My lecture at the Red Bank Humanists December forum. In it, I talked about the problems with being an Enlightenment thinker in the 21st century, where human right have succeeded, where they fail, and where we as humanists could maybe think about things more creatively.
This is part two of a two-part piece on how the internet captures our attention, and, in doing so, wrests control over our own lives away from us. The first article focused on the how the attention economy works and it’s history (using pornstar butts and soccer player abs to keep the reader from getting bored). This article will focus on tools for fighting attention capture.
I broke it into two articles for two cynical reasons: first, people don’t read articles that seem really long. The last article was about 3,500 words, and even though people will spend 10 hours a day online, they get pissed if a half an hour of it is focused on one single thing. The second reason is that many websites will try and parlay a click into more clicks, so as to increase ad revenue. Advertisers pay higher rates for sites that have low “bounce rates,” which refers to the percentage of followers that come to a single page on a site and leave. Better to hold them and keep them poking around. One way to get them to do this is to produce quality content. Another way is to hack the stats by doing garbage slideshows or two-part posts.
As a sign of good faith that I am only using these tricks for good, I’ve added more butts and abs into the post. Carry on.
How to reclaim your attention
If you read the first part of this piece (don’t worry if you haven’t, they each stand up fine on their own), you are now about 3,550 words in. which is longer than you’ll spend on most pieces of internet writing. This is why I used pornstar butts and soccer player
Telling you that I’m using tricks, by the way, is, in itself, an attention-holding technique called lampshade hanging. This is when you draw attention to a trick you’re playing on the audience to reassure them that you don’t think they’re stupid, that you’re all aware the trick is being played, and that you aren’t trying to pull something over on them. Everyone gets to feel clever, and we can move on.
Knowledge of tricks like this, along with a few other tools, can help you reclaim your attention and be more intentional about how you spend your time and life. Here are my suggestions, as an experienced attention hack:
FIRST: LEARN MINDFULNESS
The number one biggest lesson is to keep an eye out for stuff that draws you in without your making a conscious choice to give your attention to it. If your response is automatic, chances are, you are vulnerable to manipulation.
The best way to learn to detect your automatic reactions it to take up some sort of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation, it’s just a practice of learning to notice what’s happening in the present moment. By doing this, you can start noticing what your brain does when it’s on autopilot, like, for example, when you pick up your phone without really having intended to, or like when you realize you’ve eaten half a sandwich and can’t remember starting it.
As a nice side effect, learning to do this is also really good for your physical and mental health, and for your general well-being. You will probably be able to find meditation classes in your area, but there are also thousands of videos, apps, and sites dedicated to the practice. The app I use (and very much recommend) is Headspace.
SECOND: GET OFF THE INTERNET
As with all addictive or unconscious behaviors, the best way to reduce your indulgence of it is to remove the stimulus that causes it. And social media in particular is an attention capture nightmare, so the more time you can spend away from it, the better.
A few practices that could help you do this:
Download apps like Moment which track your screen time and help you to reduce it. The new Apple iOS also now has a “Screen Time” section under “Settings.”
Take a week (or a month) off social media.
Delete Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from your phone — reserve them for while you’re on a computer.
Turn off your phone’s color. Colors grab attention, and grayscale doesn’t quite as much. Lifehacker has a guide for how to do so here.
If you have a thought that you feel compelled to post, write it down elsewhere and see if you can work it into something more long form. Alternatively, call someone who will appreciate the thought and tell it to them.
Install an adblocker to cut out at least some of the noise.
If you get your news from social media, stop. Media that’s free is usually bad media. This article is excepted, of course, but free media follows the same model as the hacky yellow journalism from the 19th century. There’s a saying in Silicon Valley, “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product,” and that ideology fundamentally compromises the integrity of that media. So take out a subscription to the sources you appreciate, or give $1 an episode to the Patreon of a podcast you like. It will usually cost you a good deal less on a monthly basis than a daily cup of coffee will.
If you have specific blogs or sites you like, sign up to their email blasts or their RSS feeds rather than getting their stuff from Facebook or Twitter. That way you get what they’re producing, but without all of the other noise of your feeds.
THIRD: BEWARE OF MUSIC
The things that are the most automatic are the things that require the least processing in your brain. Which means that you are most susceptible to music and images, far more than you are to words. You would be susceptible to touch and smell, too, but smell-o-vision never really took off, and advertisers haven’t figured out how to give you a massage while telling you about their product yet.
Starting with music: There’s an amazing song from the 90's band Blues Traveler called “Hook,” where they basically tell the audience throughout the song that the only reason they’re still listening is because the band is using a good hook. They happened to have stolen that hook from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which every listener has heard 10,000 times at a wedding, and naturally finds catchy.
Modern pop music has distilled this catchiness to a science, to the point where a lot of music is lyrically total nonsense, but musically is virtually impossible to stop listening to. There was a lovely viral video a few years back that showed how many of our favorite pop songs use the same basic four chord progression, which is very pleasing to the ear. Churches regularly use this progression in their hymns, as a way of holding the attention of the congregation.
Churches, by the way, are the all-time kings of attention capture. They’ve understood for centuries that, to hold an audience, you need music, you need visuals, you need stories, you need repetition, and you need community. This last bit is something advertisers have seemed the least interested in focusing on, except in a superficial “we’re all united because we drink Coke” kind of way.
Anyway: beyond the structure of the song, we have emotional attachments to music that can’t always be understood in a rational way. It’s tied to certain times in our lives, it’s tied to certain feelings, to certain relationships, and so the use of a popular song in an ad or a piece of propaganda is inevitably going to make you feel strong things, making you more susceptible to the message.
FOURTH: BEWARE OF IMAGES
In writing, we can’t rely as much on sound, so we rely instead on the use of images. It is a sad fact that, in getting someone to click on your article, the image generally matters more than the headline or the text of the article itself.
The most obvious pull is sex. Hence my use of butts and abs to hold you thus far. This is a pretty unsophisticated technique, but it doesn’t matter, because it really works.
Sex aside, it’s easy enough to spot an image that’s been chosen to pull you in. The biggest rule is that it has to evoke some sort of emotion. And what evokes the biggest emotions are other people. The original editor of People Magazine, Richard Stolley, developed a set of rules for choosing who goes on the cover of their magazine, and, though the specifics change from publication to publication, these rules still pretty much stand today for attention capture through the use of images:
1. Young is better than old.
2. Pretty is better than ugly.
3. Rich is better than poor.
4. Movies are better than television.
5. Movies and television are better than music.
6. Movies, TV, and music are all better than sports.
7. Anything is better than politics.
8. Nothing is better than the celebrity dead.
Obviously, that is an embarrassingly cynical list, but when you buy (or click) on impulse, your choices are dictated not by your rational brain, but by your id, which is, to be honest, pretty shallow.
Beyond those rules, there are a few other guidelines:
You pay attention to the color red more quickly than you do to other colors. This is basically an evolutionary quirk: in nature, red can be indicative of poison (as in a coral snake or a black widow), of sexual arousal (flushed cheeks), of food (berries or apples), or of danger (fire! lava!). It’s also far less common in nature than blue, green, or yellow, so we notice it a lot quicker, and when we do, our response is one of arousal. That is why most apps use red as their notification color, and an article headed by an image with a streak of red in it somewhere will be more likely to pull readers in.
You pay more attention to faces expressing strong emotion, like joy or anguish. This is basic human empathy. Seeing strong emotions in others elicits strong emotions in us, which is why social media can feel so draining after a tragedy.
You are more likely to laugh at an image than at words. This is just a matter of barrier-to-entry. It requires more processing time to read and laugh at a written joke, so it’s better to deliver it in an image. This is why memes are so huge — they are a more efficient delivery package than text. There’s even a subgenre of internet comic and meme-making that just adapts text Tweets visually.
Cuteness is king. You knew this, already. The fact that cats are now internet-famous tells you all you need to know. Oddly, studies have found that cuteness actually produces an aggressive reaction in many humans — this is the “YOU’RE SO CUTE I WANT TO SQUEEZE YOU TO DEATH!” emotion you feel when you see a particularly cute baby or puppy. This is because our brains are trying to regain emotional equilibrium after seeing something that turns them into little puddles of gentle, soft feelings. The aggressive reaction does not repulse you, it pulls you towards the object of your aggression.
It other words, it makes you want to click.
FIFTH: BEWARE OF WORDS
Finally, and least importantly, are words. Words are the bane of an internet writer’s existence, because no one wants to read them. Big blocks of text are very intimidating, which is why I’ve been punctuating this article with videos and images.
(Fine — I would hate to insult your intelligence. You’re not scared of lots of words. You read big books and only read the features section of The New Yorker. But lots of text is intimidating to enough people to be noticeable in the analytics. A large enough number of people will click out of an article with massive blocks of text to make it not worth it, overall, for the writer to use them.)
The unfortunate truth is that, occasionally, while writing, you have to use words. And there are ways to make words less scary to readers.
One thing you can do is break up the text.
People are intimidated by big blocks of text.
So writers will just turn short sentences into standalone paragraphs.
Yoast SEO, a pretty standard Wordpress plugin that helps you increase the stickiness of your posts, suggests not putting more than 150 words in a paragraph.
It’s also best to keep sentences under 20 words (I am currently breaking this rule), and keep sections under 300 words before breaking it into a new section. This is why listicles do so well. They naturally break up the piece. They also give some words more importance than other, through the use of headers. In an article, the most important words are in the headline (which is what triggers the click), followed by the blurb posted on Facebook, followed by the headers in the article, followed by the words in the article itself.
(Often, by the way, the only words that the writer of the article actually personally chose were the words in the article, and not the title or the headers. So if you get pissed about a headline, just remember that the person you’re angry at is usually not the writer, it’s the editor. So your hate mail is mean and dumb.)
If the text gets too lengthy and I’m running low on listicle points, I can break up with images or videos. We’re basically just 3 year olds at heart, and when we flip through a page and don’t see a lot of pictures, we’re kind of done.
This obviously works in advertisers’ favor. Yeah, I can pick a video or a photo to show you here, but why not make every third photo an ad?
A lot of internet ad tools are automated. They’re rarely chosen by the actual contents of the article — the ad software usually just plunders the article for keywords, and this often means the ads stand in direct opposition to the message of the article itself.
For example: When I was writing a blog in 2008 in favor of the travel boycott to Burma, Google AdSense posted ads for plane tickets to Yangon, the Burmese capital. I am sure Google’s ad algorithm saw “Burma” and “travel” in my keywords, and made a guess at what type of ad my readers would like.
THIS IS TECHNICALLY THE SAME SECTION, PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE
In a pinch, if I have to use words in my article, I can use a few tools that hold attention.
Hyperbole — words like “epic,” “staggering,” and “amazing.”
Identity labels — “millennials,” “people of color,” and “Trump supporters.”
Emotional triggers — phrases like “heart-wrenching,” “pissed off,” “all the feels.”
Our minds have a well-documented negativity bias, so negative words will have a stronger impact. This is why you’ve seen your social media flooded with extremely negative articles about the state of the world. This is why you feel despair all of the time.
Don’t get me wrong: the world is a mess. But the coverage of the world is disproportionately focused on the bad. Frequently, the bad stuff that the media focuses on is low-hanging fruit, like Trump not standing in the rain for veterans, and not on the really bad stuff, like the global slide towards authoritarianism or the fact that technological innovation can’t and won’t save us from climate catastrophe.
