Those That Leave Arizona

“Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn said Arizona communities would “collapse” without cheap prison labor, during testimony before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee Thursday.”

-Jimmy Jenkins, “Arizona communities would ‘collapse’ without cheap prison labor, Corrections director says.” azcentral.com. July 14, 2022

Reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Let’s assume that what David Shinn is saying is true, and not saying it for some other reason, say, to keep his Department’s funding at a certain level.

What is the moral responsibility of people living in Arizona communities that rely on prison labor? How does this responsibility intersect with other societal problems, such as racism? How does this feed into other problems? For example the existence of unsustainable communities might act as a further draw on other limited resources, such as water, that make other communities unsustainable in a vicious cycle.

How is this different from slave labor? How is it different from other exploitive labor, whether that is rice imported from Indian farmers exploiting village, cotton farmed in concentration camps in China, electronic devices that can only be economically produced using similar systems of exploitation?

Let’s assume you feel the need to do something about these problems. Is it enough to be an incrementalist, to be slightly less exploitative than you were yesterday? Or, is there some kind of deontological threshold of purity, where – given the environment – lives based on a lower level of exploitation is enough?

The correct answer is probably that we need to radically we think our lives and adopt a much lower standard of living that eliminates this kind of exploitation. Easy to say, but it is both difficult to know how to do that and probably even more difficult to want to do it.

The Corruption of Apology

True apologies are precious. They’re a secular process of remediation, drawing on moral intuitions shared by many religious traditions. They encourage membership in one’s moral community because they are fundamentally relational: They heal the bond between wrongdoer and wronged. By temporarily humbling the perpetrator and vindicating the victim, they pave the way for both sides to make up. 

Apologies presuppose that there is some sort of moral community that shares a sense of right and wrong to which both the wronged and the wrongdoer belong. By apologizing, the wrongdoer embraces the norm that he violated. By doing that personally, ideally face to face, he works to heal his wounded relationships. And so he invites his victims to forgive, release their resentment, and move on. 

We all depend on apologies and forgiveness to go on living with one another. Husbands and wives admit their faults and patch up their differences. Kids on playgrounds say they’re sorry and then get back to recess. Coworkers talk through misunderstandings. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Human Condition, we wrong one another every day, and we learn to forgive constantly so that we can start afresh. The alternative is trapping ourselves in endless cycles of vengeance. 

Stephanos Bibas, “The Corruption of Apology.” persuasion.community. July 27, 2022

What I found interesting about this commentary was how it explicitly lays out what is necessary for an apology to have meaning, i.e.:

  1. A shared norm that was violated.
  2. A person who violated the norm and a person effected by the violation.
  3. Discussion and acknowledgment to observe the norm in the future.

A shared norm implies membership in a community, or at least a relationship between two people. Of course, some norms are universal, or nearly so. Murder, stealing, lying and so forth are generally disapproved of. However, the norms may be different between members of a community and The Other, or outsiders. However, a morality that has double-standards, one for the in-group and one for the out-group, is a dubious morality. Yet, they exist and are common.

The enumeration is interesting. It really cuts to the heart of a common class of problems in our modern world. The article focuses on the fact that norms are in dispute in different communities, but I think there are more interesting aspects of this problem.

Some people are toxic. They have no regard for norms. They will not acknowledge that they have harmed anyone. They will not discuss it beyond making excuses, like those you see in A Narcissist’s Prayer. You will never get a real apology from such a person.

The other side of it, that the article does discuss, is that our online environments pretend to community, but they aren’t actual communities. We have “friends” that aren’t really our friends. There are people trying to enforce norms without community and often on behalf of others. It turns it more into blood sport, where we are allies promoting the agenda of different teams.

For example, I believe in equal rights for women. I would like to see structures of institutional racism broken down. I think we should broaden our acceptance of the various sexualities between consenting adults. I think there are serious problems of class than need to be addressed, and we need greater opportunities for success for people living in poverty. But, as a white, male, heteronormative person that is not living in poverty, what are my responsibilities to forward those various agendas?

