Bringing context and perspective to the chaos

A Bad Rap

Humans exist in social and cultural ecosystems; that is to say, at any point in time, there are mainstream and subcultures that individuals associate with that dictate the norms and behaviors in modern society, competing to attract attention. During an era, a given cultural movement will express the aspiration of a specific segment of the population. While the measure of difference between mainstream and counter-cultures is typically blurred, the important part is that it allows people within movements to share values and garner a sense of community. It also has a byproduct of creating a healthy sense of conflict: counter-culture is often taken up by youth in rejection of traditional values, leading to a criticism or repudiation of institutions and norms in the hope for a ‘better’ life or society. And, much like other healthy conflicts, it breeds change: When a counter or sub-culture reaches a critical mass, it can trigger dramatic shifts and become the dominant culture itself, as seen in the era of Romanticism in the early 1800s, Bohemianism in the late 1850s, and the global counterculture becoming trendy in the 1960s-1970s.

If the transition from sub to mainstream-culture is dependent upon adoption by a large enough number that it’s growth become self-sustaining (ie. a critical mass is reached, and further growth stems from the omnipresent influence a cultural touchstone now holds in our lives), it typically requires elements of originality than can be explored by laymans to gauge the attractiveness of joining a social movement. One way counter-cultures can be explored is through art created by it’s members: literature, art and music can explore themes of taboo or expose the world to new ideas or themes that start conversations around current norms, gradually leading to the shift over time that sees a genuine transition. A core example is the evolution of LGBT social movements, viewed as a strictly taboo issue at the outset of the 20th century, which spread influence through seeing gay men represented in literature and film. This fuelled awareness of the fight for equality in the Western world and garnered support for a movement that transitioned from being an underground culture largely shunned to a visible minority acknowledged, and mostly accepted, within modern society. Now, a formal public protest against gay rights is enough to see one labelled a zealot or intolerant radical – a far cry from the the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’ based strictly on his sexual orientation.

Resistance to cultural evolution, much like evolution itself, is completely natural. Non-conformists often take aim at perceived institutional failures, taking a strong artistic or political stance at the relative foolishness of social norms. Logically, they take aim at those who conform, questioning the very fabric of their values and beliefs. A post-war American society of parents watching the children of the 60s saw a generation of youngsters protesting war and using experimental drugs – it only follows logically that a generation who fought for their very survival in WW2 would find this protest non-patriotic, self-indulgent and naive. But the youth of their day lacked this context, and saw the conformity of the post-war boom as a failure to express oneself. Despite the nuances of the social movement of youth (some were active and confrontational anti-war protesters, others pleaded for peace in a more general sense), the movement as a whole was labelled as “long-haired drugged-up hippies” who were a threat to democracy and therefore should be ignored. But the damage was done; with time, rock n’ roll and self-determinism grew in significance to change the world, and America was politically redefined as a nation of doves and hawks conflicted about conflict.

This struggle is currently playing out in a very tangible way, though at a smaller scale and with a few prominent caveats, in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has banned 3 elements of modern counter-culture from domestic mainstream media: tattoos, cursing and hip hop. The transition of each element into the Western conscious saw the shaking of long-held taboos surrounding those who partook in consumption of each, and have redefined popular culture: four in ten young people have at least one tattoo, with the largest tattooed demographic being white suburban females. In 2017, rap and hip hop surpassed rock n’ roll as the most consumed genre of music globally, with rap artist Eminem holding the title of the best-selling musical artist of the 2000s. Cursing, as anyone who has ever spoken to another human being before can attest, is rather mainstream as well. China’s banishment of current mainstream culture from media sources is perhaps then more explainable in context: rap music has grown in popularity in Chinese culture since the 1990s, with President Xi Jinping even stating in 2014 that there was “room for imported art forms as long as they contained healthy and upbeat messaging”. Recent CCP propaganda films have even used rap-style delivery in attempts to generate support for the Belt and Road initiative, a infrastructure investment project currently underway across Asia.

Greater contextual examination indicates that some of the opposition likely stems from the lack of use of Mandarin, association of hip hop as “black music”, and a preference for puritanism that protects against Western cultural influence and upholds ‘Chinese’ values. But if China is truly interested in maintaining hip hop’s status as counter-culture, it should exercise caution: to protest change is natural, but so is change itself. A non-evolving culture risks growing stagnant, or worse, irrelevant in the face of an increasingly dynamic and inter-connected world. If China’s push to become a global cultural export is to be taken at all seriously, it must acknowledge and learn to navigate existing global culture, not ignore it in the hopes of redefining it entirely. Counter-culture becomes mainstream when a group in opposition to widespread norms hits a critical mass, and suppression of these voices may result in a greater hold of norms for longer, but never in human history has a society avoided change forever. Changing economic conditions and a growth in the middle class have seen Chinese consumers turn their more consumptive eye to the West to dictate their purchasing trends. If the CCP ever seeks to be seen as ‘cool’, it must allow for it’s own expression of individuality to grow organically and subsequently garner a critical mass. Otherwise, a group of older men will sit in a room and attempt to dictate cultural trends to youth – a cringe-worthy endeavor bound to fail if ever one was conceived of.

