Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mark Zuckerberg:

I just sold what Facebook stock I had purchased back in 2012.

I’m in that group of Americans fortunate enough to have money to invest, even if it’s not very much. Still, the money grew, so I owe you thanks. Most of it was in my kids’ Coverdell accounts; I’m now going to reinvest those funds some other way to save towards their education.

I didn’t sell because the stock had fallen. Instead, I began thinking I was benefiting from your company in a way I could no longer justify. Long before your recent comments appeared in various media outlets, I was already thinking of selling my FB holdings, weighing the ethics of profiting off your company. My opinion of you and your company was, at one time, very high.

Asked if you thought Facebook influenced the election, you responded:

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way—I think is a pretty crazy idea…Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

You also played a transparent empathy card:

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news…If you believe that, then I don’t think you have internalized the message the Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.”

Oh…we’ve internalized it all right. There’s no confusion: the people who voted for Trump are furious at the government, enough to spread global chaos. Of course, they’re being conned by a trickster, and they will suffer from the attack on liberties and environmental policy right along with the rest of us. If they deserve empathy, it’s because their points of view, experiences, fears and feelings toward oppressed groups—these feelings float on a spectrum between passionate hatred and blind indifference—were harvested for political (and probably for financial) advantage.

***

You’re smart enough to know no one is saying the only reason Trump’s supporters voted was because of the fake news distributed via Facebook. You’re also smart enough to know that Facebook did, in fact, influence this election in some way, an idea far from crazy. Do you think your employees are crazy? They are wondering what influence Facebook has had, and have engaged in necessary soul searching.

Facebook is many things. It helps me connect with friends abroad, sell books and keep track of information during emergencies. Alongside all that, of course, you must admit that Facebook is human history’s most efficient and far reaching propaganda and counterknowledge distribution system. Those of us who use the website to distribute news have to own that. As its creator, so do you, just as you have to own the role your company played in the election of a bigot whose threat to the world is very real. Facebook would have influenced the election either way, no matter who had won, but the fact remains that we’ve elected a psychopath currently empowering every variety of repugnance.

Facebook needs to change. Dramatically. It cannot sit idly by knowing how it is contributing to mass misinformation and propaganda. The consequences extend to every layer of our society.

As an educator, I’ve been fighting the “filter bubble” social media effect, highlighted so brilliantly here by Eli Pariser back in 2011, since the beginning of this decade. Ignorance and misinformation are so high among my students, especially on topics like climate change, politics, economics, international affairs and—to my shock—human sexuality and the process of learning, that I routinely assume they’ll need to unlearn a laundry list of things, and I’m usually right. Because most don’t read books or newspapers, most of them lack any information outside of their sphere of gratification. What’s inside their sphere is often misplaced, misunderstood and flat out wrong.

This semester one student “heard on Facebook” that video games help their attention span more than other activities. Another one thought that a local grocery store was giving away hundreds of dollars’ worth of food to random people. A third thought we should close all bank accounts because Obamacare was going to drain them of money if Clinton won. A fourth believed that Facebook was close to charging people cash to maintain their profiles. I should note this one is pretty old, but you jumped to correct it.

***

Obviously, we all are to blame for this on some level. Facebook does not generate information any more than does the mail carrier. But you are not a mail carrier and you know it. As a corporation, you don’t have to weigh the balance between your desire for profit and what social impact you have. However, you claim to imagine yourself as a place meant to connect people. It begs an obvious question: what sort of connection do you want us to share? Do you want to make it easier for us to hoodwink each other with nonsense, or to spread legitimate information and concerns? In the end, what do you think of us, your users and investors?

Frankly, I’m shocked by your Trumpist denial. Just as it’s Trumpist to say one thing but then to turn around and claim you never said it…to say you care about people whose rights you want to attack…it is also equally Trumpist to say that something is false when you know it’s true. It’s also Trumpist to say things so outrageous and extreme that they force people to respond to a distraction from the conversation. That’s exactly what you’re doing with your claim that Facebook had no impact whatsoever and that your critics lack empathy.

You know your policies and business model influenced the election, just as they influence any host of other things. You either don’t care or you like the results. Out one side of your mouth, you’re accusing your critics of lacking empathy. Out the other, you claim your critics—a group that includes your employees and investors—perceive a false reality.

What’s real? Obviously, it’s what Mark Zuckerberg claims to be true, no matter how extreme and absolute. That’s not an example of empathy. It’s much closer to the Facebook post of a stubborn and crazy uncle.

Cordially,

Gint Aras
800px-narcissus-caravaggio_1594-96_edited

Image of Narcissus by Carvaggio from Wikipedia.


