Public Opinion and Information: A Dangerous Combination

‘That guy is an asshole. The way he treated his wife is absolutely disgusting. I’m glad she left him, she deserves better…much better.’ That’s the response of society when it finds out that a famous soccer player has hit his wife, and that the pair consequently decided to split the sheets. But based on what does society form this judgment, or any judgment for that matter? Based on information of course! It heard from the tabloids what has occurred, it processes this information, and then comes to the most ‘reasonable’ conclusion/judgment. It’s pretty much like science, in that it bases its conclusions on data and reasons. But the prime difference between science and gossip/public opinion is that the latter doesn’t actively try to refute its conclusions: it solely responds to the data it receives. And this has some striking consequences.

Because what happens whenever the data changes? What happens when one or two lines in a tabloid form a new and ‘shocking’ announcement? What if it appears that – while the football player and his wife were still together – the wife had an affair with another guy? Then suddently the whole situation changes. Then suddenly the wife deserved to be hit. Then suddenly a hit in the face was a mild punishment for what she did. Then suddenly most people would have done the same whenever confronted with the same situation. Suddenly there is new data that to be taken into account. But what are the implications of this observation?

The public opinion can be designed and molded by regulating the (limited) amount of information it receives. And this goes not only for gossip, but just as much for more urgent matters like politics and economics. It isn’t society’s duty to gather as much data as possible, compare evidence for and against positions, and come to the most reasonable conclusion. No, society only has to take the final step: forming the judgment. And if you understand how it is that this mechanism works, you can (ab)use it for your own good. You could if you were in politics ‘accidentally’ leak information about a conversation the prime minister had with his colleagues, and thereby change the political game. The prime minister will be forced to respond to these ‘rumors’, thereby validating the (seemingly) importance of the issue. For why else would he take the time to respond to it? And suddenly, for the rest of his days, he will be reminded for this rumor, whether it turns out to be true – as it was in Bill Clinton‘s case – or not: where there’s smoke, there is fire.

But let me ask you something: don’t you think that famous people make mistakes everyday? Even if only 1 percent of the wives would get hit by their famous husbands every year, that would still be more than enough to fill each tabloid for the entire year. But what if – from all the ‘beating cases’ – only one or two would become public a year? Then – and only then – the guy who did the hitting becomes a jerk. Why? Because even though it might have been the case that the guys hits his wife, even if we don’t know it, now we have the data to back up our judgement. And since we’re reasonable creatures who only jump to conclusions whenever we’ve got evidence to do so, we are suddenly morally allowed to do so.

We find ourselves to be reasonable creatures for solely basing our judgments on the data we receive. We find this a better way to go than just claiming things even though we don’t know them for sure. And although this might very well be the reasonable way to go, we have to remind ourselves that we’re slaves to the data, and therefore vulnerable to those providing the data. We have to be aware that even though we don’t know about the cases we don’t have data about, this doesn’t imply that the cases aren’t there. It merely means that the parties involved – whether this is the (ex) wife of a famous soccer player or anyone else – saw no reason to leak the data. It only means that their interests were more aligned than they were opposed. And we should take people’s interests – and the politics behind it – into account when jumping to judgments based on the data we receive.

But what do you think?

Trust and Having Three Locks on the Door

I was looking out of my window, staring into the night, and saw my neighbor returning to her home from – what seemed to have been – a late night walk. She opened her door and – when she was inside – closed it. She not only closed it, but she locked it as well: with three separate locks. But why did she do that? Why three locks? Why not merely one or two? The answer is as simple as it is frightening: because we can’t trust each other. We don’t know what other people’s plans are. We might have worked hard in order to buy our flatscreen television, but others might have another interpretation of what “working hard” consists of. Robbing a middle-aged woman is – after all – not as easy as it might look.

This morning I went to the grocery store. In front of me, in the queue, stood an old lady. She was paying for her groceries, by pin. When she was about to enter her pin-code, she threw a look at me: a suspicious look. A look as if I would rob her of her pin-pass, if only I would have the chance.

I was going on holiday with a couple of friends of mine, and we were booking a flight. When the point came at which one of us had to pay for the flight up front, assuming that the others would pay him back at a later point in time, each one of us hesitated to take the offer.

