I was pleased to see the following display at our local Publix. It's certainly a healthier alternative to the cookies that are usually offered to children at grocery stores.

Then I thought a bit about it. It may be a healthier treat, but there's one thing missing: it's just a bin of fruit; there is no human interaction.

Years ago, when our kids went to the bakery to receive their much-anticipated free cookies, it was a social event. The interaction with the "cookie lady"—the smiles, the brief exchange of words, the opportunity to practice basic courtesies such as saying "thank you"—was a small but significant part of their social education. Reaching into a bin is impersonal.

Something is gained, but something is lost.

Many years ago our Swiss relatives marvelled at how much of American society is not automated. Switzerland automates where it can—in paying tolls and parking fees, for example—because labor costs are so high there. It is good to have work in Switzerland, because jobs pay well and workers are respected. But of course in consequence there are fewer jobs and they require higher levels of training.

Like it or not, the move toward automation is accelerating in America, spurred on by our response to the pandemic and the consequent labor shortage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there's no doubt that whenever we make a purchase online, choose a self-checkout line at the grocery store, take a course online instead of in person, listen to a sermon or watch a service online instead of attending a local church, or watch a movie at home instead of in a theater, we are giving up an opportunity for meaningful interaction with others.

I'm a cast-iron introvert, and my first reaction is, "So what?" The less personal option is usually more efficient, more convenient, and avoids the risk of having to deal with rude sales clerks and cranky classmates. Automation and online opportunities open up a huge world of information, possibilities, and choice.

The danger is that they can close off another world: the messy world of having to control our nastier impulses and deal with the personalities, cultures, viewpoints, and yes, nastier impulses of other people; the beautiful world of personal encounters that force us to see the humanity of those whom we might be tempted to hate if our encounter were in an online political forum instead of a line at Home Depot.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, September 25, 2021 at 9:11 am | Edit
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I am not one of those who likes to rail against the United States Postal Service. We have always had excellent, friendly service from our local post office, and almost all of our mail carriers have been people who care about their customers and serve above-and-beyond. Overall I think the system works well. 

Further up the chain of command, however, I sometimes have my doubts. The following notice came from our bank this morning:

Effective October 1, 2021, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has revised its service standards for certain First-Class Mail items, resulting in a delivery window of up to five days. Please note that this may delay your receipt of mail from us and our receipt of mail from you (including mailed payments). Please take this change into account when mailing items to us via USPS.

Here's an explanation from the USPS website:

After carefully considering the Postal Regulatory Commission’s (PRC) July 20th advisory opinion, the Postal Service plans to move forward with adjusting service standards for First-Class Mail and Periodicals. The PRC concluded that the Postal Service’s proposed changes, in principle, are rational and accord with statutory requirements. The PRC made a number of recommendations for how the Postal Service should implement its changes, which the Postal Service is largely adopting. Additional details will be provided in an upcoming Federal Register notice. A majority of First-Class Mail and Periodicals will keep current service standards, with 70 percent of First-Class Mail volume having a delivery standard of 1-3 days.

The service standard changes are part of our balanced and comprehensive Delivering for America Strategic Plan, and will improve service reliability and predictability for customers and enhance the efficiency of the Postal Service network. The service standard changes that we have determined to implement are a necessary step towards achieving our goal of consistently meeting 95 percent service performance.

So, practically, mail service may seem the same for much of the time. But read that last line again: The service standard changes that we have determined to implement are a necessary step towards achieving our goal of consistently meeting 95 percent service performance.

I should not be surprised. Over several decades, I've seen it happen in our educational system, in business practices, in government services, and in social expectations. We talk a good game, but when it comes to actual accomplishment, time and time again I've seen organizations choose to meet their goals by bringing the goals down to their level of achievement, rather than the other way around.

Maybe the new standards are more realistic. Maybe there are a thousand excuses for not achieving what we set out to do. Certainly I've had to revise my personal goals too often. But if the purpose of the new goals isn't to help us move beyond them—further, better, higher—we can trap ourselves on a downward spiral of lowered expectations.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, September 22, 2021 at 9:47 am | Edit
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Every comedian knows what it's like to have a joke fall flat. It happens. But do they all receive lectures when their jokes fail?