For identity, it’s tweaking on something deep and personal that you probably feel protective or angry about. “Millennials” is an immensely popular one because everyone who’s not a Millennial despises Millennials, and everyone who is a Millennial feels screwed and maligned. Generational, geographical, sexual, ethnic, racial, religious, or political identities are all fair game.
The big lesson here is that whatever is written has to evoke an emotion, not a thought. Even when rational inquiry is being discussed, irrational and emotional phrases like “science says” will be used. This is very clearly a nonsense phrase, because “science” is not a monolith, it doesn’t say anything, and scientific consensus constantly changes. Usually, this article will be covering a single study that has yet to be replicated or peer-reviewed, but which says something emotionally appealing, like “Science says drinking whiskey will help you live longer.”
THIS PARAGRAPH HAS INFORMATION. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL PROBABLY FEEL PRETTY NORMAL.
Actual statements of fact are a harder sell for clicks, so titles that make factual statements will often employ something called the curiosity gap. The curiosity gap is a headline writing technique in which you’re given enough information to be curious, but not enough information to satisfy your curiosity. The curiosity gap as a concept was developed by Upworthy, and in its worst incarnation, it read something like, “These puppies had never met a veteran. What happened next will blow your mind.”
That type of headline has mercifully gone out of style. Nowadays, the curiosity gap is still used, it’s just used much more tamely. This headline was pulled at random from the front page of the Washington Post, as I write:
THEY ARE A LESBIAN JEWISH-PALESTINIAN COUPLE. HERE’S HOW THEY ARE USING COMEDY TO CONFRONT STEREOTYPES.
You can see the formula: Statement of fact. Promise of more within the article.
The least effective titles are, in fact, the most informative ones. They are the ones that try the least to engage any of your irrational processes, and instead just try to deliver information. Probably the worst thing you can do for a title is to moralize. The word should is poison for clicks. Far better to exaggerate, manipulate, or evoke something sensory through imagery or onomatopoeia.
Methods for attention capture evolve over time as readers get wise to them. But the core principle remains the same: appeal to the part of the reader’s mind they have less control over. And regardless of the form it takes, it is monumentally effective. On average, Americans spend over 11 hours a day engaging with media (mostly screens, sometimes radio/podcasts).
The correct response to that is holy shit.
That’s too much of your time to not be in control. Which is why the most important thing you can do to reclaim your attention is to learn the difference between actions you undertake automatically, and actions you take intentionally.
This is not easy. When you start a mindfulness practice, you will quickly realize just how much of your day you spend on autopilot. This is because your automatic responses are deeply ingrained. They are habits that we don’t even realize are habits. To try and master them can feel like a monumental task.
But it’s not. It’s actually quite liberating. Once you aren’t just reacting to everything around you, you can carve out some space to think or talk or write on your own. You can actually create.
The things we pay attention to are the things we end up spending our lives on. And the internet, even more than the television, is a massive machine that’s built to seize and hold our attention for as long as possible. This is not to say there aren’t things worth paying attention to on the internet, it’s just to say that we should be making the choice of what we’re focusing on ourselves, not as some sort of thoughtless animalistic response.
We should have the ability to put down our phones and be with each other without unconsciously picking it up to check it. We should have the ability to close out of Twitter and pick up a book, or go outside and breathe the air without thinking about how we can snap a good pic for Instagram.
And perhaps most importantly, you are not valued by the people who are taking your attention. To them, you are not a human who loves, who feels joy and sadness, ecstasy and pain, who creates, who destroys, who lives and dies. You are a click. You are a product. You are a consumer. You are a drone. You are just a number on a spreadsheet. And they’re not even turning you into a lifeless object for a interesting reason. You’re being used to sell dumb bullshit.
Fuck those guys. By hacking your attention, they are stealing your finite time on this earth to hawk their gauche, pointless bullshit. No butt, no sick burn, no cute kitten is worth that. There are better things you can do with your time. There are better things you can do with your life. They don’t have to choose how you spend your life. You can. Take your attention back.
In the latter half of the 20th century, a group of people called the Discordians discovered something magical: the Number 23. They came to call this esoteric bit of wizardry the “23 Enigma,” and pointed out that, once you start looking for it, there are all of these strange recurrences of the number 23 in the world. A small sampler:
LeBron James and Michael Jordan, the two greatest basketball players of all time, both wear the number 23 on their jersey. David Beckham, Don Mattingly, and hockey legend Bob Nystrom also wore 23.
Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times, each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to their child, William Shakespeare was born and died on April 23, Princess Leia was held in cell AA23 in the first Star Wars, Kurt Cobain was born in 1967 (1+9+6+7=23) and died in 1994 (1+9+9+4=23), Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859 (1+8+5+9=23), September 11th adds up to 23 (9+11+2+0+0+1=23), and so on.
It is at this point that we should point out that the Discordians are worshippers of chaos, and that the 23 Enigma is utter bullshit, and this is why the Discordians love it. Simply put, when you decide something is special, you start looking out for instances of its specialness, and inevitably, you find them. The universe is immense, complex, and chaotic, and our attention can only focus on so many things at a time, so if you start looking for a pattern, you will be able to find it.
You could apply the concept to anything: there are masses of people (not all necessarily gullible or stupid) who believe in a concept called synchronicity, which is when a series of seemingly connected coincidences occur in a meaningful way. The concept is used by many as a proof of God: “Well, if the universe has no meaning, explain this unbelievable coincidence.”
This is why fundamentalist Christians see “666” everywhere, why theists find infinite instances of God’s benevolence and mercy, why atheists find infinite signs of a supposed God's cruelty and wrath. We all tend to find what we’re looking for. In reality, we are beings with an extremely finite capacity (about 120 bits per second, according to some fairly reliable research) for absorbing the nearly infinite amount of information the universe throws at us. Our minds have necessarily evolved a mechanism for selecting which bits of information are important.
The ability to separate the important information from the irrelevant information would have been very useful for literally every form of life — creatures that spend all of their time reveling in awe at the oneness of the universe make for excellent and easy snacks — which means that this ability is not only innately human, but innate in organic life itself — it is, in no small part, responsible for our very existence.
But it also means that the mechanisms that developed this selectiveness came before higher level rational thinking. So our supposedly rational minds still select the focal points of their attention using arcane, reptilian, even amoeban tools. Our pretensions at rationality are, at best, only partly true, and at worst, are totally delusional.
The end result of the 23 Enigma is that, even though the Discordians were just trying to prove a point about the randomness of consciousness and attention, they ended up making 23 special to a lot of people. You can find hundreds of little spots on the internet where people talk about the importance of 23, not realizing that the entire concept was made up by chaos worshippers trying to prove a point about selection bias. There are even two movies about people who are obsessed with the number 23, including a very bad one starring Jim Carrey.
In other words, by lying about 23 being special, the Discordians actually made 23 special. Enough kids grew up worshipping Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Princess Leia that 23 has retained a childlike mysticism in their old age — indeed, when I was working as a listicle (or, less generously, clickbait) writer, we had data showing that 23 was the most effective number of items in a list if we wanted to garner clicks.
You do not need to believe in numerology for this to work on you. The next time you see the number 23, you’ll notice it. We are not rational in the allocation of our attention, and this makes us extremely prone to manipulation.
The attention economy
I need to admit something, right here and now — I am not sure how long I can hold your attention, and I want you to read this through to the end. So if you stick with it, I promise that, a few paragraphs further down, there will be an image of pornstar Christy Mack’s butt, and later on, an image of soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo’s naked abs. Just bear with me, they are body parts worth reading towards, I promise.
We currently live in something called “the Attention Economy.” It’s a phrase that seems designed implicitly to actually drive people’s attention elsewhere, which is why I’m forced to bribe you with asses and abs, but it’s an immensely important concept to understand for someone trying to be a decent citizen in the 21st century.
The Attention Economy dates back to the early 19th century, when newspapers started supplementing their income with ads. Prior to this, their money was mainly made on subscriptions, but they had to charge higher rates for this, which limited their readership. Then, a newspaper man called Benjamin Day, who ran the New York Sun, had an idea: you could charge less for a subscription if you sold ad space. This switched the newspaper’s primary clients from the reader to the advertiser. The reader, instead, became the product. You could charge advertisers more if you had more readers, and how would you go about getting readers? By trying to grab their attention with flashy and lurid headlines.
Tim Wu describes the result in his excellent history of the advertising industry, The Attention Merchants:
“A consequence of that model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our ‘automatic’ attention as opposed to our ‘controlled’ attention, the kind we direct with intent. The race to a bottomless bottom, appealing to what one might call the audience’s baser instincts, poses a fundamental, continual dilemma for the attention merchant — just how far will he go to get his harvest? If the history of attention capture teaches us anything, it is that the limits are often theoretical, and when real, rarely self-imposed.”
This model is the one used to this day by both Facebook and Google which, despite all of their ads proclaiming their intent on “bringing us together,” are primarily advertising companies. The evidence is in where their money comes from: Alphabet, Google’s parent company, made 84% of its revenue in 2017 from advertising. Virtually all of Facebook’s revenue comes from ads.
Their algorithms are based, as such, on delivering not only the content that's most likely to be useful to you, but what you’re most likely to click on. Content creators understand this, and, whether consciously or unconsciously, build their material on what’s likely to capture and hold your attention for the longest period of time.
But enough about that, here’s Christy Mack’s fabulous butt.
What butts, clickbait, and Nazis have in common
Ms. Mack, if you don't know of her (you liar), is a retired pornstar, and this particular picture of her butt is being used to sell a product, which, as it happens, is actually molding of her butt which you can buy and use as a sex toy. I apologize if that is offensive to you in any way, but you cannot risk losing someone’s attention in this game, and you would not have stuck around for a Toyota ad. Mack is holding your attention to sell a product, and I am (hopefully) holding it so you listen to what I have to say. But these aren’t the only things attention can be leveraged for.
Attention-capture is also the main feature of political propaganda. Hitler, for example, was a notoriously entrancing speaker, and he intuitively understood the importance of capturing and holding attention. When people now ask how Hitler so thoroughly brainwashed an entire nation, it was largely because a) he held their attention, and b) he utterly destroyed anyone else who may have vied for their attention. You could not escape Hitler’s ideas in 1930’s Germany, and this totally warped that country’s psyche to the point where they became, well, Nazi Germany.
After World War II, most of the world became deeply suspicious of political propaganda (with the obvious exceptions of the late 20th century’s great dictatorships, which fully embraced it), but most people did not extend that suspicion towards the use of attention capture for commercial purposes. Marketing firm Yankelovitch estimates that in 1970, the average American saw 500 ads per day. The number in 2006 was up to 5,000. Try counting, just for one day, just how many ads you hear on the radio, see on the TV, pop up on a webpage, or you pass on a billboard. The number, whatever it is, is high.
This leads to ad saturation, which means ads have to try crazier and edgier things to stand out from the sea of ads that we’re immersed in every day. Sex is the obvious place to go, but other popular methods include appealing to some sort of base patriotism, latching onto celebrity, or employing a particularly infectious earworm or catchphrase.
These all have diminishing returns, though. Just look at what’s happened to Budweiser over the past 16 years: they went from the nonsensical but catchy “Wassup?” catchphrase that literally everyone was saying in 2002, to the incomprehensible “Dilly dilly” in 2018.
In the 2010s, as the lines between politics and commerce in all other arenas have increasingly blurred, ads have gotten a bit more political. Politics, it seems, is the main thing that holds people’s attention these days. So Nike (notorious for its long-term use of sweatshop labor) is now a supporter of progressive hero Colin Kaepernick. 84 Lumber is pro-immigrant, and Always feminine care products is, perhaps unsurprisingly, allying itself with the feminists.