If you want to trust someone, you better share your secrets with one person only, and that person is yourself. And even that person isn’t fully reliable. Even that person might come to change his mind and break his part of the deal. Because the “you of tomorrow” might have different needs than the “you of today”. While the “you of today” might intend to save money in order to pay for his education, the “you of tomorrow” might really like to buy that MacBook.

People have different interests, and different means for satisfying these interests. While some might be good in football and make tons of money with it, others might be good in carpentry and make not so much money with it. And some people don’t know where they’re good at, so they decide to make use of those who know where they’re good at. And although we can’t blame anyone for not having the required means at his disposal, we might doubt the morality of those who (ab)use the talents of others.

But what if morality would be a talent too? What if, just like soccer and carpentry, morality is just another quality ingrained – or not ingrained – in a person’s nature? Are we then still allowed to blame those whom seemingly lack this sense of morality? Or is this just the way they are, are they just using their “moral means” at full power? Or what if morality is only reserved for the few lucky ones? The ones who can afford to be moral, because they possess all the resources allowing them to live a moral life? Isn’t morality a luxury, like a MacBook or a mobile phone? A secondary need, only relevant for those who have passed the first layers on the survival-ladder?

Maybe…but it’s still a good idea to lock your doors.

But what do you think?

Why Communities Are Alive

Organisms are alive, cells are alive and bacteria are alive. All of these are vital “levels” of life, without which neither the highest level (the organism in this case) nor the lowest level (the bacteria in this case), would be able to survive. Complex connections are linking these levels together, in such a way that it has proven to be impossible for philosophers of science to reduce the higher levels (the level of the organism) to the lower levels (the level of cells and neurons). The linkages are there but they are just too complex to be caught in neat and true “law-like” laws. But when looking at these different levels of life, doesn’t there to be something one? Wouldn’t it be logical to have another level called “communities” after the sequence of levels of bacteria, cells and organisms? Just like there are “communities” of bacteria and “communities” of cells that work together in keeping alive the higher level of the organism, so can collections of organisms instantiate the live of a higher level “community”, can’t they? Let’s take a look at why the latter could be a reasonable extension of the “levels of life”.

What set bacteria, cells and organisms apart from communities? Looking at the biological structure of these entities doesn’t immediately provide us with a satisfactory answer. After all, bacteria, cells and organisms differ hugely in their internal biological organization. While organisms got organs keeping them alive, cells and bacteria don’t have “things” that can reasonably be labeled hearts or kidneys. Sure, cells got “organic units” (mitochondria, ribosomes, cellulose etc.) that on a certain level of abstraction could be compared to organisms’ organs. But, wouldn’t this be a level of abstraction in which communities, with its “organs” of power plants, libraries and transportation companies, might fit in as well. So a look at the anatomical structure of these levels might not solve the problem.

Another argument could be that – in contrast to communities – bacteria, cells and organisms are much more “coherent” units, much more dependent on each of its parts for staying alive than communities are. To put it crudely: if you rip a heart out of an organism’s body, it will die. And if you tear apart an organism’s stomach, it will (after a while) die. But don’t communities, on an abstract level, work pretty much the same? Aren’t communities also dependent upon its “organs” (read: power plants, libraries and transportation companies etc.) to stay “alive”? One could claim that the functioning of communities would be severely disrupted if one of these “organs” fails. For example, what kind of community would a “community” without its “organ” of agriculture be? A community without agriculture would turn the the “community” into a system that is functioning entirely different from the one including the agriculture. Or what about a community without law and public servants enforcing this law? That would surely create a “community” that is different from our “normal” conception of a community, wouldn’t it? And if so, wouldn’t that imply that the original community has stopped functioning or, to put it differently, has died?

But what about the “whole” community being dependent upon each of its “organs” in order for it to be able to function adequately? Isn’t it something different for a kidney to be ripped out of an organism, than it is for agriculture to be ripped out of a community? Well, I think it is not. For example, if the “organ” of law would fall away, chaos will ensue and a Hobbesian state of nature might begin. Therefore you could say that the structure or the coherence the collection of individuals had before the law was “removed” is gone, and that because of that the entity (read: that community) has died.