I love our choir. We're casual, a bit wacky, and not all that good—it's a good fit for me—but we love each other and our work. We also cover a very wide spectrum when it comes to political, social, and even religious views, and one of the things that keeps us from being at each other's throats in these troubled times is humor.

You know what else I like about our choir? They laugh at my jokes. They tell me they like my sense of humor.

Maybe it's a choir thing. Maybe I've been in Florida too long. Maybe this is what happens to everyone as they get older. But it came as a shock to me that some people think I'm more demented than funny.

During our recent trip to the Northeast, I kept running into people who most definitely did not appreciate my sense of humor. Not only did they not laugh, but they reacted as if I were a particulary dense child with no understanding of the world. I'm not griping about specific people here; in fact, I don't remember who they were, nor what particular jokes fell flat. But the following examples are illustrative of the phenomenon.

I came upon this jar of mayonnaise while sorting through our food supplies and checking expiration dates. I posted it to Facebook, with the caption, "What do you think? Is it time to rotate the stock in my pantry?"

And people laughed. They did not look blank and condescendingly explain to me that the date does not mean October 1821 but rather October 18, 2021.

As I was sitting in a doctor's office waiting area, I noticed that they had thoughtfully provided a small refrigerator, which sported the following sign:

Patient Water

Had there been anyone else in the room, I would probably have noted, "I guess the Impatient Water must be in another room." Due to my recent experiences, my mind filled in, "No, you don't understand. The sign means that the water in this refrigerator is for patients only."

My choir would have laughed. Maybe that's because they are a choir, in Florida, and with an average age that is, shall we say, elevated.

But it sure is good to be among people who think me clever rather than stupid!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, September 17, 2021 at 6:29 pm | Edit
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Not a meme, but part of an actual conversation a couple of decades ago. The second speaker was Porter, the first one of his co-workers.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, September 6, 2021 at 1:07 pm | Edit
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Our doctor's office has yet another set of forms for us to fill out, and this one just has me wanting to throw up my hands and scream, "NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!" Plus, some of the questions make no sense, in some cases giving far more options than reasonable, and in some cases too few.

For "Ethnic Background" I am given these options:

  • Ashkenazi
  • No
  • Other
  • Unknown

I understand that there are certain diseases that are more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, so maybe that's an important question. But there are also diseases that are especially prevalent among other populations, e.g. the Amish, and there's no opportunity to indicate that, other than the non-informative "Other." And just who are the No people—an obscure tribe of Papua New Guinea, perhaps? And is my own diverse ancestry, which took up some dozen slots on the 2020 census form, of no medical interest at all?

One ethnicity gets its very own question:

  • Hispanic or Latino/a
  • Not Hispanic or Latino/a
  • Unknown or Not Given

I find that a curious question for a doctor to ask. Just how many diseases divide themselves by this criterion? If my lungs are congested, how much does it matter whether my ancestors came from Spain versus France? "Not Given" is beginning to look like the best answer for most of these questions.

There's a good deal more choice when it comes to Sexual Orientation:

  • Bisexual
  • Choose not to disclose
  • Don't know
  • Lesbian or Gay
  • Something else
  • Straight (not lesbian or gay)
  • (You can hold the CTRL key while clicking to select multiple options)

Frankly, unless I'm indicating problems of a sexual nature, I don't think even my doctor needs to know this information, though she's welcome to guess based on the fact that I'll admit to being female and having a husband. "Something else" sounds attractively bear-poking, however.

But even Sexual Orientation has nothing on Religion!

