The Process of Moral Changes

When I was younger version of myself, after having finally filled to the brim a hefty CD binder with all the best that music had to offer, the historic movement from CD to mp3 occurred, rendering such a collection all but useless. And so too did the process of purchasing make a fundamental shift. Instead of going to the store and looking through their selection of CDs, possibly taking a chance and buying something you did not all-too-well know, you suddenly found yourself inundated with the world of online music, and all of it from the comfort of your own home.

It was not very long before my annual spending on music plummeted from a relatively big number to zero. Music was online, instantly reproducible, and unregulated, so as a consequence all but the least tech-savvy of my cohorts and I downloaded it illegally and with ease. In those days, I did not think much about morality, although some part of my subconscious must have known something was wrong, as I often found myself justifying the act not only to others, but to myself.1)Such justifications are usually signs that you have a cognitive dissonance! “I’ll just listen to all of the songs to see if the album is worth it, and if so, I’ll buy it.” Never happened, but it sounds nice. Then there were: “Music is a digital good, which has both no marginal production cost” (and therefore entails no loss when stolen), or: “music is a non-excludable good” (my stealing it does not prevent anyone else from accessing it, whereas a CD in a store does), or: “I wouldn’t have purchased the music anyway” (so there is no loss for the company, but there is the positive value I get from it, a net win), or: “Humans have a right to culture” (so therefore I am under no obligation to pay, and in fact, am a moral crusader for the public good), et cetera and ad nauseam.

Needless to say, I no longer consume music this way, but know a surprising number of people who steal digital media and have no qualms with it, who would, however, judge the stealing of physical media in a store to be abhorrent. Can the physicality of the object or the method of distribution play the deciding role in the ethics of the situation? I think the most likely explanation which accounts for this phenomenon is that a change in technology has caused a change in morality, or at least how we respond to a moral question, instead of us deciding based on the relevant moral aspects of the situation alone. In other words, instead of taking an ethical stance on an issue (e.g. it is generally wrong to steal) and then applying it in an actual situation, the perhaps all too human response is almost the exact converse: wait for a change in the world, in this example, the ease of stealing music online and the lack of infrastructure to prevent theft, and then backfill a moral stance that is advantageous to the new situation. In other words: I claim it is the sheer ease with which one can steal music that is the driving factor of people’s willingness to call it a moral, or perhaps amoral act. People in a physical store cannot get away with stealing very easily and there is a large risk associated with doing so. Imagine a situation with these factors removed: there are no cameras, alarms, or guards at clothing stores and if you did somehow get caught, the penalty would be trivial. I believe that not only would many more people steal from stores, but would have little to no moral qualms about doing so, adjusting their conscience to the facts of the day.

This is important because it should make us realize that our moral compasses, which we normally hold to objectively guide us unwaveringly to The Moral, are subject to failure simply due to the arbitrary circumstances of the times. Instead of looking at the situation and taking a moral position given the facts, a type of world change (e.g. technological) puts us in a new situation where we need to form a moral opinion, and we often do so by only considering our self interest, although we are likely unaware of it, as is the case with downloading media illegally. This phenomenon can have vast, negative consequences.

Consider a much more grave issue: slavery in the United States. In 1860, over 25% of households had slaves in states where slavery was legal. We often look back at that time with horror, and are pretty sure we would not have had slaves ourselves. To most everyone, it is an obvious fact. But is it not plausible that this issue was not on the moral horizon at all, and that slave owners happily rationalized their misdeeds away? How else can we explain phenomena like the proposal of the “mental illness” drapetomania, which a medical physician in the time of slavery in the United States put forth as a theory to account for the fact that many slaves wanted to run away – they must have been crazy. Can you imagine a mind, and that of a doctor nonetheless, that could not conceive of the fact that slaves might prefer not to be in bondage? And yet it took a civil war, an outside force, to put an end to the terrible practice, at least in the United States. Now, in the 21st century, we are of course sure that we personally would not have been found among the slaveholders. With the distance so great and our personal interest so little, we can confidently and easily make this claim. It evokes the oft-cited and yet powerful quote by Schopenhauer:

All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as self-evident.2)Original German: Alle Wahrheit durchläuft drei Stufen. Zuerst wird sie lächerlich gemacht oder verzerrt. Dann wird sie bekämpft. Und schließlich wird sie als selbstverständlich angenommen.

The question is not, however, what things in the past were wrong and right – as we have just seen, these are often easy to sort out through the simplifying lens of hindsight. The question is rather: what practices do we engage in today which are immoral, but seem moral, due to custom and circumstance? How will people judge these practices 100 years in the future? A related question is: once we believe was have a sufficiently justified moral stance, what is the best way to implement such a change? These questions eat up a lot of my precious time and are the reason I made you read all of the words up to now.

For years I thought that, given a well enough presented argument, people would change their minds on a given issue. It is not that I think that this pursuit is fruitless (indeed, it would render that which I am now undertaking futile), but I no longer believe it to be a very effective method. Instead, as stated above, I believe economic or technological changes to be the most effective way to make moral changes. This seems unfortunate, as it takes to a large degree human agency out of the morality equation, but seems nevertheless true. Consider a concrete example, one close to my heart: vegetarianism.