Indeed, it is in part because we are so open to being advertised to that the line has gotten so blurred.
The biggest actor by far in recent years has been Facebook, which treated the 2016 election like an ad moneymaking bonanza, and which became an extremely effective place for people with less-than-great intentions to sink dark money and disinformation into. Facebook actively lobbied against any sort of restrictions being placed on that revenue.
New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air:
"Facebook had used its lobbying power. It had argued to the Federal Election Commission that it should be exempted from rules that require television advertising to be identified by the source of the funding. You know, that point at the end where they say who who paid for the ad. They said we shouldn't have to follow those rules because we're a new technology, and in their filings, they said you don't want to stifle the growth of new innovation.”
We all know the end result: massive amounts of disinformation were targeted at inflaming Trump’s supporters and depressing Democratic turnout for Hillary Clinton. Russia or not, Trump’s strategists have actually said they wouldn’t have won without Facebook. Osnos again:
“To this day Facebook is struggling with that fundamental paradox, which is that on the one hand, their business and their success depends on their ability to tout their powers of persuasion. They are telling advertisers ‘We can encourage users to listen to you, to believe in you, and to act on what you are telling them.’ And yet at the same time, they’re trying to say that they have not had this dispositive effect on our politics. And that is a contradiction."
I personally experienced the political power of Facebook in 2016 while I was writing and editing at a travel site that primarily produces clickbait. On a whim, our senior editor okayed the posting of an inspiring Bernie Sanders video, and it blew up like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was in the realm of millions of clicks in a single day. We usually got, at the time, around 10 million pageviews a month, so this was a huge deal for advertising revenue. The call went out to our writers and editors: Yes, we are a travel site. But we should try to find a way to integrate politics.
I was happy, because I like writing about politics, but we did not have anything close to the budget required to produce actual political reporting, so what was produced was, to put it lightly, of varying quality and usefulness. There was certainly no budget for fact-checking, and turnaround time was expected in a manner of hours, so I have no doubt errors got through.
It could be justified, though, for clicks. It could be justified, as long as we were holding our audience’s attention. And if people hated it?
Hang on, let’s pause for a second and look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s abs.
Hateclicking is still clicking
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might be saying. “Why the fuck are you using Ronaldo? Didn’t he just get accused of sexual assault?”
You might, if you really like this piece, share it anyway, but with a caveat on Facebook that you find my use of a sexual predator to hold your attention to be problematic. Others will comment on that post, many will agree, many will disagree, and more people will click on my article.
We in the clickbait business understand that attention is attention, and it does not matter if it is good or bad. If anything, humans have a negativity bias, and having a negative reaction to Ronaldo makes you more likely to share this article on Facebook or Twitter than if you simply “liked” it.
I, as a human being with moral agency, can rationalize my use of the sexual predator’s body by saying I was trying to make a point. Writers are really good at coming up with rationalizations for skeezy actions that are ultimately profitable to them.
In all honesty, if you’re writing something political for a clickbait site, the biggest sin is to be even-keeled. Inflammatory writing is what drives clicks, and it drives clicks from both your supporters and from your detractors.
You yourself are not above this.
Tell me you’ve never posted an article you’ve hated to explain why. Tell me you’ve never commented on an article you hate. Yes, you may have been having a conversation, and that conversation may have been productive. But that conversation kept you on Facebook, and the more time everyone spends on Facebook, the more they can charge advertisers. Your attention was held, regardless of whether it was held by outrage or sex or joy. The morality of it all is completely immaterial.
It is precisely this phenomenon that Donald Trump used to rise to national prominence and to take the United State Presidency. Trump is a master of manufacturing outrage. When he says something awful — say, ripping up the Constitution, targeting immigrants, women, or the most vulnerable people in our society — it energizes his white supremacist base and infuriates a lot of people that that base really likes to infuriate. There’s no reason or rationality behind anything he says, because there doesn’t have to be: the point is the attention. And whether it’s positive or negative, he’s got it.
We are still, two years in, shocked that he won’t stand in the rain for a World War I memorial. We still talk about all of his legal and ethical violations, both big and small, almost endlessly. Are we still really surprised by anything he does? Or are we just addicted to hating him? And what horrible things are happening in the background while we fume about the totally predictable, if perversely fascinating, shenanigans he engages in?
Rethinking the attention economy
Even if Facebook and Twitter collapse in on themselves (which they likely won’t for a while), even if Donald Trump is impeached by January and we all get to go back to our old lives, it’s worth trying to better understand the way our attention economy works, because it’s where we all live at the moment. It’s the reason the world feels like a terrible car wreck you can’t look away from. It’s the reason you’re constantly feeling furious or personally attacked.
The good news is that there’s a solution embedded right there in the name: if we live in an "attention economy," a place where attention is the currency, then it is up to us as stewards of that currency to be a bit more responsible about how we spend it. Someone who spends all of their money on gambling or clothes or booze, for example, is generally thought of as an impulsive, irresponsible spender.
It's surprising, then, that we don't think the same about the people who aren't in control of what they pay attention to. If anything, attention is a more valuable currency than money. Money is essentially a collective fiction that we've all agreed is valuable, even though the material money itself holds no or little actual value to us.
Attention, on the other hand, is the mechanism through which we focus on and experience the world. It is, a la Descartes, the only thing we can truly know exists.
The things that we pay attention to are the things we spend time on, the things we spend time on end up defining our lives. By this standard, people who spend their days fuming about Trump’s latest Tweets and getting into flamewars with MAGA bros, neo-Nazis and Russian trolls are literally spending their lives focused on Trump, and not, say, on building a better society, or on having productive, good-faith conversations with friends and family, or on writing something new and original that could actually change the world in a good way.
If we want to really return to a spot where we’re building the world we want to build, and aren’t merely responding to the abhorrent world being built around us, it’s worth returning to the lesson of the 23 Enigma.
The lesson of the 23 Enigma isn't that people are dumb and easy to trick. It’s that if you call attention to something, people will start to notice it. It will absorb more of their thoughts, and it will start to gain meaning. This thing doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to make sense. It can be something as simple as the number 23, or a pointless wall along the Mexican border. If you can get people’s attention and say something is important, even the ones who don’t rationally believe you will still find themselves thinking about it more. Because our attention is not directed by our smart brain, it’s directed by our idiot brain.
The corollary to this is that if we learn how to master and direct our own attention, we ourselves can be the ones choosing what’s important and what’s not.
I broke it into two articles for two cynical reasons: first, people don’t read articles that seem really long. This article was about 3,500 words, and even though people will spend 10 hours a day online, they get pissed if a half an hour of it is focused on one single thing. The second reason is that many websites will try and parlay a click into more clicks, so as to increase ad revenue. Advertisers pay higher rates for sites that have low “bounce rates,” which refers to the percentage of followers that come to a single page on a site and leave. Better to hold them and keep them poking around. One way to get them to do this is to produce quality content. Another way is to hack the stats by doing garbage slideshows or two-part posts. Sound infuriating? Good! I reveal more of these secrets in the next piece!*
*They’re not really secrets. They’re general knowledge in the industry. But people don’t click for general knowledge.
As a sign of good faith that I am only using these tricks for good, I’ve added more butts and abs into the next post as well.
The first time I caught shit because of my master's degree was two months before I'd even started it. I'd taken the opportunity before going to school to quit my job early and travel for about a month. I'd taken trains from Cincinnati to Seattle, and decided to go visit my buddy in Vancouver before continuing on to California. On the way back into the country, a border guard stopped me.
"Occupation," he asked, leafing through my passport and not looking at me.
"Student," I said.
"The London School of Economics." He looked up at me at this point.
"You studying economics?"
"No, human rights."
He smirked. "Is that even a thing?"
"Human rights? Yeah. It's a thing."
At the time, I felt a vague sense of shame -- human rights are a particularly bleeding heart thing to be studying, and I suspected that it was not the best use of my time or money. So when I caught shade about it for most of the next year, I shrugged as if to say, "Yeah, you're right. It's ridiculous."
Since graduating in 2009, many of my friends have expressed regret at their choice of degree. Philosophy, English, History, Women's studies -- all liberal arts degrees that did not translate directly into specific career skills, all "useless" when it came to entering the job market post-college. It was made worse by the economy we found ourselves in. Most of us had to take on crap jobs and live at home, and it's easy during those nights of self-loathing in your childhood bedroom to blame your luck on a dumb choice of major.
I had even less of an excuse than that, because I graduated into a terrible economy, but without any student debt. My parents had helped me with undergrad. But then I went to grad school and racked up $70 grand in student loan debt in the worst economy in nearly a century to get a degree in Human Rights.
The move, most would agree, was a dumb one. At the time, I would've done about anything to get myself out of Cincinnati, so it's safe to say that the degree was a shot in the dark. But I do not regret it. Why?
Most careers don't give a shit about your education anyway.
I graduated undergrad with a career-oriented degree in Journalism. It was my bad luck that the industry was collapsing at the exact time I graduated, but it was not a degree most would've thought of as "silly." It taught me a code of professional ethics, tactics and techniques, and a set of basic skills that I could apply to a very specific career. It also helped me foster a set of connections with both professors, peers, and potential future employers. There was nothing in my degree that wasn't useful.
I have since learned that I did not really need a degree to go into journalism. Yes -- the jobs weren't there for even seasoned professionals in 2009. But had I graduated 10 years earlier, I could have just as easily gone to my hometown newspaper with some writing samples and gotten a shit job as a copywriter for the obituaries page. I could've used the four years I spent in college instead learning the trade. I could've worked my way up in the ranks of my local paper. Further down the road, I could've leveraged that into work at a national paper.
The end result wouldn't have been much different.
When I did finally graduate college, I learned that my degree was more often a tick mark in my favor than it was a deciding factor in getting me a job. What got my every job I've had since graduation was a) my past experience, and b) the work I presented to the employer.
There are obviously exceptions to this rule -- degrees are not optional for doctors, lawyers, educators. But for a lot of us -- myself included -- they aren't essential. And it may have even been better to forego college and to get a foot in the door before the economy tanked. So the question becomes this: Why seek out an education if you can get to the same place without spending the money?
Education is for your sake, not for anyone else's.
The cliche about liberal arts training is that it teaches you not what to think, but how to think. In my journalism degree, the things I learned were mostly hard and fast rules -- sets of professional ethics, rules of grammar and style, etc. In my Human Rights degree, I was brought in on an academic conversation. Our professor started our degree by writing "What are human rights?" on the board, and by the end of the class, had managed to dismantle our conceptions of what counted as a "human," and what counted as "rights."
What followed was basically a year of undermining our arguments about the fundamental dignity of being a human. It was a pretty emotionally exhausting thing to be studying. But by subjecting us to this ringer, it made us evaluate what we believed, shore up those beliefs, and learn how to argue them. Of the people who were in my program, two now work for the UN High Commission on Refugees, one is a fiery and eloquent Palestinian journalist, one worked in the Obama White House, one is a Human Rights lawyer in Pakistan, and a number of others have started their own non-profits.
Of the people I knew in my journalism degree, relatively few are still working in the field -- most are still nibbling at its fringes by working as bloggers, advertisers, or "social media gurus," (which, 90% of the time, means they were hired by people who don't know how to use Facebook).
