Is Facebook controlling you?

Much of what I’ve been reading about and thinking about over the past several months has to do with the notion that people are controllable. Scott Adams’ theories on Donald Trump, which I often mention, state that Trump is a master persuader—he uses rhetorical flourishes and various emotional cues to get people to support him. Parts of the Howard Bloom books I’ve been reading tout the idea that everything is social and that creatures, humans in particular, live and die by whether they and their ideas are accepted by those around them. So we have a strong motivation to go along with the crowd and gain their approval. (I talked a bit about this in my recent article “Are You A Hive Mind?“)

The NY Times has a new op-ed piece called “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” It’s pretty familiar stuff: the web and Facebook in particular reinforce our ideas and shield us from contrary notions. (I’m not sure it’s quite true since I see some arguing on Facebook, but I think the idea holds up.) I can definitely see a lot of pressure to think a certain way emanating from one’s social network, pressure that might be subtle enough to not be consciously detected. And that falls right into Adams and Blooms argument: we can be easily swayed to go along with the crowd. To really fight this you have to examine almost all of your assumptions and who’s got the time for that?

As the article notes:

THOSE who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

Howard Bloom on information theory

I’ve been reading through Howard Bloom’s book “The God Problem.” What is this book about? I’m not totally sure. In essence, Bloom is trying to figure out how the universe creates things of degrees of complexity if there is no intelligent God to guide the process. Human beings would be a good example of one of these things.

At the point I’ve gotten to, he is criticizing the idea of information theory. This sits well with me because I’ve never really understood information theory. As I basically get it, it’s the idea that “information” is somehow the core currency of the universe. All things—sub-atomic particles, dogs and cats, human beings, galaxies—pass information to each other (according to the theory.) But what does the word information really mean?

Bloom separates the term “information” from “meaning.” (I think I’m getting this right.) He applies the use of the term information that was devised by Claud Shannon, the inventor of information theory. In this use, information is more like a signal. For example, let’s say I picked up the phone and heard a bunch of sentences in Japanese. These sentences (which are really sound waves that have been converted from the electronic signals of the phone line and system) are information. But they aren’t meaning. Because I don’t understand Japanese.

So, I guess, for things to have meaning, they have to be observed by a conscious agent. Well, not exactly, according to Bloom. Two sub-atomic particles like quarks can interact—they can attract or repulse each other—and even if they don’t consciously feel anything (and Bloom says they don’t and I tend to agree) they are still passing on meaning.

This is dense, complex stuff. It seems to me, ironically, to lead to the question of: what is the meaning of the word meaning? Of course as you define the word, you are defining your definition of the word, if that makes any sense. What a headache.

I think we can ignore some of these problems and at least theorize that appreciating meaning requires consciousness (contra to Bloom.) Basically we can say that humans can appreciate the meaning of a statement like “I’ll meet you at 6 PM at Burger King.” and sub atomic particles cannot. Humans mentally digest such a statement whereas quarks just kind of respond. But not every statement passed to humans is consciously appreciated; some meaning is passed only to human’s sub-conscious. (Look up priming experiments
or the work of Micheal Gazzaniga for discussion on this.
) In this case we are sort of appreciating meaning in the way a quark would—un-consciously.

Is Miles Davis the music of atheism?

Readers may recall my classic post in which I postulated that as our minds have gotten more stimulated over recent centuries we’ve had less ability to focus on art. Baroque music was dense and complex because listeners of the day had the mental bandwidth to absorb it. Modern music is less complex (and usually shorter in length) because we don’t have the free cognitive processing power (because we’re too busy with the bullshit of life, the media, etc.) to pay attention.

There’s a knock against minimalism inherent in this theory. Minimalism is about using less—less musical notes, less colors and shapes etc—to make a point. If, according to my argument, complex art forms have lots of elements then art forms using less elements must be simpler and easier to grasp. And to some degree I do think minimalism became popular because —on one level—it’s easier to digest. But I also think minimalism is pretty sophisticated. When Miles Davis or Chet Baker used silence in a solo they were actually focusing our attention on that silence, kind of saying, “this nothing is actually something.” A lot of other modern composers and visual artists applied similar ideas. So what sounds empty and barren is kind of rich. But I freely admit, many people, myself at times, don’t get this richness and let minimalistic music’s use of space allow it to fade to the background.