I think that most modern day issues have a level of complexity never before seen and that almost all issues have extensive pro and con lists that makes the forming of an absolute moral position extremely difficult, but with vegetarianism the case seems very clear to anyone who has done a modicum of research and who is willing to hear arguments on the matter.3)I plan to write about this topic in the future, so I will not lay out an argument here, but Ethics philosopher Peter Singer’s already 25 year old paper “All Animals Are Equal*” is a good start for the uninformed. I believe being vegetarian to be one of if not the most effective way for the average human to make a difference in the world, whether your concern is the billions 4)It is often easy to get lost in abstraction with large numbers. As Stalin famously said: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” Consider the richness and profundity of your life: past, present, and future. Now imagine the systematic snuffing out of that whole life, one million times, and one thousand times that same process, every single year. (with a “b”) of animals that suffer and die under extremely horrible circumstances each year, climate change due to greenhouse gases, world hunger (as it takes more food to raise animals for consumption than it does to eat the food directly), or water scarcity. And I ask you, if none of those things listed concern you, what does?

Despite all of this, I believe the big wave of change to vegetarianism will come not from persuasion and outreach, although, they are effective to some degree and therefore worthwhile approaches. I believe, rather, that in the not-too-distant future, lab-grown meat will become ubiquitous and, not subject to the massive infrastructure and process costs incurred by standard meat production, will be significantly cheaper than “real” meat. I think, like most technological changes, people will be skeptical at first, but the sheer market forces of the situation will eventually drive the decision to lab-grown meat, with which the horrid factory farming system of today simply will not be able to compete. The next generation of humans will fulfill Schopenhauer’s expectations, and, distanced from the everydayness of meat consumption, shake their fingers so condescendingly and so confidently at the past, claiming our treatment of and apathy toward animals under the system of factory farming in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to be among our darkest days. It will be a frustrating and yet joyful time to be alive.

I do not expect to have changed your mind about a topic here, but I hope to have raised your awareness of the potentiality of self-serving stances on moral issues to some degree as well as to the possibility that our moral positions come not from within, but are in some sense determined by our environment, and that that fact demands that we consciously observe and reflect upon our moral decisions in our everyday goings on. As always, I would love to hear any comments or criticisms.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Such justifications are usually signs that you have a cognitive dissonance!
2. Original German: Alle Wahrheit durchläuft drei Stufen. Zuerst wird sie lächerlich gemacht oder verzerrt. Dann wird sie bekämpft. Und schließlich wird sie als selbstverständlich angenommen.
3. I plan to write about this topic in the future, so I will not lay out an argument here, but Ethics philosopher Peter Singer’s already 25 year old paper “All Animals Are Equal*” is a good start for the uninformed.
4. It is often easy to get lost in abstraction with large numbers. As Stalin famously said: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” Consider the richness and profundity of your life: past, present, and future. Now imagine the systematic snuffing out of that whole life, one million times, and one thousand times that same process, every single year.

Beauty in Complexity – Expressibility in Language

A common view about language held today is that all languages have the same expressibility. That is to say, if you can express something in one language, then you can express it equally in another. I think the acceptance of this viewpoint has to do with the rise of pluralism, as people no longer wish to make “my language is better than yours” claims for fear of being seen as an imperialist, who wishes to impose their will upon others. Further, there is an intuitive notion that we are all saying the same things, just using different words to do so. And yet, differences in expressibility between languages seem easy to produce. I will present a few such cases in German, Chinese, and English and show how they not only reveal differences in expressibility, but how out of this expressibility the possibility for beauty arises, where it otherwise could not have.

German

German is, in most aspects, more complex than English (with one large exception, which we will come to later). One such complexity is in German’s grammar. As one example, where English just has the so-called definite article “the”, German has man different options, depending on:

This complexity can be summed up in the following table.

German's definite articles compared to English's

German’s definite articles compared to English’s

There are similar (and even more complicated!) rules for indefinite articles (e.g. “a”), adjectives, etc.

So what is the point here? Why does this complexity exist? Well, in any language you need some way to be able to communicate what it is that you are trying to say. That is, after all, the point of language. To take a very simple example of what I mean, let us say that you want to express the idea that your friend is feeding his dog. That is the underlying, language-independent proposition that you are trying to communicate, and you would like to do it in English. You might build the following sentence to communicate this idea:

My friend is feeding the dog.

In German, you could similarly form the sentence:

Mein Freund füttert den Hund.

In German, due to its complexity, you have yet another option:

Den Hund füttert mein Freund.

Here, we moved “the dog” (den Hund) to the beginning of the sentence, but in German there is absolutely no confusion as to who is being fed, like there would be if we put the English:

The dog is feeding my friend.

German communicates who is doing what through the inflection, or alteration, of the various words in the sentence. The “den” in “den Hund” shows that the dog is the receiver of the feeding, so it does not really matter where we put it in the sentence – we already got the signal of which role it plays in the sentence. English does this mainly through a somewhat fixed word order. This allows German to be extremely flexible with its word order in a way that English cannot be. In fact, every single aspect of a sentence with the exception of the main verb can come at the beginning of a German sentence, so the sentence:

I have already gone with her to the movies this month.

can be written in German as:

I have already gone with her to the movies this month.

Already I have gone with her to the movies this month.

Gone I have with her to the movies this month.

With her I have gone to the movies this month.

To the movies I have gone with her this month.

This month I have gone with her to the movies.

You really get a choice as to which aspect of the sentence you want to stress. Poets often use such structures in English when they want express something in a different way. Germans can do this by just carrying out a normal conversation. Without this complexity of grammar, such sentences could not exist.

Chinese

Chinese, on the other hand, has an extremely simple grammar. You don’t conjugate or inflect any aspect of the language. If you want to say:

Yesterday she gave me a book.

you say something like:

Yesterday (he or she, unspecified) to give I book.

You do not need to put “give” in the past tense, since the presence of “yesterday” tells you it already took place. You do not need to know if it is a he or a she unless you want to specify, and you do not need to change “I” to “me” to show that you are receiving the action. Further, you do not need to say whether or not if it is “a book”, “the book” or even specify whether or not it is one book or many.

