Enlightenment, what enlightenment?

Sam Moyn is not impressed by Steven Pinker’s new book – Enlightenment Now:

In laying out his vision of betterment in Enlightenment Now, Pinker confronts alternative trends and looming threats for progress only in order to brush them off. He does not take seriously the risk of major catastrophes, such as the collapse of a recent era of peace or the outbreak of a global pandemic, which he believes is easy to magnify beyond reason. As for environmental degradation, humanity will surely find a way to counteract this in time. “As the world has gotten richer,” Pinker explains, “nature has begun to rebound”—as if the failure of a few prophecies of ecological disaster to come to pass on schedule means the planet is infinitely resilient. Once he gets around to acknowledging that climate change is an actual problem, Pinker spends much of his time attacking “climate justice warriors” for their anti-capitalist hysteria.

Lots more in that sceptical vein. Worth reading in full.

Facebook’s sudden attack of modesty

One of the most illuminating things you can do as a researcher is to go into Facebook not as a schmuck (i.e. user) but as an advertiser — just like your average Russian agent. Upon entering, you quickly begin to appreciate the amazing ingenuity and comprehensiveness of the machine that Zuckerberg & Co have constructed. It’s utterly brilliant, with a great user interface and lots of automated advice and help for choosing your targeted audience.

When doing this a while back — a few months after Trump’s election — I noticed that there was a list of case studies of different industries showing how effective a given targeting strategy could be in a particular application. One of those ‘industries’ was “Government and Politics” and among the case studies was a story of how a Facebook campaign had proved instrumental in helping a congressional candidate to win against considerable odds. I meant to grab some screenshots of this uplifting tale, but of course forget to do so. When I went back later, the case study had, well, disappeared.

Luckily, someone else had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot. The Intercept, bless it, has the before-and-after comparison shown in the image above. They are Facebook screenshots from (left) June 2017 and (right) March 2018.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?

In surveillance capitalism, extremism is good for business

This morning’s Observer column:

Zeynep Tufecki is one of the shrewdest writers on technology around. A while back, when researching an article on why (and how) Donald Trump appealed to those who supported him, she needed some direct quotes from the man himself and so turned to YouTube, which has a useful archive of videos of his campaign rallies. She then noticed something interesting. “YouTube started to recommend and ‘autoplay’ videos for me,” she wrote, “that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.”

Since Tufecki was not in the habit of watching far-right fare on YouTube, she wondered if this was an exclusively rightwing phenomenon. So she created another YouTube account and started watching Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaign videos, following the accompanying links suggested by YouTube’s “recommender” algorithm. “Before long,” she reported, “I was being directed to videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast, including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of 11 September. As with the Trump videos, YouTube was recommending content that was more and more extreme.”

Read on

Why scorning Trump didn’t work

While thinking about Trump this morning, I came on this astute observation by P.J. O’Rourke. He’s right: Establishment scorn of Trump was as toxic as Hillary Clinton’s reference to his supporters as “deplorables”. This lesson has still to be learned by many ‘Remain’ supporters in the UK.

How to stay sane on Twitter: ignore retweets

This morning’s Observer column:

When Twitter first broke cover in July 2006, the initial reaction in the non-geek community was derisive incredulity. First of all, there was the ludicrous idea of a “tweet” – not to mention the metaphor of “twittering”, which, after all, is what small birds do. Besides, what could one usefully say in 140 characters? To the average retired colonel (AKA Daily Telegraph reader), Twitter summed up the bird-brained frivolity of the internet era, providing further evidence that the world was going to the dogs.

And now? It turns out that the aforementioned colonel might have been right. For one of the things you can do with a tweet is declare nuclear war. Another thing you can do with Twitter is to bypass the mainstream media, ignore the opinion polls, spread lies and fake news without let or hindrance and get yourself elected president of the United States.

How did it come to this?

Read on

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

Fascism in America?

Tyler Cowen thinks not:

I would like to hazard a prediction that no, it cannot happen here. I won’t claim it could never happen over the centuries, rather that it can’t happen in anything recognizably like the America of today.

My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.

This yields a new defense of Big Government, which is harder to take over, and harder to “turn bad,” than many a smaller government…

Worth reading in full. It’s adapted from a chapter he’s written for Cass Sunstein’s latest collection: Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America

‘Complexity’: ontology or just an epistemological tactic?

I’m reading Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. In Chapter 1 he reflects on the curious fact that nothing much changed as a result. “The strangest thing”, he writes,

was that instead of leading to a collapse of the right-wing neoliberalism that had enabled the catastrophe to happen, the crisis actually seemed to strengthen the Right. It took a rare degree of self-confidence or fortitude not to gasp dumbfounded at the roaring resurgence of the right so soon after the most catastrophic global economic collapse after the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Incongruity” seems too polite a term to describe the unfolding of events; “contradiction” seems too outmoded. Austerity became the watchword in almost every country; governments everywhere became the scapegoats for dissatisfaction of every stripe, including that provoked by austerity. In the name of probity, the working class was attacked from all sides, even by nominal “socialist” parties… The pervasive dominance of neoliberal doctrines and right-wing parties worldwide from Europe to North America to Asia has flummoxed left parties that, just a few short years ago, had been confident they had been finally making headway after decades of neoliberal encroachment. Brazenly, in many cases parties on the left were unceremoniously voted out because they had struggled to contain the worst fallout from the crisis. By contrast, the financial institutions that had precipitated the crisis and had been rescued by governmental action were doing just fine — nay, prospering at pre-crisis rates — and in a bald display of uninflected ingratitude, were intently bankrolling the resurgent right. Indeed, the astounding recovery of corporate profits practically guaranteed the luxuriant post-crisis exfoliation of Think Tank Pontification. nationalist proto-fascist movements sprouted in the most unlikely places, and propounded arguments bereft of a scintilla of sense. “Nightmare” did not register as hyperbolic; it was the banjax of the vanities.

