Monday, April 25, 2011

Pornography and the Decline of the Nerd

You can’t have engineering ethics without engineers, so every once in a while I look into the question of where our future engineers are coming from. There’s no law that assures us that in every batch of 18-year-olds, there will always be a sufficient number both interested in and qualified for the engineering work of tomorrow. Some cultures seem inhospitable to the growth of engineers, while others sprout them like weeds on my lawn. My latest look into this topic is inspired by an article with the intriguing title, “Pornography & the End of Eros.”

The author, a teacher, farmer, and freelance writer named Joe Bissonnette, looks at several studies in the U. S. and Japan which claim to find a correlation between a sharp decline in the incidence of reported rapes and the explosion of low-cost, widely available pornography, mainly on the Internet. Of course, simple correlation does not prove causation: both effects may be independent, or caused by something else entirely. But Bissonnette thinks the connection is real, and due to a “demystification factor” discussed as long ago as Socrates.

The basic idea is this: the nuclear conventional family requires a man who views his wife as a mystery to be explored, a kingdom to be conquered, and a treasure to be cherished. In contrast to these romantic notions, both pornography and Socrates (who recommended that men and women do gymnastics in the nude together, for political reasons) favor the reduction of eros to a commonplace commodity: instantly available on demand, routinized, and wholly under the control of the user. Consequently (and here is where engineering comes into the picture), Bissonnette says that “Edgy, libidinous, repressed, and sublimating young men are an endangered species. . . . Young men experience vicarious heroism through video games like Mortal Kombat, and relieve themselves of any arising sexual tensions through Internet porn, virtual sex, or relationship-free escort services.” One could add “relationship-free hookups” to that list, especially if the college environment on many campuses is taken into consideration. In other words, the classic shy, repressed, awkward-around-women nerd of yore is an endangered species.

The following is not meant to imply that women who truly desire to become engineers should encounter any artificial obstacles on their career path. But the fact remains that, despite millions of dollars spent by the National Science Foundation for raising the consciousness of women that engineering is a legitimate profession to consider, only about 15% to 20% of practicing engineers are female, and much less than that in certain fields like mechanical engineering and computer science. So if we woke up tomorrow and found that men around the world had permanently lost all interest in engineering, we’d have real problems in filling the gap with women. Therefore, discussing the problem of why more men don’t go into engineering is a reasonable thing to do.

The punchline is this: I think Bissonnette is onto something. His idea would be extremely hard to prove to the satisfaction of statistically-minded sociologists, and it might just melt away in the hard glare of survey-type investigations. But it makes intuitive sense to me.

Engineering is a demanding occupation which requires long-range planning, organization, a certain degree of pessimism allowing for the imagining of worst-case scenarios, and in short, a personality type that is capable of repressing the satisfaction of immediate desires in the cause of achieving longer-term goals. One could almost argue that the essence of engineering is planning, not the kind of spontaneous self-gratification that pornography allows.

Whatever the cause, it is a petrified fact that fewer undergraduates are choosing engineering as a major. The total undergraduate enrollment in U. S. engineering programs was essentially flat from 1985 to 2005, about 450,000. But in those two decades the U. S. population grew by 25%. So compared to the population, engineering enrollment has declined by a fourth. This is not a good trend.

It may be that online pornography is not a major factor in this decline, or is instead yet another symptom of a deeper cultural malaise. Despite all the equal-opportunity rhetoric expended on the topic, it is true that engineers tend to have certain personality features in common. While it would be absolutely wrong to pre-screen people for engineering school based on a survey of personality types, for example, it would be a legitimate social-science question to ask what in a culture favors the production of certain personality types and not others, namely the personality types that are attracted to, and competent in, engineering. If anyone ever braved the political winds to investigate this question in a dispassionate way, I think the results would show that engineers are disproportionately the product of strong, intact families with positive role models played by, pardon the expression, fathers. In today’s divorce-ridden politicized culture, such a finding would be heresy, and so I am not holding my breath in the expectation of seeing it published any time soon. But the type of family environment that produces “repressed, sublimated” men who treat women with true respect, admiration, and a sense of the mysterious, is also more likely to produce men who are good at engineering and want to do it.

In terms of what to do, I think the hope lies more in the spiritual realm than in anything any government can do, short of getting out of the way. And there is always hope for that.

Sources: Joe Bissonnette’s article, “Pornography & The End of Eros” appeared in vol. 36, no. 4, Fall 2010, pp. 74-79 of the Human Life Review. The statistics on undergraduate engineering enrollment in 1985 and 2005 are from the U. S. National Science Foundation website

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Big Brother, Sales Dept.