However, Chinese has two complexities which English and German do not really have: tonality of language and a complex character system.

At the end of an English sentence, if you are are excited or surprised, you might express it not fully through words, but also with the tonality of your speech. Say “REALLY???” out loud. The pitch of your voice probably went up, from low to high. We use tones like this in a limited set of situations to change the expressive content of our words. In Chinese, each word has one of four such toneswhich allows the language to be very rich in a way it otherwise could not have been. It also gives the language a very musical aspect and it has even been shown that tonal language speakers might learn instruments more easily than their non-tonal counterparts.

Chinese also has a complex writing system with tens of thousands of distinct characters. This makes writing and reading extremely difficult, but as we have seen in other cases, this complexity allows for increased expressibility. In a Chinese course I took, we often had to draw a set of characters to gain practice writing and recognizing characters. Often the teacher collected my paper, looked puzzled for a second, and then suggested I make a couple of changes. In her head, certain characters that I had drawn were unbalanced. In my head, my character looked just like the example I had copied from, but to her something was not quite right. She had access to a level of beauty and composition that I simply do not have. If the content or meaning of the character were just a word translation, which in that moment I knew, we would have had the same idea in our heads. But is it not clear that my teacher and I perceived two very different things?

English

One richness of English that I never appreciated until speaking with many non native speakers is its phonetic complexity. English is composed from many different languages and it has, as a result, many different pronunciation systems within it. Words of French origin are pronounced in a French-like way, words of Germanic in a Germanic-like way, and so on. This is a very difficult aspect of English to master. Here is a part of a humorous poem designed to illustrate this complexity:

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
   Just compare heart, hear and heard,
   Dies and diet, lord and word.

Notice that “heart”, “hear”, and “heard” all have different vowel sounds, despite being orthographically very similar. Notice how “word” rhymes with “heard”, even though the vowels are totally different.

As you probably expect by now, I want to say that this complexity provides for the possibility of certain types of beauty. As an example of this beauty, many authors and poets have written literature that just uses one English vowel. In his anthology, Eunoia, for example, Christian Bök uses just one vowel in each chapter. Despite this restriction, the language has a tonal flow that could not have been possible if it were not for the fact that one vowel can take on many different sounds. A translation of this work into other languages is literally impossible, since part of the content of the propositions are in their form. 

Of course, not all beauty arises out of complexity. Sometimes it is simplicity that appears to us to be beautiful, such as the symmetry of faces. But, as we have seen, it is also the case that certain types of beauty arise only out of complexity. If one language contains such beauty and another does not, how can we claim they are both expressing the exact same content? I hope to have convinced you that, at least for some cases, we cannot.

Clickbait Killer – An App I Wrote to Remove Clickbait Spam from Facebook

If you have had a Facebook account for the past year or so, you couldn’t have missed the phenomenon that is clickbait. I was so annoyed by this that I wrote a small Chrome extension named “Clickbait Killer” that filtered out such garbage from my feed so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I’ve released it so that you too can use it, should you so choose. You can find out more information on the Clickbait Killer page.

But what is clickbait, and why is it annoying? Clickbait is the use of hyperbolic and sensationalist content that lures (the “bait” part) users into clicking (the “click” part) to see more. The owners of the visited sites just want to rake in revenue from advertising placed on their pages. Actual content plays second fiddle to phrases that have been algorithmically shown to generate the most clicks.

One popular form of clickbait is the “X Reasons Why” list. As an example, I typed “14 Reasons Why” into a Google search, and got the following article as a result: 14 Scientific Reasons Why Bacon Is Really F*cking Good For You Notice the use of words like “Scientific” “Really” and “F*cking”. These are all attempts to get you to click on the article, regardless of what it contains. The first few paragraphs, if not the whole article, are generally very low content. The authors know how search engines work, and place certain keywords in the hopes that their article rises the Google search engine ranks. If someone searches for “is bacon good for me?”, for example, this anything-but-scientific article may pop up since it has all of the right words. That increases the chances the user clicks on this article, which in turn generates more money for the business.

Is there anything more satisfying, alluring or mouth-watering than bacon? A sizzling pan of bacon brightens the cloudiest of mornings; it’s the golden ticket to a perfect day. Everything good starts (and, realistically, ends) with bacon. – What is the actual content here?

Another morally worrying aspect of clickbait is that the linked-to articles are often content that is simply relinked from elsewhere, which may have been itself relinked. Check out this example I saw today on my Facebook feed (also, notice the hyperbolic domain “thisblewmymind.com” – a sign that you are in for some clickbait): http://www.thisblewmymind.com/passengers-on-plane-whip-out-their-phones-the-minute-these-elderly-men-do-this/ This site hired someone to find an already viral video, add some intro text that helps them increase their numbers, and repackage the content as their own.

At least in this case the original content owner got views on their Youtube page. In many other cases content is taken with no attribution back to the original author.
An excellent New Yorker article, that I highly recommend (if you can stomach it), tells the sordid tale of a chain of content stealing:

At the bottom of a Dose post, there is usually a small “hat tip” (abbreviated as “H/T”). Many people don’t notice this citation, if they even reach the bottom of the post. On Dose’s first day of existence, its most successful list was called “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” It was a clever illustration of global diversity and inequity: an American truck driver holding a tray of cheeseburgers and Starbucks Frappuccinos; a Maasai woman posing with eight hundred calories’ worth of milk and porridge. Beneath the final photograph, a line of tiny gray text read “H/T Elite Daily.” It linked to a post that Elite Daily, a Web site based in New York, had published a month earlier (“See the Incredible Differences in the Daily Food Intake of People Around the World”). That post, in turn, had linked to UrbanTimes (“80 People, 30 Countries and How Much They Eat on a Daily Basis”), which had credited Amusing Planet (“What People Eat Around the World”), which had cited a 2010 radio interview with Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, the writer and the photographer behind the project.