But what do you think?

We’re Underway for Merely 500 Years

We as a species are underway for quite a while now. But when you look at how much of this time we’ve actually been making some progress, it seems like we’ve just started. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment (17th century) that we started to make some progress in our knowledge. Up till that time, we were consumed by religious indoctrination preventing any creative ideas from coming into existence. The Greeks had made some progress in the centuries before and after Christ, but this progress was mainly philosophical in nature and hardly applicable in any industry. So you could say that we as a species are truly underway (read: making a difference) for only 500 years or so – adding a few centuries of the Greeks to the period spanning the Enlightenment until now.

That’s an inconceivably short amount of time when compared to the 7,5 billion years our earth – and possibly us – has left before it is shattered to pieces by the ‘death’ of The Sun. 500 years…that is .000000666 percent of the time still to come. And look at what we’ve accomplished in this short amount of time already. We’ve totally revised the world. We’ve come up with electricity, computers, the internet, transportation, medical care and many other life- and world-changing inventions. Look at the progress we’ve made in science, the many disciplines and specializations that have come into existence. It is absolutely staggering.

With that in mind, imagine what can happen in the upcoming 500 years. Imagine our economies going green, robots doing pretty much all physical labor for us and the internet being put into our heads so that we can ‘wireless’ communicate with anyone else. Maybe even a new substance will be found, called ‘consciousness’, which might resolve many of the most fundamental philosophical problems around, such as the mind-body problem, scientific reductionism and determinism. It might even explain why some fundamental particles appear to change their course when humans are watching them. Furthermore: imagine that, after the next 500 years have passed, 15 million of such 500-year cycles are yet to come in the future of our species. And probably even more, since it’s not impossible to imagine that we’ll find another planet to live on, thereby leaving the earth before it explodes.

Almost everything you see around you is built on knowledge that is gathered in the last 300-400 years. The buildings you see, the car you drive and the power you use. Everything that is of any relevance to your daily existence. You can imagine our descendants in 300 million years from now laughing at our convictions that we know quite a lot about the world already.They will see us as nothing more than an extension of the Neanderthals.

I ask you to take a look at your grandparents and listen to their stories about their youth. My grandfather told me about his neighbor getting the first tractor in town. He also told me about his experiences in the Second World War, an opportunity the next generations will never have.

What do you think?

The Dysfunctional Nature of the Internet

The internet is an outdated medium, but still the most modern one we’ve got. It’s a medium supporting the big ones, the ones with money, and preventing the new and little ones from reaching the top. Popularity is valued over relevancy. Fame over creativity. On Google, 58.4% of all the clicks from users go the first three links, the links considered most appropriate by Google. This percentage decreases dramatically when you leave the top three. Number 11 – that is, the site on the top of the second page – receives merely 2.6% of the clicks. Also, links are still the number one factor in the rankings of search engines like Google, MSN and Yahoo!. And an important factor in the valuation of these links is their trustworthiness, with trustworthiness being a notion that is vague, utterly subjective and based on criteria not necessarily enhancing the quality of the information provided.

Each of these factors hinder new, creative and recalcitrant bloggers from receiving the popularity that they – based on the quality of their content – might deserve. The internet, which in fact is Google and some other search engines, is Marxian in a dysfunctional manner. Power structures determine what information does and what information doesn’t reach the “consumer”, the client sitting behind his computer. It’s only when you’re in the bourgeoisie, when you belong the “big guys”, that you will get noticed. If you’re nothing more than a member of the proletariat, you can yell all you want but the power structures will push you down.

But why would this be a problem? And would it even be a problem? Well, it not has to be. It merely indicates that the internet is dominated by a few big corporations and that you, as a blogger, are painfully dependent upon the support of these few big guys. And even this wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem. Not if these big guys would base their rankings on factors that we – “the consumers” – find most important. We just want to read the information that bests suit our “information needs”. We don’t care whether this information is written by a fat guy or a big shot working at an esteemed newspaper. We just want our wishes to be fulfilled as accurately as possible.

