Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Angel to Grifter to...??

Guido Reni's "Archangel Michael defeating Satan"
photo credit: Santa Maria della Concerzione, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain {{PD-US}}

In 1952, the iconic educator Robert Maynard Hutchins completed publication of the substantial, multi-volume Great Books of the Western World. These include two volumes discussing a hundred or so Great Ideas, as well as detailing references to these ideas in the Great Books. This has special interest as the United States continues to travel its extended exposé of the white-ants of democracy--and, who knows, perhaps their eventual accountability?

Reading now what Hutchins and his editors compiled seven decades ago offers some insight about the values in prominence then, compared to the present. The complete Great Books was exploratory and ambitious in many ways, but it inevitably incorporated some assumptions of that time that are not acceptable today, including sexist language and the conscious exclusion of Eastern thought. 

Importantly though, and more positively, the Great Ideas that are discussed in Volumes I and II, along with the entire 54 volumes, illuminate many personal values considered important to daily life--like wisdom, courage, prudence, and justice. Unsurprisingly, not listed are the modern media's five main preoccupations, of "Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence."

The Great Ideas commence with "Angel," then continue alphabetically through "Good and Bad," "Government" and so on, to eventually wrap up with "World." "Grifters" don't rate a mention, although we know from other sources that, along with "Charlatans" and "Crooks," these certainly found their way into all sorts of places, including government then and now. 

As early as the "Cs" the trend is clear, as "Citizen" is given its due, along with "Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention." Publishing so soon after the world's narrow escape from the domination of notorious tyrants in Europe and Asia, Hutchins and his editors also thought "Democracy, Dialectic, and Education" were each worth individual attention.

Further along alphabetically, "Happiness" is priority enough to capture 26 pages of exploration (pp. 684-710). The separate treatments of "Law" and "Liberty" collect 50 pages more--before "Life and Death," "Logic," and "Love" take 67 pages--to close out the first of two volumes on what Great Ideas mattered to civilization. You get the idea, so to speak.

The second volume also has interesting reminders on perspective, including "Oligarchy, Principle, and Punishment," before explaining the values in "Reasoning, Rhetoric, and Sense," or contrastingly in "Sin and Slavery." Maybe it's not entirely coincidence that "Truth" and "Tyranny" are alphabetical neighbors, while described together are "Virtue and Vice," as well as "War and Peace." 

It was something of a relief to reach, at Great Idea number 101, a 16-page exploration of "Wisdom," before concluding the volumes with an ambitious explanation of "World." Much here that is clarifying. For example, whether for past or present concerns, in a nod to wisdom, many of us will agree with Aquinas that "Free choice is part of...dignity."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

How Anti-social Are Social Media?

Smartphone
photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

While legislators and the providers of social media platforms quibble, serious questions continuously emerge about the "social" value or otherwise of social media. How much the social media harm social cohesion is a concern of pundits and analysts, and many others of us. A New Yorker article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on June 3 [here] surveys the ongoing tussle over these serious questions.

In developing democracies or for push-back against autocrats, social media allow people to share information and grow group cohesion. Elsewhere, questions are often asked, like whether social media "make people angrier... more... polarized... create political echo chambers... increase... violence... [or] enable foreign governments to increase political dysfunction in the United States and other democracies?" 

Or, whether social media leave us "particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, or the propensity to fix upon evidence that shores up our prior beliefs?" Or, whether "social media might be more of an amplifier of other things going on?"

All good questions deserving better answers. But more simply, I would ask: If social media executives really believe that what they do is so purely a social good, why do so many Silicon Valley parents, who manage many of these companies, ration the amount of time their offspring devote to social media? Can't recall this advice being urged on the rest of us with any consistency by social media executives, their lobbyists, or industry representatives.

Some studies of social media effects are inconclusive, disputed, or ongoing (forever?). Meanwhile, teen suicide, gun violence, and political dysfunction undeniably intersect with social media daily. 

Of all the questions mentioned in the New Yorker article, perhaps the most important is whether society can really wait around another five or ten years for more literature reviews?

A variety of individuals and organizations keep exploiting social media. This is serious value for the companies providing the platforms, who spend substantially on talented specialists to develop the algorithms and drive up the use of social media--at least, where western-styled salaries, bonuses, and stock options are paid! But social media entice serious activity by trolls, zealots, and dilettantes too! 

Of course, it's the people using social media who are really exploited. In exchange for their time and using a bit of intelligence to acquire some know-how, social media users can reach a variety of people for a variety of purposes--while also stimulating considerable dopamine in the brain, to help fulfill the social media companies' main purpose, of getting more people to occupy more time on social media. 

Minimally, should society make social media providers abide by requirements equivalent to what govern mass media? 

How long will it be before legislators do something about any of these matters, instead of muddling along at buggy speed in a nanosecond world?