The article goes on to mention that the actual content creators invested 1 million dollars and 4 years of their lives creating this portfolio of images and are now trying to sell books and license their images in an attempt to recoup some of the money. Instead, the money for the content goes to the chain of clickbait sites who have taken the images illegally and immorally.

As I have mentioned before, it seems like calculated advertising is replacing content in more and more areas of life, and I find it very troublesome. Clickbait is a clear example of this and perhaps its highest incarnation. Instead of focusing on creating content that people enjoy and find meaningful, these companies use math and psychology to maximize revenue, often at the expense of actual content creators and disappointed users.

As always, I am interested to hear your ideas on this topic. As a reminder, you can download my app on the Clickbait Killer Project Page or download the source code on my Github page.

The Problems of Pluralism

The following seems to occur more and more often in my life: I am in a social situation and a morally substantial issue is raised, such as animal rights or the role advertising should play in society. I have thought about both of these topics at length and feel I have a lot to contribute to a meaningful conversation, but that is often not what I get. When raised, someone either very quickly makes a joke (e.g. “But bacon”, “More meat for me”) or they attempt a couple of arguments and then in the face of a counter-argument utter something like Well, listen. You do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do, as if to further the conversation would be a violation of their rights or that our positions should both be considered equal and undecidable. This is the ultimate pluralistic statement, and the conversation has to end here. It is extremely common and it is extremely disappointing.

Pluralism, the idea of a society’s recognition of everyone’s different lifestyles, interests, convictions, values, etc., has its roots in an intuitive (to Modernity) notion: No one should be able to control you or force you to do things. You are no longer under control of a king who dictates the bounds of your freedom. You are no longer a serf or a slave who works the land, subservient to the will of others. With the Enlightenment came individualism. These all sound like good things, and to a large extent they are. I argue, however, that our modern version of pluralism goes too far, and impoverishes our democracy, our understanding of one another, and our personal morality.

A little background: Political theorists have historically struggled with two intuitive concepts: rights and “the good”. Rights are the things that persons have that cannot be taken away for any reason (theoretically). You just have them by virtue of the fact that you are a person, and no one should be able to violate them.

The philosophical notion of “the good” or “the good life” is more abstract. It is that thing that a government strives to provide for its people, and what people want to provide for their families. People have different definitions of what the good is, and that causes serious debates. People’s different conceptions of the good have come into conflict with each other throughout history and the story usually ends with the strong person/land imposing their will on the weaker.

People have been arguing over rights and the good for a long time now. Some believe that the good has a priority over the right, such as the utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham. This means that if you go back and time before World War II you are morally obligated to kill Hitler given the chance, because the good of the many takes the precedence over the rights of the one. Seems easy enough. It also means, however, that if you as a healthy person go to the doctor for a checkup, and you have 5 organs which 5 other dying patients urgently need, that the doctor is justified (indeed, required!) in killing you to save the others. Seems wrong. “What about our right to live?” we want to say.

Others, such as Immanuel Kant, have thought that the right has absolute priority over the good. It does not matter what the circumstances are, you have your rights. That means you must not shoot Hitler and you are safe at the doctor’s. “I can live with that”, you might say. But imagine that a crazy person hijacked a plane you are on and is about to kill all of the passengers, including him- or herself. Can’t you stop them by killing them? I mean, they die in either case. No, says Kant and thinkers like him: they have a right to live and you cannot take that away, no matter what the circumstances are. Doesn’t seem so good now.

Okay – I always try to sneak in a bit of philosophy into my posts, and that is probably enough for this time, and a good refresher from this post. Back to the main point: Over the past couple hundred years, with the goal of avoiding oppression from peoples and governments, we have seen more “right over the good” type theories. This, in addition to increases in market and capitalistic thinking, have caused the tabling of many discussions of the good life, with the idea that we all have the right to do whatever we want without reference to any particular good and that markets will non-judgmentally decide the outcome of moral questions. This has led to a very pluralistic attitude toward morals and values: to each his or her own. You think prostitution is wrong? Well, don’t do it – but let buyers and sellers in that market do what they want. Think abortion is wrong? Well, don’t do it – but don’t tell others that they shouldn’t. As Michael Sandel, political philosopher, claims, this type of hands-off framework, leads to a very impoverished democracy. It makes discussions of moral questions seem superfluous, as all values have the illusion of being equal.

I strongly believe moral issues such as these should be able to be discussed and further, should be discussed, even if should is a dirty word these days. Consider my example of animal rights presented at the beginning of this piece. When I engage on the topic, people usually say pretty early on “you do what you want to do, and I’ll do what I want to do”. The implicit clause of this argument is “our decisions on this matter are morally equal.” or “This isn’t a moral issue at all.” or “I have a right to do what I want, even the right to not consider what is moral and what isn’t.” But do you have the right to ignore a moral argument in the face of good argumentation? Does a slavery advocate have the right to ignore anti-slavery arguments? Are the positions on slavery morally equal? Moral questions don’t go away just because we do not talk about them, and not all moral positions are equal. Sandel argues that the rise in religious extremism could be partially a result of our unwillingness to engage in moral debates. When everyone takes a passive approach to morality, it allows those with extreme opinions at the fringes to push through and take a bigger piece of the pie. Regardless of the truth of this claim, I believe we as a society need to engage more with moral questions and should feel safe raising such issues, even if and especially if they are controversial. When we are afraid of offending others by broaching a moral issue or when we brush off moral argumentation as “to each his or her own”, we passively assert a falsity: that all moral positions are created equal.

