. We are a pretty safe country; in a catch-22 way, it’s the guns people own in the name of safety that makes us unsafe. If we were really concerned about safety, we would wear our seat belts, stop driving under the influence, really stop smoking, lose weight and on and on. So what is it?

I believe the most fundamental root cause is the “don’t tread on me” attitude that is prominently exhibited by roughly half of the country these days. Rugged individualism has always been a feature of the American ethos. This issue was front and central in the recent election with one side claiming to be the makers and pinning the label, the takers, on the other. I built it with the stress on the “I” was one of the Republican’s battle cries. “Get the government out of my life” is the language we hear around election time, but this is just a politically correct convenient excuse for the expression of negative liberty: the right to be left alone, preferably all alone, with one’s possessions, so as to pursue whatever one wants to do with them.

Given that we live in a crowded and interdependent world, there will always be somebody, whether from the government or elsewhere, who will be encroaching on one’s private turf. The awareness of this, a suspicion that somebody is crowding me, can easily grow to a paranoid sense and a corresponding self-protective response. Violent means of self-protection are found everywhere in the virtual cultural messages and in reality of the merchants that offer them. The news tonight noted that there are more gun dealer locations than McDonald’s shops or supermarkets.

It is too late to “control” guns. It would be like trying to control TVs. There are too many out there and any attempt to intervene could only raise the level of paranoia even higher with possibly more violent incidents. Maybe not so many massacres, but the killing will go on. The killings do go on; the massacres, although terrible and seemingly inexplicable, are the least serious result of our violent culture. The 27 killed in Newtown is about the same magnitude of the number of people killed by guns day in and day out in the US. Why not gather their names every day and run them across the screen as ABC did tonight at the end of their evening news? Do they not deserve the same outpouring of grief and horror?

Certainly the killing of children is more repugnant than the deaths of the strangers we hear about one at a time on the local news. But even those are human lives lost to violence. And why not include the rest of those who die violently but by other than guns. It’s the violence that we should be talking about, not just the guns. They only deflect our conversation from the real issue.

We are the world’s largest merchant of death, making and selling weapons of all sorts to the world. We have the means to kill by remote control, but not to kill so cleanly that children, as young as those in Newtown are murdered along with our targets. We invented and employed the most destruction killing machine known to humankind. I am not arguing here about the morality of the use of drones or nuclear weapons; I am simply pointing out our connections to violence.

Former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee disgracefully and shamefully attributed the killing to the absence of God from schools.

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee said on Fox News, discussing the murder spree that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT that morning. "Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

He would point us in entirely the wrong direction. No “surprise,” I would agree, but hardly an issue about godlessness. Huckabee was Governor of Arkansas which along with its neighboring Southern States are usually among or at the top of the annual per capita homicide rates. Maybe God has abandoned the South more generally than just in the schools?

We are sure to hear many cries for gun control now. I note that the politicians are starting already. Senator Boxer has announced she will put forth a bill to ban assault weapons. This is not a brave act. It is rather a sign of the cowardice of those who have taken oaths to protect us. Mayor Bloomberg exhorts President Obama to elevate guns in his priorities. Senator Lieberman is a little better, calling for a Commission on Mass Violence, but is also unwilling to name violence itself as the issue to face. There are already enough assault weapons out there legally to create many more Newtown's. Gun control is only a Band-Aid for America’s violent heart condition. We need thoracic surgery, not palliative treatments.

Persuasive Pernicious Technology

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Consumer Manipulation

I have been in contact with a Dutch graduate student in a sustainable design program. Recently he directed me to the work of a Stanford University researcher, B. J. Fogg. Fogg is the director of their Persuasive Technology Lab. I went visiting the web site and downloaded a few articles by Fogg to learn what was meant by “persuasive technology.” To my dismay, I found that it meant just what the name conveys. Fogg begins a short paper on his thoughts about the subject with:

The world of technology has changed dramatically in twenty years. In 1993, I went to Stanford University to study how to automate persuasion. As a doctoral student, working with Cliff Nass and Byron Reeves, I was trained as an experimental psychologist. I had one question I wanted to answer: How could you computerize persuasion? In other words, how could you use the power of computers to change what people believed, how they behaved, and how could this then be applied to improve the world in some way?

At first glance, this all seems fabulous. Improve the world by changing what people believe and how they behave through the magic of computer technology. Shades of 1894 and Big Brother. Too good to be true. Yes! In another of Fogg’s articles, I read:

Companies and individuals alike are writing software code that render persuasive experiences, influencing what we think and do. Never before has the ability to automate persuasion been in the hands of so many. With Cliff and others at Stanford, we performed the first scientific experiments to show how computers could influence people in predictable ways. We published our results in academic journals. In today’s world, people don’t need scientific data to believe computing technology influences people. From websites to mobile phone software, the evidence is all around us now. Persuasive technology is part of our ordinary experience.

