the Informed

Street Art In My Way

A slight departure, a short story:

Perfect by Alexandros Vasmoulakis

There is a tangible way that something unexpected and juxtiposingly beautiful can move you, right in the middle of the day, right when you least suspect it. Minding my own business, weaving through the streets of my own individual urban decay, there is such grim and grey dullness to it all, only to be broken incessantly with the lusty colours and mindless chattering of the corporate message, the new, dominating 'street art' that decorates our cities; the adverts, meant to manipulate not just our feelings, but by extension our behaviour and our empathy, or lack thereof. and despite its proliferation and abundance, there is only one message that they provide.

There is also something profound in the way that such welcome counter-images to the corporate doctrine, meant perhaps to lift us from this banality, stirs our consciousness in a way that the ads simply cannot. But the ads, in their psychologically well-studied approach to the shaping of our mental environment, contain perhaps the most profound concept after all, far more than any Banksy or Shepard Fairey could convey, simply because of their frequency, and their dubious placement on what was once our very own landscape. The corporate ownership of our physical environment is no dull analogy for their ownership over our mental one. But still, I only notice the street art, at least consciously. although the advertisers, no doubt, have a louder voice.

Meanwhile with dull and heavy footsteps, the mass of humanity moves around me with the singular preoccupation of adhering to the whim of the giant billboards and transit-stop images, to pay for that which they have already used up, as the financiers of it all continue to reap their just deserts long after the fact. Some would say unwittingly, but this is not the case - they know full-well and they hate themselves for it, but they know. And so they stomp, and trod trough the muck of their particular urban desires as they are sold ideas which they, in their last glimmers of consciousness, can still conceptualize that they have no power over, none at all. In this they realize that their free will is an illusion and nothing more. and I realize that I, too, am one of them. 

And so the giant gleaming ads continue to shout amid the silent roar of the city. Until, like a sudden flash of light in a cave that has been darkened for aeons, there comes into view a piece of art, a simple stencilled image amongst the static, and so powerful in its simplicity. A ten-dollar sentiment against the billboards of the billion-dollar behemoths, and I, for one, realize that I still have a beating heart, at least for a moment as its dark message laughs with me or at me in its ironic darkness and dark humourlessness. 

And so I wonder, is the creator of this silhouette lurking in the shadows as I literally stop momentarily in my tracks, taken aback by the sudden appearance of this hieroglyph? I have to wonder, for all of the other imagery I can see literally screams for us to be self-obsessed, to need validation from any source, to require the tallying of likes in a world full of so much hate. So why would someone do this, only to leave it in its place to be destroyed, or covered, or scrubbed, and for no forthcoming validation? Why? Unless they come from another time or place, one in which they were not considered merely a useful idiot. 

To that I can only imagine, but I do imagine that artist lurking and waiting; not to know if they have been validated by my own arrest by their piece, but to know that they are needed in a world we no longer own.

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What The Skepticism Towards Mark Zuckerberg's Gift To Society Says About What We Think Of Mark Zuckerberg

With the birth of their daughter Max, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced on his now ubiquitous social media website that they plan to create a massive initiative to better the world. Mainstream media jumped on the news as a great act of philanthropy, but many critics are claiming that this is nothing more than a cleverly disguised PR move and tax-avoidance scheme. So why are so many people skeptical about the billionaire's motives, and what does it say about what we think of Mr. Zuckerberg himself? Are we so jaded by the abuses of the rich that we can no longer graciously accept him or any billionaire at their word?

By giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent - Mark Zuckerberg

What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm a villain. Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year - Julian Assange

When I read Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan's post to their newborn girl Max, I was genuinely moved. It is well-written, inspiring and just what we all needed to hear in these grim times - truly an inspiring piece. And I'm also happy for them in the arrival of their addition to their family - a very happy time for them indeed. I really wanted to believe that what I was reading was true, honest and free from any ulterior motive, but after it sank in a bit, and after reading the countless articles of varying viewpoints about this incredibly generous pledge, I found myself wondering why I felt more than a little skeptical of it all. Being such a high-profile individual, he has certainly had his fair share of bad press (as is to be expected of high-profile people) and in that sense, this was a brilliant PR move. And the structure of it all does raise some complicated questions about tax-avoidance motives, naturally (which is arguably a problem with tax law, and not Mr. Zuckerberg himself). But what really stuck with me was the fact that this initiative will have almost zero transparency by virtue of its structure, much like the man and his company - a company that has made the rest of us incredibly, vulnerably transparent.

