Friday, February 24, 2012

varying shades of gray

a few weeks ago I found a copy of bruce sterling's 2002 book tomorrow now: envisioning the next 50 years in the $1 bin at a buns & noodles in the hub and I've been impressed both by the way he writes and the optimism which his book gives me. you'd think the guy who helped define the word "cyberpunk" would be more interested in dystopia, but the world he proposes isn't a utopia either. it's like today, only moreso, and with fewer hypocrisies.

this essay on the ethics of using currently ethically-challenged technology to create more ethical technology caught my eye and strikes me as something in that same optimistic vein. I think most people like me fear that, once we have recognized and admitted our privilege, we need to give it up in order to make the changes we know need to happen. but writers from jon sobrino to karl marx to the gospel authors tell us that's not the case: we need to use that privilege to help other people. as leonard writes in relation to social networks and action, "Just because action is easy doesn’t make it irrelevant." it's easy for me to give a 30% tip to a server at a restaurant and that's certainly not irrelevant.

if it's irrelevant to do the easy action then we're stuck in the spanish prisoner's dilemma of doing nothing because for most of us the harder action is useless too. if I give up my privilege and go to work in foxconn's factories in taiwan, what exactly have I done? have I helped anyone? will I have bettered the life of the teen worker next to me or bettered the life of the single mother who would have gotten the job if I hadn't taken it? will even my life or my identification with the oppressed have been improved? it isn't necessarily a false either-or, of course; a third option is that I could forget it all and ignore both the plight of the workers and my own privilege and go on with my consumption and affluence.

jesus and marx both said that the way to personal salvation is through helping others who aren't doing as well as you are. the bodhisattva takes it a step further and actively refuses his own salvation until everyone is saved. how ironic and perfect if the way to do that is the judicious use of the "like" button.

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