Digifesto

Why we need good computational models of peace and love

“Data science” doesn’t refer to any particular technique.

It refers to the cusp of the diffusion of computational methods from computer science, statistics, and applied math (the “methodologists”) to other domains.

The background theory of these disciplines–whose origin we can trace at least as far back at cybernetics research in the 1940′s–is required to understand the validity of these “data science” technologies as scientific instruments, just as a theory of optics is necessary to know the validity of what is seen through a microscope. Kuhn calls these kinds of theoretical commitments “instrumental commitments.”

For most domain sciences, instrumental commitment to information theory, computer science, etc. is not problematic. It is more so with some social sciences which oppose the validity of totalizing physics or formalism.

There aren’t a lot of them left because our mobile phones more or less instrumentally commit us to the cybernetic worldview. Where there is room for alternative metaphysics, it is because of the complexity of emergent/functional properties of the cybernetic substrate. Brier’s Cybersemiotics is one formulation of how richer communicative meaning can be seen as a evolved structure on top of cybernetic information processing.

If “software is eating the world” and we don’t want it to eat us (metaphorically! I don’t think the robots are going to kill us–I think that corporations are going to build robots that make our lives miserable by accident), then we are going to need to have software that understands us. That requires building out cybernetic models of human communication to be more understanding of our social reality and what’s desirable in it.

That’s going to require cooperation between techies and humanists in a way that will be trying for both sides but worth the effort I think.

starting with a problem

The feedback I got on my dissertation prospectus draft when I presented it to my colleagues was that I didn’t start with a problem and then argue from there how my dissertation was going to be about a solution.

That was really great advice.

The problem of problem selection is a difficult. “What is a problem?” is a question that basically nobody asks. Lots of significant philosophical traditions maintain that it’s the perception of problems as problems that is the problem. “Just chill out,” say Great Philosophical Traditions. This does not help one orient ones research dissertation.

A lot of research is motivated by interest in particular problems like an engineering challenge or curing cancer. I’m somehow managed to never acquire the kind of expertise that would allow me to address any of these specific useful problems directly. My mistake.

I’m a social scientist. There are a lot of social problems, right? Of course. However, there’s a problem here that identifying any problems as problems in the social domain immediately implicates politics.

Are there apolitical social problems? I think I’ve found some. I had a great conversation last week with Anna Salamon about Global Catastrophic Risks. Those sound terrible! It echoes the work I used to do in support of Distaster Risk Reduction, except that there is more acknowledgment in the GCR space that some of the big risks are man-made.

So there’s a problem: arguably research into the solutions to these problems is good. On the other hand, that research is complicated by the political entanglement of the researchers, especially in the university setting. It took some convincing, but OK, those politics are necessarily part of the equation. Put another way, if there wasn’t the political complexity, then the hard problems wouldn’t be such hard problems. The hard problems are hard partly because they are so political. (This difference in emphasis is not meant to preclude other reasons why these problems are hard; for example, because people aren’t smart or motivated enough.)

Given that the political complexity is getting in the way of the efficiency of us solving hard problems–because these problems require collaboration across political lines, because the inherent politics of language choice and framing create complexity that is orthogonal to the problem solution (is it?), infrastructural solutions that manage that political complexity can be helpful.

(Counterclaim: the political complexity is not illogical complexity, rather scientific logic is partly political logic. We live in the best of all possible worlds. Just chill out. This is an empirical claim.)

The promise of computational methods to interdisciplinary collaboration is that they allow for more efficient distribution of cognitive labor across the system of investigators. Data science methodologists can build tools for investigation that work cross-disciplinarily, and the interaction between these tools can follow an a political logic in a way that discursive science cannot. Teleologically, we get an Internet of Scientific Things, and autonomous scientific aparatus, and draw your own eschatological conclusions.

An interesting consequence of algorithmically mediated communication is that you don’t actually need consensus to coordinate collective action. I suppose this is an argument Hayekians etc. have been making for a long time. However, the political maintenance of the system that ensures the appropriate incentive structures is itself prone to being hacked and herein lies the problem. That and the insufficiency of the total neurological market aparatus (in Hayek’s vision) to do anything like internalize the externalities of e.g. climate change, while the Bitcoin servers burn and burn and burn.

notes

This article is making me doubt some of my earlier conclusions about the role of the steering media. Habermas, I’ve got to concede, is dated. As much as skeptics would like to show how social media fails to ‘democratize’ media (not in the sense of being justly won by elections, but rather in the original sense of being mob ruled), the fragmentation is real and the public is reciprocally involved in its own narration.