Is a country a community? A state? A city? Or even a neighborhood? And when I think about the communities and norms I subscribe to, does believing in a norm make a community? It can. You can forge a community based on a shared norm or values. But, you need both. If you want to promote values – or norms, it needs to be done in the context of a community. You cannot impose them from outside. And, even a community is not enough, you need to promote them in relationship with other people that you know. Values that abstract out real people, with real flaws, aren’t much of a value, just as getting people to apologize, not to some person, but to the world, isn’t a real apology.

Making Friends [on the Internet]

Summarized:

“[1.] follow people you resonate with.

[2.] engage with bigger accounts, support smaller accounts.

[3.] ask questions, offer suggestions, share learnings.

[4.] pay attention to who keeps popping up.

[5.] use the algorithms to your advantage.

[6.] attend virtual events. participate! 

[7.] attend offline events! Be adventerous.

[8.] send that dm / email / offer to connect.

[9.] if they don’t respond, try again in a few months.

[10.] put your thoughts out there.

-Jonathan Borichevskiy, “Making Friends on the Internet.” jon.bo. May 2, 2022.

Open question: How do you make new friends that will help you move in the direction you want your life to move and be fellow travelers?

The thrust is correct. If you want to make offline friends, you need to orient your online presence to make offline connections. However, there’s a bit of an age-bias. When you are 25 and single, it’s a lot easier to go to meeting on a lark. As you get older, it gets more difficult. You have to arrange a babysitter. There’s also the time to consider. Here’s a rough chart of time and quantities of friends a human brain tends to top out at:

  • 5 intimate friends (+200 hours)
  • 15 close friends (80-100 hours)
  • 50 general friends (40-60 hours)
  • 150 acquaintances (10-20 hours)

The problem, as you get older, is: how do you find those hours to spend with someone? The easiest method is some social institution, such as a church. Over a year, it should be possible to pick up a few friends and acquaintances from a church.

So, the above is how to make an initial connection with someone, and it assumes that you bridge these hours in some way. This is much harder, as you get older. But, perhaps something to think about when you start new chapters of your life.

How NFTs Create Value

“[Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs)] enable new markets by allowing people to create and build upon new forms of ownership. These projects succeed by leveraging a core dynamic of crypto: A token’s worth comes from users’ shared agreement — and this means that the community one builds around NFTs quite literally creates those NFTs’ underlying value. And the more these communities increase engagement and become part of people’s personal identities, the more that value is reinforced.

Newer applications will take greater advantage of online-offline connections, and introduce increasingly complex token designs. But even today, it’s less surprising than you might think that people are making money selling pictures on the internet.”

Steve Kaczynski and Scott Duke Kominers, “How NFTs Create Value.” Harvard Business Review. November 10, 2021

I was of the mindset that NFTs are a scam. But, then again, people think the same thing about cryptocurrencies, which I think is a new computing paradigm. This overview and explainer convinced me that perhaps there is more going on in this space than I realized. If you want to go deeper down this hole, you could do worse than Rolling Stone’s coverage of the Bored Ape Yacht Club.

The Challenge of the 20%

“One fifth of people are against everything all the time.”

-Robert Kennedy

I was reading somewhere that communities evolve away from reason to affirmation. In the initial stages of community formation, there are many elements that serve as a kernel that the community can form around. Sometimes it is an idea. Sometimes it is a person. Sometimes it is an activity or process. In the beginning, there is a choice. You want to be part of the community for some reason.

But, at some point, the community itself becomes the draw. If you think of the lifecycle of churches, for instance, it may initially serve as a gathering place of a town, drawn together by the ideas of the religion. But, at some point, the ideas of the religion becomes less important than the community that has formed around those ideas. Then, this serves as the focal point for joining the group. It’s no longer a means of serving some other reason beyond the group itself. The community becomes the reason, and when that transition happens, what is important is affirmation. You pledge allegiance to the community in exchange for the benefits of the community. There may still be a kernel. Key people that run or support the church and enable its continuation. But, they are no longer central to why people join.

