The Good Place

There’s this new show on NBC, The Good Place, that is actually about becoming a good person. Kristen Bell plays a character, Eleanor, who has incorrectly be sent to the “Good Place” rather than the “Bad Place.” She quickly discovers that if she does something “bad,” like littering, bad things, like trash falling from the sky, happens. So she tries to learn to be a good person; luckily her soulmate (well the “real” Eleanor’s soulmate) happens to have been an ethics professor on Earth.

Let’s just take a second to absorb that. There is a show that is teaching the world how to be a better person

What does this say about the world today? Apparently the network executives at NBC thought something along the lines, “You know what, yes. A tv show in which Ted Danson tells those millennials, like Kristen Bell, how to be good is PERFECT! And it’s entertaining so we’ll trick everyone, so while they think they are just enjoying a show, they are actually learning how to be a good person.”

Okay, it is entertaining. I enjoy watching Ted Danson play this god-like character after watching him as the womanizer bartender in Cheers (my parents own the tv at home and their entertainment preferences haven’t changed), Kristen Bell struggling to shirk her morally-questionable habits, and William Jackson Harper play an exasperated ethics professor trying to determine what’s the right thing to do.

It even is engaging as an ethics nerd. How often do you get to watch tv and hear the characters casually and seriously discuss Mill and Kant? It’s so cool… in a very nerdy way.

I cannot recall a time that entertainment targeted towards adults has been so blatantly about morality. It makes me wonder what that says about the morality of those viewing it.

We are incredibly divided right now, politically, religiously, socially, financially, geographically, etc. We do not really agree on anything. We are so divided that we are afraid of the other side.

How do we hold each other to a common standard when we fundamentally disagree on what that standard is? We’ve stopped talking to each other. We’ve stopped having conversations with others with whom we disagree. We’ve stopped listening to each other. We have no way to discuss what morality means, and thus we have no way to come to a common, fundamental standard.

Or at least, that’s what NBC seems to think. Maybe this funny, relatable show about being a good person can be our framework to engage in that discussion again.

If the show fails, we can at least be excited that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series!.

The Anti-fragile Assumption

On October 6th, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership in the Stern School of Business at NYU, spoke to my American Experience Focus cluster. Last year, he coauthored an essay in The Atlantic titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which argued that trigger warnings in an academic context provide a disservice to students by protecting them from challenging material.

Haidt’s talk was essentially a condensed version of his essay. He cited examples of college campuses taking it too far by pushing to remove monuments to historical figures identified as racist. He expressed concern for the mental health of young people who, in his view, are increasingly encouraged to identify as victims. He urged students to “run like hell” from safe spaces, which all but guarantee the protection of their pre-existing viewpoints. All of these sentiments had been communicated in The Atlantic a year earlier.

Haidt did, however, introduce new lingo into his arguments. Flaunting the syntax and cadence of a high school science teacher, he outlined a new natural law.

“The big idea is this: human beings are Antifragile. So what does that mean?”

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a risk engineer and quantitative analyst who also teaches at NYU. Taleb is not a psychologist.

The word describes an entity that is strengthened by stress. A fragile object fractures. A durable object maintains its integrity. An antifragile object may break now, but you can bet it will bounce back from the experience stronger than ever.

It’s easy to see what Haidt is getting at. Human beings are supposed to be resilient. Our ability to document, analyze, and learn from our hardships has made us an adaptable species. On the surface, this perspective is appealing: it offers a triumphant view of our existence, a plucky narrative in which adversity is simply a segue to prosperity. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? No wonder websites called The Art of Manliness and Startup Bros seems so keen on Taleb’s terminology.

But this philosophy is more than naive. In application, it is quite a dangerous framework for interpreting experience. Haidt has created a lens of analysis that instantly justifies harm. If adversity is seen as an asset, hostility becomes a gift. Consider the two examples he himself presented: bullying in school and sexism in the workplace.