A final appeal for the inclusion of hip hop: counter-culture plays an essential role in developing a sense of community and identity for those who feel a lack of acceptance or belonging within the mainstream. Messages of truth and raw emotion resonate, regardless of whether those receiving the message can relate to the messenger. There is tangible value in truth, and hip hop has strong elements of social justice and accessibility other music forms sometimes lack. To participate, you need only to rhyme a few words over a beat a friend can create for you by tapping a desk. Self-expression is an invaluable tool, and often helps those who struggle with the notion of who ‘self’ is – a pivotal part in the lives of young people struggling in their quest for identity. And in darker times, the intensity and emotion that can be delivered through spoken prose can hold a significance for some far deeper than that of a guitar chord. If we exist in cultural ecosystems, allowing for the development of social niches ensures a sense of community and acceptance for all. Change is scary – but not nearly as terrifying as never changing in the first place.


Yielding Positive Results

Ask any mid-20 something the world over for suggestions on what they wish they had learned in high school, and a reasonable assumption can be made that almost every individual will speak about wishing they had been taught the financial literacy skills to understand the value of good credit, how to avoid pitfalls in accumulating debt, and just what exactly a mortgage actually is. Many of them will have learned these lessons, but too often because of harder lessons learned in the arena of life rather than in the safety of a classroom. And a world of low interest rates, accessible credit and skyrocketing house prices is one where everyone might benefit from a greater understanding of modern finance, especially if traditional investment routes such as the purchase of a house are less likely for young people than they have ever been before.

For being such a core skill needed to participate in modern society, surprisingly little focus in the developed and developing nations is given to ensuring children have the financial literacy skills needed to manage their own futures. In the UK, 96% of teenagers say they worry about money on a daily basis, and 52% of teenagers find themselves in debt by the time they are 17. In the US, only 27% of young adults can define inflation, or do simple interest calculations – a step up from Denmark, where 73% of young adults have little to no knowledge of what an interest rate actually is. In the developing world, the trend compounds; 15% of South Africans could not divide 1000 RAND equally between 5 people, despite 77% of the population using financial products as investment or credit vehicles.

Often, gauges of financial literacy are measured differently by country. Some involve asking simple questions around the difference between constant and compounding interest rates, others simply view having a bank account as an indication of being financially literate. But as seen in the South Africa example above, an individual within the latter framework may be perceived as financially literate without possessing the necessary skills or education to explain what it is a bank does or where their money has gone. With this, it is no surprise that within most countries polled, between 80-90% of survey respondents claim they would appreciate a greater understanding about household finances and feel they would greatly benefit from a financial education course.

The impacts of a lack of literacy are felt universally, but certain trends remain consistent as well: Women have financial literacy in almost every country, and literacy rates are lowest amongst the very youngest and very oldest members of society. Greater financial literacy is associated with higher levels of income and education, as well as more sophisticated investment and savings behaviors. Young adults who are financially illiterate show a general inability to select the best options from a range of financial products, and a lack of interest in undertaking sound financial planning. If a large enough population fits within this description, this can have worrying impacts at both the micro and macro-economic level. In Canada, a nation with relatively high-levels of financial literacy, the average debt level is $21,000 per person, meaning households owe approximately $1.65 of debt per $1 of household income. This puts households at major risk of default in cases of recession, or even in cases of interest rate increases that are imminent, given the trend of relatively low growth rates and stagnant wage levels across the developed world. A leveraged household is at greater risk of default, potentially resulting in a cascading effect that might destabilize systems in the years to come.

Institutions such as the OECD have long championed inserting financial education into the curriculum for children as young as 7 or 8 years old. Financial literacy is categorized as having two components: acquisition of financial knowledge and numeracy skills, and the development of skills and attitudes to encourage positive habits. These habits include saving for retirement, promoting household savings over high-risk credit, and investing money into financial products that yield positive returns. The difficulty for policymakers is that the effects of financial literacy programs have been subject to debate: some research indicates literacy increases responsible financial behavior by an exponential factor, others have found little to no correlation at all. One trend is that more innovative, hands-on programs stayed with students much longer – much like playing Monopoly has a dual function of teaching one about financial basics and the dangers of trusting other players. Simulations and role-playing activities where students learned about investments or insurance showed significantly higher returns for years moving forward than simply scribbling a PV function on a chalkboard and expecting someone to understand that it relates to owning a home.

A counter-argument is that schools should not waste resources on educating children on financial literacy skills because those skills can be taught at home. This assumes that parents have the financial literacy skills to pass onto their children in the first place.  The cycle of having to learn financial lessons the hard way, or early financial decisions made in positions of ignorance having negative impacts for year to come, is a destructive one. It perpetuates inequality by allowing rich and poor households to pass on their financial knowledge to their children respectively, cementing an existing unfair advantage to the next generation. But change can scarcely be expected – if no one is ever taught the fundamentals, how can one expect it to enter the home in the first place?

Perhaps if every single member of the graduating high school class from 10 years ago, all of whom are now of legal voting age, are asking for governments to make investments to teach people about investing, the returns could be evaluated on both the impacts of saving a young adult from drowning in debt and in preventing the collapse of an economy over the heads of those who didn’t fully understand it enough to stop it.

Misdiagnosing Democracy

What does it mean to be a “good citizen”? High school civics, the very class designed to teach teenagers the benefits of altruism (if ever there was a modern feat of improbability, that has to be it), attempts to force the recognition onto students that all who live within a society are citizens to it and have a responsibility to shape it how they see fit. The prominent values discussed include accepting responsibility within your community to help those in need, needing to respect and adhere to rules for socially responsible behavior and a willingness to participate actively. Since the introduction of the civics class in the mainstream curriculum, our definitions of “your community”, “socially responsible behavior” and “willingness to participate” have evolved and adapted to fit new platforms. But now, one phrase in particular bears re-examining as the fight for freedoms moves from the streets of the Polis to the moral heights of the digital Akros: “Your Community”.

