Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Essential Human Needs

In my research regarding Internet ethics, I have run up against a term I have encountered before: The Digital Divide. Essentially, the digital divide portrays how many of the world’s citizens (not only the undeveloped or “Third World” nations, but also those in the lower levels of the socio-economic strata of wealthy nations) are not connected to the “information super-highway.” Although this could be due to a number of factors, the common denominator is money. At the personal level, the poor in a rich nation may have access to the Internet if only they could afford the service and equipment while on a cultural or national level, there is no access at any price due to lack of infrastructure. Now, all this seems to be more about economics, globalization, politics (both international and national) and status than it does with ethics.

But when one speaks of status or standing or, more generally, value, one is speaking of ethics. The questions here are many. The so-called digital divide is a fact; and the variables that create and maintain it are just as real. We are not dealing here with what is or is not, but rather, what is right and what is wrong. Or, in this case, stated more plainly: Is this fair? It’s the same question, really. Inasmuch as ethical considerations with the Internet are concerned, does communication technology create a new underclass, or does it merely amplify that which already exists? In one textbook I have been assigned, the subtle but real slant is that communication technology is as important to humanity as clean water and electricity. In this light, Internet access is absolutely an ethical concern. Or is it?

Let us look first an obviously humanitarian concern: Clean water. Few could argue that this is important to eliminate needless disease and human suffering throughout the world. It is a basic human need and one that, ethically speaking, we as a species should be in favor of, at the very least. Never mind logistics or whose responsibility it is - just as a matter of principle, does anyone not “deserve” clean drinking water? Okay, then, reasonable people agree. What about electricity? This one is a little stickier, ethically speaking. Although arguing for clean water is a relatively easy sell, the same cannot be said of electricity – and I know there are those who would argue fervently that it is equal in importance and therefore, an ethical issue.

Where electricity is essential for clean water, I’ll grant it, but otherwise no, it is not necessary nor is it an ethical issue. Electricity makes life more comfortable, it is not, however, essential to life. In other words, it is clearly not in the same class as clean water. Since communication technology is much farther up the continuum than electricity, it, too, is not an ethical issue. And as much as free speech is an inalienable human right, access to various mediums is not – not even among the wealthiest. I cannot take my message down to my local newspaper and say, “Here, print this.” I can, however, pay them to print it, but not just any old way I want it – it would be clearly identified as an advertisement. No amount of money (theoretically) can get my message printed with all the credibility of an actual news story. I know that there are myriad examples of ethical rules being broken in journalism, but that is exactly the point – these are the ethics. Access to a particular medium is not an ethical question.

And by extension, so goes communication technology. Before the telephone was invented, nobody had one. It was many years before the telephone was available to the masses. In many places in the world, it is still not. Is this fair? In some senses, no, but in respect to what one needs to lead a life without unnecessary risk or danger – in terms of humanity – yes, it is as fair as it has always been. Should we, the “haves,” strive to help those less privileged than ourselves? From a personal ethical position, yes; but is there a responsibility to get all the billions of “have-nots” onto the information super-highway? Not necessarily - it is not that cut-and-dried. There are far more pressing concerns than to call communication technology essential to being part of humanity. It is questionable as to whether it even makes life better. We have done quite well without for thousands of years; just because we enjoy the pleasures (and the pains) of instant availability – and despite the fact that some cannot now "live" without it – the Internet is not an essential human need. Not here. Not anywhere.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who vs. What

Sometimes is difficult to define what I am. It’s not the same question as who I am, that is a much more internal and personal reflection of my current place in the universe. What I am denotes more of the role I play in life. I am currently both a student and a teacher, but I also still write news from time to time, so I guess I am a journalist as well. I am and have always been a son, and for about 25 years I have been a father. And although much of that plays a key part in defining who I am, it is not necessarily what I do that makes me who I am. Who I am is determined much more by how I do what I do and my performance has varied from absolutely miserable to excellent, often at the same time.

