On Instant Information

In November of last year, my husband was offered a short-term job in Michigan as a guest director at a small liberal arts university. He went, of course. I stayed behind; I have my own job. But while he was gone, we were in communication on a daily basis – and we didn’t break the bank. The internet has made instant communication over huge distances possible, affordable – and commonplace.We live in the Information Age. The ability to communicate instantly and cheaply over huge distances has revolutionized the way in which human beings relate to one another, and has revolutionized the way in which societies interact. These days, it is possible to link to other human beings anywhere in the world by using satellites, cell phones, and the internet. The world has changed, and – without realizing – we have changed with it.But it appears we haven’t noticed this change. That this applies to us here in The Bahamas is not something that we talk much about. We conduct our business as though radio is the most efficient method of getting the word out, and appear completely to ignore the revolution going on around us.But the in-your-face power of the airwaves pales in comparison to the internet, which is the most radical form of communication there is. It’s radical because nobody owns it. Yes, people (mostly Americans) own the access to it; in order to get online, you have to open the portal provided by the computer, your Internet Service Provider (a.k.a. ISP), and do a bunch of things that some people find intimidating. But once you have done these things, you will find yourself in the biggest democracy on earth.It’s a democracy without borders. It’s a place where people who think alike can meet and discuss ideas without worrying about the kinds of things that people normally worry about – like where you’re from, which party you support, what skin colour you happen to wear – and for that reason it’s a place where it’s possible for petty barriers to melt away and for minds to meet.And for that reason it’s a place where revolutions take place, quietly.Let me illustrate, just briefly. In the 2004 Presidential Elections in the USA, a new power base made itself known: the world of blogs and blogging. Simply put for those people who have no idea what I’m talking about, a web log is a place on the internet where an individual can make his or her opinions known in an instant. It’s like a journal or a diary, but with one big difference: journals and diaries are traditionally private, and blogs are public. They attract readers and they start conversations.And the blog is only one place in which people make their opinions known. There are also chat rooms and internet forums and countless cyber-places where people can go and hang out, anonymously if they choose, and say what they think. The very facelessness of the internet makes it possible for individuals to say what they think without fear of reprisal. And there’s something else, too. The newness of the technology involved means that young Bahamians – those people who will be ruling this country when those of us currently in power are hoping to retire in comfort and to age in peace – are more familiar with cyberspace communication than they are with almost any other kind. They’re certainly more familiar with it than we are.So let me share a few truths about the Bahamian internet interface that might surprise those of us who were born before 1980.Bahamians are talking in cyberspace. They’re talking about politics, about culture, about race, about development, about all kinds of issues that we have developed the (erroneous) habit of imagining that Bahamians aren’t interested in. And the opinions expressed are varied, thoughtful, and sometimes revolutionary. An afternoon spent on a forum like (say) Bahamians Online will reveal more about current Bahamian thinking than any radio talk show. There are no borders to our thinking, no limits on what we discuss.But our institutions have not changed to reflect this fact.The recent furore over the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain is a good example of that fact. That a handful of individuals can imagine that it is even possible in this twenty-first century to prohibit the showing of a film in the public interest demonstrates how out-of-date our governing philosophies are. The advent of cable television, which is not governed by the Theatres and Cinemas Act, made that action obsolete; the fact that over half of our population has direct access to the internet through their homes, and that those who can’t get online in their homes can do so in any number of cybercafes (and yes, I do know that they were established for another purpose) renders the banning ridiculous. Theatre and film are the mass communication forms of yesteryear. If we imagine that censorship is the way to protect the morals of the general public, we are losing the battle before we begin.The time has come, I believe, to face the fact that mass communication is no longer controllable, if it ever was. If we are to affect the way in which our children think, we have to engage our rusty reasoning skills and teach them, and ourselves, how to engage critically with information. It is no longer possible to imagine that public morality can be upheld through its control. No. The unbridled democracy of the World Wide Web means that our future relies – shock! surprise! – on our mastering the lost art of thought.

