Atheism Still Matters

SaveThePlanetWe live in a period of grave social challenges. A woman’s right to choose is under serious assault. No haven seems safe from deadly outbreaks of gun violence. Our core institutions of democracy and social justice are being misused or methodically dismantled by self-serving leaders. And while there is so much demanding our immediate attention, looming above it all is our inexorable march toward catastrophic upheaval brought on by global climate change.

In the face of all that, it seems kind of silly to fuss about whether someone believes in god or not. Individually and collectively, don’t we have far more important things to worry about than some philosophical argument over purely personal beliefs?

Besides, the atheist movement has achieved their goals, right? Atheists are out of the closet. They can host talk shows on HBO after all. Religion is on the decline. So let’s move on already! Maybe the atheist movement should just wind down gracefully instead of clinging to their increasingly obsolete and unnecessary cause. Declining numbers of attendees at atheist events suggests that even among hardcore atheists, other priorities are taking precedence and passion is waning.

It’s unfortunate that energy for atheism as a cause is being diverted,  because here’s the thing. Religion is not actually in any danger of disappearing. Organized religion may also be in decline, at least for now, but “disorganized” belief-based thinking in the form of New Age and more recently Post Fact worldviews are very much on the rise. And despite their declining numbers, the influence of organized religion is nevertheless still growing. Our separation of church and state is as besieged as ever and atheists are still reviled and grossly underrepresented at all levels of leadership.

So the atheist movement is definitely not obsolete. On the contrary, it is needed more desperately today than ever. It is needed because at their core atheists are simply people with a deep respect for facts and reason and humanist ethics. Make no mistake, we atheists are not activists just because we want others to acknowledge that god is merely a silly fantasy. We atheists are activists because we care deeply about truth and facts and reality. We are atheist activists because we care deeply about bronze-age myths driving our public policies and infiltrating our educational systems.

And we are atheists because we understand that belief-based thinking can only compromise and harm the critical rational faculties that we desperately need to solve the urgent problems confronting us in our modern world. We atheists understand that “harmless” beliefs prepare people to be receptive and vulnerable to post-truth, post-factual, and even post-reality arguments. We know that belief-based arguments and false claims of factual equivalence generally serve only to manipulate people to act and to vote contrary to facts and reason and therefore against their own self-interest.

We atheists understand that you can chop at weeds as much as you like and they will just keep popping up. To eradicate harmful belief-based rationalizations, you have to pluck out the roots. It is those deep, insidious, roots of belief that atheism fights against. Religious conditioning to accommodate irrational belief prepares people to rationalize inaction on climate change, for example, or to accept fallacious logic and fantastical authority in supporting guns or racism or the restriction women’s rights. And that is why belief in god or the denial of evolution are legitimate litmus tests of our capacity for sound thinking, both individually and as a society.

Therefore, if you care about making making sane, fact-based, ethical decisions regarding women’s rights, or gun violence, or climate change, or anything else – you should care about atheism as well.  Pick another cause and champion it. But also support atheism because it strives to erode the foundation of belief-based, irrational, and dogmatic thinking that probably supports and enables whatever injustice you are fighting against.

Whether you are fully atheist or not, whether you are agnostic, or have no opinion, or are a None, even if you are an Evangelical or a Muslim, you don’t have to fully deny the existence of god to join us in solidarity for facts, for reason, and in promoting ethical and socially conscious humanist values. Whatever your cause, if you are battling against belief and manipulation, atheists are probably your allies. And regardless of whether you believe the universe was created in seven days, you can still join us in wonder and appreciation of our natural universe as revealed by science.

So even as you fight your day-to-day battles, join with us atheists and support us in our still essential movement to combat the belief-based thinking that probably underpins the social wars you are waging. Join us to support and encourage the humanist, fact-based solutions that will move us forward with reason and compassion and sanity.

 

You can read my other blog articles on atheism by clicking on the “Atheism” category on the right side of this screen and scrolling down through them. Or you can type in a keyword and search, try “Ken Ham” for example.

