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Sign of the Times
Been in a reminiscently mood. Been thinking about the Internet and politics and how it all fits together, on a writing prompt of "Media and Democracy". It was in the fall of 1991, and in finishing up my philosophy degree, I elected to take a course in Artificial Intelligence. It was less of a stretch than it might seem; I’d been a computer hobbyist in my early teens, knew a good bit about programming, and some forward-thinking maven of curriculi had put some strategy into hiring into the Philosophy department a number of individuals who had done seminal work in relating Epistemological questions to the practicalities of Computer Science.

In the course, which had a significant degree of self-direction, I took the view that Artificial Intelligence was not cognition or consciousness, but was simply the emulation of “intelligent behaviour”, and I believe, twenty years later, that my camp won out. The use of computer systems is a practical art, and it is the behaviour of intelligent devices that we make use of, not some ineffable soul of quantum silicon.

For my final presentation, I diverged from discussion of practicalities, such as genetic algorithms, weighted-node “neural” networks, and the arrangement of information into b-trees, to talk about the consequences of computer intelligence as it related to political interaction. I felt this was a more important issue, reaching for the “why” we should build intelligent machines rather than the “how”. I chose to do so because of what that first few months of access to the Internet had shown me.

In those days, Internet access came from a rare, multi-user shared minicomputer, and though there were early versions of the web, the preponderance of interaction online was through variations on e-mail: UseNet, BBSes, and the like were simply storage and retrieval systems where one could put any piece of text up for everyone to see, and all could react to the piece, post follow-ups, make comments, set up counter-debate, and so on.

There is an inkling of Democracy in this: the gathering together of a few interested persons to discuss matters of personal and community import. There was some sort of common image, in those days, of lone individuals, driven by a sense of responsibility, gathering on the plains of Iceland to form the Thing, or in the agora of Athens, or the Senate of Rome, to meet and discuss, and come to consensus on how the state is to be ruled. The reality, as we all know today, was the flame-war, the troll, and the lurker. So much effort and precision was put into those early posts that I recall. Each one was crafted like a scholarly essay, and umbrage taken at disagreement was sharp and personal. Friends had serious fallings-out over online discussions, and enemies were made of people who never would have otherwise come into contact with each other. Eventually, licking their wounds, various parties would stick to a “home turf” and only discuss with people of a like mind, and close the door on political debate. The effort was just too great, too draining.

In the years between, I’ve read of a similar catharsis which hit the European intelligentsia in the late seventeenth and early-to-mid eighteenth century. Letters flew from Pisa to Geneva to Oxford. Debates raged, reputations were savaged, and personal quarrels became clothed in ideology and paraded around in challenge. The flame war, the troll, and the lurker are not new phenomena, but are old spirits dressed in modern garb. When this process popularized, became the province of the man on the street, the great revolutions had begun, and we gave birth, with a great deal of blood it must be noted, to the modern democracy.

So in the twenty years since those early days of the Internet, anyone who lived through that period can think of a number of instances where this phenomenon, fuelled by the Internet, tricked down to the “common man”. To everyone, which includes someone like your dad. It used to be that your dad could just go to the corner, or the barber, or the bar and exercise his penchant for lively debate with whoever was there. Being face to face and with limited selection of jousting-partners, the debates were often more civil, there was less of a chasm of ideology to cross; people he met were often from the same class and background as himself, and points of ideology were rarely much stronger than opinions. He could have a pint, have a shout, and go home, feeling flushed with having stood up for his opinion, whatever it was.

All of a sudden, “Dad” had access to people of completely different life experiences, raised in ideologies that were entirely alien to his, and of opinions that he would find offensive to say the least. I know of several, generally elderly, relatives, who can no longer discuss any political issue in a civil manner, in their corner-barbershop-bar voice, and face any opinion other than their own. As soon as certain subjects are raised, someone will mutter “there he goes again,” and there is a generally clearing of the room, often toward the kitchen.

Now whether you have a little or a lot of “Dad” in you, I’m sure you can recognize the sudden ubiquity of this opinion-mongering. Virtually every media outlet has a way of commenting on a story, often with some sort of partisan device like an up-or-down-thumb or a “like” button. There is a feedback loop going on with everyone who has their say moving towards common themes, “upping” their side and “downing” the other side. A sort of binary-tree of opinions is being created and enforced, and enforced, and enforced. Everyone who has ever discussed a political subject knows this process, because it is fundamental to how we behave as human beings. We come to consensus through this enforcement and normalization, repeated and repeated through our days. Without it, we could not have politics whatsoever, and without politics, we could have no community, no city, no nation, no state, no globe.

