In his recent polemic on #ClimateChange, Bruno Latour writes
"But these 'rational' sorts are just as caught up as the others in the tangles of disinformation. They do not see that it is useless to be indignant that people 'believe in alternative facts', when they themselves live in an alternative world, a world in which climate mutation occurs, while it does not in the world of their opponents.
"It is not a matter of learning how to repair cognitive deficiencies, but rather of how to live in the same world, share the same culture, face up to the same stakes, perceive a landscape that can be explored in concert. Here we find the habitual vice of epistemology, which consists in attributing to intellectual deficits something that is quite simply a deficit in shared practice." Down to Earth, p25
Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity Press, 2018). See also
Bernard E. Harcourt, Bruno Latour on Truth and Praxis
(Critique and Praxis 13/13, 16 December 2018)
According to the dictionary, a false sense of security is a feeling of being safer than one really is. Apparently that's a bad thing.
Peter Sandman is a strong believer in what he calls precaution advocacy - to arouse some healthy outrage and use it to mobilize people to take precautions or demand precautions. He has helped environmental groups arouse public concern about the need for recycling, the dangers of factory emissions, etc. In such contexts, his concern is that people are disregarding or underestimating some category of risk, and he is urging the introduction of appropriate precautions - whether individual or collective.
There are countless risk and security experts who take a similar position - for example, advocating greater diligence in corporate security, especially cybersecurity.
However, as Dr Sandman acknowledges, the notion of a false sense of security is often used rhetorically, suggesting that a given regulation or other precaution is not only unnecessary but even counter-productive, making people careless or complacent. This argument is sometimes based on the notion of risk homeostasis or risk compensation - that people adjust their behaviour to maintain a comfortable level of risk. The classic example is people with seatbelts and airbags driving faster and more recklessly.
Dr Sandman notes that the rhetoric can sometimes be deployed by both sides of an argument - for example "gun controls create a false sense of security" versus "guns create a false sense of security". What this suggests is that the rhetoric is often about other people - the implication is that We
have a true sense of security, but They
would be misled.
The notion of a false sense of security also arises in connection with security theatre - a performance that may have little real impact on security, but is intended to reassure people that Something Is Being Done. When Bruce Schneier introduced this term in his 2003 book, he regarded security theatre as fraudulent, and believed it was always a Bad Thing. However, he later came to acknowledge that security theatre, while still deceptive and potentially problematic, could sometimes be valuable. His example is security bracelets on newborn babies, which don't do much to protect against the actual but extremely small risk of abduction, but do a great deal to calm anxious parents. If Dr Sandman's precaution advocacy is targetted at situations of High Hazard, Low Outrage (in other words, people not worrying enough), then Security Theatre could be legitimately targetted at situations of Low Hazard, High Outrage (people worrying too much).
So perhaps sometimes giving people a false sense of security is ethically justified?
Peter Glaskowsky, Bruce Schneier's New View on Security Theater
(CNET, 9 April 2008)
Peter Sandman, False Sense of Security
(25 May 2018), Precaution Advocacy
Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear (2003), In Praise of Security Theatre
(Wired, 25 January 2007)
Gerald Wilde, Risk homeostasis theory: an overview
(Injury Prevention Vol 4 No 2, 1998)
Wikipedia: Risk Compensation
, Security Theatre
Related posts: Surveillance and its Effects
(May 2005), Technical Security and Context
(September 2005), Hard Cases Make Bad Law
(September 2009), The Illusion of Architecture
(September 2012), Anxiety as a Cost
(January 2013), Listening for Trouble
Updated 28 June 2019. Thanks to Peter Sandman for comments.
Put simply, the purpose of insurance is to shift risk from the individual to the collective. When an individual cannot afford to bear a given risk, the individual purchases some risk cover from an organization - typically an insurance company or mutual - which spreads the risk over many individuals and is supposedly better able to bear these risks.