I have also written about these topics and much more in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief. If you’d like a little more meat but aren’t big on reading, check out my short video called Factuality for the Cliff Notes version.

 

Our Amazing Yet Deeply Flawed Neural Networks

NeuralNetwork

Back in the 1980’s when I did early work applying Neural Network technology to paint formulation chemistry, that experience gave me fascinating insights into how our brains operate. A computer neural network is a mathematically complex program that does a simple thing. It takes a set of training “facts” and an associated set of “results,” and it learns how they connect by essentially computing lines of varying weights connecting them. Once the network has learned how to connect these training facts to the outputs, it can take any new set of inputs and predict the outcome or it can predict the best set of inputs to produce a desired outcome.

Our brains do essentially the same thing. We are exposed to “facts” and their associated outcomes every moment of every day. As these new “training sets” arrive, our biological neural network connections are physically weighted. Some become stronger, others weaker. The more often we observe a connection, the stronger that neural connection becomes. At some point it becomes so strong that it becomes undeniably obvious “common sense” to us. Unreinforced connections, like memories, become so weak they are eventually forgotten.

Note that this happens whether we know it or not and whether we want it to happen or not. We cannot NOT learn facts. We learn language as children just by overhearing it, whether we intend to learn it or not. Our neural network training does not require conscious effort and cannot be “ignored” by us. If we hear a “fact” often enough, it keeps getting weighted heavier until it eventually becomes “undeniably obvious” to us.

Pretty amazing right? It is. But here is one crucial limitation. Neither computer or biological neural networks have any intrinsic way of knowing if a training fact is valid or complete nonsense. They judge truthiness based only upon their weighting. If we tell a neural network that two plus two equals five, it will accept that as a fact and faithfully report five with complete certainty as the answer every time it is asked. Likewise, if we connect spilling salt with something bad happening to us later, that becomes a fact to our neural network of which we feel absolutely certain.

This flaw wasn’t too much of a problem during most of our evolution as we were mostly exposed to real, true facts of nature and the environment. It only becomes an issue when we are exposed to abstract symbolic “facts” which can be utter fantasy. Today, however, most of what is important to our survival are not “natural” facts that can be validated by science. They are conceptual ideas which can be repeated and reinforced in our neural networks without any physical validation. Take the idea of a god as one perfect example. We hear that god exists so often that our “proof of god” pathways strengthen to the point that we see proof everywhere and god’s existence becomes intuitively undeniable to us.

This situation is exacerbated by another related mental ability of ours… rationalization. Since a neural network can happily accommodate any “nonsense” facts, regardless of how contradictory they may be, our brains have to be very good at rationalizing away any logical discrepancies between them. If two strong network connections logically contradict each other, our brains excel and fabricating some reason, some rationale to explain how that can be. When exposed to contradictory input, we feel disoriented until we rationalize it somehow. Without that ability, we would be paralyzed and unable to function.

This ability of ours to rationalize anything is so powerful that even brain lesion patients who believe they only have half of a body will quickly rationalize away any reason you give them, any evidence you show them, that proves they are wrong. Rationalization allows us to continue to function, even when our neural networks have been trained with dramatically nonsensical facts. Further, once a neural network fact becomes strong enough, it can no longer be easily modified even by contradictory perceptions, because it filters and distorts subsequent perceptions to accommodate it. It can no longer be easily modified by even our memories as our memories are recreated in accordance with those connections every time we recreate them.

As one example to put all this together, when I worked in the Peace Corps in South Africa a group of high school principals warned me to stay indoors after dark because of the witches that roam about. I asked some questions, like have you ever personally seen a witch? No, was the answer, but many others whom we trust have told us about them. What do they look like, I asked. Well they look almost like goats with horns in the darkness. In fact, if you catch one they will transform into a goat to avoid capture.

Here you clearly see how otherwise smart people can be absolutely sure that their nonsensical “facts” and rationalizations are perfectly reasonable. What you probably don’t see is the equally nonsensical rationalizations of your own beliefs in god and souls and angels or other bizarre delusions.