Haidt plainly asserted that children “need to be bullied.” Bullying is a useful experience because it teaches children how to deal with torment. Similarly, sexism in the office should not be policed from above, as confrontation teaches women to become resilient.

Are bullying and harassment experiences from which children and women can draw meaning? Of course, certain individuals may come to view painful events as meaningful. Some may even, according to a personal timeframe, decide that such experiences were ultimately rewarding. But is it fair for institutions to make that decision for them?

The antifragility argument assumes that humans will transform their traumatic experiences into positive experiences. The great irony is that its proponents simultaneously seek to dismantle the resources which are created precisely for that purpose. It is odd that Haidt wants us to move past trauma, yet fails to see the value of spaces designed for comfortable reflection. Haidt wants us to move past painful associations, but not at our own pace. Haidt thinks we’re strong, but apparently not strong enough.

A a great number of Haidt’s explanations at the talk began with “Because human beings are antifragile…”

Although Haidt presented Taleb’s theory as a psychological axiom, there is no scientific evidence to evaluate it. There is nothing close to an academic consensus that Haidt’s “big idea” is true. After all, the concept of antifragility is only four years old. Haidt has only been applying it to the human mind since last year.

Place yourself in the examples Haidt gave and consider whether you would benefit from bullying and harassment. Consider whether you would feel empowered by an environment in which you must remain on guard? As a woman, do you suppose the quality of your work would benefit from the presence of coworkers who do not respect you? As a child, do you think that facing ridicule on the regular with no intervention from authority would make you eager to learn?

Schools and offices don’t police harassment because they believe humans are delicate; they police harassment because they understand that humans operate best in a secure environment. The point of a school is to learn, not to get toughness points. An office is a place for meaningful work, not a daily self-instructed defense lesson.

Wanting a secure space to work doesn’t mean a person is weak- it’s almost the opposite. It means that that person is secure enough to understand his or her person comfort level and deliberate enough to seek it.

I agree, Professor Haidt: Humans aren’t fragile. But for now, your “big idea” appears to be.

DC Public Library Presents: Privacy 101

Ever want to browse the black market online? Or are you just interested in keeping your browsing history private from everyone? Then the DC Public Library’s 10-day series on government transparency and personal privacy is the place for you.

The series, cleverly titled “Orwellian America,” brings together a variety of documentary screenings, live readings, and workshops – all intended to inform the general public about their privacy (or lack thereof) in today’s digital age. Notable events include a seminar about accessing public government information, a live marathon reading of George Orwell’s 1984, and a lesson on using the Tor browser to protect your online privacy. All in all, it appears to be a thought-provoking program, particularly given the hacking and tracking we hear so much about on the news these days.

While the program’s content may not be entirely groundbreaking for a public library – a quick search reveals that the Denver public library holds a similar workshop – what does surprise me is the location. Right down the road from Congress and a few miles from the NSA, the DC library will teach people how to use a browser known mostly for its obscurity and its use for buying illegal goods.

Some people may criticize the program for teaching “bad” people to hide themselves from committing crimes online, and others may criticize the program for contributing to fear mongering and an unhealthy distrust of our government.* However, I think the most interesting issue this program reminds us to think about is: do we consider the Internet to be a public or private space? What should it be, and how should we expect to be treated within it?

In many ways, I believe that a large majority of people (myself included) treat their online access like a private terminal to outside information – the equivalent of being inside your own home and looking outside at interesting things, with the occasional “post” equivalent to inviting others inside to see a poster hanging on the wall. In this analogy, deleting information from your Facebook profile or Twitter feed seems like it should be permanent, equal to taking down that hanging poster so that no one can see it anymore. Unfortunately, we know that the Internet is written in pen, not pencil, and that the digital trail can sometimes never be erased.