What's more is that I got an immense amount of personal satisfaction out of my human rights degree. I had to become smarter to keep up with my classmates. I had to become more compassionate. I had to develop my sense of humor to survive some of the bleak conversations we had to discuss on a daily basis. But when I graduated, I leveraged my thesis into a non-profit job. It opened up a world that I had simply never even thought about prior to my degree. And hey, look! I met my wife.
It left me with a lot of debt. And that, I'm told, is bad. About that:
Student debt sucks. It is not a good reason for feelings of shame.
When my parents graduated college in the early 80's, they were able to pay their tuition by working summer jobs. If your parents couldn't pay for your college back then, you could probably make up the difference with scholarships by working on campus. If you really, really had to you could take out student loans.
When I went into college in 2005, it was a different world. There were some in-state schools that I could get for under $10,000 per year, but I wanted pretty desperately to get out of Ohio -- that would've cost me a minimum of $15,000 per year. Some colleges were up in the $30,000's. This was seen as ridiculous.
Now, 12 years later, the tuition (with room and board) at a high-end school like Harvard is $63,000. Ohio State (which would've been in-state for me) is $25,000. Out-of-state it would be $44,000. My alma mater, Penn State, is now $45,000.
This is not affordable for most people. I lucked out in having parents that could cover me, but if I'd been 10 years younger, even if they'd saved in the same way, they would've been able to cover a much lower percentage of my schooling. If you are willing to accept that some kids want to get the fuck out of their home state (with good reason), and if you don't accept that, just because a kid has poor parents, that they shouldn't be able to go to the school of their choice, then you see the obvious problem here. A student loan is basically a bet on your future, and while it's appalling that it's a bet that has to be made, it's understandable that any young kid would take that bet.
Now: my student loan is different. I chose this "useless" degree after the fact. It was not because my parents were poor. Should I feel ashamed?
The reason is simple. Our economy in the United States has failed to care for its students. It has failed to provide affordable opportunities for them. It has failed to provide affordable education to its young people. That is the real reason for shame here -- instead of investing in its future, our country has instead chosen to stack the deck in the favor of the already-rich and already-old. Our government is like the opposite of Robin Hood.
I knew what I was doing when I took out my loan, and I will accept the financial consequences that comes with having a lot of student loan debt. Unless I want to cripple my ability to have any fun at all for 10 years, this means paying an Income-Based Rate for 25 years. After 25 years, the balance will be forgiven, but I'll be taxed on that balance at a pretty rough rate.
Unless I suddenly make a lot of money, this is what's going to happen. It's going to suck. But my only alternative is to not live the life I want to live. And I refuse to feel like a leech or a failure for choosing myself over a failed system.
Our economy does not reflect our values at all.
A society that views the study of the basic dignity of humanity as "pointless" is a society that doesn't have its values in order. It's the same society that pays my sister -- a social worker who is genuinely saving lives -- kinda crap wages, while paying people with meaningless positions that contribute basically nothing to the world (like the entire field of advertising) insane amounts of money.
This is not a new state of things. In John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, Cannery Row, the character Doc says:
“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
This state of things which has extended to the seat of the Presidency -- who would want to spend time around someone like Donald Trump? What moments of happiness or human warmth could you possibly derive from his company? And yet those traits that make him a repellent person are what's seen as "success" in the eyes of many Americans.
I do not particularly want to buy into that definition of success. If that is what success looks like, let me be a failure. And if the system is designed to take the boot off his coattails and place it firmly on my throat, so be it -- I can be a realist. I can deal with it. But do not expect me to feel shame at having the boot at my throat. I will not look at the violence being inflicted on myself and my generation and search for how it is that I am to blame.
Featured Photo by Rafael Gonzalez
Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick around 1863 and died in London's East End in 1888. Everything in between is vague. What little we know about her comes from police interviews with the people who knew her -- she'd told men she lived with that she was born in Limerick, then she moved to Wales, then she became a prostitute in London's ritzier West End, then she briefly lived in France with a man, then she ended up in Victorian London's much scarier East End.
On November 8th, she went out for the night, got drunk, and eventually retired to her tiny room in Miller's Court, on "the worst street in London." This final night of her life has been dissected a million different ways by professionals and amateurs. What we know is this: at 10:45 in the morning on November 9th, Kelly's landlord knocked on her door to collect rent. She didn't answer, so he went in, and found her body, literally ripped apart.
Mary Jane Kelly was the final and most gruesome victim of the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Her mutilated corpse became the subject of the first-ever crime scene photograph. She became far more famous in her brutal death than she possibly could have in life.
My Irish ancestors came to the US in spurts -- the first of them came during the potato famine in the 1840s, when the choice was to either catch a boat to America or starve. The rest of them trickled in over the next 60 years. Almost all of them ended up in New York and New Jersey. My grandfather was born poor in Newark. His father died of a heart attack when he was only 14, and then shortly afterwards, his older brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
My Grandpa was a rags-to-riches story. He worked his way up from janitor to an executive at General Electric. He met my grandmother and took her on dates to the Jersey Shore. When his work transferred him to Cincinnati, Ohio, he settled there, where his daughter, my mom, met my dad.
Heritage was not an emphasis in my family. We were told we were Americans, and since both of my grandfathers were self-made men, our history was that of the American dream. Our story started when our ancestors set foot on America's shores. But this wasn't a history that was particularly deep -- the stories only went back a couple of generations, and they were all tales of success and triumph. I was an awkward, lazy, and angry teenager -- I couldn't relate to tales of hard work and success. These people who'd conquered life did not feel like ancestors of mine.
There were moments when my grandfather would seem to show a deeper nostalgia, and it was when he was singing. He had a beautiful bass voice, and on St. Patrick's Day, he would drink Guinness and sing "Galway Bay" and jokey Irish folk songs. His voice was slow, soft, and melancholy. He had jowls, and they would flap comfortingly when he shook his head with each note. The sound came from some place deeper and sadder. I was hooked on this grandfather -- he was so much more human than the one who'd conquered poverty and had risen above.
Living on the Ripper's turf
In 2011, I moved to London to go to grad school. When selecting housing, I more or less flipped a coin, and ended up in Lilian Knowles Student Housing in London's East End. I knew a bit about the East End from one of my favorite books, Alan Moore's From Hell, a comic book about the Jack the Ripper murders, and I was delighted to see that I was smack dab in the middle of Jack's territory. I'd read about pubs like the Ten Bells, and the church right around the corner had featured heavily in the book.
My kitchen at Lilian Knowles was situated directly over the street, and every day, tour groups would walk by while I was cooking my dinner. The guides would always be wearing heavy top hats and holding lanterns. They'd park outside my window and start talking:
"THIS, my friends, was once 'the most dangerous street in London.' Right here we have what used to be known as 'The Providence Row Night Refuge,' which was once a place for the destitute women and children of Whitechapel to stay. Mary Jane Kelly herself lived here briefly while working for the nuns. The Refuge served the community until 1999, when it was converted to housing for a different class of poor people: students."
This was a laugh line. The tourists would inevitably look up at me, in my shabby clothes, as they laughed.
“If you turn around,” the guide would continue, “you will see a fenced off alley way. This, my dear friends, is no longer open to tourists. This alley leads to what was once Miller’s Court, where Mary Jane Kelly would meet her grisly end.”
I was shocked the first time I heard this. That? That was a boring alley next to a car park. I walked over later and craned my neck, trying to see some old remnant of Miller’s Court, but there wasn’t much to look at. So I moved on.
MARY JANE KELLY AND ME.
While I was living in London, I decided to do some family research. A few years before, my grandfather told me that he’d never found out where his brother was buried. So I went online and found it almost immediately: he was buried in Luxembourg. By the time I’d made it to London, I knew my grandpa wasn’t going to ever get to the tomb of his brother, so I caught a train to Luxembourg and visited it myself.
When I got home, I showed some pictures to my grandfather, who started telling me more about his family — how his brother had been a troublemaker, had gotten into trouble with the law, and the judge had told him the choice was enlisting in the Army or going to jail.
After that, loops started closing, and I couldn’t stop learning about my family. I didn’t even have to look — it fell right into my lap. First, at my housing in London, in the place where Mary Jane Kelly once lived, I met and fell in love with a girl from New Jersey. She’d grown up blocks away from the place where my grandparents went on their first date on the Jersey Shore.
We eventually moved back and got married. My wife, who works in politics, got focused on healthcare in New Jersey. My grandmother told me that my great-great aunt Rose had been one of the first female doctors in the state of New Jersey, and had worked on Ellis Island. She told me that her family had long been active in the state’s Democratic party, and that there was the odd political radical in my lineage. I opened an Ancestry account and started piecing together my old family tree. I talked to my Grandpa, shortly before he died, and he named as many relatives as he could remember. I tried to take the history back centuries, but it was not particularly easy, as Irish people tended to name their kids the same five things. I gave up the hope that I’d discover that I was the great-great-great-great grandson of George Washington, but I was miffed to discover that I wasn’t related to anyone famous at all.
With one possible exception — Grandpa had been related, a couple generations back, to a family by the name of Kelly. Every third person in Ireland, at the time, seemed to be named Kelly, so tracing them was next to impossible, but as far as I could tell, the Kelly’s had left Ireland in the late 1860’s, early 1870’s for either Britain or the US. The ones that came to the US would end up as my direct descendants. The ones that went to the UK — who knows where they ended up? But they did have a daughter, born in 1862, who went off Ancestry’s record books in the 1870’s. Her name was Mary J. Kelly.
THE VIOLENCE THAT BROUGHT US TO AMERICA
The Irish people I’ve met don’t recognize the American version of St. Patty’s Day. They’ve called me out for even calling it St. Patty’s Day. And it’s fair — There are 33 million Irish-Americans. There are only 6 million people on the island of Ireland. Most American Irish are so disconnected from their homeland that they know little more about their culture than Catholicism and Guinness.
Most of the fourth or fifth generation immigrants I know have their own American rags-to-riches stories. But as I reached into the past, I found that our immigrant stories were far uglier, far more complex, and far more human than the Gilded Age glitziness I’d been shown in my childhood. The Irish were driven here by poverty and violence, and often met the same even once they’d reached our shores. They starved in Irish famines and fought in American wars.
Mary Jane Kelly is probably not a direct relative of mine. My genealogy skills just aren’t that good, and there were a lot of Mary Kelly’s in 1860’s Ireland. But thousands of my ancestors were just like her. They struggled just as hard, they lived and died in oblivion. Not everyone gets tied to the world’s most famous serial killer. It’s about the last way, I think, any of us would want to achieve immortality.
Most of my family history will be forever hidden. But when my grandpa sang, I could still hear Ireland in his voice. It was older than he was, and in it, there was darkness. It felt like a place I’d been. It felt like home.
IT’S REPULSIVE TO EVEN think of, but sex traffickers need to advertise, just like everyone else. And to do so, they will often take pictures of the children they are abusing, and will post these pictures to the darker corners of the internet. Oftentimes, the place sex traffickers will set up shop is in hotel rooms, so that’s frequently where the pictures end up being taken.
An app called TraffickCam has been set up to help catch these modern-day slavers in the act. How it works is simple:
- Download the app or go to the website.
- Take pictures of your hotel room when you arrive at your destination.
- Submit the pictures to the app.
- The app puts them into a massive database, which law enforcement can then compare to the photos that the sex traffickers use as advertisements.
- If there’s a match, law enforcement officials may well be able to track down the sex trafficker, and save their victims.
