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. ...

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POSIWID"POSIWID" - 5 new articles

  1. Polarization
  2. Fillan in the Ditch
  3. Capitalism and Witchcraft
  4. Witnessing Machines Built in Secret
  5. Why This Stupid Behaviour?
  6. More Recent Articles

Polarization

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)




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)

Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication


Additional references in the following posts

Ethical Communication in a Digital Age (November 2018)
YouTube Growth Hacking (November 2018)
    

Fillan in the Ditch

"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


    

Capitalism and Witchcraft

According to a new paper, "big data evidence suggests that the English language area was not capitalist between 1800 and 2000" (via @kvistgaard).

The authors analyse the occurrence of "pertinent keywords" found in Google Books from the period in question. As far as I can see from the abstract, the keywords are selected on the assumption that capitalism can be associated "with any form of over-average importance or even dominance of the economy" .

The argument appears to be that an era is capitalist only if people are strongly conscious of the economy and of certain economic phenomena, and that this consciousness is reflected in the literature of the time.

This doesn't allow either for the possibility that people didn't talk about capitalism because they took it for granted, or for the possibility that they were suffering what Engels called "false consciousness". (Marx is often credited with this concept, but he never used the term himself.) Foucault showed how the Victorians thought differently about certain things (such as discipline and sexuality) but that doesn't mean those things didn't exist.

It is also worth noting that the literature that is preserved in Google Books may not fairly represent different social classes. As Ruth Livesey comments in relation to a different collection, "although there is much to be learned about middle-class life ... relative few that give central place to class".

What about the reverse argument? The religious authorities were obsessed with witchcraft between 1550 and 1700, particularly in Germany and Scotland, and King James VI of Scotland wrote a treatise on witchcraft. So if we analysed "pertinent keywords" (not to mention the "necessary hashtags"), we might be able to "prove" that witchcraft was more prevalent than capitalism in this period.

However, as @kvistgaard points out ...





Yasmeen Ahmad, How Much Of Data Science Is Witchcraft? (Forbes 5 May 2016)

Jamie Doward, Why Europe’s wars of religion put 40,000 ‘witches’ to a terrible death (Observer 7 January 2018)

Barbara Humphries, Nineteenth century pamphlets online (The ephemerist, 153, Summer 2011).

Daniel Little, False Consciousness (University of Michigan-Dearborn, undated)

Ruth Livesey, Class (Oxford Bibliographies, March 2011)

Steffen Roth, Vladislav Valentinov, Arūnas Augustinaitis, Artur Mkrtichyan, Jari Kaivo-oja, Was that capitalism? A future-oriented big data analysis of the English language area in the 19th and 20th century (Futures, Volume 94, November 2017, pages 1-84)
    

Witnessing Machines Built in Secret

#amtsb @proto_type's current performance work, which I caught at the South Bank Centre in London this weekend, is called A Machine They're Secretly Building. The title comes from a warning by Edward Snowden, as reported by Glen Greenwald.

"I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

As I filed out of the performance, I bought a copy of the script, paying with cash rather than credit card (as if that's going to stop THEM knowing I was there). In her introduction, Alwyn Walsh mentions Henry Giroux and the idea of disimagination. Henry Giroux credits this idea to Georges Didi-Huberman who, starting from four photographs taken by Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, had offered an extended and profound meditation on the status of the image as a means of historical analysis. Giroux's version of the politics of disimagination refers to images (and also institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation) "that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance".

According to Giroux, therefore, the disimagination machine "functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world". Thankfully, Walsh tells us, "this ... is what theatre and performance is so perfectly equipped to challenge".

So the Proto-type show aims to bear witness about what is going on. As the audience files into the performance space, we see two women dressed in black, with pink balaclavas. And a large screen facing the audience. One of the women is facing a camera: her face (or what we can see of it) is shown on the screen. As the show progresses, the screen (which has equal billing with the human characters in the script) also displays text and documentary fragments, apparently offering "facts" to illustrate or substantiate the shifting subjective voices of the human characters - sometimes resigned acceptance, sometimes angry protest - exploring the conflict between the security narrative (normal, law-abiding citizens versus terrorists, "keeping you safe") and the privacy narrative (state surveillance versus private individuals with rich inner lives). At the climax of the show, the screen shows the audience, with random members marked with green and red rectangles as if indicating targets of suspicion, perhaps based on behaviour or backstory. (From a technology point of view this looked pretty unsophisticated, but from a dramatic point of view it was sufficient to provoke audience discomfort.)

But if THEY are secretly building a machine, who exactly is THEY?

For Edward Snowden and Proto-type, THEY means governments - mostly the British and American governments, although Pussy Riot is referenced both in the script and in the pink balaclavas. But of course the power behind the machine could also be Google or Facebook, which might possibly (but how would I know?) be much more powerful than those of mere governments.

 And if the machine was so secret, how could such a machine affect "the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue"? Surely a much more dangerous machine would be one that seduced people into suspending their critical imagination, a machine that presented us with apparently objective facts, a machine that persuaded us to think with the majority - or at least what it told us was the majority view. (Surely that couldn't happen here?)


