Maybe I Am Smarter Than NPR

It was once pointed out to me that, more often than not, things that seem like a great idea but never really become popular are probably just not very good ideas.

This is counter to the school of thought that there are All These Great Ideas out there that Nobody is paying attention to, but would Really Change Things As We Know Them if we would just embrace them. I have been a victim of this way of thinking on many occasions, so I know how seductive it can be.

So I have this idea for solving the ongoing problem of uncivil online conversations. This is a real and growing problem.giphy

The problem is so bad that NPR announced last month that they were discontinuing their online comment system for their news stories. This is despite the fact that Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news, has said that they “believe strongly in the value of audience conversations about the news and our work.” This is in spite of eight years of trying to make it work. This is in spite of saying they wanted a “forum for infinite conversations.”

And they finally threw in the towel. According to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, they got “overwhelmed” using staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. They upped their game in 2011 and again in 2012, “trying to find a workable solution.”

But they seem to have never considered one potentially workable solution. As I have discussed before, the biggest problem with online comments is that they are anonymous and free of charge. One way to fix that is to charge money for the privilege of leaving a comment. It would provide revenue and encourage more thoughtful discussion.

NPR–like most news organizations–is operating under the perception that online comments must be free, or not exist at all. Why they have not considered a compromise option is a mystery to me.

In real life, the exchange of money serves many purposes. One of them is as a gauge of how much you really want something. Do you value it highly? You pay more money. Don’t care? You look for cheap or free.

This is basic economics.

When people leave nasty, uncivil comments on news sites, it is because they have nothing at stake. So it seems obvious that NPR and other news services would find a way for their readers to care more about the things they say.

Make them put their money where their mouths–or keyboards–are.

But maybe this just isn’t a good idea.

Remembering What We’ve Accomplished

On Friday, President Obama had this to say when visiting Hiroshima, Japan:

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

His thoughts are my thoughts too, this Memorial Day. Technology does have a way of finding its own worst use.

Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot about where we’ve been and where we are, and where we are headed, as a nation and as a society.

Maybe it’s too much thinking. But we are all living with some measure of discomfort.

It can’t be too much to ask that we could be putting our efforts toward making things just a bit better.

Poison Gas, Driverless Cars, and You

The Nobel Prize-winning chemist who discovered the method for creating synthetic ammonia for fertilizer went on to invent the chlorine gas used to devastating effect by the Germans in World War I. He did it because he loved his native country and believed in their ability to win the war.

In the 1930s, a medical scientist was hired by the leading manufacturers of asbestos products to conduct a study of the health risks. He downplayed the negative effects of asbestos exposure on workers at factories and job sites, believing that American industrial progress and fidelity to authority was more important than the human lives being put at risk.

The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did so out of a sincere belief that they were doing their duty to protect America.

Should these people have stopped somewhere in the process and reflected on what, exactly, they were doing? I think they should have.

Science is not always pure, and technology has a way of finding its own worst use.

I think about these things as I read stories of the mad rush to invent driverless cars. We are due for some self-reflection about whether this really is the direction we, as a society, should be taking.

Google's Chris Urmson

Google’s Chris Urmson driving down the wrong path.

The scientists and technicians who are developing autonomous vehicles sincerely believe in the potential benefits of their work, I’m sure. They explain how it will bring mobility to the elderly or the disabled, save countless lives by avoiding car crashes, improve fuel efficiency, and require less space for parking lots.

Who could be against that, right?

Except that driving a car is, most of the time, a solitary act. Single-occupant vehicles on any given workday make up more than half of cars on the road. With estimates ranging as high as 76 percent, it is clear that we still prefer to drive alone.

And other emerging transportation technologies, such as the ride-sharing models that are being pushed by for-profit companies Uber and Lyft, perhaps are not as sustainable as they want us to believe.

In this world filled with countless ways to communicate and travel, we are still consuming resources and are more lonely than ever.

So instead of creating yet more ways of being alone, society instead should be putting additional effort into social means of transportation–bicycles, buses, trains and other forms of transit. It is only by looking each other in the eye day in and day out that we maintain our ability to be civil and retain our essential humanity. That, and it uses less roadway.

The driverless cars that some believe will help humankind may instead be individual coffins.