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Just How Much of Yourself Do You Really Want to Outsource?
Political and economic changes have a way of getting into people's heads. Once-new tools come to feel as natural as the hands that pick them up; once-new rules, ingrained in habit, come to seem like natural laws. That's how products and policies turn into culture. It's a process we usually see in hindsight (remember when we thought jazz clubs had be to filled with cigarette smoke?). But now and then you see this transformation happening in real time.
Case in point: Not long ago, surveillance—gathering data on people's actions, analyzing it to understand them better, using that analysis to change their behavior—was a tool of cops and bosses. But lately people have come forward to say they think this technology can and should be used for even the most intimate aspects of private life. Not everyone agrees with them. But just having such a debate about surveillance-and-control tech is a sign that attitudes toward personal autonomy are shifting.
In this post at nymag.com, for instance, Ann Friedman wondered how data-crunching, reminder-pinging apps might be used to keep the vast damp towel of long-term marriage from getting too moldy. For example, she says, since domestic drudgery is a source of much unpleasantness in couples, how about an app that keeps track of chores? "Perhaps an app could provide a nudge, tracking whose turn it is to tackle a particular unpleasant duty." Or how about an app that promotes kind little gestures: candy, flowers or a bit of unexpected vacuuming. Or one that promotes even kinder gestures (and postures), Friedman writes: " 'Maybe an app that held you to a sex schedule,' another married friend suggested. 'Like, ‘Tuesday night: sex, wine, dinner.' It just gets too easy to put no effort into a relationship when you’re comfortable.' "
Friedman was having fun, but of course apps like this really do exist. One, for instance, is called romantimatic. Greg Knauss wrote it as a tool to help people "send a simple 'I love you' to the most important person in our lives." You set a schedule, and the app makes sure you send a text or some other message of love at the times you appointed. That's not very different from a note scribbled on a calendar, of course. But the calendar won't spare you the effort of thinking of something to say. Nor will it send the text for you. Romantimatic will. Though one of its pre-set suggestions is "my phone told me I should tell you that I love you," you could easily set up the app so that your romantic partner thinks s/he's hearing from you, not a device to which you've offloaded all the effort. In fact, as Evan Selinger points out, romantimatic actually reminds people that they might want to hide its existence from the person whose heart it's warming.
Selinger's astute post was far from the only one that questioned the value of appifying "I love you." In this post on his blog, Knauss shook his head in wonder at the first wave of criticism, and made explicit what Friedman only implied. It's a tool, he said. Why not use it? "If you’re not good at something and want to get better at it, a tool can help. Tools make things faster and easier and more reliable."
But not all tools are alike. Calendars are reminder tools. And find-a-partner apps like Tinder or Grindr are search tools. There's something different about intimacy apps—like this one (text your gf so you can spend more time with your real friends!) and this one (use your phone's motion sensor to measure how good your sex is, because nothing says love like sharing those stats with our bedmate). These are management tools. Romantimatic doesn't help you with a decision to text "I love you" at 3:15. It makes the decision (and, if you're using it to the hilt, it also decides that the text will contain those precise words).
You might reply that you're still the real decision-maker, because you set up the app. But that's like saying you decided that healthcare.gov should roll out as badly as it did, because you voted for Barack Obama in 2008, or (to be bipartisan about it) that you personally decided that Iraq should be mired in violence because you voted for George Bush in 2004. Delegation is a big decision that eliminates the need to make many small ones; it is a decision not to decide. And when you don't decide, someone (or something) else has to. That's work that you could have done, being done by someone else. This is why being president of anything is a job.
When you outsource decisions that require self-monitoring and self-management, then, you're giving up some autonomy. First, you are, literally, making fewer decisions about what to do. Second, you are trusting yourself less, setting aside your own understanding of your condition in favor of supposedly objective measurements. ("Gee, that felt like great sex, but according to my phone, it was just average.") Third, you're offloading the real work of decision-making—the psychic act of "self-binding," forcing yourself to do what you aren't at the moment inclined to do. Something else is doing that job.
Are you saying "so what?" right about now? Thinking, as Knauss argues, that a tool is a tool, and if someone finds that tool useful, there is no harm? If so, I'll concede there are some aspects of life in which you're probably right. For certain matters—avoiding fees on your bank account, making sure you do 15 minutes on the treadmill instead of stopping at 12—it may make perfect sense to offload the monitoring and managing effort onto a gadget. Why not use that time and energy for something more important?
However, there are other aspects of life where reducing one's autonomy might not be such a great idea. Aspects where no one would have considered it a good idea, even 10 years ago. Those are the aspects that are real only if you do the work yourself.
Reacting to romantimatic, Selinger quickly developed a systematic critique of this kind of app, based on this point. There are forms of labor that shouldn't be saved, he argued; the labor of love is one. When you offload the work, you have offloaded everything: "Intimacy and trust are cultivated through skill and commitment—attunement to someone else’s needs and desires and a capacity to meet many of them through independent action."
For this reason, I think appified intimacy might be the area that makes people notice the spread of the monitor-and-manage approach and the consequent reduction in their own autonomy. We accept the encroachment of monitor-analyze-influence in the workplace (the blocking of certain websites, the keystroke analyzers, the gamification of weight-loss and quit-smoking efforts that help bring down insurance costs), because, well, the boss insists. And we accept apps that help us manage ourselves because when we use those, we're still in control. When you're using an app to force yourself to get to the gym, you're the boss. (Though you could object, as D.H. Lawrence did: "every man as long as he remains alive is in himself a multitude of conflicting men. Which of these do you choose to perfect, at the expense of every other?")
But when we aren't compelled by the terms of employment to accept being managed by this same combination of data collection and nudging, it's easier to see the drawbacks of tools that outsource decision-making itself. Love was once a part of life reserved for individual decision-making—where only you, no other person or automated process, can make a choice. To appify love is to shrink the space of your individual decision-making. Indeed, to have a debate about whether it can be appified means that scope is already starting to shrink.
Illustration: "Confused Robot," by Jennifer M. Bean
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.