Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decision-Making, Love, And The Limits Of Autonomy

This week in my Moral Issues class we're talking about assisted suicide and euthanasia. I think the issues related to these topics are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, I want to be able to choose to die, and I support other people's right to make that decision for themselves. On the other hand, 1) I think the way we respond to such requests can't help but reflect what lives we think are worth living and 2) once new options are on the table, we ask ourselves different questions.

If you wade a bit into thinking about these issues, you come quickly into the nature of autonomy -- or self-directedness. With big decisions like this, we tend to think autonomy is really important. If you choose it for yourself, that's one thing, but if you're pressured or coerced into it, that's something else.  

In a way, this is completely intuitive. If a person said they were choosing medical aid in dying, and it was because their children had threatened them with harm for not choosing it, obviously that is not OK, and it seems right to say that the reason it's not OK is that the choice is coerced. It's not free, informed consent.

But as we've written about before, the further you go in thinking about the difference between free and coerced choices, the more confusing things can get. On the one hand, social context can influence choices in problematic ways. If girls don't study math, even though they like it, because of social pressure, or if boys act all tough and mean because they feel like masculine gender norms require it, those choices may not seem autonomous, because they are being influenced.

On the other hand, every choice takes place in social context. How would you begin to disentangle the ones that make you "not yourself"? What would that mean, to be yourself in the absence of a social context?

Even relational theories of autonomy -- theories designed to fit the idea that a person's self can be a socially connected self -- have this problem. Imagine a society in which women are socialized to be deferential, or prioritize the concerns of others. Do deferential preferences and judgments reflect full autonomy on their part? Some theorists -- proceduralists -- say that as long as the process of decision-making is properly reflective, then sure. That's who they are. Other theorists -- substantivists -- say no: if you're socialized to be deferential because of sexist social norms, that is a way of not being fully yourself.

All of this was on my mind recently when one of my graduate students shared with me this very interesting news story about a couple deciding to request medical aid in dying. They were married for 55 years, and wanted to die together, but their request was denied, on grounds that acting together created the possibility that one person was influencing the other. And these decisions must be fully autonomous.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association said "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence. … It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they’re agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence. .. Out of an abundance of caution, it is our advice that you can’t be sure that one member of the couple isn’t under influence, even if both members qualify."

Whatever you think about this decision, the case shows how murky things get when you talk about being autonomous and acting in the absence of "influence" when you're talking about relationships. In one way, of course the two people are influencing one another's decisions. As they should. Imagine two people. The first one says, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too." The second one says, "I want medical aid in dying. Even though we are very close, I haven't talked it over with my spouse, so I don't know what they think -- whether they think it's the right decision." Wouldn't you think it's the second person who has a problem with decision-making?

And yet, clearly the people closest to use can influence us in problematic ways. If a person said, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too. After all, they're going to have their hands full taking care of our children and finding a new spouse and all. So we agreed that the sooner we get my death over with, the better it is for them. And making them happy is my main goal in life." Well -- wouldn't you want to at least talk this over further? It does sound like problematic influence.

Love should make autonomy complicated. Love often means interdependence, and it should. It's hardly surprising that interdependence on others and "being yourself" are hard to tease apart.

I think there are no easy answers. But I also think part of the problem is trying to shoehorn every complex ethical decision into the framework of personal freedom. Yes, freedom is important. But trying to treat each process as ethically neutral, grounded in some unattainable ideal of "personal autonomy," isn't really workable or desirable.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Duo Lingo And The Sneakier Downsides Of Gamification


 A few days ago I started using Duo Lingo -- the website and app for language learning. For now, I'm trying to improve my French.

As maybe you know, Duo Lingo uses gamification, which, as I understand it, means harnessing the power of visuals and rewards associated with games to make whatever you are doing really fun and engaging and maybe even addictive.

Before I used Duo Lingo, I had a sort of low-level general suspicion of gamification. But I thought language-learning was one area where it made total sense.

My general suspicions were grounded in several kinds of considerations.

