On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).


Why study higher mathematics and other stuff most people don't use in everyday life?

This video was posted in a Facebook group of mine here:

I find it ironic that some of the most listened-to speakers about education explain that the cure to our educational ills is to point out that education is unnecessary. I call this educational anti-intellectualism. Here's another representative sample and another.

It is possible to make the argument, "X isn't going to be necessary for most students in life, therefore X should not be taught," for almost everything that is taught beyond the sixth grade or so. After that, we should be taught "critical thinking" and vague "analytical abilities" and "reading comprehension" and other such claptrap; that seems to be the natural consequence of this commentator's thinking, and sadly, he is not alone.

The fact that educated people like this teacher, and all the people who approve of this stuff, cannot answer the question is very disappointing. It's not surprising, perhaps, because it's philosophy and philosophy is very hard. Moreover, there are a variety of sort-of-right answers that subtly get things wrong and might end up doing more damage than good.

In the latter category I might want to place E.D. Hirsch, Jr., one of the most prominent education traditionalists alive. (He just published a book I got today called Why Knowledge Matters, and he might have updated his views on this; I'll find out soon.) Hirsch's argument is that we ought to learn classics and, essentially, get a liberal arts education, because this is the knowledge we use to interact with other educated adults in our culture. It is "cultural literacy" and "cultural capital" and this is something we desperately need to thrive as individuals and as a civilization.

That's all true, I think. If Hirsch made the argument as, essentially a defense of Western (or just advanced) civilization—that we need to educate people in Western civilization if we are to perpetuate it—then I'd be fully on board. But Hirsch as I understand him appeals particularly to our individual desire to be a part of the elite, to get ahead, to be able to lord it over our less-educated citizens. This is a very bad argument that won't convince many people. If Hirsch or anyone makes it, I would put it in the category of arguing for the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

The argument I'd give to this math teacher is the same I'd give to someone who says we shouldn't memorize history facts or read boring, classic literature or learn the details of science or what have you. Of course you don't need that stuff to get through life. Most people are as dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to academic stuff (yes, in all countries; some are worse than others).

The reason you get an education, and study stuff like higher math, is more along the following lines. Education trains the mind and thereby liberates us from natural prejudice and stupidity. This is the proper work for human beings because we are rational creatures. We are honing the tool that comes more naturally to us than to any other animal. One must realize, as people like this educated fool and so many others seem not to, that education, such as math education, is not merely a tool in the sense of "abilities." The content, or what is known, is a deeply important part of the tool; in fact, as Hirsch does argue correctly and convincingly, any "analytical abilities" brought to a text will be very poor without relevant subject knowledge. If you want an analogy, it is a poor one to say that a course in logic sharpens your wit, to say you want to have sharp wits, and therefore you should study "critical thinking"; the heft or substance of your wit's ax is all the rest of the knowledge behind the cutting edge. Getting an A in a logic class (a course I taught many times) without knowledge of math, science, history, literature, etc., gives you about as much heft and effectiveness as a sharp-edged piece of paper: capable of paper-cuts.

The core of the argument for knowledge is that academic knowledge forms a sort of deeply interconnected system, and the more deeply and broadly that we understand this system, the more capable we are in every bit of life. This is true of us as individuals and also as a society or civilization. It is completely and literally true that the fantastic structure of modern civilization as we know it, all of the historically unprecedented developments we have seen, is a direct outgrowth of the deep commitment of our society's leaders—since the Enlightenment—to education in this system.

The system I refer to is deeply connected, but that doesn't mean it isn't also loosely connected in the sense that one can learn bits here and there and benefit somewhat. That's absolutely true. This is why it's possible for the math teacher to say, "Well, you don't really need to know higher math in order to live life." Some people are geniuses about literature but don't remember anything about any math they learned beyond the sixth grade.

But as everybody with higher education knows, in fact it is absolutely necessary to learn higher math if you are going to learn higher science—both the hard sciences and the social sciences, both of which require heavy calculation—and deal intelligently with statistics and probabilities, as is necessary in politics, or the financial part of business, or some of programming, etc.

This is because the "deep structure" of reality is mathematical. To declare that "you don't really need to know it" is to declare that you don't need to know the deep structure of reality. Sure, of course you don't. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea don't. But do you want our children to be more like them or more like fully rational, aware, human creatures?


How the government can monitor U.S. citizens

Just what tools do American governments—federal, state, and local—have to monitor U.S. citizens? There are other such lists online, but I couldn't find one that struck me as being quite complete. This list omits strictly criminal tracking, because while criminals are citizens, actual crime obviously needs to be tracked.

  1. First, there's what you yourself reveal: the government can use whatever information you yourself put into the public domain. For some of us (like me), that's a heck of a lot of information.
  2. Government also tries to force tech companies to reveal our personal information, ostensibly to catch terrorists and criminals. The FBI and NSA have both been in the news about this.
  3. The NSA famously tracks our email and phone calls. They might be looking for terrorism and crime, but we're caught in the net too.
  4. The IRS, obviously, tracks your income, business information, and much else. That certainly qualifies as government monitoring.
  5. State, local, and school district tax systems do the same.
  6. The FBI's NSAC (National Security Branch Analysis Center) has hundreds of millions of records about U.S. citizens, many perfectly law-abiding.
  7. The State Dept., Homeland Security, and others contribute to systems that include biometric information on some 126 million citizens—that means fingerprints, photos, and other biographical information.
  8. For a small number of citizens—740,000 to 10 million, depending on the system—there is a lot more information available, not just because the people are actual or terrorists or criminals, but only because they are suspected of such activity. If someone in government with the authority thinks you fall into broad categories that make you possibly dangerous, they can start collecting a heck of a lot more information about you.
  9. The Census Bureau tracks our basic demographic information every ten years.
  10. U.S. school students in at least 41 states are tracked by Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, including demographics, enrollment status, test scores, preparedness for college, etc.
  11. Many and various public cameras, including license plate readers, are used by many local authorities, mainly for crime prevention.
  12. Monitoring by police will be easier in the near future: As an expert on the subject, law professor Bill Quigley, puts it, "Soon, police everywhere will be equipped with handheld devices to collect fingerprint, face, iris and even DNA information on the spot and have it instantly sent to national databases for comparison and storage."
  13. The internet of things will be another avenue in which government will increasingly be able to view our habits.

So...explain to me again how we have a right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

By the way, it is a conceptual mistake to suppose that there is any one person or group of people who have access to (and care about) the information in all of these databases. How the databases are used is carefully circumscribed by law, obviously, and just because the information is in a database, it doesn't follow that there has been a privacy violation. But it does raise concerns in the aggregate: the extent to which we are monitored might be a problem even if most programs are individually constitutionally justifiable.

In short, is there any point at which we say "enough is enough"? Or do we grudgingly give government technical access into every area of our lives and hope that the law controls how the information is being used?

In the comments, please let me know what I've missed and I can do updates.

Sources: Common Dreams, ACLU, Ed.gov, Forbes, Wired, Guardian, and my own experience working at the Census Bureau long ago.


Against language arts and social studies textbooks

Here's a little argument against language arts and social studies (e.g., history and geography) textbooks. We need to get rid of them. Period.

Prima facie, we don't need textbooks to teach a subject. Other pedagogical methods include chapter (trade, library) books, short readings, computer software, videos, lectures, worksheets, projects, etc. So what are textbooks for?

Well, consider what they are: Textbooks are systematic, book-length presentations of information for purposes of introducing students to a subject, systematically covering every aspect at some level. All information that is needed is presented. Modern texts include supplementary media, not just photos and charts but also, for example, videos and interactive widgets. Texts often have accompanying exercises and workbooks. In short, a modern textbook system is an end-to-end multimedia introduction to a subject at a certain level.

Textbooks make perfect sense for certain subjects, including—especially—math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming. These subjects are suitable for textbook presentations because it is deeply important, first, that students of those subjects learn certain topics adequately before moving on to other topics and, second, that all the basic topics be covered in adequate depth. The textbook method is lends itself very nicely to both requirements. First, textbook readings, accompanying media, and exercises all structure information in a logical fashion so that the more fundamental information is mastered before moving on to the more derivative information. Second, textbooks marshal all the relevant information within chapters, and can cover the whole subject by simply making the book longer.