First, my apologies to all of my readers who are left, for not blogging last week. My wife went out of town and that disrupted all sorts of schedules, including the habit of updating my blog on Monday. She comes back this week and I hope that will help me get back to the usual routines.

The other day I had an experience which was not exactly creepy, but was well outside my usual range of experiences. Here’s how it went. For some years I have had a hankering for a bench grinder or motorized grinding wheel—one of those little jobbers with two abrasive wheels on the ends of a motor shaft where you can grind steel and other metals. The occasions I need such a thing are not many, but when you need a grinding wheel there are not a lot of other alternatives.

So I got online and looked around for grinding wheels, comparing prices, looking at features, etc. I do not spend a lot of time on this type of activity, and when I figured out that there are probably only one or two places in the world that make cheap bench grinders any more (both in China) and they sell the same basic thing to lots of retailers who put their own name and price on it, I stopped looking. The way our garage is jammed up with junk, there’s nowhere I could install a bench grinder right now anyway. So that was that—or so I thought.

A few days later, I was reading the website of a national political magazine that I also subscribe to. It has nothing to do with bench grinders. It’s a pretty lively website with nearly daily updates, and like most commercial websites it has advertising columns where all kinds of goods and services are for sale, many of which involve animations of women’s puffy bellies subsiding to svelte proportions. Needless to say, I just tune out these things when I’m interested in reading the website’s editorial content.

But this time, I noticed that right there next to what I was reading was not some sketch of a gal going from a size 30 to a size 4, but guess what?—Bench grinders! The very same ones I’d been checking out, in fact. This immediately gave rise in my soul to mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I’d rather have bench grinders on the periphery of my vision than distracting animations of bloated female flesh, or any of the other weird stuff advertisers have hatched to capture your attention for that fraction of a second which, multiplied by sixteen billion, means hard cash for the advertiser. So it was an improvement, scenically speaking.

But on the other hand, how did Magazine X, or its advertising firm, or the webmasters at the ad firm, or the purveyors of the bench grinders, or the Chinese wholesaler or manufacturer of the bench grinders, or Google, or whoever it was—how did they know I was looking at bench grinders a few days back?

Someone will perhaps say, “Oh, that’s just a cookie. Your browser ate a cookie and this is what happens.” Well, fine, but that doesn’t help me much in answering the question of who was responsible.

Transmute this experience to real life (as opposed to cyberspace, which, despite arguments to the contrary, lacks something of being the full equal of real life), and see how it sounds. Say you go into a hardware store one day and look at some bench grinders, without even talking to a salesperson. Then you get on a plane and fly 1500 miles to a different city. You need some money and go into a bank. While you’re waiting in line at the bank, a guy comes up to you wearing a lumpy trench coat, peels it open, and what has he got hanging inside? Bench grinders! “Wanna buy a bench grinder, Mr. Stephan?” he wheezes.

I don’t know about you, but it would creep me out to the extent I might call the cops. At the very least, I’d want to know how he found me, who he was working for, and what exactly the chain of causation was between my looking at bench grinders in City A on one day, and my being approached in City B several days later by a guy who knows for a petrified fact that I was looking for bench grinders earlier.

It’s gone beyond “caveat emptor”­—let the buyer beware. It’s now “caveat examinar”—let the browser (the person, not the software) beware. Anything you look at can be filed, compiled, bought, sold, and used to manipulate you later.

As invasions of privacy go, this was pretty minor. But there have been scams, often associated with pornographic websites, in which the fact that a person visits such a site is used to blackmail them in various ways. And even if what I’m looking at is perfectly legitimate, I resent the fact that somebody, or something, or some combination of persons and things, was spying on me as I looked at bench grinders, and used that information in a transfer that showed up in a completely unexpected context.

I would like to hear readers’ opinions about this sort of thing. Maybe you enjoy seeing your latest contemplated purchases plastered all over the next few websites you visit. Maybe you know exactly how this works and can explain it in non-technical language, and how to stymie it if you don’t like it. In any event, please let your opinions and thoughts be known. You will benefit more people than just me, and if you respond I’ll also know I haven’t lost all my readers by skipping a week.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Controversial iPhone Apps: Democracy or Despotism?

When millions of people communicate using a technology that is entirely under the control of a private firm, what obliges the firm to act less like a profit-making enterprise and more like a government? And if it does, what sort of government should it act like? These questions come up when we consider what recently happened to an iPhone application developed by Exodus International, which is (in its own words) “the world’s largest ministry to individuals and families impacted by homosexuality.”