We all have many roles to play at any given period in our lives. Some are persistent while others are fleeting, but the belief that a given role is static and singular is false. “What” I am is always many things. I am dynamic, evolving and always learning – we all are. And although I am, at present, formally both a student and a teacher, it is also true that as human beings, we are all always those things. Always. I have also been, in no particular order: a businessman; an entrepreneur; a patient; a Little Leaguer, a Boy Scout, a trombone player and a member of my high school marching band; an owner of many vehicles; an inmate; a college drop-out and a university graduate; and many more things I cannot immediately recall (some, perhaps, by choice). I am also a friend, a son, a father and a grandfather – things that I am particularly proud to be.

And for more than four years now, I am a blogger. When I started this project in December 2005, I had no idea that I would still be doing it four-plus years and almost 500 posts later. It is not only one of the things that describe what I do, but it is also an important element in making me who I am. My blog is a mirror. It is a visual and public assessment of where I am in life and what it all means. There are never any clear answers, but awareness has proven to be key; optimism written takes on a concreteness that, for me, is self-fulfilling. Writing it out and giving it to the universe is not only cathartic, it becomes, in some sense, real. I write often and for many different purposes in many different formats for vastly different audiences. What I write here is all me; it’s free and unrestricted (from external sources)… and it is for anyone who wants to read it.

I am currently doing some research into online ethics. Because the Internet is still relatively new and the advent and proliferation of broadband is even newer, this is consequently a new area of research. But it’s not really all that new. Ethics, etiquette, and morality… these things have been part of the human experience ever since we acquired to ability to communicate symbolically. Although the intricacies and nuances of online communication have created challenges as to what people are able to get away with online, it hasn’t changed the intuitive and inherent feeling in most people of what constitutes right and wrong. Hacking, viruses, identity theft, malware and the like are just technological iterations from those who are predisposed to do wrong anyway – I don’t believe opportunity by way of anonymity turns a good person bad.

In my vast virtual community, I have relationships with those who are either openly anonymous or possibly hiding behind a false persona. The age of information allows us to connect with people we might never meet, and I have many such connections. But all of these associations are built upon the same qualities I seek in my “traditional” relationships - a level of decency and humanity that is consistent with my own. I know who I am and I know what is right and wrong, my friends, online or not, shared those qualities. That is what ethics and morality has always been based upon. It’s what makes me who I am - no matter what I am.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Three Days

A little more than a year ago, my youngest son, then 19, approached me about his intention to enlist in the US Army. My political views regarding foreign policy are no secret and he might have expected me to react unfavorably to his decision. I did not. It was his decision; I did and still do support it. I support all the men and women who have chosen this course – it is a noble profession and one that is vital to our national security. Those who sent our armed forces unnecessarily into harm’s way, however, are much less than noble and they did not have my support – and I was not alone. The idea that one cannot support our troops without supporting the administration that sent many of them to their deaths for nothing is ludicrous. Yes, Dick, I’m talking about you.

So I support my son and what he is doing with his life. I admire him – I don’t think I could have made that decision when I was his age and I am too old to make it now. Things were much different in the post-Vietnam era; I did not really understand what all the fuss was about. It seemed to me that even though there was tremendous political and social upheaval over the Vietnam War, it shouldn’t be taken out on the troops. They surely had no choice, especially since the vast majority of them were drafted. It left a sour taste in my pre-teen mouth, one that became even more pronounced with the Watergate scandal that soon followed. I was entirely disgusted with the government and many of the "protesters" – there was no way I was going to join in any form.

There were a number of lessons learned from Vietnam, not the least of which is to respect those that protect this nation, even if the war they are fighting is a fool’s errand. Iraq was such a war. Unnecessary, costly in terms of the lives lost and those permanently altered and because it diverted attention and resources away from our true enemies, it is still unclear what we gained. Democracy in the Middle East? Perhaps for the moment. Eradication of a tyrant? Yes, but are we the world’s exterminators? If so, there is so much left to be done and this nation is not too keen on consistency. But throughout it all my support was firmly behind our troops while consistently critical of those who sent them to places we had no business being.

Now our efforts have been refocused on the true threats to our security, although it remains to be seen whether we can affect any real change in Afghanistan/Pakistan. At least the threats there are real and our presence there is, in my measured opinion, necessary. My son is there and it worries me every day. When he enlisted about a year ago, we both knew that he was likely to get deployed to Afghanistan and I accepted it as best I could. I still do, but it has now been three plus days since I have heard anything from him. Due to the communication technology that is now ubiquitous even in the Afghan wasteland, I have been able to stay in touch, at least indirectly, through a number of channels, primarily Facebook and Myspace, but also via cellular technology.

