Asking the Right Questions

That idea, asking the right questions, needs to become a research topic for social sciences/business/government/anything that uses statistics (meaning: everything).

As an example, I am working with an organization that is attached to a national level organization.  The national level has a survey for the individual organizations to fill out which asks about various aspects of the organization.  Filling out this little survey though gives the specific organization I am a part of a pretty bad grade though because this survey fails to ask whether the organization has it’s own building, where the organization is geographically in reference to military and/or minority groups.  Pretty important things that will not be taken into account when filing the paperwork I am sure.

Take a look at grant reports for development work world-wide too;  they bring to mind a phrase I heard once, “Development projects never fail.” None of the grants will ever report a failure although, if you return to those project sites maybe a year later, it will be awfully difficult to find a success.  Take a closer look at the reports though and the things they ask for are “how many individuals are taught x?”; “how many x were built?”; “how much money was made through x-technique?” All factors in a successful development project but certainly not the final factors and, I suspect, not even the most important factors.

This was the strength of journalism: helping show the details lost in the statistics; but, we all know where that discussion goes at the moment.

So, if these questions are unfair, asking the wrong questions or not actually help improve what is going on, it would seem that we need to learn how ask questions properly.  What these questions are, I am not sure yet.  I will state that the questions are not nearly as easy to ask or measure though looks like we might have to step back from our love affair with numbers or, at least, recognize that they are representations of a much more complicated world.  Maybe the first question to ask, what is the specific situation of x in comparison to other places we are measuring?

Reading Questions

I am currently reading The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek, one of the more important political/economic treatises since World War II I think.  (It is certainly up there if not that high.)  In the book, Mr. Hayek is arguing against socialism of the era in the form of an entirely or mostly planned economy which he saw coming to power in England and already holding power in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist Russia.

Essentially, planned economies take away individual liberty according to his argument.  I am not here to analyze that part though. Instead, what if we are going towards a planned economy regardless of our politics through something that Hayek may not have foreseen?  The new thing is technology and this advent of big data and wearable technology etc.  We are slowly gaining the ability to get data on practically every moment of our days.  I do not think that Hayek foresaw such an occurrence while writing and I wonder what he would have to say.

In short: are we building ourselves into a planned society without even intending it?

Regardless of what we do economically/politically, technology is becoming wearable, mobile and ubiquitous.  Ubiquitous technology generally tends towards ubiquitous data as can be seen with our “Big Data” issue coming up and as the smart city movement gains momentum towards measuring everything.

The problem with all of this is it is data from measurable things only, technology cannot make value judgments it can only take in what it is told to take in and focus on that information in whatever measurable way it is told.  There are severe limitations in that.  This ability to change values was one of the strengths of money, an individual could use their money in ways that aligned with their individual values (thanks, Hayek!),  instead of being limited to what was deemed “worthy” money could be used in multiple different ways by different individuals because the money earned did not already have a value judgment built into it and was not limited in measuring like data is when it is being gathered. Technology and data, instead can only focus on view things and generally that information is used to increase “efficiency.”  So, the information gathered, especially in reference to time, can generally be used to increase productivity but it becomes harder to use it in other ways.

So, in essence, technology measures productivity and nothing else.

The problem is, as humans, sometimes the lack of productivity is the most productive thing to do.  Meditation as a contemporary example, the day of rest as a biblical one, sleep as a fact of life one. Also, productivity, as we all know is NOT necessarily quality.  Producing millions of cheap plastic chairs may be producing “more” in a measurable way but it is not the same as a craftsman finding wood, carving it and putting it together into a rocking chair on their own.  Money helps us show that difference through the different price tags I believe.  But, our data, as compared to time, would still probably find it more “efficient” to produce the plastic chairs instead and that would lead to a higher profit margin.  I would argue that, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, these sorts of value judgments are going to end up happening without us necessarily realizing it.  Meaning we could end up with a planned society based on efficiency without ever actually intending it.  Especially as we slowly let our human ability to decide value languish thanks to those decisions being made outside of ourselves.

I simply wonder, what does Hayek have to say in response to this?

What Causes Poverty?