First, it seems to me like there's a fine line between gamification and the saddest aspects of the "attention economy" described by Tim Wu and others. Capitalism means someone is paying to get your attention in one place rather than another. Using finely-honed techniques that make people really really good at that has got to end in depressing conclusions. Wu says the forces controlling our attention have us narcotized with listicles and that "fame, or the hunger for it, would become something of a pandemic, swallowing up more and more people and leaving them with scars of chronic attention-whoredom."

All this to say: the more sophisticated the techniques for harvesting your attention, the more someone is getting you to pay attention to what they want you to pay attention to. You could call this mind-control and not even really be exaggerating.

Furthermore, it seems to me that even learning through gamification could be a problem. A lot of what I teach -- and a lot of what I think matters most -- is inherently complex, open-ended, and subject to interpretation. It has been depressing the last year or so to see people saying things like "I guess statistics don't tell us everything we need to know" or "people believe what they believe for all kinds of complex reasons." FFS. Yes, in the humanities, we've known that forever, and if I sound bitter it's only because not only is teaching humanities hard, we've had to scramble to even keep our existence lately. Despite the fact that so many problems are actually people problems and not technology problems.

It's bad enough when people want to be able to learn via bullet points and slides, so that even a short essay seems to them a hopelessly dull and involved kind of thing. With gamification that's going to get even worse. "What do you mean I can't learn about the Middle East Crisis or income inequality or decoloniation in a few minutes with fun graphics? OK .. just forget the whole thing."

Before I used Duo Lingo, I thought that language-learning -- especially at the early stages -- was perhaps one context well-suited to gamification. A lot of the questions have straightforward right-or-wrong answers. There are some straightforward things to learn. And you need a lot of repetition. The ideal conditions for gamification!

To a certain extent, my experience so far has proven that to be true. Duo Lingo is fun to use, I feel an incentive to use it regularly, and I appreciate the way the algorithm keeps track of what I'm up on and what I need to work on and adjusts my practice. It is non-stressful and also not boring, which are qualities that almost never go together in the modern world.

And yet. I was disturbed to find myself thinking at several points over the last day or two, "Oh, this writing/teaching prep/answering email/ is difficult. Maybe I should take a break and do some Duo Lingo?"

I actually found myself having to fight off the urge. The power of the desire comes partly from the sense that using Duo Lingo is doing something productive. So -- sure, why not take a break from a difficult and frustrating productive thing to do an easy and fun productive thing?

And this, honestly, is just what I was worried about in the first place. Somehow, through a combination of luck and effort, I have that rarest of things: an ability to do and even enjoy quiet and complicated things. I use this ability in my work, but I also use it to enjoy literature, music, and other things. I am very protective of it.

If using Duo Lingo everyday means I'm going to stop getting lost in long novels and opera performances and start looking up every five minutes to be like "Oh, should I stop this quiet activity and go use Duo Lingo"? Well -- then forget it.

For now, we're good. I'll keep you posted. A bientôt!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Partner Dancing Needs A Queer Revolution

I used to dance when I was young, and then I didn't dance for a long, long time, and then I started to want to dance again. So I started thinking about "what kinds of dancing," and one aspect of the contemporary dance scene that one immediately confronts is that a lot of dancing is geared either toward performance or toward what I learned is called "social dancing." And a lot of social dancing is partner dancing, where two people dance together.

In North America, partner dancing seems to include ballroom dancing, waltz, tango, salsa, and related styles. I want to dance to have a good time, not to perform, so on the face of it, social dancing is just what I'm looking for, and I like the idea of partner dancing -- dancing with someone. As I've known for decades, though, social partner dancing presents a person with an immediate problem: one person has to follow the other.

I've tried partner dancing a few times in my life, and leading and following is one of the first lessons. A shocking amount of partner dancing seems to still involve a man and a woman paired up together, and when it does, it's the man who leads and the woman who follows. OK, it's 2017, so that's a little nuts right off the bat. But when you start being instructed on how to follow, you realize it's even crazier than its sounds.

I remember in one class being told that to be a good follower, you had to be ultra attentive to the tiniest gestures and glances of your partner, so you could sense, as immediately as possible, what direction they were going to go in, and what move they were going to do. It's not like a "Simon Says" situation. It's more like immersing yourself in a study of the physicality of the other person, to sense them, understand them, and respond to them.

