what is this?

the small lives

My grandfather wrote a typewritten letter to my father and his siblings while they were in college. It's a relic of carbon paper — littered with my grandpa's XXX'd-out corrections — telling my dad about the purchasing of a new car, particularly how grandma didn't like the model, wanted a different one, and how my grandfather got what she wanted. Also included in the letter are plans for the annual fishing trip — one which I now join, being the third generation of men in my family to do so. The letter is full of my grandfather's wit and misplaced humor, traits that passed from him, to my father, to me.

the letter

This one-page correspondence means nothing to anybody except me and my family (those few who know it exists). I dug it up out of the basement and my dad only offered a "huh, wouldja lookat that" when I shared it with him. It would not be valuable to any collector, or any biographer, or any journalist. There is no one actively seeking to catalog my grandfather's life, or my father's life, or my life. There probably never will be, and a common person would argue that nobody should. Our lives are too small, even put together. A single volume chronicling all three generations would be boring to the vast majority of people, and nobody would be wrong to assume such.

But my grandfather's life is not boring to me. My life is not boring to my dad. It's hopefully not going to be boring to my child, someday. The lives around us seem to be mere whispers spoken among strangers you will never meet. Even that is gracious, underlining subtleties that the universe wouldn't miss. We are each a moment of breath, some of us a mere letter or syllable, in the context of the lives around us. Even "small" becomes a word too large for us to fit into.

However, we are ambitious. While I believe life has no inherent reason behind it, we ask ourselves anyway: why am I alive? Those of us who gleefully eschew the spiritual path often feel burdened with this question. What reasons do we have for persisting day-to-day? Most lives are small on human scale, let alone historical scale, or the unknowable cosmic scale.

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towards a practical utopia, part 3

Read the previous part here.

utopia is a balance

I do not believe that any of the aforementioned systems, or any other ideological system, works on its own at large scale. Large scale being more than 10-50 million people for the purposes of this argument. The ones that have worked the best so far at large scale are composite systems, merging ideas from several ideologies. America is a democratic republic, mixing flavors of many of the ideologies listed before. We have pieces of socialism (Medicare/Medicaid, public police and fire departments, public education), capitalism (private wealth and markets, materialism), democracy (voting for representatives), and constant clashes between liberalism and conservatism. However, these systems are not in any sort of conscious, maintained balance, save for the original intentions written in the United States Constitution.

The world governments that are closer to an ideological core are able to function well because the cultures they govern are more homogeneous. In recent years, Iceland has been able to take massive purely democratic action, mostly because it has such a small population relative to other countries. A few European and Scandinavian countries are leaning heavily towards complete socialism, because their cultures afford the chance. Socialism is a dirty word in America (despite our socialized public services and welfare systems), but it's a norm in Europe. This is simply a question of common mindset: in most of Europe, it's plainly obvious that every citizen should contribute to a system that ensures free access to health care for everyone, for example. In America, we prefer to believe that every citizen should be responsible for their own health, and not be a potential burden on any other citizen. One ideology is not necessarily right or better than the other.

However, it is interesting to examine the American idea of freedom and its expression through conservative "freedom-protecting" goals, such as our stubborn misunderstanding and distrust of any socialist endeavor. American politicians enjoy saying things like "socialism is the enemy of freedom". In this context, freedom means: social responsibility for the self, the value of the individual above the whole, and the ability for a citizen to self-determine as much as possible. These are strongly libertarian and/or anarchistic tendencies, actively seeking policies that limit any outside control over the individual citizen. The "freedom" we are protecting is the freedom to say "no" and "not in my back yard" and "not out of my paycheck". These seem like very selfish notions when compared to America's popular ethos of being the land of equal opportunity, cultural diversity, and home of the truest democracy. Nevertheless, the freedom to say no is indeed one aspect of freedom that deserves protecting.

If any system is to govern the whole world, or even reshape major first-world areas like America, the European Union, or China, it must be a deeply thought-out mix of ideologies. The only adequate word I can use to describe this system is balance. Most importantly, it's impossible to create a mashup of ideals that all people will agree on or be happy with. That's an inherent truth at large scale. In fact, the perfect system must have competing interests within it, must have systems of checks-and-balances, must be able to adapt to disruptive change, must be somewhat-but-not-totally resistant to heedless progress. Such a system must care for the whole of society while providing the freedom for the individual to better themselves. In bettering the self, one should better society as a whole. It is imperfect to allow people to better themselves only and always for the self without thought for the whole. Likewise, it is imperfect to ask people to better the whole only and always for the whole without thought for the self. There must be a balance, and once found, we achieve a kind of practical utopia.