Most textbooks are so darned meaty and substantial-looking, it seems hard to argue against them, especially if you are someone—like me—who believes that absorbing a lot of knowledge is what school is primarily about. But actually, it's easier than it might look. You see, there are excellent reasons why certain subjects lend themselves to textbook presentation, while others do not.

There are a couple of very good reasons why math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming lend themselves to textbook presentation. It is because the information in these fields lends itself to a logical, bottom-up structuring. You cannot learn certain things about math—and upper division science, and foreign language, and advanced grammar, and programming—before you have mastered certain other things. You'd better not tackle the subjunctive in Latin before mastering the indicative, or division before multiplication, or subordinate clauses in English grammar before adjectives and prepositions. Moreover, at a given level of mastery, we can agree that certain topics must be included, or the method is simply incomplete. If you have learned Latin noun declensions but not verb conjugations, you haven't learned Latin. If you have learned about processing loops but not about data storage, you haven't learned programming. If you haven't learned the Circle of Fifths, crack open that music theory book again. Textbooks seem necessary because they help guide the student (and the teacher!) so that the information is presented in the right order, and all of it (at a certain level) is presented.

Assuming there's a real phenomenon here, we may for shorthand refer to math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming as structured subjects. (A couple other structured subjects are music theory and economics.) And we may also for shorthand refer to the logical dependency of one topic on another, within structured subjects, their foundational structure, while the tendency of certain topics to be needed for a complete presentation of a subject, the subject's completeness.

In short, then, my proposal is that textbooks are particularly useful for structured subjects, because such subjects exhibit a foundational structure and completeness (within a level of mastery), and the textbook approach can (if well executed) elegantly mirror the foundational structure and completeness of those subjects. All well and good. You don't have to use just a textbook, but I won't argue with you much if you do.

I now come to my point:

Subjects that do not exhibit foundational structure or completeness are very bad candidates for textbooks (dammit!).

Such subjects include:

Science at the elementary level. It manifestly does not matter what order you teach little kids science in or how much of each subject they learn (as long as they learn certain basics before they get to more advanced science).

Reading and writing. There is nothing less structured than literature. There is nothing less foundational or complete than writing. These are not bodies of knowledge to master. Literature is made up of narratives and great language to come to grips with, not logical structures. And reading and writing are both skills to practice, not to study in the systematic way one studies math or foreign language. Literature does not exhibit completeness. It does not matter whether you read certain books, although I think a good education will be heavy on the classics. "Reading comprehension," spelling and vocabulary exercises, integrated grammar, directed writing, and all the other claptrap that makes up a modern "English Language Arts" textbook-based program—it all positively obscures the beauty and appreciation of actual literature. It is decidedly not required. The only thing that is really required, I think, is copious reading and writing. All that textbook drivel is much more effectively and efficiently learned simply by reading and occasionally discussing great books, and writing copiously about anything that strikes your fancy (and sometimes about what you read) and getting occasional feedback on your work.

History. Now, it is true that history exhibits a kind of completeness; to be fully educated you have to have some exposure to, say, Roman history and the Renaissance and (in this country) the War of Independence. But it does not—not really—have any foundational structure. It doesn't matter what order you go in, or in what depth you cover various subjects. Again, I think that the more of it you cover in considerable depth, the better—but history is, in short, pretty much the opposite of a structured subject.

Geography. Same analysis as history. You'll want to cover certain basic topics for sure, but what order you go in, how much depth you go into, etc., it's all arbitrary.

Many other subjects also are not structured subjects, either, including the rest of the topics that go under the heading "social studies" in U.S. schools, art history, art and music appreciation, general computer literacy, etc.

Textbooks and textbook programs are, at best, necessary evils. Why? Because, especially for children, they are boring, unmotivating, and therefore less efficient than reading real books and other methods of teaching. Why? Let's see:

A single source. You read all year from one source, who or (worse!) which has one style, however brilliant, one point of view or bias, etc. That gets old before too long.

Human brains, while capable of great rationality, enjoy randomness. I am one of the biggest rationalists (depending on the sense of "rationalism" you mean) you'll find. But learning minds, especially young ones, love to leap from topic to topic. If you want to keep a student's motivation up, you have to change things up.

Texts are totalitarian. Of course I'm being facetious, but I do have a point. By being careful, orderly, and complete, students are forced to study certain things in a certain order. This is necessary (to some extent) for structured subjects, especially as one gets into higher and more technical aspects of subjects. It is decidedly not necessary for unstructured subjects.

Texts are often badly written, by committee. Enough people have complained about this that I don't have to.

Various educational practices delight or irritate me to various extents, but a special place in my personal hell is reserved for the practice of inflicting lame language arts texts on students through the eighth grade. In addition to turning off generations of school kids to reading and leaving them poorly prepared in their own language, the worst thing about such textbooks is the opportunity cost. Ironically, too much time is spent about reading about the reading, doing busywork exercises, and studying for and taking exams the point of which is to make sure one has understood everything taught so far. That all seriously cuts into the time spent actually, you know, reading something worthwhile.

I wish I could hear back from some language arts teacher or curriculum designer. Explain this to me, please. Let's suppose your poor students spend, in and out of class, 100 hours reading your groan-inducing textbook (sorry, but that really is how I feel) in a school year. At an average of, let's say, 6 hours per book (faster readers might finish them faster), those students could read about 17 great children's books. So, do you really think reading your  textbook all year long will teach and engage your students better than 17 shorter, more interesting chapter books?

The problem with history texts is different. History becomes seriously interesting only when one studies the narratives that make it up in some depth. Textbooks consist of, basically, a series of Cliffs Notes versions of historical narratives, cut so short as to be incomprehensible. Students should be reading chapter books and long meaty history books—not textbooks—in order really to appreciate and get something out of history. The whole idea, after all, is supposed to be to understand how human nature and society operates through the study of examples. If you don't study the examples closely enough, if you're just memorizing names and dates willy-nilly, you'll both forget them and fail to appreciate the purpose of the subject.

 


The notorious co-founder of Wikipedia interviews the notorious co-founder of Genius


I am spending a few days with the energetic and charming young crew of Everipedia at their offices in sunny L.A. I got to know Everipedia through Mahbod Moghadam, the 30-something but youthful and “thug” (this, apparently, is a good thing) co-founder of Genius.com, whom I got to know last year when I was still working on Infobitt (which, alas, is still in mothballs). Mahbod is not the CEO but is certainly one of the leading lights of this approximately one-year-old company; he and the other guys are very friendly, easygoing, smart, and hard-working, as far as I can tell. Anyway, Mahbod likes to be interviewed, and he is a “character,” so I thought it would be fun to do that. After all, people have interviewed me a lot but I can’t remember ever interviewing anybody else. So the tables are turned! For this blog’s very first interview, here is Mr. Moghadam. This will be a fairly wide-ranging email interview, so here goes.


Everipedia is the project you’re now working on. What exactly is the vision, at present, behind Everipedia? What are you trying to achieve?
Everipedia is the baby of Sam Kazemian and Tedde Forselius — they are my sons. It is, in short, a better version of Wikipedia. There are lots of differences, but the biggest one is that you can make a page about ANYTHING. I’ve had a Wikipedia page written about me before — several times — and Wikipedia kept taking it down! It was heartbreaking, especially because it has always been my dream to have a Wikipedia page about me. I’m sure there are millions of people who feel this way. Sam showed me my Everipedia page when I was giving a talk at UCLA — I was over the moon! I went home and immediately started making pages for all of my friends, my friends’ companies…everything I think is cool! Adding pages on Everipedia is really easy — it’s like posting on Facebook. No complexities or weirdo markup language like Wikipedia.

You say you want Everipedia to be the encyclopedia of everything, covering not just the topics in Wikipedia, not just the topics snootily deemed not important enough to include, but topics far, far outside the mainstream of what is considered “encyclopedic.” Things like: Every person in the world (including me and you!). Every street in the U.S. All the products currently for sale. All the species in the world. Every chemical compound (!). Every gene (!!). Every episode of every lame TV show. Every website (!!!). Etc. First of all, are you frigging insane?
I think it’s insane to have a strict notability requirement! The cool thing about the Internet is there is so much bandwidth — everyone can have their piece. Even if you are a shitty photographer, you can have an Instagram. Even the WORST rappers annotate their lyrics on Rap Genius. (TRUST ME) So why shouldn’t everyone have a Wiki?

