Sunday, October 18, 2009

Coping with Abundance

Millions of years of evolution have prepared humans to survive in a dangerous world of scarce resources and aggressive predators. Many human emotions form an armor that served our ancestors well by protecting them against the many deadly dangers of their ancient world. We are always wary; suspicious of dangers lurking everywhere. Our exquisitely sensitive perceptions of fear and anxiety are especially vigilant in alerting us to a wide variety of dangers: real, potential, or imagined. Fear works so quickly that we are poised to defend even before we can comprehend danger.

Our easily learned distrust and hatred of strangers—outsiders who are different and may pose a threat—developed to keep us safe from possible foes. Our quick anger protects our territory, defends against trespassers, and warns potential predators to back off. Violent and persistent revenge also serves to defend us against potential predators. Fighting ability, and other forms of power and predation, often determined who got to eat and who starved to death. Selfish greed was an essential survival skill. Social rank often determined access to mates. Our disgust of toxic substances helps us avoid inedible, poisonous, or rotten plants and animals, allowing us to forage safely for nutritious food. Danger was everywhere and we are ever vigilant in noticing it, repelling it, and attacking it.

But abundance is now beginning to displace the scarcity that characterized the world for billions of years. The world is becoming safer. Can humans, wired to survive in a dangerous world of scarce resources, ever realize the full promise of an abundant world? Can we manage a transition from a wary and selfish defensive posture to a life where we relax and share the wonderful possibilities of a safe world with abundant resources? Can we shed our armor, embrace our hope, and learn to thrive together?

Humans survived for millions of years by mastering the law of the jungle—kill or be killed. But the hopeful among us also preached and professed, in every major religion and culture, another rule, the Golden Rule—where we encourage ourselves to treat others as we wish to be treated, or better yet, as they wish to be treated.

Can humans, built for surviving scarcity, cope with this modern abundance and learn to thrive? Can we overcome the destructive powers of suspicion, fear mongering, terrorism, tyranny, greed, and vanity? Can the golden rule ever displace the rule of the jungle? Can our concept of reciprocity manage the transition from revenge to generosity? Can an eye for an eye ever become one good turn deserves another; can random acts of kindness ever become their own sufficient reward?

The golden rule is skittish and timid. Too often the law of the jungle scares off the golden rule, quickly sending it back into hiding. Shout “fire!” and the art gallery quickly empties. Set the threat level to orange and we gladly take our shoes off at the airport, distrust Muslims, buy guns, and approve additional defense spending. Brandish a gun and the high school is overcome with panic. The asymmetry is stunning, but we have the capacity for restraint, we can decide to avoid conflict. Eventually we learn to act for others instead of to others.

Can we invent a better story for ourselves where we sail into a vast universe of possibility? Can we ever orient ourselves toward abundance, learn to give up control, and enjoy the benefits of taking more risk? Can we abandon a world of winning and losing, acceptance and rejection, assessing friend or foe, strength or weakness, attack or retreat? Can we stop hoarding resources, polishing our armor, worrying about the past and future, and struggling to survive in a world of scarcity even as we create abundance? Can we all enjoy making our own contributions? Can we follow our creative passions? Can we get others to come out of their caves, take off their armor, and fully enroll themselves in important work? Can each of us apply our greatness every day by: seizing the possibilities, simple compassion, and authentic contributions?

Humans can hope, learn, grow, invent, create, and make better choices. If we decide to describe revenge, greed, hubris, vanity, fear, and righteousness as the villains—and people as the hope—we can come together to create the possibility of a better world for ourselves. We can create a world where love displaces hate, selfishness gives way to generosity and contribution, hope overcomes fear, trust replaces suspicion, arrogance matures into humility, helping becomes more rewarding than cheating and stealing, winning gives way to enjoyment and fulfillment, and compassion overcomes anger, revenge, and violence. We can enjoy the awesome beauty of nature, the warm rich comfort of healthy relationships, and peace of mind. We can all learn the art of possibility, we can all practice the Golden Rule, and we can enjoy the remarkable potential of our humanity. All our needs can be met; we can all have enough.

