Making Volunteerism a Hobby

“Alleviating poverty would not be a success if achieved. It would be a failure if [not achieved].”
– admin of NetWORK in Progress

Not exactly your sunshine-and-roses kind of activism. But it’s true, and that’s not discouraging. Far from it. It’s entirely possible to bask in the sincere joy, satisfaction, and self-worth of your philanthropy, just as it is in the case of any other achievement that is less of a life-or-death matter, without denying that this philanthropy is imperative.

That last part is a more than a little difficult for any person to internalize. I certainly haven’t internalized it yet. I don’t feel, in the concrete sense, as compelled to do my part to decrease world suck on this massive scale as I do to, say, take a shower in the morning or say “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes.

That’s messed up, isn’t it? And it’s completely normal for all but the most amazing world-changers out there. To be frank, I’m jealous of those people. I would love not to be such a walking contradiction, prioritizing my favorite TV show over charitable activism even as I like to think I would scorn a person who wouldn’t jump in a cold lake to save a drowning child. I’m not even saying we all have to be Mother Teresas or something so simple-minded. That would be a strawman designed to dodge the issue. What bothers me is that, wholly independent of how we each uniquely seek to better the world professionally, the way we choose to spend our free time is so very often embarrassingly self-centered (or suboptimally other-centered; you aren’t exactly a paragon of altruism for buying your Valentine’s date a box of chocolates).

Does that sound like a guilt-ridden shout into the vacuum? I don’t mean it to. From the bottom of my heart, I don’t.

That’s one of the myths about philanthropy I want to dispel, that acknowledging the failures of our society so far to address appalling threats to the common good is somehow cause to think we ought to wallow in un-constructive shame. If you think there’s a problem, as there undoubtedly is, what makes you think sincere, non-judgmental attempts to address and raise awareness of that problem are more harmful than doing nothing about that problem? Because I sure as puppies are awesome am not going to be the one to make you feel bad about yourself for playing hours of Flappy Bird instead of making a difference. That would be not only hypocritical and insensitive, but also psychologically naive.

Let no one misunderstand me: I dream of a world in which shaming the Flappy Bird enthusiast would be completely unnecessary, because people would be so excited, genuinely happy, jumping-out-of-your-seat-like-there’s-a-new-Harry-Potter-book-at-Barnes-and-Noble stoked to help each other in profoundly beautiful ways, that other pursuits would seem boring by comparison.

Indeed, the scientist in me craves to understand whence cometh this apathy of ours. Is there some mental health benefit to indulging in the frivolous as often as we do? If so, could the same be achieved with more productive alternatives, perhaps through some neurological or genetic (gasp!) tweaking? Such thoughts are dirty words to a lot of people, but please don’t light your torches and hoist your pitchforks yet. I don’t intend to go into my ideal neuroscientific professional future with a childish disregard for long-term ethical considerations. If there are ways of improving humanity’s empathic capabilities in ways we can’t even currently imagine (such is my rose-colored vision of the fruits of what I hope will be my labors in, and after, college), I’m confident most of us won’t have to be coerced into accepting such changes.

Ask people in the abstract if they care about children dying of preventable diseases, about the struggles of people trapped in cycles of poverty, about the inequity holding back Ugandan schoolgirls, and they’ll say, “Of course.” We, by and large, would like the world to be more just and life-supporting. We simply feel paralyzed by not only fears that we really can’t make a difference, but also the tug of more immediate dopamine rushes.

TL;DR: I don’t doubt that there are ways people can improve society and relieve suffering in non-traditionally “philanthropic” ways. Teachers, police officers/detectives, medical professionals, engineers, soldiers, and the like do that every day. I don’t even doubt that there’s something to be said for the value of the morale and camaraderie a football team can inspire, for the necessity of the cartoonist (at least the actually funny one), for the good that seemingly stupid trinkets like trading cards can do for kids forging friendships. But I also think there’s something to be said for how backward our priorities are in many ways, and how cool it is that we live in a time when there’s a realistic hope that we could scientifically investigate how to shift these priorities. And this is using the word “scientifically” in a broad sense, not just the brain-poking lab stuff.

So as I continue this journey to see what I can do to change the way we think of social activism (as a chore, currently), I hope you take a little time, even just a few minutes today, to reflect on some time when you sincerely enjoyed doing something that helped others. Why not do that again sometime?