I remember when I heard that I was kind of horrified. I mean, one of the things that makes it difficult to be a woman in the modern world is that women are socialized to study men, sense them, understand them, and respond to them. And while it would be nice in romance if everyone would study, sense, understanding, and respond to others, in public life and work the gendered difference in this activity becomes a huge problem. know a lot of women share my sense that in those contexts, studying, sensing, understanding and responding to men's every motion and glance is what we're trying to unlearn. And now doing it is going to be part of my dancing? My dancing I am doing for fun?

If you think I'm exaggerating the creepiness of following, notice that the "following" advice on this page includes the sentence: "I tell women 'you are a food cart, with steel arms and really good wheels.'"

This is no good. Something should change so social partner dancing can get away from all these heteronormative styles and norms. Maybe there are already queer social dances and places that I just don't know about. But even if there are, they haven't made their way to my local dancing class studios, which are in a big city and probably have a lot of queer clientele already. So, what to do?

What does it mean to dance "with someone" if neither person is following? One idea would be for there to be more set and choreographed dances that people would learn. What's wrong with dances that follow a specific script of where you go and what steps you do and when? Then if both people know the dance, they can do it together, without anyone following.

In fact, if the steps are choreographed and always the same, the sensing and responding that is an annoying part of gendered following could become a lighter and more mutual thing. Making sure the dance moves smoothly is something both people could do together. Weren't there European dances that like this back in the day?

If you look at this description of The Quadrille, you'll see a highly structured dance with multiple couples. Interestingly, the Quadrille is related to modern square dancing -- a form in which dance figures are "called." Why can't that structure be danced to cool new music with cool new moves? That seems like it would be really fun.

I thought about this idea before, when I was in BodyAttack. As regular readers know, I'm obsessed with this class, which is officially a "sports inspired" workout class -- but if you've been, you know it has a lot of goofy moves and a hilarious anthemic track 8 with a chorus-line feeling. Anyway, a few years ago a release came out where the "agility track" involved getting into groups on either side of the room, and moving toward one another and then away, facing front and then facing one another, all set to this incredibly infectious electronic dance song "Hardcore Salsa 2K14 (Hardstyle Edit)."

It was really fun. When I did it in Paris at the gym near Place de la République, it was in the dark with disco lights on, and it was awesome. I remember thinking: this is like a dance. If I'd known what a quadrille was, I might have thought, "This is like a quadrille." Why not more things like that? Not only could the people identify in any way gender-wise, the partners could shift around during the dance, which would actually be cool and awesome.

In some ways partner dancing is such an antidote to the ills of modern life. It is an essentially in-person activity, it is artistic, it encourages everyone making themselves a little bit vulnerable, and it doesn't require expensive equipment. Plus -- it is dancing! If only we could solve the leader-follower thing, we'd really be getting somewhere.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

My Brush With The Implict Threat Model Of Guy-Guy Interactions

One day I was walking along in Buffalo, New York and I had an interestingly gendered interaction with some strangers.

It was winter, and everyone was really bundled up: I was wearing jeans, and boots, an old coat an old boyfriend had kindly given me because I liked it so much, a hat, a scarf, and, I think, sunglasses. I was walking on a major street, but since the sidewalks were imperfectly shoveled, and it was icy and snowy, there was a bit of a narrowness to the path ahead.

I saw two guys coming toward me, walking along the sidewalk together. I didn't think anything of it. As we got close to each other, and I started to step slightly aside to let them pass, the guys crashed into me -- deliberately. Not quite hard enough to knock me over, but almost. I looked up at them, like WTF? And then I heard one of the guys say to the other, "Hey, it's a girl! Stop, stop, it's a girl!"

I understood immediately what had happened. Thinking I was a guy, they had a guy-guy interaction with me. I don't know if they were trying to start something, or if something about my clothing -- girlish, if you thought I was a guy -- struck them as a problem, or whether they were just crabby and wanted to take it out on someone. On realizing I was a woman, their whole way of relating to me changed. I was no longer a stranger with whom being physically combative would seem like the thing to do.

I am not sure whether the guys were white guys, or black guys, or guys of some other race. Maybe I didn't notice at the time or maybe I forgot. I am white; I wonder, if I actually were a guy, whether the racial aspect of the situation would have struck me as more salient, as an insight into the kind of aggression being put out there. I don't know.

