Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - December 29, 2013
Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio
Take it down a notchI'm worried about the heroinization of content and attention. There must be a better way to put it, but I don't know of any other word to use that suggests the kind of intensity of the addiction that people seem to have towards ever-more stimulation by talking, chatter, Internet buzz, and pleas for attention.
If all that matters is getting attention, then we end up rewarding those who are best at screaming -- not those who are best at thinking. A quick glance at what you probably see on your Facebook news feed will most likely confirm this. It's not like people are sharing more of their own meaningful thoughts...many, however, are sharing ever more of the ridiculous, the outlandish, and the extreme -- pictures and posts that other people generated and your friends share. I have friends who share nothing but the most loud-mouthed of political sentiments. Not their own, mind you, but carefully-packaged items generated by groups on both the left and the right, all designed just to be shared and to occupy more space in front of your eyeballs. And because it helps people to confirm their own political identities, there's no shortage of people willing to share those ready-made propaganda pieces in ever-increasing volume.
I don't think that politics is driven solitarily by what people read on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else online. But I do think that many of these sites are very good at causing us to let our guard down and feel like we're being addressed directly by our own friends on a one-to-one basis, not propagandized by organized groups. The result, I fear, is unhealthy...especially when it causes people to assume the worst of their fellow human beings.
Filling in for Jan Mickelson on WHO Radio this week, I ranged across a number of different topics, and some of those topics instigated feedback from listeners. Some of them espoused some pretty far-out views. And I don't really care whether people believe in things that are far-out, but I do care whether they believe that their opponents are well-intended.
Don't ascribe to malice what is at least equally explained by incompetence.
I look at friends and acquaintances on the left who think that the Republican party is out to beat every middle-class and poor person with a shovel and then chase them into the ocean. And I look at friends and acquaintances on the right who think that President Obama is a real-life Manchurian Candidate out to literally destroy America. The less these people have their opinions reinforced by thoughtless recitation of propagandistic memes on the Internet, the better off we'll all be.
In many ways, I'm convinced that the present administration in the White House is insufficiently competent for the task of running the nation's business. But I still assume that they mean well. I think we owe it to one another to be specific in our criticisms, and to confine those criticisms to the acts, not to the character of our opponents. It's a rare, rare case in which we are faced with truly sociopathic opponents. The NIH says that maybe 1 in 100 people is a diagnosable sociopath. That's it. The rest of us are just doing the best we can.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories don't help. Nor are most of them plausible -- they assume that you could legitimately organize large numbers of sociopaths together in ways that would go undetected by the rest of us. I have a problem with that.
Instead, I think it's healthy to acknowledge that we live in an imperfect world, so we choose the best we can among imperfect options:
- "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried," said Winston Churchill.
- Free markets are terrible (the invisible hand forces us to work when we don't want to, and unequally distributes the rewards of that work)...except when you consider how miserably Communism, feudalism, Marxism/Leninism, mercantilism, and all of the other forms of economics have worked.
- Free speech leads to hurt feelings and terrible offense...but it's a vastly better thing than being told not to say what we think. Better to hate what your opponent says but defend their right to say it.
- The Federal Reserve System relies on human beings to make enormous assumptions based upon awfully imperfect data and a still-evolving understanding of economics. That's terrible...but it's a whole lot better than handing the monetary printing press directly to the government, or adopting a monetary standard based on something as capricious as the gold standard, or hoping that arbitrary currency management a la Bitcoins will keep us afloat.
- The two-party system in American politics is sclerotic and contentious...but if we think that the candidate with the most votes should get the job, and that the majority should rule in a legislature, then a two-party system is mathematically inevitable. And it's really no different from a multi-party system...we just form our coalitions within the parties before the election, rather than after the votes have been cast.
We can always do better, but if each of us rewards extreme talk, outrageous claims, and cartoonish lampooning of our opponents, then we waste valuable time that could be spent improving our imperfect world.
News of the week
Whatever happened to painting ceilings like the sky?