OK, setting aside issues about feasibility, maintainability, etc., there’s a more basic question: Why is it important to have an encyclopedia of everything? Aren’t you basically just trying to replicate the Internet, or what eventually will be on the Internet?
Yeeee! One of our nicknames for Everipedia is “Crowdsourced Google” — the same way that Google gives you information about any subject, we want Everipedia to give you the info, except humans are doing the sorting, summarizing and rating of the sources instead of a machine.

Right now the site actually reminds me no small amount of the early days of Wikipedia — same youthful enthusiasm, same friendly welcoming atmosphere, same lack of f’s given if someone starts work on a topic with a very lame article. But Wikipedia sort of grew up (not entirely) and became huge, with long, meaty articles. How are you going to “get from here to there” and avoid burnout or seeming irrelevant?
Hopefully we can steal a lot of users from Wikipedia! On Everipedia you get IQ for your contributions. Contributors get credit and recognition for their accomplishments, they are not simply working in a void. College students can be appointed “Everipedia Campus Representative” if they earn it, and celebrities can contribute via Verified Accounts. Wikipedia won’t even let Snoop Dogg contribute to his own page! That ain’t right…on Everipedia, Snoop can even cite himself as a source! Not to mention anyone can cite his Instagram posts, hit tweets…anything that has cool information.

Why should somebody work on Everipedia when they can work on Wikipedia and have a better chance of having their words read by people on the #7 website in the world?
Because on Everipedia you get rewarded for your work. On Wikipedia, you get no recognition, contributions are pretty much anonymous. Maybe that appeals to some people — but I know, personally, I would never want to spend time working on something without getting credit for it. I think I’m a very good writer, and I want to be recognized for my work. I’m sure there are a lot of talented writers who feel the same way I do!

You have sometimes called Everipedia the “Thug Wikipedia.” Come on, dude, isn’t “Thug Wikipedia” likely to be off-putting to people who are, you know, working on an encyclopedia? And what does this mean, anyway?
Haha, yeah, we should probably stop saying that. What I mean by “thug,” in this case, is that there aren’t a bunch of unnecessary rules. You might think rules are great, but look at the result. Wikipedia’s notability requirement results in systematic discrimination against women and minorities, which is truly shameful. The top-performing pages on Everipedia are often black actresses, like Mariah Lynn from “Love and Hip-hop,” who are massively popular but face “Wikipedia Discrimination.” Everipedia made a page for Sabrina Pasterski — known as the “Female Einstein.” Wikipedia scraped our article and didn’t cite us! So I think that symbolizes the different focus of Everipedia and Wikipedia. Maybe we should change “Thug Wikipedia” to “Feminist Wikipedia.”

You and your buddies started Genius, originally RapGenius, which is one of the coolest collaborative websites online. I put it up there with Wikipedia, Quora, and a very few others that feature open collaboration among equals in order to develop a resource that is of use to everyone. This is what I love, and you and I both agree people ought to make more of these sorts of sites. So what is your top advice for entrepreneurs or community organizers (so to speak) who want to organize other people to create awesome resources that are useful to everyone?
It is bizarre. Every wiki site blows up. Even WIKIFEET gets a ton of traffic. But nobody wants to make encyclopedias. Everybody wants to make “The Next Snapchat.” I think this is because making a social media app is sexier than making an encyclopedia. Also, if you succeed, it’s a lot less work. You don’t have to sit there and use your own product, add a bunch of cool pages, etc. But I don’t think it’s an accident that I am 2 for 2 on successful startups and both are encyclopedias. There is such a thirst for robust software to disseminate information. It is the future of media! And nobody is doing it…personally, I think Quora sucks, and even Quora is blowing up…

OK, I gotta ask. You’ve been asked this ad nauseam, I’m sure, and I’m sure you’re annoyed by it, but I gotta ask. (Remember, this question is coming from a guy who thinks we are falling in a moral abyss. I may be a libertarian but I am also a moralist.) In November 2014 you wrote an article ill-advisedly titled “How To Steal From Whole Foods.” First of all, WTF? What were you thinking of? You know that stealing is wrong, right?
The article was meant as a joke, the sole purpose was to make people laugh. The title is paying homage to Tao Lin’s classic tome “Shoplifting from American Apparel.” Lames like Mark Suster took my words literally, because they have the minds of sheep. A lot of people also told me they loved the article — those were the smart folks. I don’t steal, but personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with stealing. You certainly can’t compare it to murder or rape, not even close. Stealing food, especially, strikes me as a morally neutral activity.

Being around you and the other Everipedia guys have introduced several items of slang that are completely new to me, because I don’t watch TV, don’t spend any time around teenagers or college students, and work from home in an exurb of Columbus, Ohio. I’m a bit cloistered, to tell the truth, but that’s how I like it. You meanwhile are the man about town, living in L.A. and hip to the scene (which shows how unhip-to-the-scene I am, since kids these days do not use the phrase “hip to the scene”). So I require brief, Urban Dictionary-type but Mahbod-crafted definitions of the follow terms d’art of the thug life. I give you…

The Mahbod Moghadam Lexicon
thug (not in the brutal ruffian sense):
Did you know this comes from the Hindi word “Thugee”? I use it in homage to 2PAC — my favorite human who ever existed. (He had “Thug Life” tattooed on his chest). It is a synonym for “disrupt.”
pimp (not in the employer-of-whores sense): If you’re a pimp, that means you’re charismatic! You can get others to serve you..
janky: Means “sucks.”
yeeeee: One of my Persian friends got me saying “yeee”! It is a refreshing alternative to “yasssss!” which is very popular with Hillary Clinton supporters…
hooooo: Short for “HOOOOOLY SHIT!” — we say this a lot at Everipedia HQ because we are constantly amazed and bewildered by our own product! It is changing the world. It is our catchphrase.
blowin up: This is what Everipedia is presently doing! YEEEEE
ewoking: Ah, my favorite word! This means “contributing to the site” — it is derived from the username of the TOP-IQ EDITOR OF RAP GENIUS, Monsieur William Goodwin aka EwokABDevito. He is one of only 2 users who have a higher IQ than I do.
shhhhht: This is the companion of “HOOOOO!” (See above.)
bae: I use “bae” sarcastically — “bae” is a word the kids say these days, it means “baby”/”babe” — I think it sounds ridiculous, which means I’m getting old! So I imitate them.
jag: “Jagh” means “masturbate” in Persian, my native language. This is pretty much the only non-work activity we are allowed to do at Everipedia HQ. (We’re also allowed to go to the gym once a day.)
swag: This is my favorite word of all time. The eccentric rapper Lil B “The Based God” popularized it. It is a nonsense word, similar to Kurt Vonngut’s “Ho Hum”…it can mean whatever you want it to mean! It is the best word.
dope: Dope means good, like drugs.
chill: Currrrr! (Sorry I got cold for a second there!) Chill means you’re icy, which indicates a state of jewel-encrusted repose.

Now for a microaggression. Where are you from? No, where are you really from?
I’m from the Barrio vato! Barrios weyyyy! Pinche cavron! (I’m from the San Fernando Valley — Encino to be exact — via Iran.)

At this juncture I would like to inform our readers that you have a B.A. in History from Yale, a J.D. from Stanford Law, and were a Fulbright scholar. You also helped Genius to go viral. So, in short, you are clearly pretty goddamned brilliant. And yet if a reader reads your answers so far, these revelations might seem surprising. I hate to, you know, lift the curtain on the mystique (although I suspect that’s not really possible in your case), but can you comment on why, particularly at age 33 (you know — when your friends have become boring adults), you affect a “thug” attitude?
I loathe snobbery and propriety — I am against society. I was making wikis for Merrick Garland and his family today — he is a Jew trying to be a WASP, very “Ivy League” — he makes me want to throw up. I consider myself to be a UCLA alum, not a Yale alum. UCLA is where I will be donating my money, it is a school where they teach you actual knowledge, instead of propagating bullshit yuppie culture.