Advertisements

Back From the Dead

Yeesh.

Seven months.

Seven months of varying degrees of busyness, from a total excess of free time that I chose to spend on Facebook to feeling unbelievably swamped with either schoolwork or the realization that college is no longer something abstract I don’t have to worry about (but a reality I’ll have to confront and hopefully embrace a year from now).

I’m not going to pretend this hiatus wasn’t careless on my part. Nor will I flatter myself by supposing many people were disappointed by my absence. But alas, I’m back, and the reason I haven’t just given up this little pet project is, well, I have another little pet project I want to keep you guys and gals updated on through STW4D.

Here’s the situation: My high school has a chapter (the founding chapter, in fact) of a grassroots charitable organization known as NETwork Against Malaria (yes, those letters are supposed to be capitalized). Its mission is simple to state and, as far as its administration claims, not that much less simple to execute – contribute as much as possible to the prevention of malaria in Uganda (particularly the Hoima District) and support the education of Ugandan children, both of which should in theory combat the vicious circle of poverty that far too many Ugandan families face.

So the sales pitch goes, $10 buys a long-lasting insecticide-treated bed net (ITN), with which as many as 3 people can protect themselves from Plasmodium-carrying mosquitoes during sleep. Of course, extra expenses go into transport and distribution, the details of which I’d like to investigate further. But the figures don’t lie. UNICEF reports that child mortality rates can decrease by 20% due to the utilization of ITNs alone, and each year the NETwork Against Malaria, small though it may be, consistently delivers such nets at a rate of about 1,000 nets per distribution.

That number could always be higher, though. I don’t need to tell you how serious a public health threat malaria is in many developing nations. This is why I’m making it a personal mission of mine to make my sincerest effort to improve my local NETwork chapter’s efficiency, extent, and collaboration with larger, reputable charities with like-minded goals.

Because I think the largest obstacle to solving massive social problems like this is, as Bill Gates noted in his outstanding Harvard commencement address, the paralyzing appearance of complexity in these problems, I’m going to approach this mission as critically as I can with the aim of breaking it down into simpler, manageable goals. Maybe you’re in as much a position of privilege as I am and want to see if this whole “changing the world” thing really can be done, when your instinct is to play another round of Candy Crush because “why bother, there’s nothing I can do, right?” (Heaven knows I’ve felt like that.) Or maybe you have things figured out a lot more than I do and my following posts will make you facepalm at my naïveté. If you’re in the latter group, please inform me of where my inevitable mistakes are, and if you’re in the former, I encourage you to check out my updates on how exactly I’m going to do this.

And by all means, if you have ideas, please don’t hesitate to pitch them! I’m only one guy (with currently shortened hippy hair).

On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part II)

(Follow up to Part I)

To lead into the explanation of the second thought that my Galileo thermometer inspired, let me present my attempt (and this is the keyword :-)) at a monochromatic expression of some conflicting ideas related to it:

Unnatural

The most prominent feature that you will tend to notice is the crescent moon, looming large near the Alaska horizon. Aside from perhaps the lesser-known story of Linus Pauling (as told in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, which I highly recommend), I know of no better case study in societally impactful science than that of the U.S. moon landing.

It’s common knowledge that the Apollo program cost literal billions of dollars, so one can hardly fault the citizens who would have expressed indignation at this investment of their taxes. In hindsight, of course, the mission seems to have been worth it. Beyond the “that really makes our species look cool” factor and pure national solidarity the moon landing generated, the conveniences it spawned — from water filters and satellite-facilitated communication to ArterioVision and hearing aids — are impressive and often life-changing.

However, as I hope two details of this drawing illuminate, this sort of argument in favor of publicly funded research has its problems. Before we consider those, there are more immediate objections that come to mind. Most crucial to the theme of this mini-series of posts, we may fairly ask which criteria a research endeavor must meet to qualify as so likely to benefit the people, that our government ought to fund it. Well-directed investigations into cancer and CVD (diseases both severely detrimental to people’s well-being and expensive in terms of health care costs) cures are easy enough to justify, but how could anyone have foreseen the fruits of Pauling’s or NASA researchers’ inquiries?

