This Week in Upgrades: October 10

A very good Monday to you. How are things? Is October treating you well? I did not watch last night’s presidential debate, and I’m OK with that. Partly because I can’t take it anymore (lewd Trump video!, Clinton Wall Street speeches!, ???!!!), and partly because the Packers were playing.

I tried to take a bit of a break from the interwebs through the week, too, so the links are fewer than normal. That doesn’t mean they’re uninteresting though. Like…

Take a look at how many galaxies are in just a tiny bit of space!

One wonders with historic storms like Hurricane Matthew why climate change isn’t front and center in this election?

If you want to know what some sketchy politician-media coziness looks like, this is a rare peek behind the scenes. This kind of stuff makes me want to throw up, but I wish we were all more aware of what goes on behind the scenes so we could more directly fix our broken democracy.

Imagine what we could do with over $700 billion in uncollected taxes from overseas profits–healthcare, education, infrastructure…

Some researchers believe we have achieved the natural maximum lifespan of our species. What’s the quote again about the years in your life versus the life in your years?

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is larger than previously thought. Our non-renewable, throwaway culture covers the whole planet. Time to wake up, everyone!

We know how to eat healthy, so why is food labeling so complicated?

The legacy of forced Native American assimilation through the lens of one community. Hard to watch, but powerful.

How did we get the names of our months?

Have a fantastic week!

 

Let’s Let People Be People

I am riveted by the current presidential campaign. Each presidential election is historic and interesting in its own way. But this one is different. Traditional candidates and predictable narratives are being subverted. There seems to be a groundswell of desire to move beyond the status quo in dramatic ways. In the long run, we’ll see what that means concretely: who wins and what (if anything) changes in society. Right now the race is still up in the air. I hope you’re enjoying watching and participating as much as I am. We need as many people as possible to be invested in this process.

But even in an unpredictable and entertaining race, some things never change. I’ve been especially bothered in recent weeks by the lazy use of stereotypical identity attributes to bunch people into monoliths. Media, candidates, pundits, and others do this regularly. African-Americans must all think and vote one way because they’re African-American. Elderly people must think and vote the same way because they’re elderly. Pick out a single trait or two–an age range, a gender, an income level, a race or ethnicity, a religion–and you can probably find some commentary about how that whole group of people is essentially homogenous.

One among many examples: last night in the Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a spirited exchange over the significance of Henry Kissinger being a valued mentor of Hillary Clinton. In the short time since the debate, I’ve heard Anderson Cooper and others on CNN, my local NPR station, and various tweets say something sarcastic like, “I bet that played well with Millennials–since they have no idea who Kissinger is.”

Surely some younger adults don’t know. But quite possibly some do know and have an opinion about it. Why assume an entire age range of the country fits into a uniform group of don’t know and couldn’t care less? And who’s to say a younger person can’t deem it important and figure it out? Between Internet searches, books, documentaries, and other sources, it’s pretty easy to give yourself a decent introductory lesson in things you don’t know. I’m inclined to believe that a number of people care enough to do so–and not just the ones that fit into a nonspecific age range reduced to “Millennials.”

Analogous things could be said about how predominant voices are talking about Hispanics who live in Nevada, African-Americans who live in South Carolina, young women, older women, and many others.

We should all be insulted by this. We can do better.

Identity generalizations may be convenient for a stump speech or a news segment. But they certainly do not represent or empower the individual human beings they are made about. You are a complex person. I (like to think I) am a complex person. Despite the fact that you may belong in a fundamental way to this or that race, class, or generation, you have a unique web of motivations, interests, knowledge, experiences, and beliefs. So does the person next to you. However much we are like others who share certain identity traits, there are meaningful idiosyncrasies that make each of us profoundly different from one another.

So let’s move beyond lazily and simplistically grouping people together. Let’s call it out and challenge it whenever we see it–from national media to our conversations with each other. Let’s let people be people.

 

How to Adult: Voting

If you can believe it, the actual choosing part of the presidential race is going to begin on Monday with the Iowa caucuses. If to this point you haven’t kept up with the latest Donald Trump theatrics or been watching social media overflow with #FeeltheBern it’s OK. Nothing super important has happened just yet, because no one has voted yet.

