Manufacturing Consent

Thursday 21 December 2017

“If we can’t sell this to the American people we ought to go into another line of work." Mitch McConnell said this after the Senate passed the unpopular tax plan. Isn't that backwards from how democracy is supposed to work? In a democracy isn't the government supposed to implement the will of the people, not convince the people to want what the government has already done? In today's world both the way politics and the marketplace are supposed to work have been flipped upside down by advertising, which is really just propaganda. 

The theory behind free markets is that the consumers will choose winners based on who delivers the best product at the best price. The theory assumes that consumers make rational choices, incorporating all available information into their decision. This is already a very unrealistic assumption for anyone who is familiar with cognitive biases and the way decisions are actually made. It becomes an absurd assumption when we consider that most of the information consumers have comes from the media and advertising. As discussed in No Logo, by Naomi Klein, corporations now realize that it is more effective for them to focus on marketing and branding than on R&D or actually producing high quality products. Many "brands" sell what are essentially commodities and the only value they add is in creating a brand image and brand awareness and convincing people that their products are better than their competitors' when in reality there is negligible difference. Why spend money improving your products when it is far cheaper and more effective to just convince people that your products are better?

A similar thing has been happening in politics, especially after Citizens United opened the floodgate of money. Rather than politicians responding to the will of the people, the politicians use their corporate money to convince the people to do whatever the donors want. The rise of partisan cable news networks, which parrot the official party lines non-stop all day every day, ensure that the viewers will only have the information which support the views and are constantly bombarded with rhetoric about how bad the other party is. In this post-truth era, any facts or data that contradict one's viewpoint are just dismissed as incorrect or "fake news." The confirmation bias predisposes us to reject information which is contrary to our opinions and the availability heuristic ensures that we will tend to believe information that we are exposed to more often, so can remember better. Combined with today's technology and the media saturated environment we live in, these biases basically ensure that people can very easily be manipulated into believing most anything.

I had just finished reading "Manufacturing Consent" by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky when the McConnell made the statement quoted in the first line of this article. The book was written in 1988 and focuses on how the government and the mass media conspire to make sure that the public supports the actions of the government. This is not a typical conspiracy in the sense that the government and the media don't collaborate to come up with these plans, it is baked into the system - the media gets its information from the government and reports it as facts. The examples described in the book are all cold war influenced incidences where the media supported the US government doing things in the name of anti-communism that they would have raised hell over had the Soviet Union done the exact same thing.

What is surprising about the book is not that these things happen at all, but how much these things have become normalized over the three decades since the book was first publlshed. In fact, I would say that the types of propaganda described in the book are no longer exceptions, but now are the rule. The most recent foreign policy example of such things would be the justification for the Iraq invasion based on non-existent WMDs, which had almost all major US media clamoring for war. But domestically, propaganda has basically taken over politics. The recent US presidential elections featured little to no discussion of issues of any sort. The focus was on personal foibles and defects of the candidates. Rather than offering policy proposals, advertisements focused on attacking the other candidates. In the end the election was solely about which candidate you personally felt greater animus for. This is a far cry from how democracy is supposed to work.

The rise of the internet and big data is only going to exacerbate the problems. The ability to target messages to individual people is just taking advantage of cognitive biases to further deteriorate the state of politics and the economy. Technology and automation is going to concentrate greater and greater wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people who can use that wealth to either persuade the politicians to do their bidding, or in a worst case scenario just convince the people that what the wealthy want is good for everyone, such as how McConnell was talking about trying to convince people that the tax bill is good for everyone, when it in fact seems to mainly be good for corporations and holders of capital. The influx of money into American politics combined with technology promises to make it easier to manufacture consent for whatever is already done rather than doing what the people want.

Labels: books, politics, economics
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Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Friday 08 December 2017

I read this book a few months ago, and just decided to write about it after finishing Team of Rivals. The book is about John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. In my high school American history textbook I remember there being maybe a sentence or two about John Brown, which basically said that he was an insane person who went around Kansas killing people in their sleep, before trying to start an insurrection in Virginia, for which he was executed.

The truth is far more nuanced and interesting than this. My best guess as to why I was taught such a different version in school is that high school history is meant to instill patriotism by showing the country in a positive light, and this story has far too much moral ambiguity to do that.

Far from being insane, John Brown seems to have been a very moral person, who was aware of what he was doing, and thought it was for the best, in spite of the violence he was committing. Brown was a very religious man who was very much opposed to slavery. Despite having been raised by a pacifist father, he eventually came to the conclusion that the only way to combat the violence and injustice of slavery was with violence. 

The  Pottawatomie massacre was a response to the sacking of the town of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces, where only one person was killed. Brown and his group killed five people in one night, and this sparked the "Bleeding Kansas" period of violence over the issue of slavery in the state. While killing anyone is in my opinion unjustifiable, I am not sure what the assertion that Brown was "insane" was based on.

