Moreover, neither grammar nor style are politically neutral. Learning the rules that govern intelligible speech is an inculcation into normalized language, where the price of not conforming is the loss of intelligibility itself. As Drucilla Cornell, in the tradition of Adorno, reminds me: there is nothing radical about common sense. It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed upon the thinkable itself. But formulations that twist grammar or that implicitly call into question the subject-verb requirements of propositional sense are clearly irritating for some. They produce more work for their readers, and sometimes their readers are offended by such demands. Are those who are offended making a legitimate request for “plain speaking” or does their complaint emerge from a consumer expectation of intellectual life? Is there, perhaps a value to be derived from such experiences of linguistic difficulty? … The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly “clear” view. Avital Ronell recalls the moment in which Nixon looked into the eyes of the nation and said, “let me make one thing perfectly clear” and then proceeded to lie. What travels under the sign of “clarity” and what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does “transparency” keep obscure?
Judith Butler in the Preface (1999) to Gender Trouble (1990)
After many years with Positive, I’ve switched the hosting to Webarchitects. Webarch are a cooperative, using green energy to power their servers and have been great in helping me move this site to their servers. They are also based in the great city of Sheffield, England
New Roots was a non-profit wholefoods “shop for justice” on Glossop Road, Sheffield. Owned by the Ashram Trust, but run by Grace Vincent (until 2013), it was staffed by a community of volunteers, including many students (the shop site is about 2 minutes from the University of Sheffield Students’ Union).
Last week I went past the shop and saw it was being cleaned out. The Ashram Trust is planning to sell the shop. It had been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and had been open less regularly even before then.
I have happy memories of New Roots and think of its passing as a success. The values that made New Roots unusual in 1987 are now more mainstream – The Student’s Union has it’s own zero-packaging shop, you can buy vegan food almost everywhere, get fair trade and organic veg in supermarkets and so on. All things have their seasons.
New Roots is now passed into legend, but leaves behind a community which stretches out across generations of volunteers – I’m still in touch with many. A community forged by decades of shop floor chat, of protest planning, bicycle powered smoothies, cake cutting, and tens of thousands of hot veggie burritos.
All of us, I suppose, like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit. Certainly that was my conviction back in the summer of 1968. Tim O’Brien: a secret hero. The Lone Ranger. If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years. Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory. It dispensed with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage; it offered hope and grace to the repetitive coward; it justified the past while amortizing the future
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990), p39-40
So the grey arena formed itself and the crowd grew, while the domed ceiling of the dark place dripped, and the lamps were re-filled and some held candles, some torches, while others had brought mirrors to reflect the light, until the whole place swam like a miasma. Were his shoulder not hurting from the grip it had sustained Titus might well have wondered whether he was asleep and dreaming. Around him, tier upon tier (for the centre of the arena was appreciably lower than the margin. and there was about the place almost the feeling of a dark circus) were standing or were seated the failures of earth. The beggars, the harlots, the cheats, the refugees, the scatterlings, the wasters, the loafers, the bohemians, the black sheep, the chaff, the poets, the riff-raff, the small fry, the misfits, the conversationalists, the human oysters, the vermin, the innocent, the snobs and the men of straw, the pariahs, the outcasts, rag-pickers, the rascals, the rakehells, the fallen angels, the sad-dogs, the castaways, the prodigals, the defaulters, the dreamers and the scum of the earth
The day before the UK general election, and there’s a lot of political communication flying about on social media. There are positive persuasions (“Vote Labour!”), negative persuasions (“Don’t vote Tory”), and a curious kind of message which interests me now: “Tories are evil”. Here’s an example:
The first curious thing about this quote is the logical content, which is either ridiculous or sinister. The Conservative Party got 13.6 million votes in the last election, more than any other party. Brooker’s claim is weirdly specific, and if we assume the number of “toffs, money-minded machine men and faded entertainers” is small, we are forced to conclude that Conservative voters are either “bigots” or “selfish, grasping, simpletons”. Either Brooker has made a mistake about what Conservative voters are like, or millions of ordinary people are bigots or simpletons. This view leads two places: First, to the conclusion that people who aren’t as insightful as Brooker shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Second, that there is no point trying to persuade most people honestly – bigots and simpletons can’t understand the evidence and arguments.
The second curious thing about this quote is the intent. The kind of contempt seems unlikely to work on anyone voting Conservative. Nobody would recognise themselves in Brooker’s list of villains, or – if they did – be motivated to weigh his values highly. It’s persuasive currency for the political opposition is zero. It might even be worse than nothing, since any Conservative voter is likely to be incensed, rather than dissuaded.
By ‘groupness’ I mean our tendency to identify social groups and use these to navigate our informational worlds. It means that we make decisions about who to believe and who to help based on which group we think they belong too first, using this group membership to filter all other information about them, including what they say or do.