Architectural losses of 2013
The Pan Am Terminal at JFK, and others
WCCO returns a weather beacon to Minneapolis
...after 31 years of absence
What's killing people right now
Literally -- what's causing death, and what we should know about it
Iowa's unemployment rate is about 4.4%
Well below the national figure. And in some metro areas, it's even lower yet.
An insulin pill may be very close to reality
Diabetics may be spared insulin shots
Online sales and last-minute orders overwhelmed UPS's ability to deliver packages at Christmas
Amazon.com and UPS are going to be making some expensive refunds. FedEx had serious delivery delays, too.
Chipmunk plans better than most people
A budget has at last been signed
It was inexcusable to go so long without a budget
2013's "naughty" and "nice" influences on the world economy
China aims lower
The government is hoping for a 7.5% rate of economic growth in 2014. They were hoping for 8% in 2013. The new target would still be a rapid rate of expansion, but half of a percentage point is a lot to shave off expectations.
UN says thousands have been killed in South Sudan
It's not good for humanity that a situation like this can go on and still seem like a remote problem
Dell says a quarter-million computers are infected by Cryptolocker
A hugely important component of their report: "Backups to locally connected, network-attached, or cloud-based storage are not sufficient because CryptoLocker encrypts these files in the same manner as those found on the system drive."
Facebook might kill itself by trying to be everything, all the time, to everyone
Specialization may be the way to stay durable. And now that Facebook is toying with video ads, they're really going to test the patience of some users.
Attitude starts at the top
Governors who make positive and optimistic "condition of the state" speeches may actually influence their local business communities to invest.
Standard and Poor's says Europe is no longer has AAA credit
Putin says America is "non-traditional"
Ah, for the days when we all understood the original meaning and intent of the label "classical liberalism"
State-owned resort is barely breaking even
If you don't like Washington gridlock, you may need to change the system
But motion isn't the same as action -- and action isn't necessarily what we always should want from our political representatives. So if they aren't getting things done, isn't that often a good thing unto itself?
Contagious arrogance in Silicon Valley?
Clever people figuring out technical problems shouldn't mistake themselves for great philosophers. There's a big mistake to be made in confusing a particular type of technical skill (coding/programming/hacking) with deeper wisdom. It's the kind of mistake that causes us to let older people think they're stupid for not knowing how to navigate Facebook and let younger people think they're creating a whole new world via hashtags and Snapchat. Nobody should have thought themselves stupid fifty years ago because they didn't know how to operate a Linotype press, and nobody should prematurely dismiss themselves today because they can't program an iPhone app.
British plan to block porn with filters goes a little farther than that
When people trust their government to nanny them into "safety" online, they're going to find that the nanny has a tsk-tsk attitude about a lot more than just some dirty pictures. When you're in a democracy, even when you deputize other people to make decisions on your behalf, they're only deputies. You're ultimately responsible for the conclusions. It's just like dealing with your doctor: You may not have a medical degree, but you have to retain the good sense to know whether to act upon the recommendations you receive -- and when to seek a second opinion.
Some Iowans are about to get 8-year drivers' licenses
Facebook joins the S&P 500 Index
A couple of observations on this event: First, do the people who wring their hands over the (false) impression that "Nobody makes anything in America anymore" think that the rise of services like Facebook is a bad alternative to people building widgets? Separately, from an investor's standpoint, it's hard not to worry about those who put their hard-earned money into investments in companies like Facebook. Facebook succeeds only because of a herd mentality. Sure, it goes by the more impressive name of the "network effect", but the bottom line is that it only works if everyone wants in and agrees that it's working. The moment public opinion starts to shift away from the site -- perhaps their new video ads become just too intrusive, or the terms of service get just too onerous, or maybe Facebook just ceases to be cool (like what happened to MySpace) -- that's the moment the company is no longer valuable. There's no institutional inertia keeping the site above water, and the moment it starts to slip, the negative feedback loop that results will kill the site.