But with Iowa officially getting the ball rolling in just a few days, now is a good time to figure out who you’re going to vote for if you haven’t.

Yes, you should definitely vote. Common cynicism about how my vote doesn’t mean anything or the government is broken and isn’t going to be fixed is understandable. But how do you expect things to ever change if you don’t raise your voice? Though it’s an incredibly lofty and hackneyed-sounding ideal, the American government truly is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election was just over 1/3 of eligible voters–the lowest since World War II. How can anyone expect our government to function properly and be representative of the general population if only a handful of people are participating? How might our country’s future be impacted if 60% or even 75% of eligible voters show up? Changing the status quo begins with your vote.

So, where to start? If you already know which presidential candidate you like, then you should plan to vote for them in the primary in your state when it happens. Here’s a calendar if you don’t know when yours is. A few states have caucuses because they’re old-school. Here’s a short video explaining the difference between caucuses and primaries. Make sure you register properly ahead of time if you need to.

If you don’t know who you’re going to vote for, now’s the time to sift through everything you can get your hands on. Push beyond surface features like political party (the person you end up liking best may be in a party you’ve never voted for or don’t generally agree with), religious affiliation, gender, home state, the amount of media coverage, someone’s outraged Facebook post, and the like.

Try to watch a number of speeches and debates candidates have participated in. They’re easy to YouTube nowadays. Ask yourself:

Is a particular person consistent in their message, or do they seem to change their mind a lot about their convictions and intentions?

Are there issues they have been fighting for a long time for and made good progress on?

When they speak, does it seem like they marginalize or belittle certain people, or do they seem like a candidate who is trying to represent everyone’s best interests no matter their ethnicity, age, gender, income, etc.?  

Look into each candidate’s position on specific issues–especially ones that are most important to you. If you care a lot about climate change, who seems to have the best plan to address it in the coming years, and a history of good environmental policy? If you care a lot about healthcare, who seems to have the best ideas about ensuring affordability, access, and quality of care? If you care a lot about immigration, who seems to have the empathy and strategy to address it? If you have a lot of student debt, who has the best plan to ease that burden?

Try not to let only one issue drive your decision-making. Our president needs to be someone who can lead and make sound judgments on a number of different aspects of American society.

If you dig and research and ponder and are still not sure, talk to people you trust about who they really like. Listen for good reasons to be for a particular candidate as opposed to choosing one by default because they’re against and vilifying others who are running. I can’t stand so-and-so, so I’m voting for… is not a wise way to choose.

Take time and figure out who you think the best person is to lead America for the next four years. We need a society where more people are engaged in the democracy we have so that things genuinely function for the well-being of everyone. That engagement, and voting, specifically, is part of being an adult. If you wish things were different, you can’t just stand on the sideline and Like witty posts about the failures and absurdities. Show up to your polling place so you can post a #iVoted instead. The sticker is pretty cool too.

This Week in Upgrades: January 11

Some of the best human things from the last seven days. Have a good week!

 

L’Oreal unveiled a UV patch that tells you your sun exposure and potential skin damage.

 

Do you understand the new dietary guidelines? Here’s a solid explanation.

 

How likely is it that a robot will take your job in the near future? An interesting chart.

 

Perhaps the gun legislation we need will come through the states.

 

Would a variable velocity gun help reduce the number of deaths?

 

Drone ride for one. The future of transportation? Would you ride it across town?

 

ICYMI: California has declared a state of emergency for its methane leak.

 

The science behind Brendan Dassey’s forced confession on Making a Murderer.

 

What’s the fastest way to defrost your car?

 

America’s Gun Violence Problem Can’t Be Fixed Without Dialogue

A thing is surely troubling when it brings the President to tears on live television. Undoubtedly, the widespread gun violence in America challenges the depths of our human sadness–no matter how you feel about guns in general. We think we’ve seen the worst, and then some new tragedy forces us into more grief and disbelief. In a speech to announce executive action on gun policy, and implore Congress for new legislation, recalling the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012 that killed twenty children and six adult staff became the emotional tipping point for President Obama. The tears came rolling down his cheeks, and it wasn’t Bengay in his eyes. If ever a gun massacre would galvanize everyone to fix the problem, the shooting in Newtown should have been it. The murder of twenty children, and the six adults overseeing their budding lives, should have been the end of political inaction. It’s still hard to comprehend three years later.