  • African Methodist Episcopal
  • Agnostic
  • Amish
  • Anglican
  • Assemblies of God
  • Atheist/Humanist
  • Baptist
  • Buddhist
  • Catholic
  • Christian
  • Christian Scientist
  • Church of Christ
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Decline to Answer
  • Disciples of Christ
  • Episcopalian
  • Greek Orthodox
  • Haitian Vodou
  • Hindu
  • Indian Orthodox
  • Islam
  • Jain
  • Jehovah's Witness
  • Jewish
  • Lutheran
  • Mennonite
  • Messianic Judiasm [that's how they spelled it]
  • Methodist
  • Multi-Faith
  • Nazarene
  • Non-Denominational
  • None
  • Orthodox
  • Other
  • Pentecostal
  • Presbyterian
  • Protestant
  • Quaker
  • Rastafarian
  • Russian Orthodox
  • Scientologist
  • Seventh Day Adventist
  • Shinto
  • Sikh
  • Taoist
  • Unitarian Universalist
  • United Church of Christ
  • Unknown
  • Wiccan
  • Zoroastrian

There are so many things wrong with this list I won't even try to ennumerate them, other than to mention that my Seventh-Day Baptist ancestors would be feeling left out. And to note that it's just plain weird to have so many choices yet list "Islam" as one-size-fits-all. For myself, being unable to choose among Anglican, Christian, Episcopalian, Multi-Faith, Non-Denominational, Protestant, and Other—and not having the ctrl/click option for this one—I might have to go with that fascinating new religion, Decline to Answer.

But really, of what possible importance could the answer to this question be for normal medical care, other than the above-mentioned correlation between being Amish and certain diseases? Even that is an ethnic difference, not a religious one. Do Wiccans require different cancer treatments from Zoroastrians? True, Jehovah's Witnesses don't want blood transfusions, so that's important to know, but I think it would be safer and more efficient to ask that question directly, rather than make the assumption. I suspect not all JW's reject them totally, and for all I know, some other religion frowns on them as well.

Maybe these questions are required by Medicare. I have had more patience with my medical caregivers (though less with the government) ever since I learned that the very annoying questions they started asking at every visit were government-imposed: Have you fallen at all in the last year? "I have grandchildren. Falls are the natural consequence of fun." Have you been depressed during the last year? "I'm here for a physical, not a mental."

It's a good thing we like our doctors. The bureaucracy is rapidly eroding my confidence in the system.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 27, 2021 at 11:30 am | Edit
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I'm giving my computer files a much-needed spring summer cleaning, and came upon this, which I post here for my own future reference as much as anything. Unfortunately, I don't remember where it came from. The odds are it was from someone on Facebook, but that's the best I can do for now.

It's a clear, concise, visual guide to the seasons of the Church Year, as celebrated in the Episcopal Church and many other churches. The latter may differ in small details; I'm not familiar enough with them to say. But when I refer to the Church Year, this is what I'm talking about.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 14, 2021 at 9:26 pm | Edit
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It's 88 degrees outside at the moment, which is actually quite moderate for mid-day, mid-July in Florida. Still, it's ten degrees cooler inside, and that makes all the difference between enjoying my work and wanting to spend the day by (or in) the pool, drinking iced tea.

That increase in productivity I owe in large measure to one of America's great entrepreneurs, Willis Carrier, the "Father of Air Conditioning."

That this post appears today was prompted less by the temperature than by a new article by Eric Schultz' at The Occasional CEO (link is to the article), including an excerpt from his book, Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship from The Cotton Gin to Broadway's "Hamilton" (link is to my review of the book).

Successful entrepreneurship requires (among other traits) knowledge, skill, grit, determination, inventiveness, connection—and being in the right place at the right time. Lucky for us, Willis Carrier had them all, including the last, as you will see if you read the short story of how the Carrier Engineering Corporation opened for business at what looked for all the world like the worst possible time—and stepped into a golden opportunity that would have been impossible even a month later.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 17, 2021 at 11:43 am | Edit
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One of our absolutely favorite local art museums is planning to expand, as explained in the following excerpt from a sign on their property. I've redacted the name of the museum, because we've always loved it and I'm certain they are not alone in their total loss of connection to the English language.

