Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is Love?

It's Valentine's Day. A day full of love—whatever that is. I don't think there's any one, uniquely right definition of “Love.” People probably vary widely in how they approach the concept. Far be it from me to tell anyone they're going about it wrong. I think it's one of life's big mysteries, to figure out how we're going to confront the concept. In that regard, it's perhaps more a question than an answer. What I offer here is my own answer, not any Grand Unified Plan for Love you are obliged to subscribe to, just a written record of how I personally approach the matter.

A question that often fascinates me is “Why do you love me?” It's interesting because it seems to presuppose a certain kind of answer. “I love you because you're a good cook.” Or perhaps, “I love you because you're beautiful.” Or maybe, “I love you because you're such a good singer.” Personally, I find this a dangerous way of approaching the concept. If one defines love in terms of a service provided or a characteristic that may be transient, it might be that if circumstances change, there will be no love. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some people do define love this way. Some might say such love is shallow—I don't know, that's perhaps a value judgment. I'd like to steer clear of that. But I will say it sounds fragile, waiting to be broken by an arbitrary change in circumstance.

Some people appear to perceive love as simply a more intense version of like. “I like you. I like you a lot. OK, it's so much I guess I love you.” This too seems fragile, but more than that, I think it doesn't create a space for the commonly observed place where we can sometimes find ourselves loving someone we do not like. Certainly that's not well-explained by simply saying that love means intense liking. So I don't use the word to mean a kind of intense liking.

In fact, I think the part where one can love someone they aren't liking gets closer to the point. It takes commitment to have that kind of feeling that allows love to span the rough times. Whatever love is, it had better somehow explain this whole business of commitment.

I think of liking something as a sensation of positive feeling, disliking as a negative feeling. But love is more like a decision. It's a switch I can decide to flip. I can choose to love. The decision may be for an arbitrary reason. Maybe I liked your smile in that moment. It could be I think you're a great cook. Or perhaps we just shared an amazing experience, like climbing a mountain or building a house together.

I guess what I'm saying is that the reason one falls in love doesn't have to be the reason one continues to love. If we climbed a mountain, we don't have to always climb mountains. If we do, that love is fragile. Or so I claim.

To my mind, the liking of something expresses a positive sensation that can be more or less strong. But the loving of something is just there, or not, or at least it is to me. It's notable for its constancy. I make the decision to love, and after that there's no more work to do. I just love. That's the commitment part. It's a decision that the love will be there regardless.

This formulation neatly gets around the thing some people have where they pester you every moment of the day to find out if they are still loved. Love is not supposed to be that changeable. I don't have a problem about expressing that I love, but I do feel the expression should be pro forma. The person should just know and rely on it. What other point is there to it? If I can love you at 2pm, not love you at 3pm, and love you again at 4pm, then what is it I committed to? It needs to be more durable, not to mention more relaxed. It needs to reinforce the other things I do for you, especially things that require effort, not call into question the validity of doing those things.

Love has hysteresis. (No relation to hysterics. A minimum of hysterics is just fine thank you.) Many people don't know this concept of hysteresis, but it's a good one and worth learning. You see it in a thermostat. Something you want to do with a thermostat is to set your furnace to go on, let's say if the temperature falls below 68°F. But suppose the thermostat reaches 68°F and then hangs right around there, fluttering up and down. Should the furnace go on and off? Thermostats are designed so that they don't. Once the furnace goes on, it stays on unless there's a much bigger change than it took to get it to go on. Small changes don't affect the decision once it's made. It should tend to stay set and not move capriciously back just because you waver a little. It requires a big motion in the system for it to back out.

And love needs a lot of hysteresis so that it can be depended upon. Perhaps there are circumstances that can break one out of love, but they should be rare and extreme, not common everyday things.

Love provides predictability, constancy, stability, commitment. It's there and not going anywhere. It's not something to worry might slip away if you say or do some little wrong thing. It can be relied upon.

Love is also something to celebrate.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published February 13, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): philosophy, love, commitment, definition, why, like, emotion, decision, intensity

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Using Real Names has Real Consequences

I post under my own name, but I do it with a consciousness of the risk.

I've been on the net (it was the ARPANET then) since 1977. At that time, we actually had user profiles with a place to supply your social security number, and people often complied because there was no reason to suppose it was dangerous. Those were certainly different times. People today are often horrified as they look back at the practices of those days, but everyone's sensibilities were different then. At some point we noticed that there was danger in having such information out in the open, so the data was erased and the ability to attach it was removed. But initially we were more trusting.

I had an unofficial administrative position on one of these machines as member of a group called “user-accounts” that oversaw guest usage of the machine. Guest users were called “tourists.” They were tolerated on the system as long as they didn't interfere with real work, but sometimes we had to disable an existing account or deny an application for an account if we suspected a potential for problems.