Anyway, I was disturbed enough to want to put some distance between us, so I just turned away and went on my way. And they went on theirs, past me in the opposite direction.

It was just a few seconds, but I have thought about this interaction so many times since then. I have always known, intellectually, that the way guys relate to one another often has an implicit-threat aspect to it -- whether that's a physical threat or one involving subtler forms of social power. But experiencing it first-hand made me appreciate this fact in a deeper and more visceral way.

The fact that guy-guy interactions often have this implicit-threat aspect to them seems to me relevant not only to understanding masculinity and guy-guy relations, but also to understanding feminism and any-gender relations. One reason is that there's a certain kind of guy who always takes feminism to be asking for "special" or "favorable" treatment for women. To which feminists have -- correctly -- pointed out that feminism isn't about special or favorable treatment, but rather about equality, respect, and dismantling sexist gender norms. But there's no question that feminism does not seek to replace other-gender relations with the "implicit threat" model of guy-guy interactions. It's not: "please treat me the way you would treat some guy." So, in some sense, the matter is a bit complex.

I was talking this over with my friend, and he pointed out that while guy-guy interactions do often carry an aspect of aggression, he also thought that the kind of aggression guys often show toward women has a distinct aspect, so that misogyny involves a special kind of motivated anger and ill-will. I think that's true, and so it would be too simple to conclude that if men treated other men with more respect they might, in the name of equality, treat women with more respect.

But it does suggest that, in some sense, a call to "equality" is insufficient for bringing about the gender-happy utopia. Because nobody wants the implicit threat model of guy-guy interactions to become the more widespread model of person-person interactions.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Things I Am Disproportionately Angry About

There's so much in the world to be proportionally angry about because they are, in fact, awful. But what about the things we're disproportionately angry about? Here are a few of mine.

1. Anna Wintour's sunglasses.

Everyone knows how hard it is to be a woman of a certain age in the public eye. As women get older, women are considered less physically attractive, and since women's cash-value is so often correlated with their appearance, this isn't so much of dating/hotness problem as an everything problem. How can a woman in the public eye craft an image that will garner professional respect as she ages?

It's not crazy to think that Anna Wintour might have helped us with this question. The longtime editor of Vogue is known as a ruthless boss (did you see The Devil Wears Prada?), an astute editor and businessperson, and also a style icon. I don't follow style, but I occasionally found myself hopeful we'd get some insight. How will Anna Wintour look at, say 65?

It is personally infuriating to me that the answer to this question is: sorry, ordinary mortals can never see Anna Wintour's eyes again. Ms. Wintour wears her sunglasses everywhere, indoors and out. We're not talking about those lightly tinted glasses that actresses like Diane Keaton wears. We're talking full-on, impenetrable eyewear:

Becoming "Dame" Wintour

At the Tony Awards

Not only does this look ridiculous, the messages is obvious: the skin around the eyes of women over 65 are is so ugly and awful, it should never, ever be seen.

2. Pointless messages on buses.

If you don't ride transit, you might not appreciate why a person like me would get enraged by messages saying things like "Have a Nice Day" or "Happy Holidays." But the reason is simple. The messages space on the front of buses is there for a reason: to tell potential riders which route it is and where the line ends. We need this info, and we often need it in a timely way. When the buses -- as they often do -- choose to alternate the route into with the pointless message, we stand there on the side of the road like idiots, waiting for the "Have a Nice Day" to disappear so something informative like "Route 94: Ossington Station" can appear.

Maybe if you drive everywhere you don't appreciate the problem. The messages alternate every few seconds. Maybe you're thinking: What's the big deal? You seriously can't wait a few seconds? To which my response is: you go stand on the corner of some street in a blizzard, trying to decide whether to run and catch bus X or walk three blocks over to catch bus Y, and look up to see "Have a Nice Day." I guarantee you will find yourself thinking some version of "What kind of pointless insanity is this?"

Plus, you have to ask yourself: Why? Why are these messages even happening? The only answer I've ever been able to come up with is someone thought "Oh, the messages can alternate. Let's put "Have a Nice Day." What kind of deranged mind thinks this is a good idea?