But the truth of the matter is that the internet, as it exists in this 21st century of ours, can’t live up to these requirements. And the reason for this is pretty simple: the internet can’t read our minds. The internet doesn’t know what we are looking for when we type in, “Gay marriage from a Hobbesian perspective”, in Google. The internet merely recognizes the words “Gay marriage” and “Hobbes”. An although Google might come up with articles talking about gay marriage and about Hobbes, it forgets one big thing: the sentiment I’m looking for. I want the internet to provide me with information that suits my feelings, that absolutely fits my deepest – and sometimes even inexpressible – desires. It is merely cold words that the internet is founded upon. Cold words stringed together by links. We cannot blame Google or any other search engine for this. It’s just the way our 21st century technology works. This is the closest we can currently get in satisfying our needs.

I want to pick your brain for a second, and travel with you to the year 2060. In 2060 the internet will be different. It will not be based on written words anymore. It will not depend on how these words match Google’s database anymore. No, in 2060 we can by merely thinking and feeling about what we’re looking for urge Google to find the information that exactly matches our sentiment. Our brain waves will be matched to the “brain wave DNA” of the information that can be found on the internet. No need for links anymore. No domination of the “big few” anymore. Only the pure relevance of information will be judged. This will be an environment for beginning bloggers to thrive in. Released from the “status disadvantage” they currently have. Only the value of one’s content can and will be judged.

But what do you think?

Greeting as a Look Into the Soul

Do you pay attention to how strangers greet you? Whether they say, “Hi”, “Good morning” or nothing at all? If you do, you are likely to recognize that the one or two little words – or no words at all – people use in greeting you provides you with tremendous information about the person. It tells you what kind of person he or she is. What does he value? What’s his purpose in life? What does he think about his fellow species members? It gives you an insight into the soul of the person.

Think about it: children often greet you with a happy, “Hi”, when they pass you by, thereby showing that they haven’t been socially conditioned (yet) to speak with two words. Children just greet you in the manner they feel like greeting you: pure enthusiasm captured in often not more than a single word. You will also recognize that children will often be the ones initiating the greeting produce. They will say, “Hi”, first. They are not afraid of being invasive or in any other way disturbing another person’s “privacy”.

Now take a look at an elder person. The ones of 65+. These persons will hardly ever initiate the greeting process. And if you say, “Hi”, they will be suspicious and think you want something from them. Often they look at you slightly angry, awaiting the, “Can I have 10 dollars, please?”- question. They have built a shield in order to protect them from the sorrows and needs of others. “Just” greeting someone is out the question. There’s always a Marxian motive behind every greet. Power structures are dominating the social atmosphere.

What about the 20-35 year old category? These people are often so caught up in their own motives, goals and targets that they pretend to have no time for greeting. Moving in a firm walk, secretly hoping that they will encounter as few people as possible on their path. And the ones that want to greet them with a nod or a, “Good day”, have to be very quick. Otherwise the train of “making money” and ambition has passed you by.

People between 35-55 are slightly better. These people have come to realize that they are not alone on this world and that their lives don’t turn about money only. They absorb the world around them, slowing their walking pace and being receptive to the greeting gestures of others. Often a well-meant, “Hello”, can be heard when they are greeted.

But besides the distinction between greeters and non-greeters, the group of greeters itself can be divided again into many subcategories. Factors to look at in the greeting process are tonality, lexicon usage and facial expressions. If you do this, you are able to unravel a big part of a person’s personality in less than a second.

An example: you are walking your “morning walk” through the neighborhood you’re living. You are about to pass by a guy your age (early twenties) on the sidewalk. When the distance between the two of you has passed the “three meter-point”, you utter an enthusiastic, “Hi”, with a well-intended little smile and a nod. The person responds with an, “A good morning to you”, also with a smile and a nod. From this you can infer that he is a social person, who finds being nice to his species member important. Also, he is likely to be a Christian or in any way conditioned by a religion having taught him to greet others in a formal and decent matter. Why else would you say “A good morning to you” to someone in his early twenties? The person probably has not many friends, but the friends he has are good ones who consider him to be a trustworthy person. The person probably votes for a social party and finds his family more important than his career.