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towards a practical utopia, part 2

Read the previous part here.

the ideologies at play

Political philosophy is hard. Over the last three hundred years, the ideas of how to govern have varied dramatically. What has made it more difficult is the sheer number of humans on the planet who want to be more active in the process of governance. Not only are there seven billion people on the planet, most of them want to have a say in how they're governed, even if that say is the freedom to not care. The world at play today is a mix of socialism, democracy, communism, anarchism, monarchies, and so forth. A lot of people have strong opinions on how to govern the masses, and it is incredibly difficult to find a common vocabulary for every facet of political idealism.

This presents a major problem for those who have even a passing interest in governance, which systems like democracy are based on. Being an informed citizen requires a lot of work to fully comprehend all the options. For a sustained, stable, practical utopian system to work, this difficulty needs to be alleviated. Some societies have answered this problem in disastrous ways. For example, America clings onto a two party system, artificially splitting politicians between "democratic" and "republican", even though those terms do nothing to describe their actual ideological foundations. While technically you can run for office sporting any ideology, it seems impossible to win any major election under any label outside of "democrat" and "republican". All other parties are swept beneath an umbrella of "independent", which signifies just as little as the other two labels.

So if a limited-party system is not the answer, what is? The answer is simple, though hard to execute: we need better education through clearer, agreed-upon definitions of ideological foundations. The problem with these clearer definitions is that they are extremely difficult to agree upon in the first place. One could easily draw a spectrum of political philosophical systems based on the power/size of its governance model, from anarchy (no government, total individualism) to totalitarianism (all government, no individualism). However, on each point of any such spectrum you'd have to draw more spectrums of each ideology. For example, a libertarian government has its own spectrum: from libertarian socialism to anarcho-capitalism to consequentialist. There really is no way to accurately visually represent a comparison of political philosophies, as there are simply too many relevant dimensions to consider.

Nevertheless, we can agree upon broad simplifications that successfully embody the core values of a philosophy. Such simplifications should communicate the implications of a philosophy, while leaving the historical discussion of the ideal as an exercise for those interested. It is the social responsibility of anyone who believes in a philosophy to understand its ideals, considerations, implications, strengths, and weaknesses. It is the social responsibility of the whole group of citizens to make sure that the widespread simplified understanding of a particular philosophy is accurate. One of the first ways in which a society breaks down is the lack of collective accountability for the very definitions we base our society upon. Without them, we are not governed, we are not functional, we are merely lucky to be continuing as a governed society at all.

Utopia itself is a difficult word to use in the context of political philosophy, which is why I've added the word practical as a necessary prefix. In my belief, "utopia" does not mean "perfect" in any traditional sense. Both "utopia" and "perfect" can be defined in this context as balance. The practical utopia I seek is defined as reaching an equilibrium between many ideals, balancing competing ideologies that each serve their own beneficial purposes. Indeed, the very notion that one ideology could provide a singular all-encompassing answer is inherently wrong in my practical utopia. The founding fathers of the United States knew this as well, which is why they built the Constitution and Bill of Rights as documents which outline systems that act for and against each other, in order to form "a more perfect union" between competing interests. They knew something we seem to have forgotten: there is no single right way to do things, since that inherently discourages outside thought which may benefit society.

Let us enumerate a few ideologies that will inform further discussion, their strengths and weaknesses, so we can examine how they may work together to form a practical utopia. We, as a society, can learn something from any system of thought and governance, from anarchism to communism to monarchy to republicanism. In the practice of governance, it can never be acceptable to reject an ideology outright without consideration: any ideology which truly is evil will make itself apparent to an informed citizenry. The difficulty lies in keeping the citizenry properly educated, which is why education itself may need to be the first priority of any government.

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towards a practical utopia, part 1

intro: the revolution, today

The revolution that Russell Brand has been talking about and writing about probably won't happen; at least not as the idea of "revolution" has been expressed in the past. What the first world definitely does not need is for the socialist 99-percenters to rush the Capitol or Parliament and take over; that'd be just annoying. Instead, what we desperately need is for the moderate, level-headed, somewhat-politically-conscious people of all classes to stand up and start speaking their minds. What we need is much more akin to what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallied about: a louder, but good-humored, population of thinking persons.

There is a central theme in both messages that the media, the political system, corporations, and the very rich all do not accurately represent the will and general principles of the people. Yet they are the ones who have power (see: corporations, government) or are loud enough to appear to have power (see: the very rich, the media). However, to defeat these enemies of the good, the majority, who typically remain quiet, have to start speaking up. At the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, people held signs like "I'm Not Okay With Things and I'm Moderately Upset About It" and "Please Stop Yelling On TV". They represent the idea that the media and the people we elect actually are nothing but caricatures of extreme ideas, and that the majority of Americans are fairly level-headed, moderate people who don't understand why everyone thinks the world is ending tomorrow.