The app has suggestions for how to take the pictures, which you release under a creative commons license to them. As of November 2016, over 1.6 million photos had been uploaded to the database. The group that runs the app, the Exchange Initiative, says that while the app is only currently operating in the US, where they are working with law enforcement, but they hope to eventually go worldwide.
Travelers are often the front lines against sex trafficking.
The ugly truth a lot of sex trafficking occurs in close proximity to the travel industry. Hotels in particular are havens for this type of illegal activity, as the hospitality industry puts high value on discretion and relative anonymity. Pimps and sex traffickers exploit this environment, and use hotels as safe havens.
Recently, hotels have started training their staff for how to recognize sex traffickers — red flags like guests paying in cash, or large groups of children, or kids made up to look older than they are, or the lack of luggage, or the presence of drugs or alcohol around children, or the sneaking in of women and girls through side doors — all of these together may point towards sex trafficking, and hotel managers have to make a judgment call as to whether they should involve the police.
Likewise, airlines are starting to train their staffs to spot sex trafficking as well, and it’s already saving lives: one flight attendant noticed something wrong between an older man and a young, teenaged girl he was traveling with. She tried to engage the man, but he became defensive, so the attendant left a note for the girl in the bathroom, who wrote back asking for help. The attendant informed the captain, and the police were waiting at the gate when they landed.
Training programs are being supported by the UN’s Be a Responsible Travelerprogram, which helps provides materials to tourist organizations that may be able to stop trafficking.
Public awareness is hugely important.
“Raising awareness” gets sneered at a lot of the time (sometimes justifiably so), but in the case of sex trafficking, a big part of the problem is that travelers in the United States assume it just doesn’t happen here, so they aren’t on the lookout for warning signs. As a result, a lot of trafficking slips under the radar.
The TraffickCam app is still in its relatively early stages, but its creators already believe the program is a success solely on the basis of raising awareness. It’s an “if you see something, say something,” type of fight, and with more people on the lookout, we have a better chance of getting these kids out of the hellish trafficking rings they’re trapped in, and back into their childhoods.
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.
Okay, so 2016 was rough, and a lot of people are pessimistic about 2017's prospects. But even if this is a dark year ahead of us, there's still a lot of room for you to do good as a global citizen. We've got some quick, concrete tips to help you make the world a better place in 2017.
Volunteer local, give global.
The election of Donald Trump has led to a spike in charitable contributions to domestic non-profits. People are throwing their weight behind groups like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations in anticipation of a hostile President.
But this has unfortunately led to a drop in donations towards some really excellent globally-oriented charities. I talked to Charlie Bresler about the problem a few weeks ago. Bresler is the Executive Director of the Life You Can Save, a non-profit that supports the world's most effective charities, like Oxfam, the Against Malaria Foundation, Innovations for Poverty Action, and Population Services International. They're saving lives on a daily basis in the developing world, but people have turned inward in the face of Trump.
Bresler suggests something simple: just give more. "If one feels the understandable urge to give to political movements or organizations fighting the Trump agenda," he wrote to me in an email, "then please consider giving more money over the next four years so that you don't diminish your gifts to fight global poverty. We certainly can afford to give more generously if we all consume less, which has the added benefit of being good for the environment."
The truth is this -- you can do a lot of good at home by getting actively involved. You can go to protests, you can go to local government meetings, you can call your representatives. You can't be as effective globally, except in regards to money. You get a lot more bang for your buck when you donate abroad. So do the most good possible. Get involved at home, and give abroad.
Learn how to help before you start to help.
A lot of us (myself included) have gone on very well-meaning trips to help people in developing countries. The problem was that we were not remotely qualified to help. We were bussed into a village we knew nothing about, we built a house despite having zero construction experience, we met a few "locals," and then we were bussed out.
Voluntourism is tricky. It comes from a very kind, generous place, but it doesn't do the good we may want it to do, and in the worst cases, it may be exploited by horribly cynical people: over the last few years, there have been stories of "fake orphanages" in Cambodia that target rich tourists.
The problem is a simple one to solve, though: you should only help when you know how to help. Are you a doctor? Great! Go volunteer somewhere -- anywhere! Your skills translate anywhere there are humans. Are you a specialist in earthquake resistant construction? Oh my god, that's awesome -- we could use you in a ton of places. If you don't have skills like these, that's fine, you can still help. But you may be helping most by simply giving money wherever you can. We mentioned The Life You Can Save above -- check out GiveWell, too.
You can do a lot of good -- you just gotta know how to do it first.
Travel as green as possible.
Travel is great -- it helps you see and understand the world better, which in turn makes you a better global citizen. But travel can be super harmful to the planet. Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists made a graphic that helps you figure out what the greenest way for you to travel is. Check it out:
Download a few simple apps.
Technology can be used in some really great ways to help save lives and make the world a better place. Here are some simple ones you should download now:
- TraffickCam. This app is simple -- it helps fight human trafficking by simply asking you to take a photo of every hotel room you stay at, and then uploading that photo into the app. This helps authorities identify rooms where sex slaves are being held (which they can see through photos or webcams). It's super easy, and it's for an incredible cause. Similarly, Free2Work helps you keep track of companies that have used forced or child labor.
- Buycott. Buycott is another simple app -- it helps you to stop supporting causes to which you're opposed by buying goods from businesses that support those causes. It's simple -- you select causes you want to follow. You scan the barcode of a food item, and Buycott tells you if the business that sells that item is, for example, using slave labor, or is discriminatory towards LGBTQ people, or has donated to particular candidates. Talk with your money!
- Green Globe. This is another great one for the environmentally conscious. It's simple: they'll help you identify which nearby businesses or hotels are green certified.
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with mild depression. This, as it turns out, is not particularly unusual. Lots of people get depressed. The WHO estimates that around 350 million people worldwide have it. That's slightly more than the population of the United States.
I have a slight genetic predisposition towards depression. But I fortunately have never had what's called "major depressive disorder," which is much harder to deal with and which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy (Well, maybe I wish it on Donald Trump), and instead have only had "minor depressive disorder."
Culture tends to portray depression as a form of extreme sadness, but that hasn't been my experience of it. For me, it's largely been a sort of emotional flat-lining coupled with a particularly mean, very convincing voice in my head. This voice had always been there, but it got a lot louder all of the sudden in the midst of a few major life changes.
It started for real when I quit my job to become a writer. This was a major career landmark for me -- it was a giant risk, it was a pay cut, but it pushed me more in the direction of the career I really wanted. "Work from home" is usually presented as some sort of liberating gold standard (work with no pants!) but it's actually insanely trying -- seeing and interacting with other people is no longer built into the structure of your day, and it's really easy to neglect your physical health when there's no actual reason to leave the house on a regular basis. Throw on top of that a move to a small town where you don't know anyone and don't have a car, and things can turn kinda dark pretty fast.
The Low Point
I hit a low point about a year ago, in the build-up to our wedding. Mental illness is an awful thing to have during what are supposed to be the best days of your life: depression in particular likes to find reasons to tell you you're a complete piece of shit, and if you give it an excuse to whisper, "Why aren't you happier? Man, you don't deserve this or her," then depression is going to seize on that shit.
Fortunately, weddings are a natural counterbalance to mental illness. All of the things that exacerbate depression -- like isolation, lack of social interaction, lack of meaning, feelings of worthlessness -- just aren't in the cards during a wedding build-up. People take the opportunity, during weddings, to tell you all of the nice things they think about you that they maybe haven't told you before. Friends jump through hoops to do nice things for you. And people are insanely generous with their time and money and love.
The night itself was -- literally, not in a "oh, I have to say this," way -- the best of my life. And the next day and the honeymoon were also great. But after the festivities ended, and as we started the slog through the holidays, I started to realize that the depression hadn't gone away. I did not have the stamina or the funds to keep throwing weddings to get my spirits up, so some other action needed to be taken.
Mercifully, I'd been given a bit of a nudge during one of our pre-wedding events. I was talking with a couple of friends, and somehow, the subject turned to struggles with mental illnesses. I am lucky enough to have friends who are super open about this kind of thing. One friend talked about how much getting help... well, helped, so when the post-wedding high wore off, thanks to the testimonies of my friends and the gentle urging of my wife, I started to look for therapists.
It's really, really hard to find a therapist.
On the Jersey Shore, at least, there is something of a mental health professional shortage. It took me about a month to find an office that was accepting new patients -- many of them say on their websites that they're accepting new patients, but then tell you it's not the case when you call them. Considering how hard it is to ask for help, this is really not fun.
When I finally found a nearby spot accepting new patients, I spent about 45 minutes on the phone, alternating between being put on hold and reading off my name and birthday and Social Security Number to a woman who was not motivated to do things quickly. I think there's a decent chance she filled out the forms in triplicate, and, instead of simply checking what I had previously told her my name spelling was, decided to get her information from me all three times.
I am fairly certain, after this experience, that medical bureaucracy has resulted in deaths. If I were in worse shape, this would not have been promising. If I wasn't sitting next to my wife in the car, I may well have hung up the phone and called off the search as hopeless.
Once I'd slogged through the bureaucracy, the woman said, "Okay, the first appointment I have available is February 2nd."
It was December 29th.
"I'd really rather not wait that long," I said. "It's... you know. It's depression."
"Sorry sir, that's all I have."
Over a month later, I started going to therapy. My therapist is the opposite of the people at his front desk, which is to say he's pretty cool. He, like my older sister, is not a psychologist, but is a social worker. I have had the very pleasant experience of seeing, from the other side, what my sister does. I am now certain that she has one of the most important and thankless jobs a human being can have.
Depression doesn't just "go away."
Therapy has been helpful, but depression is unfortunately not as simple to get rid of as, say, a broken arm. It takes a lot of work, and some days are better than others. One of the strange side-effects of depression is that I'm at my best when I'm around other people -- I'm pretty isolated in my day-to-day life, so being around family and friends is like a breath of fresh air. So the people closest to me -- with the exception of my wife -- don't actually get to see what's going on, and actually see me in peak form. The idea, then, that something is wrong, probably would never cross their minds if I didn't tell them. Which makes it even more isolating.
I've tried writing about this for over a year. I have a really ambitious webcomic I want to do on the relationship between my depression and some of the more nihilistic feelings I've had (nihilism which I've been actively fighting for a few months now), but at some point, the project was too huge to confront when simply picking up a pencil felt like a gigantic challenge. So I'm writing this blog instead, with the idea, "Don't worry about saying something new, worry about saying something."
I want to say something because, for me, what made the difference was someone else saying something. The friends who talked to me about what they went through -- well, I don't think I told them how much it meant to know that people I love have felt what I feel, and had been along the same dark roads that I felt I was currently walking. So this is a circular way of telling them, "thanks," and is also hopefully, in some sense, paying it forward to someone else. It means a lot to know that you're not alone in a disease which is, by its nature, isolating.
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I used to love going to clothing stores. Not because I liked the clothes, but because certain clothing racks were cylindrical, and I could slip between the clothes and hide out in a little clothes silo. It gave me that feeling you get when you're alone in a place no one knows about -- I had the same feeling when I ran into the woods, or found a table to hide under at a restaurant, and I chased that feeling whenever I could.
My tendency to dash off to play an impromptu game of hide-and-seek, naturally, scared the bejesus out of my mother. She had my two sisters to take care of as well, and all three of us were born curious and born explorers, which she and my father considered a good thing. But she'd get disapproving looks from other store customers because her kids weren't "in control." So after one particularly frightening incident at the local JC Penney, she bought a velcro leash that could be wrapped around my hand to keep me from escaping into my clothes silo. This got her even more judgmental looks from store customers. "How dare that woman drag her child around like a dog!"