Another example: you meet a student – in his early twenties – in the center of town. You again nod and say, “Hi”, and await his response. You get a firm nod, no smile, and a split-second of eye contact. This person probably doesn’t have much faith in people being essentially good. Although he doesn’t really want to great you, but he finds it potentially dangerous not to do so, so he nods. He probably has a broad social circle, but few true friends. The person is likely to vote liberal and is planning to make a lot of money in – preferably – the banking sector.

You find this analysis of mine far-fetched? Maybe it is. But I believe that when you’ll perform this analysis for yourself, you are likely to reach the same conclusions as me.

But what do you think?

Why Fear is More Efficient than Love

Machiavelli is the father of pragmatic reign: the father of the ‘I’ll do no matter what it takes to stay in power’ mentality sovereigns should, according to Machiavelli, have. You can say what you want about his thoughts, but they sure as hell have been influential. At least influential enough for us to be still talking about them, five centuries after his dead.

I want to focus at Machiavelli’s idea that – for a sovereign – it is better to be feared than to be loved. Machiavelli claims this because he believes that people are ungrateful and unable to be trusted; at least, not for long periods of time. Not until they get hungry again and breaking promises seems to be a better option than starving to death. But I want to focus on a different reason for why a sovereign should try to be feared instead of loved. And that is the simple fact that being feared costs less money – and effort – than being loved.

Being loved requires a constant level of investment from the sovereign; if the sovereign, for example, want to be seen as a generous man, he needs to keep on being generous at every opportunity to be generous that will arise. Giving a poor man money is generous, but to stop giving the poor man money falsifies the generosity of the sovereign. And the same goes for being friendly: if a sovereign wants to be perceived as a friendly man, he needs to be friendly all the time. One moment of unfriendliness means the end of his friendly appearance. Being good is simply a much more difficult role to play than being bad. Why? Because people have the tendency to remember someone’s unfriendly or betraying actions better than one’s well-intended or friendly actions.

Fear, compared to love, requires much less investment from the sovereign. That is because fear is based on expectations: someone’s anxiety from what might be about to come. And it is this sense of what is about to come that can be relatively easily manipulated by means of threats; by promising that something bad will happen if the citizens aren’t loyal to their sovereign. And the degree in which citizens are susceptible to the sovereign’s threats, depends in turn on the credibility of these threats. If the citizens don’t believe that the sovereign can live up to his evil promises, the threats will vanish without having had any effects. Thus the sovereign has to make sure that his threats are credible.

He can do this by means of military forces. If so, he must make sure that his army is bigger in size than – or at least equal to – the armed forces of the citizens – which is easy to achieve by making sure that the citizens are unable to get armory: by monopolizing the production – or at least distribution – of armory. This requires a one-time investment from the sovereign. An investment that – in the long run – will yield more benefits than the everlasting demand to feed the poor.

So although romantic movies might want us to believe that love conquers hate, hate – in the form of fear – might turn out to be the cheapest way to go.

But what do you think?

The Use of the Panopticon in the Workplace

The Panopticon was a prison designed to “allow a watchmen to observe all inmates of an institution, without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.” Think of it as God watching – or not watching – from a cloud at what we’re doing and punishing us if we’ve behaved badly. The trick of the Panopticon is that – no matter whether someone (a watchmen or God) is actually watching – the “non-watchers” always feel like they’re being watched and therefore will try to make sure that they always stick to the rules.

Interesting concept, huh? An interesting question would be: how can we apply this fairly old idea into our modern societies? Well, there are many applications of Panopticon-like structures already in our modern Western civilization. Technologies like camera’s and sound recorders can make citizens – for example – feel like they’re being watched at all times. And it is this feeling – not the act of there being an observer actually watching them – that prevents them from doing bad stuff. Cost-efficient, right?

Now, let’s take a look at the workplace. Social media cost an employer an average of $65.000 dollars per year per employee. That’s some serious money, isn’t it? So you can understand that employers are looking for ways in which to reduce this – and many other – “work-distracting” activity. An option would be to block all “work-irrelevant” websites. But then the question is: what’s relevant and what’s not? Is checking the news relevant? It could be; it depends on what the news is, right? However, this option would have much less effect if an employee’s time-wasting activities would be performed outside of his computer-area.