The original definition has shifted from members of an ethnic or religious community to a more fluid version –  but the underpinning philosophy of associating with those who share an ideological view or values system sustains. A common argument amongst pundits and everyone’s loud relatives is that the sense of community we once held is shrinking, and that much of the erosion of discourse is attributed to increasing levels of partisanship. In this, partisanship is identified as the source of unrest fracturing our democracies. Congressional representatives attribute increasing levels of racial dialogue, violence against minorities and reduced tolerance undermining notions of oppositional legitimacy as being due to increased polarization within society. A world divided by ideology is one where opponents dehumanize each other and disassociate from the need to tolerate dissenting opinions, thereby reinforcing their existing biases and exacerbating every issues – or so the theory goes.

Labeling partisanship as causal to division is both lazy and mistaken. To suggest that s typically followed by a recommendation that the solution to increasing levels of intolerance is the adoption of a healthy detachment from ideology and use of an objective, non-partisan attitude. This conjures an image of complacency or disengagement; but recommending the solution to creating an engaged and active democracy is apathy is quite literally antithetical to the notion of citizenry itself. It further pushes a norm that discourse, healthy and engaged discourse, is simply a more tolerant version of what we see today. Herein is where the diagnosis becomes lazy. Active citizenry within a functional democracy involves tolerance, yes, but also division – we stand up for the values we hold dear and understand that when acting in the best interests of our society differs from our personal norms, we have a responsibility to speak for our views. Today’s political debate isn’t insular because we disagree with each other, nor because we don’t listen – it is because we now associate our sense of community with what political ideology we adhere to, and thereby view every disagreement as a encroachment on our own identities and worldviews.

Politics and religion share characteristics of zealotry and fundamentalism – each camp  holds extremists proclaiming the literal interpretation of  the values systems is the only way to true prosperity, but most adherents exercise a temperance and understanding of the need to adapt demands within a complex and dynamic world. In times of hopelessness and strife, we fall upon institutions that provide us hope, give us a sense of community and allow us to develop a sense of identity and shared experience. The 2008 Financial Crisis and War on Terror have created tumultuous times over the last two decades in the United States, during which historical trends would indicate there should have been an increase in attendance of faith-based institutions. But attendance at religious services has been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years, indicating that people are seeking their sense of community and hope elsewhere. It is perhaps not a coincidence that levels of political partisanship have spiked within the same time period, nor that digital forums now provide the insularity for individuals to form ideological communities where ideas can be freely shared across traditional boundaries, much like religious institutions did in the past. If the battle is between “the heart of America and the liberal coasts”, it is understandable why connection with others who feel equally geographically isolated could create a sense of community on digital platforms, and why neither side would understand where this division arose from – a subjective and individualized need for hope is a hard thing for an individual lacking the same contextual constraints to comprehend.

It is the view of this article that the causal issue facing societies is not partisanship nor a lack of community, but a failure to grasp how the provision of basic needs varies across groups, and how historical circumstance influences modern-day decision making. When one ceases to be objectively hungry, one has time to ponder the subjective questions of identity and purpose. In this search, it is logical to assume that one would align with individuals whose experiences are shared. If your community is discussing elections instead of religion, then that’s what you would do as well. We are, in effect, all in search of those with whom our values align so we can feel a little less alone.

To address this gap, policymakers must employ creative tools, some of which should be directed towards issues such as loneliness and isolation – increased screen time and a lack of connection with one’s geographical community have been categorically shown to make one more lonely, thereby increasing levels of stress, depression and anxiety. Engaged citizens who only mobilize digitally and remain insular, whatever institution they remain insular in, are a poor substitute for the image conjured up by the Greeks and patient teachers of civics classes. If you really want to get people to talk to each other again about the big things, perhaps getting them to talk again about the weather with their immediate neighbors might be an appropriate way to start.



Making Money Moves

The covetousness that the potential of India’s middle class inspires as a base for consumption and economic growth amongst firms of the world is not dissimilar to the feeling held by English nobility in 1858, the year British Crown Rule was established in the subcontinent. Despite it’s bloody ruling, and the fact that the Raj-appointed Viceroys never presided over a territory encompassing all of modern India, England viewed India as an engine of economic gain, taking resources from the region in true mercantile fashion. Now, it is not resources that English firms seek to remove, but rather entrance and access to the new most valuable resource: that resource is the 300M Indians making 250,000 rupees annually, a figure estimated to rise to 550M by 2025, that makes up it’s domestic middle class and forms the largest untapped consumer base Western firms have seen since the rise of China over a decade ago.

A recent briefing in the Economist detailed the rise and risk associated with Western firms’ salivation over the upcoming expected consumption glut. The article issued a word or two of caution to gluttons dreaming of paisa feasts: the first, India’s GDP per head sits at $1700USD, far below the $3915USD required to qualify as middle-class, and over 80% of the population sits below the GDP per head mark. A dramatic shift and acceleration of trends would be required for almost 50% of the population to transition from subjective poverty to middle-income consumers, even with figure adjustments for lower costs of living. The second is the growing inequality seen the world over that is exacerbated in India by a caste-system allowing the top 1% of earners to capture 22% of the entire income pool, leaving more humble slices for the remaining 99%.

