Friday, April 10, 2009

Less is more

Life is not linear. Individual existences certainly have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Life, however, spans individuals and generations. The most observable pattern to life seems to be the cycle, be it that of day and night, the seasons, death and rebirth, or the endless cycle of mistakes that defines human history.

This thought hit me while skimming over a forum thread (viewable to members only) discussing an editorial about the Atheist Bus Campaign. After a solid start of nine posts that managed to hover in the general vicinity of the topic, the hand grenade of Godwin’s Law was tossed in, instantly killing everybody in the room with a vested interest in the topic and allowing the resident trolls to take control. It came in the predictable form of the claim that Hitler was an atheist and therefore the 60‑million casualties resulting from World War 2 were all atheism’s fault, an argument typically invoked as part of a perverse tactic to establish the moral superiority of the religious position on the grounds that it has a slightly smaller body count. That they also typically claim that there are no atheists in foxholes is not a result of inconsistent reasoning at all, and only a Communist would say otherwise.

This being the causer of all the fuss.
This being the causer of all the fuss.

At the time of this writing there have been a further 500 posts to this thread, and the word “bus” has been mentioned half a dozen times, excluding repeated occurrences via quoting. It did, however, manage to traverse the same boring topics that resurface time after time in these sorts of online pissing contests, including but not limited to:

  • Religion and homosexuality.
  • The Crusades and Inquisitions.
  • Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.
  • The prosperity doctrine.
  • Tax-exempt status of churches.
  • Origins of life, the universe and everything.
  • Communist Russia.
  • Fighting over credit for scientific discoveries.
  • Overuse of incoherent metaphors to explain nonsensical points (the most memorable of which featured Mark Hamill for reasons I will never fully understand).
  • Whether the Sabbath should be observed on Saturdays or Sundays.
  • Squabbling over what an omnipotent god would or would not do.

Amidst the same old issues, the same old misconceptions and false claims are regurgitated over and over again. Whether it be atheists having no morals, religious people being inherently irrational, Pascal’s Wager, Darwin recanting on his deathbed, or “free thinking” being solely the domain of non-belief, one thing is actually true: these false claims and misconceptions never go away. For example, the myth of Darwin recanting his theory of evolution has been around since 1915, and the refutation from Darwin’s family almost as long. Yet, nearly 90 years after being exposed for what it was, it persists to this day with all the crushing familiarity of a continually dislocating pelvis.

One lesson to learn from this is that the struggle against ignorance is a never-ending one. The near-total freedom of information we enjoy in the developed world through the internet can just as easily make it harder to eradicate ignorance rather than easier. How many of those stupid emails have you received in your lifetime? Dozens? Hundreds? Before you’re tempted to think that nobody could believe that rubbish, bear in mind that those Nigerian email scams actually work to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

No matter how many times and in how many encounters a popular false claim is crushed on the internet, it has already found every email inbox in the world several times over, and the more minds in which it takes root the longer it takes to eradicate. If the Darwin myth, which is both child’s play to refute and irrelevant even if it were true, can hold out for nearly a century with no signs of going away any time soon, how bleak are our chances of overcoming more serious and sophisticated threats to the advancement of knowledge and reason? In many ways it’s really just a game of whoever shouts the loudest for the longest, a situation that is reminiscent of the old Soviet saying: “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

I see it as every person’s duty to counter misinformation whenever they see it in whatever small or significant way they can. There is a fine line between the intention behind this statement and a rallying cry for everybody to spout off rubbish under the impression they’re doing the world a favour every time they see an opinion that disagrees with their own. The major distinction is in knowing something about what you are talking about. For instance, if you are not a professional biologist with a university education and years of experience in the field then it’s very unlikely you could contribute anything of value to a debate about the theory of evolution. You’re entitled to your opinion, but that’s about it. Don’t expect that anyone should care. This goes for both opponents and supporters of the aforesaid theory alike. Atheist fanboys alike are often just as guilty as their creationist opponents.