Communities can continue long after they are viable. Or, they can transform further, into something that bears little resemblance to their original shape. Eventually, it will reach a point that it needs to be revitalized, to either return to its roots or find new development pathways. You see this in major movements like the Reformation in response to the decadence of the Catholic Church during feudal times, and it’s inability to adapt to the changes of the world around it.

Some don’t have meaningful pathways for renewal. Their purpose has been served and members of the community fade away, to drift off to join other communities and lend their vitality to them.

When I think about this process, I think about the value that the 20% play, the people that are against everything, particularly the community itself. In A Rebel Without a Cause, it’s interesting to think about this dynamic. On one level, a motorcycle club or gang is another type of community, one that undermines existing social structures. But, in another way of looking at it, they are calls for revitalization, the first signs that a community has entered on the pathway toward stagnation.

I think it is this dissatisfied 20% that plays an important role as first mover, that highlights the problems in the communities they are absorbing members from and create reactions that lead to revitalization. Or, they can affirm the health of the existing system, who can marginalize and maintain community cohesion in the face of the chaotic forces this group can bring to bear.

But, in some ways, the 20%, even when they have their own communities, will always be outside them. They are against everything, even on some level the communities they are part of. They play a valuable function for the other 80%. However, it’s a more difficult way of being in the world.

The Star Chamber, Cancel Culture and Living for the Bench

“By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?” …

…Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

-Gina Kolata, “Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus.” The New York Times. April 8, 2021.

The Star Chamber was an English court that was “originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts might hesitate to convict them of their crimes. However, it became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded,” according to Wikipedia. It strikes me as an apt phrase to indicate received opinion and how power is used to enforce conformity, where there is often an inverse relationship between how much deviation and the power applied to deviants.

When I read about The Star Chamber, the analogy to Twitter was obvious. Of course, there are relevant differences too. For example, while both serve as a kind of extra-legal enforcement mechanism, the Star Chamber was a sanctioned institution populated by legal professionals, whereas Twitter is closer to a mob.

There’s a tension. On one hand, society needs some kind of mechanism to hold the powerful into account. On the other, this mechanism tends to get out of control and used arbitrarily.

A think one way of thinking about how it should be used is the same rule that makes for comedy. You need to punch up, at the rich, the powerful, or the famous. But, if your comedy is targeting the weak or defenseless, then it isn’t really comedy.

Same goes for the checks on the powerful. If it’s moving in to act on the weak, then it’s not really doing its job, and the critiques of “cancel culture” are on point.

But, I think the real nuance comes in with people that are different. People can be different, and not necessarily weak. Perhaps they have a different focus, like Dr. Kariko living for “the bench”. A think a real sign of a strength of a culture is how well variance is tolerated within niche communities of the larger culture. Among scientists doing bench top research, is there an effort to be inclusive of interests that lie outside of the mainstream?

All of which is academic. The people who are rich and powerful will make these decisions. What the general population thinks they “should” be doing is largely irrelevant to them. So, the question for each of us is what should we be doing? I think Dr. Kariko is one good answer. Focus on the things you care about and get by. Don’t get involved in the larger culture wars that sap your time and energy away from what you’d rather be doing.

On a slightly more broader level, I think it is a call for each of us to try to see where we can support people of divergent views, backgrounds, etc. because it is by fostering an environment where different perspectives can be expressed and supported that we create conditions better for human flourishing, which in turn helps for more flourishing communities – a virtuous circle.

A Community is Defined By Its Center and Not Its Periphery

“My sense is that you need to build up a nucleus of people who know each other and who can network and support each other [in developing a proficiency in a technology with the complexity of R.]”

—Hadley Wickham in an interview with Dan Kopf, “What’s next for the popular programming language R?Quartz. August 17, 2019.

Made me think of a Larry Wall Slashdot interview, question 7, from back in the day.