What can then be said of the role of new media in public discourse? Here are some hypotheses:

  • As a first order effect, new media exacerbates shocks, both endogenous and exogenous. See Didier Sornette‘s work on application of self-excited Hawkes process to social systems like finance and Amazon reviews. (I’m indebted to Thomas Maillart for introducing me to this research.) This changes the dynamics because rather than being Poisson distributed, new media intervention is strategically motivated.
  • As a second order effect, since new media acting strategically, it must make predictive assessments of audience receptivity. New media suppliers must anticipate and cultivate demand. But demand is driven partly by environmental factors like information availability. See these notes on Dewey’s ethical theory for how taste can be due to environmental adaptation with no truly intrinsic desire–hence, the inappropriateness of modeling these dynamics straightforwardly with ‘utility functions’–which upsets neoclassical market modeling techniques. Hence the ‘social media marketer’ position that engages regularly in communication with an audience in order to cultivate a culture that is also a media market. Microcelebrity practices achieve not merely a passively received branding but an actively nurtured communicative setting. Communication here is transmission (Shannon, etc.) and/or symbolic interaction, on which community (Carey) supervenes.
  • Though not driven be neoclassical market dynamics simpliciter, new media is nevertheless competitive. We should expect new media suppliers to be fluidly territorial. The creates a higher-order incentive for curatorial intervention to maintain and distinguish ones audience as culture. A critical open question here is to what extent these incentives drive endogenous differentiation, vs. to what extent media fragmentation results in efficient allocation of information (analogously to efficient use of information in markets.) There is no a priori reason to suppose that the ad hoc assemblage of media infrastructures and regulations minimizes negative cultural externalities. (What are examples of negative cultural externalities? Fascism, ….)
  • Different media markets will have different dialects, which will have different expressive potential because of description lengths of concepts. (Algorithmic information theoretic interpretation of weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.) This is unavoidable because man is mortal (cannot approach convergent limits in a lifetime.) Some consequences (which have taken me a while to come around to, but here it is):
    1. Real intersubjective agreement is only provisionally and locally attainable.
    2. Language use, as a practical effect, has implications for future computational costs and therefore is intrinsically political.
    3. The poststructuralists are right after all. ::shakes fist at sky::
    4. That’s ok, we can still hack nature and create infrastructure; technical control resonates with physical computational layers that are not subject to wetware limitations. This leaves us, disciplinarily, with post-positivist engineering, post-structuralist hermeneutics enabling only provisional consensus and collective action (which can, at best, be ‘society made durable’ via technical implementation or cultural maintenance (see above on media market making), and critical reflection (advancing social computation directly).
  • There is a challenge to Pearl/Woodward causality here, in that mechanistic causation will be insensitive to higher-order effects. A better model for social causation would be Luhmann’s autopoieisis (c.f Brier, 2008). Ecological modeling (Ulanowicz) provides the best toolkit for showing interactions between autopoietic networks?

This is not helping me write my dissertation prospectus at all.

real talk

So I am trying to write a dissertation prospectus. It is going…OK.

The dissertation is on Evaluating Data Science Environments.

But I’ve been getting very distracted by the politics of data science. I have been dealing with the politics by joking about them. But I think I’m in danger of being part of the problem, when I would rather be part of the solution.

So, where do I stand on this, really?

Here are some theses:

  • There is a sense of “data science” that is importantly different from “data analytics”, though there is plenty of abuse of the term in an industrial context. That claim is awkward because industry can easily say they “own” the term. It would be useful to lay out specifically which computational methods constitute “data science” methods and which don’t.
  • I think that it’s useful analytically to distinguish different kinds of truth claims because it sheds light on the value of different kinds of inquiry. There is definitely a place for rigorous interpretive inquiry and critical theory in addition to technical, predictive science. I think politicing around these divisions is lame and only talk about it to make fun of the situation.
  • New computational science techniques have done and will continue to do amazing work in the physical and biological and increasingly environmental sciences. I am jealous of researchers in those fields because I think that work is awesome. For some reason I am a social scientist.
  • The questions surrounding the application of data science to social systems (which can include environmental systems) are very, very interesting. Qualitative researchers get defensive about their role in “the age of data science” but I think this is unwarranted. I think it’s the quantitative social science researchers who are likely more threatened methodologically. But since I’m not well-trained as a quantitative social scientist really, I can’t be sure of that.
  • The more I learn about research methods (which seems to be all I study these days, instead of actually doing research–I’m procrastinating), the more I’m getting a nuanced sense of how different methods are designed to address different problems. Jockeying about which method is better is useless. If there is a political battle I think is worth fighting any more, it’s the battle about whether or not transdisciplinary research is productive or possible. I hypothesize that it is. But I think this is an empirical question whose answer may be specific: how can different methods be combined effectively? I think this question gets quite deep and answering it requires getting into epistemology and statistics in a serious way.
  • What is disruptive about data science is that some people have dug down into statistics in a serious way, come up with a valid general way of analyzing things, and then automated it. That makes it in theory cheaper to pick up and apply than the quantitative techniques used by other researchers, and usable at larger scale. On the whole this is pretty good, though it is bad when people don’t understand how the tools they are using work. Automating science is a pretty good thing over all.
  • It’s really important for science, as it is automated, to be built on open tools and reproducible data because (a) otherwise there is no reason why it should have the public trust, (b) because it will remove barriers to training new scientists.
  • All scientists are going to need to know how to program. I’m very fortunate to have a technical background. A technical background is not sufficient to do science well. One can use technical skills to assist in both qualitative (visualization) and quantitative work. The ability to use tools is orthogonal to the ability to study phenomena, despite the historic connection between mathematics and computer science.
  • People conflate programming, which is increasingly a social and trade skill, with the ability to grasp high level mathematical concepts.
  • Computers are awesome. The people that make them better deserve the credit they get.
  • Sometimes I think: should I be in a computer science department? I think I would feel better about my work if I were in CS. I like the feeling of tangible progress and problem solving. I think there are a lot of really important problems to solve, and that the solutions will likely come from computer science related work. What I think I get from being in a more interdisciplinary department is a better understanding of what problems are worth solving. I don’t mean that in a way that diminishes the hard work of problem solving, which I think is really where the rubber hits the road. It is easy to complain. I don’t work as hard as computer science students. I also really like being around women. I think they are great and there aren’t enough of them in computer science departments.
  • I’m interested in modeling and improving the cooperation around open scientific software because that’s where I see there some real potential value add. I’ve been and engineer and I’ve managed engineers. Managing engineers is a lot harder than engineering, IMO. That’s because management requires navigating a social system. Social systems are really absurdly complicated compared to even individual organisms.
  • There are three reasons why it might be bad to apply data science to social systems. The first is that it could lead to extraordinarily terrible death robots. My karma is on the line. The second is that the scientific models might be too simplistic and lead to bad decisions that are insensitive to human needs. That is why it is very, very important that the existing wealth of social scientific understanding is not lost but rather translated into a more robust and reproducible form. The third reason is that social science might be in principle impossible due to its self-referential effects. This would make the whole enterprise a collosal waste of time. The first and third reasons frequently depress me. The second motivates me.
  • Infrastructure and mechanism design are powerful means of social change, perhaps the most powerful. Movements are important but civil society is so paralyzed by the steering media now that it is more valuable to analyze movements as sociotechnical organizations alongside corporations etc. than to view them in isolation from the technical substrate. There are a variety of ideological framings of this position, each with different ideological baggage. I’m less concerned with that, ultimately, than the pragmatic application of knowledge. I wish people would stop having issues with “implications for design.”
  • I said I wanted to get away from politics, but this is one other political point I actually really think is worth making, though it is generally very unpopular in academia for obvious reasons: the status differential between faculty and staff is an enormous part of the problem of the disfunction of universities. A lot of disciplinery politics are codifications of distaste for certain kinds of labor. In many disciplines, graduate students perform labor unexpertly in service of their lab’s principal investigators; this labor is a way of paying ones dues that has little to do with the intellectual work of their research expertise. Or is it? It’s entirely unclear, especially when what makes the difference between a good researcher and a great one are skills that have nothing to do with their intellectual pursuit, and when master new tools is so essential for success in ones field. But the PIs are often not able to teach these tools. What is the work of research? Who does it? Why do we consider science to be the reserve of a specialized medieval institution, and call it something else when it is done by private industry? Do academics really have a right to complain about the rise of the university administrative class?

Sorry, that got polemical again.

Data Science: It Gets the Truth!

What follows is the first draft of the introduction to my upcoming book, Data Science: It Gets the Truth! This book will be the popularized version of my dissertation, based on my experiences at the School of Information and UC Berkeley. I’m really curious to know what you think!

There are two kinds of scientists in the world: the truth haters, and the truth getters.

You can tell who is a truth hater by asking them: “With your work, are you trying to find something that’s true?”

A truth hater will tell you that there is no such thing as truth, or that the idea of truth is a problematic bourgeois masculinist social construct, or that truth is relative and so no, not exactly, they probably don’t mean the same thing as you do when you say ‘truth’.

Obviously, these people hate the truth. Hence, “truth haters.”

Then there are the truth getters. You ask a truth getter whether they are trying to discover the truth, and they will say “Hell yeah!” Or, more simply, “yes, that is correct.”

Truth getters love the truth. The truth is great; it’s the point of science. They get that. Hence, “truth getters.”

We are at an amazing, unique time in history. Here, at the dawn of the 21st century, we have very powerful computers and extraordinary networks of communication like never before. This means science is going through some unprecedented changes.

One of those changes is that scientists are realizing that they’ve been fighting about nothing for a long time. Scientists used to think they had to be different from each other in order to study different things. But now, we know that there is only one good way to study anything, and that is machine learning. Soon, all scientists are going to be data scientists, because science is discovering that all things can be represented as data and studied with machine learning.

Well, not all scientists. I should be more precise. I was just talking about the truth getters. Because machine learning is how we can discover the truth about everything, and truth getters get that.

Truth haters, on the other hand, hate how good machine learning is at discovering the truth about everything. Silly truth haters! One day, they will get their funding cut.

In this book, Data Science: It Gets the Truth! you will learn how you too can be a data scientist and learn the truth about things. Get it? Great! Let’s go!

Kolmogorov Complexity is fucking brilliant

Dear Everybody Who Thinks,

Have you ever heard of Kolmogorov Complexity?

It is one of the most amazing concepts ever invented. I shit you not.

But first: if you think about it, we are all basically becoming part of one big text, right? Like, that is what we mean when we say “Big Data”. It’s that we are rapidly turning everything into a string of letters or numbers (they are roughly the same) which we then reinterpret.

Sometimes those strings are people’s creation/expression. Some of them are sensed from nature.