On Asking the Right Questions

There's a lot of discussion out there about acronyms -- CSME, LNG, FNM, PLP. Elections are coming. Oh, sure, they're two years away, and we're not yet at the point when the woodwork meets the worm, but let no one fool you. We're only going to hear more about acronyms as time goes by.The thing is, we're travelling over the same old ground. Take CSME for instance. All we seem willing to talk about, or to listen to, is whether we are going to have free movement of people or not. With LNG, it's whether we should accept it or not.But we're missing the point.The point is not asking questions to which we already know the answers. We already know that CSME is a done deal, whether we vote for it or not; either this government will sign on to it, or (if we have a referendum and the populace says no for the time being) the next government will, or the one down the line. How do I know this? Because when I lived in Britain, the main goal of the population was how to avoid joining the European Union. Margaret Thatcher and her government were adamant that it would be awful for Britain, awful for the people. But now, Britain's an integral part of the EU. And Norway, who voted against it in a referendum, are sorry they aren't, and are moving in that direction. Common markets are the way of the economic future, and if we wish to stay strong, we will have to join the unions; Germany did, and didn't suffer as a result. And we already know that LNG is not going to go away; if we don’t, we should. The point isn't to ask the questions we're already asking.The point is to ask the right questions.Take LNG, for instance -- liquid natural gas. Everybody's asking about the environment and the industry's impact -- good questions, but ones which have already been answered, if we look hard enough. There's no point in avoiding either side of the story; the facts are out there (try the internet) if we want to find them.But here are a couple of questions whose answers may not be so easy to find. And they're the ones that really have some meaning. For instance:Where is this liquid natural gas coming from, anyway? Is it being mined somewhere else, like off the Florida Keys, or is it Bahamian? If it's being mined elsewhere, why does it have to be piped through our waters?If it's ours, why the heck are we selling it to Florida? Why, in this day and age of soaring oil prices, isn't BEC talking about converting some of its plants to LNG?You see, it's quite true that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than oil. Well, hello. If we're suffering from rising electricity rates because of the high cost of oil, and we're looking to diversify our economy and become more self-sufficient, and we have natural gas in our own waters, then why aren't we looking to develop our own industry, instead of allowing Florida access to our natural resource?It seems to me that the answer to those questions is far more open and exciting than the answers to the questions we're asking right now.Or take CSME as another example. We’re spending all our time worrying about the free movement of people, as though joining the CSME will change one thing about the number of Caribbean people we allow to work here. Considering that The Bahamas has the highest ratio of Caribbean workers of all Caricom members, that worry is, frankly, alarmist and a little misplaced, and we already know the answer to the questions we're asking; we just don't want to admit the truth.What we're not asking, what we're not discussing at all, are other acronyms that are far, far more insidious than CSME and far more dangerous to the Bahamian economy -- acronyms like WTO and FTAA, for instance, to which we are just as committed as CSME, and whose implications are far, far more worrisome.As far as the FTAA goes, thank heaven the talks are stalled, otherwise we would already be a member. But just in case things get started again, just in case the USA grows to accept the brakes put on it by Brazil and Argentina, here are some questions we should be asking there:Who will the FTAA benefit? How will it help us? How much clout do we, a nation of under 500,000 people, have against giants like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, the USA and Canada? Why aren't we paying attention to that apparently free market?The real danger to us, though, is the WTO, and it is because of that danger that joining the CSME (if only we were asking the right questions) makes sense. According to the conventions of the WTO, please note, no country may set up any barriers to trade in goods or services on a national basis. There can be no protectionism whatsoever; all people who wish to trade with you must be treated like nationals of your country. So take the Walmart/Kmart proposal of some years ago. Under the WTO, The Bahamas would have no right to choose to support the Bahamian department stores over those megoliths; Walmart and Kmart would the same standing under the agreement as Kelly's. The market, you see, will be free. The Bahamas is insignificant in the Americas. Where do you imagine we stand in the world? A nation of under half a million people cannot negotiate at any table with the EU (one unit), the USA, or Japan. Perhaps the right question isn't who the CSME will let in; perhaps it's whether we can survive without it.Asking the right questions, you see, isn't a matter of losing or winning a battle to be fought in the polls two years from now. Asking the right questions is imperative for each of us because we can determine what kind of future our children will have. Let's forget our narrowness and our fears, and ask the questions that will ensure our survival and prosperity in the future.