What are your favorite topics in history? The law?
My specialty in college was French colonial history! I am obsessed with all things French — I don’t know why — it is embarrassing! My favorite legal subject is tax, by far. I had an amazing professor for several tax courses, Joe Bankman — he is my Rabbi, basically. He taught me the most about ethics and the way the world works. I love him.

I noticed you play piano pretty well — I think I heard some Bach. Did you have lessons or what?
I am OBSESSED with Bach! That is what I am first and foremost — a Bach performer. His music is so intellectual, and yet so emotional! He is the greatest artist of all time. Hopefully Everipedia will get really big within a year or so and I can leave the company and return to my REAL full-time job — learning the complete keyboard works of Bach. I took lessons from age 15–17 with a lovable Persian guy named Arjang Rad, who is now a famous composer.

Last question, back to Everipedia: Given the choice of Everipedia and Wikipedia, or spending time in some other similar online knowledge-sharing pursuits (e.g., Quora, Medium, etc.), why should people check out and start writing for Everipedia today, in March 2016? Is it ready for people to get involved?
Everipedia will give you recognition. You get IQ, badges, and top users get equity in the company. This company will be worth billions of dollars someday — and it will not only belong to the founders and investors — it will belong to everyone who helps build it. We have already awarded equity to top users.


Are we becoming indifferent to freedom and democracy?

I know, I know: That title sounds ridiculously click-baity. But if you'll look at my blog, you'll see that I don't really go in for click-bait titles.

Unfortunately, I mean it quite literally. It's an enormous problem that we aren't talking about enough. And I want to propose that one reason for it is a massive failure of civics education.

Support for democracy is declining. First, let's talk a bit about support for democracy—yes, democracy itself, as in voting for your leaders and representatives and holding them accountable in the arena of public debate. Only one in five Millennials aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in the 2014 elections—the lowest youth voter turnout in 40 years, says the Atlantic.

As Vox recently asked, "Are Americans losing faith in democracy?" The article makes a series of points illustrating that Americans, especially younger Americans, are ignorant of and aren't engaging in American political life. The article's main source is a forthcoming paper by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk titled "The Democratic Disconnect," together with the World Values Survey. The writers summarized their own work in the New York Times last September.

Asked how much interest they have in politics (as Vox reports), Americans born in the 1930s said "very interested" or "somewhat interested" almost 80% of the time; for those born in the 1970s, the figure dropped to about 50%, and for those born in the 1980s, it was continuing to drop just as precipitously.

More sobering is the survey question about how essential it is to live in a democracy, rated from 1 to 10. The percentage of Americans responding "10," essential, has dropped from the 70% range for those born in 1930 down to the 30% range for those born in the 1980s. A 40% drop in support for democracy itself is a momentous generational change.

In case you think that's a mistake, compare that to a question asking whether "having a democratic political system" was a "bad" or "very bad" way to run the U.S.: while the percentage for those born in the 1950s and 60s hovered around 13%, for those born after 1970, in the surveys since 1995, the percentage rose from about 16% to over 20%.

Even openness to army rule—something we associate with banana republics—has climbed from 7% to 16% of all Americans.

Support for free speech in America is declining. This is incredibly important: the Pew Research Center found that 40% of American Millennials are OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities (up from 12% for seniors aged 70-87). A stunning 51% of Democrats want to make "hate speech" a criminal offense, and 37% of Republicans. If you have even a passing familiarity with First Amendment law, you'll know that these things are contrary to the First Amendment.

That is how it is possible—and not implausible—that 50 Yale students could sign a petition within an hour to repeal the First Amendment, as this video of Yalies showed:

What the video shows notwithstanding, Yalies are very smart. They can compare their attitudes toward offensive and hate speech with what they learned in their elite civics and history classes about the First Amendment, and infer that they're opposed to the First Amendment. If they're reasonably intelligent, self-aware, and honest with themselves, as some Yalies are, they'll recognize that their intolerance to certain kinds of speech commits them to an opposition to free speech.

The increasing hostility toward free speech among many of our future leaders at elite colleges like Yale has been frightening to many of us, and has sparked a national conversation—an example is here, summarizing some recent episodes and calling academe to return to free speech.

Here's a possible reason why: Civics education has been weak for years and recently declining even further. I don't pretend to know why support for democracy and free speech have been declining, but if our students for some generations have simply not been well educated about basic American civics, that must be part of the explanation.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the "Nation's Report Card"—for 2014, only 23% of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in civics. While 39 states do require a course in American government or civics, only two states require students to pass a test in American government/civics to graduate from high school. As the Civics Education Initiative reports,

[T]he Civics Education Initiative...requires high school students, as a condition of graduation, take and pass a test based on questions from the United States Customs and Immigrations Services (USCIS) citizenship civics exam – the same test all new immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.

To date, six states...have passed legislation implementing the Civics Education Initiative, with a goal of passage in all 50 states by September 17, 2017 – the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

But, you wonder, if new immigrants have to pass this citizenship civics exam to get in the country, wouldn't American high schoolers be able to pass it? No. In studies, only 4% of high schoolers in Oklahoma and Arizona passed it.

The National Council for the Social Studies published a position statement summarizing the sobering truth: "Sadly, the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several years combined with the scarce attention to civic learning in a number of state standards and assessment measures has had a devastating effect on schools' ability to provide high quality civic education to all students."

According to a 2011 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ignorance was not rectified at the college level:

beyond mere voting, a college degree does not encourage graduates to become actively engaged in more consequential aspects of the political process. Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelors degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting. ... A college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing.

Knowledge of basic political facts among the general public is shockingly low. For example, only 40% of Americans surveyed in a recent survey by Pew knew which party controlled each house of Congress, and only about a third of Americans could even name the three branches of government.

Civics isn't easy, and political philosophy is even harder. But both are necessary. If this purported decline of commitment to the basic American system is real, and if it's rooted in poor civics education, it doesn't seem surprising to me.

For all the emphasis on reading and the massive, feature-rich language arts textbooks, American public school students don't have to read many books, period. Most of them are not prepared to read and comprehend the Constitution, much less the complex historical works such as The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, and Democracy in America that explain and defend the American system.

Education matters. It is likely that we will face more battles in higher education and, increasingly, in the public sphere over the necessity and advisability of maintaining robust democratic institutions and adherence to free speech. I fear that as we answer more and more attacks, reference to the Constitution and American political principles will not be sufficient. Part of the problem can be laid at Jefferson's doorstep, when he wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The fact is that they aren't self-evident, that philosophers have argued for and against them quite a bit, and in the years ahead, the better the pro-freedom side acquaints itself with those arguments, the better chance we'll have.


Our Moral Abyss

First, let me state my basic thesis poetically. To some, it will sound unoriginal, implausible, and overwrought:

We in the West are falling in a moral abyss. We are in mid-fall. It's been long since we careened off the precipice, though we have not hit bottom.

abyssPoetic language is vague, so let me explain what I mean.

1. Plumbing the abyss

We began falling when we (many of us) stopped earnestly using the language of moral judgment, i.e., the discourse of individual responsibility, of suffering the hard consequences of foolish action, of liberal knowledge, hard-earned wisdom, of bad judgment, of the risky exercise of freedom that entails and requires judgment, of sound character and good habit, of courage, humility, and other virtues. In short, our strength of character is weakened, and the cultural wisdom needed to keep it strong, the cultural capital we built up over thousands of years, has been squandered in the space of a few generations.

So many good and necessary habits we used to have, which strengthened our character and that of our children, have been carelessly tossed in the dustbin of history. Instead, look at what we have. Look honestly. Look past your partisan or religious contempt and your haughty reactions, and try to judge soberly how far what I say here is actually true.