There’s another interesting angle to approach this from. At the end of this article I commented on an idea of Jaron Lanier’s. He has a notion that modern communication technology (the internet, texting and so on) infantilizes us because it allows us to maintain a constant umbilical-cord-like connection to our fellows. We never have to be alone with ourselves. You could say this allows us to avoid confronting our essential aloneness, our separateness, not just from Mom but from the big guy, God. Is the music of Miles Davis asking us to confront our essential aloneness, even embrace it?

Can Trump grab Sanders’ supporters?

Politico has an article entitled “Why Trump Won’t Get Sanders’ Supporters” which makes a seemingly credible case. And yet I find myself wondering if Trump might be able to grab enough Sanders folks to make a difference.

I raise this question partly because of a few choice quotes I’ve seen in news articles from Sander’s supporters who do say their second choice is Trump. And recent polls show Sanders would have a bigger lead over Trump than Clinton would over Trump (making the point that Sanders would be taking Trump voters.) I also note while browsing through facebook that I see a fair amount of people making comments that they are at least considering Trump as their second choice.

You often hear people argue that the left/right divide, as presented by the media, is incorrect. And mostly I don’t buy that—it seems a pretty consistent way of predicting people’s beliefs and voting patterns. But in this case, maybe there’s something interesting going on.

I think that it is true that the media, academic and the political classes definitely missed the very real anger about trade deals that shuttered factories and the influx of illegal immigrants that (may have) cost American jobs. (The reason these groups probably missed this anger is because their jobs were never threatened.) And Sanders and Trump basically share positions on these issues.

The article linked above argues that synchronicity on trade and immigration issues is not enough for Sanders supporters to go Trump. But the media has a pretty poor record on Trump predictions so far.

More good news for wine and coffee lovers

A while back I began pointing out news reports that touted the health benefits of wine and coffee and other often slandered drinks. Frankly, those reports started coming so fast and furiously that I lost interest. But I recently stumbled across this report that argues wine and coffee have benefits specific to how they relate to our gut bacteria. Specifically…

Foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, yogurt and buttermilk can increase the diversity of bacteria in a person’s intestines. And that diversity can help ward off illness, said Dr. Jingyuan Fu, senior author of one of the studies.

Now another idea I’ve talked about is the idea that carbs are bad. The report notes…

On the other hand, foods containing loads of simple carbohydrates appear to reduce bacterial diversity in the gut, Fu and colleagues found. These include high-fat whole milk and sugar-sweetened soda.

That’s a bit of an odd statement about milk. To my understanding, milk’s “high fatness” has nothing to do with its carb content which appears to be the problem. But I could be wrong.

Also advised: be wary of antibiotocs.

Johnson added that medicines can have the same effect, and antibiotics actually can kill off some important strains of gut bacteria. “One dose of an antibiotic may disrupt your gut bacteria for a year,” he said.

Now, I’m the first to admit that we don’t really understand the gut biome and they may be reversing all this advice in a few years, but this is what’s being said right now. And as an avid coffee and wine drinker, I couldn’t be happier (unless I had more wine.)

Thinking about trade agreements

So I was walking along this morning and thinking a bit about an issue you see mentioned during these campaigns: trade. Specifically trade between countries that is regulated by various trade agreements like NAFTA.

Both Sanders and Trump, it seems, are against such agreements and think these agreements have screwed America. Clinton is a bit more complex—I think she was for them before she was against them. (That’s probably a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.) The other Republicans are probably for the agreements though I don’t know for sure.

So what is the right answer? The Sanders/Trump complaint is something like this, I believe, and I’ll use US/Chinese trade relations as an example: The US is letting Chinese products in with few tariffs added on top. The Chinese can keep their prices low because their workers work for little and there are few environmental protections of the sort that American factories have to impose. So Chinese products are cheaper and can compete with US products in local and inetrnational markets.

