My Experience as an American Volunteering in Heidelberg

I recently submitted a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung, detailing my various failed attempts at volunteering for charities in Heidelberg. Shortly after, I received an email from the editor, in which he suggested we turn the letter into a full article, for which he would interview me. I obliged. The letter appeared a few days later in the paper, as well as online.  Unfortunately, and yet somewhat expected, the article paints a different picture than that which I meant to convey. Surprisingly, the many of the comments that the article received were negative: Either I did not try hard enough to volunteer, or I had no skills to offer the charities, etc, or other ad hoc fallacies based on pure speculation.  In light of this, I decided to write about my experiences in detail, as well as what I meant to convey in my original letter to the editor.

The Story

Shortly after moving to Heidelberg, Germany, my girlfriend, Julia,  and I decided we wanted to volunteer in our free time. This was in 2014, before the so-called “refugee crisis”, but there were still many refugees in Germany at that point in time. I often think about how I can maximize my “good” output, and decided that helping refugees, especially children, with their integration into Germany society would be among the most effective uses of my time. 1)I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.

Julia and I went to the Asylarbeitskreis, an organization that helps refugees and explained we would help in any capacity we could, but that specifically we could be helpful in teaching children German or English, helping them with their school work, or providing after school supervision. If that was not available, we could do something else, too. The woman at the office said it sounded great, and she would contact us in a few days. Much to our surprise, we received an email a few days later saying that there was room for our (free!) help.

I went to next to Obdach e.V., a local homeless organization. Homelessness has always been a social problem that I could not wrap my head around. How could it be that in super rich societies like the United States and Germany that such a problem could exist? In Heidelberg, there are many homeless people, who are on the street every single day. There is one man with one leg who drags himself up and down the street with his hands for more than a full work day of hours and asks for change. I wanted to investigate how this could be and to help tackle this problem, so, I offered my services. I was accepted, although I was told they had no need at the time. I could visit a man who was in social housing and keep him company, if I wanted. I was not excited by the idea, as I thought I could have a much bigger effect, but I said yes. I was warned many times that the man was very strange and could not speak clearly, and I was told she understood if I did not want to meet him again. When I met with the man, it was even worse than she said: the man was drunk, smelled like it, could not speak clearly at all, repeated himself, and after our meeting called me 70 times in a row. I told the woman at Obdach that I did not want to meet him again and she understood.

After this, I did some small jobs, like helping to renovate an apartment for a man who lived in the high rent section of the city. He had lived there for 20 years and had smoked the walls yellow, so it was time to repaint them. Everything needed to be taken down and furniture needed to be cleaned and moved. I asked myself how this man was classified as homeless and what exactly I was doing there. It seemed like I got shoved into random jobs that were at best loosely related to the topic of homelessness, and that at most I was having an extremely tiny impact.

With these thoughts, I proposed that I write an article for the local homeless newspaper that Obdach put out four times a year, thinking this might have a larger impact and support homelessness more generally. The responsible party at the organization thought it was a good idea, and seemed excited about the topic, which argued to make the local library services free in Heidelberg, since the homeless have less access to culture if they have to pay for all of the good literature. I wrote the article and submitted it. I was promised it would appear in the next issue of the paper and that I would receive a copy. Months passed, and I received no other jobs to do, and was not notified that the article was in the paper.  I sent many unanswered messages and was eventually told that the editor of the paper was stubborn and did not want to publish the article. It was clear there was frustration between the woman with whom I spoke and the editor of the paper. I emailed the editor multiple times and received no response. Persistent and frustrated, I continued to email. Eventually, I received an email saying that he never got the article and asked me to send it again, which I did. He promised me it would appear in the next issue. Again, months went by and no article appeared. I wrote him again and received no answers. Like the previous time, I continued to email, not accepting silence. Eventually, I was told that they would no longer be printing the paper, so the article would never appear.