Having their accounts turned off didn't always make people happy. The first time I ever found myself quoted by someone on a web page in the early web, it was a remark quoted out of context from my time as a user-accounts member, where I'd once said in email, “[It] would have taken hours to be fair and we're not employed to do that sort of thing.” You can imagine that kind of attitude upsetting this or that person. In fact, in its proper context, the thing to understand is that we already went to extraordinary lengths to be fair to tourists, spending sometimes hours of unpaid time to make sure we didn't do anyone an injustice. But at some point there was just a limit where we had to just guess.

Life in the digital world is not a certainty, and an entire lab of real research at MIT depended on things operating properly. Just one act of devastation by a tourist on our largely unprotected and highly trusting system would have brought down the entire tourist program, and could have jeopardized research funding for the Lab. It was no small matter. So sometimes we just made arbitrary decisions, and tourists sometimes just had to live with them.

It happened one time, however, that someone was so annoyed by something I'd done that in retaliation he ended up performing an act that I'll describe here simply as “having a real world effect.” It really doesn't matter what the act was, and I don't want to give anyone ideas of mean things to do to someone. We'll just say it was more destructive than just sending an annoyed email, and that it involved the use of real world personal information about me in a way that was not proper. It was a sufficiently invasive act that there may well be a law against it now. Maybe there was a law then, too, but I didn't pursue it legally. My point, though, is that it made me conscious of the fact that not everyone “out on the net” was a nice person, and conscious in a personal, tangible way of the fact that sharing information, even information people have been accustomed to sharing since long before computers, isn't always harmless.

My favorite quote on privacy comes from John Gilmore's remarks to the First Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy in San Francisco 1991, which I had the good fortune to attend. He said:

Society tolerates all different kinds of behaviour -- differences in religion, differences in political opinions, races, etc. But if your differences aren't accepted by the government or by other parts of society, you can still be tolerated if they simply don't know that you are different. Even a repressive government or a regressive individual can't persecute you if you look the same as everybody else. And, as George Perry said today, "Diversity is the comparative advantage of American society". I think that's what privacy is really protecting.

And that brings me to the claim that life would somehow be better if people blogged under their real name—if there were no pseudonyms. The underlying claim, not always expressed explicitly, is that eliminating pseudonyms would make people more polite and/or more accountable. I disagree that it would, even if it did, I don't think the cost is worth the value.

First, there is the question of whether you need to know who a speaker is in order to evaluate truth. I don't think you do. Maybe once in a while. Wikipedia is a monument to this because although you can find out who wrote what in there if you dig really hard, most of the truth that is in there is best verifiable by going and testing to cited references, not by going to who wrote it and by testing their character. If who said it mattered, then they might as well throw out the content after about 100 years since all of the people who've contributed will be dead and there will be no one to validate the content.

Second, the claim that having a publicly known name leads to better accountability is bogus. It's maybe okay if what we mean by “accountable” is exposed to personal whims of literally any individual on the net. But then how is that person accountable? In order to make everyone “accountable” for their speech, the claim seems to be that we should expose them to unbounded real world risk. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like much of a solution to me.

And while in most cases it may matter that people are accountable for what they say, consider the case where a patriot needs to speak out against an oppressive government. Before we claim that in all cases we want those willing to speak out to suffer the consequences of doing so, let's remember that rules tolerating offensive speech are not there because we like offensive speech, but rather because sometimes, especially in politics, it's subjective what is offensive. And sometimes it's necessary to make people feel uncomfortable in order to promote change. If governments or even just businesses always knew who was speaking, there might be no way to discuss certain things very critical to all of our lives.

I don't know how much of the recent activity in Egypt required some form of anonymity or pseudonymity to accomplish, but it's not a serious stretch of the imagination to think that the events that recently unfolded might not have happened without some degree of protection for those speaking out. Certainly in the case of corporate whistleblowing, anonymity can be critical. When real world corporate or political power hangs in the balance, perturbing the lives of exposed individuals is well-known to be the cheap way to “fix” the “problem.”

Still, even for those cases that do need accountability, all that matters for accountability is that someone (e.g., an OS system administrator) could contact that person. It's just not necessary that every person in the reading audience know how to contact every writer, since it's not the right or responsibility of most people reading along to be imposing judgment or punishment.

There may indeed be some forums that are more pleasant when real names are used, but the price may be that those forums cannot carry the voices of our most vulnerable or our most controversial. It's worth keeping that cost in focus. There is some risk to words, but there is greater risk to people taking up sticks and stones to make their point. I'd rather see words encouraged over sticks and stones, even if the price is tolerating highly controversial speech.

We should be encouraging people to speak and to feel safe about doing so. Sometimes that requires actual anonymity, sometimes just pseudonymity. But certainly it should not mean that “real names” are always best.

If the words of an anonymous soul appear to be causing a problem, more than likely it's an indicator that we need to learn about how to read anonymous writings, not that we need to reform the production of anonymous writings.

Author's Note: Originally published February 12, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, privacy, accountability, writing, authorship, psuedonyms, pseudonymity, anonymity, anonymous, pseudonymous, safety, hacking