But for the past few days, there has been nothing. I am not one to jump to conclusions; indeed, the possibilities are heavily loaded towards the “it’s nothing” side of the spectrum. But still, and despite all the modern warfare technology he has at his disposal, he is in a situation where large numbers of people want to kill him. And his job is to stop them. This is a job that, like only a few others, involves direct confrontation with death on a regular basis. It is hard to rationalize that away. He is smart, well trained and well equipped; the odds are still in his favor, but it has been three plus days.

I need to hear from him…

I heard from my son tonight and he is fine - this is obviously going to take some getting used to.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Motorcycle Meditation

I am experiencing some conflicting feelings right now. On the one side, I have a great deal of serenity and peace in my life and I have experienced the very real and direct manifestations of that peace more than once since waking about six hours ago. On the other side, there is a latent frustration, no, irritation with aspects of people and institutions in my life that should behave differently, in my opinion at least. Yet, when coming to my keyboard to ventilate and let some of these irritants move along into the cosmic wasteland, I find that they already have…

Yesterday was a beautiful, warm (for mid-February) and sunny day in the greater Sacramento metroplex. Although it was a bit chilly in the morning, it was not so cold that extreme cold-weather gear had to be adorned before pulling my Harley onto the road; standard leather apparel appropriate for cool temperatures was all that was needed. Several friends and acquaintances met at a local restaurant before a short-ish ride through Auburn and on to Grass Valley. The sun never stopped shining as the temperature slowly rose as the day wore on. Some 110 or so miles later I was resting comfortably at home in a Zen-like state, my body and mind completely joined through motorcycle meditation. Soon, I drifted off to sleep.

After a short nap, I decided it was a good night to do nothing. Waking just after dark, I felt too drained to go out and do anything. I stayed home with the intention of watching the Winter Olympics on TV, but that plan changed as I channel-surfed through the inept and irrelevant programming that NBC has decided sports coverage consists of. Channel surfing destroyed what was left of that Zen-like state I had achieved just hours prior. I am never truly surprised by what people will produce in the name of “art,” but it never ceases to amaze me what people will watch on TV, for if there were no viewers, these inane reality shows would never get any airtime. It is a sad state of affairs that this is what we are entertained by – largely the pain of others.

It is surpassed only by real reality – the live action stupidity, ruthlessness, rudeness and carelessness of too many. The news is full of it and often we are unlucky enough to be there in person – live, with a front row seat. That I still feel this discontent, even though I’ve only interacted with a handful of people and have not yet gone anywhere else today, is testimony to the potency of the negative. Yet, those I have interacted with reminded me how important my friends are to me. Those interactions are indicative of the quality of the people who have regular access to my life – and they are the ones that matter. Not those who produce that inept “reality” garbage on TV and certainly not those who seem to go out of their way – often without a clue - to make the lives of others miserable… they only affect my life if I allow it.

It would appear that Harley meditation has persistence as well, for even with the ugliness that too many bring to an otherwise beautiful world, the vast majority of those around me are at least decent human beings – and many surpass decency. Life is too short to allow externally created negativity – that being served unto me by others (on TV or live) or that which I create myself. Fortunately, once far enough removed from it, it is easy to spot and avoid. And as long as the sun is shining, I can always jump on my Harley and gain clarity - one mile at a time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Freedom Road

I had occasion today to make a round trip drive to Fresno. The vast majority of the trip takes place on US 99 and although it is perhaps a little more “scenic” than the parallel journey down Interstate 5, that is not saying much. With a little more than six hours behind the wheel, I found my mind wandering. Eventually those loosely constructed thoughts began to congeal and by the time I was about 100 miles south of my home near Sacramento, this essay started to take shape. I have traveled that road many times – literally and figuratively – and the overarching theme this time was one of peace, despite not having any desire to go to Fresno or sit in a car for the better part of the day.