That’s not a rhetorical question. If we honestly could not have predicted how useful some lines of natural questioning would prove, can we take any examples of ultimately quite beneficial research as adequate evidence of likely improvements other research might provide? This doesn’t appear to this writer a solid foundation upon which to build future investments of public resources, at least without a well-tested theory of initially useless utility. All of this is evident irrespective of how successful the moon landing was for humankind in fact.

Further, the suggestion that many life-improving inventions would not have arisen without the impetus of the space program may involve a flavor of the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy. That is, just because NASA yielded great societal utilities, this does not necessarily mean society could not have otherwise achieved greater utilities with the resources invested in NASA. Maybe this is a testament to my ignorance of the debates argued among legislators back in the 1960s, but there seems to be a large burden of proof on those who would claim that the aforementioned technologies (and Space Race morale) outweigh the good that could have been achieved charitably or through direct infrastructure, with those funds. Indeed, with the exception of satellites, none of these advances obviously require space travel in principle.

Hence, the disheveled home of a poor individual that lies not far from our young astronomer, who delights in the inspiration of the moon, blissfully unaware of the pavement of poverty with which the road to that rock has been built. Here I have taken the, ahem, artistic liberty of getting my point across with a term coined in a work of fiction I am currently revising. In my last update, my short video introduced a not-exactly novel yet disturbing idea — that the intrusion of increased automation into the workforce might multiply the economic burdens of most members of society. The “Go away Org” graffiti on the house shown above alludes to a similar but distinct consideration. Supposing that technology produced (by some time in the not-too-distant future which is this scene’s setting) exoskeletons capable of eliminating many of the inconveniences of the organic body, social selection against those without the wealth to possess them would surely arise. Why hire the average human who has to sleep eight hours a day?

If this all seems too pessimistic, the second of the details I mentioned vindicates the moon missions somewhat. Notice0 the small but unmistakable lit-up spot on the moon besides its naturally brightened crescent. This is, consistent with the time period, a sign of human civilization on the moon. Such colonization is also an idea that has floated around in greater minds than mine before, but I think it’s worth pondering nonetheless, for the practicalities of this for people’s well-being are substantial. All else being equal, the moon has no natural disasters. Think about that, and the lives that could be saved after leaping the hurdles of cosmic radiation and terraforming for food sources.

Regardless of how the debate settles, the implications are somewhat demoralizing either way. The avid astronauts may declare, “Can we put a price on freedom from ignorance?” Yet their critics can just as easily retort, “On freedom from poverty?”

Once again, the fog doesn’t seem much clearer than when we started. I do intend to pursue more precise answers, and to share them if I find anything particularly intriguing, but as I have said before, I don’t think the power of identifying the pertinent questions themselves (independent of the answers) should be underestimated.

Why Artificial Intelligence Matters

A few months ago, I entertained the notion of discussing the implications of AI for social justice on this blog. Well, in the following video, I do just that. It’s not the longest or most thorough video anyone’s done on the subject, by a long shot, but for what it’s worth, I figured my readers would find it at least somewhat thought-provoking.

In Which ThatGuyWithHippyHair Finally Finds Out What Drones Are

Today is a day I’ll let my source speak for itself, since quite frankly my commentary on an area this far out of my expertise would be a disservice. I share this, a report by Amnesty International about likely abuses of Pakistani civilians’ rights by the U.S. government’s use of lethal drones, simply because awareness is half the battle. (Sue me, GI Joe.) If my readers are as admittedly behind on modern global politics as I am, then here you go; we can conquer our mutual ignorance together. I currently have too many unfinished projects on my list to tackle a substantive analysis of this, but hopefully by reading the linked page you might find inspiration into action.

On the Utility of the Apparently Useless (Part I)

Would you believe me if I said the object you see below made me question the decisions and priorities of my species, in not just one way but two?

20131126-220209.jpg

I received this geeky apparatus as a gift earlier this year. Known as a Galileo thermometer, it uses the physics of density to display the approximate temperature of the environment. That’s neat and all, and every now and then I can derive from it a sense of awe at its scientific elegance, but the question I have to ask when I observe it is this: Was it worth the investment?

No, seriously — was it at all sensible for the givers of this present, good-willed though the gesture was, to spend on it dozens of dollars they surely could have directed towards more worthy ends? I don’t need my own thermometer, and so far this device hasn’t inspired any scientific epiphanies in me or anyone else (much less done so in a way that would require its physical presence in my room). I realize this isn’t a popular or comfortable idea, especially around this time of year in the United States. Surely it’s the thought that counts. Splurging helps the economy, right? People have the right to “waste” money on things with no secondary use, after all.