In his essay on the relationship between coercion and consent, Walter Streek refers to
"a huge machinery of coercion, easily the largest and most expensive in history, maintained in readiness for the state of emergency that may one day have to be called"
and chimes with Proto-type in suggesting that cover for the growth of this machinery is provided by the "war on terror", 
 "waged to enable the masses to continue living their pressured lives of competitive production and consumption".

In his 2011 documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (#AWOBMOLG), Adam Curtis presented a powerful dialectic about technological capitalism. Although there were some logical flaws in his argument, as I pointed out at the time, I think Curtis was correct in identifying some of the key trends, as well as pointing at the multiple centres of power - for example, Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington. The multiple centres of power (media, technology, corporate, state) were also explored (with rather more academic rigour) at the Power Switch conference in Cambridge in March 2017.

A Machine They're Secretly Building is darker than Curtis (if that were possible) and more narrowly focused. But although one may be justifiably alarmed by state surveillance, the disimagination effect is arguably wreaked more by corporate surveillance, hashtag #YouAreTheProduct. So I'm looking forward to their next show, which I understand will be on economics.






Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Trans. Shane B. Lillis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) review by Paul B Jaskot in Journal of Jewish Identities Issue 3, Number 2, July 2010pp. 93-95

Henry A. Giroux, The Politics of Disimagination and the Pathologies of Power (Truth Out, 27 February 2013)

Glen Greenwald et al, Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations (Guardian, 11 June 2013)

Laura James, Power Switch - Conference Report (31 March 2017) - liveblog of CRASSH PowerSwitch Conference

Wolfgang Streeck, You need a gun (London Review of Books, 14 December 2017) (subscribers only)

Richard Veryard, All Chewed Over By Machines (26 May 2011) - review of Adam Curtis.
See also Pax Technica (24 November 2017), IOT is coming to town (3 December 2017)

Aylwyn Walsh, Staging the Radical Potential of the Imagination: A Critical Introduction to A Machine they’re Secretly Building (via Academia.edu, undated)

Andrew Westerside and Proto-type Theatre, A Machine they’re Secretly Building (Oberon Modern Plays, 2017)


updated 18 December 2017
    

Why This Stupid Behaviour?

@NateSilver538 argues that the simple explanation for the US president's outbursts (that he has poor impulse control and/or is bigoted) is (sometimes, usually) right.

The alternative explanation generally references some positive outcome for Trump. Silver mentions a few popular theories.
  • shoring up his base
  • questioning bias and fairness
  • driving a wedge between the Trumpian and the Republican establishment
  • distracting the media from other, more serious issues 
Silver's argument is based on the fact that some of his outbursts don't appear to produce the desired result. But there are some further considerations to bear in mind.

Firstly, when Trump appears to do something stupid or selfish, this prompts a barrage of criticism from various quarters. Some voices are consistently anti-Trump, while others (including conservative media channels, members of the Republican establishment and his own administration) will firmly distance themselves from his more outrageous pronouncements. This helps to reassure Trump's base that he remains an anti-establishment champion and is not getting swamped by Washington.

Thus the desired effects may follow from the response to Trump rather than directly from Trump's own words and deeds. This suggests a delay before the effect is visible in Silver's data. This leads to my second point: there are always some effects cannot be reliably detected in real-time, and there may be some effects will never be detectable to Silver. That doesn't mean that the effects aren't real. Just because Silver can't detect a strategy doesn't mean there isn't a strategy. Maybe Trump isn't one step ahead of the media, maybe he's three steps ahead.

Thirdly, what matters is not the effect of a single outburst, or even a series of outbursts on a single topic, but the cumulative effect. Some say that being inconsistent, volatile, unpredictable is part of his shtick.

So what is the explanation for this inconsistency? Psychologists regard arbitrary and unpredictable inconsistency as a sign of emotional abuse, while mathematician Cathy O'Neil observes the similarity between Trump's behaviour and a machine learning algorithm.

Even if Silver is right about the intent and motivation of Trump's behaviour, that doesn't fully explain it. Just dismissing Trump as stupid or bigoted is not a sufficient explanation, because there are many stupid and bigoted people who do not behave quite like Trump. What is special in Trump's case is that there are some feedback loops that strongly reinforce these particular behaviour patterns, because they have produced the desired outcomes in the recent past.

Trump's worldview (Weltanschauung) causes him to pick up certain signals and ignore others. In terms of second-order cybernetics, we can view Trump as an autopoietic system (Maturana, Varela), within which the outcome-based theory and the impulse-base theory are not mutually incompatible after all, but are connected via closed feedback loops.




Cathy O'Neil, Donald Trump's Path-Independent Theory of Mind (Bloomberg, 21 May 2017)

Nate Silver, The Media Needs To Stop Rationalizing President Trump’s Behavior (FiveThirtyEight, 30 September 2017)

Wikipedia: Autopoiesis, Psychological Abuse
    

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