Let’s just walk through this, since a seemingly trivial classroom demonstration of the minimal group paradigm has important implications for understanding political tribalism.
First, Dave asks the class “is a hotdog a sandwich?”. Question one can be any question, as long as the there are two different answers which are both chosen by some of the class, and as long as the those answers are of no relevance to question two. Some classic research used people’s art preferences. Dave asks if a hotdog is a sandwich. 69% of the class think Yes, 31% think No.
Next, Dave asks people to pick from two options
A: Give $3 to everyone who agrees with me and give $4 to everyone who disagrees with me.
B: Give $2 to everyone who agrees with me and give $1 to everyone who disagrees with me.
Most of the class, 71%, pick B.
Take that in for a moment. Most people are choosing less money for themselves ($2 rather than $3), and less money for many other people in the class – which is bizarre, or at least at odds with economic rationality in itself – and they are doing it because of social groups which didn’t exist until moments before, and have been conjoured out of the air by the instructor asking a stupid question about hotdogs.
Based on this arbitrary grouping, people would rather those who disagreed with them get less ($1 rather than $4) even to their own cost and the general cost of everyone who agrees with them! The are controls you could run to confirm that the effect is driven by the grouping induced by the first question, but the general conclusion must be that tribalism is a hell of a drug, and dangerously easy to invoke.
This helps us understand the attraction of “They Are Evil” messaging. These messages are not persuasive. Thinking like this is the opposite of persuasive – it is polarising, driving people further apart in their views and making communication across the divide harder. We do it because it feels good, awarding us and our tribe the moral equivalent of $2 when we could have had £3, but at the vindictive gain of awarding the opposing tribe $1 rather than $4. Collectively it diminishes us, and encourages a view that people who disagree are biased, selfish or otherwise beyond redemption and persuasion.
Please don’t give in to this kind of thinking. And please be careful of creating new tribes by asking unnecessary questions with binary answers.
In this article, With impeachment, America’s epistemic crisis has arrived, David Roberts, argues that impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump will be the stress test for a right-wing alternate-reality. This alternate reality has been fomented over decades, through the cultivation of a right wing media ecosystem – from talk radio, think tanks and talking points. Now, Roberts argues, the Fox News junkies have taken over the White House and are going to try and get away with carrying on as if the crimes Trump committed are not obvious and impeachable – throwing up enough doubt and uncertainty over the proceedings that they can get away with it.
Two elements of this Roberts highlights are:
Tribal epistemology: “… when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.”
And strategical exploitation of consensus: “The right has hacked the cognitive biases of voters and reporters..[there is] a strong tendency, especially among low-information, relatively disengaged voters (and political reporters), to view consensus as a signal of legitimacy. It’s an easy and appealing heuristic: If something is a good idea, it would have at least a few people from both sides supporting it.” Robert’s argument is that by denying consensus they deny legitimacy to mainstream (i.e. Democrat) positions, and keep alive the legitimacy of the alternative (i.e. Republican) reality.
As a wail of despair, or prophesy of doom, I find this piece as appealing as the next liberal, but the lie in it is revealed by its impracticality. The piece doesn’t tell us what to do about hyperpartisan alternative realities, and it can’t, because at root it subscribes to the same model of human irrationality it decries.
The idea that epistemology can be subverted to tribalism implies that there are ways of knowing – or people who know – which aren’t influenced by their social group. The idea that the right-wing base have had their cognitive biases hacked implies that the rest of us have resisted this, or never had a vulnerability in those biases in the first place.
I’m not claiming that there aren’t biases, or tribalism. Reality exists, errors exist and sometimes tribalism does provoke the sacrifice of accuracy. But a useful view of these things will tell us what do when epistemological realities seem to diverge.
My problem with the “alternative reality” account is that is plays to a model where people who disagree with us are irrational. And once you have decided that people are irrational it blocks any possibility of rational engagement – why try to persuade these people (the model suggests), isn’t it hopeless?
The report describes University work as an ‘anxiety machine’, where pressure to support student satisfaction, workload intensification, work allocation models, performance management and casualisation all combine to ramp up pressure on individual members of University staff. (These issues are precisely those which are the subject of the current UCU dispute and planned industrial action).
Sheffield Hallam UCU used this report, and the underlying data, to identify these statistics for their University: between 2010 and 2015 a 56% increase in staff referrals to University counselling; between 2015 and 2016 a 240% increase in referrals to occupational health.
This is in line with the industry-wide pattern. Extracting the data from the report, I drew the graph of total reported referrals of University staff to counselling (red) and occupational health (blue):
The data is broken down by institution, so I can pull out the data for the University of Sheffield. Here referrals to counseling grew by 2700% (from 30 in 2009, to over 800 in 2016). The occupational health data is not complete, so a comparison is not possible.