Individuals are sometimes obliged to purchase insurance - for example, car insurance before driving on the public roads, or house insurance before getting a mortgage. In some countries, there may be legal requirements to have some form of health insurance.
Insurance companies typically charge different premiums to different individuals depending on the perceived risk and the available statistics. For example, if young inexperienced drivers and very elderly drivers have more accidents, it would seem fair for these drivers to pay a higher premium.
Insurance companies therefore try to obtain as much information about the individual as possible, in order to calculate the correct premium, or even to decide whether to offer cover at all. But this is problematic for two reasons.
The first problem is about fairness, as these calculations may embed various forms of deliberate or inadvertent discrimination. As Joi Ito
The original idea of risk spreading and the principle of solidarity was based on the notion that sharing risk bound people together, encouraging a spirit of mutual aid and interdependence. By the final decades of the 20th century, however, this vision had given way to the so-called actuarial fairness promoted by insurance companies to justify discrimination.
The second problem is about knowledge and what Foucault calls biopower. Just suppose your insurance company is monitoring your driving habits through sensors in the vehicle or cameras in the street, knows how much red meat you are eating, knows your drinking habits through the motion and location sensors on your phone, is inferring your psychological state from your Facebook profile, and has complete access to your fitness tracker and your DNA. If the insurance company now has so much data about you that it can accurately predict car accidents, ill-health and death, the amount of risk actually taken by the insurance company is minimized, and the risk is thrown back onto the individual who is perceived (fairly or unfairly) as a high-risk.
In her latest book, Shoshana Zuboff describes how insurance companies are using the latest technologies, including the Internet of Things, not only to monitor drivers but also to control them.
Telematics are not intended merely to know but also to do (economics of action). They are hammers; they are muscular; they enforce. Behavioral underwriting promises to reduce risk through machine processes designed to modify behavior in the direction of maximum profitability. Behavioral surplus is used to trigger punishments, such as real-time rate hikes, financial penalties, curfews, and engine lockdowns, or rewards, such as rate discounts, coupons, and gold stars to redeem for future benefits. The consultancy firm AT Kearney anticipates 'IoT enriched relationships' to connect 'more holistically' with customers 'to influence their behaviors'. (p215)
So much for risk sharing then. Surely this undermines the whole point of insurance?
Sami Coll, Consumption as Biopower: Governing Bodies with Loyalty Cards
, (Journal of Consumer Culture 13(3) 2013) pp 210-220
Caley Horan, Actuarial age: insurance and the emergence of neoliberalism in the postwar United States
(PhD Thesis 2011)
, Supposedly ‘Fair’ Algorithms Can Perpetuate Discrimination
(Wired Magazine, 5 February 2019) HT @WolfieChristl
AT Kearney, The Internet of Things: Opportunity for Insurers
Cathy O'Neil, How algorithms rule our working lives
(The Guardian, 1 September 2016)
Jathan Sadowski, Alarmed by Admiral's data grab? Wait until insurers can see the contents of your fridge
(The Guardian, 2 November 2016)
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books 2019) esp pages 212-218
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Foucault
Related posts: The Transparency of Algorithms
(October 2016) Pay as you Share
(November 2016), Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism
(Book Review, February 2019)
Some of my posts recently have mentioned the work of @zeynep and others on the polarizing effects of social media platforms, especially YouTube.
But this phenomenon is not restricted to the Internet: traditional mass media is subject to similar effects. Following an extraordinary confrontation between CNN and the White House, Michael Massing reviews CNN's political coverage and finds it to be extremely one-sided. It appears that Trump and CNN each benefits from constantly attacking the other. Massing calls this codependency
, but I believe a more accurate term would be symmetrical schismogenesis
. This concept, originally developed by Bateson and elaborated by some of his followers including Jackson and Watzlawick, refers to the situation where two parties mirror each other, the behaviour of each serving to reinforce the behaviour of the other.
