Archives for the month of: October, 2007
This article first appeared in Pajamas Media

Just a couple of days ago, I sought in vain for a “recall” function on my email application. Of course there was none. My message had already been delivered, to the wrong recipient and containing thoughts I wished it hadn’t. That person had sent me a note earlier, critiquing a community activity I am involved with. I thought I was forwarding the note, along with some commentary that, had I had my wits about me, I would not have committed to writing. Instead, I had replied. Intending my words for someone else, my commentary had opined that the original writer had sent the message in haste.

The irony, of course, is that my accusation of hastiness was itself made rashly, and I paid the price in remorse.

This was not the first time I had felt that twinge of panic, the desire for recall. Who among us has not wished we could un-say something?

* * *

I am a blogger. For years, I resisted using the word. While I might speak it, I would take pains not to write it, even when referring to the things. This was for philosophical reasons: I saw nothing fundamentally different about a blog from any other small, published work, like a newsletter. It just happened to be there on your screen instead of in a pile on your desk.

But, while there may be little difference between these two products, I have learned there is an important difference in how they get produced and consumed.

Like many writers, I typically ply my trade around the margins of a workday. Writing for pleasure, after all, pays little. So I write in the late evenings and in the early mornings, before the sun’s up. When I am on a roll, in the dark, with my coffee, there’s a certain adrenaline-charged intimacy. I craft and cut, finally reading the piece over a few times to make sure it’s right. The essayist’s euphoria, of having said something clever and in a clever way, mounts. I push the button, and you see it.

Too, too often, the piece would benefit from sitting, if even a few hours. When I save it and return later, I invariably find an unsupported point in my argument or an intemperate sentence that needs to be ratcheted back. Mostly, though, I don’t wait. It’s done. Get it out there!

But that essayist’s euphoria leads to hubris. I know that I should pass my words by another, that I should wait and re-edit when the flush and glow of creation has subsided. But my lower self, the self who is under the influence of that euphoria, knocks such considerations aside: “You’ve thought hard about this, and crafted carefully,” says this lower self. “There is nothing more to do. People must read it!”

The hubris lies in the fact that I have been down this road many times. It’s not an isolated slip.

The thing about blogs, publication under the influence is the norm. Large sites, like Pajamas Media and others, have editorial controls in place. But most smaller blogs have little, if any, apparatus to ensure quality. We self-publishers work alone, think alone, write alone. We must fabricate our own mechanisms to keep our hands away from the publish button. For many of us, this is a greater task than we are capable of.

Just a few hours, maybe a day, to separate the euphoria from the editing.

But the medium of blogging leaves little room for that. When I publish, I feel as if I am passing something directly to my readers. If I am to believe my statistics, many of my readers are reading at about the time I am writing. I want to keep that early morning (or late night) intimacy.

* * *

I got a note back from my mistaken email. It was very professional and we basically agreed to move on. Notably, my correspondent thought it important to respond to my accusation of “rashness” and pointed out that the original email took forty five minutes to write. That’s long enough, I thought, to write a very thoughtful email — but not long enough for the euphoria of creation to subside.

The World Wide Web, and the ubiquity of e-mail, have brought writing back into the culture of everyday people. There are millions of budding essayists across the globe. We have a medium that beckons us to share our thoughts, some deep, some shallow, some spiteful, some hilarious.

It will be a measure of our growth to see how many of us are able to moderate what we do and write pieces that, in the harsh light of day, stand up and sing as beautifully as they did in the twilight of dawn.

Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces a videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.

(Image Pajamas Media)

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

I used to work in politics. It was unglamorous, but one thing it seemed to do in the eyes of my friends was give me the sheen of knowledge. People would call me as Election Day approached and ask me, “Who should I vote for?”

Image from Pajamas MediaMy days of holding the cell phones of office-holders are over, but the questions have persisted. People ask me things about politics and current events. I try to be helpful and point to useful articles so people can get their own sense of what’s going on.

But often, such conversations take a bitter turn. People are disgruntled — disappointed with the choices on offer, underwhelmed by the policy pronouncements, skeptical of the promises, fed up with the news coverage that tells us what the latest poll said. More than anything, though, many of my friends seem exasperated that the political machine just grinds on regardless of what ordinary people think or do.

It’s clear that, as individual citizens, people feel they don’t really count when it comes to politics. In the vast majority of counties in the vast majority of states, it will not affect the presidency whether any single person votes or not. For most states, it is almost a foregone conclusion which party’s presidential nominee will get the electors. Maryland’s electors, for example, just aren’t going to be thrown Giuliani’s way. (Which is not to say I have no duty to vote anyway.)

Through it all, well-meaning organizations try proposing systemic fixes that seem to share the core attributes of unwieldiness, naivete, and improbability.

It is time to throw a few life hacks into the mix. No, I am not talking about the Diebold machines.