Blaming others, rejecting responsibility... What we have is a society that blames others for our failings. Our problems are blamed on benighted parents, racism and sexism, evil corporate masters, venal politicians, the corrupting influence of mass media, violent video games, and other dark forces. But ultimately, these too are all thought to be pawns and tools, and our problems are really all "structural" or societal. Ultimately we must engineer a better way to control the dark forces that inflict all our problems. In any case, our problems are not individual. We, too many of us, act as if we have no individual responsibility for our failings. We cannot be blamed.

freewill...because of a rejection of personal freedom. We have a society that increasingly rejects personal blame because it increasingly rejects personal freedom. This is a natural human belief that dies hard, but it is dying with contemporary education. Cynical journalists and "thought leaders" quote philosophically sophomoric scientists who assure us that free will is an illusion. Many educated young people believe this. Many educated older people also act as if they believe it. Our society is bathed in the language of therapy rather than philosophy and ethics. We are not lazy; we are depressed. We are not selfish, vain, and nasty; we have narcissistic personality disorder. Our children aren't immature and irresponsible; their frontal cortexes are incompletely developed. We are not evil; we have antisocial personality disorder. Mass murderers are not inhumanly wicked, they are always "troubled" and must have a history of mental illness. The most appalling enemies of our civilization, groups like ISIS, are not monsters, they are merely reacting to abuse of Western power in their home territory. Even positive responsibility—praise—sometimes goes by the wayside. The inventors and entrepreneurs of every sort, the people who actually create progress, are sometimes denied their accomplishments by an egalitarian tendency to say, "you didn't build that": it was society, it was all of us working together. Both blame and praise are shared out into society at large.

Collectivized risk and coddling above freedom. We have a society that insulates our youth from risk, that cushions every blow, that places safety above freedom. Our older generations remember a society in which one saved diligently for "a rainy day." Now, we have collectivized risk, with credit cards, bankruptcy meaning only the loss of credit, the social safety net beneath it all. These are not bad things in moderation, surely, but we have gone too far. We are forced to buckle up and we may not smoke in public—all for our own good, of course, and who really can complain? Many of our professors and university administrators are increasingly comfortable with and even insistent upon sheltering our children not just from harsh behavior but from harsh talk and offensive ideas, ideas known by society's enlightened elite to be benighted and wrong. A growing number of young people, meanwhile, being so used to their cocoon-like existence, demand such coddling; they were apparently never taught that there might be something wrong with it, wrong because inconsistent with their self-reliance, rights, and freedoms.

"The salt of the earth"—ignored, at best. We have a society that indeed glorifies foolish youth and is fascinated with famous idiots, finding hard-earned wisdom—as opposed to the latest fads handed down from on high—to be just another, quaint point of view. The ordinary, solid man and woman, who get married, stay together, maintain a stable household for children, are productive and pay their taxes, obey the law and do their duty, and grow old and full of wisdom—these people used to be thought of as "the salt of the earth." Today they are ignored, forgotten; worse, sneered at as bourgeois, middle class, and old-fashioned; or worse still, dismissed as merely "privileged" and as part of an oppressor class. They are rarely honored, except by their families and friends. The former "salt of the earth" hear signals everywhere that their lives are boring, inauthentic, even offensive. Many philosophers and priests of days gone by would disagree, but they too are boring and offensive.

winsor-mccay-good-bookWisdom literature—ignored, at best. We consult psychologists, celebrities, and pundits for wise advice on living, rather than philosophers and priests—but perhaps that's understandable, since so many of today's philosophers and priests have really gotten out of the wisdom game, after all. The philosophers focus on technical questions far more than broad, useful soul- and mind-craft, and I have heard that our religious leaders focus not on how to avoid sin and live more pure and holy lives, but instead on how to rely on God to inspire us to success and abundant joy. Increasingly, our teachers reject the wisdom of "dead white men," glorifying whatever is new or genuinely produced by online communities, so long as it can be consumed quickly and easily by those who have never been taught to pay attention. The great books are less and less thought of as sources of perennial wisdom but instead are increasingly forgotten or, when remembered, viewed with contempt and hatred.

Increasingly, we lack the cultural capital needed to pass on the classic virtues.
So very much has been lost already.

A society of educated fools. Wisdom—gone. Although more of us than ever are college educated now, fewer than ever seem acquainted with or comfortable discoursing in terms of the best concepts, examples, and narratives of perennial, classical Western values. It's all so old-fashioned and pretentious to us now. Much wisdom could be found in the Bible, whatever its faults might be, but in a largely secular society, those things are mentioned only the church services that a dwindling minority of the population attend on Sunday, and often not even there. Public discourse, which now mostly takes place online, the happyfoolsdiscourse that at least among educated adults ought to be the most informed by classical standards of knowledge and logic, is mostly an exchange of tiresome fallacies, insults, and memes, when it does not consist of outraged head-nodding in Internet silos. We have become a society of educated fools.

Conscience replaced. And the practical wisdom, the wisdom that ought to inform how we spend our time and guide important decisions, seems a dwindling commodity as well, as more and more supposed adults act like selfish adolescents in their personal habits and relationships. Judgment of ourselves in moral terms, once called "conscience," is rarely done or discussed. We can't help but feel guilty at our faults—moral feelings die hard. But we don't put a moral description on our faults. They are mistakes, self-destructive behavior, stresses, failures, embarrassments, addictions, flare-ups of psychological problems. They are so rarely vices, bad habits, foolish choices, bad actions, shameful behavior. The very idea of practical wisdom sounds increasingly antique and even foreign. Today we have "life hacks" that sound like technology instead of soulcraft.

Out of control, with a shrug. Self-control, or temperance—gone. Since around the 1990s we have freely admitted to binging on everything. We waste thousands of hours of our free time in front of television sets, not improving ourselves. We smile indulgently as many of our college students get drunk every weekend and "hook up"—it's merely a rite of passage and youthful high spirits. Of course, everyone can agree there's a problem when one of these hook-ups ends in a rape accusation. But the problem, society's leaders say, is that our young men have failed to receive the proper sensitivity training. It is not due to a thoroughly vicious tendency on the part of everyone, men and women of all ages, to dehumanize others, to use others. We don't discuss how appallingly damaging this high-spirited behavior can be to the souls of some students, those who go on to become alcoholics (not drunkards), who get pregnant and abort the babies and regret it for the rest of their lives, who cannot view the opposite sex with a sense of romance and without cynicism. Avoiding the entire morass, many of our men are glutted on desensitizing porn. Even our boys are glutted—on time-wasting video games. Many of us are glutted on social media, a huge time-suck that is often strangely impersonal. In the face of our many and varied temptations, it seems most of us can barely hold it together. We can't stop ourselves—or so we tell ourselves, with a self-indulgent shrug.

laziness
Kindness and humility, uncool. 
Humility, unselfishness, kindness—the winning social graces of caritas, they too are sadly mostly gone. We are still restrained by peer pressures to behave more or less politely. But there is something at once pretentious and very small about so many people today. Few seem to find a value even in the outward display of ostensible humility, such as self-deprecating remarks. Besides that, actual humility involves candidly admitting faults, limitations, and ignorance, apologizing, allowing others to go first—everything that flows from a realistic assessment of human frailties and an acknowledgement of others as true equals. Instead, we are told to promote our personal brands and "never apologize, never explain." In big cities especially, civilization has evolved in such a way that "taking what's yours" and aggressive self-assertion are expected parts of being an ambitious go-getter. It is also simply part of being "cool." Indeed, the very idea of "cool" involves some amount of contempt or cynicism toward other human beings. The notion seems to be that it is cool to act like you don't really care about basic civility and kindness, about acting like ladies and gentlemen. The sheer inhumanity of man toward man sometimes on display online and in traffic still sometimes surprises me, and I'm almost 50; younger people don't realize that "polite society" wasn't always like this. It's changed—really. Things have gotten better in some ways, yes, for example toward women and minorities; but they have also become ruder, cruder, and less graceful toward everyone.

I could go on but I don't want to write a book—I just want to make it clear what I mean when I say we are in a "moral abyss."

2. What the abyss is not

A nonpartisan abyss. I have not mentioned the moral criticisms conservatives make of the liberals: I take no stand, here, on whether the problems I have sketched are related to the conservative political bêtes noire of abortion, gay marriage, and drug legalization. Nor do I mention the moral criticisms liberals make of conservatives. Whether lingering intolerance, racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, etc., are part of the abyss, I will leave the reader to decide.

The abyss is throughly nonpartisan. I have many friends who would take great issue with any suggestion that any such moral abyss is a consequence of the post-1960s liberal drift of society. I think they will mostly agree that good habits, and the classical virtues I have discussed, are important. I think my conservative friends will agree as well.