Unfortunately, the world does not seem to be so full of people that are particularly mindful of their limitations. To do so requires a degree of self-awareness and honesty. In light of that, perhaps it is important to set an example so that others might follow. Mahatma Ghandi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and, being a famous person, he was probably right. Admittedly, refraining from topics I know little or nothing about does limit my playing field significantly, but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the greater good.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The rare ould times

As of over a year ago, the estimated number of blogs in the world was perhaps as many as 200 million. For something so novel, growth rates tend to go exponential rather quickly and then plateau once either the fad wears off or there are no people left without blogs. How many there are today is probably far greater. How many of those are active is anybody’s guess.

And as with any “new” thing (I readily admit I’ve been asleep at the wheel on this one), I have spent rather more time than I should have in exploring my new playground. With the benefit of hindsight, it was time definitely better spent at the pub. I now feel much less insecure about my own unremarkable and unoriginal ideas.

I also feel terribly old. The rapid evolution of the internet gives a false impression of time: the days of crawling unsteadily and uncertainly out from my cave of Windows 3.1 and into this brave new virtual world armed only with Netscape Navigator 2 seem a dreadfully long time ago. Who remembers, or even ever knew in the first place, what SLIP was? There were no blogs in those days: there was nobody to read them even if there was. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Fast forward roughly 10 years, and now the internet is held together not by hyperlinks and shonky routing protocols like the old days, but blogospheres, social networking sites, Google AdSense and tracking cookies. My heart still lives in the past because the technological progress has masked a disturbing social regress. None of the things we “rely on”, such as MySpace, FaceBook or Twitter (whatever the hell that is), has made us even the slightest bit happier or better off. If anything the opposite is true. The mantra behind social networking is one of connecting people. They make communication easier, but in the process devaluing it at the same time.

Who puts the same amount of effort and creativity into a FaceBook status update or wall post as they might with a hand-written letter? How many people even send hand-written letters? Would anyone go to the trouble of buying dozens or even a hundred envelopes and stamps, writing down the first thought that comes to them and perhaps what MP3 they’re currently listening to for each envelope, then going to the post office and mailing them to everybody they know? You may remind me that this is an unfair comparison, and you would be right—but that is exactly my point. The way we communicate is in many ways devolving to fit the medium.

The same argument can be applied to publishing literature via blogging. It’s incredibly easy and there are no direct costs involved, and this easiness has two direct consequences:

  1. It opens the playing field to anybody with a computer and an internet connection.
  2. Little to no effort is required.

This can have no cause other than to lower the standards. Prior to the blog, publishing was an expensive and time-consuming process. Firstly, you had to have money or you had to convince people with money to invest in the whole adventure. Would enough people pay money to find out what you had to say? While this may be in many respects a crude form of quality control, it did at least wrap some level of meritocracy around the whole process.

If I seem overly harsh, bear in mind that this comes from somebody who is currently married to somebody they met online. Of my closest circle of friends, IRC was the initial contact point for roughly half of them. I am not blind to the possibilities on offer. Indeed, I have done well out of it all; it’s the rest of society I worry about.

My generation grew up in a time where, though it was a large part of our early lives, we can still remember what life was like before the internet. This gives me a perspective that will one day no longer exist. As a socially awkward teenager, I saw a type of purity in text-based chatting and message board posting. It stripped away class, age, race and face, leaving everybody to deal directly with the person within. Finally, the ugly bastards were on equal footing with everybody else.

That’s what I remember thinking at the time, though hindsight now paints a very different picture. Like Karl Marx and Christopher Poole before me, I forgot to take into account human nature. Anonymity insulates people from lasting and/or painful consequences for their actions. This kind of liberation that set me on my course of self-discovery and growth can just as easily set others on a course that, if the early warning signs are ignored, leads to 4chan or, even worse, emo. With freedom also comes responsibility, such as the responsibility not to write blogs like this.

Emo boy/girl
Typical emo boy/girl.

Writing them, as we can see, is easy. Reading them can be another story. Going too far down the rabbit hole of the blogosphere is, from my recent and brief experience, not at all rewarding. Can you imagine being telepathic? It might seem like an excellent thing at first. Now imagine not being able to turn it off. Imagine trying to think or sleep with the thoughts of a million self-pitying adolescent girls swirling around in your head at once.

This, sadly, is what an ever-increasing part of the internet is. Given its original purpose and the vast potential it had, is it any wonder I am nostalgic for the pre-commercialism era?