Raking Leaves

Every so often I have the urge to fulfill boring domestic responsibilities. As someone with an interest in sociology, I’m aware of what some refer to as the “broken windows thesis.”

The broken windows thesis basically goes as follows: If you’ve got a cracked window and you don’t deal with it, other people decide that they can have cracked windows too. Also, a little bit of trash on the lawn isn’t so bad, so why bother picking that up? And thus neighborhoods fall into disrepair, contributing to crime in the area.

Obviously there’s more to it than that and one cracked window isn’t going to instantly turn a good neighborhood into a bad one, but over time you can push in that direction.

Even if the theory isn’t true your neighbors will be happier with you if take care of your stuff. Thus, yesterday afternoon I finally got around to raking my lawn.

Abby “assisted” me by jumping in the piles of leaves. Rebecca took a nap inside the house.

As of now, I have a large pile of leaves (half the height of my minivan) on the side of the street. Technically I can be ticketed for that. I’m hoping to buy bags before anyone cares.

I’ve found, however, that there are some unexpected side effects of fulfilling social expectations in this particular way. What are they?

1. Blisters on my hands. I don’t use rakes very often.
2. Bad smells. Apparently someone’s dog used my lawn as a toilet and I stepped in the remains. Initially I thought that Abby or Rebecca had a dirty diaper, but couldn’t find any evidence of it. I then went to someone’s house for dinner, tracked across Kristen’s mom’s carpet and attended church before Kristen noticed what was on my shoe.

A person who strongly believes in the broken windows thesis might argue that the dog owner allowed the dog to poop on my lawn because of the outrageous number of leaves. That person might be right.

All I can say is this: If your carpet stinks because I walked across it yesterday, don’t blame me. Blame society.

September 11 Anniversary… Again

September 11, 2004. Today we will again hear people discuss what happened 3 years ago, remembering the towers (and the people in them), the airplanes, the police and the firefighters.

I didn’t know anyone who died in the towers. I don’t live anywhere near them. For me it was just another day at work until one of my co-workers asked, “Jim, do you know anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?”

I didn’t, so I opened up a browser and read about it. Then someone turned on the television in the break room. The second plane hit. The Pentagon was hit.

After the fall of the second tower, all the national news web sites were deluged with requests, making it impossible to find out much of anything. I ended up following the news via Slashdot and watching video streams from the BBC.

Afterwards, people constantly referred to September 11 as “the day that changed everything.” I may just be contrarian, but, I’ve never fully agreed with that. What I’ve always assumed that people meant by that is that they’d never fully felt that terrorism could happen in the United States until September 11.

I’d always assumed that terrorism could, and, (probably due to following the news too closely during the 80’s and 90’s) it had never ocurred to me that it hadn’t. So, I was shocked, but not surprised.

What change did occur after September 11 seems as much related to fear as to surprise. Fear is a funny thing. There’s fear that results from understanding a risk, but still being unsure you’re ready for it despite your best efforts. In that situation, however, you still feel you have some control over your destiny.

The sort of fear terrorism provokes is another thing. With terrorism you find yourself afraid that at any moment something bad might happen, something that you have no control over at all.

In psychology, there’s a group of theories known as “locus of control” theories. The one I know best is Aaron Antonovsky’s Sense of Coherence theory. At core, it assumes that people who feel a sense of control over their lives handle stress, sickness and life in general better than people who don’t.

Whatever the strengths or problems of the theory (and the school of theories it comes from), it does illustrate a point–people need a sense of control over their lives.

What I haven’t seen in Antonovsky’s theory (possibly because I’m no longer following the literature) is what people will do to get their sense of control back when it is temporarily shattered. I only know what I’ve seen.

My family flew to Florida to see my brother’s wedding just 3 months after September 11. My sister got stopped in each airport (Grand Rapids, Cincinnati and Tampa) to get her shoes checked. No one else in my family did. I could only wonder why. I hadn’t thought people working on doctorates in creative writing were particularly threatening.

