Category Archives: Philosophy

No Names

I finished George Orwell’s 1984 shortly after finals week, but I’m only now sitting down to write about it. Considering some of the recent happenings in the news, it seems an appropriate time.

Like it’s cousin, Brave New World, 1984 is a dystopian novel that outlines a grim existence for the future. 1984 has come and gone, but does that not reduce the potency of Orwell’s critique. It’s not difficult to see society heading in the terrible direction of 1984’s circumstances. Every day we give up certain freedoms to maintain social order and harmony.

For all the technical inaccuracies and impossibilities of the movie Hackers (which would have been more accurately named Crackers), I admit that I found the film at least mildly entertaining. There are bits and pieces of philosophy stuck in there – so brief that if you blink, you’ll miss them. In a deliberate nod to Orwell, a character named Emmanuel Goldstein delivers one of the most philosophical quotes in the movie:

Screen-Shot-2014-04-18-at-18.51.11You could sit at home, and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day. 1984? Yeah right, man. That’s a typo. Orwell is here now. He’s livin’ large. We have no names, man. No names. We are nameless!

The amount of digitized data has increased exponentially since that film was made in 1995, so it’s probably safe to assume that 17 computers is now a gross understatement. From the government, to our insurance companies, to our financial institutions, to our commerce – our livelihoods have been reduced to mere numbers in databases. We have become the little ones and zeroes that comprise some huge system that we have little or no control over.

Our identities have become commodities. Unscrupulous harvesters sell our e-mail addresses to spammers by the millions. Advertisers collected demographic information on us such as where we shop and what we eat so they’ll better know what to throw in our faces next time we open our eyes. And now come to find out most of our major financial institutions handle our personal information with very little regard as to how it may be misused. This is clearly illustrated by institutions such as Citigroup, a company that does not even bother to encrypt sensitive customer data before sending out into the world in a UPS box.

We have become so detached from our own identities that it is now possible for others to use them for their own maligned purposes. All it takes is the knowledge of a few sets of numbers that can be obtained quite easily.fortunetellerBW

It’s obvious now that we can’t simply throw away all these conveniences that we’ve come to rely on. It’s not like we can just stop using our driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers, and social security numbers and go back to addressing each other by name. That may have worked when America was nothing but a network of small towns and villages connected by dirt roads, but certainly doesn’t cut it in today’s fast-paced global economy.

Perhaps using biometric verification systems are the future of secure commerce – a scanner at every terminal that verifies you are indeed who you say you are and approve of whatever transaction that’s been initiated. Of course, there will still be tech-savvy identity frauders out there who are able to capture and reproduce fingerprint or retinal signatures for whatever diabolical means, so I’m not suggesting that biometrics would be and “end-all” solution. I do believe, however, it would put us in a better situation than we are in now.

After all, right now all it takes is digging through some victim’s trash or mailbox and doing a little internet research to pull off a good identity fraud.

Well I seem to have digressed a bit from talking about 1984, and this post is already long enough, so more on Orwell another time.

On Socrates and Monkeys…

Question everythingOne of the most important lessons that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates taught was to question everything – not necessarily to question and ultimately overthrow authority, but to always endeavor to understand why things are the way they are, and why we do the things we do. I found a nice little story that clearly illustrates this point.

Psychologists have conducted what has become a classic monkey experiment: They put a number of monkeys into a large cage, in the center of which they place a banana hung above an insulated staircase. Eventually, one of the monkeys will climb the stairs to try to get the banana. When he does, all of the other monkeys receive an electric shock through the metal floor of the cage. This is repeated for several days every time a monkey tries to climb the stairs.

Subsequently, after the shocks are no longer administered, when a monkey tries to approach the stairs, the other monkeys will attack it to keep it from climbing them. They have learned to protect themselves by keeping their fellow monkeys away from the staircase.

Next, one of the monkeys is replaced with a new one that has never been shocked. The new monkey will try to ascend the stairs, but the trained monkeys will attack it to stop it. The new monkey quickly realizes that if it approaches the stairs, it will be attacked, so it learns to stay away.

One by one, each of the original monkeys is replaced with a new one. As each new monkey approaches the stairs, he is attacked by all of the monkeys, even the ones who were never shocked. They have learned the behavior from the other monkeys. Each new monkey in his turn learns to attack any monkey who approaches the stairs, even though it has no idea why it does it.

When all the monkeys have been replaced, and even though none of the monkeys in the cage has ever been shocked, no monkey will approach the stairs. Why? If you could ask one of the monkeys, he’d probably tell you “That’s the way we’ve always done it here.”

Keeping this little story in mind has helped me examine how things in my life operate and question the reasons why. It is said that understanding is the first half of solving a problem, and though not all things in life are necessarily “problems,” understanding them certainly helps one deal with them more effectively, and often, more efficiently.