  • The fuel gauge in the Toyota Prius tells drivers how efficiently they are using gasoline. You can ask almost any Prius owner to hear stories of how they change their driving to get more miles to the gallon.
  • In the living room many families use Nintendo Wii to make physical activity more engaging. The persuasive point of this device is “get up off the couch and move!”
  • In the online world, we meet persuasion attempts at every click. In fact, virtually every website has a persuasive purpose: the creators intend to affect user attitudes or behaviours in some way: sign up for our service, tell a friend about this video, enter your email address.

Facebook is perhaps the most successful example of persuasive technology to date, with more than 200 million people joining the service over the past two years. Facebook has created a system, driven by software code, that persuades us to upload our picture and divulge our personal information. We invite friends and accept friend invitations. Many of us log in regularly as part of our daily ritual, part of our ordinary lives like brushing our teeth.

I was OK through the first two bullets. Fogg was referring to a design methodology, I first met while teaching in the Netherlands. I came across work by Japp Jelsma which he called behavior steering design (not so ominous sounding as persuasive technology). I picked this up as an important way to use objects to guide behavior and through them to change beliefs. The French sociologist, Bruno Latour, noted that such designs have been around for a long time. The massive hotel key used in many European hotels makes it very difficult to forget to return it before exiting. Speed bumps force one to pay attention in dangerous crossings and may instill new more concernful driving habits and the new hidden beliefs that govern them.

I was quite taken by a new object to me at that time: the two-button toilet. This feature has become more common today, but then (2001), I had never seen this in the US. It’s simple; instead of a single lever or button, there are two—one larger than the other, proportional to the amount of water used in the flush. The choice is obvious. The first time one comes across this feature, it is impossible to mindlessly flush. The radically different design puts the brain in gear as one tries to figure out what is going on. It’s not a difficult puzzle to figure out, but it begins a process of attentiveness to the amount of water used, and has the ultimate potential to change one’s conservation awareness and practices.

The key to Jelsma’s and related theories is to encode messages in the design that break the mindlessness of routine habits. Only with such breakdowns or interruptions can one learn in a mindful sense. Even with a number of very interesting and positive examples, Jelsma and others were quick to note that an important ethical issue was involved. Who should decide what messages are to be encoded? Should engineers and designers with no particular authority or legitimacy to dictate “right” behaviors have a license to design such persuasive technology.

I have not done an extensive search of Fogg’s work. I base what follows on the two short articles and some additional web searching. When I got to the third bullet above and the following mention of Facebook, I started getting more concerned with what I was reading. Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders in 1957, exposing the new, then, techniques of manipulation in advertising, resulting from innovative psychological motivation research. He and many who read his book were concerned about the moral implications of these new practices. How innocent we were! Today it is taken for granted, either consciously or unconsciously, that we are surrounded by media designed to pull us toward consuming this or that.

Fogg’s work, as he says, takes us a step further and adds an important new channel for manipulation, a more accurate word for what is happening than persuasion: the computer in all its forms, from desktops to tablets and smart phones. Fogg comes across to me, based on what I see on the web, as a proud promoter of the work he has done and may be using language more as a promotional vehicle that a more precise description of his work. But he comes across as quite flip about it. He notes that some people thought on first seeing what could be done with computers to persuade that it was the devil’s work. I think it might be, at least in part.

My concerns are twofold. One is the concern Jelsma and other raised about the dangers of the designer or engineer using the methodology for immoral or improper purposes. This concern is amplified relative to the kinds of objects that had been involved in their work, where it takes special skills and training. Fogg emphasizes how easily people can learn the techniques of manipulation through computer programming. And how easy it is to apply them in the open structure of the internet. The ability to establish an ethical or moral baseline and enforce it is very problematic. I see this as very worrisome. Experience with the use of the internet argues that someone will always use it for their own personal advantage.

The second is more tied to my particular interest in sustainability, which I define as the possibility of flourishing. Flourishing is simply a description of living as a fully developed human being. An important part of being human in this sense is living authentically. Authentic living is acting out of a set of cares that come from one’s own self; they can be said to be self-motivated in psychological jargon. It is easier to define its opposite, inauthentic behavior. Inauthentic behavior springs from responses to the voice of the outside culture, or in terms of this post, acting out of someone else’s persuasiveness, that is, externally motivated.