Calculated Experience

Years ago, I was hanging out with a group of friends, one of which brought up a joke he had recently seen online. Although the content of the joke would probably make this, the second sentence of this post, much more interesting, I have to say I can’t remember it. And the joke isn’t really the point. The point was the almost everyone in the group had already seen the exact same joke online. The joke was posted on Reddit, a popular news aggregation site where people can up- and downvote issues as they see fit. I remember thinking to myself (and I think saying out loud), that it was incredible that among the millions of jokes that are posted every single day online, this group of people had all seen the exact same one. This post you are reading has been in the back of my head ever since.

In more and more areas of life, at least it seems to me, experiences are being quantified according to a formula and then spit back out to users, sorted accordingly. I say “experiences of life” because I can’t think of a better phrase that accounts for the broadness of such disparate items as “knowledge”, “current events”, “music”, and “film”, just to name a few. Instead of a user having to make a conscious decision as to what they want to experience online, the answer is just given to them. Maybe some examples will clear up what I mean.

  • You go to Reddit.com and naturally start at the top of the page – this is where the most highly rated items of the day are. Since they were the most highly rated by other users, chances are you will find the item good as well. You read the description, decide it is good enough, and click the link. Now you see the most highly rated comment of the thread and view comments in this order until you get tired of the thread.
  • You are having a party and use Spotify, a music application. You type in “party music” and see already created playlists. You click the first or second playlist and your party is ready to go.
  • You are on Netflix, a movie streaming application, and you want to watch a new movie. Movies are presented to you based on a complicated rating system, including feedback based on what you have watched and liked in the past. You pick one that is a relatively good match.
  • You log into Facebook and have the default “Top Stories” mode selected, in which you see stories presented in an order based on Facebook’s algorithm for “top”. From Facebook: “, it uses factors such as how many friends are commenting on a post to aggregate content that you’ll find interesting. It displays stories based on their relevance, rather than in chronological order.

This list could obviously go on and on. It goes without saying that these services provide benefits to society, but I think there are some troubling aspects that one could raise about such systems and how they could affect society as a whole:

  • More and more people access the exact same information from the same sources. At a micro level you are probably going to find information that you find interesting. At a macro level, the chances are slimmer that you will come across someone with a different viewpoint than you. You have been consuming the same information as others, so the exchange of information between two parties will be lower. Instead of everyone being able to contribute a unique, nuanced perspective on a complicated issue, you are more likely to hear just a couple of points, and likely ones you have already heard and ones you may have given yourself.
  • The information people know will be highly stratified. When you do encounter someone who has a different opinion than you, then chances of a meaningful discussion being possible are lower. You subscribe to “RightWingNews.com” on Facebook and you and thousands of other subscribers comment on the posts, all confirming ideas you all thought yesterday. You encounter someone who subscribed to “LeftWingNews.com” who did the same. You both think the other side is just saying gibberish. How could this not be the case? The information you have allowed yourself to consume is highly stratified and never challenges you to think in a different way from the exact way you already think, which you are already sure is the right way (If you are stuck inside of a system, how could it be the wrong way?).
  • There is a certain loss of agency in giving up the choice to make a conscious decision. If an algorithm is deciding for you, you aren’t deciding. When I was younger, going to get a new CD was a big, fun decision and after the purchase I listened to each song on the CD over and over. I don’t do that anymore. If I hear any sort of self-generated mix it is usually the best hit from each of the best artists in a particular genre. I don’t hear the other songs from the artist that aren’t the “best” and I don’t hear from the “non-best” bands. Music touches me less directly. I think it is a shame. Imagine an ice cream flavor machine choosing your flavor for you at the store. It determined that most people that day liked chocolate and so everyone, including you, gets chocolate. It tastes pretty good. You eat it and you go home.

What can we do to combat problems like this? Improvise – do things you don’t normally do. Read a newspaper from a publisher that you have never read before. Read a site that has the exact opposite view on an issue you have an opinion about. Go into a bookstore and buy a book you didn’t read an Amazon review for on a topic that you think is interesting but have never explored. Ask someone who you don’t usually talk to about music what they have been listening to lately. Hit the “Random article” button in Wikipedia and follow the links down the rabbit hole. Tell me other ideas you have!

 

 

On Advertising

I wanted to name this article “Why I hate (almost) all advertising”, but I figured many less people would click on it as the position seems very extreme. And maybe my position on the matter is extreme, but of course that in and of itself does not necessarily make it wrong. I think we have gone morally and intellectually way off course with advertising.

In this article, I hope to outline a brief history of advertising, where I think it has gone wrong, and where I think it is (wrongly) going in the future. I hope to make a compelling argument that convinces more than zero people to move slightly in the direction of agreeing with me, something that I think is hard to do nowadays. Even if people strongly disagree, I welcome any conversation on the topic. Anyway, my attempt…

A Brief History of Advertising

According to Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, America saw its first paid newspaper advertisements in the early 1704. Two such advertisements took the form of a Wanted ad for the capture of a thief and the renting of a plot of land. These and other such advertisements during Postman’s “Age of Exposition” and what I will call “Phase 1 of Advertising” were predicated on the fact that the customers were literate, rational, and analytical. The advertisements actually made claims about their products.

During “Phase 2”, which Postman describes well in the following quote, we see a dramatic shift:

As late as 1980, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form. Advertising was, as Stephen Douglas said in another context, intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions. This is not to say that during the period of typographic display, the claims that were put forward were true. Words cannot guarantee their truth content. Rather, they assemble a context in which the question, ‘Is this true or false?’, is relevant.