So our neural networks are always being modified, regardless of how smart we are, whether we want them to or not, whether we know they are or not, and those training facts can be absolutely crazy. But our only measure of how crazy they are is our own neural network weighting which tells us that whatever are the strongest connections must be the most true. Further, our perceptions and memories are modified to remain in alignment with that programming and we can fabricate any rationalization needed to explain how our belief in even the most outlandish idea is really quite rational.

In humans early days, we could live with these inherent imperfections. They actually helped us survive. But the problems that face us today are mostly in the realm of concepts, symbols, ideas, and highly complex abstractions. There is little clear and immediate feedback in the natural world to moderate bad ideas. Therefore, the quality of our answers to those problems and challenges is entirely dependent upon the quality of our basic neural network programming.

The scientific method is a proven way to help ensure that our conclusions align with reality, but science can only be applied to empirically falsifiable questions. Science can’t help much with most of the important issues that threaten modern society like should we own guns or should Donald Trump be President. Our flawed neural networks can make some of us feel certain about such questions, but how can we be certain that our certainty is not based on bad training facts?

First, always try to surround yourself by “true and valid” training facts as much as possible. Religious beliefs, New Age ideas, fake news, and partisan rationalizations all fall under the category of “bad” training facts. Regardless of how much you know they are nonsense, if you are exposed to them you will get more and more comfortable with them. Eventually you will come around to believing them no matter how smart you think you are, it’s simply a physical process like the results of eating too much fat.

Second, the fact that exposing ourselves to nonsense is so dangerous gives us hope as well. While it’s true that deep network connections, beliefs, are difficult to change, it is a fallacy to think they cannot change. Indoctrination works, brainwashing works, marketing works. Repetition and isolation from alternative viewpoints, as practiced by Fox News, works. So we CAN change minds, no matter how deeply impervious they may seem, for the better as easily as for the worse. Education helps. Good information helps.

There is a method called Feldenkrais which can be practiced to become aware of our patterns of muscle movement, and to then strip out “bad” or “unnecessary” neural network programming to improve atheletic efficiency and performance. I maintain that our brains work in essentially the same way as the neural networks that coordinate our complex movements. As in Feldenkrais, we can slow down, examine each tiny mental step, become keenly aware of our thinking patterns, identify flaws, and correct them. If we try.

Third, rely upon the scientific method wherever you can. Science, where applicable, gives us a proven method to bypass our flawed network programming and compromised perceptions to arrive at the truth of a question.

Fourth, learn to quickly recognize fallacies of logic. This can help you to identify bad rationalizations in yourself as well as others. Recognizing flawed rationalizations can help you to identify bad neural programming. In my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, I discuss logical fallacies in some detail as well a going deeper into all of the ideas summarized here.

Finally, just be ever cognizant and self-aware of the fact that whatever seems obvious and intuitive to you may in fact be incorrect, inconsistent, or even simply crazy. Having humility and self-awareness of how our amazing yet deeply flawed neural networks function helps us to remain vigilant for our limitations and skeptical of our own compromised intuitions and rationalizations.

Why the Facebook Problem Matters

facebook-cambridge-analyticaMost of us know the basics of the Facebook scandal involving the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which has close ties with Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica obtained massive amounts of Facebook user data through an outside researcher in violation of that person’s usage agreement with Facebook. This data included not only public information, but private data as well as detailed “metadata” about user behavior. Cambridge Analytica analyzed this “big data” to perform “psychographic profiling” in order to conduct “psychological warfare” and “influence operations” to benefit the campaign of Donald Trump.

When you speak with people about this Facebook controversy, many of them will respond by saying that they don’t feel like it’s a very big deal. After all, when users sign up for Facebook, what do they expect? Of course their information is public. This is really a generational problem because people are far too promiscuous in exposing all of their private and personal information. It’s just the world we live in today. And anyway, Cambridge Analytica may have talked big but really had very little impact in the scheme of things. Of course Facebook shares data with advertisers and that benefits us all!