We survived scarcity; we can certainly learn to cope with abundance. Know when it is time to get out of the tanks and into the sports cars. Take the risk, enjoy the ride, and explore the possibilities.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Measuring Human Rights with Wolfram Alpha

Sixty years after adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we still have no systematic measure of human rights progress across the globe. Today more than one billion people go without safe drinking water. How do we track their numbers and monitor our progress in meeting this vital human need? All of history is the quest for dignity, yet we do not systematically measure dignity.
How can we measure human rights and our progress toward preserving dignity for all humans? Wolfram Alpha (WA) is a powerful new Internet tool for gathering, analyzing, and displaying quantitative information. Let’s put it to work measuring, reporting, and illustrating the condition of human rights around the world so we can direct help to where it is most needed.
Preserving human rights requires meeting human needs. Humans need: air, water, food, shelter, sanitation, sleep, caring touch, autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Can WA help us understand where these needs are being met and where they are not?
Although WA can access, assemble, and report many fascinating and important quantities, asking WA today about “safe drinking water” returns no result. The system could provide more useful human rights-related information if data sources can be located that allow the system to provide maps of have and have not regions, counts of people who do or do not have access to safe drinking water, chart how far people must travel to obtain safe drinking water, show water pollution levels and trends, identify sites where progress is being made, help us visualize hydrology, show public and private ownership of aquifers, track water levels in reservoirs, monitor water-born diseases, track droughts and deserts, etc.
Several searches were tested to begin investigating the present capabilities of WA to provide human rights information. For example the following queries result in substantial and useful international data including: statistics, graphs, countries with highest and lowest levels, etc.
  • life expectancy
  • per capita income
  • unemployment rates
  • employment of women (US results only)
Querying “poverty” results in a definition, but no maps of impoverished regions, charts of income levels, or trends showing elimination of poverty, are now displayed. Similarly limited results are returned for:
  • democratic governments
  • participation in elections
  • orphans
  • peace
  • genocide
  • slavery
  • torture
  • freedom
  • liberty
No results were obtained when searching for these important terms suggested by the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
  • human rights
  • income levels
  • literacy levels
  • political prisoners
  • length of work week
  • standard of living
  • education levels
These very limited results begin to suggest areas where WA capabilities can be extended to improve its usefulness as a human-rights measurement tool.
A draft questionnaire, based directly on the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is now available. Researchers may wish to validate the questionnaire, administer it to selected populations, and make the resulting data available to WA to provide direct information on human rights. Additional proposals for measuring human rights, dignity, and humiliation are also available. One summary of proposals, developed for the 12th annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies conference, is now available in both PowerPoint format and .pdf format. If these ideas are further developed they can provide more data for WA.
The global peace index gathers and combines authoritative information sources provided by reliable research organizations to quantify the peacefulness of each nation. This provides a helpful model for how WA can be extended into social-political arenas.
How would WA perform as a human-rights measurements tool? Here are some ideas. A query on “Human Rights” would return several results, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Questionnaire, and the list of human needs.
Clicking on the Declaration would expand it to show each of the 30 articles separately. Clicking on one of these articles would display maps, charts, and graphs of where this protection is in place and where it is not in place throughout the world. Clicking on the Questionnaire would provide maps showing where the Questionnaire has been used to collect data. Drilling down further, results for a given area are displayed. Also, selecting one of the questionnaire items results in a display showing regions scoring high and regions scoring low for that item. Other statistics for that item are also shown. Selecting one of the needs, such as “safe drinking water” will display information as described above in the water example.
You can help us make this a reality in a variety of ways:
  1. Share this article with others who are interested in protecting human rights. Talk about it, email it, and link to this from your social networking pages, blogs, and web pages.
  2. Provide your comments and ideas for improving this article using the comment feature of this blog. Is the article as clear, compelling, accurate, complete, useful and inspiring as it can be?
  3. Identify existing human rights-related WA queries that provide useful results. Let me know of these so I can begin to assemble them into useful subgroups and announce them.
  4. Use the existing WA feedback mechanism to provide the WA team specific suggestions on improving particular queries related to measuring human rights.
  5. Identify existing data repositories and information sources that WA can use to measure human rights. Bring these to the attention of the WA team.
  6. Create new information sources as a result of your own research work. Alert the WA team to this data.
  7. Administer the Human Rights questionnaire to selected populations. Record the results and make this data available to the WA team.
  8. Offer to join the WA team as a curator of human-rights related information sources or as a human-rights subject matter expert.
Let's take this opportuinty to measure and improve human rights throughout our world. What could be more important?