Here are graphs for a few other Universities:
A few “data caveats”
The data are incomplete, so the total increase could be inflated by more institutions keeping records. Looking at the average figures reported each year, as well as these per-institution figures, shows that this possible confound is not driving the increase.
If anyone wants to make some more FOI requests and get data for 2016-2019, I’ll make the graphs
There are large differences in absolute numbers between institutions. If I had the number of employees of each institution I would like to calculate the rate of referrals per employee to allow better comparison across institutions.
Many institutions have been making more effort to respond to poor staff mental health, however I think it would be wrong to view the increase in uptake of counselling as an entirely a positive thing – the bottom line is that increased uptake, and increased provision, are responses to the same underlying forces: unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on University staff.
But fake news has other functions besides getting people to believe something that isn’t true, and understanding these other functions may be as important as understanding its belief-altering properties.
Topic change. When a blatent untruth is put out, it becomes something to talk about, orienting attention. This can be deliberate – as in the dead cat strategy.
Energy sink. Untruths evoke refutations, further orienting attention and redirecting the energies of your opponents.
Loyalty test. Propaganda doesn’t exist to be believed, it exists as a flag around which people must organise, or display their opposition. The more blatant the untruth the stronger the test of loyalty.
Status display. What better display of power than asking people to humiliate themselves by affirming an untruth merely because you said it?
Misinformation is about power. As long as we try and deal with it as a class of information we’ll be vulnerable to its use by the powerful.
Do our individual actions matter when faced with global climate change?
There’s an argument that the collective action required to combat climate change is undermined by focussing on individual consumption choices. Encouraging people to think that responsibility for the environment involves choosing the right kind of teabags, drinking straws or washing powder distracts from the real culprits for emissions (corporations?) and the most effective levers of change (legislation?).
This view is buffered by the blunt logic that a single individual’s behaviour won’t affect the collective outcome. If I reduce my emissions, but nobody else does, then my efforts will have been in vain. If everybody else reduces their emissions, it similarly wouldn’t matter whether I did too, or not.
But, sings the critical chorus, if you change your diet, are you just allowing yourself to be distracted from the structural causes of climate change, seduced by an illusion that you can solve collective problems through fashionable lifestyle choices?
Dietary choice is also an example of something highly cultural, as well as highly individual. And food culture is changing. The number of people eating plant-based diets is increasing, as are the options for anyone who want to eat meat and/or diary free. Individual dietary choices take place within this context, and contribute to it.
So here is my question: Knowing what we know about the extent of our carbon emissions, and the reduction required in them, how consequential will individual changes in diet be? Are the ~5% of the UK population who are vegan substantially affecting UK emissions? If not, what percentage would need to be vegan to have a substantial impact?
So, speculating wildly (this is no rhetoric, I am mostly ignorant about actual carbon emissions sources and targets), if a timeline of our carbon emissions and target looks like this:
What does the contribution of human diet look like? Something like this?
And what are the possible projections if different proportions of meals are plant-based rather than meat-and-diary?
The answers interest me because they seem to suggest a bridge between seeing diet as a solely individual choice – and so one which suffers from the brute logic of the collective action problem – and seeing diet as a part of the collective response to climate change. Certainly effective action on climate change requires more government action, but it is also interesting to know how large an effect this particular individual choice could have.
only what happens is possible, says K., the great, the sad, the wise one, who already knew from individual lives exactly what it would be like when criminal lunatics look upon the world rationally and the world in turn presents a rational aspect to them, that is to say, is obedient to them. And don’t tell me, I most probably said, that this explanation is just a tautological way of explaining the facts with facts, because yes, indeed, this explanation, hard as I know it may be for you to accept, that we are governed by commonplace felons—hard even when you already call them commonplace felons and know them as such— nevertheless as soon as a criminal lunatic ends up, not in a madhouse or penal institution, but in a chancellery or other government office you immediately begin to search for what is interesting, original, extraordinary, and (though you don’t dare to say so, except in secret, of course) yes, great in him, so you are not obliged to see yourselves as such dwarfs, and histories of the world as so absurd, I most probably said; yes, so that you may continue to look upon the world rationally and the world in its turn may present a rational aspect to you. And that is entirely understandable, even entirely commendable, even if your method is neither “scientific” nor “objective,” as you would like to believe, it is not; it is sheer lyricism and moralizing insofar as it seeks to restore a rational, or in other words endurable, world order, and those who have been banished from the world subsequently edge their way back into the world again through these back and front doors—anyone, that is, who is inclined to do so and who believes that the world will henceforth be a place fit for people, but then that is quite another matter, I most probably must have said, the only problem is that this is how legends are born, we can learn from these “objective” lyrical works, these scientific horror stories, say, that the great man had an outstanding tactical sense—right?