Moms just can't win.
This all came rushing back to me this weekend with the story of the four-year-old boy who made his way into the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo, and was manhandled by the gorilla until zoo officials were forced to kill the animal.
I grew up in Cincinnati. 26 years ago, I was that kid.
Kids at the Cincinnati Zoo
While my mother always kept a close eye on me, there were certain places where I got so excited that she couldn't adequately constrain me, and the Cincinnati Zoo was one of them. I loved the lizards and the monkeys, and I fantasized many times about swimming across the moat to monkey island to play with the macaques. I wasn't as into gorillas, but that's just because they didn't seem to ever do all that much. To the kid who fell in, I say, to each his own.
Much of the uproar around the killing of Harambe the gorilla has been directed at the mother of the child, who supposedly should have had her kid under total control during the full visit to the zoo. A popular theme was to say that the gorilla would have been a better parent than the mother of the child:
While I understand the impulse towards indignance or self-righteousness, this argument is appalling for a couple of reasons: first, you can see in the video of the incident that the gorilla was not being gentle with the child.
Aside from this video, there are witness reports that Harambe tossed the kid ten feet into the air, with the kid landing on his back. The boy suffered a concussion.
The second reason the argument is appalling is that it shows a complete ignorance of what having kids is like. Children do not behave like adults, and "keeping an eye" on your kids 24/7 is impossible unless you force them to live in the bubble. Kids wander off, they hide from parents for fun, and they are small enough and fast enough to escape you if they want.
The mother of the boy wrote the following on Facebook on Monday:
As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today.
She'd apparently been taking care of other children that were with her (she has four total) when her son slipped away. And this is understandable. I've had that mother. I've been that kid. My guess is that we all have. Most of the time, curiosity in a child is an excellent thing. But it can sometimes lead to tragedy. And that's what happened last week.
The internet loves to be outraged. It's an understandable impulse: rage is an emotion that comes easier and that is less painful than simple sadness. But in this situation, pointing fingers is just a way of diverting ourselves from the sad fact that a magnificent animal, through no real fault of his own, had to be killed because of a series of unfortunate events. Literally no one wanted that gorilla to die.
You could blame the zoo for not having better barriers, but the gorilla barriers at the Cincinnati Zoo have been effective for the entire 38 years of their existence, and the thing about barriers is that they're impenetrable until the second they aren't.
You could blame the zoo for not waiting longer to get the kid away. But that's 20/20 hindsight. That gorilla could've killed the kid at any given moment, and it would be hard, as a zoo manager, to justify putting off action when a child's life was on the line.
The hardest thing to do is to simply accept that we can't prevent all tragedies, and that in some stories, there are no bad guys, just a bunch of humans who make mistakes. Making mistakes is a very human thing to do.
Go easier on moms (and do something to help gorillas)
If you find yourself furious at this mother, take a second to try and empathize. Try to imagine bringing your kids to the zoo in order to do something nice for them. Try to imagine having an active and inquisitive three-year-old. Try to imagine turning to help one of your other three kids, and turning back to see your child gone, and to hear screams coming from the gorilla pit. And try to imagine watching your kid get thrown around like a ragdoll.
If you can do that, then go a step further: Try to allow yourself to feel sad instead of angry. Sadness is a harder emotion than anger, but it's ultimately healthier, and it's far less corrosive.
If you're still angry, maybe consider using that anger constructively. You can educate yourself about the plight of the western lowland gorilla, which is critically endangered thanks to poaching, disease, and habitat destruction (Harambe was at the Cincinnati Zoo in the hopes that he would breed with the females as part of the zoo's conservation efforts). A really great way to help in that cause is to support the World Wildlife Fund, which fights to protect tons of species from extinction.
Perhaps most importantly, don't hold mothers to double standards where they are either helicopter parents or are negligent. They don't deserve that. You were a kid once, too, and this could've been you.
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.
POACHING IS A MAJOR WORLDWIDE PROBLEM, especially when it comes to animals with tusks -- rhinos and elephants in Africa face possible extinction thanks to poaching cartels which have been taking ivory out of Africa and into Asia. In the Asian market, ivory is seen as a luxury good, and some types of ivory -- such as Rhino horn -- are erroneously thought to be folk cures for anything from headaches to hangovers to erectile dysfunction.
Many African governments have had trouble adequately fighting poaching thanks to corruption and a lack of infrastructure, but in recent months, a few governments have taken serious steps to fight poaching. Just last month, Tanzania handed down a harsh sentence for two poachers who killed 226 elephants, which will hopefully act as a deterrent.
Then, this past Saturday, the Kenyan government burned the world's largest stockpile of ivory coming from illegally poached elephant tusks. The message was clear: we don't want anyone making money off of this. We want these animals kept alive.
The stockpile of horns was huge, as can be seen from the aerial photography.
The act was witnessed by delegates from 170 world nations, and hashtags like #WorthMoreAlive started trending on Twitter. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has ordered similar ivory burns before, and is trying to fight for a total ban on the ivory trade.
The ivory burn weighed over 100 tonnes, making this the largest ivory burn in history.
If you are looking to help fight poaching, there are a few things you can do. First and foremost, do not contribute to the poaching market. Do not buy ivory or any other products made from the parts of endangered animals. The second thing you can do is to support a few of the charities that are fighting poaching around the world. The best known is undoubtedly the World Wildlife Fund, but you can also donate to the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, and to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is considered one of the most effective. Finally, Tweet with #WorthMoreAlive to show your support!
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.
FOR DECADES, THE UNITED STATES HAS grappled with the homelessness problem: what's the best way to deal with thousands of homeless people living rough in our cities? Should we crack down on drug use? Should we improve rehabilitation efforts? Should we try to fix the economy so the homeless can get jobs?
During this debate, the state of Utah quietly solved the problem. Between 2005 and 2015, they reduced their chronic homelessness rate by 91 percent. And the answer was almost stupidly, blindingly simple: just give homes to the homeless. The people who grumbled about the expense of housing the homeless have been silenced by the numbers: homeless people tend to cost the state a lot of money, whether it's in jailing them or in paying their emergency room bills, and simply giving them homes is much, much cheaper.
Thus, a major, intractable problem was fixed in a way that any two-year-old could have devised. Which of course makes you wonder: are there any other major problems that we may have stupidly, blindingly simple answers to?
The answer is yes: researchers may have found an incredibly simple and intuitive way to fight extreme poverty.
The effective altruism movement
The past decade has seen the rise of a form of philanthropy that concerns itself not with ideology or emotion, but with end results. It's called "effective altruism," and it's designed around the idea that, if we're going to give our money to charities, we should give it in a way that it does the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people.
It's been heavily advocated by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who insists that if we think all lives are created equal, then we have a moral obligation to help the people who are most in need, and who we are most capable of helping.
Effective altruists want their donations to be justified with hard data. As such, they demand that the charities they support be both effective and transparent about how effective they are. Two websites, GiveWell and Singer's own The Life You Can Save do research into the world's most effective charities, and then recommend a select few that meet their rigorous standards. Most of the charities are fighting developing world diseases and afflictions like malaria or parasitic worm infections -- diseases that the developed world has already eliminated for the most part, but that still plague the developing world thanks to a lack of funds and public health infrastructure.
One charity on their list, however, is different. One charity isn't fighting a disease, but is fighting extreme poverty as a whole. They're called GiveDirectly, and their method is simple: they just give cash directly and unconditionally to extremely poor families. And it's working really well.
How to change conventional wisdom
It should be noted that giving money directly to poor people is not an idea economists and aid workers have traditionally been on board with. It seems to go against common sense: "If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day," the old saying goes, "If you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime." GiveDirectly is basically just giving out fish.
People who have traditionally seen capitalism as the route to ending poverty are deeply suspicious of this approach as well, as hand-outs are generally believed to breed dependence. Giving cash directly to the poor smacks of socialism. Singer himself said so in his 2009 book, The Life You Can Save:
"Neither [Columbia anti-poverty economist Jeffrey] Sachs nor anyone else is seriously proposing that we solve world poverty by handing poor people enough money to meet their basic needs. That would not be likely to produce a lasting solution to the many problems that the poor face."
Singer has since changed his mind, because he has seen the evidence: GiveDirectly works. And the organization doesn't identify with a socialist ideology. They just give out the money because it's really, really effective. GiveDirectly co-founder Michael Faye explained that they were econ grad students who were looking to give away some of their money.
"We were fortunate to have front-row seats to two profound shifts in the development sector:
The first was the rise of rigorous testing (i.e. randomized tests). From this, we learned that many of our longstanding assumptions were wrong, and that cash transfers performed remarkably well across a wide variety of contexts, and over prolonged periods of time.
The second major shift we saw in the fieldwork that we were doing was the rapid growth of mobile payments and financial connectivity. This made it possible to send cash to the poor at a lower cost, with more speed and security than had been imaginable."
But, they realized, there was no organization dedicated exclusively to direct cash transfers. So they started it themselves.
How it works
As of right now, GiveDirectly only operates in two countries, Kenya and Uganda. The reasons they chose these countries are that both of them have high levels of extreme poverty, but also have electronic payment systems already in place. Direct cash transfers take place over a cell phone or a SIM card, which GiveDirectly provides the families with if they don't have it themselves.
It's a relatively simple process: First, they identify the families in a given area that are most in need. They have a field staff investigate, but one of the easiest indicators, they've found, is to go to families with thatched roofs. They've found that if a family has money, one of the first things they're likely to spend it on is an iron roof.
After that, they run an investigation to make sure that the recipients truly deserve the money, and didn't bribe anyone or cheat their way onto the list. Then, they transfer around $1000 (nearly a year's wages) to the family over the cell phone or SIM card. This cash is unconditional: recipients don't need to spend it on anything in particular.
After that, they monitor the families to make sure they got the money and to see how they do.
Overall, the results are pretty incredible. The cash transfers are one-time only (though possibly paid in installments), so there's no worry of them breeding the sort of dependence that many aid experts fear, and the program costs them staggeringly little in the way of overhead: of the money donated, 91% of it ends up in the hands of Kenyan recipients, and 85% of it ends up in the hands of Ugandan recipients. And although the idea of cash transfers is still relatively new, the early numbers are promising: one-time cash transfers do seem to have a long-term effect in improving the lives of the recipients.
What cash transfers are showing is that if you give an extremely poor person money, they are probably going to have a better idea of how best they can spend it than an aid worker does. And while the conventional wisdom says "they'll just spend it on alcohol and tobacco," GiveDirectly has found that there's no significant increase in expenditure on these products. Instead, families tend to spend the money on things they need, or they invest in business opportunities they would otherwise have not been able to afford.
The result is that most of the families end up a good deal better off than they were before, whether it's because they got a new roof that doesn't leak, or because they saw an increase in their total income after making business investments.
A silver bullet?
For years, microloans were touted as the best solution to global poverty. Microloans are basically exactly what they sound like -- small loans to extremely poor people. They turned out to be pretty effective in terms of helping the poor get small businesses started, or in helping them invest in themselves or their family, and for a few years, the world thought it had found its silver bullet for ending poverty. But the problem with them was that they put some of loan recipients into pretty serious debt, which is hardly a way to alleviate poverty.