3. Why can't I get my coffee for here?

As regular readers know, I often carry my own coffee mug or espresso cup to avoid using disposable paper coffee cups so I can feel .00000001 percent less responsible for ruining the planet than I already do. Generally, I regard lugging this mug around as a tax on my time and energy: why can't we be like normal countries, where any place you get coffee is a place you can get it in a normal coffee cup that gets washed on site and reused for other customers? But since we're not, and since I hang out a places like libraries where paper is the only option -- OK, I carry my own mug.

Some days, though, I am not going to the library. Some days, I am out and about and I go to a normal coffee shop. Somehow "normal coffee shop" these days has come to mean paper-by-default and ceramic if you ask really nicely. So I ask really nicely.

Unless I make a federal case out of it, though, I often get served in paper instead. I find I have to order "for here," and then say something like "Could I get it in a ceramic cup"? and then sometimes I have to watch the person and gently say again, "Oh, sorry, could I get it in a ceramic cup"?

WTF? Why? Why is this so hard?

A nearby question is: why don't other people want their coffee in ceramic cups? Everyone I see, even if they're having coffee "for here," even if they have a "Save the planet" tote bag, even if they look indignant when they can't recycle their plastic beverage container, has their coffee in paper. I know this is a topic for another day, but what is up with that? Do people like the paper experience? Do they not trust the cafe dishwasher? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway, I know these are not real problems. Whatever. Have a Nice Day!


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Alternative, Lazier Person's Guide To Longer Lasting Clothes

When I clicked on this article "Beyond Black Friday: 12 ways to care for your clothes," I actually thought I might learn something interesting. I really do "care for my clothes" in the sense of "not putting nice things in the dryer" and sewing on an occasional button. I thought I might find something useful.

Alas, like so many things these days, it's less about practical easy steps and more about "what would your life be like if, instead of having that extra glass of wine, you were learning to iron, darn, and sew?" For example, the article has sentences like "Tom of Holland runs the Visible Mending Programme to highlight the disappearing art of clothing repair."

So here are my alternative tips, for lazier people.

1. Wear lingerie

Or more specifically: wear slips. By "slip," I mean a soft garment meant to be worn under a dress. A slip has nothing to do with shapeware or spandex or anything like that. It is meant to hang sort of loosely around your body. A slip is a genius bit of clothing technology: it protects your dress from getting dirty from your body; unlike a dress, it is easy to wash; it is super comfortable. On top of everything else, when you take off your dress, you look awesome and cute in your slip.

If you wear a slip, you wash your dress like one-sixth as often -- so it will last six times as long.

The fact that the relevant part of most departments stores is 95 percent shapewear and 5 percent slips always astonishes and depresses me. Most modern shapewear is uncomfortable and ugly. People! Why not wear a slip?

2. Visit a tailor

All this blather about learning to sew is missing the point. Whatever is missing/broken/torn on your clothing, you can bring it somewhere to get fixed. In my neighborhood, the people at the drycleaner also know how to fix things. They even fixed my backpack.

Yes, bringing your clothes to get fixed costs money, and is more expensive than fixing them yourself. But this is where straightforward accounting gets you into trouble. Because the comparison you should be making is between paying to get your clothing fixed and paying to get a new piece of clothing. And the answer is obvious: pay to get your clothing fixed.

This same accounting problem comes up a lot in my life because I don't have a car and sometimes I take a taxi. And people are like, "A taxi! So expensive!" But no: compared to cost of a car, it's almost nothing, even when you add it to the cost of a bus pass. The fallacy is thinking of the thing in terms of what it seems like it should cost relative to cheaper ways of getting the same thing. Stop. That is not the comparison class. The comparison class is the other options you'll actually use.

3. Don't be afraid to look a little weird.

There is no doubt that if you want to buy less and throw away less, there's a huge margin in not minding looking weird. Keeping up with "trends" makes you fashionable, but means you're buying new clothes constantly.  