There are other issues the forecasts face: higher than average employment rates within the informal sector, an average firm size and productivity that limits wage growth, and low female workforce participation rates that has been falling in the past decade. But perhaps the largest contrast can be made by a striking issue: urbanization rates, primarily the fact that India’s urbanization rates are lower than that of it’s regional neighbors. Cities are breeding grounds for white collar jobs and participation within the services economy, the growth of both of which can be correlated to increased corporate investment rates and upward economic mobility.

China’s middle-class expansion was at it’s largest from 2000 onwards, with estimates placing 4% of households in 2000 within the middle class and over 68% by 2012. One key reason for this growth is attributed to it’s skyrocketing urbanization rates. From 1950 to 2005, Chinese urbanization rates exceeded 41%, and are estimated to sit at 64% of the total population by 2025. Never before has a nation urbanized at such a high rate, and the results have been exponential. Urban per capita GDP is expected to grow at a rate of 6% annually from 2005 to 2025, and it’s urban middle class is expected to explode to 280M households by 2025, or more than 3/4 of all urban households. India, by contrast, has not capitalized on this trend – while India spends $17 per capita on capital investments in urban infrastructure annually, China spend $116. China’s major cities enjoy the same status as provinces, and mayors are often powerful figures within the CCP.

India scores lower across the board, but does have a higher potential moving forward. By 2025, the year McKinsey, a consultancy, places as a milestone of urban growth across Asia, only 16% of India’s population will be older than 55. Estimates predict that if India follows similar growth rates to China and adopts a like-minded urbanization model, the economy could add an additional 170M workers compared to China’s 50M.

Within these figures, it is apparent why major Western eyes train towards the East. But barriers exist – all those outlined above as risks are very much present dangers, and a disorganized education system and protectionist policies limiting foreign firms from major investment are impediments within themselves. But the consumer pivot to India still draws the eye of Western firms like it drew the eyes of the empires before it. But India should transition to a consumer power house within it’s own right, and capacity is only built with time and wisdom earned through err – firms may dislike the exploits of President Modi, with his sudden decisions to eliminate 86% of cash in circulation in a country where 304M do not have access to electricity, somewhat limiting the capacity of digital transactions. Perhaps it is best to see if the Star of India, still a nebulous mass of potential, can transition into a sun on it’s own before proclaiming it’s rightful place alongside the Red Giant that is China.

One foot forward, Two steps back

For evidence that human beings are all essentially identical in make-up and temperament, I invite you to conduct a poll asking 100 randomly sampled individuals across the globe the following question: is corruption in government a pressing issue that we should be doing more to address? The answer for all individuals, though perhaps not publicly if anyone polled is a politician, will likely be yes. But the pressing nature of the issue and attention directed towards addressing it has never manifested in the development of a common solution. Frameworks and objectives exist; groups and organizations committed towards attacking corruption in government understand there are fundamental pillars that allow for the development of informal (or formal) structures of misconduct. But there is no silver bullet to fighting corruption. Which, frankly, seems odd – formal elections this year are being held in Russia, Mexico, Italy, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the DRC, Egypt and Colombia, just to name a few, and corruption is a noted agenda item on the minds of each and every voter. So if this is such a common cause, why has a common solution never been found?

For one, corruption is pervasive: found in every nation throughout the globe, both formally and informally across all levels of society. And corruption can take many forms: explicitly accepting or soliciting bribes is one more obvious way, a method used by individual policeman on the sides of highways and national governments overseeing resource extraction rights contracts. But corruption is defined as an abuse of entrusted power for private gain; it can be grand, which constitutes distorting policy to benefit the current administration or its allies, petty, which constitutes the everyday abuse of entrusted power of officials towards everyday citizens, or political, wherein institutions and procedures are manipulated to sustain power, status or wealth. But is the manipulation of an institution for personal gain easily differentiated from enacting fiscal policies that benefit the already privileged in society? Is petty corruption, actions on the local-level, easy to differentiate if it is so entrenched that it reflects an entire institutionally corrupt system? Where does one draw lines between methods and forms, and what constitutes explicit corruption versus ideological or partisan shifts? If the line we can note is an explicit admission of intention, then one who looks for it may encounter a rancorous defense of self in the form of the political double-speak deployed by any and all administrations, at which point the reality that the definition of corruption is more subjective than once thought is worrisome in itself; if we can’t even define what corruption is, how can we know when it’s happening?

Organizations such as Transparency International understand this complexity, and take a view that tackling corruption is less about drawing explicit or objective lines in the sand, and more about ensuring institutions follow procedures that make their actions and the consequences of those actions explicit, clear and enforceable. If corruption occurs, the electorate must be able to hold those in power accountable. Effective law enforcement, strengthening the role of auditing agencies, promoting transparency in decision-making, empowering citizens to engage in active democracy and the closing of international loopholes are all proven methods of tackling issues. But each holds the uncomfortable reality of being equally vague: yes, effective law enforcement is pivotal to a functioning society. But how does one address corruption in law enforcement itself? Or if laws and policies are not explicit or binding enough to dissuade inaction, what can one do to pressure a corrupt institution to better police itself?

