Who started the (dumpster) fire?

I’ve been thinking about how the divide in ideologies of conservatism and liberalism has grown in the last few years.1 It’s a concerning trend and doesn’t help to come to any compromise or shared understanding. Too many opportunities for talking past one another.

Today I happened across two interesting visualization and related articles.

The first is from Lena Groeger (via Flowingdata.com) that shows the political polarization in the American public from 1994 to 2015.

 

The interesting point to me is that since about 1999 till 2012 the Democratic median did not move; it stayed pretty consistently halfway between “mostly liberal” and “mixed”. The Republican median however, started to drift more toward the right (pun intended); “consistently conservative” starting in 2004.

While just one set of data – via Pew surveys – it indicates that the Republican mindset began its journey toward an extreme earlier than that of the Democratic ideologies.

Then there’s this study from the Columbia Journalism Review which indicates that the widening of the gap between median political ideologies was not done in equal measure by both sides – in short, it wasn’t access to technology (the Internet and social media) that lead to the widening gap.

 

Looking at the report it’s clear that both sides weren’t operating equally (with access to the same tools) in spreading biased and outright inaccurate information. It was the more conservative right-wing mindset that was OK with creating public discourse with, well, bullshit. At the center? Bretbart and company.

Our analysis challenges a simple narrative that the internet as a technology is what fragments public discourse and polarizes opinions, by allowing us to inhabit filter bubbles or just read “the daily me.” If technology were the most important driver towards a “post-truth” world, we would expect to see symmetric patterns on the left and the right. Instead, different internal political dynamics in the right and the left led to different patterns in the reception and use of the technology by each wing. While Facebook and Twitter certainly enabled right-wing media to circumvent the gatekeeping power of traditional media, the pattern was not symmetric.

Well, that’s rather unfortunate.

I’ve heard from many folks on both sides of the gulf of ideologies that we should listen to the other side, open our minds, be considerate, etc. I agree with that – as an ideal. In reality, that’s really hard to do when one side appears to have a foundation laid in sand – by which I mean false accusations, bullshit, conjecture, and lies.

But ugh, this is all at the macro to global level. We’re looking at “the whole thing”. That’s not congruent with folks who say “Not why I voted for Trump”.

That’s frustrating. At the individual level – I get it.

Pretty awesome person danah boyd, an advocate and researcher who talks often on youth culture and the internet shared a really interesting essay on ‘Failing to See, Fueling Hatred“. While not directly tied to conservative thinking or the “alt-right” media landscape I think it captures many of the frustrations more right-leaning folks are feeling and how the allure of the conservative media landscape makes for stronger rationalization in support of the current administration.

Without understanding the complex interplay of things, it’s hard not to feel resentful about certain things that we do see. But at the same time, it’s not possible to hold onto the complexity. I can appreciate why individuals are indignant when they feel as though they pay taxes for that money to be given away to foreigners through foreign aid and immigration programs. These people feel like they’re struggling, feel like they’re working hard, feel like they’re facing injustice. Still, it makes sense to me that people’s sense of prosperity is only as good as their feeling that they’re getting ahead. And when you’ve been earning $40/hour doing union work only to lose that job and feel like the only other option is a $25/hr job, the feeling is bad, no matter that this is more than most people make. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley engineers feel as though they’re struggling and it’s not because they’re comparing themselves to everyone in the world. It’s because the standard of living keeps dropping in front of them. It’s all relative.

This is all to say, there’s no clear path forward. This divide makes relationships difficult when identifying oneself with political ideologies. Especially when ideologies are dirtied with intellectual distrust.

Title inspiration (more)


  1. Follow me on Twitter if you want more of that. If you want less, uh, sorry. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We Can Define the Future We Want

AKA Why Tomorrowland is an underrated film.

Since the election season started last year I’ve been in a constant state of low-idle anxiety and depression punctuated by spikes of “What is the world coming to?” and “Everything is going to be OK!”. Keeping up felt stressful and zoning out felt irresponsible. I was thinking things would have subsided after the general election, but hey what do you know. It hasn’t. ಠ_ಠ

So, this is one of those pithy blog posts where we take a step back and over-analyze a medium – in this case science fiction film – as a signpost of, “WE WERE WARNED”.

Science fiction has always been rich with possible futures for humanity. Some plausible, others far into the realm of the bizarre. One thing all science fiction attempts to do is provide a mirror on humanity and our choices and present possible futures. Most fictional universes, like our own reality, contain the potential for good, but are blocked or marred by some form of evil or wrongness.

So, what does science fiction have to do with our current state? Well, for one if we had all watched Tomorrowland we’d all be more informed and prepared for this crap. 1 Presented as a science fiction film, it provides a dark potential future.

Recently, Lizzie O’Leary from Marketplace interviewed Robert Capps, the Senior Editor at Wired to discuss their recent Sci-fi issue.

Lizzie O’Leary: Many of the visions in here are pretty dark. Why do you think that happened?

Capps: I think there’s a couple of reasons. We started doing this issue a good eight months ago and we actually were approaching writers six months ago. But I think that going back six months we had a very bitter election. We had a mass shooting at a nightclub in Florida. Really, it’s not so much dark, or even pessimism, but uncertainty. There is some warnings of, we should think about how we want to go forward and what we want our society and our planet to look like.