We interpret them by processing them through a series of filters, or lenses. Or, algorithms. Or what some might call “perceptual concepts.” They result in taking action. You could call it cybernetic action. Just as the perception of pain causes through the nerves a reflexive leap away from the stimulus, the perception of spam through an algorithmic classifier can trigger an algorithmic parry.

Turns out, if everything is text that we process with computers, there’s a really amazing metric of complexity that applies to strings of characters. That is super. Because, let’s face it, most of the time when people talk about “complexity” they aren’t using the term very precisely at all. That is too bad, because everything is really complicated, but some things are more complicated than others. It could be useful–maybe absurdly useful–to have a good way to talk about how differently complicated things are.

There is a good way. A good way called Kolmogorov Complexity. This is the definition of it provided by Wolfram Mathworld:

The complexity of a pattern parameterized as the shortest algorithm required to reproduce it. Also known as bit complexity.

I am–and this is totally a distraction but whatever–totally flummoxed as to how this definition could ever have been written. Because half of it, the first sentence, is the best humanese definition I’ve ever heard, maybe, until I reread it and realized I don’t really get the sense in which they are using “parameterized.” Do you?

But essentially, a pattern’s (or text’s) Kolmogorov complexity is the length of the shortest algorithm that produces it. Length, here, as in length of that algorithm represented as another text–i.e., in software code. (Of course you need a reader/observer/language/interpreter that can understand the code and react by writing/showing/speaking the pattern, which is where it gets complicated, but…) Where was I? (Ever totally space out come back to wondering whether or not you closed a parenthesis?)

No seriously, where was I?

Ok, so here’s the thing–a pattern’s Kolmogorov complexity is always less than or equal to its length plus a small constant. So for example, this string:

6ORoQK2szdpxArct4dja
HleN4dXTJJNPtd5qAxTg
qbIeRRYZm6NNCw9jr4J4
fGLdOyIjtbQ8RRymaFiN
oAsOHf7VkQvNkZl6ZW72

is a string of 100 random characters and there is no good way to summarize it. So, the Kolmogorov complexity of is just over 100, or the length of this string:

print("6ORoQK2szdpxArct4djaHleN4dXTJJNPtd5qAxTgqbIeRRYZm6NNCw9jr4J4fGLdOyIjtbQ8RRymaFiNoAsOHf7VkQvNkZl6ZW72")

If you know anything about programming at all (and I’m not assuming you do) you should know that the program print("Hello World!") returns as an output the string “Hello World!”. This is traditionally the first program you learn to write in any language. If you have never written a “Hello World!” program, I strongly recommend that you do. It should probably be considered a requirement for digital literacy. Here is a tutorial on how to do this for JavaScript, the language that runs in your web browser.

Now take for example this totally different string of the same length as the first one:

00000000000000000000
00000000000000000000
00000000000000000000
00000000000000000000
00000000000000000000

You might notice something about this string of numbers. Can you guess what it is?

If you guessed, “It’s really simple,” you’re right! That is the correct intuition.

A way to formalize this intuition is to talk about the shortest length of its description. You can describe it in a lot fewer than 100 characters. In English, you could write “A hundred zeros”, which is 15 characters. In the pseudocode language I’m making up for this blog post, you could write:

print(repeat("0",100))

Which is pretty short.

It turns out, understanding Kolmogorov complexity is like understanding one of the fundamental secrets of the universe. If you don’t believe me, ask the guy who invented BitCoin, whose website links to the author of the best textbook on the subject. Side note: Isn’t it incredible that the person who doxedo Satoshi Nakamoto did it through automated text analysis? Yes.

If you are unconvinced that Kolmogorov complexity is one of the most amazing ideas ever, I encourage you look further into how it plays into computational learning theory through the Minimum Description Length principle, or read this helpful introduction to Solomonoff Induction a mathematical theory of inductive inference that is as powerful as Bayesian updating.

thinking about computational social science

I’m facing a challenging paradox in how to approach my research.

On the one hand, we have the trend of increasing instrumentation of society. From quantified self to the Internet of things to Netflix clicks to the fully digitized archives of every newspaper, we have more data than we’ve ever had before to ask fundamental social scientific questions.

That should make it easier to research society and infer principles about how it works. But there is a long-standing counterpoint in the social sciences that claims that all social phenomena are sui generis and historically situated. If no social phenomenon generalizes, then it shouldn’t be possible to infer anything from the available data, no matter how much of it there is.

One view is that we should only be able to infer stuff that isn’t very interesting at all. One name for this view is “punctuated equilibrium.” The national borders of countries don’t move around…until they do. Regimes don’t change…until they do. It’s the ability to predict these kinds of political events that Philip Tetlock has called “expert political judgment.” The Good Judgment Project is a test to see what properties make a person or team of people good at this kind of task.

What now seems like many years ago I wrote a book review of Tetlock’s book. In that review, I pointed out a facet of Tetlock’s research I found most compelling but underdeveloped: that the best predictors he found were algorithmic predictors that drew their conclusions from linear regressions drawn from just the top three or so salient features in the data.

