Flown By Technology - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Flown By Technology

In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach wrote the following about the Mercury Capsules that took America’s first astronauts to space, “the astronaut doesn’t fly the capsule; the capsule flies the astronaut.” Roach explained that this was evident from two test flights that took chimps to space and returned them to Earth. If a monkey could fly to space, then we could question whether the astronauts were really necessary, a slight tarnish on the otherwise impressive feat of being the first Americans in space. The question raised during the Mercury Capsules is still with us, and as technology in all areas of life automates, it is more common than ever. Do we need to drive our cars, or can our cars drive us? Do we need to go grocery shopping, or can the fridge order food for us? Do we need to work, or can machines work for us?
In our lives we all like control. We may not be piloting space ships, but still like to feel as though we are in control of the machines and destinies of our lives. We don’t generally like to believe our destiny is a pre-set course, and we don’t want to feel as though our machines are in control of us. Some of us may be fully ready for the world of self-driving cars, autonomous kitchen gadgets, and artificial intelligences that can end the world of work as we know it, but for many of us, each step toward automation is terrifying. Many of us fear what we lose, what control goes away, when we hand over more of our lives to machines and computers.
I think that for many of us, these fears are a little late. Our retirement savings may already be dependent on algorithms that direct computers to trade stocks at super high speed. We already depend on sanitary systems that are incredibly complex and virtually impossible for any single person to comprehend. Sometimes a single human error or ship run aground in a canal can disrupt global systems driven by humans, machines, and algorithms. The reality is that we really don’t have the control we always like to believe that we have. We are not flying the ships of our own lives to the extent we like to believe, quite often the machines, systems, and institutions on which we depend are really flying our lives. Fully automated or not, there isn’t actually that much that we have direct control over.
As we move forward into an uncertain and confusing world, many of us will have an impulse to push back against technology, innovation, and automation. We won’t want to accept that we are as dependent on machines, algorithms, and artificial intelligence as we are and increasingly will be. We will hold back progress and development, but we will only temporarily delay the inevitability. Humans won’t be needed for many things, and while that will be scary, it may open new doors for human potential that we can’t imagine now. We should recognize that humans have never truly had control over their own lives and destinies. We have always in one way or another been flown by forces bigger than ourselves.
Working Versus Dependent

Working Versus Dependent

One of my favorite ideas from the world of political science is the Social Construction Framework. In the framework, social constructions, that is ideas and concepts that people hold about groups of people, end up determining what types of policies can be adopted. The ways we think about people shapes the ways we treat people. We think of veterans as having made a great sacrifice for the nation, and as a result, we adopt policies that benefit veterans. We see people who commit crimes as having wronged society and consequently we develop policies that punish criminals.
Elliot Liebow reflected ideas from Social Construction Framework in his book Tell Them Who I Am when writing about the ways that homeless women saw and understood themselves. He wrote, “the women recognized only two classes: a working class and a dependent class, with each group claiming to be the deserving poor.” In this example there are two groups that share commonalities, but are differentiated by their work status. The social constructions around each group, the ways we (and they) think about the groups, was in flux, with each group trying to adopt a more favorable view than the other group. Adopting a more favorable construction would hopefully lead to more favorable policies in the long run.
First, the working poor wanted to be seen as the deserving poor because they were making an effort to participate in society, to contribute to the system, and to show that they were hard working and not lazy. They deserved aid because they recognized an unspoken expectation in the United States, we won’t help you unless you make an effort to work. Deservingness, according to this group, was determined based on how hard someone tried to make it on their own.
The second group was those who were not working, but still saw themselves as deserving. The group which was not working included women who had disabilities and could not work, women who faced discrimination and couldn’t work even if they wanted to, and women who had fallen on hard times and didn’t know where to go to get back on track. They were truly deserving because they had no other alternatives, no resources beyond what welfare and shelters could provide, and no hope of getting out of their current situation. They saw themselves as more deserving because they had no way to make money. Those who were working, on the other hand, should be able to get by without continuing to take handouts. In the view of the second group they were truly destitute and in need of aid whereas those who were working didn’t need the aid and assistance as much.
What Liebow’s quote demonstrates is the constantly changing nature of social constructions within the Social Construction Framework. How a group is seen, the framing used to describe the group, and the outcomes of those perceptions and perspectives is always in flux. Groups compete for favorable positions, all in an attempt to improve political and social outcomes. Subjective opinions and feelings often matter more than cold hard facts within a world dominated by the Social Construction Framework. The distinctions can be razor thin between one deserving group and another deviant group, meaning that even slight shifts in perspective can be the difference between how someone from one group is treated.
Paternalism, Deservingness, and Dependency