This speaks to a fundamental issue often not explicitly said: tackling corruption is not a rational activity for an administration, unless they are explicitly newly-elected on a mandate of doing just that. Rational activities involve a codified understanding of the problem to be solved (which is difficult if definitions vary, or if only a specific incident of corruption is focused upon), evaluating any alternatives selected (where eliminating the bias of the powerful to prompt action against their own self-interest can be tricky) and implementing such solutions. An administration may come into power seeking to address corruption in the health sector that has resulted in high drug costs for citizens; without every actor working in coordination, the actual implementation of such policies will not have the desired impacts. Loopholes will be found. Or, if the problem is holistically addressed but corruption in importing drugs is still pervasive, firms may be priced out of the market entirely and tackling corruption will have become an economic disaster for an entire domestic industry.

Because of these ingrained issues, and the fundamental nature of it in the daily lives of every citizen, corruption never really goes away. It may fade temporarily, or adapt to new circumstances, but there is a reason why every election across the globe, often for generations on end, claims that it will tackle and banish this issue for good. There is also a reason why candidates seeking offices they have yet to hold can make these claims, then find themselves fending them off from the next version of themselves in the subsequent campaign. To truly address corruption, we may need to admit that it is far more present and pervasive than we care to admit – then we must take care to evaluate whether the words of one individual who claims to solve all our problems can be believed when the very flow of human civilization points to the opposite.

Modeled After Me

There a process to all things: every action can be broken down into a series of tiny steps that one must take in order to get from a state of incomplete to complete. Brushing your teeth involves hundreds of these – walking over to the sink is repetitively putting one foot in front of the other, opening the cabinet, raising your arm, opening your fingers, moving your hand over the brush, closing your fingers over the brush, and so on and so forth until one’s teeth are free of the irksome remnants of lunch everyone was too shy to tell you about that day.

Breaking down this process into emulatable pieces in essential in learning, as any computer (neural or mechanical) requires each step of the process to be codified in order to convey information and turn all the individual data units (“raise hand towards brush”) into useful information to inform a process. But between the two processing and thinking models most present in our lives, your brain and your standard computer have fundamentally different designs: Computers dissect programs into binary, simple step-by-step instructions, and when processes are coded in, computers can perform them with enormous speed and efficiency. Computers also have the benefit of holding processing power, coded into algorithms, and data separately, but as of thus far, they are limited to logical and mathematical processing. This is based on the architecture of a computer’s design, where binary code is used to process data that is more or less “pre-digested” and fed to a machine to allow for processing. Quantum computing, the capacity to process data in multiple states simultaneously, is emerging, it is not yet commonplace enough to be found in your day-to-day life (unless, of course, you work in the field or build these systems for a living).

Brains, on the other hand, have the integrated benefit of a natural neural network. If machines are limited to the knowledge level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (a set of hierarchical models used to classify learning by level of complexity), with a simple “remember and recall” aim, then the human brain can reach the levels of knowledge, comprehension, application, synthesis and evaluation of new information, thereby allowing the brain to codify new information, independently understand it’s value in context, and apply it to new models in creative and unique ways. Brains can use content-addressable memory, meaning it forms patterns and networks within itself to connect data into information automatically, and can compute in parallel, whereas a modern machine is inherently modular. The architecture is also more layered and complex – short-term memory and RAM may appear similar at first, given that both require power to process immediately, but RAM holds data separate to that already codified, whereas short-term memory is inter-layered with connections to long-term memory, allowing for the formation of new neural pathways and networks as data is processed. Brains also hold no distinction between hardware and software – the mind emerges from the brain, and any change to one is accompanied by changes to the other.

Modern AI encounters these differences regularly – systems or devices are being designed to act intelligently using a computer architecture system designing to process data, not comprehend or apply it in novel ways. One solution currently being developed is the  Neural Network: computer systems designed to make connections based on probability. Neural Networks have an embedded feedback loop to sense whether decisions it makes, based on predicting connections with a high probability of correlation, are accurate or not; from this feedback, it can modify it’s approach in the future by weighing certain characteristics more than others to find a “correct” answer. Neural networks have shown the capacity to model complex non-linear relationships, including language modelling (which includes recognition of human speech).

Where the greatest limitation for computers lies may be in the parallel element of Bloom’s Taxonomy: computers may seek to replicate the cognitive domain, but the emotive and action-based learning opportunities for humans poses other unique challenges. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) (AI being the concept of creating machines that can carry out tasks in ways we would consider “smart”, and ML being a field of AI considering how machines can learn from data) may face difficulties in attaining the levels of characterizing information with an independent schema and of adaptation of skills or processes in unfamiliar environments, two key elements of human learning by which intelligence is measured. Creativity is a key indicator of intelligence, and one machines may need to learn to do if they seek to be truly viewed as “intelligent” beyond the operations of processes designed specifically for them.

Learning is made even more complex because of how much we simply do not know about the human brain. Scientists do not yet understand how information is encoded or transferred from cell to cell within the network of our neurons. So far, no common neural “code” or language used to aggregate data to inform processes has been found. And a lack of real understanding exists as to how the encoding of information differs within parts of the brain itself. Some of this difficulty lies with the type of language we use to describe computers – we view them as modular objects, therefore the notion of “processing” and “storage” is thought of separately – but much as we cannot imagine a new color or conceptualize what non-carbon lifeforms on other planets would look like, we may not comprehend a system if we look to break it down into individual components that are not individualized with the system we examine, or are inherently not what we understand them to be. Therefore, despite the comforting notion that there is a process to everything, the idea that what our minds and our brains define as a process may differ, making slightly eerie the concept that the brain is responsible for designing the computer in the first place, and we may not be wired at all like what we can imagine wiring to be. Best not to consider it while brushing one’s teeth.