This moderate mindset is a problem, though: it is nearly impossible for it to defeat the extremist attitudes of the political system and the media because moderates inherently won't yell as loudly as their opponents will. And despite the fact that the majority of Americans aren't so loud and politically extreme, the only people who are running for Congress are people who seem to be rather extreme and loud or in the pocket of corporations. So in this situation, what is a centrist level-headed person to do? In Brand's case, the answer is simple: don't vote. But, as Paxman (and all "adults") are right to argue, the whole "don't vote" mentality is inherently contradictory.

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the irrelevancy of PRISM and the NSA

When I first read about the "secret" NSA program documenting everybody's web activity, named "PRISM" (great government codename, btw), I was a bit confused by the extensive and elaborate displays of surprise and outrage by young white people around the web. When the slides first leaked and Snowden was being interviewed, I could only ask: "so what?" But for all of you, I'll break down some points to explain why I feel this way, and why all of you should, too.

first of all, stop reacting

Everybody is just knee-jerk reacting to one dude's leaked slides. Everybody is suddenly a fucking expert. How many of you have actually read the bills that surround this case? How many of you have read the court case files? How many of you have sat down and watched the CSPAN video of senators asking the NSA chief about it? Or the CSPAN video of the FBI director answering questions about it? Did you read the leaked talking points memos about the business records collecting and the internet surveillance? Have you read the actual laws they're citing?

No? You just want to sit back and react to what idiots say on the internet? Get out of my democracy. We need informed citizens, not people who are going to blindly react to news stories without spending a moment thinking about or researching them. We live in an amazing time when anyone can research the validity of these news stories for themselves. You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a Harvard lawyer to understand how this works. You just need an interest. Point your passion at actually solving the problem, or at least figuring out if there's a problem in the first place. If you're truly offended, do something about it.

the double standard

I work in the Information Technology space. I build shit for the web every day. What the NSA has been doing isn't surprising in the least bit. It isn't news, and shouldn't be. Every medium- to large-scale internet provider already does this for quality control and bandwidth throttling purposes. Google actively scans everything you do using any Google product and uses it to target advertisements at you. Why is it suddenly a problem when the government does it? I would rather have the government do it than uncontrollable, unaccountable, no-say-in-my-data corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They're actively exploiting your online activity right now and you don't give a shit.

This kind of double standard is absolute bullshit. Get mad at Google, not at the government. We elected people who said "okay" to all of this NSA crap. We can elect new people who will say "no" to it, if we really want to. There are fucking miles of red tape surrounding the actual use of any data that the government collects -- whereas absolutely no such bureaucracy exists inside a corporation like Facebook. Sure, there's a privacy policy, and they follow it, but there's no guaranteeing they won't change that policy tomorrow. In fact, they've changed it fairly often.

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the way things could go

During the next 100 years, what happens to humans that get replaced by machines for basic labor and menial tasks? What happened in the past, during the industrial revolution, when something similar happened? It's a fact today that over the last several decades we've lost a lot of low-skill manufacturing jobs overseas (see: car production, electronics production). Similarly, we've lost "menial work" tasks to outsourcing, like customer service phone support, and you can very easily "rent" a programmer who lives in India who'll work for next to nothing.

We've also begun (over the last twenty years) to lose jobs to automation, both on the mechanical side (robots building cars, or gadgets) and on the white-collar side (robots performing stock trades faster than any human possibly could, algorithms on Google and Amazon trying to sell you things in ways no human ever could). More automation means fewer jobs overall: specifically, a drastic decrease in low-skill jobs, but a relatively small increase in what I like to call "meta" jobs. These "meta" jobs (and yeah, meta is probably a terrible word for it) create/design/engineer more automation to put even more humans out of work.

In the past, "efficiency experts" would walk into a bloated manufacturing plant, streamline the build process, and cut 20% of the employees as a result. Nothing wrong with that, it needs to happen in most every business at a certain scale. However, now we have engineers who can replace an entire population of employees with a mechanical/algorithmic process. As more technologies converge, we're seeing interesting ways you can cut whole departments and replace them with technology. That's all great news for people trying to make money with less overhead (see: humans), but what about the rest of us?

We think it sucks when blue-collar people get laid off thanks to a flashy new automated process, but that's old news. That was the industrial revolution, and it resulted in more people moving to cities and going to college. But what happens now? White-collar people getting laid off because of new technology trends sucks, too, but that's news now. But enough about us what happens down the line when a whole country of workers in the third world get laid off thanks to new technology? Apple is famous for employing hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to build their devices, but they're trying to bring some of it back to America. How can that be profitable? The use of automation and technology replacing the need for humans to physically construct things, most likely.