The sociological abyss. While I find our moral abyss can be described in a politically neutral way, there are some deep social problems I do associate with this moral abyss. Divorce rates have stayed at 50% for the last half-century; illegitimacy rates have soared over 40%, while marriage rates have shockingly declined; in Western societies and especially among elites, childbearing has fallen below the replacement rate, and appallingly, certain radicals in the "childfree" movement readily admit that they hate children; drug addiction is widely regarded as one of the leading ills of society; homelessness remains a huge problem; crime, while it has declined, lingers above pre-1970 rates, and it has probably declined in the U.S. because of how many criminals we lock up for long periods; etc. Arguably, these are each related to the common atrophying of our character.

Call all that the sociological abyss, and as appalling as it is, it is not the abyss that I mean. As bad and as consequential as all that is, I am more concerned about the moral abyss that resides within each of us.

childrenofignorance

The abyss in us. I mean an abyss within me and within you. There are "saints" among us, no doubt. I'm not one of them, and I doubt you, reader, are one either. Our souls, so to speak, have collectively atrophied. When I talk about such things as lack of temperance and unkindness, I think ruefully of myself, my friends, and my family as much as I think of anyone else. I'm not trying to be falsely modest; I am making a hand-wringing confession. These problems seem to be in all of us, or nearly all of us, to some extent. If my hypothesis is correct and there were some valid way to measure at least the classical virtues I have mentioned, then as a society we would have seen a measurable decline from a hundred years ago until now.

Aren't we living in a golden age? Still, you might say, it seems somehow ridiculous and perverse to complain about a moral abyss, and, if not motivated by a religious point of view, my complaint is simply weird, I will be told. (Especially by my fellow libertarians.) The world has gotten better. Literacy rates worldwide have grown. Standards of living have risen. Crime has declined. We live in nothing short of a golden age of invention, entrepreneurship, and technology.

A gilded age. All true. But all completely and utterly irrelevant to the problem I'm endeavoring to describe. Please, please make an effort to understand what I'm saying; it's important. The problem I'm describing is not reliably reflected in sociological or partisan issues. Of course it seems bizarre, to someone strolling down the bustling, famous, elite avenues of New York City, San Francisco, London, or Paris, to hear we are falling in a moral abyss. I understand the attitude. I get it: our society is deeply impressive, yes, in many ways. I'd say we live in a gilded age.

If this is your reaction, I want to grab you metaphorically by the collar and shake some sense into you, because you don't comprehend at all. The outward trappings of civilization in the centers of power mean nothing to the character of the everyday person in the civilization. Surely, if you are liberally educated or have some moral sense, you must know this.

FoolLand

 

3. We need to change

The challenges of parenting in the 21st century. So many parents lack a knowledge of the religious texts, the literature, the history, and the philosophy teaching such virtues. They have a weak grasp of the concepts and of the language needed to pass them on. Above all, they lack the virtues within themselves to teach them by example. Consequently, parents today produce children that must struggle to learn the qualities of character they so desperately need to know to lead decent, contented lives and ultimately maintain our civilization. And not surprisingly, we parents fail a lot, even if we try. It was always so, I'll be told. Perhaps, but it's gotten worse, a lot worse. The virtues were already weakened in our own parents' generation.

Keeping up with the equally decadent Joneses. I admit that the problems I'm describing here might seem relatively unimportant "first world problems." Your family is not homeless, probably nobody is strung out on drugs, the children are loved by their parents (whether together or divorced), etc. You're doing fine. In that case, then yes, OK: you're doubtless doing just fine compared to the Joneses. But you and the Joneses and everybody else together are living in a weakened version of Western civilization. I fear we are living on borrowed time, running on the fumes of the Enlightenment. The moral fiber within each of us has weakened, and in some it has thinned to the breaking point.

What is to blame for mass murders. It breaks in various startling ways. It was, for example, the recent shooting in Roseberg, Oregon, of nine innocent people, that inspired this cri du coeur.

Here's why I don't blame guns for mass murders. We went through generations in which guns were much less restricted than they are now, and we did not have regular mass shootings. Blame, instead, our moral abyss. We need to begin by blaming ourselves, our bad habits, and above all our utter foolish incomprehension about the way freedom, responsibility, and morality work in the world. After these atrocities, all too often we see hear stories that a brazen killer was "a nice guy" and good citizen and seemed normal enough. To be sure, sometimes the evil among us hide their evil thoughts and habits very well. But I think more often the actual behavior of those people is just not morally judged, period.

The rejection of responsibility makes the atrocities possible. The fact that we must look to societal causes rather than within the souls of the murderers—that is of course what these people are, after all, cold-blooded, soulless killers—is a profoundly deep part of the problem that brings these monsters into existence. If they had been raised in a society in which they were taught to take responsibility for themselves, in which the tools in their hands are not blamed, but instead the characters that wield them, then they might have found within themselves the moral wherewithal to resist the temptation to take out their frustrations on innocent others.

We are the abyss. I blame the monsters first and foremost. I also blame their parents and the abysmally amoral society they were brought up in, without which they would not seek to lash out as they do. "There but for the grace of God go I," says the lovely, humble Christian sentiment. I do blame the abyss. But we are the abyss, all of us. The abyss is in the killers, it is in their parents, and it is in me, and you, and almost everyone in this utterly degenerate old world.

We need to change.

If we find a purpose in the so many senseless killings of innocents, let it be a call to all of us, a call from somewhere outside of the abyss, so that we may all climb out of it. We need to stop making excuses for our moral failings. We need to own up to them, hang our heads in shame, support each other in correcting them, and improve our souls and improve our society.

We need to regain our moral sense.

rabbits

A video of this post (play it with close captions on):


No Social Media During Work! Take the pledge NOW!

Social media is a time suck. I'm not as bad as some, but I need to focus better. I think a lot of us do, frankly. Don't you agree? Then let's start a No Social Media During Work campaign!

I'm pledging to abandon social media networks when I am at work, except for narrowly defined work purposes. And I'm asking you to hold me to it and slag me mercilessly if you catch me at it! And I'm inviting you to take the pledge, too!

Here is my pledge. This feels like a big step. Here goes!

I pledge, as of NOW, to abandon social media networks when I'm at work! Pledge with me!

I am at work weekdays at least from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Eastern, taking noon until 1 p.m. for lunch; and also from 9:00 p.m. until 11 p.m.; on Infobitt.

I want to do as well as I can on it! So I hereby pledge to abandon social media networks when I am at work. Hold me to it and slag me mercilessly (after your work) if you catch me at it!

I am @lsanger on Twitter, larry.sanger on Facebook, Larry Sanger on Quora, and Larry Sanger on YouTube. Hold me to my pledge!

Exceptions are very, very narrowly limited to: posts and discussion about Infobitt; also, holidays and declared sick days.

Checking for responses on any network is permitted only if I recently posted something work-related, and I might actually get a response.

I also promise to track my friends' pledges. If I notice a broken pledge, I will call them on it!

If you, too, want to take the pledge, then post a copy of your pledge to all social media networks you spend time on. Feel free to double down by adding your pledge to the bottom of this pagehttp://larrysanger.org/2015/06/take-the-pledge/ . Make sure to include your pledge somewhere on your user page, not just as a separate post, so you and others will not forget your pledge. Do make a video of yourself (here's mine) reading a written version of your pledge on any video networks of yours, like YouTube.

Work hard, and then play hard!

Wow. I hope this is the right decision. I think it is. It feels like a big one. I'm actually very excited!

OK, are you ready to take the "No Social Media During Work" pledge with me? Come on, DO IT! Not only will you get more work done and feel better about yourself, if you post it publicly on all your networks, then you can help improve the productivity of the world! And you can publicize your own social media presence. It's a massive win for everybody!

Come on, somebody write an app to catch me and others in violations, and I'll use it (the iPhone version) and link to it!

Here's a pledge form you can fill out:

I pledge, as of NOW, to abandon social media networks when I'm at work! Pledge with me!

I am at work weekdays at least [ list your work hours; list breaks if you want, though I didn't list any, except for lunch] on [your company, project, school, etc.—optional].

I want to do as well as I can on it! So I hereby pledge to abandon social media networks when I am at work. Hold me to it and slag me mercilessly (after your work) if you catch me at it!