Paternalism, Deservingness, and Dependency

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women and how society tries, but ultimately fails to truly help the women survive and rejoin society. Our system for helping those in need, especially the homeless, is inefficient, ineffective, overly invasive, and ultimately fails to provide what people actually need. We have a system that provides limited government support that is hard to access and hard to understand. We provide what we think homeless people and people in need want, or what we want to provide them, not what they necessarily need.
Liewbow has an explanation for why we have a system that operates so poorly, “That we tolerate these system malfunctions can be understood in part as the end point of two streams of public thinking about the poor. One is that many poor people are not deserving of public support; the other is fear of giving them too much support and encouraging dependency.”
One of the things I have noticed in my own efforts to help support those in need is that what I think I should give people is not always what they actually need and want. Rather than giving panhandlers money, I prefer to give them some type of in-kind donation, often some type of non-perishable food item. I used to buy nutritious and calorically dense granola bars, but what I learned is that people who are asking for money often don’t have teeth or don’t have good oral hygiene and cannot actually eat a granola bar. Nor can they eat apples, healthy sandwiches, and other food items that I would prefer to give them rather than cash that I fear they may spend on alcohol. I’ve settled by providing Nutrigrain bars and similar soft yet somewhat nutritious food items that I can keep in the car.
My story shows how there is an element of paternalism in the way that we approach the homeless. We assume we know what is best for them and provide what we think they need, we don’t always take into consideration what they can actually use, carry with them, and what they would prefer. For me, this has been a learning process to be more useful with my support, even if I am still not giving them money which would be most useful. However, for many people, homeless people are not seen as deserving of any aid, and consequently those who help them become overly paternalistic. Any aid is provided on the conditions of the donor, with little consideration for the needs of the poor and homeless. If someone won’t take that aid then it further demonstrates that they just are not worthy. I think my experience of trying to give the homeless apples and granola bars demonstrates that this paternalistic approach and calling people unworthy demonstrates the shortcomings of such a view and approach.
The second aspect of Liebow’s quote is that we don’t want homeless to become dependent, so we chose to give them the minimal support necessary to survive. The theory suggests that we shouldn’t allow them to be too comfortable, or they won’t try to fix their own lives. We don’t want to offer them too much support, or they may just come to expect aid and assistance rather than accepting that they must work and be productive. Somehow we think that desperation, starvation, and the pain and shame of homelessness is the right way to get people to work and be productive. We would rather see people wasting away on the streets than living in acceptable conditions and receiving food, money, and shelter provided by the  government. Dependency runs against the American ethos that so many of us adopt, and we are unwilling to help those need beyond the bare minimum that we can do to keep them from dying in the streets.
Participating in Society - Shark Tank - Mark Cuban - Joe Abittan

Participating in Society

I recently read Entertaining Entrepreneurs by Daniel Horowitz. The book is a deep dive into the show Shark Tank, examining the culture that made it a hit, the successful business people who play the investing sharks, and the contestants and their pitches. The book talked about the way the sharks present themselves as sharp individuals whose exceptional work ethic and insightfulness allowed them to become independently wealthy. With Mark Cuban on the show, I was constantly reminded of the stories about him I heard growing up. Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, and as a child who grew up playing basketball, his story was all around me. Cuban reportedly ate nothing but mustard sandwiches as he was trying to make it big, working hard, and living frugally. Now he is a billionaire, and his days of eating mustard sandwiches are behind him, but his discipline in his early days are what allow him to have the fabulous lifestyle he lives today.
Horowitz shows that there is much more to the story than Cuban eating cheap food at home while trying to be the hardest worker in the world. Cuban participated in a complex society, eventually selling his company to a much larger corporation, and eventually building his own massive organization behind the scenes. There is a paradox in the idea of the individual witty sharks, who are all backed up by corporate enterprises and rely on many people to propel and perpetuate their fame and status. No matter how independent they want to be, Horowitz reminds us, the sharks, and indeed everyone connected to the show, is participating in society and relies on other people to live the fabulously wealthy lives that we all dream about.
On the other end of the our socioeconomic status ladder are homeless individuals, and in the case of Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I Am, homeless women. Mark Cuban and homeless women seem like they would have nothing in common to connect them in the same blog post, but homeless women, just as Cuban, live within a larger society. No matter how poor one is, nor how wealthy one is, participating in society cannot be avoided, and that participation will in-part drive the outcomes one sees. Cuban is able to participate in society in ways that enhance his status, while homeless women cannot participate in society in ways that enhance their status. In fact, homeless women can only play one role in society, the role of the outcast who everyone is allowed to lambast. Liebow writes,
“Since homeless women are not likely to have formal credentials, social status, money, or useful social or business connections, they confront potential employers, landlords, indeed the whole world, with little more than themselves to offer for evaluation. For this reason, and more than for most of us, the way homeless women present themselves – how they look, speak, and carry themselves – makes a great difference in how they are treated by the rest of the world.”
Homeless women are not even given real opportunities for advancement as they participate in society. They cannot be separate individuals defined purely by how hard they work and whether they are willing to eat nothing but mustard sandwiches as they pinch every penny. When they show up looking for someone to help integrate them into society, they cannot change the fact that their appearance and lack of credentials tells the world they are homeless and unworthy of our respect. When this is the only way they can participate in society, it is no wonder that they never seem to improve their lives.
Cuban, and the rest of the sharks, don’t want to present themselves as depending on society in the way that homeless women do. Cuban and the sharks are fabulously wealthy, well credentialed, and well connected, but they need investors, creditors, social connections, and a public that believes the hype in order to participate in society the way they want. In the end, they are not actually that much different from homeless women – they still depend on society and the roles society allows them to play. The difference is that society has deemed them worthy and valuable, and loads them with praise, while homeless women are deemed unworthy and useless, and criticized as they are pushed away. Homeless women are unable to present themselves in a way that society rewards, but as Horowitz explains in his book, the Sharks all go through painstaking effort to present themselves in a specific way that society does reward. They are as sensitive to their presentation as the homeless women are, but they are better able to control and manipulate that presentation.

Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Returning to Self Sufficiency

I’m not sure what it is that makes us want to do things on our own and show that we are independent and strong. Perhaps we have a drive to escape from the dependence of our families and parents to show that we are no longer helpless children, and that we can survive independent from the structures that raised us. I’d imagine some of us have this feeling more strongly than others, something that our ancestors might have needed from some members of society when we lived in small tribes. At that time, for humanity to survive and grow, we needed brave individuals who could venture out on their own to find new resources.

 

I’m a middle child, and perhaps for me, part of my feeling of independence comes from my upbringing as a middle child, receiving less attention than my older sister and younger brother. I feel a strong pull to show that I can do things on my own, that I don’t need to rely on help from others to complete an assignment at work, to hike a new trail, or to find my way in a new city. But the reality for me, and for all of us who feel a strong drive toward independence, is that we are hopelessly, hilariously dependent on others for everything we do. But this dependence on others and on society does not mean that we cannot still be self-sufficient.  Recognizing that we can be both dependent on others and self-sufficient can take away a lot of stress and help us have more healthy relationships with the people around us.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient-and marries a wife; he is self-sufficient-and brings up children; he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” We cannot necessarily order all of our affairs as we would like, but we can always do our best to order the thoughts within our mind in a way that will allow us to be self-sufficient. Even at our best and our most independent moment, we still rely on the structures around us and we dependent on our society to allow us to be self-sufficient.

 

It is important to recognize how much we rely and depend on others, and it is also important to think about what it means to be self-sufficient and independent at any given time. When we lived in small tribes, we were still dependent on others to bring offspring into the world and raise them to continue humanity. As humans evolved, our levels of dependence have changed and today we depend on our society for everything from keeping our homes warm, to having clean water, to being entertained on the weekends. Seneca’s quote tells us that it is ok to rely on others in this way, but that we should learn to be independent of a sense of need of many of the things we come to rely on. Without being distant and disengaged, we should take full advantage of the society we rely on, and yet understand that our relationship with the thing could change, and we could still survive without at least some aspect. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be reliant on it for complete happiness.

Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.

Individually Together

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey has an interesting observation about American togetherness in a country that is undoubtedly focused on individual rights, liberties, and successes. Very early in his book he writes, “Our nation speaks of individual rights and freedoms, personal responsibility and self-reliance, and yet we have consistently demonstrated, in spirit and sacrifice, the idea that we are better together—that while our differences matter, our nation matters more.”

 

I like this quote because our individual focused nation often forgets or downplays just how much we rely on one another for the lives we lead. It is very tempting, and even encouraged, to think about what we have done on our own to achieve success. We focus on our individual sacrifices to get the things we want, we reflect on our own hard work to get the promotion we wanted, and enjoy the spotlight when we win accolades and awards, but Booker is acknowledging something operating in the background of our individual focus. We could not have made those sacrifices without help from others, we could not have received the promotion had we not been given the opportunity by someone else, and we would not have received those accolades without the support of others. What we do on our own is only possible with the connections we share with the world.

 

Below the surface we recognize this. We have pride in being American even if we put stickers on our car that say, “Don’t tread on me” and we engage in community service to help strangers we have never met before. But because these connections are hiding away from our main focus, we fail to acknowledge them as powerfully as we should, and we risk isolation over unity. Booker continues, “We make a grave mistake when we assume this spirit of connectedness is automatic or inevitable.” Reveling in our own glory makes it likely  that we will forget just how much we rely on each other, and will make it possible for us to turn against each other or downplay the struggles of others in the face of our own challenges.