This week two questions were asked: “what is poverty?” and “what causes poverty?”

My knee-jerk, smart-ass response to that was: Poverty is caused by sitting around asking these questions.

Talk about the kettle calling the pot black being a philosophy major. Meaning I specialize in asking questions and not going much further than that.

But really, it is an interesting topic to an extent.  Also, I have to react in some way to someone who wrote “capitalism” as the thing that causes poverty.  I intend to start with “what is poverty” though, I am a philosophy major, defining words is my thing.

Poverty, I think, is instability if one goes to the very root of poverty although I think the better phrasing is “lack of stability.”  (Yes, I do in fact enjoy going that deep into phrasing.)

I say this because lacking stability leads to a feeling of no control and probably a relatively poor environment (physical, emotional, psychological).  These things then cause some form of hopelessness meaning no planning for the future or minimal planning for the future.  That leads to certain mindsets which just continue this terrible cycle.  I like plant analogies so, in this situation, poverty would basically be lack of stable soil/water/sunlight for a seed.  Take those things away and a seed probably will not grow and, if they are of poor quality, that seed may grow but not to its full potential.

I say this because, without some sort of stability, some sort of solid ground, it is impossible to make any leaps, any leaps of faith.  Those leaps of faith are the things required to be and feel successful (just run with me on that for sake of argument please).  Think of all of the assumptions made on a daily basis by an individual 1) there will be a tomorrow that they will wake up to 2) their living shelter will still exist and still be theirs 3) they will wake up in good enough health to get to work 4) they will still have work to go to or have the ability to find work 5) they can or will get some sort of food/nourishment.  The alarm has not even been turned off yet and we have 5 assumptions!  Plenty more get made once you sit down and think about it.  Not being able to make these fundamental assumptions leads to instability and loss of control which, I think, leads to a cycle into the usual sort of poverty of lacking money etc.

The problem is, how do we promote that stability required without simply hiding poverty?  As in, how do we create something that helps someone create their own stable environments without simply creating a fake stability and thus helping to create a reliance on the help and then generational poverty?  Somehow we have to figure out how to help someone build their own permanent stability where there is none or very little to start out with.

STOP what you’re thinking.  This is not a critique of current programs that exist or anything, I am simply pursuing a line of thought that is not often discussed openly (at least not in the circles I frequent).  Instead of critiquing government etc., what if I threw the responsibility back to you, as an individual and member of society?

Instead of waiting for a government program to come and help solve poverty without you, as a citizen and possibly neighbor to someone needing help, doing anything, maybe it is time to think about how you, since you are right there, can help create stability for your neighbor.  You, as the person on the ground, can actually see where stability is most lacking and are closest at hand to help that other person actually begin to find stability or create stability.  As an actual face too, that person is less likely to become reliant on you because humans are proud individuals and having to look at someone constantly that they owe will help them want to get free of that “owing” and return the favor in the best way that they can.  Not saying you ought to look for something from that person but, their want for their own individual pride, can help make sure they do not become reliant on you for stability; something that a vague program simply cannot do.  Just saying, next time you want to critique a vague program of any sort: what part have you had with it and what are you doing to fix those problems you are critiquing?

Responsibilities of Activists and Citizens

Warning, poorly written.

Our responsibility as activists

I try to do good as an individual, be informed, make good decisions based on that information and my values etc.  It seems like other people try to do the same thing too, but I think maybe I have been going about it in the wrong way.  I have been trying to be informed across the board and make decisions from my own knowledge and values.  Instead, I think maybe I have to find organizations and groups I can trust.

These groups would be the ones who do the footwork for my knowledge gaining and decision making.  Ideally they would get the information, filter it and share the most important with me so I can stay up to date along with vouch for certain other organizations and actions which will help forward the cause of that organization and support my own values.  That’s a massive responsibility and amount of trust in others, but maybe that will be the way to strengthen the social movements that support these causes.  What if everyone who really cared about the environment and focused on it also worked with groups who tried to get social justice and vice-versa; sharing information, teaching and giving recommendations for how to act and what to buy and who to support etc.  I’m beginning to wonder if trying to go at everything as individuals is not the way to get the change that some people want, or that I want.  Maybe the Occupy Movement was actually onto something in trying to take everything on all at once.  Just the needed community, communication and sharing wasn’t there, or wasn’t as strong as it needed to be.