—as if an outstanding tactical sense were not precisely the means by which every paranoid and manic madman misleads and befuddles those around him and his doctors, and then that social conditions were such-and-such, while international politics were such-and-such, and then some, once philosophy, music and other forms of artistic hocus-pocus had corrupted people’s capacity to think, but above all that, when it comes down to it, the great man, let’s not mince words, was a great man, he had about him something of the disarming, the fascinating, in short: something of the demonic, that’s it, a demonic streak that was quite simply irresistible, especially if we have no will to resist, seeing that we just happen to be hunting for a demon; a demon is just what we’ve been needing for a long, long time for our squalid affairs, to gratify our squalid desires, the sort of demon, of course, who can be persuaded to believe that he is the demon who will take all our own demoniacality on his shoulders, an Antichrist bearing the Iron Cross, and will not insolently slip through our fingers to string himself up before time, as Stavrogin did. Yes, you see and label them as common criminal lunatics, yet from the moment one lays his hands on the orb and scepter you immediately start to deify him, reviling him even as you deify him, listing the objective circumstances, reciting what, objectively, he was right about, but what, subjectively, he was not right about, what objectively can be understood, and what subjectively cannot, what sorts of hanky-panky were going on in the background, what sorts of interests played a part, and never running short of explanations just so that you can salvage your souls and whatever else is salvageable, just so that you can view commonplace robbery, murder and trafficking in souls in which we all, all of us sitting here, somehow play or have played a part, one way or another, in the grand opera-house limelight of world events, I most probably must have said, yes, just so that you may fish partial truths out of the great shipwreck in which everything whole has been smashed, yes, just so as not to see before you, behind you, underneath you and at every turn the yawning chasm, the nothingness, the void, or in other words, our true situation, what it is you are serving and the prevailing nature of the prevailing régime, a dominating power which is neither necessary nor unnecessary but simply a matter of decisions, decisions that are made or not made in individual lives, neither satanic nor unfathomably and spellbindingly intricate, nor something that majestically sweeps us up with it, no, it is just vulgar, mean, murderous, stupid, hypocritical, and even at the moments of its greatest achievements at best merely well organized
Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990, trans. Tim Wilkinson)
The UCU strike has shown how effective twitter can be. University staff from around the country have shared support, information and analysis . There has been a palpable feeling of collective intelligence at work. When the first negotiated agreement was released (at 7.15 on a Monday evening) my impression was that most people didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to make of it. Pensions are complex, and the headline feature – retention of a Defined Benefit scheme seemed positive. Overnight on twitter sentiment coalesced around the hashtag #NoCapitulation and at 10am on the Tuesday union members around the country held branch meetings – all 64 of which resoundingly rejected the agreement. The subsequent – substantially improved – offer suggests that this was the right thing for union members to do, and the speed and unanimity with which they did it wouldn’t have been possible without the twitter discussion that happened over night.
So why, on this occasion, does twitter work as a platform for collective intelligence? Often enough twitter seems to be a platform which supports idiocy, narcissism and partisan bickering. The case of UCU strike twitter contrasts with other high volume / high urgency discussions, such as the aftermath of disasters, where twitter is as likely to be used to spread fake news and political point scoring as it is for useful information and insightful analysis.
Collective intelligence: what helps, what hurts
There is a literature on collective decision making, which highlights a few things which need to hold for a group discussion to be more productive than individuals just making up their own mind.
Arguments must be exchanged . First off, and a factor which should hearten committed rationalist everywhere, the exchange of arguments – not just information – seems to be key to productive groups (“studies that have manipulated the amount of interaction or that have examined the content of interactions have found that the exchange of arguments is critical for these improvements to occur”, Mercier, 2016 ).
Agreed purpose . Productive groups need to have a shared idea of what they are trying to achieve. If, for example, half of a group like solving problems and half like having arguments, their contributions to the discussion will, sooner or later, push in different directions ( van Veelen & Ufkes, 2017 , Sperber & Mercier, 2017 )
Diversity, in viewpoints . The literature on the effect of diversity on collective intelligence is mixed. Too much diversity between participants may hinder group discussions ( Wooley et al, 2015 ) and demographic diversity alone certainly isn’t sufficient for the wisdom of crowds to emerge ( de Oliveira & Nisbett, 2018 ). Instead enough ‘ view point diversity ‘ to produce a cognitive division of labour without impairing group cohesion. A corollary is that the more group cohesion you have the higher your opportunity to harness group diversity.
Herding Herding is excessive agreement. This can happen when group members lack independent information or suffer overly similar viewpoints. It can also be caused by group members having the desire to align to the group for its own sake, or if they believe that others have better knowledge. The result is the same: an information cascade where a popular viewpoint attracts adherents because it is popular, and so appears more correct because it is popular, and on in a vicious circle.