On Research

There are few things more confident than a Bahamian in an argument. And often there are few things more wrong.You don't believe me? Speak with a politician. Disagree with him or her, if you dare. Or read any newspaper. Listen to any talk show. Attend one of any number of churches. Provoke an argument, and listen.Do more than listen. Take a notepad with you. Jot down the things that the writers and the speakers tell you. Then go look those things up in the library or on the internet, and see what you find.I'll bet you plenty that you'll find, more often than not, that what you've just heard (and may have chosen to believe) is so far away from reality that it might qualify as old story.This is because we Bahamians have developed the habit of pontificating without researching our topics first.Before I go on, let me clarify what I mean by research. I don't mean collecting a range of opinions or arguments that agree with our own. I don't mean talking to a whole lot of people about the topic in question and cobbling their ideas together with ours. And I don't mean looking for documentary evidence that supports the answer that we started out with, even if it means having to chop up sentences to create quotes that work for us.What I mean is examining a topic with an open mind: approaching the subject with a question, not an opinion; collecting many different viewpoints and facts about the subject, reading through them, and getting some general idea of the range of opinions that exists on that topic.I mean approaching a subject with enough humility to admit the possibility that what we thought about it might just be wrong.As a people, we're really not good about research. Not even the people whose bread and butter comes from finding out, from seeking the range of facts about a particular event or issue — for example, journalists and teachers — make a habit of researching facts. Short-cuts are so much simpler. Rather than finding out as much as possible about a person or an issue, it's far easier to just ask a speaker for a copy of his speech, and then print it — errors and all — in the newspaper. Instead of questioning the "facts" in the latest textbook and seeking to verify them with independent investigation, it's so much easier to teach everything that's in the textbook, even when the information is irrelevant or wrong.We are a people who accept plenty at face value.We are a people who can be very easily conned.Let me give you some examples. Over the past week alone, listening to the radio and the television, I've collected the following so-called facts:The British Colonial Hotel building is over 100 years old (A radio news report).Haiti was never colonized, which is why the country is in the state it's in (A caller on a radio talk show).Homosexuality is unnatural and not found in the animal world (A sermon given at a recent family-values rally).I went off and researched each one, and discovered that not one is so. Here's what the research actually revealed:It's true that a hotel called the Colonial was built on the site of the present British Colonial in 1899. However, it burned to the ground in 1922 in one of the most spectacular and disastrous fires of its generation, and had to be rebuilt in time for the 1922-1923 season. The original hotel was wooden, and none of it remained after the fire. The new hotel was stone, and that is the building that still stands.The research also raised the following bit of information: the song "Do A'Nanny", which was made popular by Ronnie Butler in the 1960s, was in fact about the Colonial fire, and some of the original words included:The hotel burn down to the groundNo more dancing in this townEh-eh, do a nanny do.As for Haiti, she was most definitely colonized. Sainte-Domingue was the pride of the French Empire, and produced more sugar for France than any other colony. But some years after the French Revolution in 1789, the slaves in Haiti had their own revolution, when they rose up against their masters, expelled the French, and set up the first Black Republic in the New World.In fact, the reason that Haiti is poor is that the neighbouring slave-owning societies refused to trade with this new Black republic. In order to recognize Haiti as a country, the Europeans imposed such a fine on the nation that the government is still still paying it today.And with regard to homosexual animals, scientists have discovered many creatures who mate with partners of their own sex. In fact, some long-term studies of animal societies appear to suggest that whenever animal populations become too large, and overcrowding occurs, the incidence of animal homosexuality rises, which leads some scientists to argue that homosexuality is a natural response to overcrowding.Yes indeed. There are few things more confident than a Bahamian in an argument.Just do the research before you believe anything he or she says.

On the Mind

List the things you consider markers of what is "Bahamian". Go on. Put the newspaper right down, take up a notepad, and write down ten things.Done?OK. Now count and see how many of those things have anything to do with the mind.Let's see. Chances are you included Junkanoo, rake-n-scrape, conch, peas-n-rice, sun-sand-n-sea, Christianity, the way we talk, maybe Androsia.Chances are that you didn't include anything that demands much in the way of thought.

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On Critical Thinking

A man and his son are driving home one day when they get into a terrible accident. The man dies on the way to the hospital, but the son can be saved by emergency surgery. The surgeon on duty takes one look at the boy and walks out of the theatre, saying to the nurses: "I can't operate. That's my son."This is an old chestnut, but effective. Some of us at COB, when teaching our students about logic, include it as a test of their critical thinking skills. When you know the trick, the answer is obvious, but otherwise it seems to be baffling. Again and again we find that students don't see through the problem, can't see what becomes obvious the moment you realize that the point from which you start to reason is fundamental to the solution of the puzzle.

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