I have jeans I bought ... oh, probably over twenty years ago. They sit low on the hips, and they flare at the bottom. It's the opposite of the "skinny jean" look so trendy today. Though my jeans are out of fashion, as long as I pair them with my shiny ankle boots and/or some cool sunglasses and/or an innovative hair style, the overall look can be good. It's true that the line between "individual sense of style" and "looks weird" can be thin. But who cares?

Fast fashion is destroying the planet with the production of cheap clothes you can wear a few times then throw away. The answer doesn't have to involve reevaluating all your life choices. Just hang your stuff up, fix it when it's broken -- and wear it a lot. Voilà!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why Hoax Theorists And Online Harassment Are A Difficult And Not Easy Problem

I don't know if you saw this recent Guardian article about how conspiracy theorists are hounding the victims of shootings and making their lives unlivable. People who survived the Vegas shooting, parents whose kids were shot in the Sandy Hook shooting, a guy whose daughter was shot live on TV -- for some reason a sizable number of people take it on themselves to harass, threaten, demean and degrade these victims. They create video commentary with inane remarks about whether the person had a weird expression on their face; they make post endless speculation about alternative theories; and they target victims on social media with comments like "you fake asshole, I hope you die soon, you deserve to get shot for real."

This turns out to be a difficult problem to solve. Social media companies like Google, who owns YouTube, are trying to maximize engagement with the site, while the law regards content providers as not legally responsible for the content shared on their websites. Tech companies are trying to craft ethical guidelines, but the work is massive and difficult to scale.

For example, a person can flag a video and recommend it be taken down, but this is described as being "like trying to kill roaches with a fly swatter." The guy whose daughter was shot on live TV decided to try to flag the annotated videos of his daughter being shot -- but he just couldn't do it. Even looking at thumbnail after thumbnail of the video was too much for him.

Not unreasonably, he and other victims would like Google to do something about it. Instead of waiting for victims to flag the videos, couldn't they be proactive? Couldn't they, perhaps, hire people to search for a delete these harassing videos?

The answer is no. As an MIT computer scientist put it: "would they need to hire someone else to handle all the white supremacist harassment, and someone else to handle all the gender harassment? It’s an issue of scale."

To me, it's not surprising that this is a difficult problem. Distinguishing harassing content from non-harassing content is not easy, and there are reasons it's difficult to automate. One reason is that it's a matter of judgment, and judgment reflects a point of view. For instance, posting a video calling the Vegas shooting a hoax and the heroic survivors who saved lives "lying cunts" (as people did) is harassment. But posting a video about whether the government lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is not -- it's political speech. And it's political speech whether or not you use words like "cunt."

These judgments reflect points of view on the world and involve actual normative and ethical judgements. They reflect judgments about what is true, but also about what matters and how much and why, and about when being called a liar is a harm and how harmful it is. For complicated reasons in our society we tend toward the desire for meta-normative principles instead of normative judgments. Like, we seem happy debating the norms of engagement and debate -- "free exchanges of ideas" versus "words can harm people" -- but seem reluctant to acknowledge that the hard cases often come down to actual judgments about actual particulars.

For example, the Guardian article mentions how "YouTube .... has no policy against conspiracy or hoax theory videos in general." As if the judgment call -- this hoax theory/conspiracy theory versus that one -- is irrelevant and the issue can be decided by metanorms -- hoax theory/conspiracy theory versus not that.

But that doesn't seem right to me. Actually, for YouTube to have a policy against hoax theories and conspiracy theories in general would be outrageous. Governments, corporations, and individuals lie all the time. Of course we should be allowed to call them liars. It's not an issue you can decide with metanorms like hoax theories versus no hoax theories.

Among all the heartbreaking things in this article, like Vegas guy who saved someone's life whose name now autocompletes with "crisis actor" in the search bar, one of the most discouraging is the woman who, when contacted by the Guardian, expresses her regret. On a GoFundMe page for the Vegas victim, she called him "beyond fake," saying the he was was guilty of the "worst acting" she had ever seen. When contacted by the Guardian a few weeks later, she said she "had never attacked the family and said she was just searching for answers." Reminded that she had posted a meme on the Facebook page of the victim's brother that called the victim a "lying cunt," she said she didn’t remember and must have been caught up in the moment.

“I do feel bad," she said. "They are people, just like everybody else. Who am I to be calling anybody any kind of names?” she said. Asked if she regrets the attacks, she said: “I 100% do, and if I could apologize to them, I would."