Postman goes on to say that this is the time during which America saw its first illustrations in advertising in addition to the use of slogans (e.g. “You press the button; we do the rest.”) This is followed by jingles and rhymes. Postman adds:

By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory.

It is hard to disagree with Postman here, even today. Almost no commercial today, written or televised, assumes consumer rationality. Many state no facts about the product or service to be sold, but instead rely upon emotional appeal. While heavily utilized throughout the past 100 years, I believe this phase is starting to be eclipsed by a new, socially and politically motivated breed of advertising. This form puts the product or service being peddled in the extreme background and relies upon the consumer agreeing to an ideology to make the sale. I call this Phase 3, and will describe the dangers of this as well as Phase 2 below.

What is wrong with Advertising?

Advertising in and of itself does not seem morally ambiguous. In fact, what I have described as Phase 1 above seems to be perfectly fine. If the advertisement makes you aware of a brand and does so in an honest way, then there seems to be nothing wrong (One could argue, that advertisements being everywhere in the modern world could be seen as wrong – in this article I hope to only discuss within the context of a given advertisement). What does it mean to be honest? This is where Phase 2 of advertising goes wrong. Postman’s claim that advertising in this period often contains no truth propositional content seems hardly debatable. Remember, this means that the content of the advertisement can be true or false. As an example “Fords are the safest automobile as rated by X” can be either true or false. “Just do it” or “Obey your thirst” have no truth propositional content and are thus empty: they tell you nothing of the product and make no actual claim that can be verified.

Commercials of this era often do not attempt to claim anything at all and often rely on emotional appeal to sell a product. A great example is from Fancy Feast:

What have you learned about Fancy Feast in this commercial? Absolutely nothing. Further, the brand scores particularly low compared to other cat foods. This does not faze most people I talk to, probably because this type of marketing is so rampant that they expect it and only hope to be entertained. When people talk about and spread a commercial like this because of the emotional appeal (marriage, love, cute cat), the emotional content crowds out any need for propositional content. As a result, successful companies become not those that produce the best cat food, but those that produce the best marketing and/or advertising teams. This is why ALS received a lot of money for the Ice Bucket Challenge even though relatively few people contract ALS and we are nowhere near to a cure: because the advertising and marketing plans for ALS were much better than for other charities (Consider donating at http://www.givewell.org/ to get the most out of your dollar!). Psychological, manipulative tricks are developed and utilized to get you to buy a product, instead of the product relying upon its own merits.

Notice that in Phase 2, the product has receded into the background. The goal is to get you into a mood or feeling and then present to you an often unrelated product, in the hopes that you associate the two in your head. In Phase 3 of Advertising, the product or service recedes possibly even more, and ideology replaces direct emotional appeals. Take, for instance, the following Ax commercial:

Like Phase 2, we see the product only at the very end of the video. But here we see more. At the end of the video we find out something about “Peace One Day” and “Supporting Peace One Day” and we are asked to tweet with #KissForPeace, a phrase that contains the product name in an insidious way; a tweeter might see the phrase and retag it without even being aware of the Axe campaign to sell more Axe. Here we have the new Axe product bound up with notions of patriotism, peace, and love much more directly than in the Fancy Feasts commercial.  We are for peace (who isn’t?) and want to share it with our friends on social media. Fancy Feasts made a cute commercial that reminds one of positive emotions. Axe becomes a symbol of peace.

Another example for Dove:

Here we are told that beauty is on the inside (from a beauty product company!) and want to invest in a campaign to lift women’s feeling of self-worth. Notably, this commercial does not even advertise a specific product, but wants you to form a general positive association with the brand. The product, therefore, has receded into nothingness.

Lately there have been many such “see yourself positively, ladies” advertisements. The feminist that I am feels crushed by the fact that these advertisements are so tricky and serve to sell more products. To me, the fact that they are selling a product compromises the positive message. This is likea really good friend of yours says they heard of a great new plan for you to make money and you later find out that they make more money in the process by selling to you. It is disappointing and deceptive. Here is one for Always, again, no specific product:

Here is one for Verizon:

These have drifted so far from selling any actual product or service that it is almost unbelievable. These videos attempt to convey that these companies understand deep, human emotions and needs, but that is something they can never do, for they compromise their ideals by virtue of the fact that they are selling something. As a result, “I’m lovin’ it” can never say anything about love, no matter how hard it tries.

What Can We Do?

When a problem is so ubiquitous, it can seem overwhelming and fruitless to even try to find a solution. Still, I think we need to do our best. For one example, I think we can learn more about the various tricks that companies employ when creating advertising. A good start is to review some informal fallacies, something that I strongly believe should be taught in high school, if not grade school. These show the various ways that claims can be falsely made (when there is a claim at all! (“Just do it!”). People of all ages that I know seem unaware of the common techniques that advertisers (and politicians, journalists, etc) use to make (unfounded) points. We can think more critically when we see a commercial and analyze what it is trying to convey, instead of simply accepting that commercials can or should be pure entertainment completely divorced from the product or service they are trying to sell.

Democracy and Toilets

Anyone who asks me “What is the worst part about living in Germany?” receives the same response. It is the same thing every time. Hell, anyone who has talked to me for more than 18 seconds in the past year and a half probably knows the answer: Water. I’ve given the explanations hundreds of times, so once more won’t hurt.