A Class Divided

Human beings are, if nothing else, social creatures. Our conceptions of status and superiority have evolved over time through compounding layers of interactions, and the world over, have resulted in the development of complex societies with their own traditions, conventions and expectations. Part of societal development involves the categorization of individuals into groups – every person is an individual, hence why we all have our own names. Next came the division of families, then of alignment upon socio-demographic or socio-economic lines. Soon, the entirety of our individuality could be readily summed up by a series of descriptors of association into various groups – meaning we were the sum of our individual parts. Some groups had greater influence than others, thus affiliation within these categories lent a certain prestige to the individual in question, an inherent power due to the perception of importance associated with membership. As such, social stratification into classes emerged readily as a natural form of complex societal progression in which hierarchies became natural divisions within our communities.

Today’s class divisions vary based upon our definitions of class (Marx defined class as one’s relationship with their means of production, whereas Weber defines class as entirely separate from social status) and the degree to which divisions are explicit. A common example is feminism in the Western world, where a transition has been made in recent years to address the systemic gap between fostering equality and seeking equity between genders. Governments are aware of this, and often recognize that class categorization is a contentious topic within the electorate. Those belonging to a class that bestows certain privileges or prestige have no desire to share it’s inherent benefits – others view classes that hold them as systemic obstacles preventing the necessary steps towards a more equitable world. Balancing this division is important, and one trick that has functioned traditionally in helping balance this divide is the societal awareness of class mobility – if one believes that opportunities exist to move to a more favorable social status, one will be more accepting of systemic inequality within society as a whole. The self-interest associated with changing one’s own social status can have a blinding effect when referencing the more holistic picture of current issues.

Take Britain and the United States as a case study: a widely held assumption is that Americans are less “class-conscious” than Europeans, due to the ingrained perception of ideological egalitarianism in the American Dream, readily described as a graduation framework into a higher social class – the notion that hard work and determination can result in any individual finding themselves within the middle to upper-middle class of American society. The constitutionally-ingrained American focus upon the rights of the individual over the social group places the burden of mobility upon the individual, regardless of whichever ethnic minority / gender / religious faith within which one belongs –  within this, Britain differs, viewing class as not just a formal and informal structure, but as an ingrained manner by which power is divided within a society. Named private academic institutions still hold prestige, despite the spread of universal education standards within the primary school system, and there is a more explicit societal understanding that mobility upwards for some results in a need for others to be removed from the ruling class. Simply put, with a limited resource pool, it is impossible for everyone to be “above-average”.

But an examination of each nation, despite Britain’s ingrained acceptance of class divisions and the lack of widespread comprehension in the United States that class structures have primarily informal effects that require addressing after formal steps are taken, inequality between classes (measured in wage inequality) has remained broadly stable since the late 1990s. The increased wage inequality is offset by greater access to education that has shrunk exam performance between rich and poor children. These two can be correlated – a higher educated workforce means that the prestige of a degree is reduced, and the opportunities afforded to those with them are no longer the privilege of an exclusive few. With these actions, the barriers to mobility shift. Well-intentioned parents seeking to provide an advantage to their children take steps of passing on wealth directly, supporting their children as they take on unpaid internships at prestigious firms or pushing their children into celebrated schools. But while this may serve to boost the individuals chance of maintaining their social status, it reduces overall mobility and further cements existing inequality, fostering resentment at an upper class that is seemingly holding hostage existing wealth and preventing the relative ascendance of others.

Different governments have different solutions. Asian societies pride themselves on their status as meritocracies, within which individuals may enter the public service or pass public exams, regardless of social status, to be given preferential opportunities. But no true meritocracy can exist past the first generation – entrance into the ranks of China’s Communist Party is exponentially more likely with a recommendation from a high-ranking official, and being offered the time and capital for tutors for South Korean students to study for exams is yet another privilege offered by wealthy families. But these perceptions, while widely understood, are not viewed as limiting mobility, and therefore citizens are more accepting of less overtly-democratic regimes due to the perception that they may act in the best interests of citizens and foster the mobility needed to maintain hope. This stands as a partial explanation as to why autocratic regimes may be favorably viewed if the electorate feels they play an essential role in creating opportunities for all instead of cementing the hierarchies for some.

If the government is able to put in place policies that remove some of these barriers (inheritance taxes, imposition of minimum wage salaries on all internships and improving public school education standards), it can serve to improve net mobility between social classes, which maintains the hope necessary for lower classes to accept latent societal inequality. But if this selfish self-interest is not maintained as a flame of hope, the blow back can be dramatic, leading to the rise of autocratic-leaning populists mobilizing the masses against an elite whose primary crime is their maintenance of the status quo. Inequality in societies is an inevitable truth of living within the masses of humanity – it is the role of rulers to ensure that these power structures don’t topple over on the backs of the categorized individuals upon whom they are built.

Two and a Half Years

“God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Making the decision to get sober is not one anyone who has ever done has taken lightly. If one decides to fully cut out something they so previously relied on in their lives, a reason is needed; one strong enough to make you believe that whatever the outcome, you’re trying to do the right thing. You may want to be a better parent, partner or child. You might decide to set a new trajectory for living a longer, healthier life. Or maybe, like me, you realize that there’s no way you can ever become the person you want to be with the vice that always seems to find it’s way into your hand and slip it’s way into your thoughts.