Again, this is what science fiction does best. Presenting us with possible futures – ones with uncertainty, and making us reflect upon the reality we face. That’s where Tomorrowland comes in.

Set in an alternate reality where the brightest minds attempt to make a Utopia for all mankind, things go to pot. The cynical “maybe a good guy at the beginning, but really a bad guy” Nix, played by Hugh Laurie, reveals that an invention has been influencing the thoughts of civilization for the last 50 years – feeding negative thoughts and ideas about the end of the world into the minds of everyone on Earth.

Nix, has a great monologue toward the end of the film,

“Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to… the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because, what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. But, how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because *that* future does not ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! That’s not the monitor’s fault. That’s yours.”

Emphasis mine.

Good science fiction should inspire us. We can use its shiny surface to reflect the future we want.

We have to fight against uncertainty, to not give in. Consuming the 24 hour news cycle, social media, and so much angst everywhere we turn is not healthy for us as individuals. It does not make the uncertain more certain. Action does. I’m encouraged and embolden by the people marching, protesting, calling representatives, donating, and talking about these issues. I hope it continues.

One more bit of appropriate dialog, from again a film I think is undervalued. This time between the protagonist and her father.

Casey Newton: There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. Which wolf wins?
Eddie Newton: Come on, Casey.
Casey: Okay, fine. Don’t answer.
Eddie: Whichever one you feed.

 


  1. Tomorrowland is not the only or best representation of science fiction warning us of potential follies, but one of the more recent and straightforward examples. While flawed, it is a favorite film of mine. My biggest criticism is that the film supposes that the best people abandon Earth to make a utopia with plans to invite everyone later. That would never work, as many people would feel shunned for not being included in the creation of said utopia. In my opinion, the filmmakers should have framed the creation of Tomorrowland as less of a, “Hey let the smart people figure this out. We’ll call you when it’s ready.”, and more of an inclusive “Everyone can pitch in with their unique skills” sort of message. But I digress.

Sammus – XOXO

“Balancing a full-time hip-hop career while pursuing her PhD in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo’s been producing beats and rapping under the moniker Sammus since 2009, a powerful voice at the intersection of music and technology, covering subjects as diverse as video games and cartoons to social justice and mental health.”

Oof. Sammus’ talk was really strong, and then she started performing and all the feels came out. Watching this again, on YouTube, at my computer, still gives me chills.

 

Talia Jane – XOXO

Another great talk from XOXO. The intrepid Talia Jane.

“After her open letter to Yelp’s CEO, writer and comedian Talia Jane was fired for blowing the whistle on the treatment of “lower tier” employees in Silicon Valley, and faced a non-stop barrage of personal attacks and accusations of “millennial entitlement.” Two months later, Yelp raised wages company-wide for the employees of their food delivery app who could barely afford to eat.”

I’ve been in sucky situations where I though a message to the higher, higher-ups would be A Good Idea, but I’ve been too fearful of the repercussions to actually carry it out. That’s as a straight white guy who’d probably get praised for speaking up and ‘being a leader’ or whatever biased BS other white dudes tell each other. 🙂

Talia is amazing because how brave she was in her convictions. She not only lost her job but received undue assault over the Internet.

There’s much to be said about the great things the interconnectedness the Internet has brought to the world. The shitty part is when people use that distance and anonymity to take out aggressions on other people instead of doing the right thing.

Talia made one hell of a positive change to other people that didn’t result in a direct benefit for herself. Not many people do that.

Take away for me: Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. If you find yourself in this kind of situation, get out. Do it before you become unhealthy. Persevere through criticism. Be positive. Do the right thing.

 

 

Reflections on XOXO

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I want to take what remaining energy I have after an amazing week to put some thoughts on paper – to talk about how the gathering of new friends has put some recent events in my life into perspective. This isn’t a review of the talks, how great the food was, and what new thing I learned about. Maybe that will come later. For now, I want to reflect the honesty I saw on display with a few things that have been happening in my life as of late that I have not talked about.

I was impressed by how many presentations challenged the status quo. Speakers asked us to not just think and talk more about these hard things (working independently, relying on others, racism, sexism) but to actually do something about it – making an effort in hiring, getting involved in what is happening locally, calling out assholes, and whatever else gets your ass out of a chair.

At XOXO I was able to see people I admire stand in front of a huge group of people – total strangers – and tell the most honest and open truth there is: one full of vulnerability and openness that is both overwhelming and welcome.jsj

I wanted to do something to echo the outpouring of humanity I saw at XOXO. So, here are a few things that are on my mind at the moment. This is the first time I’ve written about any of this. I see my time at XOXO, the sharing of information, the connections being made between people, and the bravery in talking about how things really are – even when it’s not glamorous – to be a call-to-action.

Instead of ignoring injustices and being comfortable we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and stand up for what we believe in. To keep moving forward. Writing this is extremely uncomfortable. I freely admit it is not a giant leap, but a small step. Writing this down and sharing it holds me to figuring these things out, to taking action.