For nearly 21 years, the [Museum] has enriched our community with thought-provoking exhibitions. The future looks bright as we are now poised to add 40,000 square feet of enrichment opportunities; world-class exhibitions, innovative educational programs, and multi-purpose event spaces. This planned addition will make the museum a world-class destination experience.

The plan is inclusive, welcoming, and sustainable. With the open expansion, we will serve more in our community with a mission-driven building designed to seamlessly merge art, education, nature, dwell, respite, function, and form. We started with visionary ideas on how to make the museum more cohesive and increase public access and with [our architects'] brilliant partnership, the visionary has been put into action.

All of it is painful to read, but what on earth are we to make of, "designed to seamlessly merge art, education, nature, dwell, respite, function, and form"? Is it actually saying anything at all? And what could they possibly mean by "dwell" in this context?" Will the expansion contain apartments? Homeless shelters?

I love the museum, and have found its small size to be an advantage, not a drawback, forcing its exhibits to be focused and locally relevant. I hope the implementation of the expansion turns out to be better than the explanation.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 at 12:27 pm | Edit
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Liberty is meaningless when the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Frederick Douglass, 1860

When I was in school, my history classes went mostly in one ear and out the other without pausing to impact my brain along the way. I'm not sure how all my teachers but one managed to make such a fascinating subject dull, but they did. At least to me; it may be that those who were already interested in the subject managed to thrive. Don't get the wrong impression: I never received a grade lower than an "A" in any of those courses—I just didn't remember much of anything past the final exam.

Therefore I can't necessarily say that I knew nothing about Frederick Douglass until I went to the University of Rochester, where I encountered him every day. Sort of. Our dining hall was in the Frederick Douglass Building. That alone was enough to make what I've learned about the man since then stay with me. The learning process is a strange thing.

I'm still learning more. I ran into the above quotation just this morning. Since it was a Facebook meme, I did some research to make sure that both the quote and the attribution were correct. They are. Douglass was speaking in response to an incident in Boston, when a mob, supported by the governing authorities, shut down an abolitionist meeting. The speech, along with a good explanation of the context, can be found here: Frederick Douglass's "Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston". It's not long, and I strongly recommending reading it.

I'd rather end this post here. But, sadly, I feel the need to include a reminder that Douglass was also an advocate for women's rights. Too many people have now (sometimes deliberately) forgotten the days when "man" was the general term for human beings of either sex, much as "duck" is the general term for a particular type of waterfowl, both ducks (female) and drakes (male). I don't want anyone feeling negative about this excellent and important speech because of an unwarranted reaction to Douglass's final sentence: "A man’s right to speak does not depend upon where he was born or upon his color. The simple quality of manhood is the solid basis of the right—and there let it rest forever."

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, July 7, 2021 at 10:24 am | Edit
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Are you shocked that Bill Cosby is now free? I was, but now that I know more about the circumstances, I'd be shocked if he weren't.

I'm not one to follow the high-profile prosecutions, especially of celebrities, that are so popular in the news media. I know I'm unusual in not having watched a single minute of the O. J. Simpson trial, for example. Call me weird, but I see no reason to put myself in the position of mentally convicting or acquitting the person being tried unless I'm actually on the jury and have all the legally relevant information.

It is, however, impossible to avoid all the publicity that comes with such trials, and Bill Cosby was familiar to me because of his comedy sketches when I was young. I had a few of his records. I still quote some of his lines, e.g. "Hey, you! Almost-a-doctor!" from the story of getting his tonsils out (15 minutes).

If anyone is shocked that I would publish one of Cosby's works "after what he did," I say that great works have been done by terrible people, and if we reject everything based on the sins of the workers in other areas of life, we won't have a whole lot left.

Be that as it may, the issue isn't Cosby's comedy but his trial, which was a long story, to which, as I said, I didn't pay much attention. When I heard that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had thrown out his conviction, my immediate, ignorant, reaction was, "another criminal released on a stupid technicality!"

Not exactly. Viva Frei explains it well here (14 minutes).