First applied to the behavior of super-programmers in 2004 by journalist Danny O’Brien, through everyday usage the term “life hack” has grown to mean anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever way. Life hackers take tools and ideas that, in their basic state, only partially work — and make them useful. It all sounds very cyber and Web 2.0, but it is really a basic human impulse. Perhaps the first person to popularize life hacks was the original Heloise, whose Hints have improved the lives of millions of people: Don’t wait for S.C. Johnson’s new version of Windex, instead make your own.

Life hacks are things you can do with existing, or little known, tools. They don’t require a big change in “the system” or some new law or regulation. You can do them on your own.

That in mind, here are a few vote-hacks that lone, disgruntled citizens can do that might make their participation feel a little more meaningful. It’s a short list — you can add to it.

Not everyone is cut out to be a life hacker. It takes being comfortable fiddling with things, an inclination to tinker, and a confidence that if it all goes pear-shaped, you can probably fix it. These vote-hacks aren’t for everyone, but they might be for you.

Voting in an early primary state? Start a group to vote in a way that is reflective of political futures markets. Such markets outperform opinion polls when it comes to determining how people will vote. Result: parochial primaries can become proxies for national opinion and we can wring our hands less over the front-loaded primary calendar.

Want more of a choice than just going Red or Blue? If you live in a swing state, swap your vote with someone in another state where the votes actually matter. Result: Minor parties maintain credibility and might even grow.

Weary of dodged questions in candidate forums? Use MeetUp or Craigslist to get together a group of local citizens, big as you can. Everyone agree to ask the same question at the next town hall.

Sick of keeping quiet? Put aside a few dollars a day and, when you’ve got a bunch of money, give it to a local candidate. And then start talking to them about the issues that matter to you. You will be shocked, shocked to hear that candidates actually listen more intently to donors than to voters. Result: You aren’t just some anonymous voter with an opinion.

Of course, it’s not just citizens who are fed up and could use a few tricks. The journalists, candidates, and office-holders I know are fed up too. So, here are a few more hacks:

Journalists: Do not accept quotes from spokespeople. Insist on only talking to the candidate. Your stories may sound less like press releases.

Candidates: Fire your consultants so your campaign is not just a bunch of hired guns.

Office Holders: End all “town hall” meetings with scripted presentations. Set up a desk at the mall and let people talk to you about whatever they want. Don’t invite cameras or press.

Life hacks emerge from the distributed, collective wisdom of people solving problems on their own. So, don’t keep your vote hack to yourself. What have I missed? Post it in the comments section at the original version of this piece at Pajamas Media so others can use it, too.

(c) By Brad Rourke

This column first appeared (with a different title) in Pajamas Media.

There’s not much I do that’s actually difficult anymore. It didn’t used to be that way.

When I applied to colleges, it was suggested to me that I create a number of tiers of schools: the long-shots, the probables, and the back-ups. I collected catalogs and applications from a number of schools in different parts of the country. To do this, I had to find telephone numbers, call admissions offices, get on mailing lists, and wait to receive my material. I wound up with a stack of applications, each one differently shaped, with different numbers of pages, and different requirements.

I dug in. The first application was a number of long, narrow pages. (It looked a lot like a real estate contract, but I didn’t know that back then.) It asked me to print my name and Social Security number at the top of each page. What a pain. I set it aside, and looked at the next application. This one seemed easier, until you got to the essay requirements. They were asking for multiple essays.

This was before the computer had entered the bedroom of every student, so rewriting essays was not just a small effort. I passed on that one.

Finally, I found a state school application that looked reasonable in what it was asking of me, and they had “rolling admissions” which meant that, if I applied early, they would tell me early. I shoved all the other applications in a drawer and filled out the state application, which had the added benefit of being far from home. If they said yes, I would be spared a lot of trouble.

Getting into college is just one example of the hoops we all used to go through without really thinking about it. Sure, we’d try to avoid them (just look at my college admissions strategy) — but we did not resent them.

Similar examples abound: I recall a time when, if something irritated me in the newspaper, I’d have to go through a number of steps before I could find any contact information for someone to tell. Even if I took the easiest route and wrote a letter to the reporter, I had no way of knowing if they would get it and even if they did, it would be days hence.

Nowadays, I routinely get messages fired off in anger, the sender secure in the knowledge that her or his opinion will immediately reach me. The children of my friends apply to multiple colleges in an afternoon. Job seekers turn resume-sending into a project unto itself, applying to hundreds of companies. If I hear a song on the radio that I like, I can download it into my iPod in less than a minute.

Choice. Ease. Speed. Bliss.