Six or so years later, Big Data is a powerful enough industrial and political phenomenon academic social science feels it needs to catch up. But to a large extent industrial data science is still about using pretty basic statistical models drawn from physics (that assume that everything stands in Gaussian relations to everything else, say), or otherwise applying a broad range of modeling techniques and aggregating them under statistical boosting. This is great for edge out the competition on selling ads.

But it tells us nothing about the underlying structure of what’s going on in society. And it’s possible that the fact that we haven’t done any better is really a condemnation of the whole process of social science in general. The data we are getting, rather than making us understand what’s going on around us better, is perhaps just proving to us that it’s a complex chaotic system. If so, the better we understand it, the more we will lose our confidence in our ability to predict it.

Historically, we’ve been through all this before. The mid-20th century saw the expansion of scope of Norbert Weiner’s cybernetics from electrical engineering of homeostatic machines to modeling of the political system and the economy as complex feedback systems. Indeed, cybernetics was intended as a theory of steering systems by thinking about their communications mechanisms. (Wikipedia: “The word “cybernetics” comes from the Greek word κυβερνητική (kyverni̱tikí̱, “government”), i.e. all that are pertinent to κυβερνώ (kyvernó̱), the latter meaning to “steer,” “navigate” or “govern,” hence κυβέρνησις (kyvérni̱sis, “government”) is the government while κυβερνήτης (kyverní̱ti̱s) is the governor or the captain.”) These models were on some level interesting and intuitive, even beautiful in their ambition. But they failed in their applications because social systems did not obey the kind of regularity that systems engineered for reliable equilibria did.

The difficulty with applying these theories that acknowledge the complexity of the social system to reality is that they are only explanatory in retrospect because other the path dependence of history. That’s pretty close to rendering them pseudoscientific.

Nevertheless, there are countless pressing societal challenges–climate change, unfair crime laws, war, political crisis, public health policy–on which social scientific research must be brought to bear, because there is a dimension to them which is a problem of predicting social action.

It is possible (I wonder if it’s necessary) that there are laws–perhaps just local laws–of social activity. Most people certainly believe their are. Business strategy, for example, depends on so much theorizing about the market and the relationships between different companies and their products. If these laws exist, they must be operationalizable and discoverable in the data itself.

But there is the problem of the researcher’s effect on the system being observed and, even more confounding, the result of the researcher’s discovery on the system itself. When a social system becomes self-aware through a particular theoretical lens, it can change its behavior. (I’ve heard that Milton Friedman’s monetarist economics are fantastically predictive of economic growth in the United States right up until he published them.)

If reflexivity contributes to social entropy, then it’s not clear what the point of any social research agenda is.

The one exception I can think of is if an empirical principle of social organization is robust under social reflection. The goal would be to define an equilibrium state worth striving for, so that the society in question can accept it harmoniously as a norm.

This looks like relevant prior work–a lucky google hit.

on-line actors in political theater

It is recent news (sort of, in the limited sense that the Internet reporting on something that has happened on the Internet is “news”) that Justine Tunney, a former Occupy leader who is now a Google employee, has occupied the @OccupyWallSt twitter account and is using it to advocate for anarcho-capitalism. She seems to be adopting the California ideology hook, line, and sinker, right up to its solutionist limits.

It might be sincere advocacy. It might be performance art. She might be trolling. Hard to tell the difference nowadays.

No, wait, she’s definitely trolling:

My theory is that this is designed to draw attention to the failure of political theater, including the political theater that happens on-line. She uses Yudkowsky’s anti-politics manifesto “Politics is the Mind-Killer,” not to recommend defection from politics, but rather to recommend material political action over merely rhetorical action on public opinion through ‘slacktivist’ Facebook memes.

Personally, I think this is a damn good point for 5:30am. It appears to have been missed by the press coverage of the event. This is not surprising because it is actually politically disruptive to the press rather than just pretending to be disruptive in a way that benefits the press financially by driving hits.

She’s been openly grappling with the problem of the relationship between automation and economic inequality that Peter Norvig and others have been talking up lately. Like Norvig, she doesn’t really address how intellectual property is a source of the economic contradictions that make resolving automation and equality impossible. I don’t know if that’s because this position is truly so esoteric that I’m the only person who thinks it or if it’s because of her professionalization as a Googler. Either way, a capitalist tech institution has indirectly coopted the dormant networking infrastructure of Occupy, which makes perfect sense because the networking infrastructure of Occupy was built by capitalist tech institutions in the first place, except for the open parts.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s inappropriate to consider either anarchist rhetoric or anarcho-capitalist rhetoric (or any other political rhetoric) as a totalizing political theory. Rather, every available political ideology is a dimensionality reduction of the actually existing complex sociopolitical system and expresses more than anything a subnetwork’s aspirations for power. Occupy was one expression of the powerless against the powerful. It “failed,” mainly because it wasn’t very powerful. But it did generate memes that could be coopted by other more powerful political agents. The 99% turned into the 47% and was deployed by the left-wing media and democratic party against the Republican party during the 2012 election. Now the 99% is something Googlers talk about addressing with engineering solutions.