Group decision biases One of these, according to Bang & Frith, is ‘shared information bias’ which is a bias to discuss the things everyone knows about rather than share information or discuss aspects of the decision which aren’t yet common to the group
Competing sub-goals As well as lacking shared a shared purpose in discussion, group decision making can be derailed by status issues(think showing off, excessive pride preventing admission of error, etc), accountability issues (such as people avoiding unpopular opinions if they will be punished if that position turns out to be in error) and ‘social loafing’ (this is the textbook phenomenon whereby people try less hard in larger groups, effectively free-riding on others’ contributions)
The #USSstrike discussion on twitter
Before trying to apply the factors identified from the literature on collective intelligence / group decision making to the #USSstrike, let’s throw up a quick list factors which seem plausible candidates for why twitter was the site of a productive conversation this time. Once we have a list of candidates, we can see how they map to the features identified in the literature as necessary conditions for useful group decision making.
So, the #USSstrike twitter conversation may have been productive because:
twitter discussion built on top of existing networks (academics have local connections to colleagues at their own institutions, as well as disciplinary connections at other institutions across the country.)
twitter discussion built on top of IRL discussions on picket lines (lots of opportunity to chat on picket lines).
common interest (participants in the conversation are invested in understanding the issue, and want to same thing – a positive outcome to the dispute – even if they don’t agree on what that actually means).
niche interest (most of the population is not that interested in academic pensions, which means fewer trolls, troublemakers and idle speculators).
participants have training in critically evaluating sources (i.e. hopefully have good filters for unreliable information, recognise important facts)
Combining these lists we get some traction on why academic twitter was suddenly able to transform into a vehicle for productive collective intelligence on pensions (and maybe how we can help keep it that way).
In short, our three criteria for productive group decisions were met:
Arguments were exchanged: arguments are the daily tools of academics, of course we exchanged arguments, not just information
Our purpose was agreed: the nature of the dispute did that for us. Those in the discussion had a common purpose to understand an issue with high stakes . Not only do we face the same pension cuts, but the logic of collective bargaining and action puts us all on the same side
Diverse viewpoints were represented: maybe it is less clear this criteria was met, but perhaps we can thank the fact that academics from all disciplines have been discussing the dispute for at least some boost in the diversity of backgrounds and assumptions that participants bring t the discussion.
The three decision traps – herding, bias and competing sub-goals – are all warnings for the future. We seem to have avoided them for the moment. but there are plenty of individual behaviours which can encourage them. Most of us, with notable exceptions, are guilty of some social loafing. Blindly following others (leading to herding) seems a particular risk given that the logic of collective action is an important part of Union identity. I also note that bad manners, such as abusing people who make mistakes or adopt alternative viewpoints, as well as being bad manners, also works to effectively punish viewpoint diversity, with a corresponding decrement in our capacity for collective intelligence.
As a student of decision making the dispute has been exhilarating to take part in and I’ll watch with interest the next rounds (and the corresponding twitter discussion).
My quick primer on the UCU strike action is here .
Because our values have arisen in a process of debate, inference and generalisation, they are no longer even distant consequences of our basic needs. Our nature arises from choices that were not determined by our biological make-up. It is enabled, but not determined, by biology.
I accept that nature doesn’t tell us what we ought to desire. I also think that some of what feel like our most essential desires are social products. Here’s an extreme example of that: If I was born a viking warrior I would want to die in battle (or at least want to want that). Viking-me would recognise that desire as defining of my self, but from our modern standpoint we also recognise that it is entirely an accident of history. Those of us who want to die in battle, or to avenge their honour, we seek to rehabilitate, not encourage.
If some of our most strongly held desires are social products, and there is no divine or biological nature which tells us which desires are good or bad, how do we know which desires should be the foundation for our selves, and which we should disavow, and so strive to un-want?
Possibly related: moral dumbfounding. When we cannot explain our intuitions, when is this evidence that they are, or should be axiomatic, and when is it evidence that we have no sound basis for what we belief and we should abandon our beliefs?
Clues, perspectives, historical and empirical notes welcome!
Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature. Her book on Chernobyl (subtitled in the first translation ‘The oral history of a nuclear disaster’) has a 2005 translation and a 2016 translation. Here are two excerpts:
Voices from Chernobyl (2005, translation by Kieth Gessen):
“I was saved by my mother. She’d lived a long time and had lost everything more than once. The first time was in the 1930s, they took her cow, her horse, her house. The second time, there’d been a fire, the only thing she’d saved was me. Now she said, “We have to get through it. After all, we’re alive”
Chernobyl Prayer (2016 translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait):
“My mother was the saving of me. In the course of a long life, she had been deprived of her home and everything she had earned. The first time was when she was purged in the 1930s. They confiscated everything: her cow, her horse, her house. The second time it was a fire, and all she was able to save was me, her little daughter, plucked from the flames. ‘You just have to get through it,’ she comforted me. ‘The main thing is, we’re still alive.’