From the start, Apple has held an extremely tight leash on iPhone apps sold through its official iTunes store. Developers must go through an elaborate application process, and reportedly any apps with explicit sexual content never make it through. (Full disclosure: I do not own an iPhone, and my sole connection with Apple is the fact that I use and own Mac computers.) Apparently, the app for Exodus International, which evidently just linked the user to other online resources, passed muster by Apple itself and went on sale some months ago. Then a Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transsexual nonprofit group called Truth Wins Out started a petition on a website called to get Apple to pull the app. Eventually, 150,000 signatures were collected and presented to Apple, which removed it by March 24. A similar fate overtook an app related to the Manhattan Declaration last November. The Manhattan Declaration is a document which, among other things, reaffirms a commitment to traditional marriage. Reportedly only 10,000 signatures were needed to get the Manhattan Declaration pulled.

Reaction to the removal of Exodus International’s app was pretty bipolar, in the mathematical sense. People who favor the positions and activities of organizations like Exodus International thought it was a shame. As a signer of the Manhattan Declaration, I get updates from the organization and they sent out a notice about the Exodus International incident, which is how I found out about it. On the opposition side, comments ranged from the obscene to the nuanced. For an example of the more reasoned objections, here is a quote from a blooger named “sfbob” on the left-leaning Daily Kos website: There are always serious questions to answer when it comes to what some would consider to be censorship. A couple of aspects of the situation however seemed to point me more in the direction of wanting the app removed. The app was somehow rated by Apple as being ‘suitable for all users’ (or words to that effect).” The blogger goes on to express concern that teenagers in doubt as to their sexuality might be harmed by the kind of information Exodus International provides. But his second point is the one I want to focus on. He writes, “In addition, it's arguable that the nature of an iTunes app does not really rise to the level of free speech.” As a private company, Apple has the ultimate right to decide what is and is not sold at their stores and used on their iPhones. So, according to sfbob, this right trumps any rights to free speech that might be advanced in favor of the app.

I will be among the first to agree that the right of free speech is not absolute. For example, I think it is a good thing that Apple won’t approve sexually explicit apps for the iPhone. I also think it is a good thing that child pornography is illegal, though you can probably find a few radical free-speech advocates under rocks and various places, who would oppose even those kinds of laws. And the classic example of a person who would go to jail for yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater on April 1 to pull an April Fools joke shows that free speech is not an absolute right, but is rightly regulated by governments and laws for the protection of citizens who might otherwise be harmed.

That raises the next question: by what means should we regulate free speech? In a democracy, laws regulating free speech are originated by legislative bodies duly constituted to represent the will of the people, administered by an executive branch which is (ideally) also subject to the people, and adjudicated by judges who apply the laws in conformance to the people’s will as embodied in the laws. While this makes me sound like a starry-eyed idealist these days, I still think that is the best way to make law, including laws about free speech.

Contrast that to what happened in the cases of the Manhattan Declaration and Exodus International apps. A private firm offered some apps for sale, two out of many thousands of other apps dealing with all kinds of human activity. The apps themselves violated no law. Because of a perceived hazard to a group in which Truth Wins Out was interested, that private organization started a petition drive which ultimately collected 150,000 signatures. Presented with this evidence that a lot of people didn’t like the idea that Apple sold Exodus International’s app, Apple canned it.

How does petitioning differ from the formal legislative democratic process? In a number of ways. I doubt that any independent firm audited the petition process, which can easily be manipulated unless controls are in place similar to those used for petitions to gain access to running for elective office. Second, there is no publicly known rule by which Apple determines whether they will accede to the wishes expressed in a petition. The Daily Kos blogger noted that the petition to expunge the Manhattan Declaration app had only 10,000 signatures, while the Exodus International petition reached 150,000 before Apple acted. Are they raising the ante? Will the next petitioner need a million signatures? The reasoning of Apple is entirely opaque, as a private firm has a right to, well, privacy concerning its internal workings. But this is a profoundly undemocratic way to decide policies that affect millions of people.

Many observers, including yours truly, see Apple’s move as a politically tinged cave-in to a particular special interest group with which the company is at least on friendly terms. It shows that, at least where Apple is concerned, all you have to do to suppress free speech is to get some thousands of people to say they want Apple to do their bidding, and if Apple happens to agree, they get their wish. I can hardly wait to see what they get rid of next.

Sources: The blogosphere resounded with comments on this episode for a week or so. The reasoned Daily Kos comments can be read at,-International-iPhone-app. The Exodus International website is at, and the Manhattan Declaration can be read at By the way, the Manhattan Declaration itself has over 487,000 signatures.