Normalization is a funny thing, though. The human ability to adapt to a way of life, to normalize behaviour, is one of the most amazing and frightening aspect of our species. We look back at certain times with bemusement and ridicule at social conventions, dress and style, opinions and tastes, and wonder how people who are only a few generations separate from ourselves could have lived lives so very differently and made so much of what we find ridiculous and made so little of what we take very seriously. We wonder how they could be so radically different from ourselves. And when we look to the great crimes of history, we wonder how people could have been so blind to prejudice, to racism, to genocide.

Normalization and radicalization go hand in hand. One doesn’t become a suicide-bomber or a concentration camp guard overnight. It’s something that begins when the majority of the opinions and beliefs that you come into contact from day to day veer of into a particular direction, and those that you don’t agree with and which challenge your beliefs are removed from your day-to-day experience. The young are the most susceptible to this, we believe, because they don’t have as much experience to challenge their immediate world. But, like “Dad”, that experience itself may be the very bounds that, thanks to the choices available on the Internet, one chooses to seal around oneself.

Which leads me back to the final presentation I gave more than twenty years ago, where I fumbled to present the argument that when “opinion” can be turned into “data” via all the traditional means (yes/no votes, normalization of the words used to express it, standardization of opinion polls, concentration on “hot button issues”), then it can be measured and acted upon by intelligently-behaving computers. This means that society can easily, and will of its own inertia thanks to self-reinforcing automation of data delivery, split into small radical groups. The website, cable news network, or magazine that gives us what we want to read is by definition limiting us to our own ignorance and narrow opinion.

Looking back with the hindsight of having worked in IT for the intervening years, it seems to me that this has already happened. Take the “Tea Party” for instance. Much of the world looks on with incredulity at what happened to the U.S. when “the average guy” was suddenly given access to millions of other “average guys”, who have safely ignored the entire world outside of their local community for decades, and hold a small set of values about property, arms, and religion that seems entirely quaint and strangely dangerous to that world they are ignorant of. On the other side of the global aisle, take a look at “Al Qaida”. The vast majority of the world looks on with dismay at a global enterprise that seems to be able to take even intelligent, educated young people like the World Trade Center hijackers, and through a process of radicalization, turn them into suicide bombers.

But it’s not just the margins that are so affected. The quantification of political opinion has also paralyzed the centre, the part of the democratic body that, in theory, should be most capable of action. By concentrating on the “issues”, the public debate in the media has been reduced to quantifiable topics that can be analyzed computationally, such as abortion and taxes, for which one major party will take one position, and the other another position. Re-enforcement and repetition leads to more and more narrow areas of debate, until there is no more room for debate, nor ability to compromise. Each party sticks to their narrow issue, and if they can force legislation, it will be along party lines.

Today, I told Facebook to hide posts by a particular person. I did so because they were passing on a meme from a political group that I deeply disagree with. The taste it left in my mouth was such that I didn’t want to debate, I didn’t want to posit a counter-argument. I simply wanted its stupidity and narrow-minded assumptions about the world to go away, and I didn’t want to engage the person in a one-to-one discussion. Facebook will now, intelligently, begin to filter similar posts away from my timeline, to hide counter opinions from me. Together, the media and I are working to kill the heart of democracy, the political debate.

This disturbs me greatly, but I will not be going into my settings and reversing my decision, trying to skew the mathematical model that simulates human behaviour by telling it I was wrong, that I really should engage more. My better nature is defeated by the tired primate that I am who can only deal with a dozen or so people, and cannot tread water in this ocean of humanity with its opinions. Like the post-revolutionaries, I want the catharsis to flush through the system, for everyone to get sick of voicing their opinions and demanding agreement from everyone else.

I want the Internet to grow up first.

So what’s the solution? What will allow the Internet to grow up?

Rome went though this period, too, I’m reminded by things I’m reading on Byzantium today. Byzantine culture took partisanship to the extreme. Horse races, associations, political groups, all fell into line with one side or the other, and whether you were with the Greens or the Blues or lesser parties said an enormous influence on your political possibilities in life. Above this deeply divided society, the Imperium floated, not so much in control as necessarily present, like the oligarchs, the corporations, the 1% that float above our society but do not control it except for moments, for instants of fame and influence that are as swiftly ended as a Byzantine emperor’s.