The 2016 translation is based on the revised (2013) version of the text, and is longer – containing whole sections of text not in the 2005 translations (as well, as this example suggests, being more verbose in a line-by-line comparison with the 2005 translation).
Reviewing my twitter feed for the year (as part of writing a review of the year), I found some links that I’d posted which didn’t receive the wild endorsement I thought they deserved, so I’m reposting them here.
Alex says “Google Reader took over web feeds, shutting that down was a crime and basically killed reading stuff on the web. The www has been so much poorer ever since, facebook and twitter suck so much in comparison to the real thing.”
Distraction? Social media as a cathartic substitute for political engagement? In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam blames television and commuting for a large part of a loss of trust and participation in social organisations. Is Facebook displacing valuable social and political actions, rather than catalysing them?
Related, does social media’s excellence at bite-sized information mean that context, nuance and argument are now disadvantaged in a way they weren’t before?
Misinformation? Fake news, propaganda, weaponised hoaxes, the whole boatload of lies and half-truths. But surely this is not new. Something about the lack of transparency, and the ability to insert misinformation so it is transmitted along our social networks, the same kind of currency as news of their pets and holiday photos, adds a terrifying velocity to misinformation.
False consensus – creating the impression that something is universally viewed at true or important, when it isn’t. See also filter bubbles. Distinguished from echo chambers, but algorithmically curated blindness to counterpoints.
Erosion of common ground – loss of common knowledge and frames of reference. If we don’t know why other people believe what they believe, how can we start to engage them
Monopoly powers – facebook has 2 billion+ monthly users. That’s too much power for a single media entity to have without a truckload of regulatory oversight or democracy control.
Any evidence bearing on the factors I list? Any factors I missed? Comments are open!
Quick thoughts about Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed , a compelling, charming exploration of the ‘great renaissance of public shaming’, its mob psychology and the individual stories of the people involved:
– lots of the negative consequences of public shaming described in the book would be mitigated if it was harder for US corporations to fire people.
– i think part of what makes internet shaming hard to wrap your head around (and which I don’t think Ronson ever really deals with) is the scale – both how many people get involved, and the disproportion between the individual actions (the shameful tweet, the individual shaming responses) and how the consequences. People kill themselves, or get fired, but no single act is the cause (“no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche”). It is hard to make sense of the this world where unimportant actions generate massively important reactions.
– Is Ronson being a bit disingenuous when he says he is interested in shaming because he has been a perpetrator? Maybe he’s called someone out online, but I doubt he’s ever sent the kind of abuse he describes in book (death and rape threats etc).
– Who are those guys, anyway? I understand that he didn’t want to write a book about trolling, but they seem like an integral part of the story. I don’t meet anybody who speaks like that offline (and rarely online). Who are these people? And if they are us, why are they like this online?
– There wasn’t enough talk about specific platforms, and the choices they’ve made that enable the dynamics discussed. Let’s face it, when we talk about social media we mostly mean facebook and twitter. Both are really good at letting complex chains of speech/action be taken out of context, and at generating outrage around that. The internet doesn’t have to be this way. Why is it?
– Not enough about politics, and related moral tribalism. The outrages (memorably labelled in the book ‘a cathartic substitute for social justice’) are moral outrages, often with an explicit political agenda (e.g. anti-racism). Paging Jon Haidt
– I would love to hear more analysis of public pressure, and why specific actors feel the need to bow to it (or not). It seem that when one of the corporations in the book fires someone because of a badly worded tweet, they aren’t making a judgement about the truth of the claim that the person is sexist (or whatever), but rather that the truth of that claim has become irrelevant. The victim needs to be fired because everyone says they need to be fired. How do you get out of situations like that?
When a researcher tells me their research topic is fascinating, I get a sinking feeling, like when someone announces they are going to tell me about the dream they had last night. Here’s something I’ve learnt in my time as a scholar: finding something fascinating isn’t a good guide to what actually is fascinating.
There are plenty of questions which I used to find fascinating. Topics which, for years, I would have said fascinated me, but which now I think are of little interest. That feeling that something was a deep question, that it promised – somehow – to help reveal the secrets of the universe, wasn’t to be trusted. With a bit more thought, or experience, my fascination in a topic turned out to be a dead end. Now I think those topics are not productive to research, they don’t promise to reveal anything. What appeared to be a mysterious contradiction was just a blunt fact, a universal symbol turned out to be boring particular.
I’m not going to give you an example, because I don’t want to focus on a specific case, but on that feeling of fascination which drives our curiosity, which must in some form be the foundation of a research programme.
Personal fascination is a poor guide to a good research topic, but it has also been the guide for the research I’ve done of which I’m most proud, and which I think makes the most important contributions.
The trick is to not to blindly trust your fascination, but to draw it out. Can you explain why something is so fascinating? Can you show the connections to wider topics? Can you show that suggested explanations are inadequate?
