Progress is an accident

May 27th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Progress is a wonderful thing. If, in fact, there is a purpose to human existence*, it’s to progress—live longer; suffer less; kill less; etc. By those measures, we continue to progress, and that’s a good thing. I think those who talk about progress as if it’s a bad thing are either scared, confused, egocentric, bitter, deluded… well that’s enough name-calling.

[*I say that, but why don't we ever talk about the progress of other species?]

But for all the rewards that progress brings, it makes a lousy guide for our individual actions. Contrary to the propaganda of politicians and CEOs, we, as individuals, don’t make progress; it happens to us. We make changes; we make adaptations; we make the trials and the errors, but progress is that future state waiting for our offspring after all the accidental victories and well-intended mistakes tussle and fade.

Individuals and groups accomplish remarkable things, but to call any of it progress within a generation or a lifetime is usually rash. Beware of those who claim progress too quickly; they’re likely dishonest, overconfident, or tipping a blind spot.

Every invention, migration, and revolution carries an enormous risk of undesirable outcomes, but then again, the expectation that our individual life’s work contributes toward progress is a self-imposed one. It’s hard to face the prospect that our best-intended hard work could be a correction-in-waiting for a future idealist, but it’s very real.

Is bisphenol A a step on the march to progress or a just a correction waiting to happen? Eighty years after its development, we still don’t know.

If you’re lucky, you may foster a useful adaptation for the here and now. Just don’t try to chase progress because it’s something you can’t see.

The R-word

May 3rd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

The first thing that comes to mind when I read this post on word connotations is the well-intended but probably futile movement to stop people from saying “retard(ed).”

Full disclosure: I am an offender. Not often. But sometimes “nonsensical” doesn’t cut it. Is “retarded” a bit crass? Well I’m a bit crass. Deal! Right? Well, no. Maybe it’s not that simple. I wish it were. I wrestle with it; I’ve apologized for it. But should I?

Left alone, “retarded” would, I think, further devolve into what it mostly is already—the crass stand-in for “nonsensical.” Because of its strongly pejorative connotation, few would takes it seriously as an acceptable characterization of a person with an intellectual disability. Those who do are, and would be, chastised.

As best I can reason, campaigns reminding us that you are offending intellectually disabled children by using this term only reinforce the dying connection and restore legitimacy to the use of “retarded” as a descriptor for those with intellectual disabilities.

There is a very key difference between “retarded” and—to use one of Katja examples—”girl”: The proper, technical usage of “girl” is value neutral. On the other hand, “retarded”—to the very best of my knowledge—has always had a pejorative connotation, even during the bygone era when “retarded” was a technically proper term.

I understand the intentions of the anti-R-word advocates, but I think they hurt their cause by shining a light on the pejorative association and creating a backlash effect—the scolded, in turn, encroaching upon “mentally challenged” to replace the slang “retarded.” If the advocates accepted that their ideal case is a doomed cause, they may realize that letting go is the fastest route to their second-best case.

Games

May 3rd, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Virtual currency games are an object of easy ridicule. Sometime in the last year or two, they took off, bloating Facebook feeds with countless updates, rivaled in quantity only by the complaints they generated. Some causes are worth forming sides; I’m not sure this was one (ha), but the chatter got a little contentious. Fortunately, people learned to block these applications—the updates disappeared, and so did the nastiness.

I’ll claim that I avoided commentary on the matter, though I don’t necessarily buy that without checking the record. Regardless, “frivolous”  is too often abused by people who simply dislike stuff, and anyway, it doesn’t have to be an insult.

(Suspend judgment for eternity. It’s the easy way out of everything.)

I’ve never played these games but instead participate in an equally useless game that you might like to call Positivereinforcementville. (Trademark pending.) The premise is simple: I share my thoughts, and others pay me with their comments. If I can pick a fight or get an amen, the game begins. As long as I can keep my friends riffing, I get to keep playing. Instead of a virtual bank account, I feed my ego.

That’s right—Positivereinforcementville.

Exercisin’ the ol’ brain muscle is a convenient but flimsy justification for my game. Building a virtual empire is, I’m sure, far more challenging than baiting opinions on immigration or drawing a laugh from some self-deprecating antics. Whether one bolsters skills that will never be put to productive use or bolsters knowledge that will never be put to productive use, the resulting value is virtually (uh-huh) nothing.  Very few Farmvillers will ever run a corporation, and by the same token, I’ll probably never draft environmental legislation. Even if I change a few minds (unlikely), what does it matter? What if I’m dead wrong? Alas, it’s only a game.

Many have suggested that we’re headed toward a future dominated by complex games. Sweet! Well, I’d argue that politics, marketing, finance, and higher education largely fit the bill already.

If I sound disparaging, I don’t mean to be. Beyond survival, everything else is games. I’d rather enter an applied calculus competition than spend my days in the mines and nights at a dice table, but maybe that’s not a choice we should have. (My Catholic sensibilities say we should all be ashamed.) I can’t make that call, but the likelihood is that you get paid, in part, to participate in a game. It may not be the one I’d choose, but I won’t knock yours if you don’t knock mine.