What we also know through whistleblowers and leakers is that the U.S. government has been secretly compiling these digital trails, going as far to collect metadata not only for our Internet activity but also for our phone calls. If it already seemed unsettling for other people to be taking pictures and recording all of the posters we hang, then it is surely even more unsettling for our government to be doing the same without letting us know.

If the Internet is a private space, then it seems like all of this watching and recording is an invasion of our agreed privacy. But what if the Internet is a public space? What inherent level of privacy should we expect, and does the level of surveillance depend on what the government does with the information?

Frustratingly, it seems impossible to determine whether the U.S. government’s surveillance produces a net good or net bad. To do so would require comparing things like the lives saved from the thwarting of terrorist attacks with things like the lives crippled by false positives and a general lack of privacy (which I am assuming is a positive attribute that most people want). More frustratingly, maybe we should expect an inherent level of privacy no matter what, just like the way we expect public bathrooms to be free from surveillance cameras. Even then, we have the tough task of determining what (if anything) is the online equivalent to walking in to a toilet stall.

The DC Public Library’s “Orwellian America” reminds me that I know little about my online self and that I know even less about how to form expectations for online privacy in the grand scheme of things. Here is this public institution teaching people to stay more private from public surveillance on channels of questionable privacy in a network with ambiguous public/ private expectations. Confusing. In any case, the public library seems like an appropriate place to start doing some learning.

* Given that everything included in the program is already free and publicly available, you could easily argue that the library won’t be teaching you anything couldn’t already do in, say, a library. You could also argue that the public currently has an unhealthy trust in our government’s respect for our online privacy.

Turf Wars Episode I: Let the Kids Play

“It’s about to go down” is a lofty way to start a YouTube video, but sometimes it does indeed go down. Earlier last August at the Mission Playground, a public park located in San Francisco’s historically Latino but increasingly gentrified Mission District, one video does just that (see below).

Going viral on Bay Area local media and later picked up by larger sites like the New Yorker and TechCrunch, the video – shot by a seemingly-neutral bystander – shows an argument over the use of a soccer field. On one side is a group of teenaged Latino boys, identifying as locals who frequently use the park, and on the other side is a group of white men, later identified as employees of Airbnb and Dropbox. The video begins with a pan of the busy field and continues as the newcomers become increasingly confrontational while they try to argue their way on to the field.

Under the policies set by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, the newcomers were able to buy permit time at Mission Playground, followed the rules when booking the field, and were upset when those rules weren’t respected. On the other end, the park’s regulars felt slighted by the sudden disregard for their own norms, which have prevailed at the park for as long as they can remember.

So who’s right?

Warning, some NSFW language included

After first watching this video, I very quickly took the side of the local teenagers. How dare some people, let alone older white men in a predominantly Latino community, try to run some kids off of their field?

But stepping back, it also seems unfair to blame the Airbnb and Dropbox employees for buying the permit and expecting the permit to be respected. The same situation has bothered me more than handful of times too. Whether it’s booking a study room or a soccer field, it never feels good to kick someone out of a space you planned to use. While the way that the newcomers handled the situation may have upset me (saying things like “who cares about the neighborhood?” and resorting to tactics you might expect only a toddler to fall for), I can’t fault them for following the rules.

I also can’t fault the local teenagers for not wanting to follow the park rules. They have created a well-respected culture with a merit-based spirit at its core. It’s simple: if you win, you stay. Not until the confrontation escalates do you see the teenagers frustrated with the newcomers themselves, who happen to represent the influx of new residents to the neighborhood. But up until this point, you see the teenagers challenging the newcomers to compete to stay. While it’s not exactly true to the Parks Department’s book, it’s hardly unfair either.

So maybe it’s the park rules themselves that bother me most. The Parks Department’s permit policy creates a system in which those who can’t afford to buy special time on the park are at the mercy of those who can. In this way, the permit policy undercuts the long-standing relationship and tradition that local teenagers have with the park. Recognizing this, and in response to community activists, the Parks Department later decided to remove the permit system.