After the massacre, Brown continued to support abolitionist causes and had support from many well known abolitionists on the East Coast. After years of planning, Brown finally attempted his raid on Harpers Ferry. He believed that if he got weapons to slaves they would rise and join him in an insurrection. Whether or not he believed his plan could succeed I do not know, but it did not succeed and Brown and most of his men were arrested and executed.

The raid was a very historically important event. The Southerners believed that it was a Northern conspiracy against them, while the Northern abolitionists made him a hero and a martyr who sacrificed his life to help others. Today some people view Brown as a visionary hero who planted the seeds for the Civil War and civil rights, while others - such as the writer of my old history textbook - view him as an insane terrorist. I had not questioned what I was taught in high school before reading this book, but it seems clear that while he may have been a terrorist (depending on how you define the word) he was definitely not insane. He refused offers to be rescued preferring to die and bring attention and support to his cause. It is possible that he never expected his raid to be successful, but no matter how it turned out he would achieve his objective of bringing attention to the abolitionist cause.

While I disagree with his methods, there is no doubt that Brown was a pivotal figure in the history leading up to the Civil War. This was a very interesting and engaging book and I recommend it.


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Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Sunday 03 December 2017

I think enough has been written about this book that there is not much more I can say. It is an amazingly vivid and detailed account of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, painstakingly researched and very engaging. I highly recommend it.

In the beginning of the book it mentions how Lincoln used to debate the portrayal of George Washington in America at the time (and still today) as a flawless saint-like hero. Apparently the issue was over whether it was more important to have national heros or to have a realistic account of history. In American schools this is not an issue - history is always presented as a constant march forward - every problem mentioned is eventually "solved", the personal and political flaws of presidents are never discussed, and the United States never does anything wrong. In my high school American History textbook I remember there being maybe one paragraph about Watergate and maybe a few sentences about the downsides of the Vietnam War. Anything questionable that the US government had ever done - such as supporting authoritarian dictatorships and military coups in the interest of opposing communism - were never even mentioned. Apparently it is more important for American public schools to instill a sense of patriotism and nationalism than to present any sort of objective analysis of history.

After having read the Caro books on LBJ, where Johnson's many, many flaws were detailed, I expected this book to be a more realistic depiction of Lincoln, who was presented in my history class as a saint on par with George Washington and Jesus. I was rather shocked to find very few, if any, negative things about Lincoln. If this is an accurate portrayal then he probably really was close to being the greatest person who has ever lived, and by far the best American president ever. But, being a skeptic at heart, I still have my doubts. 

I am a bit conflicted about the Civil War. While ending slavery was a goal worth fighting over, the other side is that Lincoln's presidency was really the turning point where the power flipped from being primarily held by the states to being held by the federal government. While merely a rationalization for protecting slavery, state's rights is in my opinion an important concept and one that I wish had been preserved. 

If we assume that the country is split roughly 50-50 on a major issue, whatever the government decides to do half the country is not going to be happy about it. If laws are created on a local level each state can make its own decision based on what the people of that state want, which should reduce the percentage of people unhappy with each decision. It seems obvious to me that the more locally decisions are made the better the government will respond to the will of the people. The current system, where the federal government decides most everything and the states can only decide what the federal government allows them to, is in my opinion a recipe for creating the kind of division witnessed in the US today.

As a little tangent, I am not sure I agree that in a democracy the federal government has the right to keep states from seceding. I have been thinking about this lately in light of the Catalan independence referendum in Spain. If the Catalonians don't want to be part of Spain what right do the Spanish people have to dictate what they can or cannot do? Is the the "consent of the people" a non-revokable agreement which will bind everyone and their posterity in perpetuity? Can I grant "consent" for people who are not yet born or do they need to grant it themselves? However, by trying to maintain their "peculiar institution" (without the consent of the slaves) the South lost the right to make any of these types of arguments.

The constitution gives more power to the states than to the federal government, and the Civil War was the point where the federal government really started taking all of that power. Lincoln was only able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a war-time necessity - he did not believe he had the constitutional power to override state laws in a time of peace. Unfortunately Lincoln was assassinated taking with him his moral compass and greater purpose, which was replaced with the petty ambitions, greed and desire for revenge of Andrew Johnson and the radical republicans. If Lincoln had lived it is certain that Reconstruction would have gone very differently, and who knows, the country might have been a much better place than it currently is.

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World Without Mind by Franklin Foer

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Back when I was in college I told someone "the problem with the internet is that no one has figured out how to make money off of it." At the time that was probably true (this was the mid-90s), although some people were working very hard on the problem. During the dot-com boom it seemed like that problem had been solved, but then the dot com bust reopened the issue. Now that statement is so incorrect it could be a joke. 