Cautious Optimism:

In short, I want to trust him, but I struggle to do so. But I will wait and see, with cautious optimism, like most of us (some have expressed outrage that we don't just take him at his word entirely), and hope that this is untimely a good thing, and not just a mega-billionaire's messiah complex playing out on the world stage. I truly want to see this man make the world a better place (god knows he has infinitely more power to do so than someone of my means), and the optimist in me believes that the arrival of his daughter has allowed him see the world in a new way - that he has, as he says, a responsibility to make the world a better place. While I do think that his intentions are good, I think it's also important to bear in mind that the road to hell is paved with them.

However, those who have been quick to judge this initiative harshly need to take a step back for a moment and realize that, thus far, all that has happened is the creation of a limitedAt this point, it is nothing more than a pledge (albeit a very grand one) and the changing of money "from one pocket to another" liability corporation (not a non-profit charity, which has been the cause of much criticism) and even though it is not technically a charity, it still has the potential to do a lot of good, despite it's lack of transparency. Therefore, we all need to wait and see what he actually does with the money. At this point, it is nothing more than a pledge (albeit a very grand one) and the changing of money "from one pocket to another", as Jesse Eisinger said in the New York Times. While the nay-sayers do need to take it down a notch before judging too harshly, the man has given us much cause for skepticism, and that is what many critics are feeding off of in their response to it.

Mixed Reactions:

I don't know Mark Zuckerberg personally, and therefore I can't comment on his character as an individual - that would be unfair, and such speculation would serve no purpose. Besides, Zuckerberg is incredibly secretive and private in his personal life, so we don't really know all that much about this man who has had such a huge impact on the world. That being said, people clearly do have an opinion of him based on the actions of his company, its dubious beginnings and the importance he places on his own personal privacy, as the mixed reaction to the news of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative would indicate.

For the sake of argument, if this gift had come from, say, Nelson Mandela (who obviously did not have 45 billion dollars in his lifetime, but go along with this for a moment if you will), I suspect that there would be absolutely no speculation as to the motives of the decision whatsoever - it would surely be met with universal praise and joy, and it would give us sincere hope for the future of humanity. 

His Incredible Desire For Privacy:

But Mr. Zuckerberg is not Nelson Mandela, he's a billionaire businessman who has dramatically changed the way we interact with one another. While he has, on the one hand, created an empire around the idea of the transparent surrender of privacy in the Internet age, he remains highly reclusive and private in his own life on the other. When he purchased his home, he also bought all of the homes around it in order to protect that privacy. And while he vehemently denied the tacit cooperation of Facebook with the Prism project, that proved to be not true. As each backlash from of our erosion of privacy created by his website unfolded, he stood by his stance that this is the new world - one where openness and transparency supersedes the old model for the betterment of all. And yet he does not live this way himself. His billions provide a privacy that the rest of us could only dream of. Perhaps it is his prerogative to spend his money as he sees fit, but it does seem to contravene the philosophy of his company - a company that he himself says was never about making money, but about changing the world.

Facebooks Has Changed The World:

And change the world he has done - to a huge degree. But, we also need to ask in light of this pledge, to what effect? Is the world a better place because of Facebook? The evidence suggests that it is not - there is more isolation, depression and envy associated with prolonged use of the site. Couple that with the fact that your private information is sold to corporations, many of whom work to actively worsen society, and the business model starts to topple. Obviously, Zuckerberg would not share that viewpoint. He views his company as a kind of salvation for humanity. And yet he doesn't personally subscribe to the philosophy of his company in his own life curiously. And let's not negate the fact that Facebook is considered the biggest killer of productivity in the workplace. It's a huge time-waster, let's face it.

An Anectode:

I do have a real-life experience with the company that I think is worth sharing, at least in relation to their lack of transparency and social conscience. In 2010, a friend of mine had her Facebook profile compromised when she took her laptop into a major electronics retailer to be fixed. When she got it back, she no longer had control of the account, and the effect it was having on her life was nothing short of devastating. I tried to help her retrieve the account, but to no avail. The endlessly frustrating loop of feeding back this information to the company was incredibly disheartening, and the abuses this thief was perpetrating continued to grow, as did the effect on her personal life. She was popular, attractive and had several thousand friends on the site, and her profile was now full of hatred, prejudice and lies, not to mention the fact that this thief now had access to all sorts of personal information about her. She wasn't just upset, but genuinely scared.

