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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

When people are solitary wolves, then each individual has access to slightly different information about the world, and slightly different ways of thinking about that information. I’ve been talking about the relationship between the Solitary setting and personal character, but there are other reasons to keep the switch in the Solitary position. Consider a demonstration that is often enacted on the first day of business school. A professor shows a class a big jar of jelly beans and asks each person to estimate the number of beans. Averaging all the estimates usually results in a pretty accurate count. Each person brings different perspectives, cognitive styles, skills, and strategies to the mystery, and the average gets at the agreements between them. (This only works for single-number answers. If you ask a committee to design a product or write a novel, the result comes out like something made by a committee.)

Now suppose that the students could look at the jar only through photos in a social media feed. Different camps of people with different ideas about the number of beans would form and would ridicule each other. Russian intelligence services would add pictures of similar jars with different numbers of beans. Bean promoters would motivate trolls to argue that there aren’t enough beans and you must buy more. And so on. There would no longer be a way to guess the number of beans because the power of diversity will have been compromised. When that happens, markets can no longer offer utility to the world.

You can replace the jar with a political candidate, a product, or anything else.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

Customized feeds become optimized to “engage” each user, often with emotionally potent cues, leading to addiction. People don’t realize how they are being manipulated. The default purpose of manipulation is to get people more and more glued in, and to get them to spend more and more time in the system. But other purposes for manipulation are also tested. For instance, if you’re reading on a device, your reading behaviors will be correlated with those of multitudes of other people. If someone who has a reading pattern similar to yours bought something after it was pitched in a particular way, then the odds become higher that you will get the same pitch. You might be targeted before an election with weird posts that have proven to bring out the inner cynic in people who are similar to you, in order to reduce the chances that you’ll vote.

BUMMER platforms have proudly reported on how they’ve experimented with making people sad, changing voter turnout, and reinforcing brand loyalty. Indeed, these are some of the best-known examples of research that were revealed in the formative days of BUMMER.

The digital network approach to behavior modification flattens all these examples, all these different slices of life, into one slice. From the point of view of the algorithm, emotions, happiness, and brand loyalty are just different, but similar, signals to optimize.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Think, for example, of how the words “community” and “conversation” are now employed by those who use the Internet. I have the impression that “community” is now used to mean, simply, people with similar interests, a considerable change from an older meaning: A community is made up of people who may not have similar interests but who must negotiate and resolve their differences for the sake of social harmony. …

Think of how television has changed the meaning of the phrase “political debate” or the word “public”; or the phrase “participatory democracy.” In his book The Electronic Republic, Lawrence Grossman argues that new technologies will make representative democracy obsolete because they will make it possible to have instant plebiscites on every issue. In this way, American voters will directly decide if we should join NAFTA or send troops to Bosnia or impeach the president. The Senate and the House of Representatives will be largely unnecessary. This, he says, is participatory democracy as it was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I have no objection to borrowing a phrase from an older media environment in order to conceptualize a new development; we do it all the time. But it has its risks, and attention must be paid when it is done. To call a train an “iron horse,” as we once did, may be picturesque, but it obscures the most significant differences between a train and a horse-and-buggy. To use the term an “electronic town-hall meeting” similarly obscures the difference between an eighteenth-century, face-to-face gathering of citizens and a packaged, televised pseudo-event. To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well. As for participatory democracy, we would be hard-pressed to find any similarity whatever between politics as practiced by 5,000 homogeneous, well-educated, slaveholding Athenian men and 250 million heterogeneous Americans doing plebiscites every week; it is dangerous to allow language to lead us to believe otherwise.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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In her book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, Esther Dyson tries to assure those who worry too much about the new electronic world that human nature will stay the same. Of course. If we mean by “human nature” our genetic structure or biological needs or fundamental emotions, no one has argued that technology will alter human nature (at least not by much). But human nature is not the issue. What is at issue are the changes that might occur in our psychic habits, our social relations, and, most certainly, our political institutions, especially electoral politics. Nothing is more obvious than that a new technology changes the structure of discourse. It does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and by demanding a certain kind of content. Ronald Reagan, for example, could not have been president were it not for the bias of television. This is a man who rarely spoke precisely and never eloquently (except perhaps when reading a speech written by someone else). And yet he was called The Great Communicator. Why? Because he was magic on television. His televised image projected a sense of authenticity, intimacy, and caring. It did not much matter if citizens agreed with what he said or understood what he said. This does not in itself suggest that he shouldn’t have been president or that he did his job poorly. It is to say that television gives power to some while it deprives others. It is not human nature we worry about here but rather what part of our humanness will be nurtured by technology. I have often wondered how Abraham Lincoln would have fared on television. Because of the invention of photography in the 1840s, he was the first president to be the subject of continuous comment about his looks (ugly and ungainly, many said). Would it be too much to say that Americans must be eternally grateful for the absence of television when Lincoln made his run for the presidency? Or perhaps we might say that had television existed, no such person as Lincoln could have become a serious candidate for president.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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There are two constants in these stories. First, churches from different denominations minister together. Second, churches cooperate with political leaders on projects that benefit the entire community. Christendom is being rebuilt on a human scale in town after town across America. It is a model of ministry suited to our historical moment. As the Yoderites and Hauerwasites have been telling us for some time, Christendom is dead. The religious right was its last, long suspiration. Though there are millions of Christians in the United States and Europe, Christian faith no longer provides the moral compass, the sacred symbolism, or the telos for Western institutions.