While the permit policy removal seems like a victory for the Mission’s local teenagers, what does this mean for the neighborhood’s relationship to its newer residents, like the employees of Airbnb and Dropbox? Maybe they’ll just need time to assimilate into their new neighborhood’s customs, but maybe they don’t want to. Either way, they’ll have to play for their right to stay on the field.

Sugar Babies: Sweet or Sour?

If you’re a stereotypically broke college student who is looking for some consistent work and steady pay, you may consider dropping that part-time on-campus job and picking up a full-time job as a “sugar baby.” All you need is a “sugar daddy” or a “sugar mommy” who can provide financial incentives in exchange for your companionship – simple, right?

When I first read this CNN article over a year and a half ago about the creative ways that students have been making money to pay for college tuition, I was drawn mostly to the idea of sugar daddies/ mommies and sugar babies. At the time, the idea of online-originating arrangements seemed like a fad concept – one that would fade away with the regular tide of social networking websites. But even a quick Google News search today shows that the promotion and criticism of sugar-babies wasn’t new in 2012, and it hasn’t stopped being a short form newsworthy topic a few years later.

On SeekingArrangement.com, one of the most popular sites that has been drawing attention for its promotion of what they call “mutually beneficial relationships,” wealthier men and women (but overwhelmingly men) can find younger and more attractive men and women (but overwhelmingly women) who are looking to make some money. On the site’s general information page*, it claims to have a “solution to the problem of imbalance and broken expectations in dating relationships” by eliminating “awkwardness” and “guessing games.” It writes as fact that “older, wealthier men and younger, more beautiful women have been seeking each other out for… let’s see… THOUSANDS OF YEARS,” and that “it’s a tradition that’s not going to change anytime soon.”

If the patterns of wealthier men looking to find younger women haven’t changed and won’t change, maybe that’s the reason that sugar daddy/baby connection websites are still around. Even now, there continue to be articles written about the growing number of sugar babies at universities including Georgia State University, Miami University, and even at Cambridge University in the UK. And though I do not personally know anyone involved in a sugar daddy/ baby relationship, I generally agree that healthy dating relationships can form when there are clear expectations.

So what makes me uncomfortable about the growing number of sugar daddy/ baby relationships formed by these arrangement websites?

Though sites like SeekingArragement.com claim to set clear expectations for these relationships, these websites seem only to make clear the financial expectations, not the expectations for companionship – and more specifically, sexual intimacy. While sugar babies can clearly state their “lifestyle expectations,” which range from “negotiable,” to “minimal” or less than $1,000 monthly, to “high” or over $10,000 monthly, there are no equivalent metrics for companionship. And how could there be a set of easy-to-list companionship expectations to choose from? What would even come close? The number of nights per week expected to have dinner, or to watch a movie, or to be sexually intimate? And could you even begin to quantify the emotional commitment aspect?

Websites like SeekingArrangement.com advertise relationships that are ambiguous and imbalanced from the beginning. If we evaluate relationships on a gradient from romantic ones to transactional ones, the explicit transfer of money within sugar daddy/ baby relationships seem much more transactional but are marketed as more romantic. A sugar daddy knows exactly how much he will pay for the companionship of a sugar baby, but a potential sugar baby doesn’t know what form her companionship should or will take. When these relationships fail – at least in part – because intimacy expectations are not met, then the sugar baby will always be at higher risk for blame, because the conditions are unfair and unclear to begin with. Arrangement sites bring this type of inequality to a larger scale.

*The site has since updated its general information page and the link provided above directs to an archived version.

Vigilante Justice, Internet Style

As an Asian-American student at Duke, I have been asked my opinion about the K-Sig “Asia Prime” party by friends, professors, and even my grandmother from China.

Nevertheless, this is not a post on racism, Duke frat boys, or racist Duke frat boys.  Continue reading “Vigilante Justice, Internet Style”