Who benefits from this polarization? The media platforms (YouTube, CNN) are essentially selling eyeballs to companies that want to advertise stuff. This is not just about the number of eyeballs but the number of eyeballs in relevant demographic categories. Thus for example gender or socioeconomic polarization may be helpful to this mission if it helps produce an audience that is particularly receptive to whatever is being advertised. However, polarization can also produce effects that are unwelcome to risk-averse advertisers - for example, associating their brands with controversial content, or even exposing them to the risk of consumer boycotts.
Writing in 2013, Markus Prior notes the correlation between cable news consumption and political polarization, but also notes the way that increasing choice on cable networks allows non-partisan viewers to avoid watching cable news altogether. Thus the apparent polarization would appear to be a consequence of a self-selecting audience.
Massing regards CNN's coverage of Trump as "seeming uninformative, repetitive, and nakedly partisan". This echoes a more widespread complaint about 24 hour rolling news: that it fills the airwaves with endless chatter (which Heidegger called Gerede and the Lacanians call Empty Speech.)
On cable news, there are two feedback loops that reinforce this phenomenon. Firstly, the partisanship alienates non-partisan viewers, thus further concentrating the audience. Secondly, people with genuine knowledge and insight quickly discover that the platform doesn't give them a fair opportunity to communicate to an open-minded audience, and therefore abandon the platform in favour of those who are happy to spout dogma on a variety of topics.
On YouTube, these two feedback loops are less in evidence. There is a wealth of good content on YouTube if you know where to look, including Zeynep Tufekci herself talking about this very phenomenon. (But just compare the numbers of views of selected videos on different channels.)
(view numbers as shown on 10 November 2018)
Update (March 2019)
observes that even politicians aren't always immune to the polarizing effects of social media. He suggests that the closed WhatsApp groups now favoured by all political factions are radicalising their members "so they egg each other on to take more and more extreme positions", and notes that this kind of effect has been understood for a long time. He references Cass Sunstein's 1999 paper on the Law of Group Polarization.
Incidentally, Sunstein is also known for his work on Nudge Theory, which is usually described in terms of nudging people in a beneficial direction. But the psychological mechanisms of the nudge would appear to work in any direction.
Charles Arthur, Social media polarises and radicalises – and MPs aren’t immune to its effects
(Guardian 11 March 2019)
Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)
Michael Massing, Trump and CNN: Case History of an Unhealthy Codependency
(NYR Daily, 9 November 2018)
Markus Prior, Media and Political Polarization
(Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2013. 16:101–27)
Jeff Sorensen, 24 Hour News Killed Journalism
(HuffPost 20 August 2012)
Cass Sunstein, The Law of Group Polarization
(John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91, 1999)
Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication
Wikipedia: Nudge Theory
Additional references in the following posts
Ethical Communication in a Digital Age
YouTube Growth Hacking
"This is exactly what government is for" writes @BBCPhilipSim
, "the administration of a communal resource; a complex task which nobody seems to want to take responsibility for. It concerns property both public and private, involves taxation, and there are a myriad of disputes over who should have to pay and how much. This is precisely what elected representatives are for."
As he says, it's textbook stuff. Pity that all the politicians who read Politics or History at university didn't bother reading that particular textbook, as they seem more interested in "the thunder and fury of constitutional rammies and increasingly partisan rows" than taking care of things as dull as ditches. (Did someone say gutter politics?)
What has St Fillan got to do with this, I hear you cry? According to legend, the ditch in question was built by Robert the Bruce in gratitude for the miraculous appearance of St Fillan's arm-bone, which inspired the Scots to overcome the English at the battle of Bannockburn. (No humerus jokes, thank you.)
It would probably take another such miracle for the forces of common sense to overcome the British Conservative party at the battle of Brexit. Leaving the EU appears to be a complex task, with a myriad of disputes, that none of the Europhobes in the amusingly named "European Research Group" wants to take responsibility for.
Philip Sim, Dull as Ditchwater? Inside Holyrood's forgotten committee
(BBC News 24 October 2018)
Wikipedia: Saint Fillan
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