You see, I took water for granted in the USA. I would go to a park, visit a museum, go to the doctor, come out of the bathroom in a bookstore and there was a water fountain there pretty much every time. When I wentout to dinner, I was greeted with a large water before even ordering. My glass was refilled throughout the night without even asking. The first time I came to Germany I noticed the change pretty much right off the bat: free water is hard to come by. Water fountains are virtually non-existent. When you go to a restaurant and want a water you can ask for Leitungswasser (“Pipe” water from the tap) and be met with a dirty look or buy a water for your dinner which in pretty much every case costs the same amount as a beer which costs about the same as a soda which costs about the same as a juice: 2-3 Euros which is more like $3-4.5. Sure, the water is seltzer and has minerals in it, but when you drink water constantly like I do, this makes drinking each day an expensive proposition.

People sitting (but not drinking) near the wonderful Bächle that flow through the city of Freiburg.

People sitting (but not drinking) near the wonderful Bächle that flow through the city of Freiburg.

I am in a similar position when I need to go to the bathroom somewhere. If I am in the train station, I need to pay. If I am at a pitstop on the highway to fill up the car, I need to pay. Going to the bathroom is always tied with an economic transaction. In the US in comparison, there are many more places where you can go to the bathroom for free.

For a third example, when I go to the library in Heidelberg and want to check out a Best Seller or a DVD, I have to pay a Euro. When I want to reserve a book, I have to pay a Euro (although I can go to the bathroom for free there). There are, however, other ways to get free books.

“Who cares about water and toilets?” you ask. “If those are your biggest problems with Germany, then it sounds like things are great,” you claim. You would be correct. I only bring this up to illustrate two points: 1) you take aspects of your own culture for granted and more importantly 2) through seemingly trivial decisions such as water distribution systems, a society expresses its care or concern.

What do I mean by care or concern? I am borrowing the term (in German Sorge) from Martin Heidegger, an extremely influential 20th Century philosopher, who was, in his magnum opus Being and Time, interested in finding out what it meant to be a human being, for lack of more complicated terminology. Human beings, even through they are thrown into the world into some social, political, and economic context engage with the world and constantly make decisions based on some sort of concern for the future. For example, I brush my teeth twice a day because 1) it was what I was brought up to do and 2) I want to have good teeth in the future. Outside of right now, I never really reflect on this activity – it is just a part of my life and a concern that I carry with me throughout my life, so to speak.

What I want to say is, the social and technological institutions that a society has reflect its ongoing cares over time. When one looks at these three aspects of German culture: water, public access to restrooms and library access, I think it is easy to see that they express a lack of democracy in these three areas, which I hope to illuminate.

First let me say: I am not trying to attack Germany. I have a more acute awareness of these aspects only because I am an outsider with a different perspective. If I went to any other country I would have a different list. America has its own list (e.g. the Death Penalty) and outsiders of the USA are more acutely aware of the items on that list. The point isn’t really about any specific country but about how a society, through what it does and doesn’t do, reflects their cares, in this case: democracy.

Imagine for one second you are a homeless person and you want to get through your life, just like everyone else. For the homeless, access to water, bathrooms, and books are much more important than they are to me and can make the difference between a constant daily struggle and a much easier life. In this sense, they are democratic institutions that everyone, in my opinion, should have access to. With regard to the homeless in Germany this is a moot point as Germany has a very strong democratic institution for the homeless: every homeless person can get an apartment that is supported by the state if they want one [citation needed, but I believe this is true]. Regardless, the point stands: access to these basic necessities  is harder for everyone when there is a monetary price involved and puts a(nother) barrier between the haves and the have-nots.

I think it would do us all good to reflect more on what our societies are showing us and to try to change things for the better, whatever we think that might be. I think it is also helpful to look at things through a critical lens, even if “too” critical. A good example of this is education in Germany. When you look at the cost here to go to college (around $200 a semester) compared to the USA (thousands upon thousands of dollars) it is laughable and I look at the education here as pretty much free. But that doesn’t stop protestors from thinking that $200 is too damn much and that free is free, $200 isn’t free. Seen from the American perspective, this may look like overdoing it, but to me this is very critical attitude and a leads to a good societal jolt that shows democracy is alive and kicking. I believe we need more movements like this and that people should look more about which cares they are expressing and which they want to express.

If anyone has any other examples of democratic or non-democratic values that a society expresses, I would be very interested to hear and discuss them.

Kant and Crosswalks

In most cities I have been to in Germany, the majority of people who want to cross the street wait when the crosswalk light is red, regardless of if any cars or bikers can be seen down the whole stretch of the road or if it is late at night and no cars are expected to come. They just wait. There are even signs that say something like “Be a role model for children. Wait at a red light.” In contrast,  I would say the majority of people in America (at least in the East Coast) cross the street when they believe it is reasonable, even if the light is red. If there are no cars in plain sight, it is reasonable. If they are late for something, it is reasonable. While this difference between the two lands is seemingly innocuous, I can’t help but think that a deep philosophical difference underpins this phenomenon and others like it.

In broad strokes, there have been two big ethical traditions (excluding a third, Virtue Ethics, that I won’t cover here): Consequentialism, often realized through Utilitarianism, and Deontology. While big words and big ideas, they have relatively straightforward definitions:

Consequentialism is an ethical system where the consequences matter. For example, if someone asks me if a dress looks good, it may be ethically good to lie and say “yes”, because I believe that the consequences (in this case, that the person feels happy) are better than if I had told the truth (the person feels sad). In any kind of system where the consequences matter, we must necessarily make a calculation to determine if our decision is ethical or not. In any calculation, you need some way of valuing the things that are to be calculated. In other words, what exactly does it mean for something to be “worth it”? Utilitarianism is a concrete system of Consequentialism that answers this question through the notion of utility. Utility in this context is the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. Modern economics can be seen through this lens. Economic transactions are good because both parties are better off than they were before, or they wouldn’t have traded. It doesn’t really matter that much what they are trading, the fact that their respective utilities went up is a good thing and something we want to promote. This system is often intuitive, but like most things, can get into trouble at the extremes. While most people feel that it is ethically correct to divert a runaway train that is bound to kill 5 people two a track where it will only kill 1 person, thereby saving the lives of 4, many more people feel unsure when asked to kill 1 healthy person going to to the doctor for a regular checkup to save the 5 people there that each need one of 5 organs that the unlucky person could provide, even though the two cases appear to be logically extremely similar and it would be hard to point out any differences that should account for our change in attitudes.