If you'd rather not watch the video, the short version, as I understand it—and I certainly don't claim to know the laws—is that the district attorney had decided that he did not have a strong enough case against Cosby to expect a conviction, and that by not pursuing a criminal trial he would make it more likely that the alleged victim would get justice in civil proceedings. Which apparently she did, thanks to the fact that Cosby, freed from the fear of prosecution, made some pretty damning confessions in the civil trial. However, when a new district attorney took over, he did not feel himself bound by his predecessor's decision, and went ahead and prosecuted Cosby, using his civil testimony against him, and thus obtained a conviction. Apparently "pleading the Fifth Amendment" is reserved for criminal cases, and one can be forced to self-incriminate in civil cases. Who knew? The trial court judge allowed this to happen, having decided that there was no "real" agreement between the former DA and Cosby that should tie their hands.

Here is a very small part of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision: 

Starting with D.A. Castor's inducement, Cosby gave up a fundamental constitutional right, was compelled to participate in a civil case after losing that right, testified against his own interests, weakened his position there and ultimately settled the case for a large sum of money, was tried twice in criminal court, was convicted, and has served several years in prison. All of this started with D. A. Castor's compulsion of Cosby's reliance upon a public proclamation that Cosby would not be prosecuted. ... There is only one remedy that can completely restore Cosby to the status quo ante. He must be discharged, and any future prosecution on these particular charges must be barred. ... A contrary result would be patently untenable. It would violate long-cherished principles of fundamental fairness. It would be antithetical to, and corrosive of, the integrity and functionality of the criminal justice system that we strive to maintain.

In other words, the end does not justify the means. A result cannot be just if it is obtained by cheating. As my attorney friend—who has served much time on both prosecution and defense—tells me, even the worst criminal deserves the benefit of the law. It's time to pull out A Man for All Seasons again (5 minutes).

Much as we might not like it, the same rights and rules that protect us also protect criminals. The First Amendment has the same "problem."

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 2, 2021 at 8:20 am | Edit
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Memes are today's proverbs: None is perfect for every situation, but good ones speak truth clearly and efficiently. This is a good one.


Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 at 6:41 am | Edit
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Butterflies don't look back at the caterpillar with shame.
Stop looking at your past with shame.
It was a transformation and it brought you here.

 

I saw this yesterday on a friend's Facebook page. I'm not going to spend any time analyzing it, but use it as the perfect introduction to these cute little guys, who with their companions are devouring our substantial parsley bush.

They're welcome to it. Not because we don't like parsley—we certainly do—but because these babies are pre-transformation swallowtail butterflies.

We get monarchs every year, but haven't had swallowtails since 2018.

 

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, June 10, 2021 at 6:53 am | Edit
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Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.

— C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 6, 2021 at 8:17 am | Edit
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Lawyers aren't very popular among the people I know, and even in general are more often maligned and mocked than almost any group of people—except maybe dead white males. I am one of those who frequently rail against lawyers because our increasingly litigious society has robbed us of the ability to make rational risk/benefit assessments, be it in childrearing, schools, medical decisions, playground equipment, government regulations, corporate policy, or almost anything else. 

There certainly are bad actors in law, as there are in any field of endeavor. Perhaps the legal profession is at more risk of this than most, given the combination of great power and lots of money to be made. But following the Viva Frei vlawg (law-themed video blog) has made me aware of a very important truth:

The only way to fight bad lawyers is with good lawyers.

It is perilous to mock the professions that stand between us and the disintegration of society, from the policeman on his beat to the Supreme Court justice. That we do so reflects the relative security of our lives—a high form of privilege.

This video (11 minutes), one of several chronicling the defamation lawsuit of Project Veritas against the New York Times, illustrates how lengthy, difficult, and often tedious the process has become. A few bad apples aside, maybe lawyers are earning their hefty fees after all.