Yet here we are at the start of 2016 with gun violence in America still to be reasonably addressed. Yet to be addressed at all, really. The executive action by President Obama is not completely meaningless. But as grade school taught us (and for non-Millennials, Schoolhouse Rock!), it is the legislative branch of the government that passes meaningful laws. And they’ve done an appalling job with guns so far–whether you’d prefer to talk about “gun rights” or “gun control.” In 2013, for example–just after Sandy Hook–an assault weapons ban and an amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases were passionately introduced, only to be later defeated in the Senate.

But perhaps even more depressing was the pervasive, antagonistic response to what amounts to a very minimal amount of change from the recent executive action. Before the Tuesday speech even happened, a number of conservatives and gun lobbyists were decrying the President’s effort as illegal, unconstitutional, power hungry, and more. It was reflexive in the worst kind of way. Rhetorically trigger-happy. Constructive conversation in Congress is dead, and now a possible small step forward can’t even be stated in the public square before it’s assaulted. The politicians and lobbyists barricading all progress, for violence incomparable to nearly any other developed country, really need to do some soul-searching.

Because we can’t fix this problem without them. If that’s you, we can’t fix it without you. People who already want new legislation don’t need to be persuaded. I’m preaching to the choir for many of you reading this. 86% of Americans favor a law requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases in the United States, with a centralized database across all 50 states. Statistically, if politicians were merely representing their constituents (as they’re supposed to do), 86 out of 100 Senators and over 370 Representatives in the House should get behind such a law. The only explanation at this point is that many of the politicians who make and vote for the laws that we need are the very obstruction to progress.

Is it because they’re evil incarnate, or dumb? I don’t think so. If anything, they’re probably too savvy. They’ve figured out how to appease special interest–the NRA most of all–and deflect public pressure at the same time. Complaining about constitutionality, legality, and the President’s supposed self-aggrandizing, makes it appear on the surface that a politician is working really hard for preserving a traditional version of America. But as Obama wondered in his executive action speech, “How did we get to the place where people think requiring a comprehensive background check means taking away people’s guns?” This is not about the 2nd Amendment–it’s about sensible policy for those guns so that possession doesn’t infringe on safety and freedom.

But if you shut down the conversation before it even starts, nothing’s ever going to change. We need a real conversation that includes everyone–gun collectors, hunters, victims of gun violence, academics, politicians, and even lobbyists if they’re willing to dialogue with reason and empathy. We need everyone to talk together about the guns, ammunition, and gun features like automation and magazine capacity that no citizen should possess. We need everyone to discuss the kinds of gaps that enable guns to be sold–legally or illegally–when they shouldn’t. We need everyone to have a thorough, thoughtful dialogue about the mental illness that should prevent some people from having a gun, and how to provide them with the support they need to get well. (Nearly ⅔ of gun deaths in America are suicides. Do most people even know that?) We need everyone together to have an honest conversation–not one-sided defiance–about whether more guns is actually a solution to current gun violence problems or not.

Everyone–you, me, them, us–needs to be part of the conversation, and solutions. The more anyone avoids it with rhetorical posturing, the more they appear complicit with the status quo. No one can possibly be OK with what’s happening now–no matter how much money they receive.

 

What is Technology, Exactly?

Cuneiform

The last post, Why this Blog?, was a fresh start for what Upgraded Humans is about: the relationship of people and technology. It’s an imperfect relationship—like teens in the awkwardness of adolescence trying to figure each other out—rather than a harmonious, flourishing one—like a married couple in their golden years. It takes time, understanding, and maturation to get to a relationship with that kind of mutual prosperity. Many of our technological innovations and abilities are relatively immature—as is our understanding of technology.

Thanks to the genius of Marshall McLuhan, we saw that whenever we think about a particular piece of technology, there are four fundamental questions we need to ask to understand how it impacts us as people. What does it extend? What does it make obsolete? What does it revert into? What does it retrieve?

