the power of belief

December 30, 2008

I am looking for something to believe in.

Now this is a broad statement, one with lots of implications, so I will try to narrow it down and define my point. The problem is that I’m not sure of my point because that is really what I am searching for. I do believe in things, some things I believe in more than others, and I believe in them for different reasons. I believe in evolution, prime numbers, the Incompleteness theorem and harmonics. I also believe in the basic goodness of people, civil rights and education.

What I think I am looking for though, is more along the lines of this gem by Earl Simmons, “I stand for what I believe in, even, if what I believe in, stops me from breathin’.” I remember when I first heard this statement, surely not an original sentiment, and how it challenged me. It didn’t matter how vulgar the context was, or the rest of his messages, this one line made me question myself. I thought, how many things are there that I would die for? That I would actually go against my natural instinct to fight for? I think for a kid in my position it was and is hard to be honest with myself to answer this question. I live a relatively comfortable lifestyle. My parents aren’t rich, but we certainly have never been poor. I grew up as a white male in America, attending decent public schools and with a caring family at home. I’ve never flown first class but I’ve traveled a lot more than a whole lot of people. There really isn’t much incentive to throw all of that away.

Yet that line bothered me, it had such power, such conviction. I felt like I was missing something because there wasn’t anything I could speak of with such all encompassing passion. Sure, I would give anything for my family and the people I love, but that mental exercise is pointless. We don’t live our lives waiting for someone we care about to get into trouble or fall into misfortune before we can find purpose. I felt like I needed to find a source so I could harness this power too.

I was raised by very rational parents, and I have always considered myself a rational person. The more I learned about the world the harder I found it to accept absolutes. This allowed me to put aside this nagging for a belief, because I could spend my energy trying harder to understand the world around me. After all, it would seem rather silly to die for a belief that turned out to be misguided. This fear of being wrong can be both healthy and hindering. I think while developing it is essential to soak in as many viewpoints as possible and broaden ones horizons, but at a certain point a person is moved to act. At that point it helps if there is direction behind those actions, especially in the context of society. Furthermore, if one is driven to make some sort of difference, to promote a change, then I propose that it helps to believe in what one is doing. This allows other people to subscribe to that belief, to contribute their help and further the movement in the direction of that belief.

That is the kind of belief I am looking for. The kind that when mentioned sets the context for a discussion. The kind that energizes people, inspires them to set aside whatever else they were doing to contribute, that makes them eager to dedicate time from their schedule to organize.

I have two candidates at the moment, both beliefs I have held for a long time, instilled by my parents and nurtured over the years. The first is civil rights, and the second is education. I hold a deep belief in human equality, not that we should all be the same, but by being born as human beings we all have equal rights. I have a great disdain for intolerance and a love for exploring other cultures. I do believe that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. For some reason, however, I don’t see the path. I don’t know where to start. Well, I have an idea, probably law school, but there is another belief that tugs on my thoughts and stirs up my passion.

That belief is education. I believe based on common wisdom and common sense that education plays an incredibly important role in determining the outcome of ones life. The problem is with the word, and all the implications it brings. I believe in more than just tests and degrees, more than certificates and institutions. Education is something personal, essentially it is completely internal, but access to it can be greatly influenced by external factors. Whether it is learning how to count, or learning how to wire a house for electricity, researching ancient texts, the basics of programming, or how to cook ramen noodles. The end result can only be proved by the person doing the learning. What this means to me is that the idea of education is far too broad a subject to be the kind of belief I am looking for. It is too basic a human function to single out. What I want to believe is that improving education, by giving more children access to more paths, by opening the eyes of young adults to more possibilities and more realities will improve the lives of everybody on this planet. This is still too vague a sentiment to die for. But it may be just beautiful enough to live for.

Maybe I just had to write it down to get a clearer understanding. While dying for an idea is a powerful force, living for one seems more constructive, although perhaps more fragile. Fighting for a positive outcome, constructing change is always more difficult than destructive change. The outcome of construction must be maintained, while destruction is the end result. I think this is why I will never subscribe to the idea that the ends justify the means, because there is no end as time is forever.

The next step then is how to embark on this journey of construction, how to develop new systems and expand on existing ones. How to set processes in motion that will continue to grow with time and provide more openings for more people. How to brand this idea of education, or most likely, what books do I need to read that have already inked this concept. It would be presumptious to think that I am the first one to think like this, so if the movement exists, and the belief is already being followed, sign me up!

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For those that don’t know, the term Digital Divide describes the gap in skills between those with access to computers and digital technology and those without. I propose a way to build a bridge. The great thing about computers for the last decade is that they are mostly modular and they keep getting cheaper. Computers have gotten so cheap that there are completely usable machines out there that you just can’t sell because they are over 2 years old.

That’s where we come in. I personally have 2 desktop towers and a laptop that I don’t use because they are much slower than the computer I do use. They just sit in my closet collecting dust, even though all the parts work, and they would be perfectly suitable for a large amount of common computing tasks such as web browsing, emailing and word processing. All they really need is a sponge bath, a fresh install of a light-weight linux operating system and a little bit of loving and they would be ready for a new home. I know I am not the only one with computers like this, and even more so, many people have older windows computers that they think are broken because of all the spyware and viruses, but will be good as new after a cleansing format and fresh install of linux. For those computers that are really broken, there is a good chance that only one or two essential components are unusable, but the rest of the pieces are in perfect working order. From these we can create frankenstien machines that are stronger, better, faster… (queue your choice of daft punk or kanye west)

And this is where the real fun comes in. I’m not just talking about assembling a couple nerds like myself to process and distribute these computers, but starting a workshop for the very kids at the bottom of the digital divide. For those of us who grew up upgrading our video card for the latest video game, and putting in more RAM or installing that internal burner so we could share our pirated music, pulling apart and putting together a computer is no sweat. That means we should have no problem showing a few kids how to do the same. Then we give them an Ubuntu live cd and watch as they learn.

I know personally several people with the technical skills and the heart to support this effort, in the beginning we need not be too ambitious. As long as we can put a few keyboards infront of the hands of a few kids who wouldn’t have had the chance, we will have made a difference. I think there are several places this could take place, either at a local community center, or even on Campus. If we find ourselves getting more donations, we should be able to recruit more volunteers from the IT department at FSU. If we can start a sort of organization, perhaps we could raise a few funds from technology companies like Comcast that we could use to shop at the FSU Surplus Auctions for spare parts and extra monitors. We can also take this opportunity to responsibly recycle waste materials, which is not hard to do, but most people don’t know how.

So if you have an old or broken computer, let me know. If you want to help put together computers and teach some kids at the same time, let me know. If you want to help tweak a custom linux distribution and pack it with fun and educational software, let me know. If there is anything I didn’t think of, let me know!

Even if we are just throwing a few rocks into the river, lets start building this bridge!