On the heels of this realization, the development world has been looking for better alternatives, and the best alternative seems to be cash transfers. UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon recently said that cash transfers should be the default method of helping people in emergencies whenever possible. A Princeton study found that cash transfers have a significant impact on the lives of recipients, while several other recent studies have found that direct cash transfers (as well as conditional cash transfers) don't breed dependency, and don't make the recipients lazy.
As of right now, Give Directly is the only non-profit that does cash transfers exclusively. There are other non-profits that do cash transfers on top of their other operations around the world, though, and cash transfers are gaining steam. There's the Issara Foundation, which gives cash directly to freed slaves, and development titan Oxfam and the UN High Commission for Refugees have integrated cash transfers into their programs. But the aid world seems to have learned its lesson from the microfinance boom, and is still treating cash transfers cautiously.
"We don't think that cash transfers are necessarily a silver bullet," Max Chapnick, a spokesperson for GiveDirectly told me. "There are things cash transfers alone can't do. They can't build public goods. They can't build roads. They can't build a cellphone tower. They can't cure a disease. But they can directly help families in need and serve as a benchmark for other programs.
The idea, in short, is to judge other aid programs by asking the question, "Is this better than just giving people cash?" At the same time, GiveDirectly is working with researchers to be transparent as possible, so they can better understand the long-term effects and limitations of cash transfers. And just last week, they announced something huge: they're doing an experiment with "universal basic income," in which they plan on providing a guaranteed income for 6,000 people living in extreme poverty in Kenya for 10 to 15 years, and then observing how that affects their lives in the long term. This will, of course, test the conventional wisdom about handouts breeding dependency. But so much of the conventional wisdom has been wrong up to this point, that it's worth putting it to the test: as Michael Faye and his GiveDirectly co-founder Paul Niehaus wrote about the experiment, "At a minimum our money will shift the life trajectories of thousands of low-income households. At best, it will change how the world thinks about ending poverty."
Cash transfers aren't going to save the world. But they could help improve it dramatically. And the lesson that cash transfers are teaching us is extremely important: when you put ideology aside and focus on the results, the answers to some of the world's toughest questions may turn out to be incredibly simple.
BECOMING "CARBON NEUTRAL" IS THE HOLY GRAIL for a lot of environmentalists. By ceasing to produce more carbon dioxide that we absorb, we may, as a world, be able to avoid the worst effects of man-made climate change, and reach a point where we can live sustainably on this planet. What most environmentalists don't talk about is the possibility of becoming carbon negative. The idea of absorbing more carbon than we produce seems almost impossibly far-fetched for most of the world. Except for one country.
Bhutan is a tiny country sandwiched between China and India in the Himalayas. It's remoteness and size have meant that it's remained relatively untouched by the globalization that most of the rest of the world has seen, and it entered the world economy late enough that it could clearly see the downsides of global capitalism as well as the upsides. So instead of focusing on Gross National Product, it invented a concept called "Gross National Happiness." The country now tries to balance economic growth with the preservation of its environment, culture, and quality of life.
In a TED Talk, Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan said, "Economic growth is important. But that economic growth must not come from undermining our unique culture or our pristine environment." Bhutan calls it "development with values," and as a result, had ensured that a staggering 72% of the country has remained under forest cover. According to the constitution, 60% of the country must always remain under forest cover.
What this means is huge: the forest sequesters three times the amount of carbon dioxide that the country produces. If Bhutan were carbon neutral, it would be the only country into the world to earn that designation. But it's not carbon neutral. It's carbon negative.
On top of the forests, Bhutan has invested in renewable hydroelectric energy, of which it is a net exporter. So other countries around Bhutan now receive clean electricity as well. They are working to expand this hydroelectric energy, and if they reach their goals, they will annually offset the same amount of carbon that the city of New York produces each year.
Tobgay admits that his country is small, and has a very tiny economy, but Bhutan's story is a hopeful story. It is proof that economic development and environmentalism can go hand in hand, if we have our priorities straight. And it's proof that we can say no to short term profit in the name of long-term global benefits.
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.
Alan Watts, the philosopher and theologian, uses a neat little metaphor when he talks about life. He says that when we’re born, we’ve been pushed off a cliff. We’re going to hit the bottom at some point, and this terrifies us. So we find ways to deal with the fall. Maybe we pray. We convince ourselves that the earth rushing up at us is not actually the end, that there is another, better fall just beyond it, but that we can’t see. We try to convince ourselves that whoever kicked us off the cliff in the first place had a very good reason for doing so, and that he (she? Probably he.) would not have sentenced us to end in a mere “kersplat.” Kersplat is not noble enough for us fallers.
Maybe, if we lose our trust in the Great Kicker, we try and find ways to prolong the fall. We throw shovels and bombs down at the earth beneath us, hoping the craters they create will buy us more time. We try and pull parachutes, so as to fall slower. Once we realize that this isn’t going to work indefinitely, we try to distract ourselves. Maybe we drink to forget the fall. Some people lose hope or get bored with the fall, and decide to prematurely hasten the oncoming kersplat. The very few people who survive jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge unanimously say that the moment they stepped off the Bridge, they regretted it. I imagine that regret is something along the lines of, “Oh wait, this is going to happen anyway, why am I helping it along?” Grappling with the Big Kersplat is hard.
Some of us meet someone else who is falling and spend a lot of time with them. Maybe we like this person very much, and decide to fall together with them, eventually having some kids of our own, effectively pushing them off the cliff, with the hopes that their falls will outlast ours, that their falls will be nicer, that there’s a big cushy pillow at the base of their fall, or that perhaps we develop solar powered jetpacks before they hit the bottom, thus saving them from the inevitable kersplat.
Watts doesn’t use the word kersplat. He also doesn’t mention jetpacks. He just came up with the fall idea. I’m the one beating the metaphor to death with a shovel. Beating metaphors to death is a very effective way of distracting myself from the kersplat.
It’s a great metaphor for a number of reasons. The first is that “the Big Kersplat” is a much more exciting phrase than “death,” and the second is that we are literally falling all of the time. The earth is falling around the sun. The sun’s falling around the galaxy. The galaxy is falling through… something. I don’t understand physics particularly well, but I believe the general gist is that big things fall around bigger things, and small things kinda do whatever the fuck they feel like.
It’s also a great metaphor because it allows me to imagine myself as my favorite character from my favorite cartoon, which is, of course, Yosemite Sam in High-Diving Hare. Falling off of high things and then hitting the bottom with a “kersplat” is one of the primary themes in Looney Tunes. Wile E. Coyote does it all of the time. Bugs Bunny does it occasionally, usually with some sort of book to read or maybe with a parachute that turns out to be an anvil. Once, his plane failed to crash, and he says, “I know it’s against the law of gravity, but I never studied law.” It’s certainly funnier than a kersplat, but it’s also cheating.
But no one falls like Yosemite Sam. Yosemite Sam does everything humans do during their falls. He prays.
He deludes himself.
And then he kersplats.
Watts’ solution for the kersplat problem is a Buddhist one -- it’s to “live in the now” and enjoy the fall. Yosemite Sam’s, I imagine, is more of a “rage, rage against the dying of the light” approach.
I personally find the Big Kersplat harder to deal with on some days rather than others, and I usually prefer to rage against the dying of the light than to enjoy the fall. It’s hard not to fixate on that messy end and to view it with a wee bit of trepidation. But today, I went walking on the beach, and I could hear the cold sea wind whistling through the whiskers of my beard, and for a rare moment, I didn’t see what Yosemite Sam was raging about. Falling is nice.
VALENTINE’S DAY, AS A BILLION Hallmark cards have told us, is about love. Usually, the focus is on romantic love, but it’s just as often love between parents and children, brothers and sisters, or totally platonic friends who are definitely not going to hook up after a night of drinking wine together while whining about being single.
There’s no reason, though, that the love we celebrate shouldn’t extend even further. Why not celebrate love for our fellow man? Why not celebrate love for our planet? So maybe instead of spending money on a restaurant that’s jacked up its prices for the holiday, you should buy your partner a different kind of present: one that says, “I want to make this world a nicer place for you.” Here are some gift ideas.
Save a tree.
Trees are one of the most effective solutions to the problems of climate emissions: they naturally absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, cleaning the air of the crap we pump into it. So naturally, it’s a big problem when trees are chopped down.
Stand For Trees is a non-profit which focuses on saving forests, and for Valentine’s Day, they’re doing a project called “Love You A Tonne,” in which you can pledge money to a specific forest. Generally speaking, a $10 donation takes 1 tonne of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Save a child.
You know all of those friends of yours who have November birthdays? Those are Valentine’s babies. There’s no shortage of children who owe their existence to holidays and celebrations -- the NFL highlighted so called "Super Bowl Babies" last week, for example -- so why not honor that by making a donation that will save a child? One of the most efficient ways to do this is to give to organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets for people living in areas with high incidences of malaria. Malaria kills around a half a million people every year, and of that half a million, about 70% are kids under the age of 5.
So giving a few bucks can go a long way towards saving kids lives. $100, for example, can protect up to 60 people from malaria for three or four years. That’s huge.
Save a mother.
Be honest: You don’t love anyone more than you love your mom. So if you’re going to give a Valentine’s Gift to your mother, it would make sense to give her a gift that saves other moms. One of the best ways to do this is to give to the Fistula Foundation. Fistula’s are particularly nasty medical conditions that tend to develop in areas where women get pregnant too young and don’t have access to proper medical care. In short, it’s a hole that develops between a woman’s vagina and her other internal organs after prolonged labor. The hole causes leakage, which can cause a horrible stench that makes the woman stigmatized in her community, and can lead them into even deeper poverty.
The good news is that there’s no reason for these to exist anymore: we have the technology to fix the vast majority of them, and it’s relatively cheap to do. The Fistula Foundation repairs fistulas in the developing world (primarily Africa and Southeast Asia) for an incredibly low cost. A donation to them could save a mother and her child from trauma and poverty.
Save a life.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, a professor at Ohio State and a social entrepreneur, says he received his best Valentine’s Day gift ever last year:
“Instead of candy and liquor, my wife suggested giving each other gifts that actually help us improve our mental and physical well-being, and the world as a whole, by donating to charities in the name of the other person.”
They did their research, and using an online calculator at the effective altruism website The Life You Can Save, they figured out how to make their money go the furthest. Tsipursky’s wife donated to the Against Malaria Foundation, while Tsipursky himself gave to GiveDirectly, a non-profit which does exactly what it suggests: it gives money to the extremely poor in Africa.
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.
THE WORLD NEEDS MORE PEOPLE like you this year. People who see humanity not as separate, distinct groups which should never mix (and of which theirs is coincidentally the best), but as a single mass of people who are all in the same boat, who all have the same basic fears and wants. People like you — whether you call yourself a global citizen, a cosmopolitan, an internationalist, or just a chill dude who wants to live-and-let-live — are the people who are going to make the world a better place in 2016.
That sounds like a daunting task, but it’s not, really. There are 7 billion of us, after all, and the world is ours to make. You can do small things, here and there, and all of those small things multiplied by 7 billion will turn into big things. But if it still sounds daunting, here are a few more things you can do to be a better global citizen.
1. Get on board with fighting climate change.
Easily the biggest challenge facing our world right now is climate change. All of our other problems — war, poverty, famine, disease — will only get worse with climate change, and the window on stopping the worst effects of climate change is getting smaller by the day.
This is a huge project that requires global cooperation, but there are a few simple things you can do to help:
- Get your home better insulated and turn down your heat and air conditioning this year. This is one of the biggest energy sucks in the home.
