Sunday, March 29, 2015

Politics of the Past and Present

I was tutoring on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World dystopian novel this past week. One class had an interesting political discussion on blue-collar work and poverty. To get them thinking about the relation to the caste system in the book, I asked how many of them were planning on going into blue-collar jobs. We discussed the truthfulness of the concept of a meritocracy and whether or not the poor have a decent chance at upward mobility. One girl commented that the poor just spend their money on cigarettes and alcohol instead of taking care of their kids, so I asked if there were maybe a reason why they did that. In the book, people take soma to forget their troubles and maintain happiness. It was an interesting discussion and hopefully had everyone thinking more critically about their society and the conditioning we all receive.

I watched a presentation on the construction of USSR memory through internet images, including memes and images of "Stalin As" that were intended to be critical but ended up being received as positive (Stalin As Twitter, As Facebook, As YouTube, etc.). Apparently there is a big wave of nostalgia for the "good old times" going on in Russia, and the government is encouraging people to remember all of the accomplishments of the past. But, as one might suspect with the internet, most of the people uploading images are younger and so never lived through the most repressive years of previous regimes. Yet they are taking part in the construction of the history of the Soviet past. 

The UN Youth club had its first meeting and held a mock Model UN so people who hadn't experienced it before could check it out. Basically, you choose a country to represent (I picked Costa Rica) and then you act as the delegate from that country in one of the UN bodies (like General Assembly). Ideally, you have done research beforehand to know how your country feels on the issue at hand, so you know how to speak about the issue and vote. The issue up for a resolution was the right to privacy, so we had fun discussing the issue and striking or adding amendments. It's a great way to put yourself in another country's shoes and think about issues from different perspectives. You also learn how to ally with other countries and make compromises to try to get your way. I did it in high school and it was one of the best experiences I've had, so it was fun to do again.

Patrick Meier, a big name in the digital humanitarian field, gave a talk on the development of new tools that combine crowdsourcing with artificial intelligence to sort through the Big Data after a disaster or crisis and help humanitarian organizations provide better relief. For example, after a typhoon hits, people will send tweets, post Facebook messages, and send texts asking for help or posting photos or commenting on the destruction. Patrick spoke of the ability for ordinary people to help out by taking some time to look at photos or tweets and tag them (like 1. this is about people needing supplies, 2. this is about the extent of destruction). Then, after humans do this for a couple hundred times, the computer program will learn how to tag them and can do the rest of the thousands or millions on its own. If it is unsure how to tag, it will send the photo or tweet back to the humans. He called these volunteers "digital Jedis" and said anyone could become a digital detective. He also told us about a slightly different application where volunteers from around the world helped wildlife rangers tag 25,000 photos so they could see where animals were and if there were any dangers they should know about. Volunteers accomplished this within a day, whereas it would have taken the rangers months to comb through.

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