Yesterday's video (16 minutes) has an update to the case—the next tedious step—which you can see by clicking on that link. I chose to embed the earlier one as more illustrative, and especially because of the quotation at the end, from George MacDonald, one of my favorite authors. I tend to fast forward over the repetitious stuff after the main story, instead of merely closing the video, because I almost always like David Freiheit's choice of quotations at the very end. In this video, MacDonald is slightly misquoted, but the meaning is unchanged. The correct version, from The Marquis of Lossie, is below.

To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, June 3, 2021 at 11:42 am | Edit
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"Who Is in Control? The Need to Rein in Big Tech," from this past January's Imprimis magazine, deserves mention here. It's not one I would normally republish, not because I don't agree with it, but because the author is the senior technology correspondent for Breitbart News.  He has the credentials to be heard, but Breitbart's biases make me as wary as CNN's do, and I know many of my left-leaning readers would see that and stop reading.

Don't. Please don't. What he has to say about the uncontrolled power of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, and the like should concern everyone. Right now, it's conservatives who are feeling the flex of Big Tech's muscles, but the tech leaders could easily turn around and bite the hands that are currently feeding them. If you believe in freedom and democracy at all, this is worth reading and pondering.

Like most Europeans, my son-in-law, who is Swiss as well as American, has always wondered why I am so afraid of the misuse of governmental power, and not concerned about Google. I, in turn, don't understand how he can be so worried about tech companies while having no problem with a level of government surveillance and interference that would shock most Americans. I still think he's wrong not to be worried about excessive power in governmental hands, but I have to admit that he's right about Big Tech.

My response used to be, "Who cares if Google uses my data to target ads? I just ignore them, as I've always done with ads in newspapers (I usually don't even notice them) and on television." But that was then. That was before Facebook took down my 9/11 memorial post because it included a photo of Saddam Hussein. That was before it became obvious that Facebook was troubled by posts that even hinted that they might be about COVID-19. (Click image to enlarge.)

That was before I noticed how much Facebook and YouTube censor viewpoints they don't like. How careful one must be not to run afoul of their "algorithms." And certainly before Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon proved that they are powerful enough to shut down the president of the United States, as well as a service (Parler) that welcomed Donald Trump's participation.

This may look as if it's about politics. It's not. It's about power. And it threatens everyone on every part of the political spectrum.

In January, when every major Silicon Valley tech company permanently banned the President of the United States from its platform, there was a backlash around the world. One after another, government and party leaders—many of them ideologically opposed to the policies of President Trump—raised their voices against the power and arrogance of the American tech giants. These included the President of Mexico, the Chancellor of Germany, the government of Poland, ministers in the French and Australian governments, the neoliberal center-right bloc in the European Parliament, the national populist bloc in the European Parliament, the leader of the Russian opposition ... and the Russian government.

Common threats create strange bedfellows. Socialists, conservatives, nationalists, neoliberals, autocrats, and anti-autocrats may not agree on much, but they all recognize that the tech giants have accumulated far too much power. None like the idea that a pack of American hipsters in Silicon Valley can, at any moment, cut off their digital lines of communication.

It is important to remember that the Web, as we know it today—a network of websites accessed through browsers—was not the first online service ever created. In the 1990s, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the technology that underpins websites and web browsers, creating the Web as we know it today. But there were other online services, some of which predated Berners-Lee’s invention. Corporations like CompuServe and Prodigy ran their own online networks in the 1990s—networks that were separate from the Web and had access points that were different from web browsers. These privately-owned networks were open to the public, but CompuServe and Prodigy owned every bit of information on them and could kick people off their networks for any reason.

...[T]he Web was different. No one owned it, owned the information on it, or could kick anyone off. That was the idea, at least, before the Web was captured by a handful of corporations.

We all know their names: Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon. Like Prodigy and CompuServe back in the ’90s, they own everything on their platforms, and they have the police power over what can be said and who can participate. But it matters a lot more today than it did in the ’90s. Back then, very few people used online services. Today everyone uses them—it is practically impossible not to use them. Businesses depend on them. News publishers depend on them. Politicians and political activists depend on them. And crucially, citizens depend on them for information.

