We need to talk about ‘We Need to Talk About TED’

December 29, 2014 · Posted in Culture, Press, Sociology · Comment 

A great discussion about media quality, filter bubbles, empty content, and the information/entertainment divide started by dredmorbius that I recommend reading in its entirety (including the discussion). I'm reproducing my contribution to the discussion here as its own post:

First, let's talk about democracy, particularly of information. What we've learned from a couple of centuries of modern rights-limited (aka liberal) democracy is that 1) it can be corrupted, even with the rights-limited part in place (with constitutions and the like) 2) where it works, it tends to help curb excesses, rather than actually always improve things in the more linear way it's sometimes imagined to. Anti-democratic forces have long warned about the downsides of democracy, one of which is demagoguery. Another is massive confusion. Our modern UpWorthy/HuffPo/Fox News-ified world demonstrates that these fears were not completely unfounded.

I'm in agreement with Umair about "emptent". I've long thought of a great deal of this stuff being akin to the empty calories in sugar. Another great comparison would be fast food and much of pop culture in general. Designed to appeal to a certain sense (of taste, texture, emotion, etc.), but ultimately without anything else behind it. It's not automatically wrong (cupcakes are tasty every so often), but when it replaces food, you have a problem. It also amplifies the "poverty of attention" problem. Being awash in information alone, even if it's valuable has problems with sorting and filtering; adding in voluminous amounts of noise makes the problem all the worse.

Filter failure. This is unfortunately likely going to not get fixed anytime soon, even with AI, in my opinion. Both "disputed facts" (especially when some regard certain facts as fiction) and the ultimate subjectivity of various forces and ends means that creating a taxonomy of ideas/information in a way that is useful in a general sense (i.e., doesn't just appeal to individual biases and preferences) is likely in the realm of impossibility. We have a fundamental problem, as we probably well known by now, that ideas, unlike physics, are (sometimes) fungible, contextual, and usually contingent. As for your question about "what to value", we have an interesting question. What Upworthy and friends are trying to do, in a sense, is really no different from any other past mechanisms or devices used to make various kinds of information more palatable or interesting (allegory, satire, or what have you), and in that way is actually somewhat laudable. The downsides are obvious, namely the sugar overtaking the nutrients, desensitization (via repetition, boredom, whatever), and the fact that we now have so much information of dubious value available we're drowning in it (right back to the wealth of information, poverty of attention problem.) In a sense, we're getting to witness and experience what marketers of commercial products and services have had to deal with for ages: a massive marketplace, full of dubious claims, competitors everywhere, consumer fickleness and boredom, and a host of other issues - and with all of their resources they haven't been able to crack it, because it's likely uncrackable. We're seeing what unmitigated speech on a large scale looks like, and (as the ACLU states, and I agree with) the answer to bad speech is more speech, if only because the opposite extreme is worse. That doesn't mean it actually fixes anything. I honestly don't think it does, at least not in the short-term, for reasons I'll get to below. So I think what will happen is what has happened in the past: we'll continue to attempt to come up with new (and sometimes old, but previously unfashionable) creative ways to communicate ideas that exploit the human desire for novelty.

Now I'll qualify the above by saying that it applies to non-concrete topics, like politics, social relations, etc. We can do a decent job (because of short testing cycles, among other things) with things like software development, math, some science, etc.. We of course have the problem of "minimal level of knowledge in order to judge properly", but at least we can demonstrate something (by running a program or showing a repeatable calculation on a calculator) without long lag times, variables which promote possible counterfactuals, etc. So I'd say that things are somewhat better in these areas. Fortunately, getting these things wrong don't usually wind up with people starving, homeless, or dead - but the non-concrete topics sometimes do. Even certain kinds of science are not immune here - climate science is an obvious one. Political forces, long lag times, difficultly of proving one-to-one causation means that a real "ClimateOverflow" would probably not work all that well (googling for climate science stack exchange brings up a whole lot of entries from the Skeptics SE - mostly in support of AGE, but based on citing the work of others, rather than from researchers themselves.) Even with the preponderance of evidence in support of it, we can see just how hard it is to get universal agreement.

As a former user of Advogato and Slashdot (and occasional current user of Reddit), I definitely agree that these were useful experiments, and were absolutely worth attempting. Quora would be another one. What these proved, however, is that while it's possible to make qualification systems better up to a certain point (which likely occurs long before an Eternal September arrives), ultimately the power of persuasiveness, cults of personality, and groupthink can overtake any system. Probably not the result the creators of these systems intended, but useful nonetheless. It does point us back in the direction of "higher quality in smaller groups", at least for now. As far as "solutions" for this problem at a large scale, I don't see any at all on the horizon. Sci-fi fantasies of Matrix-style insta-learning being realized (so we can get everyone to a base level of knowledge right away) would take care of one part of the problem, but still leaves us with the other, probably bigger one again: irreconcilable value differences. That one, I believe, won't go anywhere, and battle lines will continue to be drawn there for the foreseeable future and we'll just have to deal with it.