To ask those questions and begin to reflect on the answers, though, requires that we can identify technology in the first place to ask the questions about it. We need to talk about one more question before The Four. What is technology?

We all have a pretty intuitive sense of some things that definitely are technology. We know it when we see it. Smartphones, of course, and related devices like tablets, laptops, and headphones to go with them. We’d also probably think of most of the ways we get around: cars, trains, buses, motorcycles, boats, airplanes, and spacecraft (Well, someday spacecraft. Keep working SpaceX!). And we’d also be quick to include other things that plug into an outlet or have batteries: Hello Kitty waffle irons, hairdryers, microwaves, televisions, Xboxes, lamps, and cameras.

But we might not immediately think of other things like: clothing, tables, weapons, shampoo, prescription medications, musical instruments, books, language, governments, forms of taxonomy and naming, farming, clocks, credit cards, and houses.

Yes, these too are technology. Why? What makes technology, technology? Our good friend Marshall McLuhan has an answer for this also. He used the word media instead of technology, a more communication-centric way of talking about it, but the definition still fits. So what is it?

All forms of technology are human creations that extend or amplify some part of ourselves.

That’s it. Simple, yet profound.

Technology is first and foremost something that humans have created. We make it. It doesn’t grow in the woods. It doesn’t appear out of the heavens. We create it, and modify it, and improve it, and expand it, and sometimes abandon it. Modern English is much different than Egyptian hieroglyphs (though our increasing use of emojis and GIFs is making things a little more similar). Thousands of other languages have arisen and gone extinct well before any of us were born. The current iPhone is much different than the original, music-only iPod, but we could track that evolution from one model to the next. And every smartphone is a particular arrangement of metals, chips, glass, rare earth elements, and other components that would never come together in the form of a phone by the wind or the sea or the tectonic shifts of the earth. We conceived it and we made it.

What technology does is extend or amplify some part of our selves. You probably noticed this is exactly what the first question in The Four Laws of Media asks. You’re brilliant. The best way to begin to understand the effect of a particular technology is to first examine and understand what human ability it extends. Whether it’s a limb, the senses, our brain, or something social between people, every technology is an extension of one or more of the abilities we have.

The wheel or wings—of a bike, car, airplane, or otherwise—extends and amplifies the locomotion of our two feet. We can go faster and farther, and more comfortably so. It’d take you a long, grueling time to walk and swim to France (Unless you live there, of course. If so, bonjour!). Weapons are extensions of our fists, fingernails, and other body parts we might fight with. Shampoo, “age-defying” lotions, first-aid, prescription medications, and other products we put on or inside our bodies, enhance the body’s ability to remove dirt, fight pathogens, heal itself, and perform normal organ functions. Books and notes extend our capacity for memory, organizing our thoughts, articulating long ideas or stories, and sharing them with other people. Musical instruments extend and enhance our singing voice, our sense of melody, and our capacity for self-expression. Naming things extends our capacity to organize and interpret the expansive array of plants, animals, and other things that make up the world around us.

Socially, governments extend our ability to live together by a communal rule of law and shared understanding of the common good. Money extends our ability to assess and exchange value with one another. Telephones, streaming video, and other electronic communication allow us to speak with and view each other across great distances. Industrialized agriculture, refrigeration, and cross-country transportation extend our shared capacity to grow, store, and move the food we all need to eat.

And on and on. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of examples of technology when we understand it properly.

The major complication of technology, and one of the motivations for Upgraded Humans, is that though in the beginning human beings controlled the construction of each of the extensions and enhancements, once they’re made they often begin to control us. That’s where the need for the Four Laws comes in. If we don’t reflect on those questions, particularly if we don’t understand which natural human capacity that a certain technology extends, we’re likely to be nudged in ways that might not be good for us by the technology we were originally the master of.

So a few last questions for now.

How did you end up with a Hello Kitty waffle iron?

What things had you not thought of as technology that you realize are technology based on our definition?

Does thinking about it as technology—as an extension of an ability you have—change the way you see what it does and what kind of power it has?

Does that reveal anything about the power it has over you and the way you need to take back the reigns?

Comment below! Send ideas or pictures of things other people would never think of as technology. And, as always, thanks for reading.