The public frustration with Tunney over the weekend misses the point. Horkheimer and Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightement, (1987) may shed light:

The view that the leveling and standardization of people in general, on the one hand, is matched, on the other, by a heightening of individuality in the so-called leader figures, in keeping with their power, is erroneous and itself a piece of ideology. The fascist masters of today are not so much supermen as functions of their own publicity apparatus, intersections of the identical reactions of countless people. If, in the psychology of the present-day masses, the leader no longer represents the father so much as the collective, monstrously enlarged projection of the impotent ego of each individual, then the leader figures do indeed correspond to what they represent. Not by accident do they resemble hairdressers, provincial actors, and gutter journalists. A part of their moral influence lies precisely in the fact that, while in themselves as powerless as all the rest, they embody on the latter’s behalf the whole abundance of power without being anything more than the blank spaces which power has happened to occupy. It is not so much that they are exempt from the decay of individuality as that decayed individuals triumph in them and are in some way rewarded for their decay. The leaders have become fully what they always were slightly throughout the bourgeois era, actors playing leaders.

To express a political view that is not based on the expression of impotent ego but rather on personal agency and praxis is to violate the internal logic of late capitalist political opinion control. So, duly, the institutions that perform this opinion control will skewer Tunney and discredit her based on alleged hypocrisy, instead of acknowledging that her hypocrisy–the internal contradictions between her rhetorical moves and actions in her career–is a necessity given the contradictions of the society she is in and the message she is trying to convey.

It’s instructive to contrast Tunney as a deliberate provocateur triggering an implosion of political discourse with the more sustained and powerful role of the on-line political micro-celebrity. “Micro-celebrity” was coined by Terri Senft in her 2001 study of camgirls–young women who deliberately strove for attention on-line by publishing their lives through video, still images, and blogs. Senft‘s contributions are for some reason uncited in more contemporary on-line musings on microcelebrity.

Perhaps ironically given the history of the term, many of today’s prominent micro-celebrities are feminists who have staked out a position on the Internet as spokespeople for critiques of more institutionally connected feminism. Michelle Goldman’s article in The Nation documents the developments of on-line feminism in much detail, describing how it has devolved into harsh and immature practices of language policing and ritualized indignation.

Online, however, intersectionality is overwhelmingly about chastisement and rooting out individual sin. Partly, says Cooper, this comes from academic feminism, steeped as it is in a postmodern culture of critique that emphasizes the power relations embedded in language. “We actually have come to believe that how we talk about things is the best indicator of our politics,” she notes. An elaborate series of norms and rules has evolved out of that belief, generally unknown to the uninitiated, who are nevertheless hammered if they unwittingly violate them. Often, these rules began as useful insights into the way rhetorical power works but, says Cross, “have metamorphosed into something much more rigid and inflexible.” One such rule is a prohibition on what’s called “tone policing.” An insight into the way marginalized people are punished for their anger has turned into an imperative “that you can never question the efficacy of anger, especially when voiced by a person from a marginalized background.”

Similarly, there’s a norm that intention doesn’t matter—indeed, if you offend someone and then try to explain that you were misunderstood, this is seen as compounding the original injury. Again, there’s a significant insight here: people often behave in bigoted ways without meaning to, and their benign intention doesn’t make the prejudice less painful for those subjected to it. However, “that became a rule where you say intentions never matter; there is no added value to understanding the intentions of the speaker,” Cross says.

I’d argue that this behavior, which less sympathetic or politically correct observers might describe as carefucking, is the result of political identity and psychological issues being calcified by microcelebrity practice into a career move. A totalizing political ideology (in this case a vulgarized version of academic feminism) becomes a collective expression for libidinous utopianism. The collective raise a few spokespeople to the level of “decayed individuals.” As the self-branding practices of micro-celebrity transform these people from citizens to corporations, they become unable to engage authentically or credibly in public discourse, because the personal growth that comes inevitably from true discourse would destroy their brand.

Tragically, it is those that succeed at this gamified version of public discourse that eventually dominate it, which explains why in the face of racially motivated and populist anger, better situated feminist intellectuals are retreating from grassroots platforms into traditional venues of media power that are more regulated. Discussing Mikki Kendall, one of the people who started the hashtag #Solidarityisforwhitewomen, and Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, Goldberg writes:

The problem, as [Kendall] sees it, lies in mainstream white feminists’ expectations of how they deserve to be treated. “Feminism has a mammy problem, and mammy doesn’t live here anymore,” Kendall says. “I know The Help told you you was smart, you was important, you was special. The Help lied. You’re going to have to deal with anger, you’re going to have to deal with hurt.” And if it all gets to be too much? “Self-care comes into this. Sometimes you have to close the Internet.”

Few people are doing that, but they are disengaging from online feminism. Holmes, who left Jezebel in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, says she would never start a women’s website today. “Hell, no,” she says. The women’s blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

Sarah Kendzior has critiqued Goldberg, saying her article is an attack on Twitter as an activist platform by a more powerful feminist establishment that controls who gets a voice.

Social media is viewed by gatekeepers as simultaneously worthless and a serious threat. Balancing these opposing views requires a hypocrisy that can be facilitated only by the assurance of power.

Gatekeepers to mainstream feminist venues, like Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, proclaim that tweeting is not really activism. In contrast, the women behind hashtag activism argue that Twitter is one of the few outlets they have in a world that denies them opportunities.