The first dot-com boom was largely about trying to actually create value with the internet - it was about creating new products and services and things which could be useful to consumers. Now the paradigm for big tech has completely changed. The users are no longer the consumers but are the product,s which are sold to advertisers and corporations in the form of data to allow them to better target their advertisements. The more time people spend on websites like Facebook, Twitter and Google, the more data those companies can collect and the better the advertisers can target their advertisements. A key component of this paradigm is trying to get users to spend as much time as possible online, and this is done by trying to make the products as addictive as possible. This is why Facebook rations "likes" - if someone "likes" something you posted you may not be notified about it immediately, but the likes will be stretched out to keep you checking back regularly. This eventually leads to the premise of this book - which is that big tech is becoming a threat to democracy and freedom of thought.

At the moment I am very interested in machine learning. When most people think of "artificial intelligence" they probably think of Skynet or HAL, but in reality it is really just about data. It is not all that difficult to take in large data sets and predict variables in terms of other variables - this is essentially what machine learning is. Every time you get a new data point, you can update the formulae to get better predictions. I imagine this is what Facebook and Google do. Facebook uses the algorithms to predict which items you are likely to click on if placed in your news feeds, and then it gets more data based on whether you click on them or not. Similarly, YouTube does the same thing to determine what video to play next and then it gets a new data point by seeing if you watch the next video or not. From a machine learning perspective this is a dream scenario for unsupervised learning, you just set up the algorithms and they'll learn on their own, refining themselves constantly. 

In the past TV news operated differently - the networks were expected to run their news departments at a loss as a public service, in exchange for the right to broadcast and make money off advertising during entertainment programming. The news had no reason to bend the truth, or present partisan opinions or "alternative facts." With only three networks to chose from, the country had a set of common facts that everyone agreed on. Now, people choose the news they watch based on the information they want to hear, if you don't like what Fox News is saying you turn on MSNBC and if you don't like what they are saying you turn on a different news channel. This results in a feedback loop - rather than having incorrect assumptions challenged, they are just constantly reinforced by the self-selection of news that agrees with your existing viewpoints and opinions. 

In this book Mr Foer explains how big tech companies are doing the exact same thing and how it is detrimental to democracy. Facebook is not going to want to show you something that you are not going to like or agree with, while challenging people is good for public discource and independent thought, it does not tend to engage most people. The "confirmation bias" is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. When people are presented with information that contradicts their opinions they tend to downplay it, or ignore it, or question the validity of it. People don't like to have their beliefs challenged, so to keep people engaged big tech is not going to try to challenge anyone.

Most people assume that we analyze the facts and data and then come up with an opinion on an issue. I believe the opposite is true. Most people already have their opinions, even on issues they have no information on, and then they choose facts and data to confirm what they already believe. Where do the beliefs come from then? Mostly from hearing opinions from other people - whether on TV news, newspapers, or social media. There are shortcuts we use to determine which opinions to hold in the absence of facts - if we hear a lot about something we tend to assume it is true, if we hear something from someone we like we will tend to assume it is true. The media (online and offline) has a huge influence on our opinions and beliefs, but they are not motivated by telling us the truth, or improving society - they are motivated by advertising dollars. The goal of TV news is to keep people glued to the TV - not to keep them informed. When there is a big news story they will play it up as much as possible rather than reporting on things that may be more important, but may not be as sensational.

Feedback loops are just one of the many problems caused by big tech, albeit one that is quite relevant today as they played a large role in the previous US election. Mr Foer provides a comprehensive overview of all of the ways that big tech is harming society in the pursuit of profits. Mr Foer uses the example of the New Republic, which he was the editor of, to illustrate how big tech is taking over people's minds. If you want details on this I suggest you read the book, but in a nutshell, the magazine went from one that would publish well researched, in depth articles on various subjects to adopting the currently prevalent click-bait model of journalism - basically a very short article with a catchy headline and photo that is designed for the sole purpose of getting as many eyes on it as possible. Mr Foer says that the change in online journalism is largely driven by social media - which now drives a huge amount of online traffic. People get their news from Twitter and Facebook now, and if an article isn't going to interest someone with a 140 character headline and a catchy photo it probably isn't going to get read at all.

I personally avoid social media as much as possible, and I am becoming disillusioned enough with what the internet has become that I am thinking of changing careers. When I started working in web technologies, the internet was going to revolutionize the world by making huge amounts of information available at a click. Now the internet is mostly about trying to get people addicted and clicking back as much as possible, all for the end of allowing corporations to have data so that they can target advertisments at you and convince you to buy things you don't really need.

Labels: technical, books
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