Now let me ask you the following question: if you were an employee, and you would know that your boss could be watching what you were doing at any point in time, would you then still “check your Facebook-page” or send some “work-related” mails to you friends? Would you still be wasting your valuable working time if you would know that your boss would receive a message if you didn’t touch your keyboard for – let’s say – 10 minutes (except for the breaks, of course)? I doubt it.

So why isn’t it the Panopticon applied in the workplace yet (as far as we – or at least I – know)? Probably because people find it “wrong” for employers to do so. They find it wrong for employees to have the feeling of being watched all the time. But the question is: is this a legitimate reason for not implementing the concept? After all, a production worker is being watched all the time by his employer, right? So why not an employee sitting behind his computer? Is sitting behind a computer a free pass for just doing what you want in your working time? In the time you’re being paid by your employer? Thereby hurting your company’s profits and – indirectly – the security of your job and the job of your peers? I don’t think so.

But what do you think? Can we do this, or not?

Culture and People being Good or Bad

Are people intrinsically good or bad? If there wouldn’t be any laws or social conventions, would we start killing each other and stealing each other’s property – the state of war as Thomas Hobbes described it? Or would we “still” be loving and caring towards each other? Would we “still” be willing to share our well-earned income with others, even if we weren’t “forced” to do so by means of legislation; would we “still” be altruistic like our Christian brothers seem to hope for? Or aren’t there particularly “social” and particularly “anti-social” actions? Can’t actions be “absolutely” evil or “absolutely” good? Do the “demons” committing the “evil” actions believe they are fighting the good fight, that they are the angels, promoting the values they find to be worthwhile dying for? What, for example, about Al-Qaeda? We can assume that the terrorists flying into the World Trade Center at 9/11 did so because they believed that this was the right thing to do, right? Because their God, and their norms and values, promote this sort of behavior, right?

Watch it; we have got to prudent here. We’ve got to watch out for “a dangerous territory” we’re about to enter: the territory of cultural relativism, the view that “our ideas and convictions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” If cultural relativism would indeed be true, we would have no right whatsoever for claiming that our “Western” set of beliefs is superior to the “Islamic (extremist)” set of beliefs; they would be equally true or equally false; what people find good or bad simply depends on what they’ve been taught at school. And that’s it.

Although cultural relativism might appear to be counter-intuitive – after all, many of us seem to believe that murder is “just” wrong, irrespective of the culture one is raised in – what if it would be right? What if there indeed are no absolute values we could turn to in order to decide – for once and for all – what’s wrong and what’s not; what if each culture has its own set of “absolute” values to turn to; are we then still legitimized in saying that “those other cultures are just crazy”?

Maybe cultural relativism is more than “merely” a philosophic concept used to explore the absoluteness of our ethics and knowledge; maybe it’s the reality we live in. After all, what evidence do we have for there being absolute norms and values? The Bible? The Quran? These prove to be already two conflicting value systems,  so no absoluteness can be attained by following the religious path. What about science; what about empirical data? Isn’t it true that many societies consider things like “rape” and “murder” to be wrong? Isn’t that an indication of the absoluteness of value? Maybe, but what about war? Is murder – or even rape – still wrong in case of war? And If so, why are so many people still violating these rules while in war? These people don’t seem to find it wrong, do they?

Maybe we have to face the truth people, no matter how hard it might be. Maybe we have to accept that we aren’t always – or fully – right in our beliefs. That, even when “the enemy” does things we find absolutely disgusting, they do these things because they think they should do so. And why “do they think they should do so”? Because that’s what they consider to be the right way to act; that’s what you do in war; that’s what you do for defending your system of beliefs. So although we might differ in what actions we find good and bad, our intention is – no matter how twisted it might seem – always good. No matter whether others agree with this notion of “good”. And that’s a weird but true conclusion we have to live with.

Thus the answer to the question this article started with is “Good”.

But what do you think?

Banning Cars from City Centres: Utopia, Here We Come

London, New York and Amsterdam: what is the difference between these three cities? Yes, only in the latter you are allowed to smoke pod legally. But that’s not what I mean; I am talking about the use of bikes in the city traffic. Why is that? Well, surely, Amsterdam is (way) smaller than cities like London or New York. And surely, the “infrastructure” – in the sense of the small alleys prevalent in Amsterdam – is more suitable to bikes than cars or any other vehicle. So residents in Amsterdam are more or less forced to travel by bike (if they want to get somewhere on time). But is “the infrastructure” really the main obstacle for cities like London and New York to make the shift to “big time bike riding”? I doubt it.