Ah, the early days. We were early Prodigy users, and GEnie, before the Internet took off. Those were the days when it was easy to interact with famous people, because it was all so new and the numbers were small. GEnie's Education RoundTable was a great resource in our early days of homeschooling, and there I met Bobbi Pournelle, wife of science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle. We even arranged to meet when she came to Orlando, as did other of my ERT acquaintances. That was before we were warned against having meet-ups with people we only knew online, and it was a good deal of fun.

Big Tech has become the most powerful election-influencing machine in American history. It is not an exaggeration to say that if the technologies of Silicon Valley are allowed to develop to their fullest extent, without any oversight or checks and balances, then we will never have another free and fair election. But the power of Big Tech goes beyond the manipulation of political behavior. As one of my Facebook sources told me ... “We have thousands of people on the platform who have gone from far right to center in the past year, so we can build a model from those people and try to make everyone else on the right follow the same path.” Let that sink in. They don’t just want to control information or even voting behavior—they want to manipulate people’s worldview.

Consider “quality ratings.” Every Big Tech platform has some version of this, though some of them use different names. The quality rating is what determines what appears at the top of your search results, or your Twitter or Facebook feed, etc. It’s a numerical value based on what Big Tech’s algorithms determine in terms of “quality.” In the past, this score was determined by criteria that were somewhat objective: if a website or post contained viruses, malware, spam, or copyrighted material, that would negatively impact its quality score. If a video or post was gaining in popularity, the quality score would increase. Fair enough. Over the past several years, however—and one can trace the beginning of the change to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016—Big Tech has introduced all sorts of new criteria into the mix that determines quality scores. Today, the algorithms on Google and Facebook have been trained to detect “hate speech,” “misinformation,” and “authoritative” (as opposed to “non-authoritative”) sources. Algorithms analyze a user’s network, so that whatever users follow on social media—e.g., “non-authoritative” news outlets—affects the user’s quality score. Algorithms also detect the use of language frowned on by Big Tech—e.g.,“illegal immigrant” (bad) in place of “undocumented immigrant” (good)—and adjust quality scores accordingly. And so on.This is not to say that you are informed of this or that you can look up your quality score. All of this happens invisibly. It is Silicon Valley’s version of the social credit system overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. As in China, if you defy the values of the ruling elite or challenge narratives that the elite labels “authoritative,” your score will be reduced and your voice suppressed. And it will happen silently, without your knowledge.

If Big Tech’s capabilities are allowed to develop unchecked and unregulated, these companies will eventually have the power not only to suppress existing political movements, but to anticipate and prevent the emergence of new ones. This would mean the end of democracy as we know it, because it would place us forever under the thumb of an unaccountable oligarchy.

The author does have a suggestion, and I think it sounds reasonable. (I know my audience will not hesitate to let me know if I've missed something.) Some may think that I am against government regulation, but that's not true. I'm against unreasonable government regulation. (For my purposes, I get to define "unreasonable.") Most especially I am against regulations that fail to distinguish between large entities (in business, agriculture, education, medicine, and the like) and the small and individual. I don't know how to quantify "large enough" to need special regulation, but I have no doubt that our tech giants have crossed that line.

All of Big Tech’s power comes from their content filters—the filters on “hate speech,” the filters on “misinformation,” the filters that distinguish “authoritative” from “non-authoritative” sources, etc. Right now these filters are switched on by default. We as individuals can’t turn them off. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The most important demand we can make of lawmakers and regulators is that Big Tech be forbidden from activating these filters without our knowledge and consent. They should be prohibited from doing this—and even from nudging us to turn on a filter—under penalty of losing their Section 230 immunity as publishers of third party content. This policy should be strictly enforced, and it should extend even to seemingly nonpolitical filters like relevance and popularity. Anything less opens the door to manipulation.

I cannot say it strongly enough:  This is not a left-wing thing; this is not a right-wing thing. This is a big thing. A thing we must all come to grips with.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 1, 2021 at 6:49 am | Edit
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