America’s Protestant establishment has collapsed. Neither evangelical Protestants nor Catholics nor a coalition of the two is poised to replace it. Christian America was real, but—whatever its great virtues and great flaws—it is gone, and the slightly frantic experiments have failed to revive the corpse. It is past time to issue a death certificate. That’s a sobering conclusion, and it is tempting for Christians to slink back to our churches. For innovative, visionary pastors and civic leaders, though, there are hundreds of realistic, locally based, ecumenically charged opportunities to foster experiments in Christian social and political renewal. Christendom is dead! Long live the micro-Christendoms!

— Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism

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A cynic might conclude that our policy to wards drugs in America is to send users either to prison or to the Olympics.

— Bill Bryson

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A directive about organ donation in case of accidental death is noted on an individual’s driver license in many countries. The formulation of that directive is another case in which one frame is clearly superior to the other. Few people would argue that the decision of whether or not to donate one’s organs is unimportant, but there is strong evidence that most people make their choice thoughtlessly. The evidence comes from a comparison of the rate of organ donation in European countries, which reveals startling differences between neighboring and culturally similar countries. An article published in 2003 noted that the rate of organ donation was close to 100% in Austria but only 12% in Germany, 86% in Sweden but only 4% in Denmark.

These enormous differences are a framing effect, which is caused by the format of the critical question. The high-donation countries have an opt out form, where individuals who wish not to donate must check an appropriate box. Unless they take this simple action, they are considered willing donors. The low-contribution countries have an opt-in form: you must check a box to become a donor. That is all. The best single predictor of whether or not people will donate their organs is the designation of the default option that will be adopted without having to check a box.

Unlike other framing effects that have been traced to features of System 1, the organ donation effect is best explained by the laziness of System 2. People will check the box if they have already decided what they wish to do. If they are unprepared for the question, they have to make the effort of thinking whether they want to check the box. I imagine an organ donation form in which people are required to solve a mathematical problem in the box that corresponds to their decision. One of the boxes contains the problem 2 + 2 = ? The problem in the other box is 13 × 37 = ? The rate of donations would surely be swayed.

When the role of formulation is acknowledged, a policy question arises: Which formulation should be adopted? In this case, the answer is straightforward. If you believe that a large supply of donated organs is good for society, you will not be neutral between a formulation that yields almost 100% donations and another formulation that elicits donations from 4% of drivers.

As we have seen again and again, an important choice is controlled by an utterly inconsequential feature of the situation. This is embarrassing— it is not how we would wish to make important decisions. Furthermore, it is not how we experience the workings of our mind, but the evidence for these cognitive illusions is undeniable.

— Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

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