Big Zucker

Today I followed my time-honored morning routine.  I got my cup of coffee, pulled out my cell phone, and checked my work email messages.  My Facebook app was showing there were messages there, too, so I clicked on it.

“Good morning, Bob!” the Facebook page read, a little too cheerily.  “Skies are clearing in Columbus today, so enjoy the sunshine!”  It also gave the temperature in Columbus at a spring-like 25 degrees.

03facebook-xlarge1I recognize that, as a 60-something male, I’m not in Facebook’s target audience.  Perhaps 20-somethings feel warm appreciation for the fact that Facebook is so tuned in to their lives that it gives them personalized weather forecasts and wishes them a heartfelt good morning.

Me?  This increasingly cranky old guy gets a case of the creeps that Facebook thinks it knows where I am and presumes to provide weather forecasts for my assumed location and addresses me by my first name.  It also bugs me that Facebook does things like prepare slide shows of Facebook posts that happened in March, or videos celebrating the “anniversary” of the start of a Facebook friendship.  I feel like Facebook needs to back off and butt out.

The fact that Facebook has been implicated in the Cambridge Analytica story heightens the risk arising from the mass of data that Facebook is compiling about the people who use it.  Rather than making me feel warm and fuzzy that Facebook cares about me, Facebook’s little devices, like the weather forecasts and the slide shows, just remind me that Facebook holds all of that data and can use it however it wants.  It’s not an appealing prospect.

Perhaps George Orwell’s 1984 should have been written about huge, data-compiling social media companies like Facebook, rather than the government.  Instead of Big Brother, maybe we should all be worrying about Big Zucker.

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One Child, Two Child

Imagine living in a society where the government strictly dictated how many children you could have, and imposed crippling fines if your family exceeded its limit.  It is an Orwellian concept, the kind of repressive, intrusive, Big Brother/Big Government run amok plot line that has given rise to countless movies and books about soulless future societies.

Except that such a government and policy actually exists, and has for decades — in China.  Since the ’70s, China has limited families to one child, in an effort to curb its population growth.  China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, instituted the policy so that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.”  That decision was applauded by some advocates who were urging governments to take aggressive steps to control overpopulation; indeed, the United Nations Fund For Population Activities actually gave China an award for its decision.

As the New York Times reports, China’s one-child policy has had brutal consequences that include forced abortions, infanticide by rural farming families that prefer boys over girls, and a resulting lopsided imbalance in males and females in the Chinese population.  And now China is changing its policy — not because it was inhuman and indefensible in the first instance, but because China realizes it has miscalculated.  As a result of the one-child policy, China’s birth rate isn’t sufficient to support its rapidly aging population, so now China is declaring that couples can have two children.

There’s skepticism, however, about whether China’s abrupt policy change will work.  Even if couples of child-bearing age decide to have a second child, those offspring won’t be part of the Chinese workforce for years.  What’s more, China’s population has now been conditioned to accept one-child families, and couples are very sensitive to the economic and emotional costs of having a second child.  And even if the birth rate increases as a result of the policy change, China’s population will begin to decline and the imbalance of young workers versus old pensioners will continue to grow.

Those who advocate aggressive government decisions to address perceived social problems would do well to consider China’s one-child policy, which shows that governments not only can be brutal, but they can also be dead wrong.  And if you were an older member of Chinese society, how comfortable would you be with your position in the face of bad demographic statistics and the economic burdens of supporting a growing number of retirees?  Would a government that enforces a one-child policy in an effort to control its economy hesitate to take steps directed at the other end of the age spectrum to restore what it considers to be a proper balance to its population?

A Little Judgment, Please

The tale of Hunter Yelton is a small story about a small boy in a small town, but it may just teach us a large and important lesson about modern America.

Hunter is the six-year-old boy in a Colorado school district who had a crush on a girl and kissed her on the hand during class.  Their classmates reported it, and the school district determined that Hunter’s action constituted sexual harassment under the school district’s policy, which defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted touching.  Hunter was suspended and the charge of sexual harassment went on his school record.

The word got out, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming.  People were outraged that a six-year-old boy could be accused of sexual harassment for a peck on the hand, and Hunter’s story became news throughout the country.  Now the school district has dropped the sexual harassment charge and has classified his behavior as “misconduct,” and Hunter is back in school.  He says he’ll try to be good.

The large lesson to be learned from this small incident is that judgment is needed — by the school district, by parents, and by the media.  The school district has a policy that defines sexual harassment so broadly that a six-year-old’s kiss on the hand apparently falls into the same category as a high school senior’s pawing of a freshman classmate.  Obviously, they aren’t the same thing, and school districts shouldn’t treat them as the same thing.  “Zero tolerance” policies can be a problem when they don’t permit teachers and principals to exercise judgment and distinguish between Hunter’s kiss of the hand and conduct that is much more serious and needs to be dealt with much more severely.

At the same time, a knee-jerk depiction of this incident as another ridiculous example of Big Brother run amok isn’t quite right, either.  The mother of the girl whose hand Hunter kissed has now been heard from, and she says that Hunter has tried to kiss the girl repeatedly without permission, and she has tried to teach her daughter how to respond when that happens.  She appreciates the school district acting to protect her daughter — and wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was your little girl?

The upshot of this story is that school districts should have rational policies that recognize distinctions in behavior, but also that discipline and order in the classroom is important.  When I was in grade school, pestering behavior would be treated by the wrongdoer standing in the corner and, if the misconduct didn’t stop, a trip to the principal’s office, a call to the parents of the misbehaving child, and a stern talk about proper conduct.  It seemed to work just fine back then.  Why shouldn’t it work now?

Hey, Big Brother

I was sitting in one of the countless terminals at O’Hare yesterday, waiting for my flight back to Columbus, when I heard a series of announcements from the Department of Homeland Security over the PA system.  One reminded me of the 3-1-1 rules that apply to carrying liquids (no more than 3 ounces, in 1 clear plastic zip lock bag, and 1 bag per passenger).  Another advised us all to sneeze or cough into our arms, so as to avoid spreading germs.

Seriously, is this what we’ve come to?  Americans can’t even sit in an airport terminal without being hectored repeatedly by a federal agency about how to sneeze and cough, and using a particular kind of baggie when going through security?  Can’t we leave it to the mothers of America to teach their children to cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough?  And why should it make a difference to the feds whether my liquids are stored in one plastic bag versus two?

I’m tired of our ridiculous Big Brother government.  And when the announcements made me think of Big Brother, I thought of this classic song from Rare Earth.  Our Big Brother government is far more intrusive now than it was in the ’70s when this song was recorded — but at least humming this tune made me feel a little better.