Thursday, February 02, 2006

Taking Flight

Today we are taking an enormous step forward for The Personal Bee. We are still quite a long way from regularly scheduled service (to stick with the flight metaphor for a moment) -- but we hope to get there in about a month. This is more like the test flight of an experimental aircraft -- click through to experience The Personal Bee. That's experimental, as in, fly with caution! And, just like experimental aircraft, all the features that you'd want aren't finished - just the bare bones.

Even so, I think if you take the time to look around you'll find that we have done some very interesting things. Part of our focus is on how people can use the Bee to discover news, and then share that news with colleagues and friends. So we have built something that we call a "Personal Bee Reading List." As you read articles and see ones that you'd like to recommend you can tag the article, write a comment, and click a radio button and we'll export the article to your blog or website using a short piece of javascript. We call this a widget and there are a couple of them, detailed here:

In this first version you can create a Bee account and subscribe to a small collection of public bees (created and managed by a volunteer group of beekeepers). The next step will be to add the ability for you as a reader to have your own RSS feeds included... over time we'll keep building on this structure and will eventually allow anyone to create a private or public bee edition. And you'll be able to construct your own personal newspaper...

So remember, when you go and take a look, this is NOT a beta... we are far from being ready for a beta! This is an experimental aircraft that we offer to those of you with a sense of adventure, interested in seeing some new ideas and sharing your thoughts with us.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Take Care of Freedom And Truth Will Take Care of Itself

It was a wonderful treat to hear Richard Rorty on KQED's "Forum" radio program yesterday. Rorty is one of the greatest living philosophers. Yesteday he was speaking about a new book of interviews that has just been published, entitled Take Care of Freedom And Truth Will Take Care of Itself. The basic idea behind this phrase is that in an open society, in which there is true freedom of speech and freedom of the press, there will be a marketplace of ideas in which the ones closest to "truth" will be the most successful. And when those freedoms are abridged, that we tend to see despotism and tyranny emerge, and we move further from "truth."

To illustrate his point, Rorty pointed to the past 200 years of western civilization as being a period of enormous moral progress. The freedom of speech that the US constitution and the French Revolution promoted provided for a series of events unparalleled in human history -- the elimination of slavery, universal male suffrage followed by female suffrage, anti-rascist organizations, pro-equality movements, anti-homophobic movements...

It was interesting to hear Rorty refer to this as a series of objective moral triumphs. While it is a position I feel comfortable agreeing with, it is one that would not resonate with religious fundamentalists - here or abroad.

The day before, I was listening to an NPR report on the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections. A senior Hamas politician was being interviewed and was asked about the need for economic connections to the west. The politician spoke of his ambitions to restore tourism to the Gaza strip but said it would not be the "debased tourism of the west." He spoke of a trip to the US in the early 1990s in which he saw "men and women together on the beaches, which is simply not allowed." And he described what he had witnessed as "the behavior of animals."

It was interesting to hear in this man's words and in his tone of voice the clear sense of cultural superiority that he feels his fundamentalist Muslim views provides him over what he seems to feel is a debased and morally bankrupt West. Of course he is not a product of a free and open society, nor are the conditions of Gaza and the West Bank ones which would foster a helpful and pluralistic attutude toward one's fellow man (toward, for example, the Israeli's).

But this makes it even more confusing when we look at our own brand of religious fundamentalists here in the United States. Presumably the evangelical Christians have grown up in the same environment that I have -- one which has provided for free speech and freedom of the press. And one in which their choices for how and where to live have not brought persection. And yet in many ways, these individuals express the same tone of cultural superiority that Hamas expresses. And the same desire to reform secular society to match their non-secular beliefs.

Rorty was asked in the interview about the rise of fundamentalists in the US and gave an honest answer -- "It is something I don't understand." He said, "sociologists will tell you that the evolution of urbanized human societies in the west ought to proceed in a fairly parallel manner." But in Europe there is no such religious revival, so why do we have it here in America? Rorty continued, "in Europe, since the enlightenment, there has been broad agreement that religious tolerance is a critical part of being able to live together in our urban environment. And a general dispostion to keep religious matters and civil affairs entirely separate."

But here in the US some now openly refer to our country as a "Christian Nation" which immediately suggests a prejudice against other religions. Rorty points out that 30 years ago, this wouldn't have been possible.

In thinking about this, I wonder if an answer can be found in the unintended consequences of the race wars and forced desegregation that our nation's urban centers experienced in the 1960s. The re-segregation of America through white suburbs, ringing the old urban centers, un-did generations of urban evolution. The fact that we have so much open space in our country and our love of the automobile simply made this re-segregation that much easier. And what happens in these suburbs? It is much easier for a group of like minded people to close themselves off from the marketplace of ideas, and live entirely within a world of their own closed ideas and information. Living in the city, riding public transportation, eating and shopping in diverse social environments it becomes impossible to close out competing ideas and information. But in the suburbs, you can isolate yourself (and your children) from differences, and the need to be tolerant of these differences.

So perhaps Rorty and the sociologists are right -- that the evolution of urbanized societies in the west IS parallel. After all, the "blue" states are the ones that are the most urbanized. But the difference in the US is that we continue to have a large non-urbanized population and thus a population that has no need for or interest in the enlightenment and its separation of religious belief from a tolerant secular civil society.