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A series of good questions

What should I do if I can’t come during your office hours?

Also, if I can’t hand in any of my homework, what should I do?

Another thing, I need to know if it’s possible for me to miss class next week because there’s like a trip to Texas my mom is looking forward to taking. You know, the whole family. She’ll be real sad if one of us can’t go.

Oh, man, this computer just crashed. What should I do?


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Progressive, compassionate education reform

Those of us interested in serious education reform so often bump up against intense opposition, enough to make us feel there’s little we can do as educators or citizens. Thankfully, some people are not left discouraged but take action.

Introducing, The Chicago Wisdom Project and founder Theodore Richards who is also a writer and activist. My conversation with him in a Chicago tapas joint inspired me to profile his mindful and creative approach to educating at risk youth in this week’s True Community, my weekly column about men and education. I hope you’ll check it out and share. This provocative project, which teaches permaculture and art education, deserves wider attention. I feel it’s a model for serious education reform, particularly for inner city schools and urban community colleges.

From the article:

The creative process, of course, is natural. It is not an artifice we impose on ourselves. To create, one must allow ideas to come, let them take their course as we also guide them. Creative ideas grow. Sometimes they’ll be attacked by weeds or insects. They’ll dry up in the sun or get washed away. People will taste them and like or hate them. They are born, ripen, rot and die, yet they are never “finished” completely; they lead to other ideas in endless cycles. The most valuable lesson of exploring one’s creativity, especially for a young person, is that we wish to perfect things but can never be perfect. Creating—cultural participation vs. cultural consumption—is a process. Its purpose is to journey, not to arrive.

Click here for the full article.

Wisdom Project


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It finally happened…

I wondered if it ever would—today is the day. Students routinely come to class without having completed reading assignments, often really short, almost symbolic ones. But today an entire class of college students came without a single one having completed this week’s writing assignment.

I came prepared to lead a revision workshop. I was prepared for some percentage of the students to come without anything to revise. I use turnitin.com to collect essays, and only five minutes before class was to begin not one student had turned anything in. I gave them a long break (it’s a three hour discussion/lecture that meets Wednesdays) thinking that some of them would sneak to a computer. Nothing. Two students left the class to take phone calls. Two others left before the class was finished.

I didn’t bother enforcing any of my telephone rules. As for the essays, I played along without ever mentioning them. I taught a workshop on flawed assumptions, and we reviewed a paper that makes serious errors. And that was it. I told them their revisions are due next week and sent them home.

For the record, this is a horrible feeling. I feel useless, inconsequential, like I went through motions that had less value than steps on a treadmill. I could have spent this time writing or playing with my children. I could have cooked food for a hungry person. I could have gone to the Zen center to meditate. Continue picking numbers—the gutters need cleaning and my garage door is broken.

I used to get angry and frustrated. I used to think about what else I could do to motivate, to interest the students. Today I just came back to my office and ate the meal I had brought with me. I put on Pandora and sat to write this post. I’ve become one of them. This is how it feels—I’m finally there—to have nothing at all to say.


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Luck vs. Intelligence, part II

Having reviewed the mid-term essays written by my English 102 sections, I’ve discovered more curious assumptions to add to the previous post. These do modulate from the luck vs. intelligence question. However, they reveal quite a bit about why some students just can’t learn at the college level, in a community college or elsewhere.

(continuing from previous post)

6.) You’re lucky if you make a decision to improve your life. If you choose not to improve your life, it’s because you’re unlucky.

7.) People learn things when you teach them.

8) It is impossible to look at the world from any point of view other than your own.

9) Environments generally adapt to an individual’s needs.

10 [to expand] An individual has no need to adapt to an enviroment and, therefore, should not worry about changing bad habits. People will accept you.

11 No one believes that learning is fun.

12) I am an acceptable representation of most people.

13) I can ignore evidence when it does not fit my beliefs.

14) You should only be taught things you already know (because that makes you more comfortable and improves your grade).

15) It’s always ineffective to teach someone something in a way that makes them uncomfortable and confused.

16) I should not have to search for information on my own. It should be presetned to me so that I could use it to solve a problem.

17) Most employers give you a clear list of instructions and explanations, and there’s always someone at work who knows that the answer is.

The most baffling one for me is #8. There’s evidence everywhere that this is simply absurd, and I’ve been consistently providing the students with data that contradicts that point wildly. Number 9 is a very common belief among students who make no habit of reading. I’d explain #14 by drawing our attention to virtually any politician; however, these students pay virtually no attention to the political process. Those political behaviors, if it isn’t obvious, just reflect our culture.