Category Archives: Humanities

The Social Media Bubble

Social media has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s difficult to remember a time before Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. So ingrained are these platforms in our daily routines that we seldom stop to ponder their effect on ourselves, other users, and/or the larger society.

As an early financial advisor to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, venture capitalist Roger McNamee is uniquely positioned to consider those effects. In conversation with San Diego Union-Tribune’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Light, McNamee discusses the concerns that led to the publication of his recent book, Zucked. He starts by describing Facebook’s business model, which is predicated on enticing users to spend ever-more time on the site to maximize advertising exposure and on selling members’ data to those advertisers.

McNamee outlines the use (or misuse) of algorithms to tailor the “Facebook experience” to each user. “Likes,” targeted News Feeds, comments, online games and other features are designed to reinforce the user’s sense of belonging to a larger community, which of course serves a basic human need. This seems harmless enough on the surface, but McNamee argues that the net effect is to create a “Facebook bubble” around the user, in which already-held theories and beliefs are constantly reinforced while opinions that may challenge those beliefs are discouraged or hidden altogether. In that light it should come as no surprise that roughly 40% of adult Americans believe things that are demonstrably untrue.

More pernicious, and potentially more damaging to society, is the outsized influence wielded by social media platforms on civil discourse and the democratic process itself. A society that cannot agree on basic facts is a society that cannot function effectively. McNamee cites two momentous events, the Brexit vote in the UK and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, as instances where Facebook and other social media were manipulated by Cambridge Analytica, the Russian and Chinese governments, and other disruptive agents in such a way as to influence the vote’s outcome. As the evidence for this manipulation steadily mounted McNamee confronted the Facebook leadership, who at that time refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem or change their practices. Thus, began McNamee’s disillusionment with social media and growing sense of alarm over what he perceived to be a threat to democracy.

Though McNamee believes this threat is very real, he is nevertheless optimistic. He points out that there is still strength in numbers, and voters can pressure legislators to protect consumer privacy by ending the unchecked (and in McNamee’s view, wholly unnecessary) “data mining” employed by the tech sector. They can also require social media platforms to make efforts to verify information before posting, at the very least by identifying the information’s true source.

McNamee also insists that we social media consumers can and must do a better job of educating ourselves. Determining which news and commentary sites are trustworthy is a good start, and McNamee notes that there are tools available to help.

Watch “Zucked” with Roger McNamee – Helen Edison

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Buddhism and Sexuality

José Cabezón is Professor of Religious Studies and the XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Cabezón edited a collection of essays entitled Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender (1992), one of the first scholarly works in the field. His participation in a 1999 conference hosted by the Institute for Religion in the Age of Science (IRAS) led to further intensive research and another book, Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism (2017).

In 2007 a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists from the Bay Area wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama, asking to meet with him for clarification of what the group regarded as some of the homophobic tenets of Buddhism. His Holiness agreed to the meeting, during which he expressed sympathy with the group’s concerns but argued that he could not adjudicate the matter by himself, since the tenets are codified in ancient texts. Rather, a consensus among the worldwide Buddhist community was needed.

In his presentation for the Burke Lectureship, Cabezón examines those texts for what they may tell us about fundamental Buddhist views of gender and sexuality. The texts were written largely in Sanskrit between the 1st and 9th centuries C.E. and present a surprisingly complex view of the topic, with some aspects familiar to the modern Western mind and others decidedly foreign. As Cabezón notes, they are often “not what we want to hear.” He traces a woman’s sexual life journey from sexual (biological) embodiment at conception to old age, in the process outlining the belief in four biological sexes (2 normal, 2 abnormal or “queer”) and their determining factors, karma as always being foremost. Determinism – a foundational tenet of Tibetan Buddhism – is key in establishing causal links between sexual biology, gender, sexual desire, and sexual pleasure.

Cabezón also discusses the treatment of male sexuality in the texts, noting that sexual ethics for men are described in exhaustive detail while none are listed for women (other than fidelity to their husbands). Men are allowed access to prostitutes, and prostitution is considered neither a crime nor a moral failing. In fact, prostitutes are uniformly portrayed in a positive light, whereas wives frequently are not. Regarding marriage, the texts maintain that the goal is not expression of love but the creation of strong bonds between families.

By contrast we know little about the lives of “queer” people in early Buddhist societies, since there is little mention of them beyond acknowledging their existence as one of the four genders. It is the classification of genders other than biological male and female as abnormal, along with a strongly patriarchal bent, that troubles many modern Buddhists in the West.

According to José Cabezón the study of ancient Buddhist writings on gender and sexuality may be thought of as the study of a cultural construct, one that remains relevant to Asian Buddhist and Western convert communities today.

