Proof of Capacity for Change

If we learn no other lesson from this plague, let it be that we are, in fact, still capable of widespread change. Of rapid change. Of drastic change.

So are the monuments and flags coming down—many are remnants of a false value system and in their pigeonholes new symbols can be made to replace them.

That when we pick a symbol, when we choose a pattern of organization, if it serves well enough we keep it, flaws and all. But when it becomes a harm, when it impedes moving forward, we uproot it. Going to the offices and shops amid a pandemic meant a risk of life and limb, so people stopped abruptly. But for many, those trips or any trips meant maybe they would be pulled over and face the possibility of a false value system of policing that represents everything that a flag can’t: you aren’t secure in your person, your house, your papers and effects. You are a forced plea or a gunshot away from ruin.

That system is harder to replace than a monument. It’s got no grommets hooking it to a pole, instead it’s woven into so much of our governments’ budgets, bolted down, shackled to our culture and media. But we can, as sure as we all wear masks to stop stray particles of pestilence.

Our lack of change is not down to inability. It is often not even a lack of will or of political disagreement, but of instinctive pushback. Take the Senate, where McConnell and the Republicans put already-cold milk into the cooling saucer and are now waiting for it to cool some more. They acknowledge a need for change, but enough of their members rely on being opposition that they can’t push a comprehensive bill.

The way to overcome this kind of nothing-by-default system is to use their pressure points. Qualified immunity, for one. Instead of their bill being a carrot for states that reform, it should be: states that do not reform will lose qualified immunity.

The argument that nobody in the Senate can make is that the officer that murdered George Floyd should not be subject to a lawsuit for it. Donald John Trump and some Republicans want to protect qualified immunity, then that’s the barrel to get them over and make them pay at least table stakes for it: reform to enable qualified immunity.

It’s a reasonable proposition: jurisdictions that make reasonable efforts to guard against civil rights violations by police should be given some greater measure of assurance as a result.

But that’s for this limited case. For the greater case, change means changing. Look for opportunities big and small to do differently tomorrow than what you did today.

In 18 weeks the nation can vote to change.


Association of Alternate Realities

How useful are political movements? Should we need them at all, if the so-called system worked? We would be taking substantial action on climate change, for example (aside: a useful analog to climate change is to think of discovering an asteroid was going to hit the earth in 100 years; we’d take action, hard and fast (and even then, there would be some denying the existence of the asteroid, its trajectory, etc.)). But the system is broken, badly. As such, it will likely take a movement to get the badly needed action.

What if the system worked? Would we still need movements? Take the idea of a union for CEOs (i.e., a union for those whom the system already works). Call it United Federation of Overseers or the UFO. Would the UFO ever need to exist? Would it negotiate for the golden parachutes (often mistaken for UFOs) and chair-throwing quotas (ditto)?

Some such organizations do exist. Some are social clubs, which provide networking opportunities. Others may promote continuing education. And some exist to promote more broken laws. One such organization is ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is devoted to “Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism.” Yet the result of their effort could be better described as “Wealth Concentration, Closed Markets, Oligarchy.”

The other big name in organizations by, of, and for those whom the system works is called the United States Congress. Founded in 1789, it has a lengthy history of promoting a broken system. It has, on occasion, deviated from that charter, but it has seen a revival in the past 20 years. It is the golden age of dysfunctional politics.

Even if the system worked, we might still need movements to bring attention. Say we found out that American Football was concussing the daylights out of its players. If the system worked, would we still need to have a movement to fix that? Or would the concern naturally bubble up to the league heads and they would step in immediately?

American Football had this problem before. In 1905, legend has it, a total of 19 souls were dispatched to the beyond from the gridiron. Talk about playing your heart out (insert the old fogey rap about how easy people have it today). It came to the national attention and over the subsequent decade a number of reforms were adopted.

On the other hand, we have groups like the Envelope Manufacturers Association pushing the government to keep so-called paper options around in the digital age. They did so under the guise of a group called “Consumers for Paper Options.” We have groups lobbying to keep their business thriving in an age when we don’t necessarily need it.