Often when I disagree with people, I feel I can sort of see inside their worldview, or understand where they are coming from. But this left me utterly perplexed, sad, and bereft. How can a person be so hurtful and awful, just for no reason?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Grading Is Time-Consuming

I didn't have time to write something this week, mostly because I have too much grading, and grading is really, really, time-consuming. 

If you're in the mood for a fun and polemical post about why grading is time-consuming, and what that means for "scaling" education, why not go back and read the last thing I wrote when I had too much grading to do? It was "Grading and the Dreams of a Frictionless Pedagogy."

Otherwise, you'll have to be content with some photos. Regular readers remember that when I Bought An Official NFL Colin Kaepernick Jersey, I had to guess about the size.

Update: the size worked out well. Further update: on reflection, I decided it was stupid to buy an NFL Kaepernick shirt rather than an #IMWITHKAEP "Know Your Rights" T-shirt whose proceeds would benefit Kaepernick's Know Your Rights Camp. So I went ahead and got one of those as well. You can too!

Anyway, here are the shirts in action:



See y'all next week!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ethics in Tech and the Humanities Classroom

I don't know if you saw this piece in the Guardian the other day, about how part of the problem with modern technology and its role in our lives is that people in the tech industry tend to study computer science and math and not the humanities.

Of course it's a subject close to my heart, and I've always said that most of the world's difficult problems are social and political problems, not technology problems. But I was interested to see a certain number of apt comments challenging the idea that classes in the humanities or ethics would make people more ethical, more motivated to do the right thing, or even more perceptive about what the right thing is.

In certain ways, I think these comments are spot-on. For one thing, it's always strange when universities require cheating students to take an ethics course. In ethics class, we study ethical theories, debates in ethics, and how different ethical perspectives lead to different conclusions about practical issues. Not only doesn't that make you a better person, it might have the opposite effect, insofar as you might learn about all this debate and disagreement and think to yourself: "If the experts can't even agree, maybe this is all BS. Should I just do whatever I want?"

Furthermore, I agreed with this perceptive comment in the Guardian from a "tech insider." This commenter drew on experience working with kids to say that "the thing that makes the biggest difference in knocking adolescent heads is exposing kids to people that aren't like them." He said that if you take a group of rich white guys from rich families, and you put them in a room together to study Plato, that won't have much effect in terms of making them care about negative consequences of their actions for people "on the other side of the screen." But actually interacting with people from different backgrounds could make a difference.

This commenter also pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that if you really want change, you can't rely on the tech industry to change itself, through people having "ethics." In a world of venture capital and people relying on tech jobs for their income and well-being, the incentives are all on the other side. You need political will and structural change if you want things to be different. Regular readers will understand why this point resonates with me.

Indeed, another commenter replied to the first to express indignation at the way "elites" act like learning the truth about life and love requires learning Greek  and traveling to India, and then, only if you come back with the "right" opinions. Whatever the reality, if this is the perception, the humanities are in trouble.

But no one will be surprised to hear that I think that there are also many things to say about the importance of studying the humanities and how this study is relevant to issues, especially where there are societal consequences to be considered. There are lots of areas, but one of them is learning about how complicated things are, and thus how unlikely it is that you can find and use simple general statements about social facts to understand the world.

For example, when you first encounter the idea that the thing to do is the thing that will bring about the best consequences, it might sound like simple common sense. But then you might learn in a philosophy class that applying this theory can lead to the conclusion that it's OK to kill disabled infants, and you might start wondering about whether there are other important human norms. Or you might start out thinking that society being based on free choice and individualism is just how societies work, but then you might take a history class and learn that ideas about individual autonomy emerged through a contingent set of forces. You might think that preventing deaths of innocents abroad is a good thing, but then you might learn in political science class about the complex effects of using weapons to kill people in other countries, even when your aims are good.

I'm occasionally appalled by the simple statements expressed by people in the tech industry. When Mark Zuckerberg says that integrity requires acting the same in all contexts, or that he dreams of a fundamental law of human behavior, that increased sharing will lead to increased tolerance and openness in society or that the solution is just cracking down on "bad stuff" ... well, those things seem wildly wrong to me.