Let’s focus on London: in 2011 there were 2.5 million cars in London, which is about 9% of the cars in Great Britain. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in London, but let me tell you: a city like that isn’t made for cars: congestion and pollution are two big time (negative consequences) of our compulsive “traveling by car through city centres” behavior. Besides that, in 2009 3227 bikers were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads; not necessarily an alluring prospect for those considering to travel by bike. From 2002 to 2005, an average of 1.1 Dutch bikers was killed per 100 million kilometers cycled. In the United Kingdom and the United States these numbers were respectively 3.6 and 5.8. That’s what you get when roads are filled by big-ass vehicles and only a few of those “annoying, arrogant little bikers”.

But let’s think about it: why would we even allow cars to drive in major cities like London or New York – or Amsterdam for that matter, although I can assure you that there is hardly any driver stupid enough to travel through Amsterdam by car. Imagine what a city like London could look like if all cars were banned from town, if you were only allowed into – the centre – of the city by bike or public transport. What would happen if we’d do that? Probably not as many bikers would be killed in traffic, since it’s very hard for bikers to kill each other in collisions.

“But”, you might say, “what about the old people? You can’t expect them to travel by bike, can you?” True, you can’t. That’s why we can decide to let old people – 65+, or younger if you have got certain handicaps – to travel by bus or metro for free. Just pay some extra tax money to make sure this Utopia becomes a reality. If you would implement these two things – the (1) prohibition of cars travelling through the city centre and (2) using the “space on the roads” to implement bike-friendly, and public transport friendly, structures, I believe you have created yourself a beautiful little solution to deal with the huge amounts of traffic required in a town like London (or New York).

Surely, people will resist this idea: “We’ve always done it this way; travelling by car. Why would you change that?” Well, we’ve indeed always travelled by car, but “in those times” traffic wasn’t so damn crowded; in those times there weren’t so damn many cars driving through our beloved city centres. So it’s time for a change, isn’t it?

But what do you think?

If You Ask a Question, You Should Expect an Answer

‘Well, If you didn’t want an answer, then you shouldn’t have asked me a question.’ That’s what I often think when people ask me about my point of view on a particular topic, and – subsequently – respond by looking disgusted and saying something along the lines of: ‘No, that is never going to work’, or ‘How can you ever think that?’

Every scientific discipline is divided in two groups of people: those who are prepared to utter original ideas and those that seem capable only of smashing down these ideas. This ‘force field’ between the forces of creativity and destruction is most prominent in philosophy, and then in particular in what I call ‘definition battles’. With the term ‘definition battle’ I mean philosophical discussions about – as you might expect – the definition of a term. ‘What is life?’ could be a question triggering a definition battle. But also questions such as ‘What is pleasure?’ or ‘What is altruism?’ are likely to lead to a definition battle. Let’s focus ourselves at the example of ‘What is life?’

I remember a philosophy teacher of mine asking the class what we believed to be ‘life’ is. With no-one seeming to make the effort to answer his question, I decided to give it a go. I came up with my interpretation – or definition – of life as ‘a natural process that has an end and a beginning and that is capable of keeping itself functioning solely by means of metabolic processes.’ You might find this definition inaccurate, but I hope that you can at least agree with me on the fact that it is a definition; a definite statement based upon which one can distinguish living from non-living entities.

After having given this definition of life, other students looked at me in disbelief, as if they saw fire burning. And then one of them asked: ‘But, according to your definition of life, a comatose patient wouldn’t be alive. After all, a comatose patient isn’t ‘alive’ solely by means of his metabolic processes; it’s is being kept ‘alive’ by means of external interventions (medical machinery etc.).’

I replied by saying: ‘Yes, I indeed believe that a comatose patient is not alive anymore.’ Then hell broke loose and students kept on saying that my point of view was wrong. Note: saying that my point of view was wrong; not saying why my point of view was wrong. Because how could they ever say that my point of view was wrong? It was, after all, my point of view, right? It was my definition for which had – and gave – reasons.