So what did Byzantium lose from Rome? I think it was rationality. It was the sense that faith, which too often is confused with opinion, is equal to reason in debate, and by extension, in democracy. Partisanship is an assertion, after all, not a syllogism or collection of syllogisms into a well-argued position. Under an emperor, discussion is stifled for the worst of reasons, namely someone’s ego, and so any reason for silencing a dissenter is as good as any other. So it would seem that the solution is as simple as injecting reason to the debate. It’s not fair to expose a person to this ocean of opinion without some way of building a boat.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back rhetoric and logic? To say that if you are old enough to post on the Internet, you are old enough to know what a faulty syllogism is? That you must first prove that you can distinguish between an ad-hominem attack and a straw-man argument. That you can, in short, think. We make a point, and in our own laws there are legal limits to how young a person can be and still sign up to an online service. If we are to enforce an arbitrary age limit like that, we should also ensure that they are given the tools to stand up to their own by that age as well. So rather than offering “theory of knowledge” and “symbolic logic” to University students, I think we should formally introduce them by the twelfth year of age. It will make them insufferable, but perhaps much better equipped for 21st century life than otherwise..

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
fengi
Nov. 9th, 2013 08:58 pm (UTC)
A big issue with statistical analysis of crime and medical issues it this: are we seeing a change in occurrence or the ability to report the issue?

Among the items of cultural detritus I've picked up over the years is a paperback of "None Dare Call It Treason". Not only did the cover copy refer to those who would turn America into a nuclear nudist colony, but it was full of recruitment tools including a card for some John Birch style society. The McCarthy era was one of those times when the degree of seething tribalism cracked the facade of amiable consensus.

I would argue such consensus is often an illusion or, at times, a concept used to stifle debate by the dominant group. So the impact of modern communication may not be more irrational tribalism, but awareness of just how much is seething out there.

At the same time the key aspect of socialization may not be consensus, but conflict avoidance. Tolerance is as much a function of necessity as progressive values. The current radicalism may be as much a product of a society increasingly segregated by class and isolated by the erosion of physical common spaces for insular, private locales. America has always been a place where neighborhoods and towns tend to form along lines of identity.

Eric Hoffer's The True Believer and The Paranoid Style make one realize how the Tea Party relfects a human constant. Which is not to say current dynamics do not inform the severity and risk represented by this constant. One does not dismiss the Tea Party as the latest version of eternal ignorance, but address it as the latest example of a constant threat of how the determined, well resourced few can subvert the rationality of the many. But while the struggle may be ongoing, the internet is a different and more frustrating and perhaps dangerous set of tools within that.
barry_king
Nov. 12th, 2013 03:13 pm (UTC)
Good point about consensus as conflict avoidance.

I'm inclined to think that there are a variety of different argument models that the word "consensus" can be approached from, and class distinction can clearly be one. But I'm more interested in formal logic, with the implication that given fact x, y cannot be true, no matter how much you stamp your foot and complain about your tax dollars.
asakiyume
Nov. 10th, 2013 01:39 am (UTC)
I think Internet discourse will grow up. People can begin to interact with people who have different opinions in spaces that aren't so highly charged, and when there can be meaningful exchanges in those sorts of spaces, then opinions can change.

I think discourse can also happen, and opinions be changed, when the topic is particular enough and people have lots of concrete (rather than ideological) differences of opinion to express on the matter, and are interested in actual results. I'm on the mailing list for the East Timor Action Network, which has been having a very heated discussion on language instruction and official languages, and there have been very many strong opinions expressed, and an occasional descent into vituperation, but mainly it's been quite civil--and I, a mere lurker, am learning a lot and adjusting my opinions.

I mention it just because sometimes things can have a good influence even when there's no particular outward sign of it.

bondo_ba
Nov. 11th, 2013 01:17 pm (UTC)
I both agree and disagree with you here. I actually don't think the internet arguments will ever become truly relevant to policy-making for the same reason that almost no country on earth uses direct democracy: most people are not trained in the subjects they are discussing, and do not have the time to get the needed grounding. Which will also make it difficult for the discussion to grow up effectively. So it will continue to be as important as "dad's" barber shop discussions.

On the other hand, I do agree that coming into contact with other points of view will affect people - so far, it has had a polarizing effect. Hopefully, the understanding will come at some point.