That’s just about the most succinct expression of the bewilderment that most of us felt — or certainly that I felt as I watched the UK post-crisis, Tory-led coalition government blaming the populace (or its Labour predecessor) for the debacle, and imposing ‘austerity’ as the punishment for popular irresponsibility rather than as the price of forcing the public to shoulder the costs of bankers’ greed and recklessness. And it’s why I always thought that, eventually, the penny would drop with electorates, and why the current ways of populist anger towards ‘elites’ comes as no surprise. In fact the only surprising thing about it is that it took so long to materialise.

Mirowski also picks up the strange inability of the left to pin the blame where it belonged: the financial services industry and the feeble regulatory regimes under which the madness and greed of the sector burgeoned. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein reviewing Inside Job, a documentary that made an admirable stab at naming names and fingering culprits. What made the financial crisis so scary, Klein wrote, was that

The complexity of the system far exceeded the capacity of the participants, experts and watchdogs. Even after the crisis happened, it was devilishly hard to understand what was going on. Some people managed to connect the right dots, in the right ways and at the right times, but not so many; and not through such reproducible methods, that it’s clear how we can make their success the norm. But it is clear that our key systems are going to continue growing more complex, and we’re not getting any smarter.

The fact that (as Mirowski points out) some commentators normally seen as left-of-centre felt obliged to attack the documentary is itself significant. It’s a symptom of how far the ice of neoliberalism has penetrated the radical soul. Less abstractly, it confirms my own working definition of ‘ideology’ as the force that determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Klein’s hapless defeatism also echoes the feeble answer eventually provided by the British Academy to the question posed by the Queen to the luminaries of the LSE at the height of the crisis: why had none of those besuited, learned gents in the receiving line seen the catastrophe coming?

But against those who warned, most were convinced that banks knew what they were doing. They believed that the financial wizards had found new and clever ways of managing risks. Indeed, some claimed to have so dispersed them through an array of novel financial instruments that they had virtually removed them. It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris. There was a firm belief, too, that financial markets had changed. And politicians of all types were charmed by the market. These views were abetted by financial and economic models that were good at predicting the short-term and small risks, but few were equipped to say what would happen when things went wrong as they have. People trusted the banks whose boards and senior executives were packed with globally recruited talent and their non-executive directors included those with proven track records in public life. Nobody wanted to believe that their judgement could be faulty or that they were unable competently to scrutinise the risks in the organisations that they managed. A generation of bankers and financiers deceived themselves and those who thought that they were the pace-making engineers of advanced economies.

All this exposed the difficulties of slowing the progression of such developments in the presence of a general ‘feel-good’ factor. Households benefited from low unemployment, cheap consumer goods and ready credit. Businesses benefited from lower borrowing costs. Bankers were earning bumper bonuses and expanding their business around the world. The government benefited from high tax revenues enabling them to increase public spending on schools and hospitals. This was bound to create a psychology of denial. It was a cycle fuelled, in significant measure, not by virtue but by delusion.

Among the authorities charged with managing these risks, there were difficulties too. Some say that their job should have been ‘to take away the punch bowl when the party was in full swing’. But that assumes that they had the instruments needed to do this. General pressure was for more lax regulation – a light touch. The City of London (and the Financial Services Authority) was praised as a paragon of global financial regulation for this reason.

Translation: It was all very complex, Ma’am. QED.

This is the resort to ‘complexity’ as an epistemological or ideological device. It’s a way of saying that some things are beyond analysis or explanation. Sometimes this is true: complex systems exist and they are inherently unpredictable and sometimes intrinsically incomprehensible. But a banking system run as a racket does not fall into that category.

Like father, like daughter

On Sunday NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked Ivanka Trump a simple question: “Do you believe your father’s accusers?” Trump responded: “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated there’s no truth to it.”

Jack Shafer is (rightly) having none of this evasiveness.

Trump pleads for recusal from the question, though, not because the question itself is wrong to ask. She pleads for recusal because she thinks it’s wrong for the press to ask a daughter such a question after her father has issued his denials. Do daughters of presidents who are also assistants to the president really get to wave such a flag of privilege? No way. No journalists can make any public official answer a question, so if Ivanka Trump wants to say “no comment,” she should help herself. But to declare a question illegitimate requires more explanation that she volunteers.

Having planted her flag, Trump pours some quick-drying cement at the flagpole’s shaft with her next comment.

“I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters,” she said.

How to unpack?! Obviously the press won’t ask many other daughters the question because not many other daughters have a father whose alleged paramours have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their silence. Not many daughters have a father who was caught bragging about his sexual assaults on a live mic and then publicly apologized. Not many fathers have been accused of sexual misconduct by at least a dozen women. For those fathers who have such a reputation, it would be reasonable to ask their daughters such questions if they worked for their fathers in government.

Yep. One of the curious by-products of the Trump presidency is its illustration of the power of norms in governing behaviour. There are no laws — as far as I know — explicitly prohibiting a president from exploiting his office for private gain. It was just a norm that presidents didn’t do that. Trump’s great advantage is that he doesn’t do norms. As far as he is concerned, they’re there to be flouted. And like father, like daughter.