Without action all you have is a feeling, which has as much currency with other people as when you try and explain one of your dreams. You may feel deeply involved, but there’s no compelling reason for other people to be.
Fascination you can’t share is just self-indulgence.
Facebook is a specific, known, threat to democracy, not a general unknown threat to our capacity for rationality
Zeynep Tufekci has a TED talk ‘We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads’. In it she talks about the power of Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ and she make several true, useful, points about why we should be worried about the influence of social media platforms, platforms which have as their raison-d’être the segmentation of audiences so they can be sold ads.
But there’s one thing I want to push back on. Tufeki’s argument draws some of its rhetorical power from a false model of how persuasion works. This is a model in which persuasion by technology or advertising somehow subverts normal rational processes, intervening on our free choice in some sinister way ‘without our permission’. I’m not saying she would explicitly endorse this model, but it seems latent in the way she describes Facebook, so I thought it worth bringing into the light, pausing just for a moment to look at what we really mean when we warn about persuasion by advertising.
Now 340,000 votes is a lot, enough to swing an election, but it would be a mistake to think that these people were coerced or tricked into acting out of character by the advert. These were people who might have voted anyway, and the advert was a nudge.
Think of it like this. Imagine you offer someone an apple and they say yes. Did you trick them into desiring fruit? In what sense did you make them want an apple? If you offer apples to millions of people you may convert hundreds of thousands into apple-eaters, but you haven’t weaved any special magic. At one end, the people who really like apples will have one already. At the other, people who hate apples won’t ever say yes. For people who are in between something about your offer may speak to them and they’ll accept. A choice doesn’t have to originate entirely from within a person, completely without reference to the options presented to them, to be a reasonable, free, choice.
No model of human rationality is harmed by the offer of these apples.
Our choices are always codetermined by ourselves and our environment. Advertising is part of the environment, but it isn’t a privileged part — it doesn’t override our beliefs, habits or values. It affects them, but it no more so and in no different way than everything else which affects us. This is easy to see when it is offers of apples, but something about advertising obscures the issue.
Take the limit case — some political candidate figures out the perfect target audience for their message and converts 100% of that audience from non-voters into voters with a Facebook advert. Would we care? What would that advert — and those voters — look like? They would be people who might vote for the candidate anyway, and who could be persuaded to vote for someone else by all the normal methods of persuasion that we already admit into the marketplace of ideas / clubhouse of democracy. They wouldn’t vote for a candidate they didn’t sincerely believe in, and the advert wouldn’t mean that their vote couldn’t be changed at some later point, whether by another advert, by new information, by arguing with friend or whatever.
There are still plenty of reasons to worry about Facebook:
Misinformation —how it can embed and lend velocity to lies.
Lack of transparency — both in who is targeting, who is targeted and why.
Lack of common knowledge —consensus politics is hard if we don’t all live in the same informational worlds.
Tufeki covers these factors. My position is that it hasn’t been shown that there is anything special about Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ beyond these. Yes, we should worry something with the size and influence of Facebook, but we already have frameworks for thinking about ‘persuasional harm’— falsehoods are not a legitimate basis for persuasion, for example, so we are particularly concerned to hunt down fake news; or, it is worrying when one interest group controls a particular media form, such as newspapers. Yes Facebook persuades, but it doesn’t do so in a way that is itself pernicious. Condemning it in general terms would be both misplaced, a harm to any coherent model of citizens as reasonable agents, and a distraction from the specific and novel threats that Facebook and related technologies constitute to democracy.
I take lots of photos on my phone, a daily record of the mundane and notable. These photos sit in folders, mostly unlooked at. Here’s one way to grok what you’ve been taking pictures of: make a video which shows them at a rate of 3 per second.
The thing that makes this slightly more complex is that the photos are different sizes (some are portrait, some are landscape) and I want them to maintain their aspect ratio in the video, which means padding the portrait photos with some black space for the output.
In a terminal define output height and width variables (so, for photos from my phone):
Click here to get a breakdown of what this is doing via explainshell.com. People with longer attention spans may want to reduce the framerate (3 per second is nice if you have lots of photos of the same scene, but a bit quick for single photos).
Obviously I have assumed you are using linux and have ffmpeg installed
This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies.
From ‘Cognitive Democracy‘ by Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi (2012, ‘unpublished’ article in preparation)
Sheffield City Council have made a 25 year contract with Amey PLC, in which tax money pays Amey and Amey maintain the roads. Part of road maintenance is looking after roadside trees, of which there are many, and many which are mature trees of all the character and hazards that trees many many decades old have. Amey has made plans to begin its contract period by cutting down 18% of the trees, which hasn’t been wildly popular. Some have suggested that Amey are responding to the simple economic logic of considering 25 years of tree care costs (vs the one-off cost of just cutting down as many as possible in the first few years).