I am ___ on Twitter, ___ on Facebook, [ list other social networks similarly]. Hold me to my pledge!

Exceptions are very, very narrowly limited to: [ list exceptions as carefully as necessary]; also, holidays and declared sick days.

Checking for responses on any network is permitted only if I recently posted something work-related, and I might actually get a response.

I also promise to track my friends' pledges. If I notice a broken pledge, I will call them on it!

If you, too, want to take the pledge, then post a copy of your pledge to all social media networks you spend time on. Make sure to include your pledge somewhere on your user pages, not just as a separate post, so you and others will not forget your pledge. Do make a video of yourself reading a written version of your pledge on any video networks of yours, like YouTube.

Work hard, and then play hard!

Well, are you in?


Some unpopular opinions

Here are some unpopular opinions, for your outrage or delight.

1. One of the biggest but least recognized reasons that American school system sucks—and it most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This is why we homeschool.

2. A large contingent of geekdom is actually anti-intellectual, too, as paradoxical as that might sound. Not all; certainly not my friends.

3. The most important purpose of education is not vocational education, but to train and liberate the mind, to create fully competent and responsible free citizens of a free republic. This, contrary to the much-celebrated Sir Ken Robinson, is not "boring stuff." We've got to adopt the right educational goals, lest we continue to suffer great opportunity costs of various inefficient educational methods. It's a goddamned shame that national treasures like Marva Collins have not been listened to and learned from.

4. Knowledge—which is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn't matter that research is updating our knowledge base very regularly. If we could only jettison our distaste for memory work, we might learn the tremendous advantages of spaced repetition.

5. Television is mostly a friggin' waste of time. You're better off without access to broadcast and cable TV. You can watch the good stuff on your own time via Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.

6. Latin and Greek are still good languages for kids to study.

7. Yes, babies can read. Robert Titzer (of Your Baby Can Read fame) was badly misunderstood and unjustly attacked. At least, babies can start to learn to read. By the time they're preschoolers, they can read well. This doesn't require pressure in any way. It's fun. Maybe you just didn't know this. Try to keep an open mind.

8. Joyful, disorganized early education can generally do great things for little kids. It's a completely avoidable national disgrace that so many kids exit first grade without knowing how to read.

9. All that just goes to show you that experts can be really friggin' dogmatic, or so I find, as much as I do respect them. They're highly susceptible to groupthink, and we must not confuse devotion to science and scholarship with uncritical acceptance of whatever trends happen to be in the ascendancy among the current generation. Follies are frequently collective, even among smart, well-educated people. Sad, but all too true.

10. Another example of dogmatic experts: yes, we do have free will, properly understood. Oh-so-clever science students stupidly assume that science alone can establish the contrary. They pretend not to be doing philosophy, when that is exactly what they are doing (albeit badly). They are annoying in their stubborn failure to understand the issues. Compatibilist free will is the only sort of freedom we need.

11. Our university system is broken, but it's a huge mistake to conclude that college is a waste of time. I propose that we pop the education bubble by creating a new, more independent and modular system of higher education, with degrees by examination among other things.

12. It makes no sense to use reason to call into question the use of reason. "He must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me, that would reason me out of my reason and senses," said one of my heroes, Thomas Reid. It is per se rational to begin our reasonings from the principles of what philosophers like Reid and G. E. Moore called "common sense."

13. An objective morality does exist. Relativism is dangerous and wrong. It is not the case that, if God is dead, everything is permitted. As Aristotle knew, life itself is the basic good that underlies our moral judgments; so our basic duty is to live well.

14. While in some ways Western civilization has never been more powerful and enlightened, it has also become morally and intellectually arrogant, sclerotic, and stunted. This can't end well.

15. More specifically, I am appalled and saddened by how cynical and morally bankrupt so many people can be today when acting as part of governments, bureaucracies, parties, corporations, schools, social cliques, the dating scene, gangs, law enforcement, publishing, etc., etc.—and when our supposed intellectual leaders mostly avoid moral judgment of the contemptible behavior that takes place in these social contexts. Corruption and cynicism are not OK; it doesn't matter if "everybody's doing it." Someday I'll write an essay, or a book, about this.

16. We've lost our moral and intellectual bearings. Religion is no longer a unifying force, of course. Even the formerly unifying ideals of western civilization—knowledge, freedom, dignity, excellence, self-control, etc.—have come under attack by much of our intelligentsia. Ideology is no substitute; no, nothing substantial is in its place. As a society, we're sleepwalking. It's alarming. Again, it can't end well.

17. Goddamned Hollywood is a morally depraved hot mess. They have got to get their house in order. They generally don't deserve our attention beyond any worthwhile entertainment they happen to produce.

18. I'm sorry if this offends, and I'm not saying this about my many liberal friends, who are generally very original and brilliant, but I'm going to say it anyway: conventional, dull, social-climbing, ambitious people are now mostly liberal or progressive Democrats. Being a lefty is no evidence that you are a smart nonconformist, not that it ever was. There are still plenty of dull, conventional conservatives too, of course. But at some point we've got to start talking about big-government left-wingers in this country as "conservatives," just as unreconstructed communists in the old Soviet Union were called "conservatives." Then I'll ask for the good old word "liberal" back.

19. I am particularly appalled by the illiberal hostility that certain left-leaning students, and some older people as well, are showing toward the fundamental American ideals of free speech and intellectual tolerance. In the Facebook alumni group for my alma mater, the uber-liberal Reed College, a lot of older liberals share my consternation at these trends; no, they aren't conservative or even libertarian.

20. Jonathan Chait is correct that there is a new political correctness. We have become too sensitive and rely far too much on dismissive arguments regarding how people have allegedly broken new social norms that not everyone shares. We ought instead to engage on issues of substance. That we don't is really screwing up our civic culture.

21. Speaking of political incorrectness, I have some guilty pleasures on YouTube that aren't quite politically correct for me to admit to liking. I admire their outspokenness, their intellectual courage in an increasingly censorious age, and their thoughtfulness. Let me introduce you to them:

Pat Condell. In-your-face atheist, old-fashioned liberal, vociferous defender of free speech. I might not always agree with him—actually, I often do—but in any case, I admire his spirit.

Karen Straughan. I'm really going to catch it for endorsing her, so let me just say first that I'm not convinced that her general take on feminism is right—it's a lot to process and I need to think her views through more (a book would help). Still, I love that she's a bisexual single mother and yet has the courage to comes down, hard, against the bigger stupidities of radical feminism. She comes across as remarkably articulate, intelligent, and frequently shows she's done a lot of research; it's hard to believe she doesn't even have a college degree. She's going to be famous in 10 years if not sooner.

I also like the brand of feminism of my fellow philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers; I have ever since reading her Who Stole Feminism? back in the 1990s.

"Rockin' Mr. E." He's sort of a long-haired Greek-Welsh cross between Pat Condell and Karen Straughan. Again, I don't always agree, often because his arguments would require research and thought to evaluate properly—but I often do find myself inclined to agree, anyway. I appreciate his nonconformist, independent spirit, anyway. And his chops on the electric guitar.

Let the sneering begin!

I'm sure I've managed to piss off everybody to some extent. I swear this isn't my intention. I'm not a troll because I actually believe what I say and think it actually important to say. I do own up to being a gadfly and possibly a pretentious, annoying git. But a troll, no.


How to pop the education bubble

1. Soul-making and the education bubble

One of my biggest pet peeves is the reduction of education to an economic transaction—to the gaining of marketable skills in exchange for fees.

That's all wrong.

Professional and vocational education is all fine and well, but education at the K-12 and college level is essentially soul-making. To be educated, we must be liberated from our prejudices, from our bad habits of lazy thinking, from our tendency to rely upon emotional reaction and dogma in place of critical analysis. To be well and liberally educated, we must learn to value the truth and how to seek it, and we must be given background knowledge and academic tools to do so.

I think there's a crying need for this today. All too much of what I encounter online that passes for argument seems to be more the spewing of reactions and dogma than the rational support of conclusions based on evidence, reasoning, and credible research.

We need to be better educated.

But let's face it: there's an education bubble. As many have pointed out (e.g., this guy and this one, both of whom were well-educated), education has become too expensive for "mere" soul-making.