Also, I remember making sure that my swiss army knife was going through with the luggage as opposed to being carried on my person. This was the period when they were taking away nail clippers if you happened to carry them on the plane.

Of course, airports weren’t the only place affected, Congress passed legislation in the wake of September 11. Some related directly to terrorism, some indirectly. The United States went to war twice based on the idea that going to war in Afganistan and then Iraq would make things safer here.

Whether or not things are safer is subject to debate. Personally I don’t think we’ll know for a while yet. I just hope that any laws and policies that were created under the influence of September 11 are revisited when people have the time and have lost a bit of the reactive fear associated with the memory.

We are closer to that now, I think. The first anniversary was still like a fresh wound. The second a bit less so. This year felt a little more normal.

This is a good thing. I don’t want the country to lose the realistic perspective that some people in the world definitely hate us, but I don’t want us to base our foriegn policy on unrealistic fear either. When we treat people as if they are potential terrorists and ally with dictatorial regimes because they may be useful in fighting terrorists, we undermine our own reputation and goals in the world.

Meditations on the Tinfoil Hat Brigade

People have been worried about privacy for a while now and not without reason. The idea that someone has information about you that they can choose to use (or reveal) frightens even people who have nothing to hide.

Though I’m sure it’s been a problem in earlier societies, it seems particularly meaningful in modern times. During the last century humanity became much better at collecting and sharing private information than we’ve ever been before. We’ve got accounts with banks, utility companies, credit card companies, entertainment companies and even the government (state and federal).

All of these organizations know a little bit about us (some of them more than others) and can pass it around if they want.

It used to be that such organizations could only pass such information along if they were willing to fill a truck full of photocopied files. Now all they have to do email a spreadsheet full of the same information.

What’s interesting to my mind is that the problem of people knowing more about you than you want them to is hardly new. During most of human history, we’ve lived in small villages populated by our relatives. Whatever information government databases contain does not compare to the prolonged scrutiny of a lifetime of permanent neighbors.

The difference seems to be in who’s doing the scrutiny and what kind of information they have. Where in the past your neighbors would know your history and your possessions by looking over the contents of your yard or asking people around town, now that same information is contained in the form of numbers. These numbers are kept in databases far from your house, used by people you probably don’t know for purposes you’re not aware of.

In short, the difference seems to be that you don’t have a personal relationship with the people using your information. Another difference is that the people using your private information aren’t thinking of you as a person. They’re thinking of you as a collection of letters and numbers that represent you and your actions (whether you pay your bills on time, for example).

I have to admit to having different opinions about this than the typical internet user appears to. I’ve got a masters degree in sociology and have worked in a market research firm.

In short, I’ve worked in fields where success depends on me being able to use people’s private information. Thus, where many people online appear to prefer that no one knows anything about them, I don’t mind people having certain sorts of data about me.

For example, if Google were collecting information on the sorts of searches I made or the sort of topics in my gmail account, I wouldn’t be particularly bothered depending on the use that they made of the information.

Using it in the aggregate (to understand their users as a group) would not bother me at all. A company should be able to understand who’s using their services. That way they can attempt to create services that their customers actually want.

Even if they used information about me to target me personally for certain advertisements, I wouldn’t be bothered if they advertised things I actually wanted. For example, I know that I’ve given my marital status to Yahoo (married with 2 kids…), but nonetheless I’m still getting ads for singles matchmaking services when I use Yahoo. This irritates me.

I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if I were getting ads for web hosting companies or bookstores, music stores or movie theaters.

At the same time, it would bother me if information about me were being gathered and then sold to the government for the purpose of keeping track of what I’m up to. Even there, I’d be okay with it for certain limited purposes (determining my security clearance perhaps?).

As such, I can’t really count myself a member of the tinfoil hat brigade. Even so, the issue of privacy is important and I’m glad that someone’s paranoid about it. I just hope I believe them if they encounter a real problem.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, this post was partially prompted by Ed’s post on a related topic.