The Sanders/Trump solution is, I believe, to renegotiate these trade agreements to impose tariffs on these Chinese products. (Sanders would probably lower tariffs if the Chinese added environmental protections, which would, of course, cost money.) As a result, Chinese products would become more expensive and US products would be better able to compete.

So would the Chinese go along with that? It seems they have a couple options. One is to kowtow to the new agreement and keep access to the US Market. Another is to say, “screw you guys,” and focus on other markets like India, Africa, their own, etc. Another option would be to impose tariffs on our products, thus limiting US manufacturers appeal to the huge Chinese market. (The problem there is that while there are many Chinese, a lot of them are poor and thus not able to buy much.)

What would China do? I have no idea. Thinking about this stuff really makes me realize how little I know about it.

But here’s my main thought. This kind of analysis of these is not something you really see in news coverage of the candidates, or in speeches from the candidates and their proxies. Most of the arguments seems to be that this candidate is better than another for some other reason – he or she is more “qualified,” or has leadership qualities, or whatever.

So why is that? I suspect that for some kind of evolutionary reason people are wired towards cult leaders, not dudes who sit around explaining why their approach to trade agreements is better (YAWN!). If anything, we chose the guy we like, then talk ourselves into his ideas on trade agreements. And this would seem another example where our behavior is not particularly rational at all.

P.S. As a side note to all this I reaffirm my belief that the threat posed to Americans workings by fluid trade will be dwarfed by that of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Collective humans

I was strolling through the shelves of the library the other day and picked out a book titled “Global Brain” by Howard Bloom. The book’s premise—one I’ve heard before—is that individual life forms, whether they be bacteria or human, thrive by forming groups. All creatures, the book would seem to argue, are essentially social creatures. Hive or colony type creatures, like bees and ants, are especially demonstrative of this fact; they accomplish far more as a giant organism of many nodes (the individual bees and ants) than they would if they were all living separate lives.

This is true for humans as well. On one level, humans exist in societies. These societies seems to have a kind of meta-intelligence that decides to move towards democratic governments or embrace Justin Bieber. (Hmmm…) On another level, each human is really a collection of trillions of cells. Just as the decisions of a society emerge from the choices of individual humans, so to do the decisions of human individuals emerge from a chorus of cells. Your wants and needs and opinions are really the result of millions (or more) of votes. (At least this is what I think the book is gearing up to argue, as others have before. I’m only about five chapters in.)

This idea, that we as individuals are the result of many, seems both exciting and disconcerting. I don’t feel like a group, I feel like an individual. But we do have a certain sense of our compartmentalization. I say, “my stomach is telling me I’m hungry.” “My hand is tired after thumb wrestling for hours.” “My penis is aroused as it watches this naked woman walk by.” (A regular occurrence in my life.) The “I” that is the storyteller of our lives is being informed by other parts of the body. And even if we observe just the brain/mind, we can suss out how information kind of rises up to our top decision maker. We’re thinking of a way to solve a problem and the answer just arrives in a Eureka moment. Because a coterie of cells beneath our consciousness have been working at the problem and have arrived at an answer.

In theory, you could have some complex network of nodes, doing all sorts of calculations, without consciousness. That’s basically what we presume a computer to be doing: thinking (in a way) without being aware of it. But we humans have consciousness riding atop all this. Attention is a big part of it. When we are hungry our attention turns to our hunger. When we are horny our attention turns to our horniness. The conscious attention is what makes us feel like an individual as opposed to a million voters.

Which leads to that most perplexing of questions: what is consciousness?

Robots and Donald Trump

Let’s say it’s 1970 and you’re a man who just graduated from high school. You don’t come from wealth but you can get a job at a local factory, the same way your dad did, and make enough to raise a family. You have a son, and in 1995, he does the exact same thing. Just like his dad, he takes a factory job (or similar blue collar gig) and makes decent living. He has kids, starts a family etc.