But, there are downsides. Intemperate opinions fly around and I send messages I might wish to have slept on, necessitating corrective action. The competition to get into colleges is through the roof in part because it’s so easy to apply. Employers seeking to fill positions must wade through hundreds of ill-fitting, scattershot cover letters that may or may not even get the company name right. And, perhaps worse than all that (at least for me), in seeking out only music I am familiar with, I miss the discovery of new bands that the record store used to bring me.

These drawbacks are all well-known and well-discussed. But there is another, more insidious and creeping downside to the culture of information-ease in which we now live: We resent anything that takes time or effort.

The New York Times discovered this when they tried to make a little money off of the popularity of many of their key columnists. They created TimesSelect, a subscription-based area where you had to pay if you wanted to read Maureen Dowd. People from across the political spectrum complained and jeered, and how! You would have thought the National Archives had decided to charge a sawbuck to look at the Declaration of Independence. The Times backed down.

The Gray Lady is just one example. But they’re all over. Journalists no longer pick up the phone to talk to a spokesperson, they quote from an organization’s web site instead. Young scholars would rather cite an article from the Web than a book – because getting books requires taking the trouble to mosey on down to the library, while I can get that link in just a few clicks. iTunes is only profitable insofar as it tends to provide the illusion of free downloads by making songs so inexpensive and the playback rights so liberal that I may as well have just pulled that tune down off of Gnutella. And woe betide Apple if it restricts overly much.

In our personal, day-to-day lives, where things really matter, how often do we choose ease over energy, and resent the notion that we might have had to put in some effort to get what we want? How many businesses have you growled at because they don’t have a good enough website, or don’t have a way to order online, forcing you to actually go somewhere to obtain goods or services? How often have you excoriated (at least inwardly) a government agency for not having public records online? How many gas stations have you passed up because they don’t have pay at the pump?

It’s this growing sense of entitlement that worries me. We are turning into a culture where everyone feels — and acts — entitled to know whatever they want to know, contact whomever they want to contact, and say whatever they want to have, whenever they want to. And we resent it when things are not this way. This feedback loop squeezes out deliberation, thoughtfulness, and restraint and, on a personal level, human development.

It’s hardship, large and small, that improves us and forces us to grow. As we shift from a culture of personal industry to one of personal effort-avoidance, what will spur us to reach further tomorrow than we did today? What will teach us that, no, we can’t always get what we want when we want it? What will push us to grow up?

From where I sit, easily typing away in my basement, I don’t see it.

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

On an airplane last week, I found myself seated behind the president of a large municipal school board along with a staffer. I know this because I am only human and could not help but peruse the board member’s briefing book over the owner’s shoulder.

They were on their way to give testimony in a Congressional hearing and, it appeared, go on a series of meetings. There were pages of talking points. I’m not sure I would have been able to keep it all straight, there were so many. My eye kept coming back to a word, repeated throughout the papers: “learner.”

I have kids in school, so I have had this word used on me before. I hate it. My child is not a “learner.” He is — well, he’s a person. A child.

“Learner” always seems to me to be one of those terms of art that bureaucrats trot out so they don’t have to actually face the fact that their actions affect real people. It also conveys a little bit of “mission” along with it (as in having a “mission to foster lifelong learners.”)

But most egregiously to my mind, it drains education of its moral content. Public education, just as much as it does to convey knowledge to children, exists in order to develop good citizens. By calling children “learners,” the education intelligentsia makes the implicit point that, no, they’re not in that business. They are just there to get those three R’s across.

This bureaucratic obfuscation of reality is not just limited to the education establishment. Everywhere you look, “people” are turned by well-meaning organizations into “voters,” “users,” “customers,” “applicants.” Or, worse yet, into “individuals.”

I had the unlikely yet immense pleasure of being introduced to moral philosophy in Berkeley, California. Of course, the professor who hit me with it was not in the philosophy department but in law. I cling to this day to a handful of ideas he conveyed to this eager learner.

A Belgian, he had thick accent and a dramatic habit of jumping up and down, stomping his feet to make a point. “Individual” made him stomp. “An ‘individual’ is an island,” he would yell, “with no moral responsibilities.” He insisted, when discussing human beings, that we call them people and not individuals.

A “person,” as opposed to an “individual,” is obligated to act morally, and has a legitimate claim for others to return the favor. Ditto “citizen” vs. a “voter.” A voter is just someone stating a preference. A citizen has moral duties as well as privileges.

And, while a “learner” is little more than a customer in a shop, a “child” is someone whose character we have a moral duty to develop.

Too often, in the language of public discourse, we use ten-dollar words that hide our real obligations and cover up what we’re really up to. They have no moral content. The next time you read a report or press release from a think tank or nonprofit organization, look closely at how they talk about people. Are they really people, or are they just data?

In public life, we aren’t comfortable addressing morality. Yet that is precisely the subject that must come before us. Because, when you strip away the fancy talk, the political and policy decisions that face us are really moral choices.

We’ve got to be able to talk about them without mumbling.