Coincidentally, I had been planning a trip to San Fransisco for a while (such a great city), and I suggested she come along with us and we could pay a visit to their offices in Palo Alto in person and see if we could get the account deactivated. It seemed like it should be no problem - she could easily prove that the account was rightfully hers, and the moment of its hijacking was obvious. The experience was aweful and surreal, to say the least. The place felt less like a high-tech firm and more like a government agency with its high level of security and generally uncaring attitude. The person at the front desk was aloof, dismissive and holier-than-thou, and all she was able to do was provide a little card on which my friend could scribble down her concern, with a vague promise that someone would contact her. No one ever did, and the account still remains active all these years later. Her online identity was stolen, at least in regard to how much of our identity is now tied into Facebook, and it was easy to prove, yet they did nothing. Zero. While this bit of anecdote may not be indicative of how they operate on the whole, there do seem to be many other similar stories out there, and they clearly have no real recourse for people in this position. The point - they have no desire in being either transparent or compassionate when their product adversely affects someone's life.

Similarly, there is an incredibly complicated and contrived set of hoops to jump through if you decide to actually delete your account. Here's a post on the rather complicated 11-step process. It doesn't feel like the interests of the users are held in very high esteem in this company, despite their mission of openness and transparency in the world. He even went so far as to call the site's user "dumb fucks" for trusting him with their personal information, although he has since expressed regret at making the comment. While much good has arguably come from the site, there has also been bullying, suicide, and divorce resulting from its use, and it also has proven to be an easy place to recruit radicalized people to various insidious causes - much of which the company does little about.

What Are His Plans For A Better World?:

All of this adds up to an unsettling feeling by many of us regarding Mr. Zuckerberg's intentions with this initiative. On the face it may seem incredibly benevolent, but let's not forget the story of the company that earned the money, and its effect on our society. If his intentions truly are to make the world a better place, then perhaps Facebook might be as good a place as any to start. He may think that it has created a better world, but those of us in the real world know that that's just not true. One of the goals of his newly-created initiative is the "building of strong communities", yet isn't his company actually doing the reverse to some degree? Are we truly better off in our world of virtualized relationships?

And let's also not forget that he is a tech guru, not a visionary of world peace and prosperity. There are experts in these fields who have devoted their entire lives to their causes, yet Mr. Zuckerberg thinks that he has a clearer vision of how to accomplish these things. I would speculate that a lot of billionaires feel this way. The reason that he claims that this LLC was created was to give him the flexibility to not only decide how the world specificaly needs to be improved, but also so that some of the money can be spent on political lobbying, and let's not underestimate the importance of this. A registered charity is not allowed under the law to lobby politicians, but an LLC can and most certainly does. He clearly, by his own admission, wants to manipulate policy to his vision of what needs to happen in the world. A very dangerous undertaking from someone who is not an expert in the field.

I sincerely hope that this money will be spent for good, and his desire to help humanity is most certainly a welcome one in today's world. I sincerely hope that Mark Zuckerberg I hope that he isn't just setting himself up to be some sort of philathopic despotwill diminish the growing inequality, help provide education and funding to the third world, and ultimately, create a better world for not only his daughter, but for all children being born into this utter mess. If I could make an appeal to him directly, it would be that he simply gift the billions to those already working towards these goals and let those with the expertise guide the decisions.

All of this has a bit of a dubious undertone to it, but I hope that time proves that his intentions are true. While it's become clear from the response that many don't trust him and his motives, maybe it's time for the billionaires of the world to start being decent human beings after all, and he can lead this potential movement. I hope that he isn't just setting himself up to be some sort of philathopic despot. And to those who say that the critics are simply envious, I would ask them to look at the role Facebook has had in creating a world full of so much of it.

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The Internet Is Polarizing Society & Crippling Progress: What You Need To Know

The Internet, despite all of it's beautiful ability to connect, to inspire and to collapse the distances of space and time, is in fact distancing us, polarizing us, and inhibiting our ability to move forward. But it doesn't have to.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the Internet. Thank you, Mr. Gore. It's without a doubt the most transformative, life-altering, mind-bending technology to occur in my lifetime. When I was ten years old, my friend Sheldon and I would connect our Vic-20 computers via primitive modems that required we put the analogue receiver snugly into these rubber cups. If the seal was not just so, and the receiver didn't sit just right, you'd get errors which would result in a bunch of gobbledy-gook on the monochrome green screen (god I miss that thing). But when it worked, it was glorious. Our own personal network. We were on-line and it was a rush, although we were on a network of only two. Still, it was transformative for us, and even at that tender age we knew that we had the privilege to be living in an era of sweeping and unparalleled change. After an hour or so of typing messages back and forth, and working out the requisite bugs, we would get bored, say goodbye (ttyl), and go back to playing Gorf, silently smug in our secret understanding that we were on the thin cutting edge of the technological world.

A Man Performing A Google Search To Reinforce His Predetermined Viewpoint
Eventually, we both became a little more sophisticated, and with the advent of bulletin boards, AOL and the like, we were able to join larger communities. And so it went, until we arrived here, at the present day, living in the future of that which we could only have imagined so many years before. Yes, I love the Internet (is it still a capital "I"?), and it's a tool whereby great things can be achieved.  But I know how to use it, and sadly, the majority of users do not, and I'll tell you why.