The thing is though, what is actually going on isn’t necessarily benign and it isn’t at all what Facebook users did or should have expected. Analysts keep saying that Facebook “shared” the data. Facebook doesn’t “share” user data. They sell it. They either profit from it directly or leverage it as tangible value to attract their lucrative partner relationships. The profit motive does not in itself corrupt the relationship, but it does potentially shift it from wholesome sharing toward unsavory exploitation.

And they don’t just sell your public postings. They sell subtle usage metrics that go way beyond what you intended to make public and what any one individual could ever see just by looking at your Facebook page. They sell deep metadata that can give insight into how you think and respond and thereby how to manipulate you. They create data sets that contain not only details about your behavior but they can link that behavior in real time to a huge number of other user behaviors and to events going on at that exact moment in the world and in the web of public consciousness.

Given the amount of data they accumulate, sophisticated programs can deduce things about you that you did not intend to make public. You posted that you had zucchini for lunch and like pandas? You might have just divulged your sexual orientation to these sophisticated big data systems. The amount of detail recorded and our ability to analyze, predict, and even modify behaviors based on that data is difficult for most of us to comprehend. What can be done goes way beyond just picking who to target with Cialis or Trump campaign ads. It includes detailed information that provides insight into your deepest psychology, how you think, how you respond, and how you can be manipulated.

Further, this deep metadata isn’t merely sold to well-meaning researcher or advertisers, but it can make its way into the hands of unscrupulous and nefarious players like Cambridge Analytica. They can analyze all this data to determine things about you that you did not intend to make public. They can then use that information to influence how you think about critical matters like elections. If you are important enough, such organizations can even use private information extracted from your public activities to smear, discredit, or even blackmail you.

So the concern about the relationship between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is not just a matter of silly people being too indiscreet with their postings. Concerns about the kind of activities exposed by the nexus between big data analysis and political activity are far more disturbing and potentially consequential. The ability to acquire massive amounts of metadata not intended to be public and to analyze that big data along side other external events to produce individualized predictive algorithms,  moves innocent Facebook postings into the dark and scary region of mass undercover surveillance and psychological manipulation. Even if Cambridge Analtyica came nowhere near achieving their ambitious goals in the Trump campaign, make no mistake, the ability to assure elections is their business objective.

Facebook is not the only company profiting from massive information gathering. Google, Amazon and others are also sweeping up data that could be exploited by unscrupulous players like Cambridge Analytica. We need to take this seriously and take steps to ensure that big data works to empower and inform us, not to manipulate us. We need to push back now, and strongly, to ensure that this infant monster born of the information age is controlled before it grows into something powerful enough to ensure its own existence.

 

We Can Transform Our Gun Culture

GunCultureI was inspired and encouraged by our local “March For Our Lives” event in Tacoma, and by those held concurrently around the world. A number of speakers conveyed their passionate optimism regarding our prospects for implementing “sensible gun laws.” Some cited our eventual acceptance of seat belt laws, despite tremendous initial resistance, as one example of how important change can and does happen.

And there is an even more compelling precedent for optimism. I grew up in the 1960’s. At that time smoking was epidemic. Every indoor space was visibly thick with noxious, stifling smoke. Every tabletop was marred by ashes and burns. Beaches, park lawns, and other public spaces were strewn with disgusting butts. Workplaces and restaurants were more like Marakesh hookah bars than the clean, safe, and wholesome places they are today. Smokers could not be persuaded to change their behavior regardless of the cost to themselves let alone to others. Their right to enjoy unrestricted smoking was fueled by a powerful tobacco industry and protected by a complicit government. The result was that no one, even non-smokers, could find safety from the horrific health toll that this unrestricted smoking claimed. And certainly, few people believed there was any realistic chance to challenge the seemingly unassailable right and all-powerful compulsion of so many to smoke anywhere and everywhere they pleased.