It seems that what activists need is the ability to focus and someone who can then focus all of the other foci in order to cause the change that is wanted, for environmental policy, for justice and everything else.  As members of the activist community it seems that we need to not only focus on one specific thing to be able to do good work for it, we also need to make sure to reach out to others and create strong networks with them and take responsibility for the information we share with those others so that they have the right information that allows them to also work on their own focus and help your own important goals too.  Maybe it is time we try to see the elephant in the room instead of just our aspect.

Social Media and Rights to Association and Assembly

Is social media online actually one of the best ways to work towards weakening the right to association and/or assembly? Okay, okay, stop laughing, seriously.  It seems like maybe it can be.

I will call this right the right to association for short terms, but association and assembly are both involved in my concept.

Social media can certainly have its good aspects, not saying it is inherently evil, but something to consider.

So how would this work? First off, social media makes it so people can “associate” without ever actually getting together, it fundamentally seems to break up the usual concept of “coming together” or “associating.”  Which some people would say is wonderful: a person on one side of the world can virtually support another person they have never met on the opposite side, that certainly has some positive things to it, or so it seems.  But, there is still a fundamental importance to show up, to physically exist and represent yourself in situations.  There are limitations on how far online social media can go.  Limitations on how effective it is for getting people up and moving, reference that Kony 2012 video.  I cannot speak for everywhere but I do know that in my university this video hit like a storm and everyone watched it and the days immediately following everyone was planning on going out whatever night it was and painting the entire city in Kony 2012 stuff.  That day came around, nothing.  Absolutely nothing that I could find anyway. There are limitations to what some electric signals can and will do, supposedly the pen is mightier than the sword, but the sword cuts much deeper and faster.

So that is a short description on how “associating” becomes easier with social media but it thus weakens it.  This weakening can then continue in other ways.

A short reason for weakening the right to association is that social media relies a a very weak link: the internet mostly.  All it takes is a lack of electricity/signal and suddenly social media is gone. The instantaneous, constant connection is lost right then and there.  Those more secret or organic coming together to associate suddenly becomes much slower if not also harder.  Also, this means that those people across the globe will not as easily get information and thus will not be able to “like” or “share” your post to support you and associate with you.

The next few reasons: 1) social media and the internet can be controlled and what you see or read can be limited in various ways, even if the internet is currently un-legislated.  This lack of legislation can also lead to issues in that, 2) situations can arise where some forms of association are found out in some way and then stopped before they begin. There are even more problems that come to mind!

One last sprint of reasons: 3) people not physically showing up for something makes it infinitely easier to ignore the problems that are being discussed, 4) social media allows for incredibly stupid issues to come up as talking points and 5) if physical people are not going to go out to support a protest of some sort to protect rights to association more and more laws can be made to make it harder and harder to properly, physically associate.

1) Control of what is seen or read and limitations I think is fairly easy to understand so I will not go into it.

2) Hacking.

3) Again, the pen may be mightier than the sword, but a sharp tack on a seat makes a person stand up much faster.  Just saying, actual physical things are much more likely to get a reaction it seems.

4) that petition to deport Justin Bieber in the news.  I assume anyone who reads this knows why I consider this stupid.  It is also a waste of time and resources thus weakening responses and information on actual, important things.  Yes it is a right, but if a right is watered-down too much I think legal arguments could be made to weaken them and people will not necessarily fight against them since they are too busy worrying about the aforementioned petition.

5) This one is probably most important.  Along with rights to association, in my mind, comes civil disobedience.  These are two things that can work together to promote positive changes in a country that claims to be democratic.  Rights to association, in some ways require space.  Some forms of association require space in certain places, such as certain buildings.  Other forms though require the ability to associate outside of a certain place, specifically in a “public” space.  These are the more politically inclined groups that need or want to protest and publicly show support or disagreement for something politically or in a social context.

