The Internet has not made us more democratic

Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.

Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.

Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.

The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.

Social media doesn’t make people better

Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.

There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.

Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.

As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.

Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).

Have you thanked your editor today?

What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.

Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.

Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.

The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.

What hath 2016 wrought?

Lily Edith Christmas 2016
Dear Edith,

Everyone is saying 2016 was a terrible year. Yet years from now, your mother and I will look back at 2016 as one of a single significance: the year you were born.

Yes, right now we remember 2016 for the conflict in Syria, Donald Trump’s election, and the death of celebrities such as Prince, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and others. But when you are old enough to understand, I hope that these events will no longer give any cause for worry.

For your father, it has been a turbulent year. I began by saying goodbye to my employer of nearly five years, with a promising new start. That new start brought, for one thing, a shorter commute which gave me more time with your sister and mother, and eventually with you. It also brought me the stress of adapting into a new environment. And ultimately, although through no fault of my own, it led to termination, which is why I have been there to play with you every day the past eight weeks. While this has been good family time, I enter 2017 with the burden of finding somewhere else to employ my skills. As the sole provider, you really need a job.

As for your arrival, it has been a joy to see you grow into the smiling and cackling 6-month-old you have become, and witness the mutual love between you and your sister. I do also remember how the first two months were especially tough on me, as I adapted to our new situation and came to know you as a person. You will not and should not understand this until one day you become a parent yourself, at which time I will probably be too old to remember myself.

On a lighter note, we planted the berry bushes and fruit trees which I hope you are enjoying. Before you were born, your sister and parents made a short break in Bologna, Italy, our first proper holiday in several years. And we enjoyed a visit from your paternal grandparents, with the prospect of them moving back to Denmark very soon. We have missed them, and are happy to know that they will be larger part of your life as you grow up.

You celebrated your first Christmas gracefully among family at home, and tonight you will (we hope) sleep through your first New Year’s Eve.

Edith, you have blessed our family beyond measure. It is my prayer that you will be a highlight not only of 2016, but of our entire lives to come. Happy New Year!

Love, Dad

How do you explain hygge?

Hygge is everywhere these days. The English-speaking world has embraced this Danish/Scandinavian concept with a fervour. So when a friend of mine, who writes for an Australian magazine, told me she was doing a piece on hygge, I was not entirely surprised. She wanted input from a real Danish person, and I was only happy to oblige.

These are her questions, and my answers:

Is hygge a real thing in Denmark, or is it just something made up by marketers who tell us it’s from Denmark?

Hygge is definitely real. The trouble with defining it is that for us Danes it’s ubiquitous. Just as fish cannot see water, we don’t really ponder the meaning of hygge until we have to explain it to a foreigner.

If it’s a real thing, what is your opinion of it?

Although difficult to define, it is something that sets us apart. Not that other people don’t know how to have a good time, but they probably do so less vigorously. A common joke is that Danes wouldn’t be any good in war; we would stop to sit down and eat way too often.

Do you “practise” it? And if yes, how and why? If no, why not?

Paradoxically for the marketers, real hygge is not about buying stuff. The marketing version is, at best, 50% true. It’s more about being in the moment. You set the scene for that moment with anything you like. Any combination of mood lighting, background music, entertainment, some form of comfort food (or drink), and good company. Indoors or outdoors. We tend to stay inside a lot because of the climate, but in my opinion a traditional Aussie barbecue would in fact qualify.

Finally, how do you pronounce the word?

The difficult part as a native English speaker is the first vowel, which doesn’t exist in English. If you know other languages, however, you’ll find it’s the same sound as in German süss, French tu, or Mandarin yuan. The double g is hard, as in goat, and the final e is an unstressed vowel, like the second syllable in Brisbane. Now you try.

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I hope my contribution will help the readers understand some of the ups and downs. Danish readers may find more thoughts (in Danish) in this post from 2011.

The End of Politics

America finally had its anti-establishment political breakthrough.

U.S. CapitolAfter Donald Trump’s surprise win last night, the world is rightfully shocked and scared. How could a person like that rise to power in the world’s most powerful country? But while Trump is uniquely American, his election follows a trend which has marked other parts of the world for years, even decades.

Yes, the man is jerk, a bully, and an idiot; the type of guy you would hate in school, knowing that he might have his way back then, but he would never succeed in life. Except sometimes they do.

But despite all that, Trump represents something else: he is not a politician. His anti-establishment platform has hit a nerve with millions of voters who are fed up with bureaucracy, career politicians, and inside deals. For that, they have apparently been willing to accept an incredibly high number of personal flaws.

We have seen the anti-establishment trend play out in Europe for a while. Right-wing parties such as UKIP in the UK, Front National in France, or the Danish People’s Party in Denmark are all testament to this. And just look at Duterte in the Philippines.

At the last Danish election, in 2015, voters in droves (myself included) supported new-ish, anti-establishment parties on all sides of the political spectrum. More than anything else, I interpret that election as a quiet uproar of people fed up with the ruling classes. The enlightened elite had all become the same, congratulating themselves on their one version of the truth, reading the same newspapers, hardly venturing out of the capital. But by focusing inwards, this elite became blinded by their own know-it-all attitude, ignoring real problems facing large portions of the population.

So if you thought the worst that could come of voter fatigue was falling electoral participation, think again. The vacuum left by the blinded elite is paving the way for protest parties and politicians across the globe. Trump is the latest in that chain. And of course the Americans had to take it to the extreme.

The great convergence of fear

As Halloween transcends borders and beliefs, everyone but Rome is becoming more catholic.

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Pope Francis visits Lund, Sweden today, to ‘celebrate’ the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironic? Welcome to 2016.