Paul Ryan made his annual pilgrimage to the photocopier to deliver his redundant, ridiculous budget once more. Maybe he needs a grassroots campaign for the passage of his master plan. Alas, not even ALEC and the NRA have the sort of funds needed to pull that much wool over the eyes of the people. (Or maybe the whole annual futile budget effort is the result of lobbying efforts by Big Paper.)

But it still gets media coverage. Akin to covering a cult group that believes the world will end tomorrow (literally, they believe that the world ends when time breaks and we move from the eternal today into the always-future tomorrow). So we have two broken institutions: the government and the media. And we have association media, activist media, organizational media, to try to influence and supplement the mainstream media.

At some point we have the full makings of alternate realities. Some in the deeper religious and political niches have already collected their whole set. The wealthy have an easier time of burrowing into another reality, with all the Yes men telling them, “of course that’s true sir, but only because you say so.”

But, at some other point, we will see an Alliance of Actual Reality, a Voltron-style amalgamation of environmentalists, prison reformers, etc. Then it will be Monster versus Robot, Godzilla style (or if you’re too young, Pacific Rim style). The AAR will put down the invaders from the alternate realities (represented by the Association for Alternate Realities, also called the AAR, but with the accent on the second A). At some point.

But then, as the dust settles, we will realize that we were fighting ourselves, again. That we were really fighting our own ignorance, the only enemy we really have.

Yea, the rich will be poor; the old young; the many will count themselves few. If we could do that without all the stupid fighting to try to salvage things like the fossil fuel industry or the buggy-whip industry, we would be very much better off.


Hegemony in the (Tech) World

This is another discussion about culture stemming from the ongoing dissatisfaction in the open source community at large over the bad culture that exists in the computer industry (and far beyond it).

I’ve been lucky enough to more-or-less avoid direct contact with the dominant culture in Western technology. But I can understand that culture’s existence in the wider culture. It’s not about women, but about dominance. And it will continue until an alternative culture supplants it. Outlawing it, banning it, these do not suffocate it.

Cultures develop very rapidly. Culture is basically an instantiation of an expectation. If you visit your grandmother, and she answers the door wearing a leather jacket, jeans, and combat boots, then that particular instantiation of the grandmother-grandchild culture probably just took a weird turn. But it could be that your grandmother is a biker, in which case her answering the door in slacks and a blouse would get you diving in the hedges and calling the invasion of the body snatchers hotline.

One of the key problems in changing the culture is that many members of the dominant culture that you interact with aren’t alone in their daily lives. So even if you get them to see the light, by sheer inertia of returning to their regularly scheduled programming, they will readopt the bad culture.

Indeed, many will have initially adopted the persona of a member of that group in the presence of others of that group, in order to fit in. But once you’re expected to think of jokes of a certain type, your brain rewires itself a bit. And you’re supposed to get them out there fast, before the other guy, to show your own dominance within the group. So now you’re losing your natural tendency to analyze your speech before expressing it.

The company you keep ends up keeping you. Everyone becomes a copy of a copy of a copy. The first rule about the culture is that you do not talk about the culture.

The code of silence in the book Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk isn’t to prevent the spread of the fight clubs. It’s to prevent the members from openly discussing what they are engaged in. They can tell non-members about it in the sense of spreading the culture, but never have a metatalk about it.

And I think that’s key. If an infection is deep enough, the best that the body can do is to build around it, wall it in. To truly remove it requires opening it to the air and light and pulling it out completely.

So talking about it from the outside helps a bit. But ultimately the discussions have to happen on the inside. The purveyors the various cultures must themselves come to understand their own culture, instead of ignoring that it is controlling them without them having any real say in it.

It’s a difficult thing to do. If you try to raise the issue from within the culture, the same defense mechanisms that are harmful to outsiders will be turned on the rule breaker. It will be a light attack at first, and persisting will only make the threat more real.

It’s probably best to go for one-on-one discussions of the culture with the purveyors for that reason. Less feeling that they have to enforce the culture in that setting, and one-on-one cultures of their own develop rapidly.