Tuition at my alma mater, Reed College—one of the few colleges left that are still wholeheartedly committed to the liberal arts—rose from around $14,000 to $18,000 when I was there. (If I remember right.) The cost has simply continued to rise. The coming school year will cost $50,000. Of course, it's not the most expensive: Harvard is up to $60,000. That's absolutely insane. That does not reflect the real value of what one pays for when one attends college. It's clearly and simply a bubble.

But to say it's a bubble is to say it can be popped. How? Won't there always be an enormous demand for the connections and status conferred by an elite degree?

Well, no. Not if the price continues to rise. The market will find a way. Eventually, many of the best and brightest, even students from rich families who can afford to pay the tuition bill, will balk at the opportunity cost and seek, or create, cheaper and better alternatives.

2. What people want (and don't want) out of a college education

I made the contentious claim that Harvard's $60,000 tuition "does not reflect the real value" of a Harvard education. OK, OK, I don't really know if that's true. In fact, I don't even know what the words "the real value of an education" would mean. But let me explain what I was thinking.

Here's what's valuable about a college education:

• The credential itself.

• Knowledge and academic skill—and the liberal effects thereof.

• Marketable skills.

• The enjoyable "college experience," consisting both of the joy of learning and the forging of meaningful (not just mercenary) relationships.

• Connections formed via friends and acquaintances and within an alumni community. These can be very valuable at elite colleges.

• Recommendations professors are willing to make to graduate school or employers.

• The credential itself.

• Other things (e.g., it's easier to get into grad school at the university where you went to college; connections with researchers or practitioners in the field).

I don't know what all that's worth, but it's a heck of a lot. The thing is, we already know it's overpriced—because college tuition has gone up much faster than inflation, while the value of education has not increased. If anything, since more people have college degrees, and a lot of them are unemployed, the economic value of the degree has decreased.

The fact is, the things listed above, as valuable as they might be, can be had for a hell of a lot less than $60,000.

We also want a college education to treat us like adults with brains of our own. So there's another reason the education bubble needs popping: the system of higher education is increasingly politicized. For libertarians like me, it's ripe for revolution. A lot of people are disgusted with the fact that college, at least in the humanities and social sciences, has become as much a place of political indoctrination as of legitimate education. I remember some professors being extremely biased, back in the day; one could learn from them, but it was annoying. Things are several times worse now.

In addition, as a guy, I certainly would be thinking twice if I were getting ready for college, with so many stories of spurious harassment charges and so many students apparently incapable of handling controversial issues without freaking out (see the links listed in this Quora question). I think college should be a time of bold intellectual exploration, with students willing to fearlessly question and discuss anything together. I doubt I'd want to pay $50,000 per year in order to walk on eggshells around hyper-sensitive classmates, only to be indoctrinated by half of my professors.

Oh yeah, there's a bubble, and it's ready to be popped.

3. How to pop the bubble

The big question is, how on earth can we get the huge benefits conferred by college education, without actually going to college?

If we could answer that question, we'd have instructions for lancing the boil.

So here's my solution. (The following is an updated version of this old manifesto of mine from 1995.) This is what I might tell my boys when they're ready to start university-level study. It wouldn't be free, but it'd a lot cheaper than a college degree.

First, how to get the credential:

(a) Plan on getting your degree itself by examination. Degree-by-examination programs already exist. So that problem is solved.

But you probably need more than such a degree, particularly if you want to go to graduate school or get certain high-powered jobs. So:

(b) In addition, plan to pay a distinguished expert to test you in your major. I think that, when there is a demand, comprehensive and prestigious exam services will come into being. Basically, you register for an exam, you pay $100 or $1,000 (it really depends on how comprehensive it is and how good the examiners are) to sit the exam, and at the end, the institution awards you a degree. Until such programs come into being, you arrange to have a private written, oral, and/or practical exam with a distinguished expert. Then you'll be able to say, "Famous and distinguished scholar Dr. Knowitall gave me a final eight-hour written and oral exam about my subject area of  Wonkology. Dr. Knowitall judged my level of mastery to be 'Very Superior,' which is defined as 'superior to 90% of students awarded a bachelor's degree.'" I think you'll be able to find plenty of graduate programs that wouldn't accept that sort of recommendation in lieu of an actual bachelor's degree. And if one such examination doesn't seem persuasive to graduate schools or employers, arrange for two or three from different scholars.

But what about actually getting the knowledge and academic and marketable skills? How does one do that?

(c) With plenty of help, execute a program of independent study. When you've decided to start getting an actual college education, head on over to a city with lots of colleges and highly-educated people. Boston and the Bay Area are obvious choices, but there are many others. Audit classes—many professors don't care if you sit in on their lectures. For purposes of getting feedback on your work, hire tutors. Find the most distinguished professors you can who are willing to help (for a fee; and be prepared to pay a fair bit, as they are worth it). Get a guest library card from a large academic library. If I were advising my sons on how to do this, I would tell them to hire a freelance academic adviser to help them plan and manage their studies in the way described here. Such a person might also help motivate the student, and make sure he or she doesn't get off track.

The more people do this, the more a group of independent students might be able to get together and pay professors in the area for independent courses, a la carte. And of course if there are enough people doing that, then support mechanisms—apps, companies serving basically as registrars—would inevitably come into being. What I would not recommend is simply cracking open books and viewing The Great Courses, as excellent as they might be. Of course that could be part of your program, but I recommend against becoming an autodidact. A real education absolutely requires (a) discussion, preferably with peers as well as professors, and (b) feedback on your written and oral work, which you use to improve. It's best if both (a) and (b) are done face-to-face, but today, no doubt some of this work will be done via the Internet.

But what about the "college experience" and the social connections you get from college? Where could they come from?

(d) Seek out like-minded students to study and live with. A central part of a new ecosystem of independent study would be, one hopes, study groups and shared housing, like independent dormitories. The idea is that a group of students all starting to study the same subject might rent a house together, near some big prestigious university. This might forge relationships very similar to those found in the college setting. Such houses might invite professors to teach classes. (Speaking as a former college instructor, I have to say that that sounds like a blast.) Other academic social activities—invited lecturers, etc.—can be organized via the Internet and would no doubt be supported by a highly entrepreneurial ecosystem supporting such independent study. (Digital Badges and Uncollege are two forays in this direction.)

Perhaps, as such an ecosystem begins to cause problems for universities, some universities themselves might support the independent students in various ways. This is what happened when distance education started getting popular in the 1990s.

What about official letters of recommendation?

(e) Relationships between tutors and independent scholars would naturally be closer than between professors and students. The tutors would probably know and be better able to write letters and make other recommendations than they do for regular college students. Obviously, we won't know the details until we've done more experimentation, but there's no reason to suppose someone who has undergone a course of study described above could not find a berth in graduate school or industry, directly with the help of distinguished experts who know the students' work very well.

If enough students followed the path of independent study, there would be various competing national testing services capable of vouching for your level of expertise in a subject and for your overall educational attainment. One advantage of such a system is that it would be potentially more meritocratic: rather than saying you have an English degree from Harvard, you would say that you scored a 96 (out of 100) on the Yalvard B.A. English exam and an 83 on the Yalvard B.A. General Liberal Arts exam. To be able to reach such scores, you would not necessarily need to attend an elite school. But such scores might well get you into graduate programs, and they would naturally open other doors as well.

The system envisioned would replicate the college experience, but without the college and without the exorbitant college fees. I'm sure you could get away with paying instructors $10,000 per year or less; maybe much less. The biggest risk that I can see is that the economies of scale don't exist yet, making a bit of the plan less feasible, or harder to execute anyway, for the early adopters. But not a lot of it.

It's a little like homeschooling for college (a notion Dale Stephens was talking about a while back). Public schools in the U.S. are so unsatisfactory to so many people that a significant number of parents (like me) are opting out of the system and doing it themselves. The affordances of the Internet and the entrepreneurial spirit of the early 21st century could combine to enable a bunch of people to drop out of high-priced colleges and come together in a less-expensive but still high-quality, less-politicized, face-to-face system.

And it sounds like fun to me. It almost makes me wish I were a college student myself, because if I were, this is almost certainly what I would want to do.

A final bonus: the early adopters can make a business out of it after they've learned how to do it and worked the bugs out.