But that's technology, we can get even more basic. What happens when we stop needing Vietnamese workers to sew our clothes, because it's cheaper to build machines to do it? What happens when we stop needing Fair Trade workers in Latin America to grow our coffee, because we've genetically engineered a coffee plant that can grow cheaper in America, harvested by robotic farming? What happens when corporations no longer need to exploit those third-world countries' cheap labor, and instead rely on a new invisible population of robots? I'm not trying to get all "I, Robot" here, because I'm not worried about an AI taking over the world. I'm worried about the revolution that may be sparked by taking away millions (billions?) of jobs and replacing them with automation.

Really, think about it: while we are typically appalled by "sweatshop-like conditions" and "cities built for manufacturing iPhones" that are found in places like China, Vietnam, etc, what happens to them when they go from shitty job to no job? What happens when those sweatshops are the only steady means of income powering the backbone of a country? As terrible as we think it is, most capitalists are correct in that one hippie screaming "exploitation of the masses" is another entrepreneur screaming "economic opportunity". The reason our iPhones and our Hollister shirts and our bananas are so cheap is they rely on equally cheap labor from the developing world. Regardless, that's money going to developing regions of the world, which is globalism, which wouldn't be happening if Americans didn't expect tropical fruit all year 'round.

So what happens? More revolutions in the third world, powered by the need to keep the jobs that robots begin to take away? What will our response be when the over-a-million Foxconn employees that we're trying so desperately to free (because we're so worried about them) start rioting when they're laid off after Apple decides it's easier to spend its hundred billion dollars in excess cash on robotic iPhone-building factories? Is it possible that China, which has a lot of economic growth currently because they're making so many things for America, devote some of its cyber-military to sabotaging such automation-takeover plans? Are they already?

Will we have to tell them — as we're starting to tell many college graduates in America — that the job they decided to take is oversaturated, irrelevant, obsolete? As the world shifts away from needing menial-task-workers, the competition for "idea/creative" jobs will increase. (It is already, but if you're a programmer today it's hard to stay unemployed.) This new super-white-collar space (I think it's above white collar, but maybe I'll write about that later) is a highly subjective one, and can't really be taught. You can teach the technical stuff, but today's programmer will be tomorrow's plumber — the real money is in creative problem solving. Where do you see these people working (and getting paid a lot) today? Automation, specifically in the financial market. The rich continue to get richer, and the first world gets even more orders of magnitude further away from the rest of the world.

Here's another way to frame the whole dilemma: think of the socioeconomic and philosophical distance between the One Laptop Per Child project (which aims to make technology cheap, reusable, and accessible to the developing world) and the Google Glass project (which aims to put an expensive heads-up display of your Twitter feed in everyone's vision). Think of the sociological, economic, psychological differences between the user of a OLPC computer and a Google Glass user. It's rather insane where our priorities have gone.

Why RSS is Important

The web 3.0 model has been whispered about in abstractions and confusing metaphors: the "contextual" web, or the "semantic" web, where there aren't data warehouses (like Twitter and Facebook, where you must log in to get to your stuff) but instead data objects that are cached and decentralized. People, with enough money, can currently begin to touch these new ideals, but they are slapped on top of the existing internet model. You can use CloudFront to keep a cache of your site, decentralizing its content and "ensuring" its uptime by making the origin server (your website) largely superfluous. Good developers usually have some kind of cache layer in their applications to ease the load on application servers. This isn't crazy, but it's a half-measure.

Most APIs as they exist today are likewise solutions slapped on top of complex systems. Most importantly, APIs are currently source specific. There's an API for Twitter, an API for Facebook, an API for LinkedIn, etc. There is no singular "social media API" that shares data objects in a standardized fashion. What would it even look like? Why would we trust it, and who would we trust to build it in the first place? How would it be monetized? These are all pressing questions if we are going to re-imagine the way the internet works, to turn the current internet of warehouses into an internet of things which exist in standardized contexts.

Ironically, these "higher-level" APIs are already in use for essential internet services. The internet itself was actually built as one such meta-API, bringing together several standards of communication under one roof, so that you can have a choice between Chrome and Firefox, or Apache and Lighttpd. DNS is one such standardized, agreed-upon API, and nobody makes money off of the protocol or the traffic, but you can make money off of making the service easier to use. Anyone can set up a DNS server if they want, though. Likewise, anyone can serve web pages using whatever utility they want, as long as it conforms to the "meta-API" of the HTTP standard.

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