Monday, February 14, 2011

Peace on Facebook

Lots of news these days about what role Facebook and Twitter played in the Egyptian revolution, with some people extolling the wonders of social networks and others reminding them that plenty of revolutions happened just fine before Facebook came along.

Overlooked is the more subtle, ongoing role the web plays in making connections and building social capital. is a great site, the highlight of which is a chart showing the huge number of connections made on Facebook between traditionally conflict-prone groups. In our minds, we think of Israelis and Palestinians as completely segregated and full of hatred for one another, but if there are 19,000 friend connections made between the two groups every day, how bad can it be? Likewise, there are a stunning 85,000 daily connections made between Indians and Pakistanis.

The site also shows the results of a survey asking "Do you think we will achieve world peace within 50 years?" While it's interesting to see the different results among countries, I think this is a less useful exercise. It perpetuates a big misconception about peace - that it is a single, all-or-nothing event. How would we know if we hit "world peace" … does that mean the end of all wars? What about simmering conflicts among non-state actors? Does it mean the end of all crime? Does it mean we're all singing together on a hill about Coke? The loftiness of the question is most likely contributing to the low percentage responding "yes": only nine percent in the U.S. Not even I think everything is going to be perfect in 50 years. A lot better than today, yes. But defined as "world peace"? From what I've seen, it's better to keep our goals tangible and well-defined, and thus achievable.

Check out the peace.facebook site here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Nostalgia & Technochondria

DC Comics announced last week that they would no longer be submitting their comic books to the notorious Comic Code Authority (CCA) for review. Rather than use this antiquated ratings system, DC will be using a new system of their own making. Marvel Comics, the second of the comic world's "big two" publishers, had already left the CCA several years ago. This is good news, since the Comic Code is laughingly out-of-date, having been devised during a reactionary anti-comics scare in the 1950s. Congress actually held hearings in which experts ridiculously testified that comics caused juvenile delinquency. And if you thought that the very act of Congress wasting time discussing comic books shows a dramatic lack of perspective and priority, wait till you hear this quote from the infamous psychiatrist Fredric Wertham during the hearings: "Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry." So for 60 years after that, nearly every comic published had to adhere to very specific rules that made sure, for example, that each character acted appropriately morally and that authorities were never shown in a harsh light, or risk losing market shelf space due to a lack of the Comic Code seal. Fortunately, in the past few decades, fewer and fewer people paid any attention to this backhanded censorship.

There are a lot of things to be worried about in the world, but needless to say, comic books are not one of them. Yet that type of scare repeats itself again and again, with practically every new technology and innovation (Comic books were relatively new in the 1950s, and juvenile delinquency had to come from somewhere, after all.) It sometimes has much more harmful effects than merely reducing comic book sales, though. For example, fears of genetically-modified crops have led several African nations to ban them, even though harmful effects have never been proven, and the increased crop yield and nutrition they offer might have prevented thousands (millions?) of deaths. Banning DDT is a similar story - we end up with a small environmental benefit (although even that is questionable, you can read a great Skeptoid article about it here), but at the cost of millions of lives lost to malaria.

Nick Bilton, author of I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, lists other examples of what he calls "technochondria" in that book. Such as how bible-copying monks viewed the printing press as terribly low-quality when it was invented, and knew it wouldn't last. When trains were created, many people thought that if humans traveled at more than twenty miles per hour, they would suffocate. Some scientists believed traveling at such high speeds would simply make our bones fall apart. On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System was one of the many books that described these terrible afflictions, in 1867. My favorite is the fear of the New York Times in 1876, when it wrote that "the telephone may really be a device of the enemies of the Republic," because it would cause people to never again go to concert halls and church, since they could hear the music and speakers at home.

"The world has been going to hell for a long, long time," as Bilton writes. There's something in human nature that makes us believe that life was better in the past, despite all evidence to the contrary. Personally, I think it has to do with the fact that things actually were better when we were kids … but only to us, because we were kids. Kind of like how popular music was at its peak coincidentally at the same moment when we were in college, and it's never been the same since. It always takes us a little time to get used to a new technology, and then we love it, and then we want change to stop in its tracks right then, but it never does.