Now it’s 2016. Five years ago, the son in that scenario was let go from his shuttered factory. He’s been looking for work ever since. Or maybe he’s given up and become an alcoholic. Either way he feels betrayed. The unspoken promise society gave him was that if he played fair and worked hard he could live a comfortable life and take care of his family. That promise has been betrayed. He blames Mexicans for coming in and driving down wages and trade agreements that close factories on American shores and open them in countries with cheap labor.

This, I suspect, is a Donald Trump voter.

My question is whether things are about to get worse.

First, let’s examine this guy’s presumptions. Are Mexicans and bad trade agreements what screwed him? Well, maybe, I don’t really know. But I don’t think they will be the problems faced by that guy’s kids. I suspect the problem of the future is technology: robotization and advanced software. You could even argue this is the problem of today.

…in a 2014 poll of leading academic economists conducted by the Chicago Initiative on Global Markets, regarding the impact of technology on employment and earnings, 43 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “information technology and automation are a central reason why median wages have been stagnant in the U.S. over the decade, despite rising productivity,” while only 28 percent disagreed. Similarly, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund concluded that technological progress is a major factor in the increase of inequality over the past decades.

The bottom line is that while automation is eliminating many jobs in the economy that were once done by people, there is no sign that the introduction of technologies in recent years is creating an equal number of well-paying jobs to compensate for those losses. A 2014 Oxford study found that the number of U.S. workers shifting into new industries has been strikingly small: in 2010, only 0.5 percent of the labor force was employed in industries that did not exist in 2000.

The gist of this argument is that it won’t be Mexicans taking your job in the future (if they ever did), it will be robots.

This is a problem that I don’t really see any of the candidates talking about. Partly, I suppose, because there’s no obvious solution. People often talk about retraining people but as the text above notes, new jobs aren’t keeping up with jobs lost. And I think there’s a psychological component that makes people resistant to retraining. People associate their selves, their identities, with their job (sometimes a job that has run in their family for generations). When someone comes in and says, “OK, throw all that away and train to become a widget manufacturer,” people are resistant. They don’t want to give up their identities.

The future of plagiarism?

Here’s an interesting tale up on a British news site. In short, an author discovered that a couple books she had co-authored years ago had been directly plagiarized and republished under different titles. The theft was caught and the royalties that had been generated from Amazon sales were routed to the correct authors. All’s well that ends well.

The thief however was never really caught. He or she published under what was likely a pseudonym and no flesh and blood person can be connected to the name.

In a way, the scheme is rather obvious. There are millions of under-the-radar books out there—books that have been forgotten or never had much of a fan base. Why not publish them under a new title and try and reap the benefits? (Well, if you ignore the ethical reasons.)

I wonder if down the line it will be easy enough to get software to do all the dirty work. You design a piece of software to create thousands of fake accounts and then upload pilfered books to the Amazon store using these accounts? Maybe you don’t make much but something is more than nothing.

The war within ethics

So I just finished the book “Soul Machine” which I have been commenting on recently. Its main focus is on the mind, but the mind is related to ethics and politics and I find myself musing upon those subjects as well.

It all leads me to wonder whether’s there’s an interesting schism in the world of ethics that can be explored. I break it down to this…

On one hand, we’ve been trying to use logic and empiricism to figure out the proper ethics for living in our world. We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a god and what he wants, or whether or not ethics can be somehow divined the way the law of gravity or the boiling point of water were deduced from observation. And I would have to say that these efforts have all failed. There’s no convincing proof of god, nor is there any proof of any sort of built in moral ruleset to the universe. (I refer to my timeless piece on Arthur Leff for more thoughts related to this.)

On the other side, we do seem to have some kind or moral behavior encoded into us (probably via evolution.) By this I mean, behaviors generally thought of as immoral—drowning a baby, for example—provoke a negative response in our bodies when we seriously contemplate performing them*. Morality seems to be built into our brains in some way

* This isn’t true for everyone, of course; psychopaths being an obvious exception.

So it’s the age old battle between the heart and the brain. We intellectually recognize the moral emptiness of the world but refuse to acknowledge this because our bodies revolt.