A place for new ideas to settle.

16 April 2014

Bowling alone, camping together,

My post on collectivism was a response to my friend Katrina's post, which in turn was inspired by this video about "the innovation of loneliness." My other friend Jon Bash had this to say about it:
I'm calling BS on a good portion of this video. Technological fearmongering, extrovert-bias, and attempting to speak for everyone's experiences. Personally: I don't make up stuff to share on the internet, and I'm just fine being alone and socializing with people on the internet (to an extent), thank you.
I've heard the video's critique before, but I watched it anyway. The visuals are quite slick, but the content is anything but incisive. The narrator, Shimi Cohen, mentions the "maximum group size" of 150 persons—also known as Dunbar's number—but this is a mean of a value for individuals, that might be as low as 100 or as high as 230, even upwards of 290! The video sort of slides (or slouches) downhill from there, with the usual litany of woe-is-us scares about what technology will do to our humanity.

Then again, the pace of modern life being what it is, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where technology started to eat away at our souls. I would argue that these woes have been with us for at least as long as we've been human, and technology has only made it more obvious. Sure, it's that much easier to make shit up about yourself and tell a many more people about it, but is that so much different from telling tall tales around a campfire—that is, empty boasting?

Overall the video sort of rehashes the complaints of Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital. Wikipedia summarizes it thusly:
Putnam then contrasts the countertrends of ever increasing mass-membership organizations, nonprofit organizations and support groups to the data of the General Social Survey. This data shows an aggregate decline in membership of traditional civic organizations, supporting his thesis that U.S. social capital has declined. He then asks the obvious question "Why is US social capital eroding?" (par. 35). He believes the "movement of women into the workforce" (par. 36), the "re-potting hypothesis"[1] (par. 37) and other demographic changes have made little impact on the number of individuals engaging in civic associations. Instead, he looks to the technological "individualizing" (par. 39) of our leisure time via television, Internet and eventually "virtual reality helmets" (par.39).
Cue some fresh wailing and gnashing of teeth over the looming specter of Google Glass, poised to turn us all into "glassed out" zombies. That's probably a good thing, considering how so many of us are now hyperviolent mass-murderers because of all them Call of Duties and Grand Theft Autos.

All that tired moralizing aside, there's something to be said for community-building, or lack thereof. So to end on a positive note, allow me the brief indulgence of evangelizing for CampQuest:

Just a few weeks ago I was a cabin counselor at CampQuest Northwest, a secular sleepaway camp for kids aged 8 to 17. Though the organization's mission is to provide a summer camp experience for the children of non-religious parents, this isn't "Atheist Camp." Rather, it's a camp where religion doesn't enter into the picture. Thinking about the available summer camps, that's actually rather unique—general "summer camps" tend to be church-affiliated or at least slightly religious, whereas secular camps tend to cater to specific subjects, such as music. This year we hosted 66 campers, more than double the number of last year (CQNW's inaugural year).

It was a blast.

So much can be said about providing a positive experience for children—in fact, I devoted over an hour of audio to that discussion last year [download]—but there's another side to this sort of thing. I found that CQNW is a great place to meet other adults who share my interests, adults who are interesting conversationalists! Not that it's the only place to meet such good folk, but we staff really developed a sense of community over the week at camp, and I expect we'll socialize quite a bit more before next summer's session. It's worth noting that camp was such a success in this regard, because (for example) atheist groups and libertarian groups have no such guarantee. Maybe it's my own fault for taking an interest in divisive subjects.

But even that shouldn't stop anyone. One of the remarkable things about camp was that the activities—in particular, the discussion group called "Socrates Café"—allowed the campers an unique opportunity to be open about their own ideas. In the Café, I moderated philosophical discussions using the Socratic method, but usually let the kids explore topics freely. These are not simple topics by any means: two different groups were presented with the initial question "What is fairness?" and plunged into the deep territory of contract law and criminal justice, respectively. Of course, those specific terms weren't used—we're working with middle-schoolers, mostly—but the concepts were very much present. And there was interesting divergence, too: when a scenario about inequality in a computer game was introduced, clear sides formed around the question of fairness (should the well-off and experienced Player 1 assist the newcomer Player 2 against the monsters destroying her makeshift house?). It was fascinating to hear typically conservative talking points ("P1 put in the effort to achieve success, so P2 should as well!") expressed from the mouths of children who just before (in the criminal justice discussion) didn't present ideologically similar arguments. I would have been fascinated to flip the script and present an identical but "real-world" scenario, just to see how their reasoning changed—or didn't.

The really remarkable thing was not that these were especially gifted kids. Certainly there were several very bright ones among them, but the only real selection criterion was that their parents had heard of CampQuest (and so were probably non-religious). Yet last year we heard even a camper with a slight developmental disability enumerate certain features of epistemology, without using that exact word. So it's not that they were particularly intelligent, but that they were normal—and yet still proved capable amateur philosophers, if given the outlet.

It's an opportunity that few kids—few people in general—are afforded. How many times have you heard (or thought yourself) that you can't say anything about a philosophical question, that a thing is just too hard to even think about? And yet obviously if grade-school children can speak articulately on such weighty and important topics as What is justice? then adults shouldn't sell themselves short.

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