Gongol.com Archives: August 2021

Brian Gongol

August 10, 2021

Computers and the Internet The emoji we need right now

Emoji (or do we say emojis?) may leave a lot of matters up for dispute, but they are a convenient way of integrating feelings into what otherwise might be misconstrued text. Thus, an upside-down smiley face represents sarcasm or "frustrated resignation", while the thinking-face emoji can stand in for the user's skepticism or bemusement. Emotional texture like this makes the language more useful and vibrant, especially in public forums like social media, where character limits and social norms discourage us from writing out what we mean in greater detail. ■ Yet even as we approach an official emoji catalog numbering nearly 2,000 entries, there is one emoji we still need above all: One that says, "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?" ■ We are surrounded by too many fanatics, and the Internet is rocket fuel for most of them. This is neither a partisan nor a sectarian point. It is merely an observation that, objectively, too many among us obsess about too little, and the resulting narrowness of debate and discussion impoverishes the public square (such as it is in the Internet Age). ■ It is not just that our worst obsessives cannot have vigorous discussions with people who disagree with them. It is not only that there are assumptions of bad faith everywhere that discourage good people from engaging outside their comfort zones. It is not merely that some people cannot help but see every event as a moment to try to score another point on some vast cosmic argument scoreboard. ■ No, even though it is all of those things, the worst thing is that it makes our zeitgeist utterly and insufferably predictable. We're stifling legitimate curiosity with a never-ending buffet of mental comfort food. We live in the most advanced, most prosperous, most complex moment in human history -- yet how often do people with national audiences and giant platforms truly seek to surprise? Life should be abundant with serendipity, and yet there is little that will ever surprise the consumer of cable television news, major daily opinion pages, syndicated radio programming, or even the infinite stream of commentary on Twitter. So much of the public discourse is so predictable that there's little sense in indulging in it. ■ Part of the problem is, of course, partisanship -- and perhaps negative partisanship even more than that: It's easier to speak up when you can expect the usual suspects to call you names while an amen chorus rises to your defense. Part of the problem is credentialism: If the experts on a given subject work hard enough, they can clear the space of any curious outsiders who might try to venture a new opinion that crosses out of "their lane". Part of the problem is the devolution of politics into team sports: If social acceptance is preordained by your membership in a tribe, why would you ever venture an original idea outside of the canon, lest you be distrusted on all sides? ■ Consequently, with most everyone -- including, perhaps especially, the smartest among us -- afraid to be wrong, be original, or be curious outside the bounds of what "everyone's talking about", we're not so much amusing ourselves to death as we are boring ourselves to death. A small number of fanatics commit themselves to hijacking every discussion and routing it back to familiar battlegrounds, and it scares away people of more moderate temperaments. It's a quasi-industrial outrage complex that crowds out nuanced and complex original thoughts. ■ It happens nationally, it happens locally, and it even happens among friends and family. It's the Facebook friend who won't stop sharing anti-vaccination tirades, the local blogger with a vendetta against an elected official, the radio host who still provides a platform for election misinformation, and the columnist whose only beat is martyrdom. ■ It's deathly boring, and it's keeping us from thinking beyond a carefully-rehearsed set of opinions on a tiny handful of subjects. We need to know better than to get trapped in the familiar intellectual cul-de-sacs, and we need to be willing to transgress among our own supposed friends and allies to remind the obsessives: "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?"

Weather and Disasters Bad 2020 flashbacks

On what otherwise seemed a nondescript Monday morning among others in pandemic-locked-down 2020, a derecho roared across Iowa and into points east, causing in excess of $11 billion in damage -- more than any other thunderstorm event in American history. Straight-line wind speeds peaked at 140 miles an hour around Cedar Rapids, which ended up losing half of its tree canopy. ■ It's hard to explain the scale of damage that occurs when everything in a band 50 miles wide and hundreds of miles long struck almost simultaneously by winds of 70 mph or greater. Corn everywhere was laid flat to the ground, trees were shredded and permanently bent, and debris was scattered everywhere. The storm was frightening on the ground and stunning from the sky. The proper meteorological term was derecho, but it deserved to be called a windquake -- it was abrupt, widespread, and devastating. ■ The silence and darkness on the nights that followed the storm were eerie. So much of the state lost power -- including huge portions of Iowa's two largest metro areas, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids -- that it took a remarkable surge of electrical workers from all over the country to restore power to the more than 400,000 customers who lost it. ■ It's not only cliche but also inaccurate to say that the derecho left a huge share of Iowans living in what felt like a developing country. 90% of the world's population had access to electricity as of 2019 (and that number continues rising fast). More than a billion people gained access to electricity between 2005 and 2016. ■ Along with power outages came Internet outages, and not only because it's hard to access Wi-Fi without a functioning router. 49% of the world's people had Internet access by 2019, and though access varies by region, more than half of the people in each of North America, Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, East Asia, and the Pacific can get online. ■ As Iowans found when we were forced to go without, services like electricity and Internet access aren't mere creature comforts: They are essential tools for getting work done, for making use of most modern amenities (like refrigeration), and for engaging with the world. While there are still too many of our fellow Earthlings living in poverty, we should take cheer that the global middle class is a majority and growing. ■ The good news is that some lessons were learned: The National Weather Service now issues alerts for especially destructive thunderstorms (warning based upon the actual risk of harm from the threat, rather than on the express definition of the threat itself), and people who experienced the derecho have in many cases brought forward new ideas and plans for resiliency in anticipation of the next high-impact event. Derechos will happen again, and even ordinary severe thunderstorms can happen on the anniversary of the big one. ■ But in addition to giving us lessons in self-sufficiency and neighborly cooperation, memories of that brief, painful step backward in time ought to make us cheerleaders for the continued progress of people living all over the world as so many continue escaping extreme poverty and deprivation. Going without electricity (just for a while) put Iowans in the bottom global 10%. It was an unpleasant place to be, but with planning, attention, and continued growth, our next stay will be shorter and there will be even fewer other people joining us there.

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