The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

CDA 230, Feminism, and Provoking Thought

Earlier this week, freelance social justice writer Arthur Chu penned a piece for TechCrunch calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For those who aren’t tech law wonks, Section 230 establishes that platforms hosting user-created content are not liable for the things their users create. In other words, if somebody defames you on Facebook, you can sue the person who wrote whatever ugliness it was, but you can’t go after Facebook itself. According to Chu’s observations, the combination of Section 230’s protections plus the overall engagement economy of the Internet has created a cycle of perverse incentive for these platforms to turn a blind eye to abuse. They have no obligation to moderate their content, thanks to Section 230, and because hateful content generates clicks, shares, and ad revenue like any other kind of user content, they would cut into their own profits if they voluntarily shut such things down. So they let it all slide, making the Internet’s best-known content platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.) staging grounds for hate campaigns that ruin lives.

The piece was pretty widely panned. Ken Levine of Popehat argued that far from protecting the targets of abuse Chu intended this measure to help, it would put lots of fresh ammunition in the hands of their attackers. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick pointed out that the civil redress Chu enshrines in his post tends to be abused to shut down marginalized voices far more often than it allows them to score victories over the establishment. Both of those articles spell out several other sound arguments about the problems Section 230 repeal would bring on; hit the links for the full blow-by-blow.

What I find interesting, though, is Chu’s response to the claim that without CDA 230, the Internet as we know it would not exist. The massive surge in liability would make any user-content-hosting platform untenable as a business. To this Chu has said: good! Let those things burn. Chu pictures, it seems, a much quieter Internet: no Twitter, no comments sections, no user-submitted product reviews. Everyone who wanted to publish material would need to do so using their own resources, assuming all responsibility and risk for whatever they put forth. WordPress, for example, could not host people’s blogs for them; you could download and use their blog-creation software, perhaps, but on your own server only. Alternatively, content platforms might exist, but their pace of output and growth would be a crawl: every piece of user-added material would need exhaustive top-down review, to the point of paranoia, before seeing the light of day.

Would that be better for marginalized people than what we have now?

I’m not convinced it would be. Certainly, abominations like GamerGate wouldn’t take off, without liability-shielded havens from which to launch their bile. SWATting and doxing would take a great deal more effort and secrecy to accomplish. Those would be good things! But without Twitter, we also wouldn’t have Black Twitter. There would be no YouTube to host Feminist Frequency‘s videos. Activist groups couldn’t organize rallies using events on Facebook or Google Plus. Overall, the rapidity with which good ideas spread today would hit a brick wall. I for one would not have come around to my current progressive views on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. at anywhere near the speed I did, were I not constantly exposed to content currently possible under CDA 230.

I do give Chu credit, though, for putting this bit of tech orthodoxy to the test. I have techno-libertarian leanings on a few topics myself, as my thoughts on copyright evince, but I rank my feminism as a greater ideal than those. If it could be more convincingly shown that the structure of the Internet today is more destructive to the marginalized than it is helpful, then I would reconcile the dissonance of my past pro-Internet stances by abandoning them. If copyright really does help the little guy against the big, rather than the other way around as I’m currently convinced it does, then by golly I will be a copyright goon. Chu’s thoughts as I’ve seen them articulated so far don’t come anywhere close to prompting such a paradigm shift, but props to him for getting me to consider the possibility!

Scatterbrain

Kithia Verdon:

Every so often, an article comes out talking about how people’s use of the Internet is wrecking their brains, impairing their ability to focus, a sort of induced attention deficit disorder. Normally, I’d be skeptical of such hand-wringing. It has an old-fogey kids-these-days feel to it. But my own experience lately makes me feel it’s plausible.

Sometime over the last few years, I’ve become a compulsive skimmer. It’s become more and more difficult for me to really concentrate on what I’m reading. If I’m cruising the Internet, the urge to spin off another tab and jump to some other thing, be it Facebook or email or Twitter, keeps distracting me. If I’m reading a blog post, I quickly tire of working through the author’s thoughts and arguments, and skip to the end to see their conclusions or summary. Even reading something in print, my eyes constantly twitch to the paragraphs ahead, peeking at what’s next with a manic impatience.

That scares me some, because I wasn’t always that way. I majored in Philosophy, for crying out loud, and I didn’t cut corners on the reading, at least not often. I find it hard to imagine my today-self, who has to double back to a sentence sometimes three and four times before it sinks in, getting through one of those assignments and coming to class ready to discuss it the next day. I’m only 30! It’s not right for my mind to have decayed that far.

Maybe it’s not the Internet’s fault. It could be diet, or stress, or something in the water. But it makes sense, at least, that it could be my computer routine. Habit is a powerful thing, the pathways of the brain used for a particular behavior getting strengthened and comfortably worn until that behavior and its mindset become the path of least resistance among the synapses. And what I’m experiencing seems like optimized blog-cruising behavior. If you’re following several high-traffic blogs with hundreds of posts in the queue, each of them on a particular topic so there’s a degree of similarity among the posts within one, there’s simply not enough time in the day to open up every article and read it front to back. You have to skip around, skimming headlines, popping open the ones that seem interesting, and moving on if it doesn’t provoke your interest. Unfortunately, an ingrained habit like that can bleed out to places where it’s not as appropriate, like trying to enjoy a novel or familiarize oneself with the mechanics of a role-playing game.

More importantly for my purposes here, though, habits can be changed, with similar effort made to build up an alternative behavior and let the old one lapse. So I’m pondering what I might do to reverse the trend. I’ve got these three ideas so far. What else can you think of?

Luddite Saturdays. Based on Weekend Luddite, the idea is to regularly switch off all staring-at-a-screen type devices. No PC, no tablet, no Xbox or Playstation, no DS or PSP, not even any gaming on the cell phone. (I’ll permit myself DVDs/Netflix if the girlfriend wants to watch something together.) I’ve chosen Saturday, being a day when I have no computer-necessary obligations and which has the most idle time to waste. Having to find non-computery things to do with myself all day will help reintroduce me to the wonderful world outside the boxes, making it feel more natural to seek out entertainments requiring focus and motivation.

Bloggy Sunday. In something of the inverse of the above, I’m thinking I’ll do all my ADD-style Internetting on one day of the week. Catching up on blogs, forums, Facebook, Twitter, G+, and the like–anything carved up into lots of little pieces to jump around between–will take place on Sunday and only on Sunday. This will help establish a specific context where scatterbrain behavior is appropriate, keeping it contained.

Mindfulness meditation. The ancient practice of quieting the “monkey mind” and centering oneself in the present moment has been shown to alter brain activity for the better. If I can get a meditative mindset rolling, it’ll become easier to notice when I’m getting flaky and bring myself back to the task at hand. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, actually, even before I noticed myself becoming computer-brained, so the trick will be finding a good time and quiet space to sit and meditate regularly. Maybe first thing in the morning on workdays?