While this was going on, I also proactively asked if there was anything I could do for the website of the organization, and again my offer was accepted. I met with the man responsible for maintaining it, and we had a meeting about what needed to be done and made a plan. I was going to the United States to visit my family for a month, so we would start when I got back. We planned a meeting for my return. When I came to the second meeting, I was told that the site had already been redone – the work had been contracted out. After this and the other experiences, I had been with the organization for more than a year and had accomplished almost nothing. I decided I was done with Obdach e.V2)While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.

By this time, the refugee crisis was in full force. Thousands were sent to Heidelberg, as we have a large, newly-empty US Army base where they can seek refuge. What better time to contact the Asylarbeitskreis and offer again to help out? I never received a response from them. I also read online and heard from others that they were at capacity and could not make use of any extra effort.

I went to der Paritätische Forum, a group that helps interested volunteers find matches, and asked what I could do. I met with a woman who asked me about my interests, and we then proceeded to examine different charities and organizations to find potential matches.This was very efficient and a breath of fresh air after the slow, ineffective experiences I had previously dealt with. With the contact information of five or so organizations, I left the building re-energized and positive about the prospects. I contacted all five organizations and explained who I was, how I got their information, and how I thought I could help. The first said there were no opportunities. From the rest, I received no replies. I decided to give up.

About four months later, I received an email from one of the organizations, HD Ink, apologizing for it having taken so long. Would I like to come to a meeting with the other prospective helpers and learn about the organization and get the ball rolling? Sure. I went to the meeting: we tossed a ball around for 30 minutes and learned each other’s names. Then we had to make claims about each other’s personalities just based upon appearance to show how stereotypes are not always correct. We also were told to ask questions about how the organization functions, to see if our expectations matched the reality. It was all intended to be a fun ice-breaker. We filled out paperwork saying when we could start working, how many hours a week, what our skills were, etc. The organizer was happy with my application. I asked when we started, and she said something like “well, Easter is in a couple weeks, so we will start after that.”, almost implying that in two weeks time nothing could get done. Will it surprise you at this point, dear reader, to find out that I have received no message from them, months after Easter?

This time I really gave up and decided to write the letter to the editor of the newpaper, figuring that shining a light on this apparent problem might be the most effective thing I could do and also not having the energy to search for more institutions. Shouldn’t volunteering be easier than a job search?

Lessons Learned?

Summing up my experiences, I believe I have learned a few things. If not concretely, then at least I have some suspicions, which could be more deeply investigated. I do not know which apply to just the charities I contacted, which apply to Heidelberg, and which to Germany in general. Obviously I have a relatively small sample size, so take it for what it is worth:

  • The majority of people I was in contact with did not seem very motivated to do their jobs efficiently. Things moved slowly. Emails went unanswered. On that point:
  • Emailing probably is not the best method of reaching an institution, at least in Germany. I usually prefer it because I can express myself more clearly in German when I write in advance, but in hindsight I think I should have just knocked on the doors of the various charities.
  • There seems to be a crazy imbalance in the way jobs function in Germany, and the employer has the advantage. Most German students I have talked to have done multiple unpaid internships and often struggle even to get those. I know others who, despite having master’s degrees, have all but given up getting a normal paid position and are looking instead for “traineeships”, which are another source of cheap labor from the highly educated. But this is a broader point which I may expand in another post. This seems to extend to the charity sector, which is why I mention it here. In the US, whenever I have volunteered I have been accepted immediately and have done meaningful work.
  • Charities here do not seem to have the ability to “think outside of the box”. This may be due to legal considerations or may be simply the “we’ve always done things this way” sickness. Many people, including the head of der Paritätische Forum, the newspaper editor, and many others have told me that the problem is at the administrative level. The organizations do have a need, but they do not have the administrative resources to manage the volunteers. If this is the case, why not either: 1)let the volunteers do administrative work that is easy to delegate or 2) give out work that does not require much overhead? It seems like most people I came in contact with expected to pigeon-hole me into a role that already existed within the organization, instead of allowing me to do something new. If all of the roles were filled, well, then they did not need any more help. At a higher level, it is easy to see that a lot of help is needed with the refugee issue, for example. I have an friend in the US who recently went to the mayor of a city and asked if he could volunteer and help out. The mayor gave him a job and now he sits in on meetings and helps organize events to help promote the city. This seems unthinkable in Germany, and other Germans have echoed this opinion.
  • People’s interpretation of a situation conform to their pre-existing biases. This is probably the most frustrating observation of all, and something I plan to expand into its own post. As I stated in the beginning of this post, many people were critical of the article about the situation that was in the newspaper, saying that I must have been the problem. Maybe part of it is my problem. I do not mean to make the claim that I tried every day for two years to volunteer and it never worked out. I just wanted to make the claim that it is more difficult to volunteer than it should be, and that I probably was not alone with such problems.3)And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it. Regardless, many people do not want to take a look at themselves or their society and make a change. If they had read an article about a land far, far away, they would have overwhelmingly agreed that the system in Land X was dysfunctional and urgently needed changing. But when the article is closer to home, there cannot be a problem. It must have been my fault, since I, in this case, am the aspect “furthest thing away.” How can dysfunctional systems change under such a structure of thought?
  • Due to these experiences, I have thought about developing a website where people with a social need could be matched with volunteers, to avoid the problems which I’ve outlined. As an example, a refugee using the site could get matched with a person who could help them learn German, with their daily visits to government agencies, or what have you. The match would have nothing to do with an organization, and could be efficient, and content agnostic, meaning any need could be fulfilled by a willing volunteer. This would save the volunteer from finding an appropriate organization, signing non-disclosure agreements, waiting on emails, etc. Maybe such a site already exists. If you know of one, let me know.

Julia and I are moving to Berlin in a few months and I have a feeling things will be somewhat different there, or at least I hope it. Either way, I will eventually write about my experiences here. If you have any comments, I would be interested to hear from you.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.
2. While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.
3. And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it.

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.

 

Bike Riding in Germany

In all three of the cities in Germany that I have spent the most time in, Freiburg, Tübingen, and Heidelberg, bikes have been a big thing. You can find people whizzing by you on their bike just about everywhere: people of all ages, in all outfits, with or without a child trailer – everyone loves riding their bike.

Even the common expression “Fahrrad fahren” in German reveals a bit of this intoxication. The verb “fahren” means “to drive” or “to ride” – to get an idea of the sense of this verb, think of the English verb “to fare” (as in “farewell!” or “sea-faring”), this verb has its etymological roots in the verb “fahren” . “Rad” means “wheel”, so “Fahrrad”, which translates to “bike”, has a literal translation of something like “faring-wheel”. “Fahrrad fahren” is then “faring-wheel faring”.

Bike riding seems to be a general trend in the “greener”, university cities of Germany, where students not only seem to consider the environment in their actions, but probably couldn’t afford a car even if they wanted one. Freiburg, which is currently run by the Green Party, even has a pole that shows you how many bike riders passed a certain spot on a certain day, the total count of riders for the year, and the amount of CO2 that was saved as a result of their decision to ride a bike instead of a car. (Heidelberg, incidentally, also has a sign showing the “goodness” of the air that day, although it contains no information pertaining to bikes). In Heidelberg, there are even streets that only allow bike riders for most of the day.

Thebike and CO2 monitor in Freiburg.

The bike and CO2 monitor in Freiburg.

The air quality sign in Heidelberg.

The air quality sign in Heidelberg.

Some bikes parked in front of the Neuenheimer Feld campus of Heidelberg University.

Some bikes parked in front of the Neuenheimer Feld campus of Heidelberg University.

Germany’s layout is also conducive to bike riding and public transportation. Many small to medium sized cities have a pretty dense layout and you can get to anywhere you need to go within 10 minutes on a bike. In many places in the United States, you really need a car if you want access to all of the things your area has to offer. A movie theater is 10 minutes in one direction, a supermarket 5 minutes in the other, the home improvement store 10 minutes in yet another direction. Of course there are exceptions in both places, but it seems that overall the transportation structure in Germany is a lot better than in the US.