Watch What is a Woman? What is a Man? Exploring The Buddhist Sources – Jose Cabezon – Burke Lectureship on Religion and Society

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Immersive Languages

It’s a misuse of terms to say that we have a natural language; languages are arbitrary and conventions of peoples by institution. – François Rabelais

Constructed languages, or conlangs, are popular features of many science fiction and fantasy tales. Examples include Barsoomian (Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series), Elvish and Khuzdul (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), Klingon (Star Trek), Na’vi (James Cameron’s Avatar), and Dothraki and Valyrian (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated – some might say obsessive – fans, these invented languages occasionally slip the bonds of their native genres, as witnessed by Klingon translations of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Not all conlangs have roots in fantastic literature. The most widely-spoken “auxiliary language,” Esperanto, was created in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist, and was intended to be an easy and flexible second tongue that would foster peace and international understanding. UC San Diego Linguistics Professor Grant Goodall was fascinated by languages at an early age, and quickly found himself drawn to Esperanto; through his study of Esperanto he developed an interest in other conlangs.

In addition to Goodall’s remarks about his linguistic adventures in Inventing Languages, two of the most popular contemporary conlangs, Na’vi and Dothraki, are discussed by their creators. Paul Frommer was tasked by Avatar director James Cameron to create a language for his science fiction epic set on an alien world. Frommer describes a process which entailed setting certain rules for the new language, dubbed Na’vi, which were drawn from various Earthbound tongues, including English, the Romance languages, and several Eastern European languages. The primary challenge was to create a language that seems sufficiently alien to our experience, yet could be learned quickly by decidedly human actors portraying the language’s native speakers while also lending itself to a vocabulary that could be expanded on short notice.

David Peterson, co-creator of the Dothraki language used in Game of Thrones, faced a somewhat different set of challenges since the basics of Dothraki were established in the novels upon which the series is based (complete with translations). Peterson’s first task was to reconcile inconsistencies in spellings across various books, followed by establishment of certain rules of grammar and pronunciation based on common usages in various modern languages – key elements in Peterson’s ability to form new Dothraki vocabulary upon demand. Like Frommer’s Na’vi, Peterson’s Dothraki needed to sound exotic while retaining just enough familiarity for actors to learn and speak the language convincingly.

In recent years conventions, workshops, seminars, websites, and user groups have sprung up around fictional languages, including Na’vi and Dothraki, as fans seek an immersive experience based on their favorite novel, film, or TV series. Thus far none have yet achieved the international prominence of Esperanto, but devotees are convinced that it’s only a matter of time.

Watch Inventing Languages: A Conversation in Language Construction

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Neuroscience, Mini Brains, and Your Health

“All the best models are the ones that you can improve in complexity to get closer and closer to the reality.”

The idea of a brain in a dish may sound like science fiction to some but scientists are becoming more and more adept at creating cortical organoids in the lab. The organoids are models of what is happening in utero as the brain forms. Being able to study this kind of human development not only opens new insights into neurological conditions but raises ethical questions.

Alysson Muotri, director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, gives a look at how his lab is using these organoids to model specific conditions, treat disease, and explore fundamental brain mechanisms. Learn what the limitations, future projections, and ethical concerns are surrounding this exciting science.

Watch Re-constructing Brains in the Lab to Revolutionize Neuroscience – Exploring Ethics

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Dreams That You Dare to Dream

The annual Lytle Scholarship Concerts were inaugurated in 1996 to benefit the Preuss School at UC San Diego, a public college prep charter school for grades 6 through 12. The concerts are specific to a composer (e.g., Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt) or to a musical concept or genre (e.g., gospel tunes, tangos, ragtime, Latin jazz). This format has led to some unusual performances, including one in which five jazz pianists performed on five grand pianos arranged in a circle.

The 23rd Lytle concert, “Jewish Music: From Bessarabia to Broadway” carries on the series’ thematic custom by focusing on the evolution of Judaic musical traditions from roots in Russia and Eastern Europe to such early 20th Century practitioners of popular song as George & Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The creativity of Jewish emigres flourished predominantly in New York City, particularly in the Bowery, Lower East Side, and Harlem.

American musical theater – indeed, American popular culture as a whole – was transformed by the efforts of Jewish composers, songwriters, and performers. Themes of suffering and hope, and the tensions between the two, combined with a yearning for social justice to fashion a portrait of a people striving to endure and assimilate in their new home. Perhaps no other song of the era encapsulates these aspirations as poignantly as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, written by Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg:

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true…

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow
Why then, oh why can’t I?

The programming of the concert reflects the diversity of the Jewish repertoire, from cantorial songs of worship to jazz to classical forms to popular songs of stage and screen. While many of the works performed arose from, or evoke, a specific time or place, their cumulative effect is universal; a celebration of a rich religious and social heritage, and a reminder of just how much immigrants have contributed to our American identity.

Watch Jewish Music – From Bessarabia to Broadway – Lytle Memorial Concert

facebooktwittergoogle_plus