Tools, substitutes or companions: three metaphors for thinking about technology

This reposted from the Cyberselves blog, which has died. Original date: 2018-02-05

Here are three metaphors for how we think about digital and robotic technologies:

File:Centaur (PSF).jpgFirst, as tools. Passive instruments which extend our own power. Hammers enhance your hitting, video calling extends your presence, algorithmic trading merely implements the rules you designed for trading. Tools seem like passive objects, without their own desires, but a moment’s thought will tell you that even passive objects have psychological effects (that’s why we say ‘to a man with a hammer every thing looks like a nail’).

A second metaphor is to think of technologies as substitutes. This is the metaphor which dominates robotics – and the ever repeated image of the humanoid robot, whether doing human labour (and potentially putting them out of work), or rising up and a waging a war against humans to replace them. Here’s an interesting post from Marginal Revolution, which pours cold water on self-driving trucks, explicitly because it rejects the idea that all the functions of a truck driver can be replaced by technology:

truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever. [and on]

But there is another metaphor for technology, that of working companions. This is a metaphor where technology complements human abilities, rather than merely extending them (like tools), or replacing them (like substitutes). Ironically, the quote above is a comment on an article which takes the companion metaphor as its premise, not the replacement metaphor (“Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?“). Clive Thompson, in the compelling first chapter of his Smarter Than You Think labels human-technology teams ‘centaurs’. For Thompson the question “Who is better at chess – humans or computers?”- is simply the wrong question. The best chess, the most interesting chess, can be played by computer-human teams which fluidly interact and can draw on the strengths of both:

In essence, a new form of chess intelligence was emerging. You could rank the teams like this: (1) a chess grand master was good; (2) a chess grand master playing with a laptop was better. But even that laptop-equipped grand master could be beaten by (3) relative newbies, if the amateurs were extremely skilled at integrating machine assistance. “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer,” Kasparov concluded, “was overwhelming.”

Better yet, it turned out these smart amateurs could even outplay a supercomputer on the level of Deep Blue… They did it using their own talents and regular Dell and Hewlett-Packard computers, of the type you probably had sitting on your desk in 2005, with software you could buy for sixty dollars

Read an excerpt here.

The technologies of the future will be more exciting, more dangerous, more mind-altering than either tools or substitutes. How we relate do our new companions will require an exercise of the imagination, as much as anything else. Letting our thinking be captured by restricted metaphors for these new technologies will only hold us back.

Related: How To Become A Centaur at 2018-02-07


Most things may never happen: this one will,

By Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


Quote #323: Perdido Street Station

It was not a purer realm that loomed vastly over the city. Smokestacks punctured the membrane between the land and the air and disgorged tons of poisonous smog into that upper world as if out of spite. In a thicker, stinking haze just above the rooftops, the detritus from a million low chimneys eddied together. Crematoria vented into the airborne ashes of wills burnt by jealous executors, which mixed with coaldust burnt to keep dying lovers warm. Thousands of sordid smoke-ghosts wrapped New Crobuzon in a stench that suffocated like guilt.

The clouds swirled in the city’s filthy microclimate. It seemed as if all of New Crobuzon’s weather was formed by a massive, gradual crawling hurricane that centred around the city’s heart, the enormous mongrel building that squatted at the core of the commercial zone known as The Crow, the coagulate of miles of railway line and years of architectural styles and violations: Perdido Street Station.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000), p78

Cover by Edward Miller


What is imperative is that you be there and speak

One is called to the deathbed of a parent, and one, facing her, does not know what to say. Yet one has to say something.
The other has arrived at the limit – the limit of her life – when she can do nothing more. But she has yet this to do: to die. It is something she has to do, alone, and without any experience to appeal to, any means or resources. It is something she, nevertheless, has to do and will do well or badly, bravely or in collapse, resolutely or cowering. She has always known she will have to do this, has often thought of it, has often willed to die the one way or the other. For every time she did something bravely, or cowardly, it was an anticipation of this final confrontation. Aristotle, who wrote the first treatise in the West on rational ethics, listed courage first of all the virtues. It is not simply first on the list of equivalent virtues; it is the transcendental virtue, the condition for the possibility of all the virtues. For no one can be truthful, or magnanimous, or a friend, or even congenial in conversation, without courage. And every courage is an act done in risk: of one’s reputation, of one’s job, of one’s possessions, of one’s life.
And you, called upon to be there when the other is at the limit, and also at the origin, of the virtues, the powers, that a life can have, find yourself at the limit of the powers of language.
The nurses say, “I am so glad you have come!” They know you can do, must do, something they cannot do – say something to the dying one. What can one say? Anything one tries to say sounds vacuous and absurd in one’s mouth. It seems to you that the problem is not simply that you do not have the skills in speaking or that you cannot come up with the right things to say because you have no experience in this kind of situation, but that language itself does not have the powers. There is not, in the words and the combinatory possibilities of language, the power to say what has to be said. Yet you have to be there, and you have to say something. You have never been more clear about anything. There are those who do not go, to the bedside of the dying one, demoralized by the terrible impotence of language to say anything. It seems to them that, in their speechlessness, they are carried away already into the region of death and silence with the other. But if you somehow find the courage to go, you are sure you have to be there and have to say something. What is imperative is that you be there and speak; what you say, in the end, hardly matters. You end up saying anything “It’ll be alright, Mom” – which you know is a stupid thing to say, even an insult to her intelligence; she knows she is dying and is more brave than you. She does not reproach you for what you said; in the end it doesn’t matter, what was imperative was only that you say something, anything. That your hand and your voice extend to her in accompaniment to the nowhere she is drifting on to, that the warmth and the tone of your voice come to her as her own breath gives way, and that the light of your eyes meet hers that are turned to where there is nothing to see.
Everyone has known such a situation in which the rift between the saying and the said opens up. A situation in which the saying, essential and imperative, separates from the said, which somehow it no longer orders and hardly requires.