The reason for my venture is not important. The destination or the time spent there are not of any particular interest, either. Even the governmental bureaucratic inefficiency that made the trip necessary didn’t faze me. It was all okay. A waste of time? Perhaps in some respects, but it never seems to feel that way when I am generally at peace, especially when I am able to reflect upon and acknowledge it. It all began by thinking about stuff; the material things that make life more comfortable. From there the thoughts moved toward what is necessary and extra-necessary. I realized that I have some nice stuff – this is not a new revelation, but in my busy day-to-day life, I can take some of these things for granted, even when I know better.

In this day and age, there are a few necessities. They were not always necessities and I suppose an argument could be made that they are not absolutely necessary at all. I would counter that argument. I need a home and I need a vehicle. I have both and both are definitely beyond necessary – they are nicer than necessary. And I need to eat, but probably not as well (or as much) as I do. As necessary as these things are – nice, basic or otherwise – I am not entitled to any of it. I didn’t used to think that way; in fact, I thought I was entitled to much more than even the nice things I have today. Although these things do not constitute who I am, who I am plays a role in producing them. When suffered from the illusion of entitlement, no matter how good I had it, it wasn’t good enough. But the effort to get what I thought I needed was, at best, only good enough.

The respect I showed the stuff I was fortunate enough to have through fortune or grace reflected the dissatisfaction I had with my place in life. And it is no wonder that when I define my inner self by material items found outside myself, that identity was subject to change with the ebb and flow of fate. Today, I like my stuff - I intend to keep it; I take care of it, but if it were gone tomorrow I wouldn’t think any differently of myself than I do right now. That stuff has nothing to do with who I am, it only serves to make physical reality slightly more comfortable. But it wouldn't mean a hill of beans if I didn’t have a positive image of myself to begin with – I’ve been there, too, I know.

Coming back from Fresno - to my home and in my car - I realized that these things I have today are far more valuable than all the things I had before the past five or six years. It’s not because they are all that much nicer, but rather because I know I don’t need the “nice” component at all. True, I need a home, a vehicle and food (and the means to pay for it), but all the rest comes from the inside. That is where the peace I felt today came from.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Word of Mouth

I’m not sure if other bloggers like me are experiencing the same phenomenon. And when I say “like me,” I am referring to those who blog about pretty much anything and everything, those who are blogging in much the same way the blog was originally created, as a “web log” or essentially an online journal. Now, of course, the blog authoring tools are so robust that it is difficult to differentiate some blogs from full-featured websites and often blogs are incorporated into websites. Corporate websites. Yes, this is a trend that, although perhaps not new, is gaining in popularity.

My humble little blog has received numerous invitations and solicitations over the past four-plus years, but they are coming much more frequently and regularly lately. Where the solicitations were once obviously automated and poorly written spam, the new generation are written by people – and they are being followed up. They have valid names, email addresses and links to websites… these new inquiries are sincere and real. But mostly, for me, still not real opportunities. I have accepted a few in the past – one specifically very recently – but my interest was piqued not because of the product involved, but more due to the curiosity I have towards the increasing popularity of blog-based peer marketing.

Word-of-mouth, it has been said, is among the most effective forms of advertising. Provide quality goods, exceptional service and stand behind those goods and services and people will talk. The converse, of course, is also true. My blog, in terms of the daily hits it receives, is very small. Big advertising money doesn’t even begin to accrue until a website is generating thousands or hundreds of thousands of hits. People read me, but not in those numbers. But when multiplied by thousands of blogs like mine… you get the picture. And many of these blog authors are reviewing like I did, for little or no pay – often for just a free product sample to review and keep. If the experience is positive – people will talk, readers will read and in rare instances, a snowball effect can take place where the buzz is everywhere.

The cost for this form of advertising is, incrementally speaking, not much more than the cost of providing excellent customer service in the first place. If a business’s employees know who they work for, that the customer is king, that the only way to build and maintain a good reputation is via consistent excellence, customers will talk. Bloggers will write. And if lucky enough, the mainstream media will get hold of it. It is not possible to buy that kind of exposure at any price, but for these companies – not all of them small – they are putting a 21st century spin on what has always worked: high quality; attention to detail; and customer service. Do those things, be it in person or through cyberspace, and a business will be successful.

And people will talk. They always have.