Looking back, the part that is most visible to me is not the shame or guilt associated with substance abuse – it’s that for all the time I was using, I wasn’t growing as a person. You enter a mindset where you begin to assign blame or attribution to others for the actions you take, decisions you make that don’t turn out the way you wanted. And the hard thing about entering a mindset where you stop being honest with yourself about who you are is your image of yourself and others becomes more cemented. You stop seeing people as human beings and start seeing them as figures, with set characteristics who don’t care about you or your problems. Everyone you owe money to has it out for you personally. Every teacher who won’t accept a late assignment is completely unreasonable. Every relationship that ends because people are sick of watching you destroy yourself is because of them, not you – never you.

AA understands this. That’s why Step 2 of 12 and an entire chapter of the Big Book is dedicated to “believing in a power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity”. That type of flowery language and discussion of faith conjures an image of organized religion or God. But finding a power greater than yourself – or a higher power – is interpreted as “finding a reason not to use again”. It speaks to a notion of hope, that same hope that made you quit in the first place. We need hope – hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, hope that we can be there for the people we love and that the things we do matter. Without hope, and the faith that that hope will be realized, we would’ve never sought help to begin with. But the thought goes that having that hope within you will boost your mental fortitude, your capacity to be resilient in the face of fallibility. It also removes a burden. All of a sudden, you understand that you have something to believe in, a reason to keep going, that makes you feel like control is within your grasp. We delegate our control to this ideal with the understanding that we now operate for a reason greater than just ourselves. It helps inform a sense of purpose and identity that your average addict lacks. And when one better understands their own story, one can start to try to find the community where they feel they belong.

Because we see what we choose to, I began to view the world with new eyes when I got sober in the summer of 2015: Instead of looking for distractions or assigning blame, I sought to see how the role I played in my life and others impacted the people around me. I wanted to understand why I did what I did, and understood that I needed to be honest with myself and open-minded enough not to reject the answers I got in return. I learned to listen, to accept and to have hope. Continuing in sobriety means that when times get rough, you have to be self-sufficient and accepting enough to know that every moment of discomfort is a lesson you’ll someday appreciate learning, that every opinion you disagree with is a perspective you may lack the context to understand, and that hope and faith come in all forms – Who am I judge a zealot for having a purpose, hope in their faith and for being happy? If no one else gets hurt along the way, then their life may conclude with the sense that it was lived to it’s fullest and was the best possible one that could be lived. It’s hard to argue with that definition of success.

But life isn’t a tale of one person’s journey to manhood through sober thought. People get hurt and killed every day. Every action we take has repercussions, and every relative advantage one assumes has a very real trade-off for another person. A zealot may be happy, but if their happiness comes at the expense of the safety of another, then we must make a decision as to who we think should come first. If a man kills another, our own inherent values system can help us make that judgement call. But where we differ on subjects of abortion, gun control, the line between religion and extremism, immigration, terrorism, energy and food production, the sanctity of marriage and transgender rights, then we have to disagree. I’d expect nothing less – our backgrounds differ. My perspective is informed by my history and my context, yours by your own. It’s only right that we stand by our values and act in the way we think is morally correct.

None of these are easy decisions, nor are they easy conversations to have – that’s why, within the traditional ideals of nationhood, the electorate should together to appoint a representative group of voices from within society to speak on their behalf. Civilizations understood that the role of this governing group would be to make complex societal decisions on their behalf so that ordinary citizens might go about their day. In return for this power, this appointed body would be subject to the electorate, held accountable in their actions and decisions made, and removed should they be deemed unfit to hold the power they wield. The Greeks understood that without this body, this early representative democracy, their society would be consumed by in-fighting and divisiveness, plagued by battles that would sow divisions between families, friends and communities. If direct democracy was attempted – where the people sought to come to a consensus on their own for every decision – inertia would be inevitable. Removing the intermediary voice, the arbiter of dispute, would create an anarchic system where thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of voices would drown each other out in screams, where noise would rule until the only thing that has ever cut through the din of the masses rose above it – a might strong enough to demand silence.

With the age of the internet came the democratization of information, and with that the sense of the death of expertise. The internet sought to level the playing field by equalizing access to information across the globe, and it’s bounty has been harvested exponentially to incredible results. But with that access came the elimination of a fine barrier, one that separated those with access to information from those with the same information and the context to understand it’s value. That is the value of higher education – not the content taught, but the context that explains it’s value to a scope beyond our own. Understanding third-wave feminism is conceptually interesting, but understanding how power structures influence the systems in which we exist is essential in understanding arguments made in international development, civil rights movements, Women’s suffrage and sexual assault advocacy. If all that’s given is information, without the context, where we don’t attempt to find the perspectives of others to learn, then we cannot be surprised when our opinions differ, especially if we don’t attempt to understand why others do the things we do. No party can claim immunity from this – until you have truly put yourself in the shoes of another, you cannot claim to understand their lives and claim an objective or moral superiority.

My journey to sobriety has been one of uncomfortable truths, of self-reflection that has at times made me break down, and one of consistently forcing myself to give up control and commit myself to learning the things I think I already know, for a sense that I may hold the information but may not understand why we stare at the same puzzle pieces and see two different things. But today’s push towards a more direct form of democratic discourse, fueled by an engagement platform that allows us to remove the intermediaries from debate, has lead to something more akin to being spiraling drunks – we seek at attribute blame and intent to others without admitting our own roles, we seek to ignore context and magnify fallibility in an effort to discredit every party involved, and we decided that we only need the hope our team can provide, looking away from those who speak the things we don’t agree with to turn to those whose words we have already in our own minds.