The Filter Bubble:

You see, the funny thing is, after all these many years since the days of Sheldon and me wistfully creating our own digital universes (well, technically speaking they were digital-to-analogue-to-digital universes) there are still only really two people on the network. There's the Internet of you, and the Internet of them - and they are dramatically different from one another. It informs you in one way, and it informs them in another, entirely different manner. But this is not simply about the filter bubble that exists on the Internet, for that is only one component of the argument.

While the phenomenon of the filter bubble is becoming more common knowledge, it's still a largely unknown concept. In case you don't know, in a nutshell a filter bubble is when the personalization services offered by Google, Facebook, etc., feed you only like-minded viewpoints, and hide opposing opinions from your searches and feeds. If you've never tried this, Google something political with a friend, and compare results. On a larger scale, a filter bubble occurs when the like of FOX News compose a story by only researching one viewpoint, and selectively choosing information to fit and support that certain viewpoint. The information may not necessarily be wrong, but it is most certainly incomplete. A lie of omission, if you will.

If you need further proof to sway you to the existence of this phenomenon, pick a ridiculous argument; that the Holocaust never happened, that the earth is flat, that Al Gore invented the Internet, and get Googling. You'll soon realize that you can indeed support any argument under the sun if you want to. It doesn't mean that it's true.

Confirmation Bias:

The filter bubble also feeds into the phenomenon of confirmation bias, whereby a pre-determined viewpoint is proven by actively, if unwittingly, only learning about the supporting argument. We all learned in debate club that this is not how things are done, but this is how it's done on the Internet, especially inside the bubble in which most of us reside, happily unaware. Think of it like this: a filter bubble is the result of tailored, passive information gathering, whereas confirmation bias is when information is actively sought but in a biased, incomplete manner (only Googling supporting arguments compounded by Google tailoring results based on your known bias, for example). We won't get anywhere like this.

The Problem:

It's plain to see what the hazards of this information-shielding could potentially do to our society, and in fact already has. Politics has been shifting rapidly, and the left and right are more polarized than ever before. A healthy, bipartisan approach to politics no longer exists, particularly in the US, and progress has been crippled as aPolitics has been shifting rapidly, and the left and right are more polarized than ever before result in a time when radical progress is what we need. Along with this polarization comes a reduced empathy and understanding of one another, as we become a society of us-against-them. When someone only ends up being fed their own viewpoint, over time they become convinced that their opinion is the right one, and that everyone else is completely out to lunch.

And along with this polarization, we've received a whole other set of unintended consequences. Loneliness, isolation, despair and depression are greater than ever, as we become virtual friends and no longer real ones. The studies are in and yes, Facebook and other social media are isolating us, not the opposite. Who knew?

The Solution:

How, then, can we begin to utilize this wonderful tool called the Internet in a positive, constructive way, this tool at once so full of promise and freedom, and so utterly shackled and hijacked? As with any cognitive endeavour, the answer lies in an awareness, and a conscious application of that awareness to the problem. By understanding the problem, and sharing that understanding with others, we begin to get out of the darkness.

Darkness may reign in a cave for thousands of years, but bring in the light, and the darkness vanishes as though it had never been - Ancient Yogananda Saying

But beyond understanding, we need to ask better questions, be critical and seek out the other argument (an excellent article on the subject can be found here). We need to metaphorically revisit those debate club days in high-school and relearn those lessons. In short, we need to honour integrity in our arguments and in our collected and collective knowledge. Follow people on Twitter who don't share your viewpoint. Go on reddit and ask people with opposite viewpoints to enlighten you with their knowledge. Bear in mind, however, that they are likely suffering from confirmation bias themselves. Learn about the Internet's heinous bubble and how to avoid it. You can find some tips on that here. As well, here's a cool reference poster of logical fallacies, to keep you in check. It can be done, and done effectively. You can go from the Internet owning your mind, to being able to reclaim it entirely.

Take Responsibility For Your Mental Environment:

We live in an era where the natural environment has been polluted in insidious ways, but so too has the mental environment, and only on an individual basis can we defend against that and reclaim it. But with a mindful approach, it can be taken back. We need to realign our society with the values of the pursuit of truth above all else. Only then will we regain our integrity, our honour and our ability to know the truth of the matter. It's a fight for your mind, and the passive will lose this fight. If the battle is one of the mind, then education is the key to its victory.

After all these years I think maybe I'll dust off that old modem and dial up Sheldon for old time's sake. The information we exchanged on that network of two with our primitive computers was truer than most things I see on the Internet today. Truer and also much more fun.

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