I believe this case is exemplary for the manner in which people interact with each other: people ask each other about each others point of view, but whenever people really give their point of view, it gets – no matter what the point of view might be – shot down. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem; not if the opponents of the point of view have good – or at least any – arguments against the point of view. But what often seems to be the case is that the ones who criticize others don’t dare or unable to take a stance for themselves. Hence, whenever such an instance occurs, I always ask to myself: how can you criticize others, if you don’t know – or you don’t even dare to express – your own position? Based on what view of the world are you criticizing the position of others – in this case myself? And if you don’t even have a view on the world, how then can you say my views are wrong? Wrong based on what? Teach me. Please. How can I make my beliefs more reasonable?

I say that we should dare to make choices, even when it comes down to such delicate questions as ‘What is life?’ For if you ask a question, you should expect a definite answer. Because if you don’t expect to reach a definite answer, no matter how counter-intuitive this answer might be, you will inevitably get lost in an everlasting and non-value adding discussion. And worst of all: if you aren’t prepared to listen to any (definite) answer a person gives you, then you aren’t taking this person seriously. You ears are open but your mind is not. And lastly, as I mentioned before, you simply cannot judge others without occupying a position for yourself. So you need to have some sort of reasonably firm position in order to be able to criticize others. So please…share your position with us.

But what do you think?

The Human Walking Face and The Absurd

The human “walking face” is a true joy to watch. That look as if everyone walking on the street is – at the same point in time – trying to come to grips with Einstein’s theory of relativity, but that, somehow, it won’t really click. All looking serious and angry, as if everyone is walking away from a fight with their spouse. As I said: a true joy to watch. And you know what I enjoy to do at those moments? At those numerous instances at which people look like they’re having an extremely hard time? At those moments I feel a strong urge to laugh.

At those moments I just like to express my happiness with the “walking faces” by bursting into a well-meant, wholehearted laughter. It doesn’t have to be very loud; just loud enough for yourself to realize that you’re laughing. And although this laughing might be feel “forced” or “fake” at the start; it while gradually flow into a sense of true laughter; a true sense of joy. And it is at that point in time that you’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the Absurd.

People are serious. And they should be, right? Live isn’t easy: you have to make money, you have to take care of your children and you have to act “responsibly”. If you don’t do any of these, there must definitely be something wrong with you. The road to survival is paved with puddles of duty and obligations; either socially conditioned or legally enforced. This is “the level of the crowd”. The level in which we live our “auto-pilot lives”; the level in which we move, speak and breathe. The level in which we’re prepared to do anything in order just to stay alive.

But there’s another level, a higher level, called “the level of reflection”. This is the level of relativity, of putting your issues into perspective: the level in which you think to yourself, “The people in Africa don’t even have food and I’m complaining about my goddamn wireless internet…what kind of sad person am I?” The level of reflection is a happy place to be at. It lessens your load, it makes you sorrows evaporate…partially. Because the level of reflection is – although higher than the level of the crowd – still part of the overarching “crowd-like mind”. The mind that is concerned with “living my life” and doing this through the inescapable and suffocating first-person perspective that I call “my personality”. Problems are still problems, only less significant than they were in the level of the crowd. You’re still hungry, but not as hungry as you were before.

But then – Bam! – Walhalla opens and “the level of the Absurd” shines its light on you. You become overwhelmed by feelings of randomness, ignorance and purposelessness. And you know what? You love it. It is in this level that all of your problems disappear, that the vortex to the world of indifference has opened. And when you finally decide to take the step into the Absurd, you feel that all the sense of “it’s all relative” – that you felt in the level of reflection – vanishes. You come to see that nothing is relative, since relativity implies value and value doesn’t exist. Nothing. Nowhere. “But”, a little voice from the level of the crowd might tell you, “people die in Africa every day. And your shitty wireless internet is still broken.” And your Absurd mind knows this, but it sees just right through all of these “issues” and into the truth: the truth that both issues are just as terrible as they are pleasant. People die every day and wireless internet breaks down every day. And you know why it happens? It happens because it happens.

Thank you for your visit in the level of the Absurd. I hope you enjoyed it.

What do you think?