 

By recognizing that our individual desires are best achieved when we work and cooperate with others, or that our own goals are only possible in a system where others are united with us, we strengthen ourselves, our communities, and the American democracy. The more we elevate ourselves and turn inward, the more we turn away from bonds that connect our nation, and the more we risk the devolution of the American democratic experiment. Seneca wrote, “he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” Our existence is completely dependent on others, on society, and without others we may subsist, but in no way could we truly exist in any semblance of our current self. Non of what we are is purely born of our own greatness and effort, everything is interconnected with others and with a society that was built and shaped long before we came along.

The Strength of Concrete

Mark Miodownik explains our planets dependence on concrete in his book, Stuff Matters, which is an exploration of the built world and the materials that make the world what we see.  Miodownik explains that the first concrete developed on our planet came from the Romans, but the technology was not perfected until more recent times.  He also tells the story of how reinforced concrete came to be when a potter found that he could produce cheap concrete pots and boost their durability by setting the concrete around a steel internal skeleton. The strength provided allowed his pots to hold up to dropping, shipping, and the general wear and tear of the gardening world.
I find Miodownik’s section on concrete fascinating. Prior to reading his book I had never stopped to consider what truly went into producing concrete and concrete structures.  from our sidewalks, to buildings, to dams and barriers, we see concrete everywhere and Miodownik reflects on our perceptions when we see things everywhere.  He writes about our normal tendency to see those common and everyday things as simple and unimportant, when oftentimes, as in concrete, they are complex, crucial, world altering innovations.
While most of us may not appreciate just how important concrete is and we may not understand just how complex concrete is, there is an understanding in our country that our infrastructure needs some TLC.  And it is not just people in the United States who know their structures need some love, “To prevent stone or concrete structures being similarly affected, maintenance of their fabric needs to be carried or every fifty years or so.” In this quote Miodownik is explaining the effect of general wear and tear on concrete.  As materials heat up or cool down, as happens yearly due to the temperature changes of the seasons and days, they expand and contract. Reinforced concrete is a wonderful material in respect to contraction and expansion because the concrete itself and the internal steel skeleton expand and contract at almost identical rates.  This prevents the steel from busting out of the concrete and keeps the steel protected and the concrete free from cracks.  But overtime the concrete does develop micro-fractures, which grow into visible fractures, which allow more water in, and become clear chips and breaks in the concrete.  This erodes and breaks down the concrete structures we build in the same way that nature breaks down the mountains around us (or at least around me living in Reno Nevada at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains).
I think what I like about Miodowniks quote is that it shows the impermanence of what feels like our most robust building materials.  We may look at concrete structures and imaging their hulking frames will last forever, but what material science shows us is that they are constantly in a battle to be broken down. Even the mountains which define borders and seem to be natural strongholds of the earth are not permanent as weather batters them down.  If you cannot enjoy the science behind the concrete, hopefully you can at least appreciate the brevity of its existence in the long term life of the planet, or appreciate our perspective on the material, seeing it as an unyielding monolith which ultimately is brought down by some water and wind.

How Understanding Dependence can Lead to Gratefulness

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote of confidence, relationships, and dependence in her letter to James Harmon to be published in the book, Take My Advice.  On dependence she wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.”  This quote struck me as being very honest about our nature and our inner feelings in a world where we go out of our way to project visions of our best and happiest selves.

As our lives fill up with Facebook and LinkedIn, our online persona becomes a competition to see who can lead the most exciting, the most attractive, and the most impressive lives in both our social and professional lives.  The images we share with the world are our personal highlights, and the goal is to make us look strong, confident, and happy.  What we miss when we compare our lives to the lives of others on social media is the moments between the highlights, when each person must deal with self doubt, uncertainty, and fear.  Nussbaum’s quote helps me remember that I am not the only person who experiences these doubts when I compare myself to others online or in person.

I think it is important to consider how dependent we are on the planet for our own survival.  We are not just dependent on natural resources, but in many ways we are dependent on the systems we have built, people who maintain those systems, and supportive people around us. When we focus on how much we depend on others we can be grateful for the guidance, assistance, and services we receive from others. Cultivating this awareness can help us see how important it is to reciprocate those actions and feelings.  When good things happen in our lives it is tempting to blow up social media with our awesomeness and take credit for our accomplishment or good fortune, but I think Nussbaum would encourage us to instead give thanks, and to recognize the incredible system of support and assistance on which we depended, and from which our accomplishments materialize.