One thing is for sure: time will tell!
asakiyume
Nov. 11th, 2013 02:02 pm (UTC)
There are too many huge flame wars for me to argue with the point about polarization; I guess what I feel, based on personal observation and experience (but those obviously only count as anecdotal evidence), is that it's nonetheless possible to be exposed to diverging ideas and have those ideas alter your way of thinking about things.

People usually have *some* way in which they deviate from the demographic picture of them drawn from key pieces of data. So, for example, my demographics would indicate that I'm going to be politically liberal, and I am, but other characteristics make me open, on certain topics, to conversations and discussions by people who aren't at all politically liberal. If I were listening to them giving a political talk, it would probably put me off, but when I hear them talk on other topics, it interests me and makes me think, and that makes me more willing to listen to their political talk, and that in turn makes me more likely to alter some views. And I've seen this same process in other people, too.

I heard an interesting thing on the radio the other day about a process called "slow democracy." I didn't hear all of it, but it involved getting people who held very different views on an issue together to talk, not about the issue, but about what factors it would be important to talk about in talking about the issue. The discussion at one remove like that immediately reduced tensions, and people were able to experience each other as rational, constructive human beings. Admittedly, this was an in-person thing, not an online thing, but I think the same sort of thing would be possible online.
bondo_ba
Nov. 11th, 2013 02:42 pm (UTC)
Good points.

I actually think all of this can work exactly as described. I guess my main skepticism is whether the application will ever reach critical mass. I don't, as a rule, have a high opinion of humanity's capacity to think and reason when there are large number of humans involved (although I am trying to be less cynical).

I see a lot of places where discussion is worthwhile and valuable (Barry's blog being one of them), but I also see the comments on news articles everywhere else, and I just feel that the screeching is growing faster than the thoughtfulness.

And, being socially liberal and fiscally conservative ensures that I can never enter a discussion without getting hammered by both sides, LOL!
barry_king
Nov. 12th, 2013 03:32 pm (UTC)
Yes, I've noticed that phenomenon, too, although I wouldn't call it "slow" democracy. Democracy is like fermentation. It goes at it's own pace, and if you try to, as Lenin put it, give the wheel a push, you end up replacing a Tsar with another sort of autocrat.

But it's a point I didn't think of, that need to first make an inventory about the facts and factors that make up the debate before engaging the debate. Another great reduction in the dross of pointless discussion could be saved if standard definitions for words were agreed to prior to debate.

But that's a cultural issue, isn't it?
asakiyume
Nov. 13th, 2013 04:04 am (UTC)
When you say, "But that's a cultural issue," which thing do you mean? (Most things are cultural, but I'm wondering what you were thinking of, in particular.)

Edited at 2013-11-13 04:05 am (UTC)
barry_king
Nov. 14th, 2013 02:09 pm (UTC)
Definitions of terms are cultural, and not at all set in stone. Part of the difficulty of cross-cultural Internet debate is that one person's definition of x is different from someone else's, and much pointless debate results over a question of semantics.

You really see this at work in peer-reviewed scientific journals and in any kind of legalese, where definitions are paramount.
asakiyume
Nov. 15th, 2013 03:43 am (UTC)
*nodding*

I hate it when discussions get derailed into ever finer and more hairsplitting discussions of meanings of terms, and yet at the same time, you're quite right: if one person is understanding a word one way and another another, then the conversation is VERY handicapped, if not doomed.
barry_king
Nov. 12th, 2013 03:19 pm (UTC)
I think I mean to be less strict in my definition of democracy in this case. I'm not talking about a direct representation sort of model, but the way that rational discussion actually changes the wiring of the brain, wherein facts are assimilated into a rational approach to reality.

False persuasive arguments interrupt this process, and democracy is more about letting these arguments perform a sort of memetic evolution in the brains of all the participants. I tend to think that the natural direction of communication is towards a common agreement on the nature of the real and a common perspective towards it. It seems to be an inbuilt human trait to develop a common world-view to go along with an actual in-the-flesh community. Occasionally, a visitor may bring a religion, or a set of disruptive facts and technologies, but generally, isolated communities tend towards a kind of consensus on reality. That's what I'd argue is "democracy" at work.

But once you get past the 100 or so people a person can handle being in constant communication with, the only kind of consensus you can build is an abstract one. I'm Western enough to believe that formal logic is one of the few tools we have to do that with.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )