Atheists Talk–Roy Speckhardt

Roy Speckhardt, American Humanists Association Annual Convention
Atheists Talk #0066, Sunday, April 19, 2009

Scott Lohman, the President of the Humanists of Minnesota, will be talking to American Humanists Association Executive Director Roy Speckardt. The AHA’s 68th annual conference will be in Phoenix from June 5th to June 7th. A member of the Minnesota Atheists will be presented with a special honor at this conference, but we don’t want to spoil the surprise. You will need to listen to find out!

The AHA and the HOM are sponsors of Atheists Talk, and we thank them for their support. The mission of the American Humanists Association is to make our society more open and accepting of humanists.

Roy is on the board of The Humanist Institute, an advisory member of both the Secular Student Alliance and the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship.

“Atheists Talk” is produced by The Minnesota Atheists. Directed by Mike Haubrich. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan.

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A Letter to the Kid

The other adults in your life aren’t blameless either. We’ve all let you down, including me. Sometimes we’ve let our own lives distract us. Sometimes we’ve let ourselves get worn down by the battles necessary to get permission to participate in your life as much as we want to. Sometimes we’ve let you make us angry despite knowing that was what you were trying to do, or held your behavior to standards we haven’t taught you to meet. Sometimes we’ve just forgotten that your life has taught you to hide your feelings, and we haven’t worked hard enough to find out what you were keeping hidden.

I’m sorry for all of that. I would change it if I could. I can’t. All I can do is tell you this: I’ve been there (which we’ll talk about when you can ask all the nosy questions you want), and it only gets better.

It’s Friday, which means I’ve got a new post up at Quiche Moraine. This one’s a little different. Somebody very dear to me is in trouble, and there are things she needs to hear, or at least things I need to say. I’m saying them publicly because there are almost certainly others out there who need to hear at least some of the same things.

Norm Coleman Is In

…the Urban Dictionary.

Dude 1: I can’t believe my brother is still trying to be an olympic swimmer.
Dude 2: Really, isn’t he incontinent?
Dude 1: Yeah man. They banned him from the pool. But every morning he keeps trying to sneak in.
Dude 2: That’s weak. He wasn’t even that great of a swimmer to begin with.
Dude 1: Yeah, the team, the coach and especially the janitors hate him more and more every day. There’s no point in continuing this. He’s really pulling a Norm Coleman.

(Totally stolen from Laurie.)

And just in case you didn’t get enough teabagging jokes yesterday, people are teabagging movie quotes on Twitter. Oh, yeah.

Today’s Economics Lesson

Tea is an import. The United States produces no appreciable amount of tea. The Boston Tea Party was triggered by duty (i.e., import) taxes. Lipton is owned by Unilever, which is based in London. Nestea is a brand of Nestle, which is Swiss.

So all the teabaggers who went out and partied today? Yeah, not only do they not understand what representation is, they also don’t understand that they just spent a day supporting foreign economies.

Yeah.

Tarred and Twittered

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the broader implications of amazonfail for censorship on demand. If you read (or reread) the post, you’ll find it’s full of “I suspect” and “I think.” Some of that is me trying not to sound as though I think I’m an anointed prophet, but more of it was a reaction to the pronouncements about amazonfail that I was seeing around me.

I realize I’m surrounded by writers who’ve had the passive voice beaten out of them, but statements like “Google removed the sales rankings of GLBT books and authors” are somewhat presumptuous in our hacking age. So is a petition that asks for “the rationalisation for allowing sales ratings for explicit books with a heterosexual focus.” Even worse are the statements that Amazon was targeting gay writers and readers.

All of these statements were made before Amazon had said anything about what happened, and all of them show the dangers of zero tolerance. Not that zero tolerance is bad in itself, but before we apply it, we should at least know what we’re refusing to tolerate:

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

For more insight into the glitch/programming error that turned an effort to “protect” us from explicit sex into an inability to search large categories of books, see this post with comments from a former Amazon employee. Then see the other comments in that thread and just about any other thread on the subject, or look at the Twitter amazonfail hash tag, and see all the people still insisting Amazon had this planned all along.

See people saying Amazon previously claimed to have been hacked, despite the links to some person on LiveJournal claiming to have hacked them. See people still claim this is Amazon trying to get rid of GLBTQ content, despite reporting in every forum I’ve seen that make it clear that other categories of books were known to have been affected before Amazon made any statement. See the sweeping away of facts that contradict the “Amazon is evil” narrative.

Ugh.

Look, I was wrong yesterday. As much as I enjoyed my little fantasy about some moralists getting results that were exactly the opposite of those they desired, I’m not going to cling to my ideas about what happened in the face of a contrary explanation that covers all the events that happened, even if I think the solution to either problem is the same.

Why? Because my righteousness and indignation, no matter how good they feel (and they do feel so terribly good) don’t actually get anything done on their own. At best, they can serve as a fuel to effective action–if I know enough to be effective. That was a problem in this case, with lots of speculation coming across as information and very few people putting it to the test.

To make it even better, Twitter was the main vector of communication about the Amazon stuff. Twitter is lousy for any communication which takes more than 140 characters; it strips logic leaving us only with reputation capital. The #amazonfail tag got a lot of reputation capital, initially from upset people and later from sheer volume…

But you can’t tell from a Twitter post whether or not something’s authentic. You gotta do your own research and thinking. Some people do; lots of people don’t. No matter what Amazon did or didn’t do, intentionally or not, there is absolutely not enough evidence right now to draw any conclusions other than “it’s bad that this happened.”

[...]

At some point we’re going to have to figure out how to overcome a thousand years of conditioning: for a very long time, saying something loudly required a great deal of effort, so at least you knew someone really believed what they were saying. These days, no effort at all, but we still have that kneejerk reaction.

No effort required and no information. Today’s technology makes it all too easy for the broadcast of righteous anger to become an end in itself, which makes for great peer-bonding and catharsis. Change is harder.

Well, that’s not exactly true. It isn’t difficult to channel righteous anger into change. Any number of riots have been the direct result of righteous anger applied directly, as have tarrings, featherings, rides on rails and lynchings. It’s achieving effective change and justice that are difficult, and the hardest part is waiting for all the information to come in and be sorted through.

Don’t underestimate how difficult waiting is, particularly for people who have been waiting for justice all their lives. They have every reason to be upset, even paranoid, if paranoia can be based on experience. I’m upset, and I’m not affected directly. But justice is worth the work and the wait, and the alternatives are not always pleasant, as Jacob Davies noted at Making Light.

Before we rush to decide that Amazon Is Evil and head over their headquarter with pitchforks and burning torches, faces flush with the pleasure of our own righteousness, we had better remember that that same pleasure in presumed righteousness is what brought down all the democracies of the past.

Of course, this is only Amazon. This is only a test. But we had better start learning some lessons about how to handle online democracy, because it’s coming down the pike at us fast – in the form of rapid opinion polling, Twitter, blogs, instant messaging, text messaging, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones – and in our rush of enthusiasm for this wonderful opportunity to build a new democracy – and it is a glorious opportunity, believe me when I say that I think that – we had better look at the lessons of the past before we repeat them.

This was just a test. The next one will be real, and people will die as a result of a mob sentiment building on Twitter before an investigation of the facts can take place. Don’t laugh. It is coming, faster than you think possible. As I say: this was just a test. The next one will be real.

I want Amazon to fix this yesterday. I want them to create public policies on how they treat what I’m tempted to start calling, “politically sensitive material,” so I can determine whether they’re a company I want to deal with. I want Amazon to state, very publicly, that they’ll treat my friends who are GLBTQ or who write GLBTQ characters or who write erotica with the same respect they’ll give to any other reader or writer. Ideally, I want them to recognize that they don’t want to be in the business of determining what is or is not offensive.

However, I’ll give them a few days to get it all done, particularly with a holiday weekend in there. I’ll give them time to investigate and to think about what the find. I’ll listen to what they do have to say about the situation and take enough care not to confuse it with things that other people have said. I won’t call them evil on the basis of processes and decisions I don’t understand unless they continue to make sure I don’t have enough information to understand. I hope others will do the same.

I’ll also suggest that authors and publishers should take a good, hard look at what they’re trading for the ease of working with one big, online retailer and ask that they understand that the pr
oblem isn’t that Heather Has Two Mommies wouldn’t come up in a search. The problem is that any time we set up a situation in which some content is filtered, even if it’s just a tiny amount, something will be screened out that shouldn’t be. The only way to keep their own work safe from the nannies is to make sure all work is accessible.

Now, do you think that will all fit on Twitter?

The End of Offense?

I suspect that someone, somewhere is sitting back, being very smug about the internet eruption that is amazonfail. They think they’ve shown teh gayz and teh wiminz. They haven’t got a clue what they’ve just done.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, start at Sex in the Public Square, which is just generally a good place to start. Caroline’s got a good rundown of the situation in which books with non-explicit GLBTQ romances, nonfiction books on “alternative” sexuality (including sexuality for the disabled), and feminist theory were listed by Amazon as adult and stripped of their sales ranks. This means they didn’t show up in searches, making them very difficult to buy.

Aside from issuing a statement that the removal from sales rankings was a glitch and is being fixed, Amazon has been very quiet about the whole problem. Several people have pointed out that the selective list of titles involves makes any purely technical explanation vaguely ridiculous. Over on LiveJournal, however, tehdely offers a theory:

It’s obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as “adult” after too many people have complained about it. It’s also obvious that there aren’t too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly “objectionable” materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question.

Okay, there’s no certain information there, but the idea does make it a little easier to comprehend a WTF situation. Combine concerted action by an outside party with a naive (but fairly standard) and probably automated offensive content policy from the company in question, and you’ve got instant censorship with no action on the part of the company. In fact, Amazon would even almost be right to consider this a glitch.

The problem for the crusading censors, though, is that this isn’t a glitch. This is a system set up to run on trust, and it’s been gamed. And in abusing that trust and gaming that system, the censors have cost Amazon badly. Net Effect summarizes the costs to Amazon in terms of publicity so far and in the likely near future, but there are other very important considerations for Amazon.

The company has been working with authors to make Amazon the place to promote their books. Associate accounts give authors a small amount of money on every sale made with one of their links, encouraging them to push readers to Amazon. Amazon makes preorders (which can mean a lot when an author is negotiating the next contract) very simple and available earlier than nearly any other seller. And Amazon offers authors’ blogs, fora for writers to interact directly with people who are considering buying their books.

All of those things are great for authors and for Amazon. None of them will make a bit of difference if an author doesn’t trust Amazon to keep random whackos from arbitrarily making their books disappear. Authors will find somewhere else to promote themselves.

In other words, the censors are messing with Amazon’s money, which changes the game. YouTube has had very little to lose by removing videos tagged as offensive. Flickr has had very little to lose by deleting entire portfolios when someone complains that one picture should have been labeled adult but wasn’t. Same with WordPress delisting adult content. With a free service, someone gaming offensive content policies generally only costs the person whose material is removed.

This is different. Amazon has a huge incentive not to be gamed. They need to fix this and quickly. Considering the sales figures of some of the books affected, like Brokeback Mountain and Ellen DeGeneres’s autobiography, they have an incentive to fix it by telling the censors to piss off. They can’t sell books no one can find.

I wrote last year about the idea of offensiveness and questioned whether it was still a useful concept in a diverse, egalitarian society. This is an excellent example of what I was talking about. What does Amazon do when one group is offended by content and another is offended by censorship? They do what Amazon does–sell books.

I’m hopeful that amazonfail will be the beginning of the end for offensive content policies. I definitely think it will lead toward the elimination of any automated systems for dealing with complaints of this kind at commercial ventures. Considering the cost of dealing with complaints on a case-by-case basis, it’s quite reasonable to conclude that this will, in general, result in a liberalization of content. It’s just so much easier to say, “We don’t censor,” than, “We’ll look at that book and make a decision. Yes, and that book too. And that one. And….”

It particularly easier when Amazon already has a system in place for showing people what they think they want them to see. “Yes, sir. Just log in and you can click on a button next to any content that offends you. As long as you’re logged in, you won’t see it anymore.”

There is every reason to think that the cost of incidents like amazonfail will push technology companies to make users more responsible for the content that they see while leaving the rest of us alone, which is exactly the opposite of what the censors who are so cluelessly smug today were hoping for. Poor little moralists, but they should have seen it coming.

After all, it’s the rest of us who read.

Update: See today’s post for Amazon’s statement on what actually happened.

Night of the Living Christ

Do I really need to tell you that this is perhaps not what you want to listen to if today is a religious holiday for you? Tucked below the fold so it doesn’t autoplay for anyone.

For everybody else, I have to add that one of the things I love about Schaffer the Darklord, beyond his sheer geekiness, is the way he takes the ideas behind his songs seriously and follows them as far as they take him. If this guy ever writes an SF novel, I’m so picking it up. The basic idea behind this one is simple:

Jesus is coming back someday, but I suspect his return will be considerably different than fundamentalist Christians predict.

The implementation, though? Well, hear for yourself.

He won’t descend from the heavens. He’ll arise from the Earth.

Atheists Talk–David Eller

David Eller, Atheism Advanced
Atheists Talk #0065 Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dr. David Eller, anthropologist, is an atheist. He has written textbooks on violence and culture, religion and culture, and culture and culture. He has also written very well received popular press books on atheism. He will be our guest on Sunday to talk to Grant Steves about his studies in cultural anthropology and his new book, Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of A Freethinker.

Atheism Advanced answers many questions, including: Why must Atheists stop “speaking Christian?” — not only to prevent religionists from setting the terms of debate but also to prevent them from determining the very thoughts we think? Are there any religions without gods? How are gods created, and are they being manufactured today? Why is science necessarily atheistic? Why must Atheists advance from being simply ‘without gods’ to being “Discredists,” thinkers who reject belief-based reasoning altogether? Includes an anthropology of comparative religion. [From the back cover.]

Produced by Minnesota Atheists. Interview by Grant Steves. Hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Directed by Mike Haubrich.

Podcast Coming Soon!
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Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call the studio at 952-946-6205 or email us at radio@mnatheists.org.