So back to Democracy, particularly democratized knowledge and the ability for anyone to become a "thought leader." Knowledge, interest, power are the three qualities I regard as a prerequisite for being what's often termed an "elite." You have to know a subject (knowledge), care about and participate in things around the subject (interest), and have the ability to effect change around said subject (power - and this power can be direct, like in politics, or indirect like influencing the behavior of people via your writing on a large-ish or greater scale.) Activists tend to have the knowledge and interest part, but often lack power. The angry rabble have only interest, but poor knowledge and no power. Politicians and thought leaders have all three (hence, they are elites.) The rest may or may not have knowledge, but definitely lack interest, often expressed via lack of participation in both conversations about subjects (in comment sections, for instance) and at the voting booth. Now the reason I think this is important is reflected in a recurring phenomenon in societies, and that's the bifurcation that results from this last group being separated from the rest. It's revealed in the statements of (for example) Obama regarding the "iPod government" - what he and his advisors understood is something that more knowledgeable groups with interest often don't - many, perhaps most people, do not want to be involved in the business of running anything. They have their own affairs, and want to live their lives without being bothered with the underlying substrate of society. Society should function like a utility - you pay for bill (taxes) and the things you need to happen, happen. I'm extremely sympathetic to this view, and I believe that a great many activists and others refuse to accept this, but should (and it does point to a future where we'll perhaps welcome a GAI government, with all its potential problems.)

Now how does this relate back to the thought leader issues? Many people, quite simply, want to be told what to do, want to be told who is good, and who is bad, and believe that the world is a well-ordered place. The world is an incredibly complicated place and only getting more complicated. Yes, we continue to abstract away a lot of complexity (so maybe most only understand the current level they are functioning at, or one level below it), but at the same time, we've increased total available information - which means we're still potentially processing a whole lot more information, even if it's highly abstracted. So what do many people do? They either shut off (and become non-participants) or they turn to their thought leaders. People have always done this, of course, but I think that the difference now is what's required to participate and control events around you - events, which are mired in consider complexity - in a useful way is much harder. Going to your local religious leader or town master to tell you which job to take or who you should trust is quite different than trying to process the macroeconomic trends that seem distant, but ultimately affect whether you'll have a job in 10 years. "You should become a blacksmith" is very different than "read Krugman, Autor, Ford, Cowen, Hanson, Thoma and the literature around technological unemployment to even be able to usefully comment usefully on one (particularly huge and impactful, but still just one) area of modern economies." With that heaping pile of requirements tossed on people, which are they likely to choose? Spend huge amounts of time poring over those materials, which is not only complicated, but has active disputes around it, or read some articles like "How These Five Robots Will Steal Your Job At Starbucks"? I can't blame many people for choosing the latter - how many forum discussions have you seen with a question like "How do I X?" (where X is some micro-subject related to money or health) only to be answered with "Oh, that's easy, all you have to do is these 10-50 things! I don't understand why this is so hard for people!" Those 10-50 things are then multiplied by all the other things people have to remember to do. Is it surprising they turn to useless pop-finance gurus or $latest_fad_diet - or in this case "One Superfood To Fix Your Health"?

Medicine is another example of an area affected by this. When the extent of our knowledge were how to mend fractures or the like, the intellectual distance between the doctor and the laymen wasn't all that great. Today, the minimal level of knowledge required to truly understand things as common as heart disease or cancer is incredible - so much so that a specialist in brain cancer might be reluctant to opine on your blocked aorta without deferring to a cardiologist. Our specialization and division of labor does wonderful things, but like so many things, is a double-edged sword.

To sum up:

  • The attention economy is with us for real, and will only grow.
  • Filter bubbles likely don't have any technological fix. If people continue to use them, they stay stuck in echo chamber land. If they decide to self-pop them, they may choke on the firehose and opt out - that's part of the reason they appeared in the first place.
  • A great deal of content is empty for the same reason fast food is pretty empty. It tastes good, is addictive, and people like it. We have the "reptile brain", and we also have the "mammal tongue."
  • Systems around concrete subjects fare better, non-concrete ones are in big trouble.
  • Small groups and careful management of membership in communities will probably still do better for the foreseeable future with regards to quality of communication, but aren't silver bullets, either. More experiments in trust and quality control systems are absolutely worth trying, but we should be realistic about their likely effectiveness.
  • Democratized information is not the panacea it was/is imagined to be, but the alternative is even worse, and that's not meant to be flippant. It's an incredibly ugly truth even the most hardcore supporters of free speech (among whom I count myself) have to accept, regardless of how painful that is.
  • Everyone trying to communicate a message, from politicians to activists to people selling shoes are now marketers, and have to understand and work with the human desire for novelty in an information/signaling marketplace of incredible size and velocity.
  • Thought leaders of dubious quality are unfortunately not going anywhere. The best we can do is try to illuminate, write exegeses, promote "good" thought leaders, change the culture, and hopefully change some minds.
  • Useful participation is likely to get harder rather than easier in the short-to-medium term. As we have job and wealth polarization, so too will we have "useful participation polarization." These things aren't completely unrelated or uncorrelated.

May 2, 2011 · Posted in Press · Comment 

 Opir recently got a mention on the Maxwell-ALIVE game artist blog.