The Nature of Unbelieved Change

It’s short posts November, so I probably won’t ramble as long this month.

One thing we’ve probably all seen in making changes big and small is that there’s an adjustment period during which we refine. Depending on the change, that period may be short or long.

But one of the things that makes it longer is when the initial change was thought too hard or was neglected in some way. The result is that once the foundation has actually been laid, those affected suddenly give comment to an issue they didn’t expect (ie, how to refine it) and haven’t had ample time to consider.

The 2008 Obama campaign used the slogan, “Change you can believe in.” I think it works for this phenomena to call it “Unbelieved Change,” meaning change that people didn’t see coming because they didn’t believe it had a chance.

Health reform is a good example. The lack of meaningful reform had entrenched itself as a fact for the USA, and now that something’s been done to move the stone, a lot of people want to refine it (even before many provisions take effect). Some want to simply revert the change, others want to continue on the path laid or go an entirely different way.

The other problem, related, is that the early proposals are often ruled out as blocking the initial change. The Obama administration basically scrapped notions of a public option or single payer system as being too difficult to garner agreement. And yet, they didn’t go for a credit-based system either.

Another area where this phenomena has shown itself is the Arab Spring. Prior to its beginning, most thought that the status quo was to stay as it was. When change finally came, the world’s leaders didn’t have a good idea what the outcome would be, and even today there are some in the West that think it might have been a bad change.

I think the real root of the problem is that many look at the world and see a pinball machine instead of a canvas. They see the world as a mostly-fixed system in which they must hit the bumpers and make the lights blink and sing. There are others that realize the world can be much more flexible, and that deciding what to paint isn’t an unreasonable activity.

The world is a canvas, and the populist movements like Occupy Wall Street recognize that fact, where the politicians often do not. But it’s more complicated; for some issues any given person may think it’s part of the pinball machine or canvas. Most will admit the Constitution is more pinball than paint, but still some seek to amend it. Pretty much everyone admits that defying gravity is equivalent to a TILT event, but some still believed in putting humans in space, even if it merely meant overpowering gravity rather than breaking it.

But we should still consider the impossible at every turn, it builds character.


The Obama Investment: A Player Piano?

President-elect Obama has one thing right as he gives his weekly addresses: we need some change, and we need to act swiftly and appropriately with this economic crisis.  His response is appropriate, on its face: increase demand and market liquidity by investing in infrastructure.

But his call to build and repair roads and bridges will be the greatest missed opportunity since President Bush squandered our spiritual capital with our allies in the wake of September 11, 2001.  It will be a waste not on par with the bailouts still being meted and even still being formulated in terms of dollars spent, but certainly in terms of misdirection.

We should commit some amount of any infrastructure-building program to include public transportation.  To not so do is to break the promise still ringing from the Flash player: ‘build jobs, improve infrastructure, decrease dependence on oil, become more efficient, and increase America’s competitiveness in the world.’  Every single criteria he gives is met by investment in public transportation and in every case it is met better than by building and repairing roads.

I believe in hope and change, but it needs to be real change, not just a Player Piano.  We need new directions and industries.  Trying to tread water for a whole century is not going to cut it.  Bailing out Detroit will not cut it.  Walk the walk.  Some of what he says is real change.  Increased investment in technology will be a welcome change.  Upgrades to public institutions such as government buildings and schools are great.  Even pushing hospitals to become more wired, which fits nicely with the prospect of radical changes to our health care system in the next four years.

And some roads do need fixing.  We do not want to imperil anyone through lack of investment in our existing infrastructure.

But we must begin to add rails to the mix.  The sooner we do this crucial change in attitudes will begin to take place.  People will start to see property values rise.  New enclaves of shops can be born around the stops and routes the light rails take.  It will become cheaper to add more down the rail once we’ve gotten rolling.

Right now, when it can be had for less money, when production can be ramped up, and when shops that are closed due to the downturn are ripe for retooling.  Right now is the right time.  But does Obama have the Right Stuff?