Their arguments and excuses were much the same as those used in our current gun debate. But all those who said that significant changes in our smoking culture were impossible… were wrong. And they are wrong today about the hopelessness of achieving significant gun control.

But the relatively smoke and butt free world we enjoy today, that younger people thankfully take for granted, did not come about naturally or by accident. It came about because people fought for it. It came about because some ignored all those who maintained that smoking was too ingrained in our culture, that smokers could never be persuaded to curtail their habit to any extent whatsoever, and that in any case big tobacco was far too powerful to fight.

Big tobacco, as invincible and all-powerful as they seemed, lost that war. Smokers, as uncaring to suffering as their addiction made them, did eventually accept dramatic restrictions of their previously unrestricted right to smoke. And once the culture shifted under them, dramatic and fundamental change did not take long.

So don’t let anyone tell you that the NRA is too powerful. Don’t let anyone tell you guns are not the problem. Don’t let anyone tell you that gun owners will only allow their guns to be pried from their “cold dead hands.” Don’t let anyone convince you that the world will not be a far safer place with fewer guns. And don’t accept that our goals must be limited to “sensible gun restrictions,” because by taking this very meek approach we implicitly concede that guns are good and reasonable things to own – except for say crazy people or known criminals.

Rather than enumerating who cannot own guns, we should enumerate who can own them. The right to own guns should require proof of exceptional need. Such exceptions allowing ownership can include authorized facilities who “loan out” guns for controlled sporting or hunting activities, for guns held in secure armories for the use by “well regulated” militia groups, and for people with exceptional security needs.

Lest you think that such ambitious goals are impossible, consider that New York City has largely accomplished them. A little over a year ago we moved from New York City to Washington State. Despite the far greater population density, we frankly felt safer there. This is partly due to their very restrictive gun control laws. You are not allowed to own guns in NYC unless you can demonstrate an exceptional circumstance. Their laws effectively make gun ownership the exception. This has arguably contributed greatly to reducing gun violence, unarguably made us feel safer, has been accepted by the population, and has survived Constitutionality challenges in the courts. If such significant restrictions can work there, then there is no reason to accept any less nationwide.

As with seat belts, and more dramatically as with smoking, change can happen. New York City shows us that such change can be more transformative than we may believe – even when it comes to guns. The rallies and marches today give me a new sense of optimism that meaningful and significant change, akin to our transformative changes in smoking behavior, may be on the way for our insane gun culture. We just have to keep working to make it happen.

For other blog posts on our gun epidemic, click on the Guns category on the right!

 

The Supreme Court Must Ultimately Save Us From Second Amendment Genocide

gunlawsWe are trapped in a nightmarish, escalating civil war in which gun nuts, bolstered by the otherwise sensible people who support them in this national insanity, battle against those who recognize that we can we never hope to acceptably reduce gun violence until gun ownership is dramatically reduced.

Yes legislative action can blunt the damage a bit. We could and should prohibit semi-automatic weapons, as well as deadly ammunition and large capacity magazines. We could and should improve our mental health testing and strengthen background checks. We should stop shielding gun manufacturers from liability. But honestly, even all of these would not do nearly enough. These sort of legislative actions are merely the band aids we apply since we know we have no chance to obtain the life-saving cure we desperately need. In the case of our gun epidemic, that panacea is a radical gun-ectomy to remove all cancerous firearms from private hands.

Some think that repeal of the Second Amendment is a cure. But the reality is that we are so collectively obsessed with guns that we will never repeal our Second Amendment, no matter what the cost in lives. We could parade piles of bullet-ridden corpses down every American street every day and we would still stubbornly insist that no cost is too high to ensure our god-given right to bear arms. And even if we did, removing this right would do nothing affirmative to limit guns. States would only be free to pass their own similar gun-protection amendments.

But I think there is one slim hope that we are not sufficiently considering. That hope is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, with the stroke of one landmark decision, could reinterpret the Second Amendment so as to not only open up legislative options but to force legislators to enact them. Keeping a sensibly interpreted Second Amendment in place would be far more valuable than simply repealing it.