- Eat less meat. Especially beef. Meat contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, so if you can, go veg as much as possible, and if you can’t, at least try cutting back. Try meat-free mondays.
- Donate to green-friendly charities. Check out the ones on this list at Project Greenify.
- Vote for politicians who aren’t in denial about climate change.
2. Fight global poverty.
There’s actually good news on this front: on a global scale, we’re winning the fight against poverty. It is far from over, but, as The Atlantic reported in December, this was the best year in humanity’s history for the average human. We beat the terrible ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone, we cut child mortality in half since 1990and world hunger is on the decline.
But a lot still needs to be done. You can start by donating to charities like Give Directly, which just gives your cash straight to extremely poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda. GiveWell, an organization that ranks the effectiveness of charities, lists them as one of the most effective charities on the planet. You can also use popular microfunding sites like Kiva, or extremely effective charities like Oxfam. If you want to make sure you get the best bang for your buck, check out the charities on GiveWell, and also on effective altruism site The Life You Can Save.
3. Support global education
A smarter world is a better world, and unfortunately, many people — especially in the developing world — don’t have access to quality education. Unfortunately, as GiveWell points out, improving education in the developing world is an incredibly difficult process, and it’s a process that can’t be done exclusively from the outside. The only charity GiveWell has given their stamp of approval is Pratham.
4. Support women's rights.
Women’s rights is a pretty great place to start if you want to bring an end to things like violence and poverty. Experts have found that when women in developing countries are given control of the money, they are more likely to use the money to life themselves and their families out of poverty than men are, and educating women in developing countries makes them more likely to avoid unwanted pregnancies and more likely to start making money on their own, breaking the cycle of poverty.
Oxfam has some simple tips for how to support global gender equality.
For people who are American citizens as well as global citizens, 2016 is going to be a pretty big election year. By voting in the upcoming election — and by paying attention to all of the races and not just the presidential one — you’re participating in democracy and making your country a stronger place. Democracy anywhere is a good thing, and while voting alone does not a democracy make, it is a vital element.
FROM THE BEGINNING, 2014 seemed intent on proving to us that humanity’s biggest challenges transcend national borders. Ebola wasn’t interested in respecting borders, and spread to several other countries around the world. Political problems in Ukraine managed to result in the deaths of 298 mostly Dutch passengers on a Malaysian plane. Several of the dead were prominent AIDS researchers, a loss that could have an effect on all of the millions of people worldwide with the disease. And the year’s biggest scientific achievement, the landing of a spacecraft on a comet, was accomplished by the European Space Agency, which has 20 member countries.
2014 was right: the world needs less partisan and national division and more global citizenship. So for those of us who consider ourselves to be “global citizens,” here are some things we can do to make our world a better place this year.
1. Get serious about climate change.
Climate change isn’t going away. Its existence isn’t even a debate anymore. 2014 saw predictions that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was in the process of collapsing — something that could raise ocean levels by several feet over the long term. 2014 also saw the world’s first climate refugees. This is obviously an issue that could drastically change and destabilize our planet, so it’s on top of the list of things good global citizens need to help with.
But where to start? The Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of things you can do in your daily life to limit the greenhouse emissions directly caused by your actions. It’s simple stuff like recycling, using energy efficient lights, planting trees, and insulating your home. But the problem has to be fought at the international level, too. So try donating to carbon offset programs or nonprofits that fight climate change, and contact your US representative and let them know that you’re a voter who cares about climate issues.
2. Donate your time and money to worthy causes.
You could probably afford to take $25 a month that you would otherwise spend on beer or pizza and donate it to a cause that could desperately use it. If you’re interested in donating to nonprofits that will spend your money effectively, check out efficient giving sites like The Life You Can Save.
You can also volunteer. It might be harder to volunteer for causes that focus on global causes in your town or city, but don’t let that stop you: by making your small community a better place, you’re making the world a better place. The best spot to find good local and international volunteer gigs remains Idealist.org.
3. Share your stories, and listen to other people’s stories.
One of the things we believe in here at Matador is that the best person to tell your story is you. The world needs more voices — especially marginalized or minority voices — to speak out about their experiences and their culture. The more perspectives we’re exposed to, the more open minded we become.
I don’t want to make Twitter and Facebook sound more important than they are (your cat picture is cute, but it’s not really making the world that much better of a place), but in 2014, trends like #YesAllWomen and #BlackLivesMatter helped expose male or white Americans to the experiences that they may not have had in their lives. Any time people start to stop and listen to the stories of others, things get better.
4. Support an open and free internet.
We live in an awesome age. We get to hear what’s happening around the world as it’s happening, and we are no longer limited in our choices of news sources. And we get to make friends with people no matter where they are. This new interconnectedness is one huge reason that we can feel hopeful about the future of humanity.
The reason all of this is possible is because we have a free and open internet. It’s a thing worth supporting, so check out Google’s Take Action page for free web issues and give to organizations that fight for net neutrality.
5. Get on the legalization train.
In the past couple of years, Washington, Colorado, and Washington, DC have decriminalized pot. This has reduced crime, increased tax revenues, and made it harder for minors to get pot; one presumes that it will also result eventually in fewer people being jailed for nonviolent drug offenses.
The War on Drugs is a global catastrophe, and it’s distracting us from our much bigger problems. The US drug war fuels the even more violent drug wars in Mexico, Colombia, and Afghanistan, so ending it here would help end it in those places, too. Even if you’re not a pot smoker, supporting legalization helps make the world a better place. DrugPolicy.org has a great toolkit for activists, as well as resources for other things you can do to help end the War on Drugs, so check them out. You can also donate to the Marijuana Policy Project if you want to help change legislation at the national level.
This article was originally published on the Matador Network.
ONE OF THE side effects of international travel is that you lose the luxury of thinking of yourself only as the citizen of your hometown or country. Unless you cloister yourself in a walled resort, you’re going to come into contact with citizens of other countries and places, and you’re suddenly going to realize how closely your lives are linked — your politics, your economies, your environment.
Becoming a good global citizen is a difficult thing to do, and it can be incredibly overwhelming if you’re confronting your place in the world for the first time. Here are some easy things you can do in 2014 to make yourself a better global citizen.
1. Learn about the stuff you buy.
Look, for the time being, we live in a capitalist’s world. We’re not getting rid of consumerism and rapacious free markets any time soon. But as a relatively affluent member of a relatively affluent country, you have the ability to buy your food, clothes, and gadgets not because they are cheap, but because they are ethical. Of course, it’s insanely difficult to be a totally ethical consumer: Should I eat meat? How do I find locally made gym shoes? Does the company that makes my Extra Virgin Olive Oil actively campaign against gay rights? Does my bubble tea company pay its employees a living wage?
And so on. There are some things you just can’t buy ethically, and to some extent, you’re probably going to fail in your effort to be a conscious consumer. But here’s one hugely positive step you can take: Get out your smartphone — yes, the one made with conflict minerals — and download the Buycott app. Buycott allows you to join user-created campaigns that you believe in, like “Campaign for Ecological Responsibility” or “Say No to Monsanto” or “Equality for LGBTQ.” Next, take your phone into your pantry, closet, or fridge and start scanning your products’ barcodes. Buycott will tell you — based on your campaigns — which of your products are ethically made, and which aren’t.
You may not be able to buy everything ethically, but you can certainly start.
2. Travel sustainably.
Unfortunately, travel can leave a pretty huge carbon footprint if you’re not careful. So how can you get from Point A to Point B without poisoning the lungs of your great-great grandchildren? If you have the time, try traveling by bike, or walking, or kayaking, or sailing, but if you need to be moving a little faster than that, check this out: The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a guide a few years back for traveling green. Turns out, the best way is one of the cheapest: Take a motor coach. You can see the best travel methods ranked here (they depend on the number of people you’re traveling with and the distance you’re going), but the worst ways to travel are to fly first class or drive in an SUV.
3. Volunteer locally.
The popular maxim is “Think Globally, Act Locally.” If you’re trying to help make a better world, the best place to start is in your own little corner. One way to do that is to volunteer. If you’re at all like me, you always mean to but never quite get around to it. Here are a few resources to help you get over that hurdle.
The first is VolunteerMatch. Punch in your location, your email, and the causes you’re interested in, and each week they’ll send you a newsletter with opportunities nearby that you can sign up for. Another similar site is Idealist.org, which can do the same but with jobs as well as volunteer opportunities.
4. Donate, but donate smart.
Philanthropy is important to being a good global citizen, but it’s far from the most important thing you can do, and is also one of the most fraught decisions you can make. You may have read the excellent Three Cups of Tea a few years back, about an American named Greg Mortenson who built schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an awesome story, so naturally a ton of people rushed to donate to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute. Problem was, a lot of Mortenson’s story was a lie, and his charity was horribly managed. So if you donated money, it likely wasn’t going towards building those schools.
How can you know which charity to trust? Fortunately, there are a number of sites that do this work for us. The first is The Life You Can Save, an organization founded by philosopher Peter Singer that’s focused on giving your charity money the most bang for its buck. Very few charities meet their very high standards, but they hope to add to their list over time.
Another site to check out is Zidisha, a microlending site. You’ve probably by now heard of Kiva, the more famous microlending site that allows you to lend money to causes and small businesses around the developing world. Zidisha is similar but cuts out intermediary institutions, making it more of a peer-to-peer website than Kiva. Zidisha also has a much lower interest rate for borrowers, which is important for those that worry that microlending simply puts the borrowers into serious debt. Kiva, on the other hand, has a slightly higher repayment rate. Since this is, in fact, lending and not giving, you could theoretically use the same $25 over and over again endlessly, and support countless small businesses in the developing world.
For a full breakdown of the differences between Kiva and Zidisha, check out this article.
5. Read everything you possibly can.
This sounds simple, but one of the best ways to engage with your world is to read everything you possibly can. If you aren’t a big reader, start listening to podcasts. If you’re a more visual person, start watching the news. If you aren’t a big TV person, try comics journalism. Seriously — it’s a thing, and it’s incredible.
The point is that, to a critical reader — a reader who’s skeptical of the source and its bias and engages with the material instead of accepting it — nothing is harmful. Not even bullshit-heavy conservative mouthpieces like Fox News. And this isn’t even limited to nonfiction — there’s no shortage of thought-provoking fictional material out there. The goal, with your reading, is to get yourself thinking in different ways and to be more engaged in the world around you. To find new stuff, check out Goodreads, TasteKid, and Shelfari.
6. Get involved in politics.
Volunteering is great, but at the end of the day a lot of the problems with the world are systemic, and volunteering is usually focused on a more personal level. Fortunately, most of the people reading this page right now are probably in democratic countries, where there are plenty of avenues to legally make a difference in the political system.
Getting involved in politics can mean any number of things (and don’t believe the assholes who tell you democracy ends at the voting booth, and that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain). The quickest way is to start letting your representative know what you think about the issues that are important to you. If you’re in America, here’s a tool to find your Congressperson’s Twitter account. Here’s how to find their email. Trust me — someone’s at least gonna glance at your missive.
If you don’t like your representative, campaign for their rival. The New Organizing Institute is a great organization with a ton of awesome resources designed to help you organize for political campaigns. You can also, on a lower level, give to campaigns you approve of. It may sound boring, but politicians do operate on money, and they do need your money just as much as they need your time.
Finally, if you belong more to the “We Shall Overcome” crowd, Lifehacker put together a great guide on how to safely protest, the law blog LegalFish did a piece on how to legally protest, and the Economist explains why, if you’re going to break the law protesting, you should do it peacefully.