The gut reaction in the doctor case is that people have a right not to be killed, even if the consequences are great. This view is much more deontological. Deontology, then, is an ethical system that has a set of rules that should not be broken no matter what. You have a right not to be killed regardless of the consequences. This system, while also intuitive in a lot of cases, runs into problems at the extremes as well. The most famous example is as follows: A person runs to your home in a panic, tells you that a killer is chasing them and asks for refuge. You oblige and moments later are met by another knock at the door. It is the killer and they ask if you have seen the refugee. In this case, it seems overwhelmingly intuitive that to lie is the correct decision. A deontological system that say lying is wrong, however, forces you even in this case to forget about the (huge!) consequences of your decision and to tell the truth, thereby directly leading to the death of the refugee.

In case this all seems abstract and typical philosophical hogwash, consider that according to German law, you can’t shoot down down a plane that has been hijacked by terrorists. From the article:

Germany’s highest court overturned a law Wednesday that had authorized the government to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners, ruling that it was unconstitutional to sacrifice the lives of passengers to protect potential targets of a terrorist attack. (my emphasis)

In hijacking situations, such as 9/11, there is a reasonable expectation that the people on board the airplane will be killed anyway, in addition to the people that will be killed by the plane crashing into it is intended target. For a Utilitarian, this decision is obvious: shoot the plane down, because Dead Passengers + Dead That Will Be Killed By Terrorist Attack > Dead Passengers. Germany, however, seems much more rooted in Deontology, which makes sense considering the modern proponent of Deontology, Immanuel Kant, was German.

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that, whether the average German is conscious of it or not, stopping at a crosswalk when the light is red because it is adheres to a rule that has been established to the society to which they belong and regardless of the consequences, is a result of the Kantian and Deontological ethical position and is just a tiny example of how ethics actually affects our daily lives even in the smallest of ways.

For a broad introduction to topics of ethics I highly recommend:

I am also interested in what people think about these issues, so please feel free to post something.

 

The Amazing Juice Bottle Trick

When I was growing up, my dad always did something that I found to be a bit strange. After emptying a bottle of juice into his glass, he would set the bottle down for a minute or two. He would then take the seemingly empty bottle and attempt a re-pour. Unfailingly, a few measly drops that had since resettled to the bottom of the bottle came out into his glass. This frugal ritual was repeated time and time again, meal after meal. It always felt purposeless to me – a micromanagement of an insignificant system.

I’ve grown up a lot since that time and my views on many things have changed. I now often catch myself viewing the world through a lens that I would imagine is similar to my dad’s. Waste here. Waste there. Overconsumption. Now I cannot think of a reason why I should not pour that extra amount into my glass, so I do. Hell, it is kind of a cool trick. And, in addition to being practical and respectful, I find it a meaningful way to pay a tiny tribute to my dad. I think he had it right the whole time.

I Could Care Less

When I was growing up, I would always cringe when someone said “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less.” Didn’t they realize they were trying to say that there was no level of care that was lower than theirs and that that is what they were trying to communicate? Didn’t they realize they were wrong in what they said?

Of course, they weren’t wrong. The point of using the expression “I could care less” was to communicate a message to me and it is the same message that is communicated when someone uses the expression “I couldn’t care less”: that the person doesn’t care. I suspect you don’t get confused as to what the underlying message is when you hear either of these expressions is, either.

The problem arises is because we naturally think that languags is logical in nature. We think that introducing a “not” into a sentence will always negate it. For the most part, this heuristic is a good one to follow, but a closer inspection will reveal language for be much more slippery when logic is attempted to be applied.

For example, in the book Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language, Jila Ghomenshi writes about our use of the word “and”. She states that in logic, and merely connects two conjuncts and doesn’t care about order. For instance the expression  ‘ “2+2 = 4” AND “4+4=8” ‘ is true because both conjuncts are true and the expression would be true even if the conjuncts were reversed, as in ‘ “4+4=8” AND “2+2=4” ‘. Logically, these two statements are equivalent. Language, however, is not so forgiving. Ghomenshi asks us to consider the two statements:

a) I fell down the stairs and broke my arm.

b) I broke my arm and I fell down the stairs.

If logic were the only thing at play in these statements, we would have to say that they are equivalent, but of course we can see right off the bat why they are not: the order of these two conjuncts implies cause and effect and temporality. That is to say: in “a”, we read that the broken arm is caused by the falling down the stairs, where as in “b” we read the opposite.

Similarly, in Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction, by William G. Lycan, we are asked to consider the basic logical conditional “if” in what is called an “invited inference”. Lycan states that if someone utters:

a) If you mow my lawn, I’ll give you ten dollars.

what they really mean is:

b) If and ONLY IF you mow my lawn, I’ll give you ten dollars.

If someone utters “a” it is logically possible that the speaker will give you ten dollars regardless of whether or not we mow the lawn. However, through the use of language, we know that that the speak will only give us the ten dollars if we do mow the lawn – the “only if” is implied (and humans INSTANTLY know this, without thinking about it).

These two examples are meant to scratch the surface of a fact: that language is not constrained by logic. The point (or a point) of language is to communicate a message, and as in the case of “I could care less” the message can be immediately obvious even if the form is, logically or otherwise, jarring.