Say some group is organizing to show their disagreement with some random law in an unnamed government.  This group will need people to show up to get their demonstration to mean anything.  If everyone is just on social media though and supports the page in some virtual way yet no one actually is moved to show up the protest itself will just fall flat.  Again, people like to claim the pen is mightier, but a huge crowd of people is much more effective at creating action than any piece of paper.  Then, if less people are showing up to events such as this and just supporting programs through the internet, more laws can be made which make it harder for groups to come together and be heard.  These groups have to apply to be able to get together in a public place and then the law designates where they can get together, for how long and where to go, which has its own problems as has already happened.

Social media, as a force that makes it so that individuals can support things without actually physically showing up to show their support or performing actual actions in support of a cause or group can thus let laws strengthen and define association in more and more specific ways.  Which then can lead to a certain form of weakening this right to association.

Next I take issue with online shopping for similar reasons.

Can Democracy Work With Borders?

I don’t think so. I think that a democracy as envisioned in the Enlightenment cannot actually function with set borders.  In other words, in order to have a proper democracy as places like the U.S. like to pretend we have, we cannot have strong borders like we do currently.  This is because borders entail exclusion and the ideal of democracies like the U.S. is that no one is excluded and borders make it possible for people to be born into the country, which, if democracies are to actually work off of “social contract” theories that they tend to lean on now, every individual has to come to sign onto the contract on their own.

The first part is relatively simple, a border defines an area that is yours and an area that is mine.  That is the point of borders, if you do not agree try to create a border that does to rely on this fundamental separation.  Borders are exclusion.  Democracies in our world constantly want to promote “multi-culturalism,” “openness,” “diversity,” and all those other pretty sounding words that get thrown around a lot.  Barring the internal issues that exist in these countries (that’s a can of worms that I will not open, so just stay in International Relations please), borders fundamentally deny these pretty words that like to get thrown around in democracies.  Basically, having a border, means that there is a part of the Earth that is “mine” (the citizen’s) and part that is “yours” (the non-citizen of any sort).  Operating off of that assumption means that a person has to work to become a citizen, (citizenship tests) which causes problems since the basic assumption made when say, the U.S. Constitution was written, was that of social contract theory.  This theory is essentially that the individual signs onto the contract of a government, which is just fine and dandy, if the person can read the contract and understand it, go ahead and sign on all you want, requiring a person to take a test of random facts of the history of the country is not really useful in this way.

As a history note, us Euro-Americans are quite good at letting people sign contracts when they do not necessarily understand the contract and what it entails.  Why do we suddenly care about a person understanding the contract when they want to be a citizen? Anyway, just a reminder, the U.S. is far from perfect like some people seem to want to say.

The discussion above has gotten dangerously close to my second point so I will just go ahead into it here.  So we have this social contract theory and with well and strongly defined and defended borders makes this contract inherently exclusionary which is exactly against the ideals that people like to claim in the current world.  The next problem is that this sense of there being borders means that a person can be born into a contract, which is not necessarily a bad idea in theory I guess, but this being born into a situation leads to two problems.

1) laziness, being born into something means you probably do not feel the same impetus to work for it or care.  This does not apply to all people in all situations, it does seem that it applies for voting though, since an individual is just born into a democracy they do not really feel the need to participate to have citizenship in a democracy which weakens a democracy by their lack of participation.  So, if everyone, in order to actually gain citizenship had to participate (i.e. vote) those that actually want to be members (i.e. sign the contract and join-in) would go ahead and vote and choose to become a part of that society.

2) it allows a sense of “us” and “them” to form.  Being born in a certain place and gaining citizenship automatically allows one to have a sense of that area being theirs and that people who move in are outsiders and frankly, in North America, that is entirely false.  Essentially, when being born in a place equates to citizenship nation-states are created which have all sorts of problems of exclusionary practices.

This is admittedly, poorly argued at this point, but my point is that a democracy cannot function with borders because borders allow the creation of nation-states which means exclusionary practices and lax-ness on the part of the citizens that are born into the nation-state.  So, in order to get a democracy that truly works, the concept of a border has to be taken apart.  Luckily, these are just musings that I never have to worry about coming to fruition!