It is no coincidence that this happens on Halloween. Because when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church (sic) in Wittenberg, breaking the Catholic Church’s monopoly on salvation, it is believed to have been on exactly this date, 499 years ago.

So what is it with Halloween? The feast has come full circle, with roots in Celtic harvest festivals as well as early Christianity, crossing the Atlantic, and now hitting Europe full force as a dumbed-down, Americanized celebration of saints, death, fear, scariness, candy, and pumpkins (at least we’re now also eating the pumpkins).

This is convergence – everything melting together. And nobody seems to remember that Danish Protestantism had actually retained an All Hallows’ Eve event in its curriculum with church services and the like.

Which in itself is strange, since the whole concept of Saints was one of the things the Reformation rebelled against. Nobody, living or dead, should have ‘special status’ according to God. And the Church should not wield its power by installing fear (of Hell) in its subjects.

As a good protestant I was brought up to fear Rome, not spirits. Halloween becomes a non-event when you don’t believe in ghosts, but await a physical resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The Catholic Church, however, was seen as a real, potential enemy, distorting the ways of God. Clergymen should not be people of power, and any human should have direct access to God.

When Catholics and Lutherans attempt to bridge the centuries-old gap today, it will be a cause for alarm for some. On the other hand, the Catholic Church has changed a lot since 1517, and burying the axe is not a bad thing.

Breaking down barriers – convergence – is true to the original meaning of the word catholic: universal; all-encompassing. Catholic uppercase has a different connotation, however.

An editorial in the usually very secular Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has some interesting points: They note the fascination with the pope, but also remind us that “in Lutheran eyes the pope is no more, no less Christian than the congregation.” They also remind their readers that “the [Danish] Lutheran People’s Church differs from the Catholic Church  by having room for differences, and that nobody can speak on behalf of the church.”

While the Pope is reaching out across differences, my own Seventh-day Adventist Church is becoming more and more Catholic in its actions; at least at the top organizational level it is no longer a movement, but an elite of the few with the ‘correct’ views, attempting to wield undue power over their flock.

Convergence. Old fault lines disappearing, organizations becoming that which they rebelled against, and new consensuses appearing.

My reaction is not to fear, even though today is Halloween. Rather, I will quote the “Litany of fear” from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Also that is convergence – finding inspiration in a fictional religion set in a distant future. Where will we be 500 years from now? Let’s not worry about that.

Women treated badly

On Donald Trump, women’s ordination, and basic human dignity.

Last week was not a good week for women.

Even as Poland’s government listened to the massive public outcry and backed down on their demeaning anti-abortion law, the good news did not continue.

It began with the surfacing of Donald Trump’s degrading remarks which amount to nothing short of sexual abuse. Understandably, the old radio clip caused outrage among Republicans and Democrats alike, while the nominee himself not only didn’t back down, but fanned the flame with further outbursts.

Then Nigerian President Buhari said, during a visit to Germany, that his wife belongs in the kitchen. She had had the nerve to criticise him in public.

And finally, back in Washington, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I am (still) a member of, held its ‘annual council’, a synod of sorts. On the agenda was perceived dissent among several local constituencies, the issue being women in church leadership. The world church officially rejects the ordination of women; however churches in Northern Europe and elsewhere have tried to circumvent the decision to allow for equal rights. The end-game has yet to conclude, but there is a real fear that last week’s decision is essentially a power-grab by the elected few, which brings this movement many steps closer to the papacy they claim to reject.

It defies logic that something as random as your gender should have such a big impact on your destiny. For millennia – with varying excuses – men have felt justified in treating women as inferior, one way or another. In some countries we have come some way in rectifying the issue, but the global challenge remains in applying basic dignity to half of our fellow humans.

Last Tuesday marked the International Day of the Girl. And as the father of two, the fight is now also personal. We all want to create a society for our children that is better than the one we inherited ourselves. Let us do just that – and once and for all break away with the glaring inequalities that remain.

When Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” he was referring to anyone wrongly deprived of their place in society. Obviously, this should also apply to gender.

It seems fitting to quote newly honored Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “As the present now will later be past; The order is rapidly fadin’; And the first one now will later be last: For the times they are a-changin’.”

Let’s hope so. At least Michelle Obama got it right in her speech:  “It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any – not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

Why do laborers always show up early or late?

My friend Mads recently complained about publicly contracted tree cutters starting work close to his bedroom window one morning at 4:30 am.

The same day, a story ran in the news which could have a tragic ending: following a festival in Jutland, renovation workers lowered a heavy garbage container on top of a tent in which two girls were sleeping. They fortunately made it out in time. The Campgrounds were open until 12 noon, however for some reason the contractor had decided to start work at 8 am instead of the agreed time.

These are not isolated incidents.

We have been living across from a construction site for the past year, and it has been a source of constant bewilderment that delivery trucks would show up in the middle of the night, and workers would enter the site before 6 am, only to have it deserted by 4 pm.

I think most of us have experienced booking a service or delivery and being told a day but no time – or a window of, say, 12-4, only for them to arrive at 4:30. Or even worse, a window of 8-12, and then they arrive at 7. Not fun if you have small children that sleep in, or not unlikely you would be in the shower at that time.

Now I get the value of beating traffic and start work at 7. Fine, if everyone agrees. What I don’t get is the justification of just doing your job whenever you feel like it. This may work for freelancers who have no interaction with others, and work without disturbing people.

But if you book a meeting at work, you show up at the agreed time. Not an hour later, not an hour earlier. And I don’t think anyone would appreciate a train driver running his route 30 minutes ahead of schedule so he could get off earlier in the afternoon.

So why doesn’t this seemingly basic level of timeliness and concern for your stakeholders carry into other professions? If there is a good explanation, I’d love to hear it.