To refresh your memory, the Second Amendment states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is an extremely vague statement. Our forefathers made much of their writing intentionally vague so that future courts could reinterpret them in the context of their changing times.

Certainly times have changed with respect to guns. Since this amendment was ratified in 1791, guns have obviously grown in destructive power like the growth of a fire-cracker into a nuclear weapon. The population and our proximity to each other have also grown dramatically. The days of hunting as a necessity are long past. And the number of guns, as well as their destructive power, has grown millions of times over.

Yes, I know that just back in 2008 the Supreme Court ruling in Columbia v. Heller tremendously strengthened Second Amendment protections. Although that ruling was actually very narrow, it has been extended to justify the most generous interpretation. It can be argued that this ruling was as indirectly disastrous for sane gun reform as Citizen’s United was for campaign reform.

But the Supreme Court can, should, and does evolve on important, deeply held issues. It seemed that the Supreme Court had spoken clearly against civil rights in Dred Scott v. Standford and Plessy v. Ferguson. But they did eventually do the right thing in Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.

If our system is to work at all, we must not give up on the Supreme Court. We must hope eternal that at least one conservative member, in light of our exponentially deteriorating situation with regard to guns, might be willing to agree to subtle but dramatically consequential changes in our interpretation of the Second Amendment.

For example, the Supreme Court could rule that the phrase “a well regulated militia” is key and that it requires a far more limited distribution of weaponry. They could rule that the definition of “arms” must be far more restricted than our current interpretation. They could rule that “infringement” does not mean anything close to the current carte blanche in place now. They could clarify that their ruling in Heller does not justify extreme gun protections nor does it speak against sensible gun control.

Is this likely? Of course not. Is it possible? It certainly is and the impact of such a ruling could be huge. What we must do is not give up on this avenue even as we simultaneously pursue others. We must find justifications to bring a never-ending stream of cases before the Supreme Court to give them opportunities to put forth a modern, ethical, and rational interpretation of the Second Amendment. We could ask them, for example, to rule whether our current lack of gun control might actually violate our Second Amendment right to a well-regulated militia. We could ask them to rule whether it is consistent with the Second Amendment to allow certain weapons to be available for sport purposes only when provided at an approved facility.

Who knows, there may be a Justice right now who might now be willing to bend on this issue, if only given one more opportunity to make such a ruling. In any case, the reality is that until they do our Second Amendment genocide will continue to worsen.

Reinterpreting, not repealing, the Second Amendment is our best way out of this gun crisis that we have brought upon ourselves. Neither voters nor the repeal of the Second Amendment will force lawmakers to control gun proliferation. Just as with slavery and segregation, only a Supreme Court ruling can both allow and force them to do so.

 

A Spoonful of Superstition

Anyone who follows my blog or has read my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, well knows that I argue passionately against most forms of belief-based thinking. But I do have to admit that sometimes a teeny tiny bit of false belief is helpful.

I rarely ever steal anything. If I realize that I was given too much change at the market, I’ll invariably drive back to return it. I don’t do the right thing because I’m such a noble upstanding person. I do it because of superstition.

You see somewhere I picked up this deeply ingrained notion that if I keep that money, the universe will somehow take revenge on me. I’ll stub my toe, or get a traffic citation, or spill coffee on my term paper. In some way I’ll pay tenfold for my dishonesty.

Of course that’s silly. I know that’s silly. Something bad will happen eventually, and when it does I will falsely ascribe the cause to be my earlier bad behavior. But nevertheless, the feeling of wanting to avoid this bad karma is so powerful that it still compels me to do the right thing.

Perhaps this belief in karma is just something learned from popular culture, but I rather suspect that our species carries the hardwired seed of this idea which gets reinforced by false associations acquired during ones lifetime. It makes evolutionary sense to me that such an assumption is a helpful genetic trait. Within social structures, what goes around does in fact often come back around.