Kendzior is right on about how dismissing your opposition as powerless while expressing anxiety about them as a threat is typical of powerful threatened people, and especially those whose power depends on their control of communication networks, brands, and audiences. In the culture industry, this is a matter of the bottom line. Competition for market share among, say, women on the Internet requires defining a kind of feminism that is both empowering and sale-able as a commodity. This in turn relies on the commodification of female identity available as a collection of literature and talking points. There are of course different market segments and products. Lean In targets a particular demographic–upper middle class women in large tech corporations. Naturally, the feminist writers in the culture industry hate Lean In because it is a competing product that ultimately exposes their own vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the technology companies they depend on for distribution. By preventing women from achieving technical efficacy over their own lives through career success, they maintain their market of women who need vocalization of the unfairness that their immaterial affective labor is unrewarded by the market. By cultivating and promoting only those mico-celebrities who can be reliably counted on to attack their political and economic enemies, this “feminist” establishment reproduces itself as a cultural force.

Truly radical voices like Justine Tunney’s which critique the cultural control of the media establishment without with dogged and unreflective monotony of micro-celebrity practice will fail at being actors playing leaders in the political theater. That is because they are the kind of leaders that don’t want to be leaders but rather are making a call to action.

Decentralization, democracy, and rationality

I got into a conversation involving @billmon1, Brian Keegan, and Nate Matias on Twitter the other day. I got so much out of it that I resolved to write up thoughts on it in a blog post. It’s appropriate that I get around to it on Martin Luther King Jr. day, since the conversation was about whether technology can advance social and democratic ideals, a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time.

Billmon (I don’t know his real name–not sure how I got into this conversation in the first place, to be honest) opened by expressing what’s becoming an increasingly popular cynicism towards those that look to social media technology for political solutions.

Now, I’m aware of the critiques of the idea that social media is inherently democratic. But I this claim, as stated, is wrong in lots of interesting ways.

The problem is that while social media technologies can’t be guaranteed to foster liberal, democratic values, decentralization and inter-connectivity of communications infrastructure are precisely the material conditions for liberal democracy. State power depends on communications, if the state can control the means of communication, or if citizens are so disconnected that they cannot come together to deliberate, then there is no place for an independent public to legitimize the state institutions that control it.

This isn’t a novel or radical position. It’s a centrist argument about the conditions of liberal democracy. However, it’s a position that’s presently under attack from all sides. Will Wilkinson has recently written that “liberal” statist critiques of Snowden and Wikileaks, who were essentially acting in accord with interests of independent public media, are being cast as “libertarian” boogeymen for what are essentially liberal principles. Meanwhile, the left is eager to attack this position as not democratic or radical enough.

A number of these critiques came through in our conversation. And since I’m writing the blog post summarizing the conversation, naturally I won all the arguments. For example, Billmon pointed out that Facebook is itself a mega-corporation controlling and monetizing communication with political interests. But that’s just it: Facebook is not inherently democratic because it is under centralized control and does not promote inter-connectivity (EdgeRank is great for filter bubbles). Contrast this with Diaspora, and you have a technology that supports a very different politics.

Brian Keegan came through with a more conservative argument:

Keegan is way right about this. Because I’m a pedant, I pointed out that populism is in accordance with the democratic ideal. But I hate the tribalist mob as much as anybody. That’s why I’m looking for ways to design infrastructure to enable communicative rationality–the kind of principled communication that leads to legitimate consensus among its diverse constituents. Keegan pointed me to Living Voters Guide as an existing example of this. It’s a cool example, but I’m looking for something that could integrate better with communications infrastructure already used on a massive scale, like email or Twitter.

The problem with bringing up Habermasian rationality in today’s academic or quasi-academic environment is that you immediately get hit by the left-wing critique that came up in the late 80′s and early 90′s. Cue Nate Matias:

He’s right of course. He also pointed me to this excellent actual by Nancy Fraser from 1990 articulating ways in which Habermas idealized bourgeois masculinist notions of the public sphere and ignored things like the exclusion of women and the working class counterpublics.

Reading the Fraser piece, I note that she doesn’t actually dismiss the idea of communicative rationality in its entirety. Rather, she simply doesn’t want it to be used in a way that falsely “brackets” (leaves out of the conversation) status differences:

Now, there is a remarkable irony here, one that Habermas’s account of the rise of the public sphere fails fully to appreciate.8 A discourse of publicity touting accessibility, rationality, and the suspension of status hierarchies is itself deployed as a strategy of distinction. Of course, in and of itself, this irony does not fatally compromise the discourse of publicity; that discourse can be, indeed has been, differently deployed in different circumstances and contexts. Nevertheless, it does suggest that the rela- tionship between publicity and status is more complex than Habermas intimates, that declaring a deliberative arena to be a space where extant status distinctions are bracketed and neutralized is not sufficient to make it so.

(This is her only use of the word “rationality” in the linked piece, though poking around I gather that she has a more comprehensive critique elsewhere.)

So there is plenty of room for a moderate position that favors decentralized communications organized under a more inclusive principle of rationality–especially if that principle of rationality allows for discussion of status differences.