In the rational community the other situation is the normal one – that where what is said is the essential and the saying inessential, that where what is imperative is only that whoever speaks, he say this.

Alphonso Lingis (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (essays). This is the start of “the element that faces”, p107ff


Quote #321 Naipaul on writing

I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which one arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career: whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigor, now past for good.

VS Naipaul, in The Enigma of Arrival (1987), p94


Quote #320 Orwell on Dali

One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.

Orwell, George (1944). Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali

Quote #319

The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent

Attributed to John Maynard Keynes, but probably Gary Shilling
science technical notes

Chromosteopsis: colophon

Over at, an introduction to chromosteopsis. Here: how I made some of those images. Github repo: chromo

It turns out that you get the nice speckled pattern just by randomly colouring pixels with 0.3 probability. I thought you could probably combine with other depth cues (such as a texture gradient) to enhance the illusion, but didn’t get to this.

I thought the effect might interact with motion and/or eccentricity so I made a gif

quotes Uncategorized

Returning to Reims

No one thinks about how the order of things actually works, because to do so would require being able to see oneself from a different point of view, have a bird’s eye view on one’s own life and the lives of other people. Only if you actually manage to move from one side of the border to the other, as happened in my case, can you get out from under the implacable logic of all those things that go without saying in order to perceive the terrible injustice of this unequal distribution of prospects and possibilities. And things haven’t changed all that much: the age for leaving school has shifted, but the social barrier between classes remains the same. That is why any sociology or any philosophy that begins by placing at the center of its project the “point of view of the actors” and the “meaning they give to their actions” runs the risk of simply reproducing a shorthand version of the mystified relation that social agents maintain with their own practices and desires, and consequently does nothing more than serve to perpetuate the world as it currently stands—an ideology of justification (for the established order). Only an epistemological break with the way in which individuals spontaneously think about themselves renders possible the description of the mechanisms by which the social order reproduces itself. The entire system needs to be apprehended, including the manner in which dominated people ratify their domination through the choice they make to drop out of school, thereby making the choice they had been intended to make. A theory’s power and interest lie precisely in the fact that it doesn’t consider it as sufficient simply to record the words that “actors” say about their “actions,” but that rather, it sets as a goal to allow both individuals and groups to see and to think differently about what they are and what they do, and then, perhaps, to change what they do and what they are. (p.46-47)

So we find ourselves back at the question of who has the right to speak, who takes part—and how—in decision-making processes, which is to say not just in the elaboration of solutions, but also in the collective definition of the questions that it is legitimate and important to take up. When the left shows itself to be incapable of serving as a space in which new forms of questioning can be elaborated and tested, when it ceases to serve as a locus in which people can invest their dreams and their energy, they will be drawn to and welcomed by the right and the extreme right.
Here, then, is the task that social movements and critical intellectuals must take up: the elaboration of theoretical frameworks and of political modes of perceiving reality that enable not an erasure—that would be an impossible task—, but as great a neutralization as possible of the negative passions that are at work within the social body, especially within the popular classes. Other perspectives must be offered and a different future sketched out on behalf of what might then deservedly once again be called the left.(p. 148-149)

Didier Eribon (2009). Returning To Reims. Trans. Michael Lucey (2013)


Quote #317: Beyond the suburbs where I went to school

All I knew was that somewhere,
Beyond the suburbs where I went to school,
It seemed there were heroic deeds,
Irrational acts and holy fools.

Stewart Lee, “I’ll Only Go If You Throw Glass“, collected in “How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian” (2010)


Quote #316: Against parochial standards of transparency

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)

technical notes

New hosting

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

Thanks to Dan for the recommend


New Roots, 1987 – 2020

new roots shop front

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.

I was hosting the New Roots website, but have recently changed my hosting plan so will disappear forever at some point. I’ve scraped the site and put it here. Local heroes Webarchitects have scraped the site and archived it here. Also in existence are New Roots pages on facebook (see this link for photos), twitter and there’s a nice roll of pics on instagram.

Grace Vincent. Thanks for everything Grace

If you’ve memories of New Roots you’d like to share please leave a comment, or send me any pictures and I can add them here.