Many, many people in Heidelberg have bikes, and many (most?) purchase them second hand. I have already been to three such used bike stores, all within a 3 kilometer radius of my apartment and these certainly aren’t the only ones. There are also used bike flea markets, one of which is hosted by the city train station so that they can get rid of all of the bikes parked in front of the station that have not moved for months. When you get a bike at a shop they usually in okay shape, often taking on their new life with the addition of other parts from some bicycle graveyard.

I purchased a bike from just such a shop, and have been riding my bike every day for the past month, usually from home to class and back. Each leg of the trip I get to cross over the Neckar river and get a beautiful view of the city with the old castle in the background. This is my favorite part of the trip, but unfortunately I don’t have a great picture yet from this spot.

My new bike, in front of the store that is next to my apartment.

My new bike, in front of the store that is next to my apartment.

Today, my bike was making a lot of strange noises so I took it to an on campus bike repair center that is run by students and provides free repair and learning. Someone diagnosed the problem and then gave me the physical and theoretical tools to fix it myself. The staff was very helpful and friendly and really just wanted to help me get my bike working again. I can go there any time they are open and I have access to all of their tools and knowledge (and yes, their own bicycle graveyard as well). If any Heidelberg friends are interested, here is their website.

I am happy to join the bike culture in Heidelberg. Bike riding is good for the environment and it has definitely been good for my health. I have been traveling 6-12 kilometers a day just to go to and from class and when I get there I can park right in front of the door without ever having to worry about finding a spot.

I leave you with a song I love by an old German a cappella group, The Prinzen, that wrote a song about bikes. The last line sounds better in German and says something like Only connoisseurs ride bikes and they always get there faster. I think that is true!

Being a Part of a Story

I recently came across a video about a bus monitor named Karen Klein who was subjected to terrible bullying by four individuals in middle school. The recorded interaction was put on Youtube (warning: lots of bad language) and Karen received a lot of deserved sympathy from the community.  Then something else interesting happened: someone started a campaign to raise money for Karen so that she could go on a nice vacation. The initial goal was set at $5,000, but as the time of this writing the campaign is on day 2 of 30 and has already acquired over $500,000. (Incidently, as is usually the case when a lot of money is involved, articles begin popping up relating to the monetary amount of the campaign, with the emotional content of the event as a subtext.)

With only a cursory glance at this phenomenon and others like it one is apt to think “an injustice is on the path to recovery” and to have a somewhat restored faith in humanity. Indeed – this view is perpetuated by articles like those previously linked which proclaim things like:

Never underestimate the charitable good will of the Internet.

However, articles and attitudes of this nature cultivate a false sense of altruism while giving us a glimpse of the current cultural milieu: that people want to be a part of a story. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that the raising and donating of money in situations like this is bad in and of itself, but contrasted against the backdrop of the broader landscape of widespread poverty, starvation, homelessness, etc, it seems irresponsible. Taking the case of starvation: the United Nations estimates that approximately 25,000 people starve each day. Consider what it would feel like for you to starve or to watch a family member starve and the fact that it happens each day to way more people than you have ever met. Couple this with the fact that 1.4 billion people exist on $1.25 a day (purchase power parity adjusted) as of 2005 it is quite easy to see how $500,000+ could benefit these people massively more than just one woman who has been mistreated, leaving aside the question of whether or not money is the appropriate vehicle to resolve a social injustice of this nature.

This is not to subscribe to the fallacy that “you made a mistake in donating to X because you could have gotten more utility donating to Y”. While this is a good rule to hold in general, a categorical following would  quickly lead one insane. The point I really want to make is this: people, when presented with a story (and by this I mean a narrative like description of a real social event, often with beginning, middle, and end) are compelled to be involved – much more so than with isolated, stale facts like poverty which have been around for a while and don’t quite carry the same romanticism and immediacy as the current drama on the news.