Inauthentic behavior tends to leave a sense of emptiness that requires more of the same, exactly what Fogg commends Facebook for doing. Tonight on the ABC news, I watched a segment highlighting a rapidly growing illness—addiction to computer games, not just video games, but games like “Words with Friends or Farming games. Not just among kids, that’s old news by now, but among adults. Fogg and his acolytes are indeed successful, perhaps much too successful. While not yet a recognized mental illness, a computer game addition counseling profession has already sprung up. Yesterday it was news that soon we would be eating Frankenfish being secretly raised in Panama. Today, it’s about addiction to computer games. I’m almost afraid to watch the news tomorrow.

The Propositions Prepositions of Sustainability

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prepositions

The prepositions used in conjunction with words like sustainability, care, or love tell us a lot about the speaker or writer’s understanding of and commitments to the word being referred to. We can take a lead from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that juxtaposes three prepositions in “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Let’s start with sustainability and think about the differences between business of sustainability, business about sustainability, or business for sustainability. Business by sustainability doesn’t make much sense.

The first is the possessive use of of and is used to tell us that sustainability has some sort of business attached to it. Unlike Lincoln’s usage, sustainability doesn’t possess anything except the intangible possibility of flourishing. But when firms talk about the business of sustainability, they seem to imply that they are doing what sustainability requires them to do. We, the business firm, know what sustainability is and we are working, along with marketing all the unnecessary and harmful widgets we produce, to bring sustainability to the world. I doubt that actions under this rubric will do anything to create sustainability

The next, about, doesn’t mean surrounding in the spatial sense like “There was a strange radiance all about her.” Rather, it tries to convey a feeling of attention to as in “Our business strategies are all about sustainability.” Since in almost all cases, the business hasn’t a clue about what sustainability is, this usage is merely an attempt to look good and be one of the crowd.

For conveys a sense of directedness or connection, and suggests a positive connection between the first noun and the second. Business for sustainability suggests that the business is committed to produce sustainability as in businesses for [making] profit or for [manufacturing] shoes. The for doesn’t have to be exclusive; businesses can claim they are for both sustainability and for shoes. Most do not, however, understand and appreciate the intricate interrelationships between the two. Making shoes (positive for the business) produces other outcomes (negative for the world). Because the negatives always come along with the positives, it’s quite a stretch for any business to claim it exists for sustainability.

This little lesson in grammar is meant only to alert you always to pay close attention to the exact words a business uses to connect itself with sustainability. Note that in the last sentence with means some actual connection whether material or immaterial. It’s not the same as for, which conveys only a sense of direction.

I see literally hundreds of uses of all of these everyday as I peruse the business and sustainability media. They are all part of telling little white lies, and in some cases, lies located in the green portion of the spectrum. No firm can be of or about sustainability, The best they can do is be for sustainability in the sense that they support the idea of sustainability, just as most of us are for justice or peace, but do little or nothing to bring them to life.

The same confusion surrounds preposition’s use in reference to care, a central concept relating to sustainability. Care by suggests that care is being delivered by some entity. Care by Al’s Garage identifies the place to go for tune-ups and the like. Care of refers to the object of care, and like the previous case, implies that care belongs to that object. I take care of my automobile or my mother in whatever way care should be delivered to them. Care of is owned by the object.

Care about refers to some feeling that the subject experiences. I care about you is a subjective expression of my feeling toward you. This way of speaking does not mean that I am doing anything about my feelings. In our “having” culture, it is often taken for granted that caring about is enough and that no caring for is needed. All I need to do is provide all the symbols that the culture associates with caring. This is why so much of our lives together is inauthentic and without much satisfaction, if any.

Care for somebody or something, say a tree, is importantly different. The preposition for denotes a directedness, intentionality, or connectedness between the caring subject and the object being cared for. Caring for can be, but not necessarily is, authentic, coming from the sense of connection and an understanding that caring-for is at the existential heart of being human. The source of care is the subject, not the voices of culture that are always impinging on the body.

Words have a funny way of coming alive in our actions, even tiny, little words like these prepositions. By listening to the prepositions being used in what you or somebody else, for example, a business, is saying, you can expose their understanding and authenticity in matters like sustainability, caring, or love, and in other actions. The words tell you whether the actions come from a concernful connection or from a response to a “should” from someplace other than inside one’s body. Our speech, like any other act we do, springs from habits buried in our cognitive system. Our speaking habits are very strongly fixed, but, with reflection and practice, can be changed. You would be amazed at what practicing using for instead of about or of will do to build authenticity. Businesses need to drop the prepositions altogether and start speaking about themselves as “sustainability businesses.” In spite of the grammatical clumsiness, it’s a lot clearer way to convey their authentic care of, about, or for sustainability.