Quote #315: a secret reservoir of courage

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


Quote #314: a dark circus

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

Mervyn Peake, Titus Alone (1968), Chapter 58


Bad group logic

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 Conservative Party is an eternally irritating force for wrong that appeals exclusively to bigots, toffs, money-minded machine men, faded entertainers and selfish, grasping simpletons who were born with some essential part of their soul missing”. Charlie Brooker

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.

Messages like this, from simple slurs to more complex arguments that assume the irrationality or stupidity of people who vote differently, don’t exist to persuade. They are cheerleading for political partisanship, playing to the home crowd. Social media is rocket fuel to this kind of performative tribalism, which has it deep roots in our psychological capacity for groupness.

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.

This tendency is usually on on a high trigger, as demonstrated by a phenomenon called the ‘minimal group paradigm‘. I saw a nice demonstrate of the phenomenon recently from David Hauser on twitter:

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.

intellectual self-defence

Epistemic crisis

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?


Pressure Vessels

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in May 2019, reports an escalation of signs of stress among University workers. Using FOI requests about referrals to University counseling services and occupational health, the report finds, since 2009, widespread, ‘sharp’, ‘astonishing’ and ongoing rises in the number of staff referred every year.

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
  • I have made graphs for all the institutions in the report. Look for yours.
  • 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.


intellectual self-defence

The organising functions of fake news

Lots has been written about the dangers of misinformation, including how to innoculate people against it, or debunk it once people have swallowed it. A common theme is the idea that the risk of fake news is that people will believe it.

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.

More: “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt

Update: Fake news is a terrible bucket term which is used to cover everything from incorrection information to state propaganda, via all sorts of misinformation.

Related: Podcast: YANSS 157 – The psychology behind why people don’t speak out against, and even defend, norms they secretly despise – which covers, inter alia, norm engineering


Diet choices

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.

Diet seems like a prime example of a highly individualised choice. The idea that each of us can and should choose what to eat, and can do so for personal reasons, based on everything from taste to ethics, is widespread. A plant-based diet is associated with lower emissions than a meat-and-diary one, so seems appealing to anyone worried about climate and carbon emissions.

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.


Christian Reynolds has related work, which shows generational changes in diet, and a corresponding change in associated emissions: The greenhouse gas emission impacts of generational and temporal change on the UK diet

Further clues may be in here Zero Carbon: Rethinking the Future, from CAT.


everything whole has been smashed

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)

politics psychology systems

Collective intelligence in twitter discussions

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.

Bang & Frith’s fantastic 2017 review on group decision making also highlights some traps which successful group decision must avoid:

  • 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)

  • participants have experience discussing substantive issues in public, daily using twitter -as it is at its best – as a platform for information synthesis and recommendation

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 .


Bang, D., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups . Royal Society Open Science, 4 (8), 170193.

Mercier, H. (2016). The argumentative theory: Predictions and empirical evidence . Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (9), 689-700.

de Oliveira, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2018). Demographically diverse crowds are typically not much wiser than homogeneous crowds . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (9), 2066-2071.

Woolley, A. W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T. W. (2015). Collective intelligence and group performance . Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (6), 420-424.

intellectual self-defence

Seeking perspectives: how to arbitrate among our desires?

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.

So writes Ronnie de Sousa in an essay for Aeon called ‘Natural-born existentialists

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!


Come, let us compare translations

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).


Unloved links, 2017 edition

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.


Hey, remember RSS

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.”

Maybe 2018 is a year to get back into read blogs rather than twitter. Recommended from the comments, Flym news reader for Android.


Facebook and democracy, reasons to be fearful

M said “facebook is ending democracy”. It’s a common fear. But how, exactly, could this be happening? Let’s try and breakdown the possibilities:

Because facebook somehow over-rides our free will? Engineer and former Facebook VP of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, says this (video, report), as do others, but it is not a coherent accusation.

Because facebook creates echo-chambers?. The evidence on this is ambiguous. One study found that people are more likely to connect with people with dissimilar views over facebook than offline.

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!


So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

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?

Guardian excerpt of the book: ‘Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone

Jon Ronson on twitter:

intellectual self-deference science

Don’t trust your sense of fascination

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.

(Obligatory reference to Davis’ 1971 paper on the sociology of being interesting in sociology: Davis M. S. (1971). That’s interesting! Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the social sciences, 1(2), 309-344.)

intellectual self-deference politics psychology

Facebook’s persuasion architecture and human reason

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.

Here’s Tufeki’s most worrying example: targeted Facebook ads aimed at mobilising, or demobilising voters, which are effective enough in changing voter turn out to swing an election. She reports an experiment which tested a fairly standard ‘social proof’ intervention, in which some people (the control group) saw a “get out and vote” message on Facebook, and others (the intervention group) saw the same message but with extra information about which of their friends had voted. People who saw this second message were likely to vote (0.4% more likely). Through the multiplier effect of the social networks they were embedded in, the researchers estimate that 340,000 extra people voted that otherwise wouldn’t have.

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.