Enjoy, or whatever the appropriate reaction to this is.

The Reflection

Earlier this year I had a small blush with Gamergate. Nothing personally threatening, but rather quite sad. It’s not resolved in my mind. I’m still not sure what to do.

I was reading Twitter one day when an author I admire made a reference to some GG’ers surprisingly making a positive comment about him in one of their forums. Out of curiosity I went to the forum to see what was being said. I was immediately struck with the headline of a thread. There would be a presentation on Gamergate hosted by an active GG’er at a local convention near my home.

I was like, “What the hell!? Who is actually giving someone in this group a literal stage to talk about their shitty tribe?” So I did what any normal human would do: I Googled the crap out of this person to learn as much as I can about them. Totally not creepy, right?

What I found was a local young dude with a similar background as I, but 10 years apart: same neighborhoods, same school, same college, male, white, young and lonely. I found an old Twitter account, where he gushed about his girlfriend at the time, family life, and his emotions and feelings. It was beautiful and all too familiar.

I thought, “Here’s a local young man with a similar background who was suckered into the fold of GG and their ideology. Why didn’t I? What could I say to him? How could I reach out to him?” 1

I created an account in the forum, and reached out to him. I asked if we could meet to talk before his presentation, if I could better understand where he was coming from, and what he was trying to do.

We met in person and chatted for an hour or so. He genuinely seem concerned with video game journalism and “censorship” of imported games. I asked him why use the Gamergate banner? Why identify with a group that has a terrible reputation? His response was that it wouldn’t matter. That the Gamergate he was part of was not the harassing part.

He was very dismissive of any arguments I brought up. It was frustrating. I kept my patience. I paid the fee to go to the conference and see his presentation. It was focused on the history of Gamergate (smoothing over all the false accusations and harassment) and restated the same rhetoric about bias, censorship, and journalism. No citations, no research, just more of the same Gamergate rhetoric.

All I heard was a scared lonely young man who found a sliver of power and self-worth in a group.

I reached out. I tried to understand. I am still thinking about this young person. I don’t have a clue what to do, if anything. I want him to be successful and happy. I worry that he won’t be.

The Parents

My in-laws recently bought a handgun. My wife and I are against guns. 2 My wife and I expressed this to her parents months ago. We did not want a gun around our children when they visited or stayed the night. They assured us they would not get a gun.

They got a gun. Months later we found out.

Two of the most compassionate, helpful, and loving people have been driven by fear to carrying a gun for “protection.” Since their retirement they rarely leave the house, they do not meet new people, they do not explore. Instead they watch 24/7 news that has led them to believe that ISIL is going to attack our small town, and that the terrorists are among us.

My father-in-law has taken to wearing camouflage now. In the past 15 years he has never talked about his experiences in the military, now he is “prepared.” He is now talking about ‘them’ coming to get ‘us.’ He’s supporting Trump. He carries a gun to the grocery store: a Dierbergs that’s literally across the street from where they raised two daughters and their grandchildren.

He says he has a gun in case someone breaks in or he needs to act. It’s in a locked safe, unloaded, and he, frankly, has terrible vision. He’s more likely to shoot himself or a loved one accidentally than be the good guy with a gun.

They lied to us. Their actions are worrying us. They have not seen their grandchildren since that day months ago.

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WTF does this have to do with XOXO?

I don’t know how to fix these things. My heart wants to make things right. Whatever that means in each. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I shouldn’t. I just can’t fucking figure it out. It’s wearing on me.

I have not lost as much as others. I have not struggled for as long. I’m aware of my fortune and privilege.

When I was young we were on food stamps. I was embarrassed at where I grew up. 3 My poor grades. Old, unglamorous jobs.

Then I get the chance to go to this amazing and scary event. Where I’ll be meeting people who I find to be inspiring. I thought maybe they’d have it figured out.

The individuals creating and sharing  in this space – each with a new sense of honesty, intimacy and connectedness. They all came together and I was fortunate enough to be among them: my heroes.

Being at XOXO was cathartic. It made me feel like I was not the only one struggling with these types of issues. Hearing from other people – the humans of the Internet – working to make things better. That we’ve collectively figured that much out.

XOXO, the people and their stories give me hope. We are not alone. The world is getting better. We are in this together. We are doing good. It is making a difference. It is important. It is hard.

The world is getting more inclusive. It happens frustratingly slowly, but it is happening. We are on the right side of history – I have no doubt now.

We will be ok.

 

More reflections from XOXO:

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  1. At the time I was also worried about revealing too much about myself as Gamergate folks don’t have the most rational reaction to folks inviting criticism.

  2. Generally. I grew up in rural Missouri and was raised around guns. I am proficient in firearms thanks to my experiences as a youth and as a member of the Boy Scouts of America. I have an understanding of their practical operation and use. I do not see the need in the context of my life. [anyone else in suburban America.] I don’t hunt, live in the wilderness, or subscribe to the terrible excuse of a ‘bad neighborhood’.

  3. Still am. Which is why when folks ask me where I live I say St. Louis. I actually live in Fenton, a small town 20 minutes outside of St. Louis City known for nothing.