Maybe being in a humanities or social science classroom -- not just reading certain texts, but also having back and forth, seeing conflicting opinions, hearing from people who have the opposite point of view -- would at least shake someone's confidence about these things? Lend a little epistemic humility?

Also, if that first Guardian commenter is right when they say it's not individual responsibility but rather structural change that is needed, then it's not so much that "tech elites" need humanistic education as that the rest of us do.

If you want to understand why people spread misinformation online, why people seek out anti-vaccine evidence, and why people doubt climate change, you're going to get much further in a sociology and social epistemology class than anywhere else. That's not about "ethics," exactly, but it is about understanding why people do the things that they do -- not in the "fundamental law of human behavior" kind of way, but in the actual "why do people do the things that they do" kind of way. 


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Culture Theory Of Labor Economics

Given the role that the issue played in the US election last year, I've been really interested to follow the recent news about the coal mining industry. You may remember Clinton cheering about how they were going to put a lot of coal mining companies out of business, with the tone-deaf assumption that everyone would regard this as a Good Thing. I'm sure you remember Trump talking about bringing it back.

From one point of view, the issue might seem to be relatively simple. A shift to other energy forms would be good for the environment, and what the former coal miners then need is new jobs in other industries. As long as economic growth is happening, it can be a win-win. From this point of view, reluctance on the part of coal miners might be seen as irrational and obstreperous.

But it's interesting in this context to consider a few recent articles discussing the miner's point of view. This Reuters article describes miners who are resisting retraining and discusses their reasons. Among them: Mining pays well. Other industries are unfamiliar. There’s no income during retraining. Even if you put in all that effort to learn something new, there is no guarantee of a job afterward.

When it comes to replacements, they point out that coal jobs are seen as preferable to those in natural gas, because the mines are close to home, while pipeline work requires travel. One government official is quoted as hoping for "big companies like Amazon or Toyota."

These are all real reasons. And given what we know about working in an Amazon warehouse, it is any wonder people are resistant to that?

A deeper discussion of worker preferences and their implications for the economy is found in this New York Times piece about mining and environmentalism in Minnesota. It's complicated, but the basic story is that miners want mining jobs while environmentalists want to turn the area into a tourism location and beauty spot -- preserving the natural landscape and also providing new and different jobs.

I was struck both by the miners' calculations about their alternatives and by their cultural commitment to their way of life. For one thing, tourism jobs are really different from mining jobs. Tourism jobs are seasonal, and unreliable, and often not well-paid, while mining jobs -- at least so far -- have been solid and remunerative.

But it's not all cold calculation. Mining jobs are also seen as respectable and masculine, work you can take pride in, while tourism jobs are seen as subservient. One politician summed it up this way:

"[The miners] see it as fundamentally a question of dignity for families that have worked blue-collar jobs for generations ... 'I don’t want to be anybody’s Sherpa.'"

When I first read that I felt a little defensive. There's an implication that cooking, cleaning, and showing people around are somehow not "manly" -- the implication being that their OK work for women but that men are somehow above all that.

But I can also understand it. Especially in our society, where workers' rights and protections have been eroding, cooking, cleaning, and showing people around jobs often do have aspects associated with low status. Often you have to take orders, do things you otherwise wouldn't want to do, act nice, act happy to see people. Women in these jobs have had to put up with that kind of bullshit forever. It's not surprising that someone who hasn't had to doesn't want to have to start.

There are no easy answers, but I think one thing these articles show is that understanding the decisions of workers can't happen in a cultural vacuum. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that rational self-interested economic agents will do what seems to make "economic" sense. But even economics doesn't really tell us that. It tells us that people will maximize their own preference satisfaction.

As everyone has known forever, preferences are not just for things like "have more money" and "work fewer hours." They're also for amorphous things like respect, status, and community. Far from being squishy considerations that affect only the non-economic realm, these preferences affect the most starkly economic decisions there are.

So an analysis of labor has to include not only the obvious economic factors like money, but also cultural factors. I know "way of life" is not an easy variable to put into a quantitative analysis, but until we find a way to factor it in, we're just going to keep getting things wrong.