Our innate fear of karmic payback is almost certainly a component of what we perceive as our nagging conscience.

karma

Here’s the danger in this. It leads many people down the rabbit hole into religion-land. If we believe in a little auto-karma, why not an almighty god who personally ensures payback? If a little karmic fear is good, then the fear of eternal damnation is even better. If our sense of personal karma is hardwired, then so is our belief in god!

But one essential principle you learn in toxicology class is that everything that is beneficial at low doses becomes toxic at higher doses. A little superstition may have some positive benefits. But a full-blown belief in god requires a level of superstition and a perversion of logical thinking that is so extreme as to be dangerously toxic. This level of belief is so debilitating to our logical faculties that it can compromise our ability to think rationally about critical issues like climate change.

So feel free to embrace a healthy sense of karma like you do a magic show, with a full and complete understanding that it’s not real. But don’t let that indulgence lead you down the treacherously slippery slope into religion.

Technology Empowers Our Humanity

CustomerSupportNot that may years ago, read/write CD/ROM drives were essential and a good one was quite expensive. I once paid top dollar to get a top rated drive from Toshiba. It never worked. I called Toshiba dozens of times over 6 months trying to get it working. It would take an hour to get past hold, read off serial numbers and customer info, fax in receipts, explain the problem all over again, to get transferred and repeat it all, to get disconnected, go through it all yet again, only to be told to clean the drive, to call Microsoft, to contact Intel, to reinstall Windows, to buy higher quality disks, to change bios settings, or buy a new connection cable.

In the end, it turned out that this was a known issue with the drive, but Toshiba had a policy not to admit to any such issues. Instead, they intentionally made me jump onerous technical support hurdles and run off on expensive and time-consuming wild goose chases for six months before they finally admitted as much. Most people gave up well before that, but I was on a mission. Nevertheless, in the end I tossed the drive in the garbage.

Everyone has their customer support horror stories. Not that long ago, such infuriating experiences were the norm, not the exception. I had many similar experiences with Sony in particular and resolved never to buy anything from them ever again.

But today customer support has transformed dramatically. Today, wonderful customer support is the norm, not the exception.

AT&T exemplifies this welcome new normal for customer service. The hotspot on my mobile phone quit working. Although I knew it was not an issue with AT&T because it worked on my wife’s phone, I went to their site, hit chat, immediately got a wonderful representative named Stephanie who happily helped me reset my phone, 5 minutes later my hotspot was working!

That’s great customer service. And it’s not just huge companies that are putting the service back in customer service. My garage door light started blinking in a regular pattern as if indicating some error. I called Guardian Garage Doors and immediately got a wonderful guy on the phone. He heard my issue and asked me to text him a video. I did so and after a short hold said their engineers didn’t know what the problem was but wanted me to send it in so they could diagnose it. He offered to rush out a replacement. But minutes later he called back and suggested I try replacing my LED bulb. I did so even though it seemed silly, LED’s don’t do that. But apparently they do. That fixed it!

This is nothing remotely like the bad old days of Toshiba and Sony era customer “support.” The kind of great customer support we often see today is greatly facilitated by technology. It is enabled by the Internet, by chat technology, by searchable knowledge bases, by intelligent call routing systems, and by interconnected global workforces.

But while these technologies are incredibly empowering, real people and attitudes are still essential to great customer support. Technology doesn’t make representatives so pleasantly informal yet professional in demeanor. Technology doesn’t ensure that customer service departments are staffed to connect quickly and to stay on as long as it takes to resolve an issue. It takes sensible management to not interrogate you to prove your identity, ownership, and warranty. It is an explicit choice to authorize representatives to own issues even if they are not directly responsible. And it is their conscious decision to admit to issues candidly rather than reflexively conceal and deny them beyond all rationality.

So, while I often bash private sector corporations, I must give credit where credit is due. Some things do get better. Customer service stands in direct contradiction to widespread fears of a cold and impersonal technology-dominated future. It shows us that technology, properly implemented, can make our lives and our interactions not only more efficient and satisfying, but at the same time more friendly, more personal, more sensible, and yes, more human as well.