As to how we move forward, the Greeks failure with democracy has lessons the Big Book does not – namely, the Greeks first system of democracy was a direct one, where the people voted on every issue directly. Voting was exclusionary and reserved for those who held power. And while it lasted for a time – attributable primarily to the fact that only those who already controlled resources made decisions as to who should have them – it collapsed when citizens began to gain their franchise through grassroots organization. Citizens came together to make their voices heard, appointing from within those they trusted and engaging with each other to better understand the issues faced and what solutions would result in the largest overall benefit. Not everyone was happy. But it’s politics – it’s not about being happy and it’s not about being right. It’s about the community, the entire community, every community we find ourselves being a willing or unwilling member in, and making hard choices so that we can all move forward together.

I choose to live my life based on the principles of seeking serenity to create a sense of unity within myself, finding courage in darker times, and looking for wisdom that can help me better function in the service of something greater than myself. When we use and attribute our problems to others, we cease to grow and start to become scared of the discomfort associated with forcing ourselves to. A metaphor I’ve come to enjoy is that living in fear is like having lead pulsing in your veins. If you don’t do anything about that fear, it’ll poison you slowly. But if you take that same fear and direct it, wielding it like a pencil, you can create incredible, beautiful things that solve problems, build bridges, thrown down walls, illicit tears and bring people together. But what we do with those tools is our choice, each and every one of us. And it’s one we make every single day we don’t reach out and engage, every time we dismiss an opinion, every time we read a news article and mock a perspective that seems ludicrous.

It’s not your job to reach across the aisle every time you read something on the internet. But it is your job to know whether you’re pushing yourself outside of your personal bubble, whether you’re admitting your role in your community, how you fit within the larger systems and the impacts the decisions you make have. It’s not never you. It’s easy to be better than everyone else if you don’t see them as people. It’s harder to look them in the eyes and say the same.

I made my choice two and a half years ago – what’s yours?

Long Days, Longer Nights

Signs of a changing climate tend to be illustrated with the most visible elements one can imagine: malnourished and starving white bears, dirty glaciers shrinking to reveal layers of sand and rock, tales of Northern communities uncertain whether the ice roads they depend on to import the goods needed to survive will endure the coming winter warmth. And much as the impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately in poorer communities, the earth’s natural declination ensures that the impacts will be concentrated at the poles as well. Therefore, there is a semblance of cruel irony that accompanies the realization that the primary strategies for reducing energy poverty in Northern communities involve installing gas and diesel generators to provide communities with the energy needed to keep the lights on. The areas where development is most sought is also those where it will be most damning – watching it unfold in slow-motion brings with it a Kafkaesque shiver.

Understanding that the needs of Northern communities are often heavily reliant upon balancing complex environmental, social and economic considerations, a growing area of study up to this point has been focused upon installing renewable energy systems in Arctic communities. The current outlook shows that the majority of communities use diesel generators, primarily for their reliability to provide both heating and lighting in days of -40 degrees C and utter darkness. Well intentioned governments have long subsidized the cost of diesel fuel for small-scale power plants and generators to ensure communities stricken by systemic problems can at least keep their lights on and houses heated. Such subsidies are determined through economic analyses, which outline the cost of operating and potentially replacing generators, as well as the costs of fuel itself.

When examining the economics of renewable energy systems, primarily wind energy, the same methodology is applied. This fails to account for three key factors: the reduction in operating hours for generators that renewable power can offset, thereby reducing the lifespans of both, the societal costs of localized air pollution, and the role of localized utility companies who may not possess the technical capacity to manage embedded variable energy systems. If these factors are internalized and the real cost of diesel becomes reflected, the cost of subsidization to wind systems would reach something close to the break-even quotient needed to justify project investment.

Wind energy offers no perfect solutions – turbines are only operational to -40 C, provide variable power that requires fossil fuels still be used for non-generating periods, and can quite simply cost more than a community can afford in a grid system. The law of diminishing costs with economies of scale also apply less in the North, where shipping costs for each individual component remain high regardless of scale and individual communities cannot justify purchasing at large enough volumes given a lack of localized demand. Solar equally faces problems – namely of being inactive in winter and over-generating in summer, leading to a difficult energy source to manage without the use of long-term storage technologies, which at this point are not deployable in Arctic climates.

However, the benefits of renewable energy remain the same as elsewhere – namely lower operating costs, emissions-free electricity and the potential to generate revenue for community members while reducing reliance on centralized systems. And overcoming these barriers can be done through a combination of regulatory, subsidization and pricing programs targeting key barriers. First, local hydro companies should be encouraged to work with Northern communities directly to develop clean power projects. Second, governments should design strategies to increase uptake of renewables within communities where it makes sense to do so. Finally, utilities should be encouraged to take the lead by developing programs to subsidize community-level uptake, driving demand forward by supporting renewable energy in the same way fossil fuel energy is supported at multiple institutional levels.

Saving the bears and repairing glaciers is the work that we may be too late to begin just now. But ensuring that the people whose homes will be most impacted by a changing climate are not some of the ones actively contributing to it in meeting their basic needs – that just makes sense.




Blog at

Up ↑