Part of the Council-Amey contact is that both parties can fine the others for breaches of contract. Most of the contract has been redacted, which isn’t confidence inspiring. One rumour is that if, due to protests, Amey are not able to finish their planned tree felling they will be able to fine the Council. This would mean that protesters, through their taxes, would be paying more to the company they are protesting against.
Part of the aspect of this that interests me is that the contract moves the locus of political power from the Council to a multinational. Some opposition to privatisation is about profiteering by companies, but if you are worrying about roads being repaved and trees maintained then profits are less concerning than the fact that you now don’t have any influence as a citizen over the management of public property. Amey don’t need popular support in Sheffield, and however much people hate the Council, the Council’s hands are tied (seemingly).
I run Ubuntu 16.04 Linux and use vpnc for my vpn (which runs at the command line, rather than through the network manager). This link tells you how to run vpnc at startup, but really I wanted to have the vpn monitored and automatically restarted if it drops. Here’s how I did that.
1. Make a script which checks vpn status and restarts it if necessary
1.1. Create file (at the terminal enter) sudo nano /usr/local/sbin/checkvpn.sh
1.2. Copy and paste this into the file #!/bin/bash if ifconfig tun0 &> /dev/null; then echo "---VPN active---"; else sudo vpnc; fi
Save and exit. The first line marks the file as a script. The second does the work, which I stole from here
1.3. Make this file executable (at the terminal enter) sudo chmod +x /usr/local/sbin/checkvpn.sh
2. Now create a cron job to run this script every minute
1.1. Open root cron jobs list (at the terminal enter) sudo crontab -e
1.2. Add this line to the end */1 * * * * /usr/local/sbin/checkvpn.sh
Save and exit
But I will mention one severe but useful private test – a touchstone of strong inference – that removes the necessity for third-person criticism, because it is a test that anyone can learn to carry with him for use as needed. It is our old friend the Baconian “exclusion,” but I call it “The Question.” Obviously it should be applied as much to one’s own thinking as to others’. It consists of asking in your own mind, on hearing any scientific explanation or theory put forward, “But sir, what experiment could disprove your hypothesis?” ; or, on hearing a scientific experiment described, “But sir, what hypothesis does your experiment disprove?”
The lit mosaic of the wood
Stayed me at the turn of the road
At Autumn standing there
In Joseph’s coat; a tree
Golden, and bright, and free
For head; his feet
In the rich earth were set.
Was tugging blind
At the fierce rainbow rags, the tattered turban,
Under a fitful sun.
Ambushed by beauty,
I a new creature, stand in Ancient Day,
At the turn of the road
By trees that bleed
And fill my eyes with plunder!
Is there no climax then? No ripe-as-thunder
Sudden, and strong?
Nought to be done
But only stand and stare and travel on.
‘Autumn’, by Mervyn Peake, written (c. autumn 1937), in Collected Poems (2008),
…science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method…
Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them : they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes…In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it…
This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself.
Karl Popper, The Open Science and Its Enemies, Chapter 23 (p217-218, Vol. II)
Michael Gove has become infamous for saying that we (the British) have “had enough of experts”. Here’s the context (FI= Faisal Islam, the interviewer):
FI: But let’s just look at this now, the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the Chief Exec of the NHS and most of the leaders of the trade unions in Britain all say that you, Boris and Nigel are wrong. Why should the public trust you over them?
MICHAEL GOVE: I’m not asking the public to trust me, I’m asking the public to trust themselves. I’m asking the British public to take back control of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, elitists and don’t have their own interests at heart.
FI: Elitist? Elitist? The Lord High Chancellor, a conspiracy of elites? It sounds like Wolf Hall.
MICHAEL GOVE: Well I haven’t seen Wolf Hall but the one thing that I would say is that the people who are backing the Remain campaign are people who have done very well thank you out of the European Union and the people increasingly … [Applause] … absolutely. The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal. I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …
FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?
MICHAEL GOVE: … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …
FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?
MICHAEL GOVE: Because these people are the same ones who have got consistently wrong …
FI: This is [inaudible] politics this isn’t it? This is Oxbridge Trump.
MICHAEL GOVE: No, it’s a faith, Faisal, in the British people to make the right decision.
Full interview transcript here, video of the interview here.
From wikipedia: “William Stewart, in 1965, proposed the terms acrolect and basilect as sociolinguistic labels for the upper and lower boundaries respectively of a post-creole speech continuum”….
“In certain speech communities, a continuum exists between speakers of a creole language and a related standard language. There are no discrete boundaries between the different varieties and the situation in which such a continuum exists involves considerable social stratification”.
18 different ways of rendering the phrase “I gave him one” in Guyanese English (from Bell, R.T. (1976), Sociolinguistics: Goals, Approaches, and Problems, Batsford).