I wouldn’t endorse all these notions, and although it’s trivially true that we have that right, no one ever said rights were called rights because any exercise of them is right (that is, most wise or most helpful to the altruistic goals we tend to hold in the abstract). Whether it’s possible or desirable to mold our laws into actualizing such a definition of rights is its own interesting question, but the trouble remains. The costs (financial and social) of seemingly innocuous actions like giving a gift could very well outweigh the benefits.

And yes, the worst of these futile attempts to buy happiness (which some possessions can do indirectly, to be sure — without someone buying a typewriter, Stephen King would not have found the joy of publishing his novels — but not most) surface around the holidays. The thermometer was actually a birthday present, yet when I consider the mass of Christmas possessions I’ve found no use for that could not be performed by something better, the absurdity of this system becomes all too obvious.

How exactly have we convinced ourselves that this is sane? Expecting total commercial detachment from people is unrealistic, of course, and maybe even fortunately so, but ours is hardly a happy medium. I doubt this is a phenomenon unique to my history. Perhaps a degree of trivial distraction in our lives is psychologically healthy, but if it is, I’ll need more than just the bald hypothesis to accept that this is, in fact, the case.

I’ll be on the lookout for more satisfying answers and may post about them, but for now, this is all really quite mad.

To be clear, I don’t mean by any of this questioning to merely tear down the fun of the blue pill. My suspicion, rather, is that the blue pill isn’t even as fun in the first place as the more useful options we skip over constantly. If we admit this, we just might find ways of pursuing and producing more of what we value, than that which we accept as cheap substitutes for the best the world has to offer.

If your response to this is to point to science’s curious ability to become useful when we least expect it, you’ll want to stick around for my follow-up to this, in Part II.

Common Mistakes — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5c)

(Part XII of this series)

Recall that in Chapter 5, Locke has so far been attempting a defense of the right to property. Now, he is describing how it is both in the nature of humans to, in his terms, “cultivate” land and property from the common, and in our best interests to do so. Evidently, Locke distinguishes between two kinds of a “common.” In one sense, there is land that has not been marked as a part of any particular society’s dominion, which, therefore, there seems no apparent harm in letting people utilize at their leisure. The other sense is of property already designated the community’s common land, which an individual requires the direct consent of the society to claim for private purposes (which ideally don’t pose any threat to that society).

One major question arises at this consideration. Although the separation makes sense initially, we would do well to ask how much we actually apply such a philosophy in our manner of dealing with the land — obviously Native American tribes throughout two whole continents had their territories treated as if they were examples of the first, rather than the second, but there’s another, more modern-applicable case. Taking a “my right to extend my fist ends where your nose begins” approach is fair enough, but particularly in the realm of using natural resources wisely, it’s important not to let this principle become a caricature of itself. We mustn’t ignore the ways our fists reach to extents we can’t see merely with the naked eye.

Consider, for instance, the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, Locke didn’t live even to see this age start up, but supposing a hypothetical society abiding by his principles contemplated the beginning of the revolution ethically, how would they have dealt with this? Perhaps the most important and disturbing query is this: Would anyone have known — much less had no excuse not to know — that industrialization could have potentially hazardous implications for the lower class, child labor, and our ecological stability? Was this anything resembling a moral question for some observers of the time, or was it an error that could only manifest its ugly head in hindsight, like our past failure to save countless lives through rudimentary hygienic practices in infant delivery?

I wish these could be more than rhetorical questions at the moment. Please share your thoughts, if you’re so inclined.

As a side note, readers who are following along doubtlessly notice Locke’s affinity for justifying his claims as reflections of the will of God. While those who say they speak for God have the unfortunate habit of projecting their own desires on a being they hardly comprehend, Locke’s contentions are generally (certainly not always, as we’ve seen) difficult to reject so far, provided we translate this tactic into “a perfectly rational being with our society’s collective well-being at heart would prescribe X.”

Looking at them this way, we may engage his arguments on their own merits. Though it’s the prerogative of any given believer in infallible scripture to consult it for ethical information, he or she can only hope to shape public policy around ideas that the majority can support independent of private beliefs; in practice, most religious social activists acknowledge this.