Statistical Addiction by Stealth

Added quite a few post notes to my recent post on the problem with the pace and immediacy of social media. Today Myriam François posted this Jaron Lanier interview with Martin Bashir of Channel 4

Lanier calls it statistical addiction by stealth. No-one with a rational mind is being directly manipulated – we would all reject that, wouldn’t we – in terms of modifying our own behaviour over time. We’re all “gaming the system” (see game theory point later). What is happening is that this long-run learning is being short-circuited by the real-time algorithms modifying what the technology presents to us and the “bubble” around us. It’s the mismatch of timescales that’s the problem. We’re all – in general, in the statistical long-run – being manipulated in directions that we are not noticing and that are not good for us (in general).

This prompted me to join up the recent post on social media ills with an early addiction driver to this blog back in 2006 if not earlier. Originally, before social media, the addiction  was basically to logical positivist objectivity in everything gradually crowding out more subjective wisdom for want of any better terminology. There are many alternative world-views, but the point is they are less amenable to simple logical manipulation, so logical positivism has an inbuilt advantage when it comes to the memetic battle of ideas. Any algorithmic automation of this advantage reinforces and accelerates the problem, a problem we already had in spades, already accelerated by the god vs science wars, and ever more accelerated. It’s a kind of degenerate cultural evolution – a natural process that demonstrates the naturalistic fallacy that nature is not necessarily progressive. Natural processes that are simply accelerated and reinforced by tech implementations.

Lanier’s point is that with the right designs – the right algorithms and incentives and time-bases – tech and social media can be used to solve the problem – but that involves a conscious design decision that is not simply a reflection of received wisdom left to its natural devices. (As I’ve said, and Lanier, reinforces even the tech media business people are already ringing this alarm bell. This is not idle speculation.)

Jamie Bartlett (whose “People vs Tech” I’ve still not yet read) tweeted a couple of things that also point out the problem. Jamie uses “utilitarianism” for what I’ve called “logical positive objectivism”, but we mean the same and it’s a habit we have to shake off:

Banning anonymity is part of that same disaster that says do stuff that is amenable to banning (sounds bad / simple to check) but ignore harder-to-process-and-justify qualities & virtues. @JamieJBartlett

Also published on Medium.

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