I’m personally happy with the idea of keeping irrational people out of my town hall. Otherwise, as Billmon points out, you can get people using decentralized communication channels to promote bad things like ethnic violence. This is already in fact the status quo, as every major social media host invests heavily in spam prevention, effectively excluding a class of actors who are presumed to be acting in bad faith. I’ve suggested elsewhere that we should extend our definition of spam to exclude more bad actors.

This opens up some really interesting questions. If we are willing to accept that there is an appropriate middle ground between centralized control of communications on the one hand and demagogue-prone chaos on the other, where should we draw the line? And how would we want to design, distribute, and organize our communications technology and our use of it to hit that sweet spot?

Dear Internet Ladies, please report harassment as spam

Dear Ladies of the Internet,

In light of Amanda Hess’s recent article about on-line harassment of women, in particular feminist writers, I have to request that you make a simple adjustment to your on-line habits.

Please start reporting threats and harassment on Twitter as spam.

Screenshot from 2014-01-08 10:57:44

No doubt many of you will immediately grasp what I’m getting at and to you nothing more need be said. I admit my judgment may be mistaken, as I am not the sort of person who receives many threats either on-line or off it and so do not have that vantage point. However, I am also privileged with modest expertise in spam detection that I believe is relevant to the problem. It is because I’d like to share that privilege with a diverse audience that I will elaborate here.

If you are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of social media, you may be skeptical that something like spam prevention can have any bearing on the social problem of on-line death threats. Hess herself frames Internet harassment as a civil rights issue, suggesting that in the United States federal legislation could be a solution. She also acknowledges the difficulty of enforcing such legislation against anonymous Internet users. Despite these difficulties, she argues that just ignoring the threats is not enough.

She is skeptical about Twitter’s ‘report abuse’ feature, noting that Twitter doesn’t take legal responsibility for harassment and that if an abuse report is successful, then the offending account is shut down. When an account is shut down, it becomes difficult to recover the offending tweets for record keeping. Hess keeps records of harassing messages in case she needs to contact law enforcement, though reports that the police she talks to don’t know what Twitter is and are unsympathetic.

To be honest, I shake my head a bit at this. I do see the problem as important and action necessary, but a simpler (though admittedly only partial) solution has always been in reach. I’m not optimistic about the prospects of passing federal legislation protecting Internet feminists any time soon. But blocking large classes of unsolicited obnoxious messages from social media is a solved problem. This is precisely what spam reporting is for. I have to take its omission from Hess’s otherwise comprehensive report as an indication that this is not widely understood.

Everyone should know that spam is a social construct. Twitter lists many of the factors used to determine whether an account should be suspended as spam. One of the most important of these factors is “If a large number of spam complaints have been filed against you.”

Twitter can list the myriad features used to identify spam because they are describing an automated, adaptive system that they have engineered. The goal of the system is to quickly learn from users’ spam reports what rapidly evolving tactics spammers are using, and squelch them before they can become a widespread nuisance. This is an interesting and active research area I encourage you to investigate further. UC Berkeley’s Security Research Lab works on this. This paper by Thomas et. al (2011) is a great example of it.

There are still plenty of spammers on Twitter, but far fewer than if Twitter did not make a significant investment in researching and implementing anti-spam techniques. They are up against some truly diabolical opponents. The cyber-security battle between service providers and spammers is a never-ending arms race because it turns out there’s a lot of money in spam. Because it operates on massive scale, this work is driven by performance metrics derived from things like your spam reports.

What does this have to do with online harassment? Well, my educated guess is that compared to seasoned cybercriminals, the vast majority of jerks sending death and rape threats to feminist bloggers are morons. Their writing is typical of what you see scrawled on the walls of a poorly attended men’s restroom. They are probably drunk. Though I cannot be certain, I suspect they are no match for the sophisticated algorithms that find and block enormous amounts of creatively designed spam every day, as long as those algorithms know what to look for.

There are exceptions: Hess documents several cases of dedicated stalkers that could be dangerous beyond the psychological harm of receiving a lot of stupid verbal abuse. I don’t claim to know the right thing to do about them. But I think it’s worth distinguishing them from the rest, if only because they need to be handled differently. If Twitter can resolve most of the low risk cases automatically, that will help give them the bandwidth to be accountable in the more exceptional and serious cases.

In the grand scheme of things, this is way better than going to unresponsive police, trying to pass legislation in a broken Congress, or going through the legal trouble of suing somebody for every threat. The equivalent in off-line life would be a system by which anonymously reported threats and harassment train a giant robot that shoots offenders with stun lasers from the sky. What’s cool is that when you report a spam account, you simultaneously block a user, prevent them from following or replying to you, and also report the incident to Twitter, where they will use the data to stop the kinds of things that bother you. Rather than keep a private record of harassment, by filing this report you can automatically make things a little better for everybody.

All this takes is a collective decision to consider most forms of on-line harassment a kind of spam. I have decided this already for myself, and I hope you will consider it as well.

Sincerely yours,

Sebastian Benthall
PhD Student
University of California at Berkeley, School of Information

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 715 other followers